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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 1, 2009

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


Games, Gifts, Snacks, Scaramouche, and The Scarlet Pimpernel

Games Magazine has designated as its game of the year for 2009 a little confection called Smallworld.

This is not a party game. You don't invite strangers over to play this and get better acquainted. That's what Apples to Apples is for.

Rather this is a game that requires the kind of serious attention you would give to Risk or Settlers of Cataan, and when you first open the box and start to separate the seemingly infinite supply of gamepieces, while one of your number reads aloud the instructions, it can seem daunting indeed.

It can seem at first that, like Risk, this is a conquer-the-world game, but it is not. Instead, you will command a succession of peoples in their efforts to conquer the world -- all of which are doomed.

Each race -- creatures as widely varied as ghouls, elves, giants, trolls, and humans -- has its period of ascendancy, but quickly fades. Your job is to decide when to put your current civilization into decline and introduce a new one. Your score accumulates from all the civilizations you led.

The species are randomly associated with certain powers, so that no two games are ever alike. Whatever virtues one race has -- for instance, the rats are merely numerous -- it takes on a very different role in the gameplay, depending on the extra power it is given this time around.

So once you get through the steep-but-quick learning curve, the game moves swiftly. You don't invest in any of your peoples the way you do with Risk, where you are committed to one color and your success in the game is tied to its success on the board. Rather you are above it all, which makes the game much more social.

That is, you can't see just by looking at the board who is winning. And since you don't emotionally invest in the success of any one species, the outcome remains in some doubt to the end.

So the players can enjoy each other's company, since no one is being visibly humiliated, and the game moves more quickly than you expect.

Just don't try to keep the stacks of cardboard game pieces inside the plastic organizer during the game. Unless you have very long fingernails, you'll be unable to retrieve the bottom piece without rather amusing efforts.

Is this a good game for Christmas giving? You have to know the recipient. Social games, like Apples to Apples or GiftTRAP, you can give to almost anyone who enjoys games at all. But Smallworld is for people who take the game a bit more seriously.

While some of these serious gamers might be disappointed at the lack of intensity, they will be delighted at the endless replayability.

Meanwhile, though, if you're looking for a game to give to more casual or social gamers -- or to families with a wide range of ages -- GiftTRAP should not be overlooked. The idea here is to select from a very large assortment of possible gifts the ones to give to the other people in the game -- while they try to guess what you will like.

Meanwhile, you also select your three favorite gifts -- the ones you hope to get -- and the one you loathe the most. Then you advance on two tracks. On one, you advance when you get the gifts you want (and not the ones you loathe); on the other, when you give others the gifts they hoped for.

Since everyone is choosing from the same array of gifts, inevitably they have to dump off problem gifts on somebody. And it can be hilariously frustrating to discover that everyone thinks you will enjoy something that you would absolutely hate -- or vice versa.

Some players, instead of listing their real preferences, try to guess what others will think they want. But they quickly discover that ignorance of other people is mutual.

Still, it's quite gratifying on those rare occasions when everyone gets you the gift you want -- you feel known.

*

When you think about it, isn't that one of the most important aspects of gift-giving? That's why gift certificates are usually (though not always) such a poor substitute for a gift.

A gift certificate often says: I know I want to give you a gift, but I can't be bothered to get to know you well enough to have a clue what you will want.

So you don't get the satisfaction of a gift that tells you that you are known. (Though the giver does avoid the risk of giving you a gift that proves that you are absolutely not known.)

There are exceptions, though. For instance, for a singer, a gift certificate for sheet music shows that you know what they like, but that you wouldn't presume to choose their songs for them.

Gift certificates are also perfectly acceptable from grandparents, who by law are forbidden to give you anything really cool -- because there's the grave risk of giving a better present than the child's own parents.

Grandparents will please the child's parents most by giving either cash (in smallish doses), a gift certificate to an acceptable store (first choice: Borders, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon), or pajamas.

The child will never think of the pajamas as his or her favorite gift. Yet if you make a custom of it (and find out the sizes!), the children will remember the tradition with a great deal of fondness. I speak from experience -- my grandparents did that for years when I was little, and I remember those pajamas now when I remember barely a handful of other gifts I got.

Of course, you wreck it all when you give the Spider Man pajamas to the kid who hates Spider Man. So yes, it's safest to go for the gift certificate.

Meanwhile, though, for good friends and people in your own family, even if they say they want gift certificates, they don't actually get a vote. Unless you have absolutely given up on serious gift-giving, what they're really saying is, "Your previous gifts have failed so miserably, and prove to me that you have no clue who I am or what I like, that I would rather not receive any more gifts from you."

It's really not hard to find out what gifts will please other people, if you care. What is their personal style? Their attitude?

