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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 12, 2013

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


Styronuts, Passwords, Amelia Peabody

I must say a few words about styrofoam packing peanuts.

Ick. Bleccch. Nasssty. Clingy. Insidious. Sneaky. Indestructible.

The reason they are shaped like peanuts is that once upon a time they were peanut shells. A byproduct of the manufacture of peanut butter and peanuts-in-bags and peanuts-in-cans, peanut shells were an ideal packaging material: cheap, structured yet yielding, and in large concentrations, lightweight because they're mostly air.

But no matter how many PBJ sandwiches children consumed, there weren't enough real peanuts to satisfy the shipping industry. Also, styrofoam "peanuts" were probably cheaper to make, store, and ship.

However, they also crumble into small bits that you can never pick up.

They become infused with static electricity so that you can't brush them off your hands or the objects packed among them. If you blow them off, they immediately leap like fleas to cling to something else.

If you are shipping a gift to someone, but you pack it in styronuts, it had better be a very, very good gift for it to overcome the hideous experience of trying to cope with the styronuts.

It's like the moronic fan who once sent us an envelope filled with glitter "to brighten our day." Nearly twenty years later, we still find bits of that glitter in corners and cracks. When we die, we expect that an autopsy, if there is any reason to perform one, will reveal bits of that glitter in our lungs.

I finally realized that this person hated my fiction: the glitter was punishment.

So it is with styrofoam packaging. It is the anti-gift. It is a way of saying to the recipient: "I hate you and wish for your misery forever, but here is a gift."

Bubble wrap. Wadded paper. These are acceptable packing materials.

I also got a shipment once that had been packed in compostable peanuts. They looked like styronuts, but they did not act that way. They had no static cling. They didn't crumble.

But when you dump them outdoors they gradually dissolve in the rain, wearing down to nothing. Those are also acceptable packaging.

*

Attending the Carolina Craftsman Fair at the Coliseum the day after Thanksgiving has been a tradition in our family for many years. We've missed only a few times. Once when they moved the date (that was a foolish mistake!); and last year, when we went to Disney World for Thanksgiving.

Over the years, we've seen some of our favorites leave the fair. We discovered artists Robert Flowers and Stephen Sebastian there, but first Flowers, then Sebastian wearied of the circuit and dropped out of the show.

For a while it seemed that the fair was being taken over by people doing work that looked like it was done by Loving Hands At Home -- amateur and kitschy.

You expect some of that -- but if that's all there is, why go? Fortunately, this year the quality seemed to be way better -- lots of new craftsmen and artists doing wonderful work.

We have a few perennial favorites. Foremost among them is photographer Charles E. Hull. His brilliant art photography of fruits, vegetables, eggs, pasta, or bread against a black background adorn the upper walls of our kitchen.

This year, he has added some gorgeous triptychs of rural scenes -- forest, beach, waterfalls, bridges. And his closeups of animals, flowers, gummy bears (a gummy bear stonehenge? Had to have it) are superb.

His canvas prints are beautiful, needing no frames. And his prices are reasonable. Fortunately, you don't have to wait for the next crafts fair: http://www.CEHullphotography.com

Hull isn't the only craftsman from the fair whose work can be seen online. For instance, Kathy Whitley Pottery has the website: LeatherAndPottery.com. Her husband Max does fine leather work -- but I'm afraid it's the pottery that has me hooked.

There is a vaguely MesoAmerican feel to her designs, perhaps simply from the way that almost every inch is involved in the designs.

If you think you're just buying a mug with a hand-painted tree on it, $48 may seem expensive; but if you think you're buying a work of art that you can also drink hot chocolate out of, then $48 is downright cheap!

We love our dining room set, but the moment we sat in chairs from Oak Crafts Inc. at the crafts fair, we were hooked. The chairs are so comfortable, and so beautifully designed and skillfully created, that I immediately ordered a single chair for our eclectic one-chair-of-each-kind living room.

Now we have to decide whether to replace our beloved dining room set with Josh & Tanya Miller's even better designed-and-crafted furniture. They tell us they're coming up with a new design for a no-two-chairs-alike dining set; I'm afraid that will be irresistible to me.

