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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 19, 2008

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


Antsy, Medicus, "Live" Help, Chips

A few years ago, I declared Neal Shusterman's Everlost to be one of the best novels I'd ever read.

I haven't changed my mind. I still recommend it to friends. It still haunts my dreams.

Shusterman's latest novel, Antsy Does Time, is absolutely nothing like Everlost.

Where Everlost was brooding and sad, dangerous and terrible, as close to tragedy as you can get in a young adult novel, Antsy is funny. No, it doesn't just try to be funny, it really is funny. The narrator's voice is funny. The things people say are funny. The things people do are funny. It would make a funny movie. It does make a funny book.

Antsy is the nickname of a high school kid named Anthony. His parents run an Italian-French restaurant in Brooklyn, where he is a busboy whose specialty is filling people's water glasses. No matter how high he holds the pitcher, he never misses the glass.

When he finds out that one of his friends, a big Swedish immigrant named Gunnar, is dying -- only six months to live -- Antsy, in a flamboyant gesture, writes up a contract giving Gunnar one month of his own life.

Word gets out, and more people start giving months to Gunnar. Antsy is the guy drawing up the contract -- making him, in effect, the master of time.

This seems to be what the story is about, but you don't know Shusterman. Everything that's going on -- even things that seem completely unrelated -- are part of the story, and it doesn't go anywhere that you think it might go.

It's a story of love -- every kind of love -- and also about death, and about courage, and about hope and despair and getting through it all. It's about trying to do the right thing, and then sometimes doing the wrong thing because justice demands that it be done.

By the end of this book, you love Antsy. But you also love practically everybody else. Even, in a perverse way, Aunt Mona.

Don't take my word for it. It's marketed as a young adult novel, but I doubt you'll read a better story this year no matter what age you are.

If you have preteen and teenage children, then of course you'll give them this book for Christmas. But if you're smart, you'll read it to them -- read it to the whole family -- because at the end you'll be laughing and crying together and you'll be reminded of just what a family is, even in hard times -- no, especially in hard times.

Antsy Does Time, by Neal Shusterman. Book by book, Shusterman is proving himself to be one of the best writers working today.

*

How many mystery series set in Roman times do we actually need?

I've already reviewed Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series, and John Maddox Roberts's SPQR series. Both of those do a fine job of involving their hero in the major events in Roman history at the end of the Republic.

But there's a new series, written by Ruth Downie, that is not trying to give us Roman history.

Instead, her stories are set in Britannia, the most remote outpost of the Roman Empire, during the reign of Hadrian. Since it's the emperor Hadrian who built -- you guessed it -- Hadrian's Wall, once the boundary between civilization and those Pictish barbarians, this is something like the highwater mark of Roman ambitions in Britain. And for Downie, who is English, that makes these novels part of her history.

I'm not English, however, I'm just a lover of historical novels, mystery novels, and fantasy novels, and Downie manages to delight me on all three counts.

Not that the fantasy is ever actually fantastic. That is, everything gets a logical explanation and you don't have to believe. But the characters believe, more or less. Even the hero, Ruso, a doctor attached to the occupying Roman army, has moments when he believes enough to utter a few fervent prayers to Aesculapius, the Roman god of healing, and even, now and then, to one of the local deities worshiped by the woman he loves way more than is good for him, especially considering that she's his slave, and so disobedient he ought to punish her severely.

The mystery aspect of the stories is fascinating, but Ruso is no Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. He has no interest in solving mysteries; he just can't keep his mouth shut when a question comes up. As a result his career is going nowhere, and no one thanks him for solving mysteries -- that is, when they find out that the mystery has been solved. Because it's sometimes best just to let the dead stay buried -- especially if vengeance, or at least poetic justice, has already been served.

The first book, Medicus, actually kept me awake the night after I got only three hours of sleep. I would have thought that an impossibility. But I liked these characters and their British sense of humor and their strange relationships.

I also liked living in a world that partook of the same Roman culture I learned about from Saylor and Roberts, yet which is, at heart, far closer to the medieval world of Jack Whyte's fascinating and thoroughly researched Camulod Chronicles, the realest retelling of the story of King Arthur ever done.

Terra Incognita, the second novel, takes us to the north of England to deal with sightings of a man with antlers -- taken by many to be a god, and by Ruso to be a dangerously meddlesome Briton. Since this is the last book to be written so far, it's possible to get in on the ground floor of a new mystery series. But that also means I'm going to have to wait a good bit before I can get back to more of the life of Ruso.

