Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 5, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Time Traveler, Father's Den, Major Pettigrew
It's an odd thing about listening to audiobooks -- especially books downloaded
from Audible.com. Each time I read, I clip on my iPod Nano, hook the phones
over my ears, and then pick up right where I left off. I don't see the title, I don't
see the cover, and I don't see the author's name.
That's why, in listening to Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife and
Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, I didn't remember the
authors' names -- or their gender. The bulk of Time Traveler's Wife is told from
the point of view of a man, and all of Major Pettigrew is. There was never a
speck of a hint of getting the male point of view wrong -- nothing that made me
think, "Oh, that was not written by a man."
However, oddly enough, there were moments where I thought the writer of Time
Traveler's Wife had to be a man, because the main female character is such a
cliche -- a feminine icon of womanly perfection. No woman writer would make
the main female character so exactly like what men wish women were.
Well, Bozo was wrong on that one, wasn't he! It's as if Niffenegger, who wrote
Time Traveler's Wife, had spent so much effort on creating the time traveler
that she gave not a thought to the wife, and pulled her right out of volume 1 of
her cliche collection.
Fortunately, the iconized heroine, Clare, still serves the story well enough, for
the story's moral journey is really that of the time traveler, Henry De Tamble.
(Another drawback to audiobooks is that you never know how the characters'
names are spelled -- I had to look this up online!)
The story is the most twisted, convoluted love story ever created. Henry is a
"chronologically displaced person." He has a genetic ailment that pops him out
of his own time and into some other, usually in the past, and often places that
mean something to him -- but often not. He can't control where and when he
goes. He arrives and returns stark naked, since he can take absolutely nothing
with him, and so he also leaves behind a pile of clothing whenever he jumps.
His mother died in a tragic car accident when Henry was very young. He was
in the car and should have died, too -- except that he reflexively jumped,
leaving behind only his clothes. Plagued by guilt, his life is also deformed by
his father's grief at his wife's death. But Henry grows up to be a librarian and
a bit of a roue, going from one meaningless love affair to another. Until he
meets a marvelous young woman who seems to already know him.
Why? Because she has grown up having magical visits from none other than
Henry de Tamble! From time to time she goes out to a clearing in the woods
near her family's mansion in the Wisconsin woods, and meets with an older
version of Henry. He arrives naked, but she learns to keep clothes for him in a
waterproof box. He helps her with her homework (nothing sexual happens
until she is of age), reads poetry to her, and so on.
Naturally, she falls in love with him -- what woman wouldn't? Creepy older
man arrives naked, has a weird story to tell, then >poof< he's gone; it's a
romantic dream of most young girls, apparently.
So ... she already knew him when he met her for the first time, but he already
knew her -- was already married to her! -- when she met him for the first time.
This makes the story logically circular and, by some views, impossible. Issues
of free will come up constantly, mostly because no matter what he knows about
the future, he can't do anything to change it. He has no choice but to adopt a
stoic, fatalistic worldview -- this is how it happens, I can't change it, I can only
make the best of it.
There's plenty of comedy in it, and also genuine love and pathos and
tenderness. Niffenegger has created a whole life for Henry, and even if Clare is
too perfect, she's usually at least interesting. The philosophy grows naturally
out of the rules of the story, and even if it's not profound, it's fun.
The result is a "whole life" book -- the sense that we have experienced a
strange and wonderful life at first hand. Despite a few missteps, this book
belongs in the company of other tours-de-force like The 13th Tale by Diane
Setterfield and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
The missteps? It's simply inexplicable that Niffenegger, who gets so many
things right, would have such a leaden ear for obscenity. It's not that people
don't talk the way she has her characters talk, it's that characters we like don't
usually talk that way.
Near the end, after we've already shed tears for unavoidable and wholly
predicted tragedy, we suddenly get a completely unbelievable sex scene in
which Clare uses a grossly obscene term that is so out of character and so out
of the mood of the story at that point that I can't help but think it was only
included because Niffenegger was embarrassed at the sentimentality of the
story, and wanted to "redeem" herself in the eyes of her literary friends.