(My wife doesn't have quite my taste for unmatched and asymmetrical "sets" -- but she's very tolerant.) See their work at www.oak-crafts.com. (What I first fell in love with was the Providence Two Tone Set.) For the quality, the prices are astonishingly low.

We don't use a coffee table in our living room -- we have too many uses for the room to indulge in a low table. But I found a furniture maker at the fair who makes me want to reconsider.

Richard Newcomer's design for "posted" coffee tables and benches is unique and beautiful. Here's my favorite piece, a "maple with walnut trim posted coffee table": http://www.newcomercustomfurniture.com/id20.htm

The handwork is meticulous and Lucy Berry's finish work is luscious. Because Newcomer does custom work, I may commission something that requires creativity to make use of a difficult space ...

Arlene Koehler's "Heirloom Pillows," using a technique called "punchneedle," are gloriously baroque in their design. One might call it "wretched excess" -- but to my eye, it is far from wretched!

I wish I could send you to a website to see samples of her work. Instead, I can only suggest that you contact her by email. (I'm changing @ to "at" in her email address, so that automated web crawlers can't easily capture her address in order to spam her to death.)

Write to her at arl2101 "at" aol.com and she can send you pictures of her current work.

Each pillow takes her three days of work, so they aren't cheap compared to mass-produced store-bought pillows. The quality of her design and handwork, however, are worth more than she charges -- so I think of them as a bargain.

I wish I could tell you some of the wonderful stories of the Greensboro lady who makes painted metal flowers -- but alas, she, like me, doesn't carry business cards! You'll just have to find her (and get her to tell you her stories!) at next year's Caroline Craftsman.

*

So you've shopped at a website before, and you want to save yourself the trouble of typing in all your information. You try to log in so you can access the stored information, only to discover that none of your standard passwords work.

Don't even bother creating a new login. Because they have your email address on file, they won't let you create a new identity using that address. You have to recover that old password.

"Forgot password?" You click on that, and get an email directing you to a page where you can create a new password. Only then do they tell you their arcane password rules: Must have at least one upper case and one lower case letter, one number and one special character.

Or they forbid special characters, and your standard password has one.

Why don't they list these weird requirements at the point where you have to enter your password in the first place? "Remember, passwords at our site must have at least one upper case letter, at least one lower case letter," etc.

It's not going to compromise your password to remind you of their password rules. You'll probably remember what number and special character you usually add, which will save you the timewasting step of resetting your password.

Personally, I prefer the sites where they only require a minimum number of characters. If I'm dumb enough to have my password be "password" or my name backward, then let me have that choice.

The weirder the password, the more likely it is that we'll have to write it down -- and as soon as we write it down, we're in far more danger of having our password stolen or misused than by having a "weak" password that we can actually remember!

Remember, when you make up passwords, that the "word" in "password" doesn't mean your password must be limited to a single word. Why not put in a song lyric, leaving out a word or two?

For instance, "Thehillsalivewithsoundof" is the opening of a song from The Sound of Music. Only you will know that you always leave out "are" and "the," and stop with "of."

It's a long and therefore strong password, and just because someone knows you're a complete Julie Andrews (or Mary Martin, or Carrie Underwood) nut won't tell them which song you chose, and which words you left out.

But you'll remember -- without having to write it down. (Of course, this won't help with websites that have a bunch of stupid rules about having special characters and numbers.)

Just be sure to pick a song you won't object to having on your mind for hours after each time you use the password. It might just drive you crazy.

*

Elizabeth Peters passed away on August 8th of this year. When she died I was in the midst of listening to her Amelia Peabody mysteries for the first time.

I had known about the books for ages. But I never bothered to read them because, as a general rule, I don't like mystery novels that try to be funny. That's because most mystery writers are not very good at funny. Or if they are, they are so uncertain of their humor that they repeat exactly the same "jokes" in every novel.

Hence I stopped reading Maggody books and anything by Janet Evanovich. The seventh time you encounter the same "funny" pig or the same "funny" reference to a lover who "goes commando," you begin to wonder if there are people with such bad memories that these "jokes" are just as funny every single time.

