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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 8, 2011

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


Vengeance, Messiah, Wonderful Life

Sue Grafton has been publishing her Kinsey Millhone "Alphabet" mysteries since 1982, starting with A Is For Alibi. It takes a long time to work your way through the alphabet, but we're finally at V -- specifically, V Is for Vengeance.

I have to say, I'm along for the ride. So Grafton could probably slip up a few times and I'd still buy the next book.

But she doesn't slip up. Ever.

For a while I was also following Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum series, but it became clear that nothing was ever going to change, the character was never going to grow, and Evanovitch had reduced herself to repeating essentially the same gags, novel after novel. So I've stopped buying them, and don't miss them.

But with Sue Grafton, it doesn't feel repetitive. Each mystery is new and fresh.

And Kinsey Millhone is growing up. Not that she was a child to start with -- but she was often unwise. Now she's wiser.

This is actually a hard thing for an author to bring off -- to make a character wiser. But where Millhone used to do impulsive things, where she used to pride herself on bending the rules, where she once assumed she could do practically anything, now she's more careful, knows her limits, gives other people much better advice, swallows hard and puts up with things that used to make her crazy.

All without the first-person narrator ever pointing them out, because, of course, these are the kinds of things people rarely notice in themselves.

I worried for a while that Grafton was going to sidetrack us into Kinsey's personal life, her new-found relatives, the kind of thing that can cause a mystery series writer to lose track of the fact that everything depends on each individual mystery being able to stand alone.

Grafton never pushed that storyline too far or too hard. In this book it's hardly mentioned. But it's still there, like all the rest of Millhone's past -- still alive, still part of her.

V Is for Vengeance is a thready novel. That is, there are several seemingly unrelated or barely related storylines, and we move back and forth among them without seeing the connection.

At times, this can even test a reader's patience. What does this story of friendship between two middle-aged rich women have to do with the story of Millhone's burglar friend whose ring she redeemed from a pawn shop? And what do either of them have to do with the recent college grad who was murdered in Las Vegas? And how do they tie in to the whole shoplifting incident and the woman who tried to run Millhone down with a car?

All I can say is: Stick with the book. Trust Grafton. It all comes together, and when it does, the connections are sometimes breathtaking.

Do I accept all the outcomes? Would one particular character really forgive the misdeeds of another? Maybe not -- but Grafton is a good enough writer that even if I don't endorse the decision, I accept that this character might make the choice.

Nor does Millhone "solve" the mystery in the classic sense. Rather her probing sets things in motion in a way that causes other people to bring things to a resolution; it's not even a flaw in the book that at the moment of climax, Millhone is on the floor, gasping, recovering from a blow to the face that maybe saved her life. (I gave nothing away -- this is mentioned in the first paragraph of the book!)

Even if you've never read any of the alphabet mysteries, V Is for Vengeance is a perfectly good place to start. It has a bit of rough language, a bit of sex; not a good Christmas gift for your pastor, unless you are really good friends. But you could not do a mystery-loving friend a better favor than getting him or her started on the Kinsey Millhone series this Christmas.

*

Christmas is a busy time. Gifts to buy, wrap, mail. Christmas cards to send (which reminds me; I haven't even begun to think about our family Christmas letter yet). Parties. New Oscar-bait and money-sucking movies to watch -- or stay away from.

But that's why this is one of the most exciting times of the year. So I don't feel even a tiny bit guilty about setting two more things on your plate as possible Things To Do during the next few days.

Let's start with tonight. Thursday. The day this paper hits the stands. If you didn't turn straight to my column and read down this far, you already missed it. That'll teach you!

Because tonight (8 December) is the Oratorio Society's annual live performance of Handel's Messiah.. It starts at 7 p.m. at War Memorial Auditorium, and it's free, though a donation is appreciated. (The soloists and orchestra are paid a little; the choir actually pays for the privilege of taking part, so you're merely chipping in to help them pay for the performance!)

You have a little more time to arrange your schedule to see the remarkably good production of It's a Wonderful Life at Weaver Academy for the Performing and Visual Arts at 300 South Spring Street.

No, my daughter isn't in this one. She's helping with costumes. I'm not biased.

In fact, I was skeptical. It's a Wonderful Life was a movie, a classic, and it starred Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and Frank Capra directed it and why would it ever need to be put on the stage?

Here's why: Because it makes a great play. Because the original cast isn't the only possible way it could be cast, and the way they said the lines isn't the only possible way the lines could be said.