For a handful of words and a couple of needlessly explicit sex scenes,
Niffenegger made it impossible for me to recommend her book to many friends
who would have enjoyed everything else about it.
Why do writers do this? They needlessly shrink the audience for a wonderful
story; they also make it instantly dated, for such ineptness in word choice and
sexual explicitness are only a temporary aberration and will soon pass out of
fashion (indeed, already are passing out of fashion, giving this book a decidedly
Enough about Time Traveler's Wife; if you're able to overlook needless sex
scenes and pointless words that start with f and c, this book is wonderful
(especially as read by William Hope and Laurel Lefkow in the unabridged
audiobook from Audible.com).
Because there's another book that deals with a borderline creepy relationship
between a middle-aged man and a young girl. Maurice Gee's In My Father's
Den, a gorgeous whole-life novel that is shaped like a mystery, has at its heart
a friendship between a teacher and a student, who happens to be the daughter
of his high school best friend and the fiancee his "friend" stole from him.
Just as Niffenegger was careful to keep her older man/young girl story from
stepping over the line until the girl came of age, Gee also is careful to cope with
hero Paul Prior's occasional sexual attraction to Celia Inverarity. Unlike
Niffenegger, who has Clare constantly eager to have sex with Henry, Gee makes
it clear that Celia is not at all interested in romance with her teacher -- to my
The story is a dark one, and is marred by Gee's fashionable university atheism,
for which he proselytizes throughout the novel. It's odd how nonintrospective
these authors are who make their characters "grow out of" or simply reject
religion; the authors (and therefore the characters) seem blind to how religious
their atheism is, and how bigoted they are in their confidence that their belief
system is "true" and all others are as evil as witchcraft or as debilitating as
However, this is so common in fiction today that it's almost like the air we
breathe, and fortunately the story surrounding the author's constant praise of
his own faith is a powerful and moving one. The story is framed by the murder
of Celia Inverarity at precisely the moment she is about to embark on a very
promising life. The murder is brutal, and since the last thing she did was visit
Paul Prior in his home, he is naturally the first suspect the police look for.
I expected a novel about a frantic attempt to prove his own innocence, but now
-- Gee has something much more interesting in mind. The police do like Prior
for the murder -- but then they quickly clear him. The town is not so quick to
do so, and neither is the girl's father, whose lifelong competition with Prior
makes the reader believe that the murder might be the culmination -- murder
as a bitter "victory" in a male rivalry, though which of them did it is in serious
The possibility that it is Paul Prior himself is raised by his account of a bitten-into apple on a teacher's desk in grade school, for in Prior's memory of it, he
"can't recall" whether he was guilty or not. This inability to not remember (or
unwillingness to confess) the crucial matter of his own guilt leaves wide open
the door that Prior is evading his guilt in the matter of Celia's death.
The largest deception is that this is a murder mystery, for it is not. It is a Life
-- Paul's life -- and it is more about him and his family than about Celia and
hers, or even about the murder. In fact, the actual revelation of and
confrontation with the murderer are almost an afterthought. By the time we
got to it, I felt that I had already received a complete and moving story of a
fascinating and painful life.
Humphrey Bower's narration of the Audible.com edition is flawless, his New
Zealand accent both musical and clear.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is not a whole-life book. We meet Pettigrew in
late middle-age, as he has settled into a quiet retirement in his childhood
home. The book centers around his growing involvement with Mrs. Jasmina
Ali, the widow who keeps a grocery in their small English town.
At first glance, we can be forgiven for assuming that this is going to be a
politically correct case study of overcoming racism. This would be a mistake,
for Simonson -- probably the best writer of the three I'm reviewing today --
takes no easy roads. Yes, there are bits about anti-Pakistani feeling in
England, but the barriers between them are just as much about social class,
religion, and family obligation.
