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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 24, 2008

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

Rome, Hit Man, Pasta Sauce, Mediterraneo

OK, yes, right, David Crosby is not dead. My wife and I both thought he was -- we even remembered a conversation about how that was a waste of a transplant, because we heard he died very soon after receiving it. But clearly, we were hallucinating then, because David Crosby still insists that he's alive. My apologies. Meanwhile, our fact-checker is dead. We saw to that.


I have never been interested in Cleopatra. Nor did I see anything noble, romantic, or even tragic about the fact that Marc Antony lost an empire for love of her. To me it seemed stupid.

John Maddox Roberts did his best to make Cleopatra seem compelling and enigmatic in his historical mystery The Princess and the Pirates (SPQR IX). For me, his novel worked because of his intriguing main character. I remained unconvinced about Cleopatra.

In fact, my disdain for the whole Cleopatra story was probably why I never got around to reading Steven Saylor's take on Caesar's encounter with Cleopatra in The Judgment of Caesar. The book came out four years ago. I only read it last week.

It took Saylor's clear account of the shenanigans of Cleo and her brother Ptolemy and their advisers and worshipers for me to get some idea of what was going on. Caesar almost certainly fathered a son on the Queen of Egypt, but in Saylor's view it was a dynastic maneuver, with little to do with either romance or sex. (In his account, Caesar slept with anything that moved, and history seems to be on his side.)

Intriguing as the dynastic, political, and military maneuvers are, what drives the book is something else entirely: the relationship between Saylor's series hero, Gordianus the Finder, and his ex-slave wife, Bethesda. For them, coming to Alexandria is a homecoming. This is where they met.

But Bethesda is still a believer in the ancient religion of Egypt, and she has come back to the Nile for reasons that Gordianus cannot fathom. So in the midst of the great events of the ancient world, Saylor weaves for his characters a highly personal story.

In early books in the series, Saylor was not always clear about what was going on in the politics of Rome. I think he might have thought his readership was more conversant with Roman history than any but a handful actually were. Either that or he simply got better at exposition. Either way, The Judgment of Caesar is, in some ways, the best in a remarkable series of novels.

Someday it might be interesting to compare the four compelling fictions about ancient Rome that have brought history to life for me and many other readers.

First there was I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. This is one of those cases where the film -- in this cause the Derek Jacoby miniseries -- is actually better in many ways than the books. Graves, in my opinion, does not wear well. He was definitely writing to an audience that was familiar with at least the basic outlines of Roman history, and he wrote in a time when writers could digress more into anachronistic wit.

He doesn't indulge himself quite as much as T.H. White does in The Once and Future King (which starts with The Sword in the Stone), but I find that books I greatly enjoyed in my teens are now a bit tedious to read. The jokes were funny once; the second or third time through, they just get in the way of the story.

Then there's Gore Vidal's Julian. An early work by a novelist who was once excellent but then believed his own publicity, Julian remains my favorite Vidal novel -- and one of the strongest novels of Roman history. Vidal's agenda was political but he was still novelist enough to keep that well submerged in a powerful human story. I felt the tragedy of Julian's character as he tried to retrieve Rome from its unfortunate love affair with politicized Christianity.

Both the Graves and Vidal works would have to be classed as "serious historical fiction" -- that is, they are guilty of Literary Intent.

The Saylor and Roberts series, however, are protected from any such penumbra of literariness by appearing under the heading of "historical mystery."

Roberts takes his mystery writing seriously, and when you compare the two series as mysteries, Roberts wins. His hard-boiled detective in a toga is a delight and the novels give you a healthy dose of end-of-the-republic politics while also giving a good mix of mystery and adventure.

Saylor, however, treats the mystery aspect of his novels quite cavalierly. In The Judgment of Caesar, for instance, the mystery doesn't even come up until four-fifths of the way through the novel.

It is fair to say that what Saylor writes are novels every bit as serious as Vidal's and Graves's, and that as a bonus, each novel also contains a mystery.

All four writers did a very good job of what they set out to do. All these books are successful and well worth reading. Even when the authors take on a character as fundamentally boring as Cleopatra.


Lawrence Block's series of novels about hit man John Keller are morally repulsive and endlessly fascinating.

Block's breezy voice only thinly disguises the appalling nature of his "hero's" actions. Block, to his credit, never set out to write the series. It began as a short story, but when the second story came up, he realized he was "writing a novel on the installment plan," as he put it.

That book came out in 1998 -- Hit Man -- and was followed by Hit List and Hit Parade. I couldn't believe I was buying novels about a murderer for hire. And, especially in the first book, I felt just a little sick about what I was reading.

Why, then, was I eager to read Hit and Run, the (possibly) final book in the series?

Because, along the way, Block himself examined the morality of Keller's life and work in a fascinating way. Block and I don't overlap much in our view of the responsibility of the individual to society. (Unlike some of my former readers who are now boycotting me because they dislike my politics, I don't have to agree with writers, artists, or performers in order to enjoy good work.)

