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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 3, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Nativity, Zazzle, Bookstore Games, Nonfiction Books

Stop! Right now! If you're reading this Rhinoceros Times on the very day it came out, Thursday, December 7th, you might still have time to get to War Memorial auditorium at the Coliseum by 7 pm to attend the annual performance of Handel's Messiah by the Greensboro Oratorio.

Nothing compares to a live performance of this greatest of all oratorios, in the company of other listeners for whom this beautiful music is the highlight of the Christmas season. With a full orchestra, more than a hundred singers in the choir, and professional soloists (Sarah McIntyre, soprano; Stephanie Foley, mezzo; Jeffery Maggs, tenor; and Donaled Milholin, bass), the only bad thing about the performance is that no matter how inspired you feel, they won't let you sing along.

*

The Nativity Story is a very good movie; it's also a very good presentation of one of the core stories of Christianity. I heartily recommend it to all Christians -- adults and children (though adults will experience it quite differently from children).

As we left the Carousel Theater, my twelve-year-old said, "This movie made all the people seem real to me." That's what it was trying to do, and it succeeded -- tenderly sometimes, powerfully other times.

All the publicity has been about the talented (but personally rather foolish) young actress Keisha Castle-Hughes, but the movie absolutely belongs to Oscar Isaac in the role of Joseph. This is primarily because the script gives him so much more to do.

Because of the worshipful respect that some branches of Christianity have for the Holy Virgin, the filmmakers had no choice but to make her, after the Annunciation, more beatific than human. Thus she is given very little emotional range -- as if someone told her, "Think of yourself as the Mona Lisa." Thus she seems more observer than participant in the events of the film.

Joseph, though, is wonderfully envisioned, so that Isaac has something to do in every scene. Though there is no scriptural reason to suppose they had not packed enough food for the journey, it's still quite affecting to see him giving up his food, not just to feed his wife, but also to feed the donkey so it will have the strength to bear her.

So when the Child is born, I found myself more emotionally connected to Joseph than to Mary, who, after all, had to look as much as possible like everybody's favorite Creche.

In fact, that's the one drawback of this film: They followed the popular conception of the Nativity scene rather than the scriptural account. In the scriptures, the Wise Men come only after the baby has been circumcised and presented at the temple -- at least eight days after his birth.

Thus they would not have been present on the same night as the shepherds, and would undoubtedly have found Joseph and Mary and the baby at a house in Bethlehem, or an inn.

But that would have bothered a lot of people who have rich guys with camels in their manger scenes. What do you do, stop the movie and have a priest, minister, or scholar explain why the Wise Men couldn't have arrived until later? So they went with the popular conception and, as with A Christmas Carol, made it all happen in one night.

The real loss is that we don't get the scene at the temple, where Simeon and Anna recognize and bless the baby. The writer, Marty Bowen, tried to make up for this by giving Simeon's role to an old shepherd -- and it was a good strategy, because the old shepherd became a memorable character.

I also wish they could have been a bit more realistic when everybody shows up to worship the child. Even with their awe, somebody would have talked. Joseph would have conversed with people. There would have been human connection.

But, again, I can't argue with the filmmakers' decision: What dialogue could they possibly come up with that wouldn't feel anticlimactic? In fact, as a writer, I would use the dialogue precisely to be anticlimactic, to bring my audience to realize that life goes on, that worship comes in the midst of day-to-day concerns.

You'll notice, though, that nobody hired me to write this film. They made their choices and the film works -- superbly.

I'm especially pleased at how they handled the Innocents of Bethlehem. The film begins with that cruelty, so it remains in our minds as we then watch the story leading up to that terrible moment. Then, at the end, we are merely reminded that it happened, not forced to experience it in grim and terrifying detail; we can keep the mood of exaltation that the nativity itself inspired.

There have been a lot of lousy, over-mystical treatments of Christ in films over the decades, and a lot of even lousier de-mythologizing treatments. It is refreshing to have one that makes everyone human, without being disrespectful to or doubtful of the divine mission of the Savior. The baby is a baby, born in flesh and blood to a woman who passes, as the scripture says, through the shadow of death to give birth. That is as much as we can ask for.