Both of them are tied up in family conflicts that, in Pettigrew's case, can seem
trivial but loom rather large in the characters' lives. Pettigrew is from old, if
small, fortune, and is part of the established upper class in his village.
Modernization threatens the town in several ways, some of which he opposes
(development of a tract of land behind his house) and some of which he
embraces (the presence of an erudite grocer's widow who is caught up in the
expectations of her culture).
Something that all three of these novels have in common is a devotion to
literature. I understand it -- writers almost invariably come from the culture of
book-lovers, and so do readers, so you can get away with it, and even with
making book-lovers something like martyrs in the way that "common" people
just don't understand them.
It becomes a bit circular, though: This inbred book-loving culture embraces
books that explain how book-lovers are always better and deeper and finer and
truer than other people -- an assertion which I know to be patently false, since
book-lovers are exactly as prone to moral perfidy and foolishness as anyone
else. Self-flattery does not lead anyone to a truer understanding of the world.
Helen Simonson, whose first novel this is, seems a bit more aware of the self-delusion in this, and so while it is a love of books that first brings Major
Pettigrew and Jasmina Ali together, this is not a central issue in the story.
Both of them are shown to come from comically absurd -- but also ancient and
gracious -- social groups. Pretension of every kind is skewered; even
Pettigrew's own fondest grudges and self-delusions are revealed as shams to
him and to the reader.
And yet with all her skewering of this and that, Simonson has written a book
that is about love and respect. The most absurd characters are presented with
compassion, understanding, and respect, from the evil old Muslim woman who
pretends to be deaf to the drunken, lonely society lady who is exactly the sort
that everyone expects Major Pettigrew to end up with in his widowhood. And
Pettigrew's son, whom he finds absurd, turns out to be rather a better person
than his father (or the readers) thought him to be.
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is that rare and wonderful thing: A book written
with exquisite taste and with a deep understanding of human nature, loving
and admiring people even as it exposes and, yes, ridicules them. I loved every
minute of Peter Altschuler's narration (again from Audible.com).
What a happy coincidence that Major Pettigrew's Last Stand shares a titular
surname with the brilliant comedy Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, which I
thought was the best movie of 2008. I don't know that Major Pettigrew will ever
be a movie, though it certainly could be; but in looking up spellings and
character names on Amazon, I ran across the recording of the novel on which
Miss Pettigrew was based. More reading! I hope it's as good as the film.
Hold next Friday or Saturday night open for a free performance of
Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. I adapted the script for modern
understanding a few years ago, because so many of the funniest lines have
become nearly unintelligible to audiences today. I directed this version first at
Southern Virginia University, where it ran for two weeks to packed houses.
Now I've brought it to Greensboro, with a new cast, mostly of high-school-age
actors, but with a leavening of adults, including a cameo performance by Keith
Taylor, the head of the drama program at Weaver.
In adapting the script, I was responding to John McWhorter's challenge that
English-speakers are the only people who can never see or hear Shakespeare
performed in their native language. Germans, Japanese, Poles, and Spaniards
can all see Shakespearean plays translated into the language they speak today.
But our misplaced respect for Shakespeare's plays leads us to leave his
language exactly as it was published after his death -- even though his puns
and other wordplays are no longer funny, and many of the nuances of his
characters are simply lost.
And yet ... the elegance and grace of Shakespeare's writing are untranslatable.
When we see Shakespeare, we do want to hear the language of the Elizabethan
era (which is why many of us will never accept any Bible translation but the
King James version, despite its many flaws).
So what I do is not a translation. Rather, I look for places where crucial
meanings have been lost -- which happens most commonly in the jokes,
especially the deliberately lame ones -- and instead of translating, I find
substitutes, still in Elizabethan-sounding language, that are instantly
intelligible to modern audiences.
The result is a play that is mostly Shakespeare's original, and sounds entirely
Shakespearean. The play is not shorter by a single line; unlike most directors
today, I cut nothing from Shakespeare's plays. But because audiences
understand everything, the plays can move as quickly as they did in
Most Shakespearean plays today are cut to ribbons so they don't take four
hours or more. Directors leave out many minutes -- and sometimes more than
an hour! -- of the play. This is ironic -- they can't change his language, but
they can remove it willy-nilly!
