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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 28, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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

Car Trash, Compass, and Atropos

When my previous car trash bag was inadvertently left behind at a car wash place, I had to go in search of another. I was surprised at how hard it was to find a store that carried anything that I could use.

The problem is that it has to fit somewhere. In my Ford 500, that means it needs to loop over the stick shift and then hang down on the driver's side of the console, behind my leg when I'm using the accelerator. In my Ford 150 truck, it has to have a strap I can insert in the ashtray (which I have no use for) so it hangs down in easy reach.

The opening needs to stay open, and it has to have enough capacity to hold a reasonable amount of trash. If it can be waterproof, so much the better -- it's nice to be able to throw away wet stuff without having it soak through and cause mold to grow and smells to become endemic.

I couldn't find a store in town that came close to meeting these requirements -- few had any kind of automobile litter bag at all. The kind I had used before, quite happily, had disappeared from the face of the earth.

But I had the happy thought of looking online at Etsy,com (a name perhaps derived from a pronunciation of "Etc."?) A search brought me to Allyson Hill's page.

The concept of Etsy is like that of the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria or the annual Craftsmen's Classic at the Coliseum -- lots of different craftsmen sharing a site. I have found lots of wonderful, high-quality crafts at Etsy -- along with the predictable array of how-sad work that only a mother could love. I have only once been disappointed in something I actually ordered, however -- and it definitely was not this time!

Allyson Hill, who lives and works in upstate New York, makes fabric-covered auto trash bags that do everything I need them to do. For only $19.00, plus shipping, I got adjustable-strap bags that can be fitted with plastic liners (15 biodegradable bags included, though you can also use plastic grocery bags). You have your choice of several fabrics -- and she has recently added some that I like better than the ones I bought several months ago, darn it.

Hill also offers "visor tissue cozies" which can hold those convenient flexible plastic tissue packages in easy reach but out of the way.

Hill is a graduate of Rochester Institute of Technology's School for American Crafts, with a degree in Woodworking and Furniture Design -- and she gets high honors from me. The design is pretty nearly perfect, and the workmanship is excellent.

I've used these bags for months now, and my wife liked them well enough that she bought them for her car, too. Check them out.


For years, I have been telling people that the two finest writers of mainstream fiction in America today are Richard Russo and Anne Tyler.

Unfortunately, I am no longer listing Richard Russo. He's gone the route of John Irving, writing weirdly perverse stories that seem aimed only at literary readers who don't actually want to care about any of the characters. I still recommend his early works, though, back when he still wrote about real people in the real world. (The best is arguably Nobody's Fool, which, when made into a movie, became, in my opinion, Paul Newman's finest role.)

Anne Tyler thus remains as my all-purpose recommendation, though even she has her ups and downs. She seems to alternate between novels that are so tied to a concept that the story stretches both interest and credulity, and novels that are deep and brilliant discoveries of characters who are trying to find their moral compass and a modicum of happiness in a difficult world.

Tyler's newest novel, Noah's Compass, is, in my opinion, one of the great ones, like Back When We Were Grownups, Breathing Lessons, and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. (Overprogrammed titles include Digging to America and The Amateur Marriage -- but even these are rewarding reads.)

It's the story of Liam Pennywell, a philosophy graduate who somehow found himself teaching history at a high-toned private high school, and then fifth grade at a not-so-lofty school. Now, at sixty, he has been laid off -- even though he had seniority over the fifth-grade teacher the school opted to keep. He is toying with the idea of simply calling this "retirement," and with that in mind, he moves to a new (and much smaller) apartment.

His first night there, somebody breaks into the house and, in a scuffle, injures him severely enough that he wakes up in the hospital with no memory of the encounter with the burglar.

Though the mystery of who attacked him is eventually resolved, the story is really about Liam's attempt to make his life mean something. He finds himself sharing his new apartment with his youngest daughter, who, at seventeen, decides she'd rather live with her long-absent father than with her demanding mother.

Her mother and Liam divorced years ago -- in fact, their daughter was the baby who was a last-ditch attempt to save the marriage. But Liam was married once before, to a woman he loved deeply, but who died. He has one daughter from his first marriage, two from his second, as well as an impatient sister. For a long time it seems -- to Liam and to us -- that none of these women actually love him, or even like him, though we gradually come to see them in a different light.

Liam also embarks upon a quixotic courtship of a single woman much his junior, even as he watches his youngest daughter being courted by a young man who is suspected of being the burglar who broke into his house. Meanwhile, Liam frets constantly about his inability to remember things; he is desperate to recover, of all things, the memory of his moment of heroic struggle with the burglar.

If this sounds complicated, it is -- but this is Anne Tyler we're talking about, so all the characters quickly emerge as interesting individuals, and Liam's relationship with each one is unique and important. It isn't long before we love every one of them, and if the climactic discovery resembles a key plot point in a recent Oscar-nominated movie, that's hardly the fault of either writer. It doesn't matter, anyway -- the value comes not from the surprise but from what it means to Liam and what he does about it, the choice it leads him to make.

