Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 4, 2009
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
PC History, Ambiguous Fiction, Best Books of 2008
Just in case you had any doubt about the ignorance of "educated" Americans,
I'd like to quote a line to you from a review in the Publishers Weekly of 8
PW is the news-and-reviews magazine of the publishing and bookselling trade
-- reviews in PW are quite influential in the helping booksellers decide which
books to order and stock in their stores.
So I'm reading a review of the historical mystery The Bellini Card by Jason
Goodwin, and the reviewer refers to "a portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror (who
reclaimed Constantinople from the Christians in 1453), painted by the
legendary artist Gentile Bellini."
What matters here is the parenthetical phrase, in which the reviewer actually
makes the appalling claim that the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453
somehow represented a reclaiming -- which implies that Constantinople had
once been Muslim, and was being retrieved from Christian rule.
Here are the facts -- which once were known to every college graduate, if not to
every schoolchild: Constantinople was never Muslim until the Turks flat-out
conquered it in a naked act of aggression in 1453.
The city was founded by Constantine near the ancient Greek (and therefore
pagan) town of Byzantium, and was immediately, due to Constantine's
conversion to Christianity, a Christian city and capital of the Eastern Roman
When the Muslim Arabs burst forth a-conquering in the 600s A.D., the Eastern
(Byzantine) Roman Empire had been Christian for centuries. While there were
differences between Christian sects, and Persia occasionally conquered a
sizeable chunk of Byzantine territory, most of the first wave of Muslim
conquests were clawed out of territory whose people were Christian.
Constantinople represented the bulwark of Christianity against these Muslim
conquerors. Until the Turks conquered Asia Minor many centuries later, the
Byzantines held on to a large Christian territory in what is now Turkey.
One can make a rational case for the idea that the Christian Crusaders were
"reclaiming" Christian territory when they invaded the Holy Land during the
Middle Ages. But there is no basis at all for the idea that the Muslim Turks
were "reclaiming" Constantinople from the Christians!
I hope that Goodwin's novel contains no such stupidity; but the fact that the
reviewer made the statement, and his or her editors allowed it to be published,
speaks volumes about "general knowledge" in the American literary
It is simply assumed by "educated" people today that in any historical conflict
between Christians and Muslims, only the Muslims have a legitimate claim.
It is forgotten that Islam spread throughout western Asia and northern Africa
(not to mention Spain and the Balkans) by no method other than conquest.
In fact, only Indonesia was peacefully converted to Islam a thousand years after
Mohammed. Until that time, all lands that are Muslim today were taken by
force from their unwilling rulers and people.
But in our present day, political correctness trumps historical fact.
That's because learning historical facts takes a bit of effort, while the list of
politically correct assumptions can be learned by rote and repeated, parrotlike,
whenever one wishes to appear "educated."
People used to complain about how hard it was to learn all those dates in
history. (They also complained about the times tables, but if you don't learn
them -- by rote -- you are forever mathematically crippled.)
Dates are the skeleton on which we hang all sense of history. If you don't know
rudimentary dates like 1066, 1453, and 1492, not to mention more modern
dates like 1776, 1789, 1861-1865, 1914-1919, and 1939-1945, then how can
you organize your conception of history?
In all the complaints about American education, I rarely hear from people who
think, as I do, that the single most important flaw in our system is that we do
not teach history.
Most particularly, we do not teach our history -- that is, the history that led to
us, as Americans, as westerners, as heirs of humanist philosophy, Christian
doctrine, Greek philosophy. We do not attempt to pass along our own culture;
instead, our academics seem bent on treating our own tradition as the villains
Yet it is that very tradition, and no other, that created the idea of political and
religious freedom in which absurdities like political correctness are able to
thrive. Today our academic establishment functions like worms devouring our
civilization from the inside.
And the result is college graduates who have the idiotic idea that Islam was
somehow entitled to take Constantinople -- or anything else -- from
Since I complain when local stores stop carrying items I like, I should certainly
mention when they relent and restore my favorite items to the shelves.