Do they enjoy frivolous, whimsical, or humorous gifts -- cheap and easy to discard when the joke is over?

Do they want wearable gifts? This is dangerous territory, and not just because of the matter of size. You have to develop a feel for what they normally wear, not just for what you wish they would wear. (Hint: Guys who think lingerie is a great gift need to watch Working Girl again.)

If your intended recipient collects something -- model cars, mystery novels -- and you aren't an expert on both the subject and their collection, you'll just embarrass yourself.

Likewise, don't try to join in someone else's joke. For a while, my father and my wife made a joke of giving each other cows. Not real ones, of course. But it was funny, for reasons inexplicable. Until someone else, seeing a bit of the cow collection, thought they could join in the exchange. That killed it -- it was private and personal, and no one outside the joke could possibly join it.

Wow. Come to think of it, gift giving is hard.

But that's why, when you nail it, when you give a gift that makes the other person roar with delighted laughter -- or cry -- or run and kiss you -- it can become part of the glue that holds the friendship or the family connection together over the years.

*

Normally I find my less-guilty snack foods at Fresh Market or Earth Fare, but right in the potato chip section of Harris-Teeter I recently ran across -- and tried -- snacks called Smart Food.

These are made by Frito-Lay, but they contain none of the forbidden substances -- and they're delicious. They come in four flavors of popcorn clusters (though I saw only three in the store, and tried only two): Honey Multigrain, Chocolate Cookie Caramel Pecan, Cranberry Almond, and Peanut Butter Apple.

The two I've tried -- and recommend highly to people (like me) who wish to deceive themselves into thinking that if it doesn't have high fructose corn syrup, the weight they gain will be somehow healthier -- are the Honey Multigrain and Chocolate Cookie Caramel Pecan.

I haven't tried the Cranberry Almond because cooked or dried fruits generally nauseate me (it's a mouth-feel thing), but I have it on good authority that they are also very good.

Nobody in my family would think that apple and peanut butter make an edible combination of flavors, so it's just as well that they weren't even stocked on the shelf in the store.

The packages are small, and have only 120 calories per package.

I gave out quite a few of these at Halloween -- but I'm not stupid. I made the trick-or-treaters take one item from the "healthyish snack basket" and then take two or three from the basket of traditional, loathsome, disgusting, irresistible candies.

Speaking of which, I recently had a major breakthrough. When I was growing up, my mother delighted in Butterfinger bars. But to me, they were appalling. The whole idea of peanut butter was disgusting to me as a child (I never, ever had a pbj, because I despised every part of the sandwich except the bread). So the flavor of Butterfinger -- not to mention the weird orangy color inside -- was strange and unpleasant to me.

And it was crunchy. That was the clincher. In my world, there was no room for crunch in candy bars. (That's right -- I hated Nestle Crunch bars, too.)

Skip 53 years. One of the candy assortments I bought at Halloween included little snack size Butterfinger bars.

In the intervening years, I had come to like peanut butter. (I leave you to imagine the gustatory desperation that led me to cross that Rubicon.) I had also come to tolerate and almost enjoy the crunchy-inside-soft texture of Crunch bars.

So ... maybe, after all these years, I could find out what it was my mother liked about them.

Here's my report -- and I know the suspense is almost killing you. Butterfinger is ... edible. Even enjoyable. A little. But it crumbles all over my shirt and lap when I eat it in the car.

And when I thought about it, I concluded that since there are chocolate candies I like way more (Newman's Own Caramel Cups! Hershey's Kisses! Caramello! Snickers! M&Ms! Baby Ruth! Twix! Milky Way! Anything from Loco for Coco, See's, or Fannie May!), then on those occasions when I decide I can live with the guilt (and the poundage) of candy-eating, why in the world would I satisfy my craving with a marginal candy, when it's so easy to get items from the starting lineup?

Mom, the Butterfinger bars are all for you. But, unlike when I was five, if one happens to fall in my mouth, I won't spit it out.

*

I've been listening to a lot of recorded books on my Nano, ever since scoring a huge selection of cheap classics from Audible.com.

In my mind, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Scaramouche had occupied the same slot. They were both books I had never read, but had seen movie versions of, both of them involved concealed identities, and both took place during the French Revolution.

But when you read them, it's hard to imagine two books that are less alike. The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, at first glance seems the most promising, and not just because of the hint of vavasour blood in the author's name.

The premise is that "innocent" aristocrats, who are being hunted down by the Jacobins in revolutionary France, are rescued by an exceptionally clever Englishman who goes by the pseudonym of the "Scarlet Pimpernel."