This movie opened relatively small, so let me talk about money for a moment. The Christian audience that showed up for Passion of the Christ did so in part because of the controversy surrounding the film and the curiosity it raised. There has been no such controversy about The Nativity Story, so there hasn't been the same kind of buzz and urgency to see the film.

But let me lay it on the line for you, folks. In Hollywood, the only votes that count are ticket purchases. If Christians don't come out in droves to see this movie, then the Hollywood decision-makers will conclude that Passion of the Christ was, indeed, a fluke, and you will find that nobody makes any more of these films -- not with enough of a budget to make them so real, anyway.

The Christmas season is busy. You may be planning to spend your entertainment dollars on Deck the Halls or some other bit of fluff. Nothing wrong with that. But if, as a Christian, you want to see more films that treat Christian beliefs and Christian values with artistic and moral respect, then now is the time to invest some of your Christmas entertainment money on an excellent film that brings to life the story of the birth of Christ.

*

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program: Christmas shopping.

Zazzle is a great website, joining Café Press in our pantheon of "websites we're going back to again and again."

It's a place where you can design your own customized t-shirts -- or bags, sweatshirts, mugs, cards, hats, buttons, or posters.

Designing a customized item, including images (art or photos) uploaded from my computer and lettering I create online, was so simple I was able to do it the first time.

The results were spectacular -- and fast. Within days I had the items I had ordered, in perfect condition. The quality of the t-shirts is excellent, with plenty of all-cotton choices (and even some organic shirts).

(Be careful of copyright, though, if you upload images created by somebody else. Nobody's going to sue you if you make a few items for yourself, but the moment you offer them for sale to other people [the "publish" option], you're treading in dangerous territory. Get permission first, and in writing.)

Go to http://www.zazzle.com or http://www.cafepress.com .

*

Since all the bookstores have to discount the leading books so heavily in order to compete with each other, they have to sell other stuff if they're going to turn a profit.

One of the sidelines that makes a lot of sense is, at Christmastime at least, to carry games. Not the standard Parker Brothers (now part of Hasbro) and Milton Bradley (also Hasbro) games, which are carried in every Toys 'R' Us, Target, and WalMart in the country, but games you aren't likely to find everywhere.

Games, perhaps, for the kind of people who buy books (or at least go inside bookstores to buy books for other people at Christmastime).

Solely out of a desire to perform a public service, I picked up a couple of games in the major chain bookstores and we played them, all the while feeling noble for the sacrifice of having fun just for you.

A few turns into the game Such & Such (Patch), I was wishing I'd invited you all over to play with us, partly of course because you're such good company, but mostly because this is not a game for four people, and definitely not when two of the people are 12 years old.

Such & Such is a trivia game, and here's the gimmick: All the answers are in pairs. We have a lot of phrases that regularly combine two words. For instance: Salt & pepper, black & white, good & evil, now & then, ups & downs, apples & oranges, vanilla & chocolate, milk & cookies, cookies & cream, chips & salsa, fore & aft, over & out, meat & vegetables, pie & ice cream, butter & eggs, pancakes & syrup, cars & trucks, boats & planes, fishing & hunting, tv & radio, cats & dogs, hit & miss, times & seasons, Psalms & Proverbs, Catholic & Protestant, tops & bottoms, hugs & kisses, News & Record, pros & cons, tried & true, blue state & red state, dog & pony, lions & tigers, plants & animals, hearts & flowers ...

Whoo. That's addictive.

The trouble is, you run out of the obvious ones rather quickly, when you've got a couple of hundred cards to fill, with ten such pairings per card.

We were divided into two teams, each containing an extraordinarily bright and well-read twelve-year-old, and each containing a semi-senile over-fifty. We did ok with such questions as "The transitional seasons" (ans: "spring & fall") and "Description of one who has good vision close-up, and one who has good vision for distances" (ans: "nearsighted and farsighted").

But how many twelve-year-olds can reasonably be expected to know that "This band is Runnin' Down a Dream" refers to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers? I hope not many, because the two over-fifties didn't know it either. And I listen to a lot of Tom Petty!