Recently, Harris-Teeter brought back Tropicana Valencia orange juice to the
shelves of the Pisgah Church store, and I am happy.
Also, when I thought Fresh Market had stopped carrying Lesser Evil treats, as
well as and Grown-Up Sodas, I mourned (though not in print). Apparently my
mourning was heard, and they are both back on the shelves.
You know how much I like good audiobooks. The hard thing is that both the
book and the performance of the reader must be good for the whole thing to be
successful. Well-read junk is still junk, while a good book badly read can be
I'm happy to report that Rosalyn Landor's reading of P.D. James's most
recent novel, The Private Patient, is nothing short of brilliant. She brings off
very precise English regional accents in all their glorious differences, but never
do you get a sense that she is playing the accent. Rather, the accents are
instinctual, and she is playing the characters.
P.D. James is also a wonderfully talented writer, with a quirky idea of
organization. Most mystery novels focus only on the sleuth as he, she, or they
uncover the story behind a murder. Other characters matter -- indeed,
mystery novels are about discovering the motivations of characters -- but we
aren't inside their point of view.
James, on the other hand, gives us acres of material inside the heads of the
victims and other characters, and handles them all with exquisite clarity and
irony. We get to see the sleuths make assumptions about other characters
whose motives we have already seen from the inside; sometimes the sleuths are
right and sometimes they're wrong.
But that also creates a problem. Normally, when the sleuth figures out the
murder, we have watched his thought process and we believe, at the end, that
he is right. If there are any doubts, they are the sleuth's doubts, and we accept
But because James has shown us that the sleuths sometimes get things
wrong, we can't be sure which of their assumptions can be relied upon, and
She also cheats. She shows us what a particular character thinks about
things -- her motives, her memories -- but fails to mention huge thoughts,
plans, actions, and memories of that character, which only come to light when
the sleuth discovers them.
When an author is doing this things -- having the main characters sometimes
guess wrong, while withholding from us key information known to characters
whose minds we have been inside of -- then it is far more difficult for the
reader to sort out what actually happened.
So it was simply infuriating when James tells us, in the final chapter, that
Inspector Adam Dalgliesh has finally figured things out, but declines to tell us
what conclusions he actually reached.
Yes, of course we can assume that he reached this or that conclusion, based on
our own assumptions -- but we have already been tricked and can't rely on our
It may be very arty and all that to leave us with ambiguity, but this is the
mystery genre, not the academic-literary genre, and so we enter the story with
the assumption that we will be told, if not what happened, then at least what
the sleuth thinks happened at the end of the book.
But in that last chapter, we are told neither the issues about which Dalgliesh
still has doubts and questions, nor the conclusions that he reaches after his
final interview. Yes, that chapter is full of delicious revelations -- but we are
not shown Dalgliesh's thought processes about what this new information
means to him, and how things all fit together.
I have no doubt that James thinks she has given us all the information, and
perhaps she has. What she has not given us is reliability -- we cannot be sure
that the conclusions we reached are "true."
She might well reply, in best ac-lit-fic snobbery, that such ambiguity is like
Well, to all who give such snobby answers (whether or not Ms. James is one of
them), I will point out the obvious: To experience real life, we do not require
fiction. We are only required to be awake.
We read fiction to find out things we cannot find out in real life -- to erase, if
you will, ambiguity. In fiction, events and characters are selected and revealed
by an author -- who has, therefore, "authority." Fiction is about precisely the
definiteness that eludes us in real life.
Yet where James does tell us what's going on, she's very, very good. The
characters in The Private Patient are so exquisitely drawn -- both the ones
whose thoughts we experience and those we meet only from the outside, as the
detectives interview them -- that I found myself caring about all of them.
The story is about a journalist who has spent most of her life with a disfiguring
facial scar that she does not explain to anyone. Now she has decided to have
the plastic surgery that will make it far less noticeable, explaining to the
surgeon that "I have no more need of it."
