Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 29, 2012
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Easter Eggs, Maphead, Get Low
Easter eggs. You hardboil them, you color them.
When I was a kid, somebody then put them in baskets and hid them and then, in the morning,
when you finally found your basket, you broke open the brightly colored shell -- which often
bled color into the white of the egg inside -- and ate the prize, with or without a dash of salt, or
maybe you used the marvelous egg slicer and laid the slices on thickly buttered bread and had
one of the great sandwiches of childhood.
Those days are over -- we know too much about how fast eggs go bad. So in our family, we
colored the eggs, admired each other's work, and then put them in the fridge, so they couldn't
In college, I went temporarily insane and learned out to pierce the top and bottom of a raw egg
and blow the egg out of the shell, then paint it with fine-point colored pens. I did some splendid
work, I must admit, before I realized that there was a limit to the subjects I could do justice to,
and painted eggs were hard to store.
The trouble with Easter eggs is that coloring them takes time, and the quality of the results
Moreover, boiling eggs is not simple. Undercook them and the result is icky. Overcook them
and they turn green inside -- not the goal in coloring eggs. They sometimes break, spoiling the
egg for coloring.
So if you have to have a lot of colored eggs, or you don't have time to color any, there is a
choice. At Harris-Teeter I spotted some lushly colored hard-boiled eggs for sale and bought
I did this for you, so I could tell you whether they're worth buying.
They are. Unlike pre-shelled hard-boiled eggs, which are kind of nasty, these pre-colored eggs
are still in the original shell, so the flavor is fully preserved.
The white might be very, very slightly overcooked for some people's taste, but they are certainly
up to the standards of eggs at salad bars, for instance, or other places where eggs are boiled and
then refrigerated for a while before being used.
So if you're short on time, or tired of coloring eggs, you can have absolutely gorgeous Easter
eggs for the price of a dozen at the grocery store. You miss out on the fun of coloring eggs with
your kids, if that's a family tradition; but if your kids have outgrown the love of dipping eggs in
vinegar solutions, then these will do just fine.
Remember Ken Jennings? The guy who had that incredibly long winning streak (74 games) on
Jeopardy back in 2004?
One of the outcomes of his fame was a book deal with Random House. We have been the
beneficiaries of this deal at least as much as Jennings or the publisher, because both books that
have come from it so far have been wonderful.
During his Jeopardy streak, Jennings showed himself to be charming, relaxed, and not at all vain
or even, seemingly, concerned about his streak. It was happening; he played along; but when it
ended, he was relieved. "The suspense was over," he was quoted as saying. "I knew how the
story would come out."
Lots of things came out in the mini-interviews that Alex Trebek conducts with contestants on the
show, but let's face it -- it's not as if we sat down and got to know Ken Jennings.
To do that, we need to read his books. A few years ago, I reviewed his delightful book on the
world of trivia -- Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia
Buffs. This seemed a natural thing for Jennings to write, since he had just reached a pinnacle in
His second book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, follows a
similar pattern. Jennings plunges into every group that is devoted to geography -- most
particularly, to maps.
Jennings himself is a devotee of maps. They played an important role for him in his growing-up
years, and he still finds them fascinating.
So do I. I read Brainiac as an outsider. I love Trivial Pursuit because it's so well-designed that
you don't have to be an expert on trivia to be able to enjoy playing it.
Because I'm not an expert.
I don't want to be an expert. Just as I haven't memorized all the three-letter words in Scrabble, I
have no intention of memorizing all the capitals, highest and lowest elevations, or any other such
almanackery. I know what I've learned through a long life of self-education, and that means I
sometimes know (or can guess) answers in weird little categories.
And sometimes I don't know. Or can't remember. And so I lose the game or the point, and I'm
fine. My ego isn't invested in it. I'm not in the trivia world.
But maps, now ...
While there are differences between the way Ken Jennings approached maps as a kid and the
way I did, the fact is that I totally understood his map obsession.
I'm the kid who spends the whole trip studying the road map, and hardly sees the scenery.
To be fair to myself, our most common road trip was between Santa Clara, California, and Salt
Lake City, Utah. After you get through the passes of the Sierra Nevada, the scenery consists of
The map is better.
But my love of maps was more than avoiding endless vistas of unchanging sagebrush and
identical hills. The best thing in my fourth-grade classroom was the globe at the back.