Nor did the clue "It's 'Here to stay, it will never die'" lead any of us to think of rock & roll. Anglophile though I am, British food is loathsome enough that I did not get "Noisy British dish of leftover potatoes and cabbage"; even though I had actually heard of the answer phrase ("bubble & squeak"), I had no idea what it was made of. (By the way, is it named for what it sounds like when cooking, or what you sound like after eating it?)

Our twelve-year-olds had never heard of "Fantasy Island's host and his small sidekick," nor did any of us think that the answer to "Periodicals" ("Newspapers and magazines") qualified as a legitimate "paired" answer, any more than "bedrooms & family rooms" would qualify.

The thing is, we could see that this game could be a lot of fun -- if you had more than two people per team. But when only one person is available to guess, then you can only get the answers that person is able to think of, and whatever they don't know, your team doesn't know.

With more people, it's bound to be more fun.

In fact, I suspect the game would be much more fun if you simply changed the rules and had one person read to everybody and the first person to say the complete right answer gets the point, while the reader gets points for any that nobody can answer correctly.

A game that begs for cooperative, not competitive, play is Tipover, from Thinkfun (http://www.thinkfun.com). These gamemakers specialize in puzzle games, which can be played alone or with a group making suggestions. The way we did it was, after the four of us gave up on Such & Such, we took turns working different Tipover puzzles, and it was great fun -- even when, at the expert level, we all did pathetically.

The game consists of 36-square board and a bunch of plastic stacks of blocks either one, two, three, or four blocks high. A deck of cards shows you maps of various setups. The goal is to get a little red plastic man from the starting position to the little red block.

He can only move in straight lines from block to block -- though he can "climb" a stack of any height, as long as he doesn't move diagonally or across any of the floor spaces.

You can also tip over the block stacks, as long as they fall in a straight line (not diagonally) onto open spaces on the "floor." The key is to find some pattern of fallen blocks that will allow the little guy to get to the red block without hitting the floor.

The game is challenging, it's fun; and it's also great practice for the spacial relationships portion of the IQ test.

*

I had never heard of Nando Lauria until I was listening to Christmas music and he popped up on the Narada Christmas Collection, volumes two and three. It was gorgeous stuff -- light Brazilian rhythms, fascinating harmonies, intriguing wordless vocals.

So I looked him up and found only a couple of albums, from quite some time ago. I purchased Points of View: Brazilian Jazz -- again, a Narada album -- and fell in love all over again. Lauria's cover of the Beatles' "If I Fell" is dreamy and yet has a compelling beat; most other tracks are of completely unfamiliar music, but it will become familiar as I listen to the album many more times.

This is New Age at its best -- music you can keep in the background when you're conversing or concentrating on something else, but which still rewards your close attention when you want to hear it. In due time I'll have everything Lauria has recorded -- and I'll still want more.

*

I'm on-again, off-again about Stuart Woods. He writes good adventure stuff, but after a couple of books I'm weary of the high life -- the men who always have plenty of money and who are instantly attractive to every woman they meet. There's only so much of the "beautiful people" that I can take before I want to start carrying a can of whitewash with me and daubing their designer clothes with it.

Stuart Woods's Short Straw certainly falls into that category. Santa Fe lawyer Ed Eagle is simply too rich and powerful to be remotely interesting to me, and if I hadnt' been listening to Michael Kramer's excellent reading I probably wouldn't have gone on.

Fortunately, the narrative soon moves away from Eagle himself and on to the two private detectives he hires to go to Mexico to get Eagle's wife to sign blank sheets of paper so he can convert them into divorce documents. Not that Eagle was planning a divorce. He simply woke up one morning, realized he had been drugged the night before so he would sleep late, and finds his wife has stripped his personal and business accounts and even told his broker to sell all his stocks and other investments and wire the money to her in Mexico.

It's kind of a shocking way to find out your wife doesn't love you anymore. And when the detectives try to get her to sign the documents, they discover that this is one dangerous lady, fully armed and ready to shoot without hesitation. And when she's unarmed, she can improvise with murderous results.

The result was a novel that was a pleasure to read. It's also rather short -- only six cds to get through the unabridged recording.

