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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 17, 2008

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


Hillary Bags, CDs, Glimpses, Good Books

We love Hillary. Not for her politics. Not for her personality. Not even for those clever Christmas cards she sends us every year.

No, we love Hillary Clinton because of her answer when a reporter asked her (along with the other candidates) what she wouldn't leave home without.

Mitt Romney said he could not leave without the bags of home-made granola his wife packaged up for him for snacking.

This was useless to me, since granola is what I believe people like me will be served for every meal in hell.

But Hillary's must-have has changed my wife's life. What she couldn't leave home without was the little colored mesh bags from Walker in San Francisco, which she uses to organize the stuff in her purse.

We're open-minded people in our house. Even though my wife is a Republican anyway, and we both agree that a Hillary Clinton presidency is the worst thing, short of a nuclear war or an ebola epidemic, that America needs, my wife is willing to learn from anybody.

So she went on the Walker website -- http://www.walkerbags.com/cm.html -- and bought a slew of little bags in various sizes.

Here's why they're great:

1. You can see through them, so there's no wondering what they contain.

2. You can put sharp-edged things inside these bags (mini-packs of Advil, for instance) and not get stabbed when you rummage around in your purse.

3. Some have grommets for keys to be attached, so you can have a bag of coins or credit cards attached to your keys, making both easier to find.

4. Because they're different colors, you can find things quickly just by spotting a corner of the bag.

5. They're durable and easy to clean.

6. They come in 12 sizes and 13 colors.

The only drawback? You get addicted to having them and order more and more.

So ... even though nobody in our house hopes Hillary wins either the nomination or the presidency, we are grateful that she ran for office so she could do that interview and steer us to Little Mesh Bag Land.

And just in case anybody doubts that Hillary's a real woman, this is the proof. Not tears-on-tap -- heck, I can do that -- but purse organizers!

*

A couple of months ago, my daughter and I and a friend in the audiobook business made a recording of a religious article written by some of our family members more than a century ago.

We wanted to give copies to as many of the descendants of the article's authors as we could find.

We weren't going to need thousands, but it was a big family back in the 1890s and a lot of big families had come afterward, so we knew we'd need a few hundred.

We've learned from experience that CD-Rs don't work as reliably or on as many machines as manufactured CDs. But we also knew that most CD duplicating companies hate doing small lots like this and charge an arm and a leg.

We did some looking around and found a company in Greensboro, A&V Company, that didn't run in horror from a smallish job like ours.

In fact, their price was better than if we had made CD-Rs ourselves (if you count in the employee time), and the artwork on the CD (not a label!) was thrown in for free.

We were working with Ean Bartholomew, the division manager of DVD/CD & Video Duplication at A&V. Completely on his own, he thought of looking on the internet for the cover of the magazine issue in which the article was published.

Then he incorporated it in the design of the CD while my assistant was there in the office to proofread and approve everything.

It was quick, painless, and better looking than we had imagined we could get. It was also competitively priced and far, far better in playback quality and reliability than we could have accomplished using our computers at home.

We've found, over the years, that with DVDs and CDs the stick-on labels you can print yourself are never quite centered and can interfere with some machines' ability to read the disks, leading to frequent stops and breakdowns in playback.

So for archival videos of our theatrical productions we finally gave up and paid the rather high price of some of the bigger out-of-town companies to duplicate our DVDs.

After this experience with A&V, however, you can be sure we're going back to them for all our disk duplicating. Besides, Bartholomew was a nice guy, smart and easy to work with. It makes us happy to do business with people like that.

*

Because of my line of work, I get interviewed on camera from time to time, and my usual experience is that if I don't take over and run the interview, nothing interesting will get said.

That's because most on-camera personalities in the visual media either can't read anything that isn't on a teleprompter, and therefore have no idea what my books are (or, for that matter, what a book is), or they are highly ideological and only want to hear things they already agree with.

As you can imagine, both kinds of interviews are very frustrating.

But my experience when I was interviewed by Jay Lambeth of our local Greensboro Cable Access channel (channel 8) was the opposite. I didn't have to take over the interview and run it -- a good thing, since I was sick, drugged up with antihistamines, and thus even less mentally sharp than usual.

Instead, Jay conducted a wide-ranging interview that touched on all kinds of topics. It was obvious he had made some effort to be aware of who I was and all the things I care about, and even where I know we're in different camps, he treated me with candor and politeness and let me have my say.

Jay and I have known each other for years, but primarily because I once sang with the Greensboro Oratorio's Messiah concert and he had to tell me to pipe down. (Any tenor who has to be told to shut up becomes memorable to the conductor.)

It's not like we hang out and have dinner at each other's houses. But I've respected his artistry as a conductor even when I wasn't under his baton -- he gets the best from a rowdy group of singers and he understands the music.