Why? Shakespeare's plays didn't last four hours when he produced them.
The plays only last four hours when you have to change sets between scenes;
and when actors slow down and declaim their speeches with elaborate
precision, so that some portion of the audience will have some hope of
understanding the unfamiliar language. Shakespeare is usually overacted, too
-- often grossly so -- meaning that vast pauses are left between the lines while
the actors emote. The plays move as if through thick mud.
This is the opposite of how the Elizabethan theatre companies performed. A
rollicking play like Shrew needs to move lickety-split, joke piling on joke. There
are no breaks between the scenes, because there's no scenery to move; when
there's a tricky costume change, they didn't make the audience wait --
Shakespeare wrote a "filler" scene to hold the stage while the actors changed
So ... at full length, including the "inexplicable" Christopher Sly scenes that
open the script, our production runs about two hours and fifteen minutes --
and it never stops being funny. This is far closer to what Shakespeare's
audiences experienced in his lifetime than any of the ponderous, over-scholarly
and over-acted versions you're likely to see anywhere else. (One of the worst is
Zefferelli's interminable film version starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth
Our Katharina (the "shrew" of the title) is more than the usual screamer --
she's smart and witty and funny and snide, the way Shakespeare wrote her.
And our Christopher Sly -- the drunken lout for whom the play is ostensibly
performed as a vast prank -- is used throughout the play in the way that
Shakespeare certainly used him: as a hilarious parody of rude audience
members, both lordly and common.
Admission is free, as always with our productions at the LDS meetinghouse at
3719 Pinetop Road in Greensboro (across the street from Claxton Elementary).
It will be performed on Friday and Saturday, September 17th and 18th, starting
at seven o'clock p.m. (We ask you not to bring children under six; but from six
on up, children are very likely to enjoy the play.)
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Thursday, September 9 -- Jewish New Year
Rosh Hashanah, the New Year on the ancient Jewish calendar, is celebrated on 9-10 September.
But since the Jewish day begins at sundown of the previous day on non-Jewish calendars, the
actual celebration began the evening of Wednesday, September 8th.
Colonel Harland David Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), was born near
Henryville, Indiana, on this day in 1890. He died in 1980 in Shelbyville, Kentucky, so while he
didn't come from Kentucky he certainly ended up there. And really, would anybody have gone
for "Indiana Fried Chicken"? Especially considering that, although Sanders's first restaurant
was in Kentucky, the first franchised KFC was at the intersection of 13th East and 21st South in
Salt Lake City, Utah. Pete Harman's handshake deal with Sanders for the Utah franchise
stipulated that Sanders would get a nickel for every chicken sold. That was in 1952; it wasn't
until 1957 that the chicken was first sold in buckets.
Leo Tolstoy, who wrote some of the longest novels (with the most confusing nomenclature) that
have ever been studied in American high school literature classes, was born on this day in 1828.
Author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he is responsible for the fatuous saying, "All
happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
This is the opposite of the truth, which is that failing families keep picking the same sad and
avoidable ways to fail, while happy families find their own ways of overcoming the unique set of
challenges they face. Tolstoy only said what he said because he thought his own miserable
failure at family life was especially fascinating, and because it's harder to write stories that
require the writer to come up with solutions to terrible problems. When Anna Karenina got into
a dreadful dilemma, she killed herself -- which is the cheap way out for a writer. It's what you
do instead of an ending.
Friday, September 10 -- Swap Ideas Day
"Swapping ideas" officially means people "explore ways in which their ideas can be put to
work for the benefit of humanity," and we are urged "to encourage development of incentives
that will encourage use of creative imagination." Well, I hate to say this, but one of the strongest
incentives comes from patent, copyright, and trademark laws -- which basically consist of
not swapping ideas. At least not until after the term of copyright or patent has expired.
