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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 6, 2012

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


Shelters, Earth Fare Treats, Blowback

I'm amused that our left-leaning city council thinks that in hard times like these, a music hall is worth spending public money on.

That's because the Left in America, supposedly the voice of the people, the protectors of the poor, the defenders of the oppressed, are in fact almost invariably the most elitist section of our society.

With so many people hurting, with houses in foreclosure, with jobs in short supply and many people un- or underemployed, they really plan to spend public money -- from taxes or donations -- on a performance venue?

Let me put this in perspective. I run, walk, or drive along the North Elm bus route almost every day. I see who is waiting at the bus stops, who gets on and who gets off.

The only attribute these people have in common is that they either don't own enough cars for everyone in their household, or they can't afford to drive the cars they have.

In Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, where I also walk, run, and drive, most bus stops I've seen have shelters. They have walls on three sides, for protection from wind and driven rain. The walls are transparent, for safety. There's a roof for shade and for shelter from rain (or, in Salt Lake City, snow).

In Greensboro, where we have so much extra tax money that we can afford to build a music hall to please the city leaders' elitist friends, the people who ride our buses stand out in the rain and wind and snow, or blister in the heat. Here and there we offer a bench, but most places, nothing.

If there were a dry, sheltered place to wait, maybe more people would ride the bus. That would be good for business and for jobs, because more people could afford to get to work in distant places; it would be good for the environment, because it might save a few car trips.

It would also show that our local government actually cares about the poor.

Meanwhile, I'll keep attending musical events at UNC-G or War Memorial Auditorium or Carolina Theater -- whose existence shows that Greensboro is not exactly desperate for a music venue.

I can hear some people curtly saying, "Well, Card obviously cares nothing about the arts."

My entire career is in the arts, and I have spent thousands of unpaid hours on theatre and music productions.

But I have never taken tax money to pay for my books or my plays or musicals.

Tax money is taken by coercion. And donated money has many possible uses. In my moral universe, such money should be used for actual needs. Like shelter for people waiting for the bus.

But no. Our city government thinks it's a much higher priority to build a music hall. While the poor are left out in the cold.

*

What with Whole Foods moving into Greensboro, and Fresh Market continuing to live up to its name and well-earned reputation, I worried that Earth Fare (on Battleground, just south of Lowe's) might be doomed.

Instead, Earth Fare's management has stepped up their game. The store is sharper-looking than it used to be. The produce is fresher. And they are doing a better job of offering a wide variety of high-quality goods.

Earth Fare is still the only store where we consistently find the best potato chips in the world: the Greensboro-made Good Health brand Avocado Oil chips.

But now, though Fresh Market and Whole Foods have carried it in the past, Earth Fare is now the only store in town where I can get Wallaby brand dark chocolate yogurt, without which my life would be only barely worth living.

One of my favorite things about Fresh Market has long been -- and continues to be -- their constant exploration to find cool new products to offer in point-of-sale displays.

Well, Earth Fare has now started a similar practice during this holiday season.

The bad news is that they are already completely sold out of their supply of Angie's Dark Chocolatier Sea Salt Holidrizzle Kettle Corn. And they aren't getting any more -- the chocolate-drizzled masterpiece is sold out at the manufacturer.

I have one bag left, and I'm not sharing.

But Earth Fare still has Angie's Holidrizzle Kettle Corn in the white chocolate peppermint flavor.

I hope Earth Fare realizes that Angie's should not be just a holiday thing. They sell other wonderful flavors of kettle corn, and I'd rather buy them at Earth Fare than order them online from http://shop.angiespopcorn.com .

It gets better. Walking down the holiday display between the freezer cases at Earth Fare, we found Le Chef Patissier All Natural Fleur de Sel Caramels. Now, I'm a caramel snob. See's and Fannie May make caramels that I would give as gifts. Besides them, only my mother makes caramels that good.

Well, these Le Chef Patissier caramels join the list. They're darker and a little chewier than the See's and Fannie May caramels -- more like my mom's. The touch of salt in them is only a slight overtone; the balance is perfect.

I have saved the best for last. When it comes to chocolate-covered cashews, I'm an addict. But even addicts can distinguish among products of varying quality. And I have now found the best chocolate-covered cashews ever.

Taza Chocolates are made in Massachusetts, but they buy all their chocolate from Mexican farmers and prepare the chocolate according to Oaxacan traditions.

The result is an extraordinary dark-chocolate-covered cashew. The chocolate coating is very thin -- a veneer, almost as if it's sprayed on, it's so thin. But the chocolate is so pure and strong and delicious that you don't want any more.

The cashew under it is also very good, and you can taste the cashew more than with any other brand. The result is an exquisite balance.

In the juice department, Earth Fare offers two miracles.

Ever since Tropicana stopped offering their legendary Valencia orange juice, I've been searching for a comparable o.j. No luck, until last week.

I was picking up some orange juice for an early-morning breakfast, when I noticed that Odwalla -- long a favorite source of blended juice drinks -- was offering pure not-from-concentrate orange juice. Naturally, I picked up a jug of Odwalla orange juice it to bring home and try out.