All I ask is that the writer show that he has at least thought about the moral issues the story raises, and Block does so. He does not attempt to justify Keller or his life, but he does show us how someone could do such things and live with himself.

In Hit and Run, he also shows that however bad Keller is, there are worse people in the world -- smarter, cleverer, more devious and more ruthless ones. Keller is about to retire, but takes on one last assignment. Mistake. Because this one leads to his near destruction.

If you haven't read any of the others, and wonder if you can possibly enjoy books about such a grim topic, I recommend that you start with Hit and Run. Why? Because this novel doesn't show Keller going about his normal (appalling) business -- it shows him running for his life.

No matter where you start in the series, however, what makes it all work is Lawrence Block himself. He likes to irritate readers that he disagrees with. But at heart, whatever he may believe about himself, he cannot actually leave his characters in moral limbo. He finds ways to help them discover virtues in the midst of their weaknesses and crimes. Keller is no exception.

If there were such a character in the real world, I would have to say that he's the sort of person for whom the death penalty exists. To have made his living from killing total strangers is, in my view, unforgivable, however nice he might be to dogs and stamp collectors.

But in the real world, he would probably get away with it and never be arrested. So the question is moot. What's interesting is how Block imagines him, how he moves through the world and holds on to some kind of humanity.

After all, people testified, after World War II, that many of the people who carried out Hitler's horrors would come home at the end of a day of murder and torture and be perfectly nice dads and husbands and tend their gardens.

It's not a bad thing to be reminded, from time to time, just how evil "nice" people can be.


The other night, my wife and I, as part of our program of forcing our 14-year-old to watch our list of Must See To Be An Educated American movies, saw Sleepless in Seattle with her.

In my memory, the unbelievability of the story had begun to come to the fore; watching it, I marveled yet again at how Nora Ephron carefully made the whole thing work. I'm still a little sad about the way that Meg Ryan's character's fiancé was set up to be a "loser" (intrusive allergies and a sort of well-meaning social ineptness) so that we wouldn't mind when she dropped him cold.

It's the same thing Ephron did with both "distraction" love interests in You've Got Mail (whereas the original, The Shop around the Corner, did fine without either of them).

Still, Ephron is the best of today's romantic comedy writers, and by a long way, too. What made me cry, however, was not the fulfilment of the romance when the couple finally meet and hold hands at the end. No, the whole movie depends on real love -- the love the Tom Hanks character has for the wife he loved so intensely that after her death, he simply can't get over her.

It's simply a fact of life: No matter how much you think you're "in love" when you get married, you just don't know what love even is until you've created a life and a family with somebody, with total commitment, year after year. The madness of longing that we call "romance" is only an emotional blip compared to a true, deep human connection. And Sleepless has that at its foundation.

Our daughter liked it too. How much she liked it is impossible to guess; in a few years, we'll find out which of these movies she actually chooses to watch again. If any. After all, it's hard for these live-action movies to compete with anime.

During Sleepless, there's one wonderful scene where Tom Hanks's character and his sister and brother-in-law are together and the conversation turns to the movie An Affair to Remember, which provides the theme and central motif of this story.

The sister talks herself into a good cry as she recounts the basic plot of Affair. (Since I grew up with that movie and shed my own tears, even as a kid, I know why it works, and it isn't the would-be meeting at the top of the Empire State Building. It's Cary Grant's grandmother who roots the story in real love and devotion instead of mere romance; she provides them with something good and truthful to aspire to.)

Anyway, the two guys -- Tom Hanks's character and his brother-in-law -- counter the sister's tearful summary with their own reaction to the ultimate guy flick: The Dirty Dozen.

And at that moment, I proposed that we needed to show our daughter both An Affair to Remember and The Dirty Dozen.

After all, when WALL-E constantly referred to Hello, Dolly! we watched that, too, so she'd know what the hoopla was about.

So we all sat down in front of the television and watched The Dirty Dozen together -- two chicks and a chick-flick kind of guy, watching a guy-flick.

They were entertained. Nobody left the room. (Wait, I take that back. Several times people left the room, but they always wanted the movie paused while they were gone, so it amounts to the same thing.)

Here's the odd thing. While the romantic comedies hold up fine, The Dirty Dozen has lost something over the years. The story is still as strong as ever. But the way it was filmed has been left behind.

Why? Because we do action movies differently now. Ever since music videos made the quick cut fashionable, we've gotten used to a faster pace. In Dirty Dozen, they lingered constantly, just a second or two longer than we're now used to. It was as if they expected the audience to take longer to digest what they'd just seen. And when the film was new, we did use that time.

Nothing about The Dirty Dozen is actually slow. The movie is stripped to the core -- by the standards of the day. But if it were filmed today, there would actually have been more time to develop characters and relationships beyond the iconic stage, because the action sequences would not have taken so much screen time.

