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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 10, 2013

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


Crosswords, Bacon, Cookies, Forging a Soul

The official word is that working crossword puzzles (and other such brain games) is a good way for old people (oh, pardon me, "hyper-mature citizens") to stave off the pangs of dementia.

When I was a kid, I thought of 60 as the boundaryline of "old," and nothing about my own passage into that decade of life has changed my mind. I feel old, I look old, and my body has on many occasions sent me messages that amount to, "Can I die, now, already, please?"

I'm still saying no, with medical help, but as long as I'm alive, I would like my old age to proceed with a minimum of dementia, thank you kindly.

Fortunately, I have long loved crossword puzzles. We've had a subscription to Games Magazine and its sister publication, World of Puzzles, since early in our marriage in the late 1970s.

Each issue contains many different kinds of puzzles, all of them therapeutic for and/or preventive of mental decay, I'm sure.

Mostly, though, they're fun.

However, Games and World of Puzzles have only so many puzzles per issue. Besides the problem of finity, they also come at weird intervals.

In order to meet the USPS schedule requirements, the six-times-a-year World of Puzzles and the 10-issues-a-year Games sometimes arrive on top of each other, and there are often gaps of several weeks with -- gasp! -- no puzzles at all!

Puzzle books

At such crisis moments, we resort to buying word-puzzle books at Barnes & Noble, and we have learned that not all such books are created equal.

First, it's important that pencil puzzles be printed on bright white paper that is thick enough to not punch through and completely erasable. It can't be slick (i.e., "coated stock"). And it needs to be free of typos.

It's also helpful if the book is spiral bound, so it can be folded back on itself. Whether you do the puzzles in your recliner, at the kitchen table, or in a room with lots of plumbing, it's most convenient if the puzzle and its clues are all on one side of a single page, and you don't have to fight to hold the book open.

Once these physical requirements are met, then the main distinction is "easy" vs. "hard."

"Easy" sometimes means that the words are all familiar, and that's a good thing. It's a cheap trick to use lots of obscure words that are barely in the English language.

But "easy" can also mean "no-brainer clues," and that's what separates the great puzzlewrights from the average ones. For instance, you might clue a five-letter word as "gets set" -- or the same word as "congeals." The answer, "jells," is the same either way -- but the first clue requires a certain twist of mind, while the second clue is merely literal.

Sometimes the search for a clever clue goes too far: "Games" as a clue for "ruses" is really not legitimate, though I ran into it in a recent puzzle.

Some people like to keep their crossword puzzles simple. Not me. I love the recent trend of puzzles that are doing two or more things at once.

For instance, one of the AARP series of puzzle books, Trivia Crosswords to Keep You Sharp," has a bunch of fairly good crosswords -- but what makes it more fun is that each puzzle has a trivia theme.

My wife and I are in the midst of "Jelly Belly Flavors." In addition to the fact that six answers have as their sole clue "Jelly Belly flavor," under the title there's an additional trivia list: "Others include Toasted Marshmallow, Champagne Punch, Strawberry Cheesecake, and Chocolate Pudding."

Likewise, under the title of the puzzle "Groucho Marx Roles" is the notation, "Others include Otis B. Driftwood (A Night at the Opera), Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Horse Feathers), and J. Cheever Loophole (At the Circus)."

That's just fun stuff to know (or be reminded of). And it feels as if the puzzle is about something, the way acrostics are.

Another great puzzle book is Leslie Billig's Sunday Stroll Crosswords -- challenging but never absurdly hard. Each of the puzzles has a fun theme. For instance, the first puzzle, "Pulling the Switch," has several answers where a familiar phrase is reversed.

Thus the answer to "Job for actress Marcia's protector" is "guarding Cross" instead of "crossing guard"; and the answer to "Speech in support of a candidate" is "backing talk" instead of "talking back."

Overstuffed Squares

I also get a kick out of puzzles where, in certain words, one square will be filled with multiple letters or, in some cases, whole words. In Sunday Stroll Crosswords, page 24's "Autumn's in the Air" has several squares where instead of a single letter, you insert the word "fall."

The words that cross this square both have to have the word "fall" in just the right position. So "heading for a fall" crosses the word "fallow," and the Tom Clancy title "The Sum of All Fears" is crossed by the word "pitfall."

Of course, the instructions don't say this at any point -- you just have to figure it out from the fact that an answer here and there has too many letters for the space. You're stumped until you realize that yes, you have to put the whole word "fall" into a single square, and then it works.

It's fun to browse the current selection of crossword books in the bookstore -- but I've found that certain puzzlewrights are more reliable than others. The "To Keep You Sharp" series has its ups and downs, but you can't go wrong with books by Leslie Billig or Martin Ashwood-Smith. Stanley Newman is also quite reliable.

And if you're thinking of subscribing to Games, remember that besides the puzzles themselves, there are lots of reviews and feature stories about board games, card games, party games, electronic games.