In 1960, the world map had already changed tremendously -- colonies in the European empires
were being shed, but the five-year-old globe didn't reflect that. There were still vast territories
colored British pink. Ghana was still Gold Coast. Tanganyika and Zanzibar were still separate
colonies, not yet combined into Tanzania. Bechuanaland was not yet Botswana.
There was also a lot of French green in North Africa, but that was mostly desert. The USSR
would continue to hold its empire for nearly thirty more years, the last of the vast European
empires to finally let go of its subject peoples (though Putin clearly wants them back).
So I double-memorized the globe -- the old colonies, and the new countries that were emerging.
Always an insomniac, the way I put myself to sleep at night as a child was to pick a country on
my mental globe, and then pursue a policy of peaceful unions or protective war (always the good
guy, see) to gradually unite the entire world under one extraordinarily benign government, nation
I knew the globe. I knew all the states of the U.S. and all the republics of the USSR. I knew all
the shires of England, all the counties of Ireland, and all the old divisions of France before they
were replaced by dull dull dull departments, and I could name them all on unlabeled maps.
I pored over historical maps to create in my own head animated maps of Europe, the U.S., the
fertile crescent, the world, in which nations and empires sprang into being and then collapsed or
were overrun. I knew how the Roman Empire grew and shrank. I knew the Greek colonies
throughout the Mediterranean.
My knowledge of world history had maps as the bones and sinews. So yeah, when I saw that
Ken Jennings had written Maphead, I was thrilled.
The book is marvelous -- at least for someone like me. I'm not a joiner and I'm not a
competitor, so I would never have taken pleasure in the competitions and clubs that Jennings
writes about, but I find them fascinating.
There are the kids who obsess on geography in order to compete in the national geography bee.
There are the people who take part in a map-only road rally every year, a grueling course of
grimly detailed map-reading.
There are the geocache aficionados, who emplace, record, and then visit and sign in at caches
hidden all over the world, some of them insanely hard to reach, some of them designed to lead
you to little-known places in your own neighborhood.
Jennings joins them all, to one degree or another. Geocaching, for instance, led him to take his
kids on a walk in the neighborhood to discover that in a nearby woods, someone had created an
elaborate course for small wheeled vehicles operated by suicidal children.
Reaching the cache involved climbing to the highest point. But the real reward was knowing the
place existed at all, right in their neighborhood.
Jennings writes about becoming obsessed with geocaching -- until by chance a geocache very
near his house was emplaced and reported on the web, and he noticed it only two hours later. He
had a shot at being the first to record his name.
But as he raced out of the house to try to get there first, his wife asked him to take one of their
children the piano books that he had forgotten and would need for his lesson.
"No," he called out -- and then stopped himself. Was reaching this geocache really more
important to him than helping meet a need of one of his children?
The answer was: No. He went back into the house and got the piano books. But he still made it
to the geocache in time to be the first to sign the log.
It was when he found himself searching out a geocache at a back alley dumpster that he realized:
What is the purpose of this? To take me to places I wouldn't otherwise find. But this is a place I
don't want to find.
So he changed his priorities. He sought out far fewer geocaches, and only went to the ones that
seemed worth finding -- the beautiful climb beside a series of cascades, leading him to a vista
that was breathtakingly beautiful.
The book is full of stories like that -- his own, and the stories of others. When Jennings writes
about fantasy worlds, he ties it in with his own experience of rooming with fantasy writer
Brandon Sanderson in college.
"In most of my memories of him, he's following one of his roommates around the apartment,
reading aloud passages from his latest bulky fantasy manuscript," writes Jennings. "At the time
I was amused by Brandon's antics, but hey, at least it was a pleasant surprise not to be the
nerdiest guy in the apartment for a change."
For Sanderson, now an extravagantly successful fantasy writer, maps were so important that he
pays to have professionally drawn maps in his books. I understand that. I'm an obsessive
mapmaker, drawing maps of imaginary places all the time.
I mean that literally. I take notebooks with me to meetings and doodle maps, drawing coastlines,
borders, roads, rivers, cities, mountains, and -- when a map is exceptionally good (by my own
standards), I name them.