But there were two huge holes and one irritation. The first hole is that it's impossible to care about Ed Eagle, unless you are so needy that you have to find vicarious satisfaction from reading about a guy who has everything and can get anything just by picking up a phone or writing a check. Yet he was so dumb he thought his wife loved him until the moment she went after his money -- and hired somebody to kill him.

The second hole is that never are we given even the tiniest hint of why she suddenly decided to do what she did. Well, no -- there's one hint. She tells somebody, just as a passing comment, that she hates lawyers, and Ed Eagle is one. But why does she hate lawyers? I kept hoping, through the whole book, that somewhere before the end we would find out what he did that made her think she had to kill him. Never happens.

The irritation is the sex scenes. They happen a lot, and yet they feel completely perfunctory. All the sex is just for fun. No, not even for fun -- most of it is like grabbing a sandwich. Only with way more detail than you would expect for sandwich-eating. Read one Stuart Woods sex scene and you've read them all; yet he still keeps providing them as if he thought we cared. Yeah, yeah, Ed Eagle can sleep with anybody. Move along! There's no romance, no tension, nothing.

Which is part of the problem, really, with the ex-wife's lack of motivation. How could Eagle be so stupid he thought they were still in love? Because there is no love in Eagle's life. Just sex. And since the sex with his wife was still entertaining (to him, not me) right up to the end, it wouldn't occur to him that things weren't great. Because nobody in this novel loves anybody or even tries to know anybody else. The characters are all shallow.

Especially, I must say, the Swedish masseuse, who has a sexual relationship with two of the characters, and betrays one to the other; but we have no idea why she prefers one over the other. Or, for that matter, what she sees in either of them, except a meal ticket. The masseuse is basically what fourteen-year-old boys wish for -- somebody who is eager to sleep with them, without any motivation whatsoever.

This sounds really negative. And it is. But don't forget: I listened to the whole thing, right to the end, because I had to know how it all came out, and because I really liked the two detectives. There's a reason why Stuart Woods's novels sell so well -- and why every now and then I buy another of them. Because he comes up with really intriguing storylines, even if they're populated with puppetry.

*

A correction: When I reviewed Zingerman's mail order operation, I said they were in New York. Why? Because everything they offered sounded to me like a great New York deli. Didn't even cross my mind they might not be located in New York City.

So thanks to David Speyer for pointing out that Zingerman's is actually located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where it has always been located -- and they don't even have a New York store. Fortunately, when you order online, all that matters is that they be in a place that is serviced by UPS or Fedex or some other shipping service ...

*

Uncle Orson's Book Recommendations, Part 2: Nonfiction

Best American History

It's beautifully written, crystal clear, absolutely fair to everybody, and tragic in its scope and themes: Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.

Best Ancient History

Never has a careful, scholarly work about ancient history been so pertinent to contemporary concerns: Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

Best Personal History

The author tells a highly personal story of his obsession with some unexplained ruins in Nova Scotia, and reveals how he came to the conclusion that they were built by Chinese explorers and settlers before Columbus, and were the source of many of the wild stories about the Seven Cities of Gold. By the end, I was convinced that at least it was worth investigating further. And it's entertaining from beginning to end: Paul Chiasson, The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America

Best Current Events

Mark Steyn is more conservative on a lot of issues than I am, but in America Alone: The End of the World As We Know It, he makes a solid case for the demographic disaster that lies ahead for western civilization. Plus, he's a witty writer, making the book both entertaining and terrifying. Kind of like Stephen King with facts.

Best Commentaries on Contemporary Culture

Larry Miller is a comedian. Spoiled Rotten America is very funny. It's also a serious look at many aspects of life -- inside and outside the family. I don't always agree with him, but by the end of the book I felt like I'd had a great conversation with a really smart guy.

John M. Ellis, in his book Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities, laments the way "literary theory" (i.e., politically correct elitist groupthink) has taken over so much of the American university, making the possibility of a genuine education less and less likely.

Best Science Books

I'm no physicist and unlikely to become one. Lee Smolin, in his book The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, does the best job I've ever seen of explaining high-level physics to a lay audience. He also documents -- in a personal, fascinating story -- how "string theory" came to be dominant in the field of physics without ever actually corresponding with the real world or explaining anything.