I loved this book from beginning to end. And that took some doing, because it's one of the worst-read audiobooks I've ever actually suffered through from beginning to end. Reader Arthur Morey apparently thinks that audiobooks have to be read so slowly as to make the readers wish for death just to speed things up. Usually readers who start with a word ... by ... word pace gradually increase their tempo to something tolerable, but Morey is absolutely consistent.

It's not that he made the book boring -- that would not be possible for those of us who love Tyler's work. It's that, because he read all the dialogue with that same maddening slowness, all the characters sound mentally retarded. I say this with complete respect for the mentally challenged: I am perfectly happy to listen to people who cannot speak any faster. But these characters were not supposed to be mentally retarded; sometimes they are actually supposed to be quick-witted, even snappy. So Morey's reading almost defeats the characterization.

So this is one of the rare cases where I urge you to buy the book in print form and read it for yourself. Tyler is such a good writer you'll have no trouble keeping the voices distinct in your own head, and you'll do a much better job of reading it to yourself than the audiobook does.


Speaking of slow readers, it is possible for a reading to be done at a measured pace without killing the book. In witness of that is Nicholas Coster's brilliant reading of the unabridged Hornblower and the Atropos by C.S. Forester.

I read the entire Hornblower series in one wonderful week back in 1976, and I was interested to see if it held up after all these years. Since then I had read several of Patrick O'Brian's series of wooden-ship novels, but found that the relationship between the two main characters became tediously repetitive. (The movie Master and Commander is, in many ways, better than the books.) O'Brian and Forester both based their novels on the same bigger-than-life British captain of the Napoleonic era, so it's quite fair to compare the books.

And Forester wins, hands-down. The writing has every bit as much verisimilitude, but the character of Hornblower is deeper -- and his books are truer in another sense, for he has no "buddies" who make every voyage with him. Each new ship is often an entirely new set of people that he has to learn to get along with -- and command. But Hornblower himself is so depressed, self-doubting, and determined to improve that he is, all by himself, more interesting than anybody in O'Brian's series.

In Atropos, Hornblower, recently promoted to captain and low on the seniority list, is given his first command of an actual ship (a technical class of seacraft, as opposed to sloops and boats, etc.) -- the Atropos, which happens to be the smallest ship in the British Navy.

On his way to take command of the ship, though, Hornblower first travels by canal across England, and, because of an injury to a boatman and his own urgency to reach his new command, has to take the tiller and otherwise help with a form of watercraft that he had previously despised.

The canal trip is, quite by itself, worth the price of admission, I think; but when he arrives in London he not only has to deal with his wife's going into labor at an inn, but also with an assignment to take command of the procession of barges carrying the body of Lord Nelson, who was killed during his great victory at Trafalgar, up the Thames to lie in state for his funeral.

Finally, after all sorts of complications, Hornblower takes command of the Atropos and sets sail on the kind of expedition that the smallest ship in the navy would be used for: salvaging a quarter of a million pounds in gold and silver from a sunken payroll ship just off the coast of Turkey. Hornblower has to cope with the greed and craftiness of the Turks, who are officially neutral and must not be offended, and the ill temper of the Scotsman who is in charge of the Ceylonese divers who are the only ones who can reach the wreck in such deep water.

Just to make things interesting, he has on board, as a midshipman, the dispossessed young prince of a German state that Napoleon has conquered, along with his prickly chamberlain -- who is appalled that he and his young prince are to be subject to ordinary ship's discipline.

There is not a dull moment in the whole book, and yet in depth and verisimilitude it is exemplary literature.

Through it all, Coster reads every bit as slowly as Morey did with Noah's Compass -- but Coster knows how to do it. He makes the slowness, not an affectation, but an integral part of the Hornblower's own voice. Nobody sounds stupid because they talk so slowly; they just sound British. The pauses are full of thought and intention; far from feeling bogged down in the reading, it actually feels as if things are moving along briskly.

This is how it's done, when audiobooks are done right.

But I have sad news. As far as I can tell, Coster's reading of Hornblower and the Atropos is the only unabridged audiobook version of any of the Hornblower series. There are three books in abridged versions -- but I don't want to miss a word of Forester's magnum opus! And most of the books seem to be unavailable on cd, with only ancient cassette-tape editions to be had on the used-book market.

Hornblower and the Atropos was released in this unabridged version on Audible.com only last year, so I hope that it marks the first of many -- these books should all be available in unabridged audio, especially if they can continue to have Coster's powerful, brilliant readings.

Now, there are some who will say that the Ioan Gruffudd-starring BBC adaptations are quite good enough, and I won't argue that watching these wonderful versions of the Hornblower series is a delight.

But like all film adaptations, they leave out a lot -- too much to really satisfy me. As should be the case, the books are better; and meanwhile, you're free to picture Gruffudd as you read or listen to them.

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