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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 3, 2009

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

Pleasure Reading

I just got through with a semester of torturing students by making them read books against their will. And I cheated -- the course was on "the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis," and so they quite naturally assumed that they would be doing a lot of pleasure reading.

Nyaa-ha-ha. I took it for granted that they had already read Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, and then I made them read acres of secondary literature and write papers and take tests and give presentations in class.

Here's the nice thing: Even when you have to do serious work in association with a great book, it's still a great book.

And by "great" I mean "stands the test of time." How much time? Let's put it this way: If nobody was assigning The Great Gatsby for literature classes, who would care? It was pop lit that had its day. Only because it became certified as "official literature" does it still endure. As for Ulysses, it is to laugh. These are books that have stood no test of time -- because they've never been tested. They've had the support of academia almost throughout their existence.

But Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, like the works of Austen, Dickens, Twain, and the Brontës before them, have been either ignored or attacked by academia through most of their existence. And even now, most university English departments tolerate courses in popular literature solely because those classes fill up, improving the English department's numbers at budget time.

The classes fill up because great books by great writers do pass the test of time: People keep reading them as volunteers, passing them from hand to hand, from generation to generation. They are loved, not merely admired. And whether the patrician rulers of literature approve or not, these books force their way into the canon, whereupon the literati devise ways to fit them in to whatever theory happens to be fashionable at the time, and then pretend they admired the books all along.

It's happening with Tolkien already -- more and more of the professoriat are pretending that they always appreciated the brilliance of Lord of the Rings. But most of them didn't. And still don't. Because even now, most of them either search for the roots of Tolkien's work -- "the influences" -- or psychoanalyze the readership.

Whereas with works they consider great, they are quite happy to appreciate the genius of the creator (or, as Tolkien would say, the subcreator) and talk about what he meant ("the themes") or how beautifully he wrote ("the style").

Ironically, while I find much of this game interesting and fun to play, it all comes down to this:

Storytellers tell stories, and readers either read them or not. Upon reading them, they either tell other people about them or not. Then these readers might remember the book and keep telling people, including their children, eagerly thrusting the book into people's hands, or they might simply let it drift into that vast library of the forgotten.

And nobody knows which books will stay alive and which will not.

When I was a kid, the Christian fiction of Lloyd Douglas and, later, Taylor Caldwell absolutely ruled the bestseller lists the way Grisham and Patterson and Sparks do today. Who would have guessed that the widespread general audience for Christian fiction would simply evaporate?

(Don't send emails disputing this point with me -- the few Christian-genre hits since then have sold almost exclusively within their niche or have been thinly disguised anti-Christian literature.)

And even the most dedicated hard-core scholars of literature are hard-pressed to keep some of their treasured "classics" giving the illusion of life. Ulysses exists exclusively inside the iron lung of academia; so do many other works that once were assumed to have a life of their own.

Meanwhile, our culture -- which consists of and is ruled by, not the academics, but the masses they generally despise and abuse -- goes on selecting through raw evolutionary principles which literature will live and which will molder in the used-book stores and books-by-the-yard until they finally expire in fire, fungus, rats' nests, and paper pulping plants.

I'm a reviewer. My job isn't to decide or predict which books will last forever -- I have my favorites and I push them as much as I can, but in the end I only have one vote.

My job is merely to tell you which books I think are worth reading now ... and let "the ages" decide which books are timeless.

So here's a bit of literary cannibalism ... or is it reincarnation? ... that you might enjoy as much as I did: Spade and Archer: The Prequel to Dashiell Hammett's the Maltese Falcon.

Now, prequels and sequels written after the author's death are usually wretched -- take, for instance, the shudderingly awful sequels to Gone with the Wind and Pride and Prejudice that have sucked money out of the pockets of the gullible and undiscerning in recent years.

But author Joe Gores has done something quite remarkable with Spade and Archer -- he has created a literary pastiche that is, in my view at least, every bit as good as the original.

Authenticity? I care about it no more with this sort of literary enterprise than I do with ethnic food. What do I care of P.F. Chang sells "real" Chinese food or Chipotle Grill's Mexican food is "really" Mexican? It's simply good. Or, more precisely, it is to my taste.

So if you're one of the world's leading authorities on Dashiell Hammett, you are free to declare me an idiot. But if you're somebody who likes a good hard-boiled novel with a strongly written detective and intriguing, exciting, clever mysteries, then I think you'll like Spade and Archer, whether you read it yourself or have it read to you in the excellent audio version.

