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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 17, 2010

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


Parker, Segal, Nuts, Victoria, Fellowes

Age 77 is way too young for a writer to die, but Robert B. Parker did it anyway. The creator of the Spenser novels, Parker had, in recent years, expanded his world to include two other sleuths, Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone -- all three of whom occasionally met each other in the vicinity of Boston.

Parker had also published some books unconnected with the Boston novels, but the Spenser franchise was the heart of his oeuvre.

Reading his work over the years, I have watched with fascination as he grew as a writer. He started extremely well, bringing a real life, a through story to his sleuth. Instead of Spenser being an unchanging figure who was merely inserted into each new mystery -- like Hercule Poirot -- Parker made Spenser a man whose life was changed by his experiences.

Parker may not have been the first to establish such a through story for his hero, but certainly there are far more writers doing this now than there were when he started out. Personally, I think Parker's influence is primarily responsible for this.

According to Parker's agent, Helen Brann, Parker was one of those disciplined writers -- five pages a day, except Sundays, some holidays, and a few vacations with his wife. Those of us with less discipline look at writers like him with envy. Imagine knowing when your day's work is done!

What was most remarkable about Parker is that there was no diminution of the quality of his work as he got older. In fact, while is prose got more spare, his scenes more sharply honed, his stories got deeper and richer, his world wider. Of few writers can it truly be said that he was still getting better when he died.

His next novel, Split Image, is coming out on schedule in late February, and his publisher has several other books in various stages of the editorial process. So we won't be without new Parker novels for a year or so to come.

But then the well goes dry. That is when I'll go back and read all the Spenser books -- yes, even the only one that wasn't wonderful, A Catskill Eagle -- from the beginning. Thirty-eight of them to date. Nine Jesse Stones, six Sunny Randalls, and twelve other fiction books.

When writers die, and their last new book is released, they generally slide into oblivion. Without new books to boost the backlist, it becomes unprofitable to keep reprinting their work.

Only a relative handful of writers turn out to have deathproof careers. But I think Parker's novels will stay alive. Because not only did he reinvent his genre, he remained one of the best practitioners to the day he died.

January 19th was a tough day on writers -- not only did Parker die, but that was the day we learned of the death of Erich Segal, author of Love Story. He was even younger -- 72. (He actually died on Sunday the 17th.)

Segal didn't mean that much to me as a reader -- I have never read Love Story, and I never saw the movie. But certainly that one novel penetrated the culture in a way few books do.

His most famous quote -- "love means never having to say you're sorry" -- is complete claptrap. Anybody who believes that is not likely to stay married very long! But the public hunger for sentimental nonsense is insatiable. (In the novel, the actual line is: "Love means not ever having to say you're sorry"; the movie improved it.)

And besides, there is a true variant of it, in our family, at least. To us, the saying is: "Love means never having to say 'I'm sorry I [broke wind].'" Without that rule, there is no way couples could ever share a bedroom, unless they both always fell asleep and woke up at exactly the same time.

Segal was a writer, but not just a fiction writer. He also contributed to the screenplay for Yellow Submarine, wrote the book and lyrics for a musical about Helen of Troy, and he was renowned as a classics professor at Harvard and then at Oxford.

Love Story was a novel that began as a screenplay, but when Hollywood turned it down -- perhaps because they lacked the vision to see that a collection of romantic and sentimental cliches could capture the hearts of an audience -- he rewrote it as a novel.

Nothing convinces Hollywood so well as a billion-selling book, and conveniently there was already a screenplay waiting for them to buy and shoot.

Still, the lesson has been learned by many a screenwriter in years since then. It is to the great advantage of a screenwriter to adapt his own story into a novel and publish it before Hollywood gets its hands on the screenplay -- if the book is a big enough hit, it forces the studio suits to treat it carefully.

*

For those who love nuts -- mixed nuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios, even peanuts -- it will be good news that Planters (another friendly food company owned by Kraft), the nutmaker of our childhood, has come out with what I believe to be the best-tasting, best-prepared nut collection ever.

I speak of Planters 100% Natural Harvest. All the varieties are roasted in sea salt, with "no added oils" and no additives.

You can find them in single-nut varieties -- Almond and Cashew; in a mixed-nut package -- Pistachio Grove Blend (containing pistachios, peanuts, almonds, and cashews); and in nut and fruit blends -- Harvest Almond Orchard and Harvest Dark Chocolate Forest.

Since I dislike cooked or dried fruit, and I'm trying to cut down on my chocolate intake, I've tried only the Pistachio Grove blend and the Cashews -- but they were enough to convince me. Next time you're going to pick up some nuts for snacking or a party, skip the can and go for the package -- these are simply outstanding, and since they have the clout of Kraft behind them, you can find them in regular grocery stores.

