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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 21, 2013

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


Oz, Applesauce, Skinny Pop, Foote's Civil War

It was such a good idea, to make a movie about the backstory of the Wizard of Oz himself.

The trouble is, nobody actually wrote or invented anything to make the idea work.

All the money they spent on special effects, on a first-rate cast, and a normally good director, and what they shot was a script that could have been written by a high school student creating an Oz parody.

We walked out a half hour into the movie. In that time, poor James Franco was given absolutely nothing to say or do. The movie couldn't make up its mind whether he was an awful magician or a good one, an effective con man or an inept liar.

Every lie he told was obvious -- he showed us (and therefore the other characters) that he was lying. This is how you act and direct farce, pointing to every artifice. But wasn't the point of this to bring the Wizard to life?

Wouldn't it have been wonderful if Franco had played Oz as a first-rate illusionist, so we and the audience were fooled? As a really effective con man, so that we believed everything, too?

As it is, we must conclude that all the other characters are idiots, too, because they believe him.

And when he gets to the cheesy-looking landscape of the land of Oz, nothing is believable. The 1939 musical was more real -- including the flying monkeys.

Mila Kunis was given absolutely nothing to do by the time we left. We assumed she would turn out to be the wicked witch (duh), but just as Franco was given nothing to play but Crude Con Man, Mila Kunis was given nothing to play but Pretty. They didn't even give her enough script to make her intriguing or mysterious.

They gave her nothing, as they gave Franco nothing.

These are both good actors. Clearly they signed on to the idea of the wizard's (and the wicked witch's) backstory, without a script in hand to let them see that nobody involved with this movie had a single interesting idea.

Not one in the first half hour, anyway. There was nobody to care about. Nothing intriguing. Nothing amusing. Nothing emotionally compelling. Nothing to look at with wonder. Nothing to think about.

We went home and watched a little television, every moment of which, including the commercials, had better writing than the portion of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that we watched.

*

One of the diseases of age is that items from your childhood come back and plague you.

I can't reliably remember song lyrics -- unless, of course, it's a song that was pounded into me when I was young. Because my mother had us watch the Lawrence Welk Show, the products they advertised -- even then aimed at older people -- became part of my permanent musical heritage.

"Take Sominex tonight and sleep.

"Safe and restful.

"Sleep.

"Sleep.

"Sleeeep ..."

And of course we all knew that the laxative "Serutan is 'nature's' spelled backward." I never could understand why that was clever or meaningful. But it goes right along with Sominex.

Now if only I could remember the words to any but the third ("Pop") verse of the Rice Krispies jingle ...

*

In Earth Fare I spotted two different brands of organic applesauce, Santa Cruz Organic and Earth Fare's store brand.

Both had no added sugar. No added anything, except that Santa Cruz Organic had a dash of ascorbic acid -- the ingredient term for Vitamin C.

How in the world could I tell which was better, from the packaging? And since my last applesauce taste test had involved regular store brands like Mott's and White House, I bought both and had my own unofficial taste test.

First, I refrigerated them, because I like my applesauce cold, and why run a taste test under less than optimal conditions?

Then I dished up a small serving of each in separate bowls (see how careful I'm being?) and then tasted them with a plastic spoon.

This is vital, because I don't eat applesauce at meals. I eat it as a snack. I serve it into a plastic cup, and I eat it with a plastic spoon. So to test them with a metal spoon would be useless. Metal changes the taste, texture, and temperature of the experience.

This is, like, science, man.

Here is my result: Santa Cruz Organic's initial impression is that it is a little on the runny side. Earth Fare, on the other hand, was thicker -- indeed, it almost felt too stiff coming out of the jar.

Both of them were smooth and tasted good. Santa Cruz Organic is a little sweeter and has a more pronounced apple flavor. Earth Fare tastes just fine, but it's a little bland and not as sweet by comparison.

If I had not had them side by side, I would have found nothing negative about either.

Earth Fare's blandness is only by contrast; by itself, you wouldn't think, "Ick. Bland."

Likewise, Santa Cruz's slightly more liquid texture is just fine. By itself, you wouldn't think, "Ick. Runny."

That's the bad thing about taste tests. Because of the contrast, both came off worse on some features. Whereas by themselves, both would have been absolutely fine. Very good, in fact.

Applesauce does not need sweeteners. It can, sometimes, use cinnamon -- but you're much better off putting on (or mixing in) your own cinnamon, especially if you use one of the stronger cinnamons from Savory Spice Shop. And I daresay that it's the Earth Fare that would provide a better base for cinnamon applesauce.

Still, preference is preference, and when I shop again, what I'll probably buy, for the way I use it, is the Santa Cruz Organic.