In 1955, the popular radio western Gunsmoke made the move to television, where it became
TV's longest-running prime-time drama -- twenty seasons and 633 episodes. John Wayne
turned down the role of Marshall Matt Dillon, but recommended James Arness, who had
previously played the giant carrot in The Thing.
Saturday, September 11 -- Patriot Day
9/11 was officially designated Patriot Day by a resolution of Congress, requesting that all state
and local governments observe the day "with appropriate programs and activities," that the flag
be displayed at half-staff from sunrise till sundown, and that a moment of silence be observed
in honor of those who lost their lives in the attacks.
I would like to add one other item: End the unspeakable ban on showing the film footage of the
attack on the towers. The leftwing media establishment decided that it was bad for us to see that
footage, since it might stir up anger. But guess what? The media are not our nannies.
Whenever it might achieve an end that the leftist media think is "good for us," they show and tell
whatever they want, claiming the public's "right to know."
If the government banned access to film that might outrage people -- for instance, the Abu
Ghraib photographs -- the media would be suing under the Freedom of Information Act, or
doing whatever they could to get it illegally and put it in print and on the air. How dare they turn
around and commit the same crime against the public's right to see the film and make our own
It's time for the media to let us decide for ourselves the appropriate American response to
seeing the planes hitting the towers and the towers collapsing. Put the film in the public domain.
William S. Porter was born on this day in Greensboro in 1862. He turned out to be something
much worse than his parents feared -- a writer. Under the name O. Henry, he penned very
popular stories-with-a-twist. Characterization in his fiction was non-existent and irrelevant -- it
was all about cleverness and irony. "The Ransom of Red Chief" and "The Gift of the Magi" are
still wonderfully readable today.
Sunday, September 12 -- Video Game Day
No, I didn't make this one up: It really is Video Game Day. I know there are parents and
spouses who would be grateful if they could celebrate this day by having their child and/or
spouse stay away from video games for the whole day, because it is certainly true that games can
be addictive and players can be obsessive. But it's also true that computer games are great brain
exercise and have become a powerful storytelling medium, comparable to television, movies,
and comics, all of which have become respectable in our culture.
I've been involved closely enough in the creation of several games to know just how much
creativity, skill, talent, and hard work are involved in creating a great computer-gaming
experience -- and just how compelling and cathartic that experience can be. As far as I'm
concerned, videogames are the highest use to which computers can be put.
To all you designers, writers, artists, programmers, and organizers who put together these
masterpieces -- and even those who put together the almost-great and almost-good games:
Now can I please have my life back?
This has also been designated National Grandparents' Day by the greeting card industry, in the
hope that they can get some fraction of the revenue that invented holidays like Mother's Day and
Father's Day bring in. The trouble is, most people have noticed that you don't get to be a
grandparent unless you have first become a mother or a father, so those two pseudo-holidays
already have grandparents completely covered. Speaking as a grandparent: As far as I'm
concerned, kids, save your money.
Monday, September 13 -- National Line Dance Week
This is the beginning of National Line Dance Week. I don't think this means we're supposed
to grab other people by the hips and form a huge conga line through the streets of the city. Nor
should we grip other people across the shoulders and kick in unison like the Rockettes. Nor do I
feel myself required to go into cowboy bars and do the Electric Slide. Instead, I will remember
how fun round dancing was, before the Twist and the Jerk tore couples apart and effectively
ended dancing as a useful courting ritual.
Law and Order, the second-longest-running drama series in television history, premiered on this
day in 1990. Like Gunsmoke, it ran twenty seasons -- but in the intervening years seasons
shrank to consist of fewer and fewer episodes, so L&O ended up with only 456. The formula --
police working on a crime for the first half hour, the lawyers working on the trial for the second
half hour -- was brilliant, but much of the reason for the longevity of the series was the casting
policy. No actor remained through the entire series. It was always about the story, never about
the stars. Though I will admit that Sam Waterston and Jerry Orbach held a special place in
viewers' hearts -- including mine.