The story starts not long after World War I, when Sam Spade quits the detective agency that took him back after his soldiering days were over. He sets up a solo operation and soon finds himself solving cases and offending important people.

The San Francisco setting is wonderfully realized -- Gores's research into the period is superb. It's a world with fewer cars and planes and a lot more use of trolleys, taxis, ferries, ships, and ... feet. There are no fast-food chains yet, and finishing high school is not yet the goal of most young men, while college is out of reach for most.

Moving through this world which, for me, is only thirty years before my childhood in the San Francisco Bay area (I know most of the towns mentioned in the book) made me feel as if I lived in a more personal time. Even the violence was more personal, usually involving knives and fists rather than guns.

The book contains many cases, not just one; but one villain in particular keeps popping up under one name or another. None of the bad guys are serial killers -- they all have recognizable motives which can be figured out.

Along the way, we get the wisecracking, compassionate, tough, cynical-yet-hopeful Sam Spade.

If you're starting to pick out the books for your week at the beach, put this one on the list. Maybe it should be first on the stack; or maybe you should get the audio (CD or downloaded from Audible.com) and listen to it in the car on the way to and from the beach.


If you follow Spade and Archer by reading Jonathan Kellerman's True Detectives, you'll see just how far the detective novel has come. It's not necessarily better, and you can see the hard-boiled detective foundation in Kellerman's work, but the mystery genre has built well on Hammett's foundation.

Kellerman's fans might be worried about the fact that it's not an "Alex Delaware novel." Well, don't worry -- it takes place in the same universe and the heroes even consult with Delaware -- though he does not solve their case for them.

We've even met these detectives before in Kellerman's work. Aaron Fox and Moe Reed are brothers, though one is white and the other is black. Also, one is a private investigator with a flashy car, while the other is a stolid cop with a badge and a bad diet. Of course they distrust and resent each other -- and also help and look out for each other.

Their relationship is almost as interesting as the mystery they solve -- and that's saying something, because this is a fascinating story. One of them is tracking down a missing girl; the other is trying to solve a murder mystery; but very quickly they find their cases hopelessly intertwined around the mysterious figure of a washed-up drug-ridden actor, his "helpers," and a religious wacko who has way more money than brains or faith.

There are moments in the book that are quite moving, and I found myself liking both characters and hoping to see more of them. And that's saying a lot, because at first it looked like stunt casting -- white cop, black p.i., and they're brothers! Kellerman, though, is not content with stunts. All his characters become real enough to matter.


So much for American mysteries. Because there's a new entrant on the British mystery scene. Alan Bradley has been working the fringes of the mystery genre for some time, but The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is considered to be his debut novel -- and was given an award by the Crime Writers' Association in that category.

Because the "detective" is an eleven-year-old girl, the novel might be assumed to be for "young adult" readers. In that case the rule would be: Eleven-year-old hero, nine-year-old readers.

And I think there might be some precocious nine- or eleven-year-old readers who would love this book. But it's not a kids' book.

However, the 1950 setting keeps the content clean enough that it really can be taken as a family novel, which is appropriate, because it takes place within a fascinating and quite likeable family, the de Luces of Buckshaw, a fading manor.

Since the death of his wife, the father has been distant, devoting himself to his stamp collection. The oldest daughter is an excellent pianist; the second is devoted to reading and writing. It's the youngest, Flavia, who tells the story, and her passion is chemistry -- most particularly the chemistry of poison.

In fact, during the book she creates a nice little poison of her own, not a lethal one, but with a definite motive of vengeance. The family relationships are complicated by an unwillingness to show affection and a habit of playing vicious pranks. Over everything hovers the shadow of the dead mother.

Meanwhile, Flavia is limited to the venues she can reach on her bicycle (named Gladys) or on foot. But that's quite enough range for her to get herself into a mess ... and back out again. The stories she uncovers from her father's own school days are revelatory to her and fascinating to the modern reader.

Bradley creates a few characters of Dickensian extravagance, but mostly he keeps them within the bounds of common folk. I enjoyed this book so much that when I started out to read a chapter or so before sleep, I finished the whole thing at three in the morning. And no, I didn't skim. I enjoyed every word of it, in order. It takes quite a good book to force me to do that late at night!


