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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 24, 2013

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


Milanos, Invisibility, Crazy U

To me, Oreos are the nastiest cookies around that don't contain fruit filling. (All fruit filling, to me, is a desecration both of the fruit and of the thing being filled.)

The cookie itself is called "chocolate" only by courtesy. It's a dry, flavorless, bitter thing that cannot be saved even by a creamy custard filling.

But they don't even try for a decent filling. Instead, it's filled with some sort of lard or shortening mess filled with sweetener and called "creme."

People actually break Oreos apart and lick off the vile white filling just to avoid eating the black powdery "cookie" -- they even buy "Double Stuf" Oreos to get more of that biologically questionable white sweet paste.

(At list Nabisco honestly leaves off one F in "Double Stuf" so they're not only not claiming that the white substance is cream, or even creme, they're also evading any claim that it even qualifies as "stuff." It's only pretending to be stuff.)

When ice cream makers started making "cookies and cream" flavor ice cream, I could not help but wonder: Why would you take perfectly good ice cream and put crumbled garbage in it? Why would people buy it and eat it?

Not that putting cookie bits in ice cream is a bad idea.

But Oreo crumbles? Pppheeeeh. I spew them, and the ice cream surrounding them, out of my mouth. (This is a biblical reference, by the way, to Revelation 3:16. Because "cookies and cream" ice cream using Oreos is a sign of the apocalypse.)

However, once you remove Oreos from the equation, the idea of cookies in ice cream is an excellent one. Why, though, are people so lazy they insist that somebody else add the cookie bits in advance?

If you crumble up real cookies and add them to the ice cream yourself, then they will not get soggy. They will be crisp and fresh and good. And you can choose the cookie and the ice cream for yourself!

If we consider all commercial cookies of any kind, one brand emerges as the best; and when we are looking for cookies that are good crumbled into ice cream, Pepperidge Farm Milanos rise even higher, in my admittedly unassailable opinion.

Milano cookies are the opposite of Oreos, in concept and in execution. The concept is a light-colored cookie around a chocolate filling.

Unlike the "chocolate" in the cookie part of Oreos, the chocolate filling in Milano's is actually good.

And unlike the white oversweetened paste between the cookies in Oreos, the blond Milano cookie that surrounds the chocolate filling actually has flavor, and is not overly sweet, and seems as if it might have a biological origin.

Milanos are the anti-Oreos. They are the version of Oreos that rebukes the devil.

My wife loves the double chocolate Milano and I won't disagree with her. That's because, unlike Stuf, when you double the Milano chocolate filling you are definitely improving the experience.

The seminary students at our house have expressed a strong preference for Milano cookies aboveall other snacks. They disappear faster than any other treats I provide.

*

While I was checking out the cookie aisle, looking for Milano's, I noticed that Kellogg's has started competing with Nabisco on breakfast cookies.

The Nabisco product, branded "BelVita Breakfast Biscuits," is excellent. Delicious, crisp, and available in multiple flavors; each box contains five pouches of four cookies each.

My favorite is the Golden Oat, though I have nothing against the Cinnamon Brown Sugar.

Since I'm a frequent buyer and eater of BelVita, I thought it would be fun to compare the "Kellogg's To Go -- Cereal in a Biscuit" cookies.

Guess what. Nabisco knows how to make cookies, even if they did commit the crime of Oreos. Kellogg's knows how to make cereal. Apparently, what you learn in making cereal does not transfer over to the cookie department.

The Kellogg's To Go brand is, to put it gently, kind of awful. They look OK, but they're dry as dust and the flavor, to the extent that you can call it "flavor," isn't very good.

Not only that, but they actually contain weirdly unnecessary ingredients that attacked me right in the allergies.

Why would a breakfast cookie labeled as "oats & honey" need to contain almond flour, walnuts, and peanut flour?

Almonds I'm fine with -- but not everybody is. Walnuts give me cankers, and peanuts give me unbearable itching attacks.

Fortunately, the amounts are very small, and eating a single cookie did not cause me an outbreak of either allergy. But really, if you're creating a breakfast food that is supposed to resemble your breakfast cereals, why would you put in things that nobody has for breakfast?

Oh, really? You sprinkle walnuts and almonds and peanuts on your Rice Krispies? Well, fine. You're weird, and I accept that. Kellogg's to Go is just for you. (And nobody else.)

But it's not all bad news on the Kellogg's front: Crispix are back.

Thirty years ago, Kellogg's introduced Crispix as their answer to the Chex cereals. And in this case, Kellogg's topped the original: Crispix stayed crisper than Rice Chex or Corn Chex or Wheat Chex, and with corn on one side and rice on the other, their flavor was superb.

The problem with me and cold cereal is that I can't stop. The milk in the bowl and the cereal never come out even. I would start a box of cereal and then pour more cereal into the milk, and then pour more milk into the cereal, and the only way I stopped was when the box was empty.