I didn't compare price. Nothing has price tags anymore, just product codes, and I had already thrown away the receipt by the time I wrote this. If the price matters to you, taking whichever one is cheaper will leave you with a very good unsweetened organic applesauce.

*

Speaking of simple, with nothing added, I have a new favorite packaged popcorn. At Fresh Market they had a point-of-sale display of Skinny Pop popcorn. Zero trans fat, cholesterol-free, 39 calories a cup.

All it has on the ingredient list is natural popcorn, sunflower oil, and salt.

With such simplicity, it shouldn't be so addictively delicious. Flavored popcorns often slather on the flavor so that your hands are coated with powders, oils, and dyes.

Skinny Pop doesn't have anything like that. Even the oil is so lightly applied that you don't have to wash your hands before touching anything else. Or, at least, I didn't. But my wife and I, who usually disdain anything but fresh-popped popcorn, finished the bowl during one hour-long TV show.

I happened to find Skinny Pop at Fresh Market, but the skinnypop.com website says that in Greensboro you can also buy it at Earth Fare, Harris Teeter, Walgreens, and Total Wine (which rather makes me question the name of the place).

*

A friend who is also a history buff mentioned that he had recently reread Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative.

I felt a little stab of guilt: I had never read it at all. What kind of student of the Civil War was I?

I was only a kid when I read Bruce Catton's brilliant three-volume Army of the Potomac. The overarching narrative was Abraham Lincoln's search for a commander who would actually lead the splendid Army of the Potomac to victory.

Without realizing it, when I wrote my own Ender's Game I showed all the ways someone can be a bad military commander that I had learned from Catton's books.

Since then, I had read many books about the Civil War, each of them focused on one commander, one campaign, one year, one theme.

What Foote created, however, was much more ambitious: A single long work in which he narrated every battle in the entire war.

Most histories -- even good ones -- perform a kind of triage, deciding what to leave in and what just doesn't matter enough to be included. For instance, the entire Civil War west of the Mississippi is usually summarized briefly, referred to rather than recounted.

Not in Foote's book. He gives a reasonably detailed account of every combat in which more than a handful of soldier died, from the coast of Texas to a miserable little failure of a campaign in Florida, from the naval campaigns along the coasts and rivers to the slogging marches from Memphis to Selma, from Chattanooga to Vicksburg.

And he wrote it well enough that I continued to look forward to every chance I had to listen to the Audible.com recording.

No, he wasn't a perfect writer. There were the normal range of petty annoyances -- he didn't understand that "harried" is not an exact synonym of "hindered," for instance, so he said that the civilian onlookers who fled the First Manassas battlefield "harried" the Union Army's retreat.

This conjures up the image of civilians darting their carriages at the flanks of the retreating soldiers, taking potshots at them as they passed. What he meant, however, was only that the civilian wagons and horses blocked the road here and there, making it hard to get the army and its equipment safely out of harm's way and back toward Washington.

The most annoying thing about the book was that Foote apparently thought that repeating the names of certain generals too often was Bad Style. So he came up with nicknames for the ones he mentioned again and again.

Sometimes they were just obscure. Did it matter and was I really required to remember who was from Ohio or Virginia? Because a couple of generals were often called each other's "fellow Ohioan," and General Thomas's endless nickname was "the Virginian," which was unusual in the Union Army but very common in the war as a whole.

Most annoying was the fact that General Sherman was almost never mentioned without reference to his red hair. "The red-haired general" may have been used more often than his name.

Sheridan was "the bandy-legged" general, but he didn't become important until much later in the war, so the repetition didn't become so nauseating. But there came a point where I was saying "red-haired general" along with the narrator in a sing-song voice.

Alas, you see, Foote was completely wrong about style. Repeating the name of a general is exactly what good style requires. The name is the label, and it doesn't feel repetitive because that's the guy you're talking about.

But his replacement monickers became obtrusive and annoying precisely because they were not the names, so each time he used a replacement I had to register -- oh, that means Sherman; oh, that means Pemberton; oh, that means Sheridan.

Was Sherman's red hair really the most important thing about him? What about the fact that he understood the whole picture of the war better than anyone else, right from the start? How about "clear-thinking general"?

Aw, what the heck. Shelby Foote died back in 2005 (he was 88) so he's not going to learn anything from my comments.

What matters is that even with a few annoyances the book is extremely well written. To keep such a complicated narrative clear and alive, with as many as six or seven theaters of combat at any one time, is an astonishing achievement.

There's a reason most historians skip the "unimportant" battles -- because it's easy to lose the thread of one narrative while you cover another. But Foote balanced it all very delicately, making sure that we knew which events were happening at the same time.

