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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.