The operation is performed at a beautiful and historic old mansion that the
doctor has purchased from the noble family that once owned it -- and whose
last descendant he hires to manage the house. He has turned the west wing
into a surgery and recovery rooms and does half his surgical work there. So
when a recovering patient is murdered in her room, the house is ruined as a
place where rich plastic surgery patients will come.
So who was the target of the murder? The victim, or the doctor? Or was it a
truly random act, perhaps by the employee who, unbeknownst to the staff,
committed a brutal murder while a juvenile, so the records are sealed?
James is a master at creating characters whose motives are complex and who
are able to repaint their own memories in such a way as to make it possible to
live with them. It's not my fault; he deserved it; it was just a mistake -- the
rationalizations that allow people to live with themselves after the most horrible
So ... I heartily recommend the experience of hearing Landor read The Private
Patient. I just warn you that at the end, you will not be satisfied that you
actually know the story. I don't regret reading the book; the disappointment at
reaching the destination does not diminish the pleasure and value of the
Just like last year, when I never had the time to write a long, thoughtful review
of the book I considered to be the best of the year -- Legacy of Ashes, a
powerful history of the CIA -- I find myself unable to devote the time for a
proper review to the three best nonfiction books I read last year.
But I will at least mention them, along with a thumbnail review, in case you
want something excellent to read.
William Stolzenburg, Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and
Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators.
When the subtitle talks about "ecological wreckage," one's eyes can easily glaze
over, because it sounds as if it's a book full of humans-are-wrecking-everything
Instead, this is a book about serious science, as researchers gradually
discovered the important roles that top predators can play in maintaining a
healthy, well-balanced ecological system.
For instance, the coastal waters of several north Pacific shores had little sea life
-- mostly a few huge sea urchins that consumed anything else that might
Then sea otters were reintroduced to these shores. Sea otters love to eat sea
urchins. And with the sea urchin population falling, plant life began to thrive
again. When the seaweeds and other plants returned, fish also came back to
the newly-lush jungle.
Sea otters, in other words, made a rich ecology possible because they, as top
predators, kept down the voracious sea urchins.
Or take Yellowstone. For generations there has been almost no new growth
among the key species of trees. Why? Because the elks eat the new saplings
right down to the ground. With their favorite foods gone, there were too many
elk -- and they were starving.
Hunters were fine with that -- the more elk there are, the more licenses to
hunt them that get issued.
But then wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, and the surprising result
was that wolves killed far fewer elk than human hunters -- but changed elk
behavior in such a way that new trees were able to grow.
Why? Because wolves hunt by chasing their prey until their hearts or lungs
give out and they stand there, exhausted, to be hauled down and torn apart.
Elks quickly learned to avoid streambeds, because it was precisely as they
slowed to climb the far bank that the wolves invariably caught up with them.
Elks on riverbanks were in greater danger than anywhere else; they learned not
to linger there.
And since riverbanks are where most trees grow in the American west, the elks'
avoidance of those areas allowed huge numbers of new shoots to grow until
they had a chance of thriving as actual trees. And the small animals that
thrive in that environment now had new habitat. Again, a whole ecology was
So wolves, in effect, promote forest growth!
Meanwhile, human hunters never had any such effect. What can the elks learn
from the annual elk hunt? To avoid public lands in October and private lands
This book is full of real scientific experiments and investigations, with constant
testing. The forces leading to bad science are exposed; so are problems caused
by the behavior of humans. But it's not a humans-as-villains story, it's a
scientists-as-discoverers story, and what they discover is the nature of systems
Carlo D'este, Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945
What people are rarely told about Churchill is that when he was a young man,
he was a genuine war hero. In that era, it was possible (though not always
approved of) to be both an officer and a paid war correspondent, and it was
wearing both hats that Churchill pursued heroism.