However, if it were filmed today, all the interesting character stuff would have been stripped away by the notes of the clowns in suits who don't know how to make movies. Only a few good scripts manage to make it past that hurdle. So I would hate to see The Dirty Dozen remade today. It would be technically more perfect, but in all likelihood the script would be made dumb and obvious.

Why? Because guy flicks are the big action-packed, effects-driven movies that cost a hundred million to make and have to gross huge amounts. Careers are on the line.

Chick flicks, on the other hand, aren't expected to make anywhere near as much money, and have much smaller budgets.

So nobody can lose his job for green-lighting a chick flick that flops. But big action films have so much on the line that they can't leave good writers alone. They have to fiddle the scripts to death.

That's why Nora Ephron can go back and reenvision An Affair to Remember and The Shop around the Corner into Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail and the result is every bit as good as (or maybe even a little better than) the original.

While I just want them to leave The Dirty Dozen alone. Even if it doesn't hold up as well as I had wished, it's better than anything they'd do with it today.


In Fresh Market the other day, we succumbed to impulse and picked up a pasta sauce we'd never tried before: Cucina Antica Homemade Tomato Basil sauce. It's "all natural" with no added sugar, and it looked promising.

Now, I have to warn you, we're people who think pasta dishes are pretty much about the pasta and the sauce. At girls' camp this summer, our daughter was served spaghetti with meat sauce. She ate it, and it was all right, but she could have done without the low-quality meat in the sauce.

When I was her age, it would never have occurred to me that spaghetti was worth eating without meat. But sometime in my early forties I stopped needing so much meat. And we started eating pasta with sauce and cheese.

So the sauce is not just a vehicle for delivering meat. It has to be good in itself.

And Cucina Antica Tomato Basil sauce is very, very good.

But it depends on what you look for in a sauce.

Take Mexican salsa ... please. Our favorite salsas consist of natural ingredients only. This means that they're likely to be rather thin and brothy. However, the most popular commercial salsas are full of gum-based thickeners, so they'll be as thick as catsup on the chip.

The same is true of most of the popular Italian sauces -- they're simply too thick.

Here's why: The sauce is best when it seeps easily down through the noodles. When the sauce has been thickened too much, it just sits on top of the pasta. It takes twice as much sauce to accompany the pasta. And, as far as I'm concerned, most of it just isn't very good compared to the real thing.

Cucina Antica makes the real thing. It's thin enough to work properly with the pasta. Instead of the pasta existing only to deliver big mouthfuls of sauce, the sauce exists to accompany the pasta. You can taste the pasta (which makes it worthwhile looking for pasta with a flavor!). And yet the tomato and basil are there in just the right strength and proportions.

Nothing compares to fresh made pasta sauce, of course -- if you have someone willing to spend the time to create it. When you're in a hurry, though, you can have a very good sauce on first-rate angel hair pasta in about ten minutes. It's home-cooked fast food, and with a good fresh parmesan or romano cheese, it's worth coming home for.


Speaking of Italian food, I can't tell you how happy I am that at The Village at North Elm they've opened a little neighborhood Italian restaurant called Mediterraneo.

We went there with an odd combination of high hopes and low expectations. The high hopes won. With six outdoor tables and seven indoors, I don't know how they're going to handle inclement weather. As it is, they're having a terrible problem with the bees that seem to be infesting Greensboro. (I don't remember ever having bees cluster around the entrances of grocery stores, for instance. I'm sure global warming is causing it.)

I had my suspicions when I looked at the deceptively unpretentious menu and the folksy service. But so far, almost everything we've ordered has been first rate. (My wife was disappointed with the falafel, but then, that's not Italian, is it?)

Their caprese salad (tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella) can hold its own with any in town, and their hummus is, as of this moment, our favorite (something happened to Southern Lights's hummus recipe lately, to our sorrow).

The entrees are even better. For instance, their lobster ravioli is almost as good as the lobster turtei at Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills, and that's saying something. They don't get them in frozen packages, either. The raviolis are made there in their kitchen. The lobster filling is good, but (of course) it's the sauce that made me wish I had enough room to sop it all up with bread and finish it off.

I tormented myself about whether to write this review. If you believe me and try it out, I'll probably have trouble getting a table for all the crowds who'll come back again and again. But if I don't write about it, something worse could happen -- maybe enough people won't discover it, and then it will close, and frankly, I'd rather have trouble getting a table than have the restaurant go away.

So if you live anywhere near North Elm and Pisgah Church, try it out and see if I'm not right. The restaurant is at the extreme southeast corner of the new Village at North Elm development, so if you turn in from Pisgah Church at the new light and go all the way to the back, you can probably park right at the very sidewalk where you'll be eating!

Oh, and the prices -- very reasonable for the quality you get.

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