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
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
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
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
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
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 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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.