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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 1, 2008

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


Hot Water, Bad Art, and Locke Lamora

I've been irritated for fifteen years, living in the same house, with how long it takes for hot water to get to any of the faucets.

Our master bathroom is located closer to the hot water heater than any other water outlet in the house -- almost directly above it -- and yet it took nearly a full minute for hot water to get to any faucet.

During the water shortage of the past year, it was maddening to sit there running the water for that long before the hot water came. I tried to be brave and wash my face in water as cold as I used for my hands, but I couldn't do it. And showers? It made me feel guilty for letting so much water go down the drain before I could stand to step under the water.

Plus, even when there's plenty of water in the reservoirs, I still hate wasting my time waiting for a faucet to wake up and get hot.

For a while we toyed with remodeling our master bathroom, replacing the tub with a bigger shower, and taking the spot that is now the shower and putting a second hot water heater there. But that would have been expensive, especially if we had to shore up the floor to bear the added weight.

Fortunately, there's a better solution. Laing makes a product called "AutoCirc," which you attach to the water line under one sink in the house. Without making any other changes in your hot water system, that one device makes it so that the wait for hot water drops to only a few seconds.

I don't understand the physics of it. How can the machine, installed and plugged in under our bathroom sink, make it so that not only our shower, but also every faucet in the house gets hot water faster?

It's not perfect. What you're really getting is warm water that has been circulating through the pipes; it still takes a while for the truly hot water to arrive. But the first rush of "hot" water is warm enough for most purposes -- even for starting a shower, as long as you're ready to turn the water a bit cooler when the hot stuff arrives.

Another slight drawback: the cold water isn't as cold. But when we want really cold drinking water, we use bottled water from the cooler in the kitchen, and we don't need icy water for taking pills or brushing our teeth.

AutoCirc works. Whether it works well enough to be worth the cost is a personal decision. In our house, the hot water was so slow and we were wasting so much time and water that it seemed worth the money to use.

Remember that the cost might include having an electrician install an electric outlet under the sink where you install the AutoCirc. If you use your kitchen sink, you probably already have an outlet for the garbage disposer. We used our bathroom sink, on the theory that that was where we were most annoyed by the slow hot water, so we paid for the outlet.

There is also a version called "AutoCirc2" which installs at the hot water heater; it does not require an outlet under the sink. But what we were told was that the all-in-one AutoCirc1 actually works better.

*

Because my wife was preparing to teach an art history class this month, for Mother's Day I got her (among other, much nicer gifts!) a copy of The Museum of Bad Art Masterworks, a hilariously appalling book by Michael Frank and Louise Reilly Sacco.

The museum really exists, in the basement of a movie-theater outside Boston. There are four hundred pieces of bad art in the permanent collection. Some pieces were actually donated by the artists -- a refreshing sign of genuine self-knowledge -- while others were scavenged from dumpsters, curbs, garbage cans, and garbage dumps.

The thing about this art isn't that it's talent-free -- I can produce art like that whenever I want. It's that it was meant to be good.

My wife found the book extremely helpful in laying the groundwork for her art class. She was able to introduce all the elements of art through the things that were wrong with these pieces.

It's easy to look at art you don't understand or art of a kind you don't care for and dismiss it as "trash." But when you have samples of genuine trash, it changes your perspective completely. Now you can see, easily, that even art of a kind you don't care for can be good -- of its kind.

In fact -- and this is truly weird -- I found myself considering which of these pieces I hated least. In other words, I was picking out my favorite bad art, and not the ones I thought were funniest in their badness, but the ones I could almost get. The ones where I could understand what the artist was trying for.

So there's something kind of haunting about "Key Man," and"Prosthetic Claw" was sickening and yet made me keep coming back to it. And the piece called "Elian Gonzalez's Grandmothers" by Gisela Keller was almost not bad. I've seen art in catalogs that was worse.

What am I doing, giving goodish -- goodlike? goodesque? -- reviews to art that is announced as bad!

