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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 19, 2013

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

Bellman, Hyperbole, Great Performances

It happens that one of the best bands working today is an overtly Christian one: Casting Crowns. I never thought that would happen, because for years, Christian music was derivative and the lyrics were either sappy or so on-the-nose that it was embarrassing to hear them.

Credited to Mark Hall and Bernie Herms, the song "All You've Ever Wanted Was My Heart" is musically pleasing and interesting, and -- more important, at least to a writer like me -- the lyrics (a) make sense and (b) are poignant and real.

None of the smug self-congratulation of so much Christian music, not for Casting Crowns.

You can download it -- how else do we get singles these days? I don't see a rack of 45 rpms in the stores.

The new Casting Crowns album, called Thrive, will go on sale on 28 January. But why wait to get this great song?

Also, I really like the cover art. Not a reason to buy a tune -- especially since you don't actually get to handle a record jacket or CD case when you download a song. But depending on your mp3-playing software, you may get to look at it when you play the song, so it helps if it's good art.


So you're in a shopping mall in Amsterdam, and all of a sudden there are people in Renaissance costumes chasing a thief all over the place. And at the end, they come together in a tableau of Rembrandt's famous painting, "Night Watch." http://sn.im/RembrandtLive

{full URL: http://hyperallergic.com/68647/actors-restage-rembrandts-night-watch-in-amsterdam-mall/ }

The logistics of this were pretty demanding. And not just because they had to find a bunch of actors who were fat enough to play the burghers in the original painting.

In fact, I doubt something like this could ever be staged in America. First, because we have no painter (no, not Grant Wood, not Andy Warhol, not Andrew Wyeth) whose work would be instantly recognizable to our ordinary citizenry the way Rembrandt's work is known to the Dutch.

Second, because every American mall is run by a company with risk management experts making all their decisions. And there's no way the experts would allow horses to come into the mall, or actors to swing across the central atrium on ropes, or the "thief" character to plummet from a balcony onto stairs. Too much danger -- in America -- of getting sued.

What's most moving, though, is the response of the crowd. They don't just recognize the painting. The stunt was staged to announce and promote the reopening of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, which has just concluded a decade-long renovation.

With all the changes in the museum, the only painting that remains in its original place is Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." The Dutch shoppers responded with genuine affection and delight -- to a show, yes, but also to a matter of national pride.

Is there any artist, in any field of work, that Americans respond to with universal pride? A couple of poets might have qualified, once upon a time -- Robert Frost, Walt Whitman -- but that was back when we valued poetry. Now it's just a weird interlude in seventh or eighth grade.

Maybe "Sweet Home Alabama" qualifies -- for some Americans, at least. I wish I could say that Barber's "Adagio for Strings" or Copland's "Appalachian Spring" or "Fanfare for the Common Man" were universally recognized and beloved -- but few people even pay attention when classical music plays.

Maybe I'm overlooking something obvious. Maybe there's some movie that everybody loves. Please tell me it's not the revenge movie Godfather. I'd be so ashamed if that were our national icon.

Shane? The Princess Bride? Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Anyone? Anyone?


Books are the best Christmas gifts. Even better than playing with the box.

For instance, there's Cat vs Human, by Yasmine Surovec. Her cartoons are delightfully explicit as they detail the horrors of living with cats; and with people who love cats.

Oddly enough, the book is clearly written by a cat lover. But Surovec is a realistic cat lover.

Now, I was, once upon a time, a cat lover myself. But a strong cat allergy intervened. It first surfaced when I attended a sleep-over writing workshop at the home of my friend Mark Van Name. Mark and Rana love cats. I loved cats. I didn't mind a bit when a cat slept on my bed.

But as the days went on, I found myself coming down with a really nasty cold.

Which went away the moment I got away from Van Names' house for a day. I began to understand that cats were not for me.

Imagine you found yourself to be violently allergic to your own children. What would you do?

Fortunately, I did not own a cat (being married to a committed humans-only-in-my-house person), so there were no draconian decisions to be made.