(This is the device that was being parodied by the "purple pimpernel" in the Danny Kaye/Glynis Johns classic The Court Jester, which must be seen and quoted from by all persons wishing to be taken for cool. Get it? Got it! Good.)

I'm about to spoil the plot for you (though I don't know a living soul who has seen the movie or read the book without knowing this from the beginning): The heroic English rescuer of effete French aristocrats is himself an English aristo whose disguise is to appear to be a buffoonish, lazy fop that seems completely incapable of heroic action.

The story is told from the point of view of the French lady who meets him in France, falls in love with him, marries him, and then sees him transform before her eyes into the complete dolt of his disguise.

The reason for his transformation and the development of their relationship could be written in about three pages.

Everything in this book depends on the S.P. being genuinely clever. His dialogue should be clever. His rescues should be clever. His plots and plans should be clever.

But the actual book reveals nothing of the kind. We see only one "clever" rescue, at the beginning, and it wasn't all that clever, since it depended on the utter stupidity of the Revolutionary guards. And after that, the S.P.s plans and actions are so absolutely idiotic that you find yourself wanting to shout to the French soldiers, "Will you please open up your eyes and look?"

The book is mercifully slim, but even so, it manages to be packed with repetitive, gushy self-torment by the heroine -- the same emotions for the same reasons, over and over and over.

And the climactic confrontation between good guy and bad guys depends on such an array of completely unbelievable bushwa that you realize: Only people who are reading for the romance alone could possibly accept any of the ridiculous action in this book.

In fine: Repetitive, gushy, unclever writing combine with an unbelievable, contrived storyline to make an almost unreadable book.

With one exception: The premise is so delightful that we buy the whole thing.

The movies are all, without exception, better than the book because they were written by screenwriters who were far more clever than the book's author.

Having been grossly disappointed in The Scarlet Pimpernel (I finished listening to it only because the badness of it had become quite amusing), I had even lower expectations for Scaramouche, because I hadn't enjoyed the one movie version I saw of it anywhere near as much as the movies of The S.P.

Scaramouche is the opposite book. The dialogue is supremely clever. The characters are fascinating and they learn as their relationships change. While the hero, Andre-Louis Moreau, does conceal his identity for a while, and from certain people, it is hardly the central premise of the book.

In fact, the real disguise is the identity that others have hidden from him -- he is a child of Unknown Parentage, and when the revelation of his birth comes to light, it is full of irony (but not implausibility).

What makes this book so very good is:

1. The author, Rafael Sabatini, is simply a thousand times better than Baroness Orczy. (Sabatini also wrote the quintessential -- and surprisingly intelligent -- pirate novel, Captain Blood, which is essential reading for those of us who reject the literary canon of unreadable twaddle and believe fiction ought to be wonderfully entertaining.)

2. Sabatini lays out the arguments that mattered in the French Revolution, and charts the historical events so faithfully -- and interestingly -- that you emerge from the novel knowing rather a lot about the period between the storming of the Bastille and the takeover of the Jacobins.

3. The social groups are all faithfully depicted and fascinatingly different from each other, and while Moreau has his own attitudes toward each, Sabatini is actually quite fair with them all. That is, the old-guard aristos defend their social privileges for understandable reasons and have the attitudes that their upbringing and experience would lead them to have. While Moreau opposes them, Sabatini does not cheat them -- they have their say.

4. It's a much better love story than S.P., with relationships that are far more complex and with triangles far more interesting than are usual in romance writing. Indeed, I would rather say that this is an excellent historical novel with a romance in it than that this is a romance novel with history in it.

The danger, if you're a regular reader of historical romances, is that, having read Scaramouche, you will find that none of your former reading will satisfy any more.

But of course there's also the chance that the strong dose of ideas fairly early in the book will so put off some romance readers that they give up on the whole thing -- which would be a tragic mistake.

You have to understand the ideas to understand the novel, and Sabatini lays them out as interestingly and clearly and compellingly as is humanly possible, I believe.

Add to this the superb reading by Robert Whitfield, and I recommend the audio of Scaramouche highly.

This book is far more intelligent and entertaining than most of the still-praised-but-unreadable literary works from the same period (the 1920s) that occupy your time in English literature classes.

But this is no surprise, really -- you need no professor to interpret or decode this book. The author is talking directly to his reader, and more than eighty years after it was written, his work is completely accessible to anyone.

Now that's good writing!

*

Don't forget to come see our free production of the musical Barefoot to Zion at the LDS Church on Pinetop Rd., just across from Claxton Elementary. It starts at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. This is the play that was part of the Mormon Church's official celebration in 1997 of the entry of the pioneers into Salt Lake Valley 150 years before. I wrote the book and lyrics; my brother, Arlen L. Card, wrote the music. This is your chance to hear Brigham Young sing.


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