But just because you're good at music, or good at administering a local cable channel (he's the boss there), doesn't mean you're a good interviewer.

My experience with him was so good that I've started looking for the show to hear what he elicits from other people that he interviews.

The program is Greensboro Glimpses, and it's on channel 8 at various times in their program rotation. But the predictable time slot is Thursday at 6:00 a.m. Of course, that means that by the time you read this issue of the Rhino on Thursday, it's already too late to record the show I was on!

Fortunately for those who are faunching after a chance to hear and see me babble in person, the show is repeated on Saturday, 23 Feb., at 9:30 a.m. and Sunday, 24 Feb., at 6:00 p.m.

It's worth watching if for no other reason than the fact that Jay actually managed to keep me from going off on rants so that in a mere half-hour we cover lots of different topics.

Anybody who can keep me reined in during an interview deserves a medal.

*

Margaret Maron is a North Carolina treasure. Her series of novels about Deborah Knott, a judge in the eastern part of the state, is excellent as mystery fiction, but even better as a way of plunging into and getting to know the tobacco-growing end of the state.

Between Maron and Sharyn McCrumb, who has done such a brilliant job with Appalachia, both ends of the state are well covered!

In Maron's most recent novel, Hard Row, Deborah Knott's husband, sheriff's deputy Dwight Bryant, is involved in the investigation of a bunch of human body parts that have been discovered in ditches and fields.

Meanwhile, Knott is dealing with several cases -- along with issues in her family -- that seem unrelated. In short, she and her husband are both doing their jobs and dealing with family matters and their new marriage, just like regular folks.

Maron doesn't stretch credulity the way some other mystery writers do, and try to put either Knott or Bryant in personal jeopardy when it doesn't arise naturally out of the story. These are mysteries, not thrillers.

Not only that, but even though her characters are opinionated (of course there's the normal gratuitous and inaccurate slam at George W. Bush), they are also willing to tolerate genuine differences of opinion without hating the people on the "wrong" side.

Because Knott's family has been in the same area of the state for many generations, there's a lot of history. The roots of these stories reach back into the past -- but they're also absolutely current, with immigrants both legal and il-, insane ex-spouses that can't be controlled by law, and the issues being faced by farmers who are trying to figure out what to do with their land in a post-tobacco economy.

Most important, though, is the fact that Maron is a terrific mystery writer and she spins an entertaining yarn. You get all this good stuff in the midst of excellent entertainment.

Some of the key solutions are guessable rather earlier than the characters guess them, but I don't mind feeling smart when I read a mystery. And there are always twists and turns in a Maron mystery that you can't outguess.

*

A quieter mystery is Peter Dickinson's Some Deaths Before Dying. Dickinson is one of those perverse writers who sets himself impossible tasks, and then accomplishes them.

In Some Deaths, the heroine is Rachel, an aged photographer whose brain is slowly deteriorating. She has lost much control of her body; it's a labor to speak well enough to be understood.

Fortunately, she has a wise and loving caretaker, Dilys, who can understand her speech and be trusted to carry out her will. She's not so lucky with some of her children, especially her only son, who has got himself into financial trouble and would like to get Rachel declared incompetent so he can get at her money.

Rachel's late husband, Jocelyn (a name that confused me, since the only Jocelyn I've ever known was a woman), owned a pair of rare antique pistols. When one of them turns up at an auction, it becomes clear that somehow the pair was divided and the one that had gone out of the family's possession was used, perhaps, to commit a crime.

This is an impossible story to write, of course. The heroine is bedridden, unable to question people unless they come to her and listen patiently as she tries to form the words.

But Dickinson brings it off (as he always does) with flair. Yes, the book is a slow read -- the best books often are -- but the content of this woman's mind, the way she sees and thinks, the memories she has, are all worth the time we take experiencing them.

If you're looking for something to fill the empty hours between John Sandford and James Patterson novels, this is not what you're looking for.

Indeed, I suspect that in most cases women will be the best readers of this book. Instead of moving from action to action, it grows from thought to thought, building networks among people until stories and solutions come clear. Dickinson is a man who knows how to write a woman's novel; and as a man who loves to read such books, I feel qualified to say so.

Dickinson doesn't stay in a literary box. I first encountered him in an anthology of science fiction stories, a little piece called "Flight," which was written like a history, without a single character in it. I absolutely loved it. It haunts me still with the beauty and sadness of it.

I've read his fantasy novels, his science fiction, his mysteries -- books for adults and for children, for men and for women and for everybody. Without ever achieving widespread fame or bestsellerhood, he has amassed over his lifetime an astonishingly diverse and brilliant body of work.