You may want to subscribe now, in time to get the December issue which alerts you to games for Christmas gift giving and also inducts new games into the Hall of Fame.

*

The high school kids in our church meet at 6:15 a.m. every school day for a scripture-study class we call "seminary." To show support, the last Friday of each month the bishop of our ward (parish) and his two counselors come and cook breakfast for them.

For the past two years, as second counselor I've been in charge of the eggs and bacon. (You didn't know that was a religious office, did you?)

Frying bacon greases up the kitchen, so we never do it. Instead I did a grand taste test (reported here in November 2011, you may recall) and found that by far the best pre-cooked bacon was from Jimmy Dean.

So it was time for the first "seminary breakfast" and I went to the Harris Teeter at Elm and Pisgah Church to buy the Jimmy Dean bacon and ... not there.

I went to the big Harris Teeter at Friendly Center and ... also not there.

Because I had to fix breakfast the next morning, I had no time to quibble. I snatched up what they did have -- Boar's Head, Hormel, and Oscar Mayer -- and cooked it all up.

The breakfast verdict: None of them were as good as the Jimmy Dean, but of this group the Boar's Head was best, and the Oscar Mayer barely qualified as edible.

Determined to provide only the best for next time, I went online to the Jimmy Dean store locator. They still said that Harris Teeter carried it (keep your site updated, please!) but they also named Lowes as an option.

I knew there was a new Lowes out at Church and Highway 150. It's not close enough for me to be a habitué of the store, but it happens I was dropping by some books at the home of a family who lives near there, and so I went on up the road and ...

You guessed it. On the shelf beside the Hormel and Oscar Mayer there was nothing.

In despair, I picked up all the Hormel they had (ignoring the Oscar Mayer; lesson learned) and then a lovely young lady came up to me holding out a brown paper shopping bag.

Why would I need a shopping bag in the meat department, far from the checkout counter?

Then she explained. I happened to arrive on the day of a meat-department special. All the meat I could fit into that shopping bag, I could buy for 30% off the listed price.

Well, I'm not stupid. If they want to give me back nearly a third of the price of the meat, I'll take it.

As I reached for the bag, though, a miracle happened.

There in a cardboard floor display just behind her were two dozen Jimmy Dean Precooked Bacon packages.

I filled the bag. Sorry if you went to Lowes for Jimmy Dean bacon that day.

*

So I'm in a store in LA and I see a plain looking brown box that announces itself as containing "Bart & Judy's The Best Chocolate Chip Cookies in the World! [Not Kidding]."

There's a drawing of a man and woman -- presumably Bart and Judy -- saying, in a cartoon balloon, "You deserve the best! We'll never sell out!"

Elsewhere on this very crowded boxfront it announces: "Belgian chocolate, Madagascar vanilla, and French butter!"

Now, I must admit to a bit of skepticism. Does the trip across the Atlantic really allow French butter to arrive in the best of condition? Is there something about French cows that makes their butter better than American cows?

Or is it simply the idea of French peasants pumping their butter churns on the stoops of picturesque Breton or Arlesien cottages that makes it worth touting the butter's frenchitude?

But the package also showed a tiny black-and-white photo of three cookies with the statement: "Bite size. No GMO's."

And I was hungry.

Admittedly, saying "I was hungry" is similar to saying "I was awake" or "I was breathing." When am I in a grocery store when any of those statements is not true?

So I bought a box -- one that said, in a blue space in the corner, "without nuts. 4.2 oz. (119g). 45-50 Cookies," just so I've included every speck of information on that boxfront.

I got it out to the car, opened it, and generously offered the first taste to my wife.

I offered it, and she took a cookie, but she did not get the first taste because such is my skill with cookies and boxes that, even after having suffered a stroke, I can get my hand into the box, snag a cookie or two, and have my hand out of the box and the cookie in my mouth during the time my wife is daintily considering the idea of actually eating the cookie she is holding in her hand.

What can I say? The claim to be "the best ... in the world" cannot be true, because fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, or those same cookies straight from the freezer, will easily beat any packaged cookie, period, forever.

But if they really meant "the best chocolate chip cookies you can buy in a box in a store," I think they are in contention.

And I say this even though Bart & Judy's cookies are "dry" -- as opposed to the Soft Batch cookies from Keebler or Chips Ahoy!'s chewy gooey cookies from Nabisco. I find, after long experience, that whatever they do to these cookies to keep them soft definitely affects the flavor, and not in a good way. The only soft commercial cookies that pass my taste test are the Soft Baked cookies from Pepperidge Farm.

When it comes to small, dry chocolate chip cookies, there are really only two other brands in contention (and believe me, I've tried them all).

Famous Amos is the best of the cookies you're likely to find in small pouches in convenience stores. It contains no ingredients that I find obnoxious, the flavor is good, and while they're crunchy, they aren't so dry they make you lunge for a bottle of ... pretty much anything wet.

Once you get out of the convenience store, the best dry chocolate chip cookies I had found up to then were the compulsively eatable Tri Delta mini chocolate chip cookies from Swoozie's.