Yes, that's right. A whole box each day. I did not share. I hunched over that bowl like a famine victim.

And I loved every delicious, crunchy, milky bite.

Did I mention that I am not a slender man?

These marathon breakfasts were doing such terrible things to me that I not only swore off cold cereal completely, I even swore off breakfast. I rarely eat any morning meal.

Quitting didn't make me thin, but it certainly slowed down my movement toward slaughter-ready hoghood.

I really haven't had cold cereal in thirty years. The one exception was that when we visited the General Mills store in the Mall of America in Minnesota, I had a small serving of Cheerios ... dry.

Cereal in milk? Haven't had it in more than three decades.

But seeing that Crispix package ...

You see, Kellogg's had given up on Crispix for a while. And now that it's back, I notice that Kellogg's bills it as "sweetened multi-grain cereal."

Was it "sweetened" before? And what does "sweetened" mean? Have they sugared the outside of it, like Trix? Or have they messed with the flavor of the dough from which they make those little puffy rhomboids?

Sadly, I will never know. Because a truly-reformed addict doesn't fall off the wagon just because somebody brings back his favorite form of drug or booze or cold cereal. He looks. He remembers. He feels a pang. But he walks on by.

And that's what I bravely did. It's up to someone else to discover whether they restored the original perfect flavor and crunch of Crispix, or wrecked it by making it too sweet.

*

I first came across David Levithan's young adult (YA) fiction this summer, when I read his powerful -- and weirdly believable -- Every Day. Now I've just finished Invisibility, a novel co-written by Levithan and Andrea Cremer, author of the Nightshade Series (which I have not read).

The two books are similar in a deep structural way. Every Day is about a young person who, from infancy, lives by inhabiting somebody else's body for a single day. During that day, he controls what his "host" says and does; but nobody realizes it.

The hero of Every Day has no name. He wasn't born -- he doesn't know how or why he came into existence. He can be of either sex. He tends to shift to someone fairly nearby (though not always). And he has developed a personal ethos -- he tries not to mess up his host's life too much.

But then he falls in love with a girl, and instead of just taking each day as it comes, he tries to get to where she is. Eventually, he is able to convince her that he exists -- that he's more than the body he inhabits.

Meanwhile, though, his efforts to be near her make him distort the lives of other people in dangerous ways; and one of his former hosts not only is convinced that our hero is a demon who possessed him, but also is determined to track him down.

Every Day was such a powerful, memorable book that I highly recommend it for mature YA readers. For it isn't enough that such a book have a cool premise -- as with Neal Shusterman's masterwork Everlost, what matters is how well the author creates a believable, noteworthy human being to respond to the strange situation he's in.

With Every Day, Levithan moved into the select group of YA writers I would mention in the same breath with Shusterman.

But Invisibility has a co-author. I know nothing about Andrea Cremer -- I bought the book on the strength of the premise.

Once again, the hero is isolated from everyone else, but not because he has no body of his own. Instead, as the title implies, Stephen is and always has been invisible.

Since most people don't have invisible babies, one has to marvel at the mother who raised him -- and the doctor who delivered him. Only -- as we gradually learn -- she knew the child would be invisible, because she was given that curse by a man she hated and had been forced to serve most of her life.

Now, though, it has been a year since Stephen's mother died. His estranged father still pays the rent on the New York apartment where Stephen had lived with his mother, and there's enough cash available every month for Stephen to order groceries and have them delivered.

The rules of invisibility are carefully worked out. Since it's a curse, and therefore magical, there doesn't have to be any weird physics or biology -- and his clothes become invisible as soon as he puts them on. So we don't have any issue with people getting shocked by empty clothing, or having him run around naked so people can't see him.

Instead, nothing he does can make him visible. And more: He's also insubstantial, except when he concentrates. If someone bumps into him, they can't tell he's there, unless he's working at being touchable. He has to make an effort to pick up objects and turn doorknobs. But he can do all those things, and so he makes his way in the world.

Obviously, he has never attended school. (Imagine someone trying to take attendance ...) When his mother died, the only person in his life who knew he was there, who cared about him at all, was lost to him. He lives in total isolation.

Until he runs into a girl who can see him. It takes a while for him to believe she can see him; and even longer for her to understand that other people, including her gay brother, can't. (His being gay is a huge plot point that gives shape to her life and influences everything that happens, and the authors make his character interesting and believable.)

I mourn a little that we're in a culture now in which it's taken for granted that two teenagers in love will sleep together, but Cremer and Levithan handle it with reasonable taste and the story isn't about invisible sex (after all, he's not invisible to her).

Some parents or relatives might be uncomfortable giving this book as a gift to a teenage reader; you have to assess the child's readiness to read about attractive people behaving in ways that you don't want the kid to emulate.