Not everyone can sustain a series. One of the reasons I recommend Saylor and Roberts so highly is that their books actually get better over time. I hope Downie can take her own work seriously enough to hold herself to an every higher standard.

Because mystery writers often do the opposite -- they start repeating the same gags with every book, the stories slide into nothingness, and the series dies -- though I suppose it must still be making money or they wouldn't keep publishing new ones. (I think of the Maggody novels, for instance, which began to sound as if the writer had lost interest in them even before writing them.)

At this point, though, I'm having a wonderful time in Downie's Britannia. Wish you were here!

*

So I wanted to create a nonce identity on AOL. I had one unused screen name on my account. I'd done this before. It should have been easy.

Except when I got to the keyword screen name, I got a message saying that I didn't have access to that feature.

I'm the only user on that account. If I didn't have access, who did?

So I followed the advice of AOL's help system and signed on to "AOL Billing Live Support." The idea is that I will be connect in chat mode with a real person, who will help me deal with my problems.

The trouble is, the "real person" I got didn't sound all that real.

I typed in my problem and the person I was talking to came back with: "Thank you for the information." I waited a bit more, and then got: "In order to protect the privacy and security of your account, I will need to verify some account information. What is the screen name on your AOL account you need assistance with?"

Already I'm thinking, this is not how any natural human being talks. And when it takes long enough for the next response for me to play a game and a half of Spider Solitaire, I'm getting more and more frustrated.

The answer was, "I am sorry I am unable to access the account at this time."

Four minutes of waiting, and this person can't even get to my account? "Right," says I. "So what do I do?"

"I will have to report this issue."

"You're not a human being, are you," I said. "None of your sentences sound like natural speech. Nor are you responding to my statements except with generic statements."

"I have forwarded the report to the proper department. Be assured that they will act on this situation immediately. We would like to thank you for taking the time to report this to us."

OK, that was so formal and nonresponsive I have to say, "Why do you pretend that this is a 'live help' situation when it so obviously is not?" I'm figuring that when the log of this conversation is finally read by a human, they'll see that I wasn't fooled.

"AOL understands standardized responses to your questions may seem impersonal. Because we strive to provide rapid answers to questions, it is necessary to use information verified for accuracy and completeness. The result of this need for speed, accuracy and completeness means that we use a knowledge base of information that we continually update and maintain to provide the latest information to you."

"Again," say I, "non-responsive, generic answers. I'm the sole user of my account. I am blocked from the Screen Names feature. This is an idiotic situation, and I'm talking to somebody who can only send me generic answers. A human being would have said, 'Wow, that's a strange situation, I can see why you're frustrated.'"

"I am a real person and I am here to help you with your inquiries."

"But the fun thing is that I'm a newspaper columnist, so this whole exchange will be in my column next week."

"However, I am unable to access your account at this time. This is not the experience we want you to have. Is there anything else I can assist you with at this time?"

Since this person has not helped me at all, it is hard to know what "else" he might help me with.

Look, I know that this was a real person. I also know that instead of being able to write real sentences, she was only allowed to select from a menu of prefabricated statements. It wasn't her fault.

And I'm betting the reason they use an online chat instead of a phone service, besides the cost, is that he probably had a thick accent of one kind or another, or was a very, very slow typist who couldn't spell. By using prefab written replies, neither the accent nor the spelling problems would get in the way.

Still, when I'm getting no help at all, it would have been nice to have even a badly spelled or badly written note that said, "Hey, buddy, I'm so sorry, the real help guy will call you soon."

And AOL wonders why people are moving away from their service. There I was, seriously contemplating the idea of Googlemail.

Then comes the phone call from a real person at AOL, and at first I'm thinking everything is even worse with actual live help. I have to prove my identity six different ways. And then what she tells me is, "If you tell me the screen name you want to create, I can set it up for you."

The whole point of the new screen name was that it would not be me. Sometimes carrying my name with me onto every bulletin board makes it impossible for me to speak with candor. So the last thing I want to do is tell the new screen name to somebody else. Besides, I hadn't decided yet what I wanted to screen name to be.

So here I am, getting even madder (which means I speak more slowly and with greater precision and, of course, condescension, because I'm even more irritating when I'm mad than when I'm happy), and all of a sudden she finally explains it to me.