I've heard Foote criticized for being too much in favor of one side or the other. That, at least, is nonsense. Foote's Civil War is a paragon of balance. He gives every commander and both presidents, as well as many politicians, their due. He worships no one -- he's as candid about Lee's flaws (which were few, but real) as Grant's.

If he spends more time on Jefferson Davis's life after the end of the war than Lincoln's, perhaps that's because Davis had a life after the war.

Foote doesn't try to cover Reconstruction -- there had to be some boundaries to the book -- but he does refer to the process caustically.

If there's one group he dislikes, it's the radical Republicans, the liberals of the day, who were determined to punish the South for causing the war because of their stubborn insistence on keeping slaves.

But then, he spent plenty of time on the useless absurdities of diehards among the Confederate Congress -- the kind of people who would rather lose the war because of upholding a principle than win it because they compromised even slightly.

The miracle wrought by both Lincoln and Davis was that they managed to wage war while being tugged this way and that (or jabbed and prodded) by self-righteous or ambitious idiots of every stripe.

Honest Abe had a tendency to make promises that he already planned not to keep -- that's documented and in developing our picture of Lincoln it's good to keep in mind. He had a way of telling the general he had already decided to fire, "I'll stand by you no matter what."

It was a necessary lie, in most cases -- if they knew they were on the way out, they might do something crazy or subversive to the cause. But it does jar a little.

At the same time, Foote does love to quote the people who criticized Lincoln as an idiot -- often for the very things that prove him, from our perspective, to have been brilliant. It's one of the best things in the book, to see how blind people are to greatness in their own time.

And we're left with a yearning for Lincoln's life to have been prolonged in order to use his enormous personal prestige to have a more kindly approach to the beaten South than was actually used.

Then again, if Lincoln had lived, the struggle with the radical Republicans might have gone badly -- the impeachment of Andrew Johnson might have been the impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, and for precisely the same reasons.

On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Lincoln ever letting himself get maneuvered into the awkward corners that Johnson was constantly getting into.

What-ifs make bad history -- but entertaining fiction. Let me just say that even though Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative is thousands of pages long, it's worth reading it -- or listening to it.

If there's ever been a book that proved the benefit of downloading audiobooks into convenient portable players, it's this one. I don't know if I would have stuck to it, reading it at night before going to sleep.

But letting it be read to me as a ran my errands and drove from place to place and exercised and worked in the yard -- well, those thousands of pages passed by in less than a month.

I felt, at the end, as if I really did grasp the whole war for the first time. I was keenly aware of how much detail even Foote was leaving out, having just read 1861: the Civil War Awakening, Adam Goodheart's wonderfully detailed and anecdotal account of the first year of the war.

Even with thousands of pages to work with, Foote couldn't include everything. But his choices were so excellent, his treatment of every event and topic so thorough, that at the end you really do feel as if you had seen everything.

There is no better grounding in the history of the seminal event in American history.

And as we live through another time of irrational hatreds and attempts by two opposing sides to compel obedience to their contradictory visions, it is a sobering reminder that win or lose, such single-minded unwillingness to admit that the other side has even a shred of merit to their claims leads nowhere worthwhile.

Slavery could have been ended far more cheaply and without the loss of a single life if the government has simply bought all the slaves at par and then freed them. It would have been a bargain in every way.

Instead, it took more than a million casualties, including more than a half million deaths, and untold millions of dollars in expenses and destruction, to determine that we would be one country, without slavery.

And even with that decision, blacks were soon returned to a bondage that was in some ways even more repressive, since they lived for decades in constant fear of random acts of murder, with constant daily humiliations that were hardly distinguishable from the conditions of slavery on the worst plantations.

It was as if all the kindly owners were removed, and only the cruelest were left to exercise random authority over all black people.

Yet the war did not resolve nothing. Even if it took nearly another century to complete the work begun then, it eventually was completed, even if it profits some today to pretend that it was not. Freedom finally came, along with freedom's price: inequalities resulting from the choices that free people make.

It's simply true that you can't have both freedom and absolute equality. The latter cannot be achieved anyway, but all attempts to approach it are made at the expense of the ability to choose and the responsibility of living with the consequences.

The soldiers and officers of the Civil War faced the consequences of their choices -- the whole nation did. And perhaps we learned this one lesson: Never again.

But since today we don't teach history to our children, except a highly politicized version that assigns blame incoherently in order to serve contemporary political ends, the danger is that the bitter lesson of the Civil War might yet have to be learned again.

I hope not. But there are those whose need to compel and punish others has no limits; if they are allowed to have their way, all will pay for it.

Take on the burden of this book; in the end, it will so enlighten you or re-enlighten you that its very weight and length will become part of what you liked best about it.


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