But in the long years of having to watch out for cats in order to avoid them, of having to decline to visit good friends because it would be rude for me to make them choose between me and the cat(s) in residence, a strange thing happened. My self-protective alertness turned into an aversion.

Being deprived of cat-cuddles and sinuous leg-drive-bys gradually makes you remember only the horrible things about cats.

That is why Cat vs. Human is really not aimed at cat owners. They already know all these things. No, this is a book that needs to be given to someone thinking of bringing a cat into their life.


Allie Brosh, the author of Hyperbole and a Half, is not as skilled a cartoonist as Yasmine Surovec. Or maybe she is, and she merely chooses to draw all her humans as if they had not quite finished evolving from walking fish.

This is a book born on the internet -- as so many are these days. People try out their ideas on their blogs. People start to like their blog and link to it. Their following grows.

Then a publisher looks at their numbers and the quality of the work, and decides to commit to a book.

Smart choice.

Hyperbole and a Half feels real, though of course the title proclaims that it is an exaggeration. And even though it's aimed at women in particular, there's nothing to keep guys from becoming enormously well-informed by reading it.

If you've been following the blog, there is a lot of new content (something smart publishers insist on); there are also classics, like her brilliant "Adventures in Depression" and "Depression Part 2."

Oh ... and in case you need more information, here's the whole title: Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. Yeah, that covers it.


The jewel of this Christmas season, however, was not born on the Internet. Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale blew us away back in 2007.

By "us" I mean readers of taste and discernment who have no patience with pretentious twaddle, but who do love a writer who is an absolute master both of language and of storytelling.

It has been a long six years, but Setterfield is back with a book worthy of her first novel.

It is not a sequel. It is not even the same kind of fiction.

Where Thirteenth Tale is a lush gothic in style and story, her new book, Bellman & Black, is an epic, if you will: an entire life in a surprisingly small number of pages.

The life is that of William Bellman, the slantwise grandson of a mill owner who has a gift for business. Without ever pushing himself forward, he takes any opportunity he is given and magnifies it into real achievement that benefits even people who despise him.

Bellman attracts and earns the love and devotion of many people in his life. His style of management is to see what the other person needs and make sure that they receive it in the process of meeting Bellman's need. You know, "win-win."

Have you noticed how most people who say "it's a win-win" really mean "Are you stupid enough not to notice that I'm screwing you?" But in Bellman's case, he really does make good things happen for everyone around him.

But that's not where this story begins. And it's definitely not a tale of a charmed life, though it could have been.

The tale begins when William Bellman, as a child among children, throws a stone at a raven on a branch. The bird is too far away to hit, so he hardly imagines that he will hurt it. He expects that at best the stone will strike near enough to make the bird take flight.

Instead, the stone describes a perfect arc; the bird never sees it coming; and the boys arrive at the tree to find the raven stone dead on the ground.

One way of looking at this book is that it is about William Bellman's paying a price for this truly boyish, inadvertent misdeed. But I don't see it that way at all.

Instead, I see it as a kind of Job story, in which nearly everything that truly matters is stripped away, but instead of trusting God and receiving replacement blessings, this Job rejects every chance of happiness that comes his way, trying to ensure that nothing bad can happen to him again.

How can you ever make sure of that? Only by acting in such a way as to prevent anything good from happening to you, apparently.

This is a "told tale." That is, there is little use of standard viewpoint. We are often given information that doesn't come from Bellman's own mind, and gradually we become aware that there is, in fact, a narrator, though he is not revealed until near the end.

Thus we skate across the surface of the story -- which allows Setterfield to cover enormous amounts of time. Yet when she settles down to tell incidents and sequences in detail, you get a veritable education in the things that Bellman himself is learning. I do believe I could start up a mill or a retail clothing store myself, based on what this book taught me.

I warn you before you start: This is a tragedy about a good man, whose fatal flaw is that he cannot bear to leave anything to chance. Everything must be planned out and faithfully executed. You know people like that. Maybe you are one.