He's one of those rare writers whom I recommend to people without regard to title. Whether I've read the book or not, I'm betting that if it's by Peter Dickinson, it's excellent.

*

Zen and the Art of Faking It, by Jordan Sonnenblick, is a charmingly written teen novel about a kid who moves to a new town and, in order to make himself stand out and carve a place for himself in his new school, pretends to be a believer in and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.

He's read a little bit about Zen -- enough to get by at first -- but as people try to take his "beliefs" seriously, he gets into more and more trouble and has to weave ever thicker webs of deception.

I know something about this myself. My first semester at BYU, I was cast in a production of Joan of Lorraine. One of the cast members had recently returned from an LDS mission, and on a lark I pretended that I was not Mormon.

It was just a joke for the moment, but I kept it going too long. He started taking a real interest in trying to convert me. And when I finally told him the truth -- not too long after -- he felt like I had made something sacred into a joke.

And he was right. It was the cultural aspects of Mormonism I was joking about, but it was the spiritual aspect that he was thinking about. He was trying to offer something important to a guy who had started it all out with a joke that was a lie.

It seemed funny at first. It wasn't funny at the end.

So this book resonated with me. In some ways, you can easily think, he pretended to be a Zen Buddhist and he wasn't really. So what?

But when you ask someone to take your religion seriously, and seek to mark your place among your friends by asserting your beliefs, then they had better be your real beliefs.

Because that accommodation they make is not a trivial thing. They really are making a place for you in their hearts and lives. And if it turns out not to be who you really are, then they feel like fools. They feel like pawns in your game.

Here's the thing: The actual pretense is rather exhilarating. I have a friend who used to drive to different towns with his buddies and meet people, giving them false names and false histories of who he was. He had "friends" who believed him to be someone quite different from who he was.

It wasn't a con -- he wasn't trying to get anything from them. Nor was he, for instance, a married man pretending to be single. It was just cool to be able to go places and be someone different.

But he stopped doing it when he got old enough to want a real life.

The problems come when you actually start caring and want to keep one of these people you've deceived in your life. You can't keep up the pretense forever. And when you go to tell them the truth, it tears down their entire image of you.

The person you like is real; the person they liked was a fake, and in place of that fake, they now have you -- a liar. Not a good start for friendship.

Play-acting is fun. But only when everybody knows it's a play.

Sonnenblick's novel is not about Zen Buddhism -- he could have used any religion or ethnic group. The novel is about faking it and then coming clean. I like the way it was written. I like the story it tells.

*

E.L. Konigsburg is one of the great children's authors of all time. My wife and I discovered her work when we were first married. We would walk from our rented house in the avenues down to the Salt Lake Public Library and check out books like (George) and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and read aloud the best bits to each other.

That's right -- even before we had children, we were haunting the children's and young adult section of the bookstore because that's where some of the very best writers were doing their very best work -- and none better than Konigsburg.

Her latest novel for young readers, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, is something of a mystery and something of a moral fable. The mystery is wonderful; the writing is as good as ever; unfortunately, the moral fable mars it a bit simply because even though it's truish, the story feels a bit artificial because it is bent to make the point.

The point is simple enough: Sometimes things that have real value are treated with disdain or hostility when they're first created. Who can disagree with that?

But Konigsburg makes the mistake of not sticking with that general principle, but rather insisting that this particular thing (modern art) is actually better than what went before in part because it bothered and offended people.

Maybe she would protest that that was not her point at all. But that seems to be her point. And I happen to disagree with it. I don't think that offending people is a virtue in itself; nor do I think that opposition to something "new" is necessarily evil.

There are innovations that are, in fact, not very good, and some that are even harmful. If all new things were good, then why aren't we living in a perfect world yet?

But let's not quibble. I disagree with her point because I think it makes people just as closed-minded in favor of"innovation" as other people are against it. The book is one-sided, but that's an author's privilege.

It's also very well written, and the characters are, as always, quirky and fascinating, and the personal story is first rate. Just make sure that if you give it to a young reader, you discuss afterward whether art is good or bad because of or in spite of its inaccessibility to part of the audience.

Yeah, right, like you can talk like that with a ten-year-old.

OK, maybe you can. But the plain-English version of this is: If somebody hates a painting or a movie or a book, does that mean the book or movie or painting is bad? But does it mean that it's good, just because it makes some people upset?

Why would a book or movie or painting that makes people upset be worth doing? Because those people are bad and deserve to be hurt? Then is art a weapon?

But if a work of art that you think is really good and important happens to make some people hurt or angry, is that a reason to suppress the art and hide it from everybody?

You can turn even books you disagree with (partly or entirely) into potent opportunities to get your children thinking about deep and important ideas.


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