Not only did my wife and I love it, but so did everyone at the breakfast who tried it. We didn't point it out -- they just started saying, "Where did you get this orange juice? What brand is it?" And, just so you know, these were teenagers. When teenagers notice a quality difference in orange juice, you know that it's seriously good.

On that same shopping trip, I noticed, on a higher shelf, a bunch of small bottles of Noble tangerine juice.

Now, I'm skeptical. I've tried commercial tangerine juices before, and usually what they do is use juicing machines that scrape every last bit of juice from the fruit -- which also means digging into the rind so deeply that it turns all the juice bitter. That ruins the whole batch.

So before buying more than one, I took one off the shelf and sampled it on the spot. I would buy it, of course, whether I liked it or not.

But I liked it. No, I loved it. Noble was not over-scraping the fruit; there was no bitterness. It was pure, beautiful, delicious tangerine juice.

I bought every bottle of Noble tangerine juice on the shelf. And when they restock it, you'll still have to race me to get any of it.

So even though Earth Fare's paper bags fall apart with even modest loads, it's worth holding them from underneath in order to bring home the goods. Earth Fare is determined to be competitive, and for me, at least, they're succeeding.

*

That doesn't mean there's no reason to shop at Whole Foods and Fresh Market! We don't buy meat or fish from anybody but Fresh Market; their deli is where we buy salads, fruit and vegetable platters, and my eternal supply of Newman's Own Limeade, and so many other products I can't list them all.

And Whole Foods is our sole supplier of Red Jacket apple juice. Produced in the Red Jacket orchards in Geneva, New York, this apple juice is from cold-pressed apples, never from concentrate.

It's the closest we've ever come to the perfect apple juice we have, till now, found only in Japan.

I wish I could tell you that Red Jacket's apricot juice was as good, but I can't say that. You can't actually juice apricots -- you can only puree them and mix them with other liquids.

Most apricot nectars are mixed with water, so the only flavor you get is the apricot puree. Red Jacket, unfortunately, mixes their apricot mash with other fruit juices. And apricot is such a delicate flavor that it gets lost in the mix.

But getting apple juice right is enough of an achievement!

*

I vaguely remember Richard Marx as a singer who was popular when my older kids were in their early teens. He had some monster hits in that era. But I'd lost track of him completely, so his name was only vaguely familiar when I picked up his holiday album at Target.

Christmas Spirit is my favorite new Christmas album this year. Richard Marx is not a kid anymore, but his voice sounds like that of a twenty-year-old. His touch is light and the arrangements are gentle and nostalgic. It's definitely pop music, with no attempt at anything else -- but it's pop Christmas music done right.

And the title track, "Christmas Spirit," is bright and lovely. It deserves to become a new Christmas anthem, covered by many other singers.

His "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is the most powerful musical setting of the Longfellow poem that I've ever heard, and he performs it brilliantly.

And "Christmas Mornings" is thick with nostalgia. Some might think it's too sentimental. But not me. It's exactly as sentimental as I want a great Christmas song to be.

*

"The Safe Man: A Ghost Story" is a novelette by Michael Connelly that is sold as a "Kindle Single" for a couple of bucks, or as a short audio on Audible.com.

It begins as if it's the kind of story we expect from detective novelist Connelly, creator of the Harry Bosch series. Hero Brian Holloway is a safecracker -- the legal kind. A locksmith, he gets hired by people who have forgotten (or never knew) the combination to a safe they legally own.

But in the floor of an old house in Los Angeles, he comes upon a safe whose French manufacturer he never heard of. He inquires in the online locksmith community but doesn't hear back until he's already drilled and taken the door off the safe.

"Don't open it," he is warned -- too late. And the reason why has to do with the "ghost story" subtitle.

However, this is not your ordinary ghost story. Connelly has come up with a really cool twist on ghost stories, a highly unusual kind of ghost that "haunts" with a powerful purpose.

The trouble is that Connelly stopped with a short story twist ending, which is very frustrating, because there is no way that's the story's end. There's a great novel in this idea, as we follow through to see what the hero does about the things he learned from the ghost he met.

So Mr. Connelly, if somebody kindly calls your attention to this review, please heed me as I respectfully beg you, as reader to writer, for the rest of this story. I know how I would deal with the rest of the novel, but I don't want to read my version, I want to read your version!

And I won't settle for an easy Oedipus Rex you-can't-change-fate rule set. You've never gone for the simple solution in any of your fiction. So I'm counting on the full story sometime. Soon, because I'm getting older, and so are you, and if I croak before you've done the novel version, I'll haunt you, and it won't be pleasant.

Not that I expect you to yield to such dire threats. I'm just saying.

Meanwhile, I look forward to listening to your new Harry Bosch novel, The Black Box, as soon as I finish listening to the Churchill biography.

*

The problem with listening to audiobooks is that I don't have a copy of the book to set beside my computer, where I'm reminded to write a review.

Fortunately, I ran into Kristine Kathryn Rusch at a librarians' conference in Washington a few months ago, and she was kind enough to give me an ARC of her latest novel, Blowback.