Here's another entrant on your summer reading stack -- if you're a fan of chick lit with delusions of literary grandeur. And I am -- when the writer is able to bring it off, as Jane Hamilton is.

Laura Rider's Masterpiece is a nasty, funny, dirty bit of business. The title character, Laura Rider, is going to write a novel. She has never written anything, but she is getting ready and believes she can bring it off. She even has literary theories about her planned romance novel and is quite willing to talk about her masterpiece as if it already existed.

She and her husband have a tiring relationship, but not a dead one. Until, that is, he has an affair with a national radio celebrity who has moved to their small Minnesota town because it's halfway between her radio job and her husband's medical one.

The celebrity, Jenna Faroli, is Laura Rider's idol, and -- oddly enough -- the knowledge that her husband is boffing Faroli does not change that. Rider resents it, yes, but she is able to compartmentalize things quite nicely.

Or so it seems, until, at a key moment, she accidentally pastes a disgustingly intimate passage from one of Faroli's love-emails to Rider's husband into a newsletter that goes out to several hundred people.

What makes this book so delicious to me, despite its occasional filthiness (or partly because of it, I must confess) is that Hamilton, a literary writer, actually shows a perverse kind of respect for Laura Rider and does more than a few numbers on pretentious literary persons.

In fact, even though by the end of the book Rider has still not written her masterpiece, I found myself believing in it -- not in the sneering way Faroli does, in her savaging of the would-by author on her radio show, but in a rather hopeful way. Rider is such a fascinating character herself, and her ideas about literature are perversely interesting enough, that I rather wish she were real and would produce the book so I could read it. Whether I ended up mocking it or enjoying it, it would still be a pleasure!

This is definitely a woman's book. But as I tell my male friends and students (over and over; I'm such a bore), any man who doesn't go to chick flicks or read chick lit is a deliberate bonehead. How do you think you'll ever understand anything about women if you refuse to experience the literature they enjoy, which shapes and reflects their perceptions, interests, and concerns?


I have more books on my review pile, and before summer you'll no doubt hear about all of them. But before I close this column, let me call your attention to an artist who is creating some wonderful surreal art.

Rob Gonsalves's work is heavily influenced by Escher, but Gonsalves takes pains to make the art itself quite pleasing in a photo-realistic way. It has an Escherian sense of humor, though.

If you want to see what I'm talking about, go to http://o.pticalillusions.com/rob-gonsalves/. The website has plenty of other op-art clips on offer.

Or you might look at Gonsalves's work in several children's picture books: Imagine a Day, Imagine a Night, and Imagine a Place, all with his collaborator, Sarah L. Thomson. While you might wonder if Gonsalves is trying to drive child-readers insane, I can assure you that children are not bothered, merely delighted by the way Gonsalves manipulates reality.

Still, I don't think of these as "optical illusions." They are, in my view, public art in the best sense -- completely acceptable to a general audience that will delight in them, while also having a thickness and meaning to them that reward further contemplation.

And if you want to go even further into surreal art with optical jests and image-plays, you want the book Masters of Deception: Escher, Dali & the Artists of Optical Illusion. It's cheap for a full-color art book -- less than twenty bucks for the paperback. And I bet you'll enjoy it -- and enjoy sharing it with others -- far more than most art books you could lay your hands on!


I'm an Adam Lambert fan -- but I'm also a fan of Danny Gokey, Kris Allen, and Allison Iraheta. In fact, given that winning American Idol isn't a requirement for launching a career from the show, as far as I'm concerned the final five (yep, include Matt Giraud in this, and maybe even Anoop!) are all winners and I actually don't care now about the outcome. Any of them would be a plausible winner; I intend to buy whatever any of them records.

But having said that, I have to steer you to a YouTube recording that the friend who linked me to it called the "Best. Thing. Ever." It's Adam Lambert, recorded at age 22, singing "Come to Me, Bend to Me" in an outdoor performance of Brigadoon.

He already had his magnificently controlled falsetto, and since we've spent the past several weeks seeing his raunchy, sleazy side (as Kara called it!), it's good to know that he is capable of brilliant sweetness.

If you don't know the show Brigadoon, it's set in Scotland, which explains the brogue. I want this as an MP3 so I can listen to it over and over. Of course, I love Broadway in general and Brigadoon in particular -- I've directed the show twice and have performed that particular song myself many times. So I have strong opinions about how it should be done. Suffice it to say that my friend was right: This is the best performance of it ever.


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