Setterfield is saying, in the end, that since "the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley," it is not always a good idea to force your plans through to their logical conclusion. Sometimes the real achievement is to know when to step off the treadmill. Often it would cost you little, except for a bit of uneasiness about this or that task left unfinished.

But how many tasks you set yourself will never be achieved in your lifetime.

Picasso said, "Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone."

Sure, that means "do it now" -- with some tasks. But with others, it means, "Yeah, if I died with this undone, neither I nor anyone else would care, so I'm not going to do it at all. I'm going to do this other thing, which I will be glad I didn't leave undone."

There's a lot of dying in this book. That happens when you tell a tale that spans an entire lifetime. In fact, there's a lot of dying in real life, too. Our chance of death is a hundred percent; our life expectancy may be high, but it is never infinite.

So a book that is deeply committed to being a story about the inexorability of death may be too honest for some to take much pleasure in.

I can only promise you this: William Bellman's is, in the main, a life worth living. An exemplary life. Would that more of us could live as generously as he. And his mistakes hurt mostly himself.

In its private, polished way, Bellman & Black is something like The Apocalypse of Diane Setterfield. Here's how the world ends.


Every year, Mormons are treated to a "First Presidency Christmas Broadcast" which includes a lot of music from the Tabernacle Choir. However, the real Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert is not that "in-group" event -- it's the PBS Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

The days when the Mo-Tab Choir all sounded like Utahns -- hard R sounds and flat vowels -- are over. Their music is wonderful.

But I've seen a preview of the concert, and I have to tell you, you're really going to tune in to hear tenor Alfie Boe sing "Bring Him Home," from Les Miserables. One of the most moving pieces of theatrical music ever written, "Bring Him Home" requires a real tenor, and that's what Boe delivers.

Tom Brokaw is also on hand, telling a great Christmas story from the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. (I only regret that PBS uses a profile shot of Brokaw that shows his earphone wire emerging from under the back of his toupee. The whole point of the arrangement is that you only shoot him from the front.)

But don't just take my word for it. Go to pbs.org and see their preview: http://www.pbs.org/program/christmas-mormon-choir/

I've been delighted with the quality of PBS's Great Performances series. For instance, the Pavarotti: A Voice for the Ages special amazed me. Yes, I knew who Pavarotti was -- a famous Italian tenor, whose stoutness made cliches of fat opera singers come true. How could anyone take him seriously in a romantic lead?

Now I know. Because for the first time, I was able to see closeups of Pavarotti while acting. Yes, he's singing, but he's also acting. His face is beautifully expressive, without ever seeming to be mugging.

In most singers, the face is an instrument of voice production, and it is distorted in order to produce the sound. But Pavarotti seemed to produce the sound effortlessly, so that his face was available for expressing the character.

Pavarotti himself was aware of this, as the interviews reveal. But why shouldn't an artist know and say where his strengths lie? He knew he was unconvincing if he tried to move around the stage -- the lumbering movement would surely undo the effect of the song.

So instead he relied on his face and his voice, and with that combination he stood head and shoulders above all other tenors. And if you doubt it, there's a moment of "sing-off" between Pavarotti and the other two of the Three Tenors, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. They are also wonderful singers, but when they try to match one of Pavarotti's incredible trills, it's obvious they're out of their league.

Of course, the trill itself is just showing off. It doesn't really add to the music, it merely makes the audience clap at the virtuosity of the singer. But that's where opera is today, rather as ballet was until recently: Set forms, endlessly repeated, mean that the performers must juice up the performance with individual stunts. And Pavarotti was the best.

Another PBS Great Performance is Barbra Streisand's Back to Brooklyn concert. Since for most of her life, Brooklyn was just across a bridge from Manhattan, I am quite sure she has been back to Brooklyn many times. But this title refers to her doing a concert there, and why not? Whatever gets Streisand on stage.

Yes, she's getting older. Her voice is showing the effects of age. But Streisand -- the same woman who never had a nose-job done despite her aching desire to be "beautiful," because it might damage her voice -- is quite aware of her new limitations and sings around them with skill and inventiveness.