The story is powerful and magical; the villain, the one who cursed Stephen's mother and therefore him, is a formidable foe, and fighting him isn't like dealing with the bad guys in Goonies or Home Alone. This is not a comedy, though there are funny moments and the writing is full of wit.

Despite my misgivings about giving it to just any kid, I must say that the book is well worth reading for adults. Since most literary writing today is designed to show off the writer's chops, for good storytelling that is not about the writer's ego you have to go to genres like YA, mystery, and speculative fiction.

*

Our youngest has been in college long enough that the round of applications to different universities is a fading memory. But even as she was doing her applications, her mother and I already knew enough to let our daughter make the key decisions for herself.

It helped that her grades (and her study habits) were good enough that she could hold her own at any school. Still, my wife and I both had very strong views about the value of different universities ... which we tried to keep to ourselves, beyond mentioning general principles.

One of those general principles, though, I have said repeatedly throughout our family's history, so there's no chance that our kids didn't know how I felt. I believe -- and I think all the research backs me up -- that good students will get a good education at almost any college.

However, I recently had a breakfast meeting with a high-powered philanthropist who apparently sorts everyone into columns, according to the universities they attended. "Harvard" and "Yale" and "Chicago" and "Duke" were mentioned as if I should tremble with awe at the thought that I was dining with someone who knew people who had gone to those schools.

Sorry. I'm just not impressed. I've met utter fools with degrees from schools like that, and brilliant people with degrees from ordinary and even second-rate state and community schools, or with no degrees at all.

If you only admit A students, is it a big surprise that you also graduate A students?

However, all the standards they use for admission to exclusive schools have one thing in common: They weed out noncompliant, distracted, and creative students.

In fact, they often weed out the people you actually want to go to school with.

Which brings me to Andrew Ferguson's delightful -- and illuminating -- Crazy U. Ferguson is almost as cynical about the process as I am, but not quite: He really did care about getting his kid into a good school. He not only got involved -- he got involved with the idea of writing about the process.

Which means he did more than just help his kid jump through the hoops -- he looked at the hoops and tried to figure out what they meant and how they worked.

He looks at the SAT prep courses, the books that advise you on how to apply to colleges, the sample essays, the actual essay questions that students have to write about (which seem generally to be designed to get "feelings" rather than ideas or analysis, as if college were therapy rather than education.)

Ferguson praised only the question asked by Georgetown University: Write about a current world crisis and propose some course of action (p. 154). Ferguson's son finally had something real to write about -- and he produced an essay for which he had to gather real-world information, analyze it, and propose plausible solutions.

And he wrote a great essay. "It's like a vacation," his kid said, "not having to answer another one of those stupid questions."

By "stupid questions" he meant things like this: "Tell us in an essay what essay question you think we should ask." But his son's epiphany, after the Georgetown essay, was that he didn't have to approach the application as a set of hurdles, set up by other people, but rather as an opportunity to be himself and bend the questions to suit his own way of thinking.

Also, he only had a couple of days left in which to write all the rest of the essays. Nothing like deadlines to make you pour out the prose.

"Whatever the explanation, his remaining essays were often funny, like him. The themes were sharper, and there were fewer fancy words. They weren't written the way I'd have written them, but it was too late for much parental editing, and besides, I finally remembered, these were his essays not mine" (p. 155).

Ah, yes! It's not about the parents!

I've seen friends agonize over their children's college admission. We helped -- well, my wife helped, because for some reason my kids want assistance from the organized, grown-up parent -- but it was not our applications and we personally had nothing riding on it.

But too many parents do have the insane idea that the school their kid gets accepted to is some sort of judgment of the parents. Or, worse yet, the parents have already chosen the Right School and heaven help the child if he or she should desire to go Somewhere Else.

The fact is that most of what you learn in college won't be terribly applicable to your career -- you'll have to relearn it all on the job anyway, and besides, there's no guarantee that your actual career will have any relationship to what you majored in.

And what, really, do future employers learn about you from your college degree? Ferguson sums it up: A college degree tells a future employer "that more likely than not an applicant is fairly bright, knows how to come to work on time, has some personal ambition, performs tasks without a fuss, and won't make too much trouble" (p. 180).

That's so much nicer than what I always say: "A college degree proves that you know how to take orders from idiots, which is the main qualification for most jobs."

That's why a few years in the military make you just as qualified for most jobs as four years in college.

Crazy U is a wonderful chronicle and a sharp commentary. Ferguson takes the process seriously, whenever the process makes that possible, but he knows when things have reached the point of absurdity and says so.

And if you're a parent of a high school student beginning or going through the process, this book is a life raft. Read it to get some perspective, and maybe find out how to laugh about it while you're still going through it.


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