There must be -- that's why the "Jay Walking" bit on the Tonight Show is still popular. The surprise is that any of them can read.

So, assuming Elizabeth Peters was as humor-challenged as most "funny" mystery writers, I simply avoided her fiction.

Then Audible.com offered a special promotion: The first book in each of a dozen or so series at a low price. Three books for two credits, something like that.

So I bit. There was the first Amelia Peabody, Crocodile on the Sandbank, practically for free.

Then I began listening and guess what:

1. The sense of humor was subtle, understated, and more reliant on wit and understatement than on slapstick and ridicule.

2. The Egyptology was as close to accurate as didn't matter. It couldn't be perfectly accurate because the fictional archaeologist, Radcliffe Emerson, had to be inserted somewhere.

3. The culture of imperial Englishmen was nicely blended with modern cultural liberalism. While Amelia and Radcliffe were as egalitarian and respectful of other cultures as was possible at the time, they were by no means anachronistically modern.

In fact, that is one of the delights of the book, watching them progress from unconscious imperialism to deliberate open-mindedness and generosity -- without ever losing track of their own sense of superiority as educated Englishmen.

4. The characters were eccentric without ever becoming unbelievable. This is such a fine line to walk -- Agatha Christie tumbled over the edge and so did Arthur Conan Doyle. Elizabeth Peters never did, at least not in my judgment.

5. Elizabeth Peters weaves into her storylines pastiches, parodies, and hommages of the great and/or popular writers of the age. Even as her characters secretly read trashy adventure novels and romances, Peters deliberately incorporates motifs from Sherlock Holmes and his clones, from the novels of H. Rider Haggard and his imitators, and from many other works and writers current at the time her characters lived.

6. She moves her stories accurately through time. Fashions are accurately reported; so are cultural changes, and political changes, and wars. When you read these books, you actually learn something about European, imperial, and colonial history.

7. From book to book, the characters also age and mature. They actually learn from previous mistakes instead of endlessly, changelessly repeating them. This is quite remarkable, actually, when you compare Peters's characters with the changeless Holmes, Poirot, Marple, and many others.

8. She is fair to the local Muslims and Copts without pandering to them. In our multicultural era when members of oppressed minorities are invariably saints, it is refreshing that Peters is never sucked into that trap; even the good guys have feet of clay.

9. The writing! Ah, yes. I have since read other books by Peters, in which she talks about writing, but in the Amelia Peabody books she proves that she is master of voice and style.

Not that she ever breaks her story to show off her writing ability, as so many highly-regarded bad writers do today (cf. Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Franzen). Most of the Amelia Peabody stories are told in first person by the character of Amelia herself, and Peters never breaks character.

10. The audio narrations of all the Amelia Peabody books are done by Barbara Rosenblat, and that is a blessing to the reader and to the writer. While there are a few pronunciation errors (and no, I don't mean the Britishisms), every reader makes such mistakes; they are easily forgiven.

What matters is that without ever seeming to try hard, Rosenblat creates such clearly differentiated characters that you feel as if you have listened to a performance by an ensemble of fine actors.

Are the books perfect? Very nearly so. Even when the events push the boundaries of credibility, the characters know it and comment on it; and in the meantime, Peters always steps away from the precipice just in time, holding on, sometimes by her fingernails, to the credibility of the story.

I fell in love with Amelia Peabody; her crustiness never become truly harsh; yet her soft heart became clear to us without every getting icky. Radcliffe's eccentricities could have made him a bunthunderous buffoon out of comic opera. Instead, he emerges as a man who is perfectly aware -- often if not always -- of his own buffoonery, which he uses judiciously to have the desired effects.

I worried for a time that the Master Criminal character was showing up far too often, intervening first as villain, then as inadvertent rescuer, and finally as conscious ally. But Peters, too, was aware of the danger of overreliance on the same bad guy. She kept bending him into the reality of the novels until he became a fully realized character. Indeed, he almost steals the series.

But he cannot ever really do that, because the next generation is so powerful. Ramses first appears as an appalling child who is also so brilliant that you can't help but love him.