If Back to Brooklyn is her last concert -- and perhaps wisdom will make it so -- it's a fitting recap of her career. Of course, you don't have to watch it on PBS now -- it was released as a CD and DVD almost immediately after the first airing.


If, like me, you're always on the lookout for a new singer, one of the best times to sample their work is Christmastime.

Of course, sometimes it can be misleading. For Christmas, a lot of singers offer much more traditional music than their ordinary work.

But I confidently offer you Merry and Bright, a short album by Liz Callaway. She's a Broadway-style singer who has moved on into the world of cool jazz and Great American Songbook.

The acid test? She put "Grown-Up Christmas List" on her album and it didn't make me sick. (The most childish thing ever to go under the name "grownup.")

All the other songs are simply delightful. I like her voice. I like the album. I've got some of her other albums on order.


Speaking of Christmas songs, have you noticed how "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" has been bowdlerized, presumably to please feminists?

Here are the words I memorized as a child:

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,

Lean your ear this way;

Don't you tell a single soul

What I'm going to say.

Christmas Eve is coming soon;

Now you dear old man,

Whisper what you'll bring to me;

Tell me if you can.

When the clock is striking twelve,

When I'm fast asleep,

Down the chimney, broad and black,

With your pack you'll creep;

All the stockings you will find

Hanging in a row;

Mine will be the shortest one.

You'll be sure to know.

Johnny wants a pair of skates.

Susy wants a dolly.

Nellie wants a storybook;

She thinks dolls are folly;

As for me, my little brain

Isn't very bright;

Choose for me, old Santa Claus,

What you think is right.

But those aren't the words you're likely to find today. The middle stanza has mostly disappeared completely -- perhaps because of the word "black," though this song was written back when nobody referred to African-Americans as black.

If you've ever been inside a chimney, you know that anyone passing through one will be jet black upon arrival. Nothing racial.

The true absurdity, though, is the feminist change to what the children want. It is wrong wrong wrong to show a boy wanting an outdoor toy, and a girl wanting a doll! Sexual stereotype! Anathema! Off with their heads!

So the new stanza says:

Johnny wants a pair of skates.

Susy wants a sled.

Nellie wants a picture book,

Yellow, blue, and red.

Now I think I'll leave to you

What to give the rest.

Choose for me dear Santa Claus.

You will know the best.

Never mind that there are a lot of dolls for sale in toy stores. Somebody's buying them. Anybody seriously think that they aren't overwhelmingly going to girls?

Here's what rubs me raw: This song already had a feminist spirit. Susy may want a dolly, but Nellie thinks dolls are stupid and she wants a storybook.

But the new verse, in order to find a rhyme for the egregious "sled," makes Nellie illiterate. Nay, not just illiterate, but so dim-witted that she doesn't care what the pictures are of, as long as they contain the primary colors.

Another version shows up that has Nellie want a "storybook; one she hasn't read." Slightly better. But it misses the point: The children are all different, and the song isn't saying what all boys want, or all girls; it's saying what the singer's older brother and sisters want. They're individuals.

Then we come to the last quatrain. The littlest kid in a family often feels like "his little brain isn't very bright," because the older kids all know so much. They have definite preferences, but he doesn't yet know what's even available in the wide world. (This was written before television, remember.)

But apparently we can't let a child sing a self-deprecating verse.

Too bad, because when you think about it, this is a touchingly altruistic song. The child is asking Santa Claus to merely tell what he's bringing. He has no specific gift request. Instead, he's making sure Santa knows what his siblings want! He's looking out for the older kids!

Come on. Isn't that the Christmas spirit?

So no, I'm not playing. The "new, improved" words are stupid, and they messed with a pretty wonderful little song. The old words are the only ones I'll sing. Though that may only prove that my little brain isn't very bright.

It's a song, by the way, that apparently wrote itself -- no author can be found, at least not with a cursory Google search.

Fortunately, we also can't find who made the politically correct modernizations.

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