Actually, they leap from the jar into your mouth without actually touching your hand, or so it seems, since the jar keeps emptying without my having any memory of inserting my hand into it.

If you don't happen to have a Swoozie's near you, you can buy these cookies online.

Sitting in our rental car in -- wait, it wasn't near LA, it was near Seattle (cities that contain grandchildren of ours all run together in my mind) -- and shnarfing down Bart & Judy's cookies, I had to say: These cookies were at least as good as the Tri-Deltas from Swoozie's.

Maybe a teeny weeny bit better.

But that would make them the best in the world -- of this kind.

Good enough for me.

But there's more to it than just the cookies.

Bart also regards his cookie boxes as a way to put forward his philosophy. The side of the box contains a slew of quotes: "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but ones." -- Shakespeare.

So I have to give Bart credit for going to the original instead of using the more common paraphrase: "Coward die a thousand deaths, the brave man only one."

But then I have to take away points for not having anybody proofread the copy and catch the typo of "ones" for "once."

Other quotes: "No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place." -- Zen

Since there was no person named "Zen" I presume this is a saying from some anonymous person in the Zen school of Buddhism.

That statement sounds wise to anyone who hasn't had a snowflake fall directly into their eye. Admittedly, you have to be lying on your back in a snowstorm with your eyes wide open. But if you're doing that, your eyeball is definitely the wrong place for a big fat snowflake to fall.

But I'm nit-picking. Everybody has favorite quotes, and cynical people can always find ways to make fun of them. I think it's fun that Bart puts his ideas onto his cookie boxes.

And inside them, too. Yes, there's a little brochure or booklet with even more philosophy.

Basically, this is a cookie with an editorial page.

But you know what? I'm a tolerant guy. I'll buy cookies from a person whose opinions I don't always agree with. And I'll even applaud his using his cookies as a way to get his views into the hands of strangers.

I think people should have opinions -- especially if there has been some kind of educational and/or analytical process involved in their creation -- and I believe they should say them in whatever venue they can find (unless it's somebody's funeral, in which case shut up or go away).

If you happen not to have Bart & Judy's cookies in a local grocery store, you can order them online at www.bartsbakery.com.

Note that all the opinions seem to come from Bart, and the website name strips away Judy's name completely, even though you know perfectly well that it must have been Judy in the kitchen, slaving away, trying recipe after recipe until they found the perfect one. Isn't that just like a man to take all the credit and do all the talking?

I made that up. For all I know Bart does all the cooking in their house and Judy handles the account books. But for a minute there, I had you wanting to hold up a sign and picket, didn't I?

Oh, and I haven't tried this yet, but they suggest putting their cookies in the microwave for a few seconds. They say this will make them taste fresh-baked. I'll try that with my next order. First time I ordered them, the box emptied itself way too fast for me to get any of the cookies into the microwave.

*

Hard to believe, but I really do try to keep these columns to a reasonable length. I've written a short essay on why science fiction is nearly dead as a genre of literature, culminating in a review of Brandon Sanderson's Hugo-winning novella The Emperor's Soul.

Subscribers to Uncle Orson on the Fly get the whole thing. But here, where space is more limited, let me cut to the chase:

The Emperor's Soul is the tale of a forger (in a delightful pun on the word, meaning both "one who crafts/forges" and "one who makes fakes") who, in order to earn her freedom, must create a new soul for the Emperor, whom an assassin has left so close to death that he has no memory, not even at the most basic level.

There is nothing left of his personality. She must reconstruct it.

The story is compelling as a story. But Sanderson reaches beyond mere adventure and explores the nature of what a "soul" might be -- what it is that makes a person himself, and whether someone outside of him can truly understand what he is.

The nature of the soul (or, if you will, the mind) is a question many writers, including me, have explored in different ways (it's the essence of my Speaker series and is touched on in my Worthing Saga as well), but what sets Sanderson apart is the eminently practical way he approaches the question.

Shai, the protagonist, isn't just running up against some set of rules about what a soul is. Her life and freedom depend on creating a fake soul for the Emperor that will restore him to power. But in doing so, she has to deal with the fact that he is surrounded by bureaucrats who hope to be able to dominate -- or continue to dominate? -- the Emperor.

Can Shai, in restoring his soul, make a few improvements -- yet do it so undetectably that the "advisers" closest to him don't detect the changes?

The book is short, obviously, but it deserves to become a classic. I know it will frustrate Sanderson when I say this, but after all his excellent work to date, this book is the best, and not just by a little.

With this book Sanderson used all the tools he had mastered to date, and applied them to a project far more ambitious than anything he had aspired to. That he brought it off with panache is an understatement.

*

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*

The most complete dramatization of Ender's Game is the new audioplay version, Ender's Game Alive, with a script by Orson Scott Card. It adds official new story material to the classic novel. Find out more about it at: http://skyboatmedia.com/enders-game-alive/


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