If you care about art, you have to own this book. If anybody questions your taste in art, just hand them the book and say, "This is bad. What I have on my walls is good. Or at least it's better than these!"

*

Back in the 1930s, Fritz Leiber invented the sword & sorcery genre with his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, beginning with "Two Sought Adventure," which is now available as part of the book Ill Met in Lankhmar.

I came to these books as an adult. Well, in my twenties, anyway, and fell completely in love.

Mark you, these are fantasies that owe nothing to Tolkien. In fact, they were quite modern for their time, and were especially unusual in that from book to book the characters changed and grew.

After the great success of Lord of the Rings as a cult favorite that became a mainstream phenomenon in the 1960s, the two streams of fantasy existed side by side. Terry Brooks's quest story, Sword of Shannara, was hugely successful as an obvious hommage to Tolkien.

But at about the same time, and from the same editor (Lester Del Rey at Ballantine) came the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson, which owed very little to Tolkien and a great deal to the morally ambiguous anti-heroes of Leiber's Lankhmar -- though Donaldson was far from derivative with his leper hero. These books, too, were very successful.

It's sad when wonderful and original authors get swallowed up in time. Fritz Leiber was so inventive that you could spin whole genres out of his work, and it holds up very well.

In fact, his Hugo-winning science fiction novel, The Big Time, still feels edgy and modern today -- though it first appeared in 1957. I just recorded an introduction to this book for Audible.com, and I hope that if you are a listener to recorded books you'll download it.

(If you enter Audible through the link at my website http://www.hatrack.com, "New Emphasis on Sci-Fi and Fantasy at Audible.com," and buy The Big Time, I get a few cents. So if you don't want to reward me for steering you to the book, for heaven's sake go to Audible some other way.)

By the way, if you want to see -- or hear -- why Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books were such a big deal, remember to go to iAmplify.com and search on the words "Thomas Covenant." One of the great readers, Scott Brick, offering one of the great books. (Brick is self-funded on this project, so you can up his profit margin a bit by entering iAmplify through his website, http://www.scottbrickpresents.com.)

Back to the Sword and Sorcery tradition. How is it different from Tolkien?

It isn't epic, that's how. It's picaresque. You're not saving the world, you're staying alive. You're not Frodo, and you're definitely not Aragorn. You're somewhere between Spenser and Hawk, between Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, between Easy Rawlins and Mouse.

Come to think of it, Walter Mosley is a science fiction and fantasy reader. I wonder if his naming of Mouse had anything to do with Leiber's Gray Mouser.

My point about Sword & Sorcery is not that you play with evil, it's that you have almost magical abilities when it comes to violently and/or cleverly staying alive.

And this picaresque tradition is very much alive. One could argue that the works of Walter Mosley, Robert Crais, Robert B. Parker, and even James Lee Burke, with Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcel even have overtones of magic, just like good old-fashioned Sword & Sorcery. So what if they're sold in the mystery section of the bookstore?

All of this is a long way of steering you to a terrific novelist, Scott Lynch, who has created a completely engaging and nefarious Leiberesque hero in the series beginning with the book The Lies of Locke Lamora.

It's not that Locke Lamora -- who begins the book as an orphan child who keep provoking people to want him dead -- means to be an anti-hero. He simply seems to have no concept of rules, except the one about loyalty to his friends.

Which means he doesn't keep any gentlemen's agreements. Which is fine. He's not a gentleman.

Set in a fictional city at a late-medieval level of technology, the story tracks Locke Lamora from his near-death experiences as a child into an adult career that shows him making up quite an engaging moral code in the midst of a career as a thief, con man, burglar, and (occasionally) really bad date.

The book is full of fascinating characters who are not so eccentric as to be unbelievable. In fact, it's the strength of good Sword & Sorcery that, while the setting is unbelievable, the picture of human nature seems all too true.

It's nice to know that people are still adding rooms to Fritz Leiber's house.


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