One might be cynical and say that Churchill wanted to be a war hero in order
to promote his chances of having a successful political career -- and, in fact,
young Winston said as much, more than once.
But here's the rub: Even if your motive is personal career advancement, you
still have to face the bullets. Churchill showed himself to have a flair for
command under fire. More than once, without the slightest official authority,
he took command of a confusing situation and saved lives of many soldiers.
He also made crackbrained decisions at times that left other people shaking
Meanwhile, he was writing brilliant, thoughtful journalism (a kind that hardly
anybody writes today) in which he critiqued commanding officers. (Then he
couldn't figure out why they didn't want him to be assigned to their forces.)
There are gaps and holes once Churchill comes to political power many years
later. It's fine that we don't get the political maneuvering that led to his
becoming prime minister -- that is well documented in other books -- but it's a
flaw in this book that the whole Norway operation, which was Churchill's from
beginning to end, is glossed over very quickly.
And there are no details at all about the Dardanelles and Gallipoli, a disastrous
campaign whose failure was blamed almost entirely on Churchill, though it is
arguable that his plan was not the problem.
In other words, when his early years are done with, the value of this book
drops off quite drastically. It's still quite enjoyable, but the author's propensity
for judging his subject harshly, and for reasons that sound more like prejudice
or spite than rational consideration, comes out more -- and more annoyingly --
the farther we get into the book.
But the material on the early years is so valuable for understanding Churchill
as a man, and Churchill himself is such a powerful, decisive, world-changing
figure, that I regard this book, or at least its early chapters, as required
Paul R. McHugh, Try to Remember: Psychiatry's Clash over Meaning,
Memory, and Mind
Author McHugh is a psychologist himself. And not just an ordinary
practitioner -- he's one of the great pioneers of "biological psychology," the
movement that finally turned psychology from a quasi-religion into a reliable
But the roots of religion-like psychology still remain, complete with maniacal
fads and witch hunts, and it has been McHugh's duty to take time away from
his science in order to keep fakers from using "science" as a means of
feathering their own nests while devastating the lives of innocent people.
In other words, he takes on utter nonsense like "recovered memories" of things
that never happened -- like "memories" of satanic sacrifices, or of child abuse
that exhibited no symptoms at the time and only showed up under the
ministrations of a hypnotist.
McHugh didn't just assume, he examined and tested and found a consistent
pattern. There is no likelihood of memories of childhood trauma being
repressed to the point of having been forgotten. On the contrary, traumas are
usually strongly and clearly present in memory.
What the hypnotherapist does is not recovery but creation: During the high
suggestibility of hypnosis, leading questions put thoughts into the victim's
mind, and over time they begin to have clearer and clearer images -- which the
therapist tells them are memories of real events.
Time after time, when the victim stops seeing the quack, her (usually her) life
quickly improves, and eventually she realizes that the memories were not real.
Meanwhile, however, families have been torn apart and men (usually men) have
gone to jail based on "repressed memories" of crimes they never committed.
This is science at its worst; indeed, it is obvious that until biological psychology
began, psychology simply was not a science. There was much data gathering,
but everything was interpreted through the lens of ex-cathedra
pronouncements by guys like Freud, Jung, Maslow, and others who simply
made things up and then persuaded disciples to follow them.
McHugh, by contrast, is a scientist, refusing to allow his preconceptions to
shape his findings. The result of work by him and others in biological
psychology is that there are finally therapies -- usually involving medication
rather than chat -- which help the mentally ill return to useful and happy
So this book is not only a record of the continuing struggle to rid our society of
the plague of witch-hunts in the name of psychology, but also a chronicle of
how good science is done.
Every citizen should either read this book or know the ideas contained in it, if
for no other reason than that one might be called to serve on a jury, where
"scientific experts" might claim knowledge that they do not have. The point is
not to doubt all experts, but rather to recognize the limitations of science and
the markers pointing to fake science.
Science is never to be taken on authority, but rather on evidence. And this
book will show you what that looks like.