It was scheduled for December release, but now I see that it's already out -- and ready to be given as a gift to your sci-fi-reading relative or friend.

Blowback is the most recent installment in a long series -- perhaps the best continuing science fiction series that isn't by me. (I have to make an exception for my work, just in case it's as good as I hope it is.)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Retrieval Artist series is set in a future in which humans have an uneasy relationship with aliens who demand that the human race show respect for their laws and customs.

And some of the aliens, at least, have the military power to back up their demands.

Imagine our world if the U.S. and Europe were bound by treaty to turn over to Saudi Arabia or Iran any offenders against Islamic law. Salman Rushdie could not be given protection; anyone who offended their laws, in their territory, would have to be extradited.

That's the moral universe in which Blowback is set. Our main hero, Miles Flint, has a long and bitter history, which led him into the career of finding people who have gone into hiding in order to avoid alien "justice." But he usually doesn't find them in order to turn them over to the aliens -- there are always good but complicated reasons for "retrieving" them.

Among the "retrieved" is his own daughter, Talia, who didn't know he existed until he saved her from alien "justice" a few years ago. Now they're both living on the Moon as a terrorist act takes place, and Miles has to find out what is happening and why in order to prevent an even worse attack that could happen any day now.

Even if you've never read a Retrieval Artist novel, Blowback will work all by itself. But you will want to go back and read every other installment in the series, because this is among the best fiction of any kind being written today.

It's also available at Audible.com. Rusch writes for adults and mature young readers alike -- her books make good gifts for mature boys and girls, and for men and women who want fiction that gives them something to think about.

And for those who, like me, have been waiting for the third volume of Richard Phillips's brilliant series The Rho Agenda, the third volume, Wormhole, is now available as a paperback original and as an Audible.com download.

That means you can give someone all three books for Christmas -- an excellent gift for mature teenagers on up to aging coots like me; and, with both male and female protagonists, you can give it to your niece or your nephew.

*

I actually like Google. Yes, they want to be a big corporate monster like Microsoft and Apple, with their fingers in everybody's computer. But Android, for all its flaws, really is an open-source operating system based on Linux. And while Google sometimes overreaches, they don't think they own my computer the way Microsoft and Apple do.

So I gave their web browser, Chrome, a try. In a lot of ways, it's smoother and clearer than Mozilla's Firefox, which I have been using for the past few years.

However, there are some weirdnesses. For instance, when I wanted to copy into this column the addresses of several websites I bookmarked on Chrome, I couldn't get Chrome to let me get the full URL. It hides "http://www" from view, which is fine; but not fine when I'm trying to paste or edit a link.

Even when I tried to "manage bookmarks," it would show me the full URL, in faint letters off to the side, but it wouldn't let me mark the URL as a block of text in order to copy it. Maddening!

There's also the annoyance that Chrome handles my downloads from Audible very weirdly. I go to download a book that is "divided into multiple parts to make the download faster." In Mozilla and Explorer, it's all treated as a single automatic download. But with Chrome, I have to start it manually.

That's fine, except that each part of the book causes a separate download operation to begin. But each one includes more than one part of the book, or sometimes resumes an earlier, already completed download, though none of the download windows includes all of them.

If I close one of the download windows, it shuts down all the downloads, as if Chrome knew it was all one operation. But when one of the windows finishes its download, the same download in another window continues, as if it hadn't already been fully downloaded, by Chrome, in another window.

In other words, Chrome's left hand doesn't know what its right hand is doing.

Chrome is still a fairly new program. I assume that eventually it'll get fixed. Just like all the weird problems with Android. As in the weird problem that has cropped up for all of us in our family who use Android-based smart phones.

All of a sudden, the phone will close the screen for no reason. We slide the bar to open it again, and resume what we were doing -- and it immediately closes the screen again. This can happen a half dozen times. Infuriating. And then, for no reason we can detect, it stops doing it and we can finish the operation.

We have looked for some setting, some error, that might be causing this problem, but we haven't found it yet. It's just an Android weirdness that you have to get used to.

But hey. I'd rather have a few weird things like that with an operating system that doesn't think it owns me, my phone, my computer, and all my children, the way Apple and Microsoft do.

*

So the whole time I've been writing this column, I had the can of Taza dark-chocolate-covered cashews open beside me. It was two-thirds full when I brought it upstairs to my office.

It's empty now.

Dang, those cashews are good. Now I can only hope they also have no calories.

No. I looked on the can. 170 calories per serving. Supposedly eight servings in the can.

As I buy new and larger clothing, I will remind myself of how good those cashews were.

*

Remember that on every Monday morning till Christmas, I will sign and personalize selected hardcovers that you buy or order by phone (but not online!) from our local Greensboro Barnes & Noble store.

The phone number for ordering (and prepaying by credit card) is 336-854-4200. The books are Ender's Game, Shadows in Flight, Ruins, Earth Unaware, and Lost Gate. The deadline for ordering books to be mailed is before 11:00 a.m. on 17 December. The deadline for books you'll pick up in the store is 11:00 a.m. on 24 December.


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