Novels of mine that began as maps, only later getting stories, are Treason, Hart's Hope, Hot
Sleep, Memory of Earth; and maps, imaginary or real-world, were vital in the creation of the
Alvin Maker books, Empire (I absolutely relied on the satellite views from GoogleMaps),
Ender's Shadow (the street map of Rotterdam), Saints (an old map of Manchester), Pathfinder,
Pastwatch, and, of course, the magical Los Angeles of Magic Street.
In fact, I found myself resenting Brandon Sanderson for having been Jennings's roommate, so he
got his maps mentioned in Maphead, while I, with fiction far more map-centered and map-created than Sanderson's, got no mention at all.
I knew I should have cultivated Jennings's friendship back when we were briefly in telephone
contact a few years ago. I just didn't know why.
OK, so I'm just a little teeny bit competitive after all.
Maphead includes a fascinating discussion of place names -- who chooses them, who changes
them. Map projections and how they shape our perception of the world. (No, Greenland is not
larger than South America, it just looks that way on Mercator's projection.)
The fascinating anti-map of the opposite Earth, showing that if you completely reverse the globe
(north and south, Greenwich and the Date Line), the land masses of the world almost don't
overlap at all, anywhere, a fact that is completely strange and yet feels like it really ought to be
I know. To a lot of people, all this talk of maps (and I've barely touched the surface of
Jennings's marvelous book) is completely boring.
But there are a lot of people who have secret map obsessions. And Jennings is the first person to
write not only to them, but about them.
Not "them." Us. Jennings wrote this book to me, and all the people who share this love of
maps. It's coming out in paperback in a few weeks. You can preorder it now. Or you can buy
the hardcover, because if you're one of us, you'll want it in a much more permanent form.
We first saw Robert Duvall in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, in which he played Boo
Radley, the mysterious neighbor who saves the children. We loved him then, and came to love
him all the more as he played Tom Hagen in the Godfather movies -- the non-Italian outsider
who was more of a son than the godfather's real sons.
If he had only acted, we would admire him and remember him for great performances.
But he has done much more than this. He has produced movies -- brought them into existence
by the force of his will. Tender Mercies and The Apostle show him to be a man who cares
about faith and the impact that it has on the lives of less-than-perfect people who want to change.
Both films moved me, and I came to admire Robert Duvall for not just waiting to see what his
agent brought him, but instead creating small movies with great stories and bringing them to life.
At this year's Oscar party, my friend Andy Lindsay (the heart, brains, soul, and scutwork slave
of Barking Shark Productions here in Greensboro) reminded me of the movie he thought was the
best of last year.
"I told you about it at last year's Oscar party, but you haven't watched it yet, have you," he
"I don't even remember you telling me about it." Which is true. But then, I don't remember
anything that anybody tells me unless it's written down and taped to my head.
The movie he was referring to is Get Low, and like Robert Duvall's other small masterpieces,
it's a low-key period movie about redemption.
Duvall plays Felix Bush, a recluse who greets visitors with a shotgun. But he decides he's
going to hold his own funeral and engages undertaker Frank Quinn (Bill Murray in one of his
best roles) to arrange his funeral. Not after he's dead, but before. So Felix can attend it and
make sure people tell the truth about him.
The trouble is, nobody knows the truth but him, so he ends up having to tell the story himself.
That's not a spoiler -- it's so obvious that's how this is going to end that there's no harm in
saying it right up front.
Normally, it's a completely terrible choice for a story to be told in which the whole point of the
story is finding out the story, and so you spend the whole movie with the main character not
telling, and then at the end he tells.
But this script is so good, the characters so fascinating, the acting so real and splendid, and the
story that Felix finally tells so painful, that the audience is never bored and the ending is
Was it the best movie of 2010? Andy thinks so, but Andy thinks that that Rosebud-the-sled
movie is one of the greatest films of all time, instead of the piece of obvious, pseudointellectual,
egocentric blowhardery that it really is.
What Get Low is is a good movie, in every meaning of the word. It's well made, but it's also
well-making. It's a healing movie. It's a beautiful thing. It's also funny all the way through.
It exists because Robert Duvall made it exist. Who else could have gathered Bill Murray, Sissy
Spacek, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, and Lucas Black to give some of the best performances of
their lives in an ensemble piece that wouldn't advance any of their careers or make them piles of
money -- just because it was worth doing, or maybe just because they love working with a
master like Duvall.
Rent it or buy it, Get Low will make your life better for having seen it -- but not the way
medicine does. This movie tastes good all the way down.