People often forget that when L&O debuted, people were saying that the one-hour drama was
dying or dead. Nor were its ratings particularly high the first year or so. It was only after the
cable network A&E started rerunning the episodes in daily rotation that the series began to
develop the huge audience that sustained it for two decades.
Before that time, "everyone" knew that only half-hour sitcoms worked in syndication, because
local stations could run them just before and after primetime and make a lot of money. Hour-long dramas just didn't work that way. But A&E proved that syndication of drama on cable
channels did work -- to the point that on one network or another, there have been many years in
which you could watch an episode of L&O or one of its daughter series on cable at almost any
hour of the day or night.
The event that inspired the writing of our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," took
place on this night in 1814. American Francis Scott Key was aboard a ship that was delayed in
Baltimore harbor by the British attack there on Fort McHenry. Key had no choice but to
anxiously watch the battle. Seeing the American flag still flying over the fort the next morning
(September 14th, of course) inspired him to pen the verses that, coupled with the tune of a
popular drinking song, became our official national anthem in 1931. Alas that it's such a
second-rate poem, with a melody you can only enjoy singing when drunk. I officially declare,
by Act of Orson, that "America, the Beautiful" is our real national anthem, the song that it's a
joy to sing, with words that it's a joy to say.
Tuesday, September 14 -- Hillbilly Day
At precisely the era when CBS was killing all of its highly successful "country comedies" in
order to try to skew their network toward the coveted (by advertisers) younger audience, the one-hour family drama The Waltons premiered on this day in 1972. For nine seasons, until attrition
in the cast led the audience to drift away, the story of the hard but fulfilling rural life of this
traditional American family captivated the American audience.
I have heard intellectuals -- who claim to be liberals who love the "common man" -- sneer at
the kind of people (and story!) that The Waltons presented, but the show demonstrated the simple
truth that human life can be noble or base, depending on our moral choices, at any economic or
educational level. In my opinion, our society remains great only to the degree that we celebrate
and sustain the kind of family connections that we saw so often on The Waltons.
President William McKinley was shot on 6 September in 1901 in Buffalo, New York, and died
eight days later, on September 14th. Only halfway through his second term, McKinley
represented the "Old" in "Grand Old Party." His faction of the Republican Party was appalled
that Theodore Roosevelt, the grandstanding young liberal who had been nominated as Vice
President only to make sure the party carried New York, was now President. Roosevelt went on
to break the power of the monopoly trusts, broker the end of the Russo-Japanese War (winning
the Nobel Peace Prize for actually doing something), and work for conservation in our handling
of public lands. Meanwhile, assassin Leon Czolgosz was executed on Oct 29th, 1901.
Wednesday, September 15 -- Miss Marple Day
Mystery writer Agatha Christie was born on this day in 1890. Today the type of mystery she
wrote is classified as "cozy," and compared to the realistic, character-driven mysteries that are
most respected today, her novels can seem thin, the characters mere puppets. But despite our
different expectations from the mystery genre today, her mysteries starring eccentric Belgian
Hercule Poirot and deceptively dotty old Englishwoman Miss Marple remain highly enjoyable.
As with many writers, her own life was no bed of roses, but she muddled through and made a
genuine and lasting contribution to our culture.
The Lone Ranger, a long-running radio serial western (starting in 1933), ran on television for
only five seasons, beginning on this day in 1949. The famous masked man was the alter ego of
John Reid, a Texas Ranger who was the only survivor of an ambush. He was nursed back to
health by his Native American friend, Tonto (Spanish for "crazy," which suggests that we need
to know more of Tonto's backstory). They traveled around the West on their trusty steeds,
Silver and Scout, fighting injustice. Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels co-starred.
The theme music was taken from Rossini's "William Tell Overture," and it so pervaded the
culture that it was impossible for most Americans to hear "pa-da-DUM! pa-da-DUM! pa-da-DUM! DUM! DUM!" without wanting to yell, "Hi-yo, Silver!"