Peters could have kept him in a changeless state of immature eccentricity, which would have destroyed the series -- though that is the choice most writers would have made. (Think "the Fonz.") Instead, she matures him, gives him a good friend (David Todros), believable weaknesses, and the wisdom to learn from experience.

And he sets him against the preternaturally beautiful Nefret, a character whose origin is so ludicrous, coming as she does straight out of H. Rider Haggard's She, that she could have wrecked the series just by existing.

Instead, in her infinitely wise manner, Peters makes Nefret a whole person, and her free-spirited ways turn out so badly sometimes that she has to grow out of them, at least partway.

Thus Nefret isn't a fictional disaster like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's or what's-her-name in The Great Gatsby -- an icon rather than a person, and not worth reading about. She becomes whole, a worthy participant in a family of eccentrics who nevertheless earn our attention and respect.

Some writers of long series help us keep the books in order with their naming conventions: A Is for Alibi; One for the Money. Elizabeth Peters used an entirely different naming convention that gives us no idea of the order of the books.

And the order does matter. Yes, she's a careful enough writer that you can start anywhere in the series and follow the story completely. But it's so much better if you can watch the characters grow and change over time; there are so many sly jokes that you only get if you've read all the previous books.

So here is the order of the novels. They were not written in this order, but Peters made sure that they all fit in their chronological place. (I am nowhere near as fastidious myself.)

1. Crocodile on the Sandbank

2. The Curse of the Pharaohs

3. The Mummy Case

4. Lion in the Valley

5. Deeds of the Disturver

6. The Last Camel Died at Noon

7. The Snake, the Crocodile, and the Dog

8. Hippopotamus Pool

9. Seeing a Large Cat

10. The Ape Who Guards the Balance

11. Guardian of the Horizon

12. River in the Sky

13. Falcon at the Portal

14. He Shall Thunder in the Sky

15. Lord of the Silent

16. The Golden One

17. Children of the Storm

18. the Serpent on the Crown

19. Tomb of the Golden Bird

The series, having begun in the late 1800s, ends precisely where it ought to: with the last great discovery of old-style Egyptologists, the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

One of the delicious frustrations of the series is that Radcliffe's bad temper keeps him from getting the license to dig in the places that would lead him to make the great discoveries. This is because Peters had too much respect for even the annoying real-world Egyptologists to give her fictional character credit for someone else's discovery.

So let me promise only this: Without violating history in any way, Radcliffe is given his moment of glory, even if only a handful of people know what he did.

I cannot imagine a nicer gift to give a reader of fiction than the beginning of the Amelia Peabody series -- unless it were to give the entirety of it. Nineteen books may seem a bit over the top, but I promise you that in most cases, a reader finishing one of the books will already be reaching for the next.

I hope that Peters's death does not lead, as in so many other cases, to the slow or rapid decline in popularity of her novels.

The result of that, eventually, would be for the books to fall out of print. But some authors' work is immune to that fate -- some grow in reputation after their death.

I believe that such growth in glory is what the Amelia Peabody series deserves. Try the books for yourself -- in audio or in print -- and see if you don't think I'm right.

*

Do you want a book by Orson Scott Card signed to a particular person as a Christmas gift? OSC will stop in every Monday before Christmas to sign books that are pre-purchased from the Barnes & Noble in Friendly Center here in Greensboro.

Please note that this is not Barnes & Noble online -- it's this particular store in Card's hometown. And he will only sign books from the following list of (mostly) hardcovers that B&N was able to get in stock: From the Ender series: Ender's Game, A War of Gifts*, Earth Unaware, Earth Afire, Shadows in Flight*.

Also, Gate Thief (Mithermages series), Ruins (Pathfinder series) and Zanna's Gift* -- a Christmas story which is the only paperback in the list. (*Less expensive than full-length hardcovers.)

You can either come into the store and make your purchase, or phone the store at 336-854-4200 and place a credit card order.

Card will stop by the store sometime during the day each Monday, and the books will be available for pickup (or will be mailed out) first thing Tuesday.


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