It seems that my name is on their list of people whose screen names are the targets of constant attacks by hackers.

Remember what that son-of-a-Democratic-Party-official did to Sarah Palin's email account? Well, that's what people are constantly trying to do to mine.

The hacker who stole Palin's email did it by trying a lot of different passwords. Mine aren't highly guessable, but I suppose it could be done. So AOL has very thoughtfully set up my account so that even if you have the password, you can't change any of the screen names or passwords, period. This means that even if someone breaks in and reads all my old and new mail, at least they can't change things so I get shut out of my own account.

Once I knew why things weren't working, I suddenly loved AOL for looking out for me.

Look, that "Live Support" thing is maddening -- but if I had actually been getting useful information, I probably would have been fine with it. People rag on AOL all the time, but I've known these people from the pre-Windows days, when AOL was the best piece of software on my computer; I've hung out at their headquarters back when they wanted me to be a content provider for them; and even since then, I've had good friends working for them. They really do mean well.

And here's the most important thing AOL did for me: Their software got my mother online. Up through AOL version 9.x, AOL was still the friendliest, easiest-to-learn email software. My computer-shy mom actually used AOL because she didn't feel like she could break anything if she made a mistake. It still does that job. (Though AOL 10.x is not so easy or intuitive, I'm sorry to say.)

If they would just let me print out or export my address book and, with a single command, print out my thousands of stored emails so I can archive them on paper, I would swear my undying loyalty to them. I would even, now and then, click on one of their ads.

AOL, thanks for taking good care of me. Yeah, AOL users have a reputation of being babies and novices. I don't care. I like it, I'm used to it, and I hope they last forever.

*

A few weeks ago I reviewed the Chilean Lime Avocado Oil Potato Chips from Good Health Natural Products. In the review I admitted that I ate the entire package before my wife could get around to trying them.

So we got a package in the mail the other day and in it were a couple of packages of the chips. On them was written, "For Mrs. Card only."

That's right. Somebody at Good Health Natural Products had read my review and, taking pity of my wife, made sure she got to taste the chips.

Now, you have to understand: People don't send me free stuff, as a rule. That only happens if you say the name of the product on, like, The Tonight Show. If they sent freebies to everybody who blogged their name, they'd be out of business in about a week.

So why did someone at Good Health Natural Products notice my review and then -- with a lovely sense of humor -- send my wife the chips I had cheated her out of?

Because they're cool, of course.

But also because they're located in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was my wife who noticed this after she actually got her hands on the packages they sent. When you buy a packaged product in the grocery store, you don't usually think, "I wonder if this is made right here in town." It simply hadn't crossed my mind.

So to the folks at Good Health Natural Foods, I wasn't just another blogger. I was a columnist in the Rhinoceros Times -- the hometown paper!

Now we're looking forward to trying out their South of France soaps -- in bar and liquid form. After all, there is such a thing as hometown loyalty.

And I did not eat a single chip out of their specially marked Mrs.-Card-Only packages. Instead, I went to Earth Fare and bought a couple more packages for me.

By the way, when you're searching on their website for locations where you can buy their products, North Carolina is weirdly out of alphabetical order (it comes between Maine and Maryland). Delaware is misspelled, and Idaho and Iowa are on there twice. And these mistakes are duplicated in the list in the left-hand margin. And the U.S. map is not clickable. Bummer, huh?

Good Health Natural Foods

*

My thanks to Janis Ian, her noble crew, and all the good folks who came to her book signing at Barnes & Noble last Tuesday night. As she told stories we laughed again and again; but by the time she was through, there was hardly a dry eye in the audience.

Then she cheerfully signed all the tear-stained books and cds and the vinyl records people had saved from bygone years. I was happy to see, however, that not everybody there was old enough to remember when "Society's Child" and "At Seventeen" were monster hits -- she's doing some of the best work of her career right now, and I'm happy that there are young people discovering this as well.

I believe there may still be signed copies of her autobiography, Society's Child, at B&N, and I'm hoping to score some to offer on my website for people who aren't close enough to cities where she's performing to get them signed in person.

Meanwhile, she's still nearby. She's doing a concert at The Arts Center in Carrboro NC on Thursday, 23 October; she'll be performing in Greenville SC at The Handlebar Café the very next night, 24 October; and then she's signing at a Charlotte Barnes & Noble on Saturday, 25 October, and doing a concert at McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square on Sunday.