*

I know we've been touting Gnam Gnam Gelato, but they have earned our enthusiasm. They just started offering sandwiches, and my wife and I stopped by the other night and had our supper there. Admittedly, it was the dessert we cared most about -- but the sandwiches changed our mind about that! On crispy toasted panini bread, the combinations they offer are delicious -- we both simultaneously love our own choices and envied the other's!

So you don't have to think of Gnam Gnam as a dessert-only eating place. Though let's not forget that it is still a great place for a perfect snack. Why anyone would ever shop at Fresh Market without stopping by Gnam Gnam for a little treat is beyond me.

*

Quick -- see The Young Victoria while it's still in theaters! This film deals with the few years when Victoria transitioned from niece of the king to queen, whence she would become the longest-reigning monarch in English history (so far).

It's a love story -- the chick-flick quotient is very high -- with Rupert Friend playing an absolutely winning Prince Albert. But it's also a political story, as Lord Melbourne (played to perfection by Paul Bettany) exploits her liberal beliefs and her resentment of the people who had virtually imprisoned her during her childhood and adolescence.

Never has a film so clearly demonstrated how young monarchs are manipulated, even after they think they have escaped manipulation. Ironically, Victoria herself, determined to be free, is most stubborn and rejecting toward the one person in her life who really is acting entirely in her interest, and has no ambitions beyond making her life better and easier -- Prince Albert.

Mark Strong gives a powerful performance as John Conroy, the would-be Svengali who tries to bully her into establishing a regency that will keep her from any kind of power for many years after she turns 18.

But it is Emily Blunt as Victoria who, with almost no pyrotechnics or flamboyance, absolutely rules this movie. It is devilishly hard to own a film with such a strong supporting cast, even when the script gives it to you, unless you chew the scenery a little.

Blunt never does that. She remains real; she shows us girl, woman, and queen all at once, without ever losing her -- or her character's -- dignity.

It is probably her role in The Wolfman, a film I firmly intend never to see as long as I live, where most people will notice her; but maybe not. Maybe it's as "Princess of Lilliputia" in the upcoming Gulliver's Travels that she'll move from indie princess to box-office queen.

But it is in The Young Victoria that she has had her first chance to carry a movie in the title role -- and she proves herself up to the challenge in every way.

For me, though, the real star of this enterprise is the screenwriter, Julian Fellowes. The writer of Robert Altman's unforgettable Gosford Park, Fellowes is also proving to be one of the few writers who actually understands and can write effectively about the true Upper Class.

We're not talking about money, here, though there must be money. This is not the territory of Austen or Thackeray or Trollope, though they wrote about the class of gentlemen. Where they focused on the lower fringes of that class -- the untitled, who are dependent on the favor and generosity of relatives for their subsistence -- Fellowes goes much higher, to the rich and titled themselves, and those who struggle to live in their shadow.

So he was uniquely suited to understand, not just the politics, but the social maneuverings of a new queen shoved into the midst of a political storm. And his script is so clear that even those who know nothing about that period of British politics will have no trouble following the issues at stake and the players in the game.

It is with pleasure, then, that I tell you of Fellowes's latest novel, Past Imperfect. His earlier novel, Snobs, which I previously reviewed, was merely the first step in what I hope will be a productive fiction-writing career -- though, come to think of it, I am perfectly happy to see him continue writing screenplays as well.

Fellowes was tapped to write the script for the film version of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, an overwhelmingly difficult book to adapt, but if there is any writer up to the task, it is Fellowes. Like Gosford Park and The Young Victoria, Strange & Norrell would be incomprehensible on screen without Fellowes's sure hand with the mores of the gentlemanly class in the 19th century.

Past Imperfect, however, is of the present and the recent past. The narrator of the book, an English novelist of middling success, who gets an unexpected letter from a former friend, Damian Baxter. The "former" is an understatement -- they parted in rage and have not seen each other since 1972.

Since then, Damian has become fabulously rich, and what he wants from the narrator is his help. It seems Damian is dying, and has evidence that he might be the father of a child from the era when the two of them were friends. The narrator knows all the principal players in the old story, and so he is the only one who has a chance of talking to everyone and finding out the truth.

Why? So Damian can leave most of his half-a-trillion-dollar fortune to his only offspring.

The quest is successful, in the end, but not in a way that anyone expects. And in the process, the narrator comes to understand and forgive Damian, even as he also understands himself and puts the whole past into perspective.

As a novel of the upper classes, Past Imperfect works, I must say, perfectly; but it is much more than that, as Fellowes takes us movingly through the narrator's discovery and redefinition of the meaning of his own life. The climax of the book is not the discovery of the identity of Damian's child -- it is our finally getting to see the terrible moment when all the friendships broke apart in a house in Portugal in 1972.

That scene is done so brilliantly that I long to watch it performed by the kind of excellent actors who tend to appear in films scripted by Julian Fellowes. So even as he is one of the writers of first resort to adapt other people's books to the screen, I hope he will also adapt his own. No one can do it better.


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