(If you read this book and Literature Lost, you'll get a pretty good overview of why it seems that universities are sliding into a completely voluntary dark age.)

For any language lover there could be no better Christmas gift than Steven Pinker's Words and Rules. Pinker, author of the must-read book The Language Instinct, is an important working scientist and a gifted popularizer of the latest work in linguistics. By the end of this book, you'll understand why grammar works as it does -- and you'll enjoy yourself along the way.

Best Practical Advice

I can't vouch for everything in Mark Hyman's Ultra Metabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss, but as we have worked to make our diet (and our lives) conform more and more closely to principles outlined in this book, we feel healthier and stronger than ever before.

Best Child-Rearing

I've written at length about these three books, which I think are indispensable to anyone who is raising children:

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, with Diane Eyer, Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn -- and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less: This book is must reading for anyone who is raising, has raised, or thinks he or she might raise children sometime in the future. It helps you relax about their level of development at any particular age, so you can enjoy them more and torment them less.

It might make a wonderfully subversive (and yet educational!) gift to give either or both of the next two books to teenagers and gifted pre-teens. They'll get some idea of how scholarly arguments are made -- and they'll also be armed for discussions with their teachers about the level of homework they receive.

But if you don't dare give these books to kids, certainly you could give them to parents: Alfie Kohn, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing; and Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish, The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It.

Most Fun

OK, maybe these could have gone in the "contemporary culture" category, or in a memoir category, or something else. But the fact is, they're just plain fun to read, filled with cool trivia, and written by a couple of witty and really smart guys: Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!; and Ken Jennings, Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs. I promise you, you will be thanked for these books!

*

On a personal note:

I was greatly amused by the minireview of my latest novel, Empire, in the New & Record. They were very careful to warn that this novel of a future civil war between red staters and blue staters would be enjoyed more by readers with red state leanings.

This is funny for several reasons. First, the novel may start out with characters who are red staters, but in fact the whole point of the novel is the poisonousness of this polarization in America, and there are good guys and bad guys on both sides of the ideological divide.

So my guess is that the reviewer hadn't actually read the book, but merely assumed (as so many assume) that because I write fervently in support of the War on Terror and because I admire George W. Bush as the moderate president he is, I must really be a fanatical conservative.

So very wrong they are, but such is the nature of the polarization of American political life that if you vary from the ideology of one group even one iota, you are assumed to be a fanatic of the other side. And since the N&R is absolutely dominated by blue staters, they assume any novel of mine that deals with political division in America will be biased.

Another reason that the warning is funny is because they never, to my knowledge, put any kind of warning on reviews of, say, The West Wing, that "this program will be enjoyed more by viewers with blue state leanings." No such notice is placed on the novels of James Lee Burke, or the myriad other writers who insert irrelevant, egregious, and offensive sneers at conservative politicians and religious people -- perhaps because the folks at the N&R assume that conservative and religious people don't read books. (Though they do want them to read newspapers, I bet.)

The funniest thing about the warning in their minireview of my novel, however, is that it is really a gross insult to liberals.

Think about it. What does it mean to be "liberal"? Well, back when I first became one, it used to mean that you were open-minded and tolerant, eager to learn the views of others, and ready to admit that you might need to change your mind as you learned more about the issues.

Certainly that's the mindset of most of my liberal friends. But it's also the mindset of most of my conservative friends, too, because it's hard for me to maintain a friendship of any depth with folks who don't approach other people that way.

But the N&R appears to believe that while conservative readers can be expected to read fiction that explores the liberal worldview without any warning at all, liberal readers must be warned that they might not enjoy a novel that actually has some conservative characters presented in depth and in a favorable light.

Well, what can I say? The N&R knows its own people. The American Left has left liberalism far behind, and now is as puritan and enemy-hungry as Pat Robertson -- the hate list is different, but the rigidity of mind and terror of thinking are the same.

So of course they have to warn their people that they might be shocked by a book in which the author actually expected his readers to experience the world through the eyes of fictional characters who think differently from them. Some people have a hard time dealing with diversity.

But thanks, N&R, for mentioning the book and spelling my name right.


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