Check her website to get phone numbers for these venues. If you've never had a chance to see and hear her onstage, you've missed something wonderful. Her music is brilliant, but so is her storytelling. I've been telling her she needs to get off the road, find a smart backer, and put this one-woman show in an Off-Broadway house in New York.

*

A friend just sent me a webjoke I had seen before, but enjoyed greatly. It goes like this:

Children's Books That Didn't Make It

1. You Are Different and That's Bad

2. The Boy Who Died From Eating All His Vegetables

3. Dad's New Wife Scott

4. Fun Four-Letter Words to Know and Share

5. Hammers, Screwdrivers, and Scissors: An I-Can-Do-It Book

6. The Kids' Guide to Hitchhiking

7. Kathy Was So Bad Her Mom Stopped Loving Her

8. Curious George and the High-Voltage Fence

9. All Cats Go to Hell

10. The Little Sissy Who Snitched

11. Some Kittens Can Fly

12. That's It, I'm Putting You Up For Adoption

13. Grandpa Gets a Casket

14. The Magic World Inside the Abandoned Refrigerator

15. Garfield Gets Feline Leukemia

16. The Pop-Up Book of Human Anatomy

17. Strangers Have the Best Candy

18. Whining, Kicking, and Crying to Get Your Way

19. You Were An Accident

20. Things Rich Kids Have, But You Never Will

21. Pop! Goes the Hamster.and Other Great Microwave Games

22. The Man in the Moon is Actually Satan

23. Your Nightmares Are Real

24. Where Would You Like to Be Buried?

25. Eggs, Toilet Paper, and Your School

26. Why Can't Mr. Fork and Ms. Electrical Outlet Be Friends?

27. Places Where Mommy and Daddy Hide Neat Things

28. Daddy Drinks Because You Cry

This one has been around a few years, but I like it, and so I decided to try to look up the author.

What I found was that while there most certainly must have been an author somewhere, sometime, the list shows up in a lot of places and has been growing and changing.

The list my friend sent me was identical to the version that appears at a University of Pennsylvania site:

http://www.psych.upenn.edu/~mims/FUNNY/child_books.html

But at a British science fiction and fantasy website, the list was different:

http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/4907-childrens-books-that-didnt-make-it.html

In this list, the lead-off was "Dad's New Wife Robert." (Note that the American version used "Scott.") The order was mostly the same, but there were a few that had been moved to the front. It was obvious they had the same source, but I can't begin to guess which one is closer to the original.

I found other sites and the lists were different at almost all of them.

Look, things get posted all over the web and they get forwarded from person to person, but they get corrupted along the way. People "improve" what they receive, or transcribe inaccurately. Stuff happens.

If this can happen to a joke, it can happen to things that people are taking quite seriously. I have received many forwards tied to this election season, as I bet you have, too. Some of them are downright fraudulent. Some of them began as truth but have since been corrected or are now outdated.

For instance, there was a link I got to an article about lawsuits pending against Obama, demanding that he produce his birth certificate to show he was a natural-born American citizen. I dismissed this immediately as nonsense, because his mother was an American citizen, and I thought that no matter where he was born, he was eligible for the presidency.

But then the friend who sent me the first link sent me a newer one that explained why he might not have been. Apparently there was a law that applied during the era when Obama was born that said that if you were born outside the U.S., and your father was foreign, then your American-citizen mother had to have lived in the U.S. for at least ten years, five of which had to be after the age of 16.

I thought, "What a stupid law. That means that a child born to a foreign father and an American mother who had lived all her life in the U.S. except the day the child was born could not be a citizen unless Mom was 21 or over." And, with a comment to that effect, I passed the link along to a few people as an example of a really stupid law.

Only when my son emailed me the link to Snopes.com did I realize that the article was fundamentally flatulent. The Obama campaign had already provided the Honolulu birth certificate, so the whole question was moot; the lawsuit is a frivolous one that claims the certificate was a forgery.

I have learned the hard and embarrassing way to check everything that purports to be factual at Snopes.com.

In fact, the joke I researched was far more accurately transmitted than many of the supposedly factual stuff I get sent. And even though I try to remember to check everything, I get sucked in so often I'm thinking of putting masking tape over the "forward" command on my AOL software.

But I won't, because that would make it too hard to play Spider Solitaire.


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