That's why it's good to see more than one production of the great plays -- one Romeo & Juliet is not identical to any other. And Weaver's production is quite wonderful in its own right.

For instance, the opening. In the movie, we hear the prayers of disembodied voices, praying for George Bailey. But on stage, we see people, some in front of the scrim, some behind it. But we see them kneeling, or praying where they stand. It's more real. It's better than the movie, in this moment.

The endearing angel Clarence Odbody from the movie gets a very different spin from the Doogie-Howser-like actor Smith McLean, who isn't playing cute -- but gets his laughs anyway.

Donna Reed was lovely, but Leigha Sinnott as George's wife, Mary, is, in a word, better. Ouch, it hurts even to say that -- but I think it's true. She's so lovely, deep, and real.

Bert and Ernie were great in the movie. They're a very different team in the play, with Phillip Wells and Noah Gray in the parts -- but they're just as delightful, and just as unforgettable.

Who has the chutzpah, though, to step into the shoes of James Stewart? Isaac Powell, that's who -- the same kid who did such a brilliant job in the part of Pippin last year.

To my great pleasure, Isaac Powell has matured in the past year, and (more to the point) plays maturity very well, so that he can handle the part of George Bailey as an adult, a married man, a responsible man, with complete believability. High school kids aren't supposed to be able to do that.

I'm hoping that between the rehearsal I saw and the performance you see, some of the actors will have slowed down their line deliveries -- old coots like me need to have a chance to hear! Even those of us who have practically memorized the movie want to hear the lines spoken in their entirety. But director Keith Taylor is on top of it -- they'll come through.

Which brings me to the key point: The script.

It follows the movie. Maybe sometimes too faithfully -- there are sequences which could not be performed on stage, and so we get a quick recounting of some incidents that in the movie we actually saw.

But remember that the movie, too, is narrated. We don't see George Bailey's brother save a troopship from sinking -- we're told about it. So is it so wrong also to be told about how George saved his brother from falling through the ice and drowning as a kid?

What matters is that it's the story we already love, movingly told in a brisk, well-acted performance. The script does the job it's supposed to do.

And the set? The theatrical vision here is wonderful. A massive turntable in the middle of the stage spins to be the bridge George almost jumps from, the stairs in Mary's house, the stairs in George's house, and every other thing that it needs to be. Lighting does the rest.

What matters to me, though, is that this play delivers an immediacy that movies just can't create. This fresh retelling of a classic comes to life. Even in a rehearsal with a week to go before the opening, these kids' performances moved me. I laughed, I cried. It's Christmas -- what more can you ask for?

But I warn you -- if you bring your kids to see It's a Wonderful Life, it'll make them want to get into Weaver Academy themselves when they get old enough for high school. Of course, it's one of the top high schools in the whole country, so maybe that wouldn't break your heart ...

The show starts tonight -- but you'll be at the Messiah, so what a relief that it also runs Friday and Saturday, 9-10 December, at seven p.m., and Sunday the 11th at two p.m. Students get in for six bucks; adults are admitted for $8.00. (Cash only -- they aren't equipped for credit cards.)

*

I suppose one columnist shouldn't refer you to another. After all, what if you decide you like the other guy's writing better than mine?

Then again, I don't get paid for this column, so it's not like you'd be depriving me of my livelihood. So let me just tell you about Eric Snider. He's a terrific movie reviewer -- though I don't always agree with him. And he's also a wonderfully humorous commentator on life in general.

The reason I thought of telling you about him is because of his most recent "Snide Remarks" column, in which he points out that sometimes there is simply no difference between one company's product an another's. There -- that's his premise. And it's obviously true.

But oh, how he says it! Go and see for yourselves.

Meanwhile, I have to wonder. A guy named Snider -- not the more common Snyder spelling -- is he doomed to be a writer of funny-snide comments? Surely there are other Sniders who are, like, dentists and plumbers. But are they also snide in their attitude toward life?

I mean, people named Brown aren't necessarily Brown, and ditto with Black, White, and other color names. How many black people are named White and how many white people are named Black? Lots, I can say for a fact. And how many people named Redd are actually red of hair or skin? And of all the Greens I know, none of them are green.

Maybe we just notice when a last name is particularly appropriate -- or inappropriate. After all, my name is Card, and I'm definitely not thin and flat; nor do I belong in a suit, except on Sunday.


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