Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 17, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Jersey Boys, Roz Chast, Normal
When the Four Seasons first started getting radio airplay, my voice hadn't
changed -- so I could sing along with Frankie Valli on the high parts.
"Big Girls Don't Cry" was the most fun to sing with, but even though I knew
their music, I hadn't realized how many of their songs I liked until I saw
Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood's film adaptation of the Broadway musical.
Clint Eastwood's love affair with certain kinds of music has affected his whole
career as a director, from Bird in 1988 and including executive producer
credits (meaning he helped to get them made) on documentaries about
Thelonious Monk and the Monterrey Jazz Festival.
But when it comes to Broadway "jukebox musicals" -- shows that are really
just revues strung together with fairly minimal storylines -- you wouldn't think
of Eastwood's moody, character-centered directing style as being exactly
Think again. While the Broadway feel is still there -- characters talking
directly to the camera just as they must have talked to the audience in the
stage show -- and the story takes some major jumps in time, the Eastwood
touch still lifts the film into something a little closer to the level of Tom
Hanks's classic behind-the-scenes rock-n-roll movie That Thing You Do!
Closer -- but not quite there. But Eastwood labored under a different set of
restrictions. Hanks's masterpiece was fiction, so it could go anywhere that
Hanks, as screenwriter, wanted it to. Eastwood, along with the writers of the
stage show and the screenplay (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), had the
limitation of "truth."
Not that liberties weren't taken -- they always are -- but this story is brutal
enough to some of the characters that at least those portions of the story had
to be true.
The Four Seasons brought doo-wop to a new level -- which was a good
thing, since they had to go head-to-head with the British Invasion.
And after the drubbing that most American groups suffered at the hands of the
Beatles and their compatriots, Frankie Valli came back with his solo hit "Can't
Take My Eyes Off of You," followed by classics like "My Eyes Adore You," "Who
Loves You," and "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" -- this last one hitting in
So the soundtrack of Jersey Boys is very good -- if only as a reminder that
once upon a time, pop music had melody and harmony, and singers could
Of course, my mom made fun of that pop music as being silly or dumb,
compared to her pop music -- Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers &
Hammerstein, Jerome Kern. Yeah, she had a point.
But if in 1963 she had heard rap and hip-hop, she would have embraced
"Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" -- because they were still recognizable as
music, even if they were strange to her ears.
In Jersey Boys, it seems at first that the story is about Frankie Valli and the
Mob -- and, in a way, it is. But at heart it's still the standard rise-and-fall
story we see in most films about musical performers.
The music business is so volatile that anybody whose career extends beyond
one album, driven by one hit, has done pretty well. And the lives of hit
musicians, filled with endless touring and all kinds of negotiations with and
betrayals by the publishers and record companies, all begin to sound very
similar, once they have their first hit.
Family life is almost invariably sacrificed to the career. Family members
pay a high price for the star's success. And meanwhile, few are the stars who
don't succumb to the sex and drugs that seem to go along with rock-n-roll.
We writers don't have half so many opportunities to screw up our lives on a
Nobody in Jersey Boys is a saint, and nobody is portrayed as being all bad.
There are delightful moments for all four of the Four Seasons -- they all get
dramatic moments, and they get their comic triumphs as well.
If Christopher Walken is in a movie, then it goes without saying that he
blows everybody else off the screen. Without hamming things up like lesser
actors (think Al Pacino), Walken has charisma that overflows. He's actually a
generous actor -- he doesn't steal from anybody -- but he's a delight as the
mobster who takes Frankie Valli under his protection.
Jersey Boys doesn't have the coherency of a fictional storyline, because the real
lives followed so many different tracks. But every minute of the movie was a
pleasure to watch.
Partly that's because my wife and I have childhood memories of all this music.
Our twenty-year-old had better things to do on the night we proposed going as
I mean, let's face it, music that touched me as a twelve-year-old is really old-fashioned to someone born in the mid-90s. And when you consider that
Frankie Valli himself was born in 1934, making him nearly thirty years
old when his career took off, and his role model was the much less talented
Frank Sinatra, we're talking about a serious generation gap.
But that doesn't mean younger viewers won't like the movie. They're just not
likely to see it till it happens to be on cable in a few months.
Meanwhile, though, this movie works brilliantly for the Baby Boom generation.
It's way better than your average rock-n-roll bio-pic. Eastwood shows his
chops as director, and the cast, led by John Lloyd Young, who originated the
role of Frankie Valli on Broadway, are superb.
And even though there's a lot of singing, the movie is way more realistic than
any comic-book movie this summer!
It's worth pointing out that John Lloyd Young's incredible vocal range has also
been put to use in, for instance, the highly demanding role of Marius in a
Hollywood Bowl concert performance of Les Miserables. And he has played
non-singing roles to much acclaim. The guy can act as well as sing.
But when it comes to singing -- well, John Lloyd Young's solo album My
Turn is worth the download. He uses his whole range -- from the all-falsetto
"Lonely Girl" to some rock, pop, and bluesy songs in his normal voice.
Roz Chast's distinct cartooning style has been prominent in the New
Yorker magazine for decades. Even if you don't know her name, chances are
you'd recognize her sketchy style immediately.
Her first publication came only a year or so after mine, so we've been running
in parallel for a long time. Whenever I see a cartoon or drawing in her
instantly-identifiable style, I home in on it with great anticipation.
Chast is really more of a writer than an artist -- though her drawings are
expressive and effective. Often there's a lot of verbiage in her cartoons --
sometimes overwhelming the art. But the words are always worth reading.
They don't always make you laugh, though. The usual effect with me, at least,
is that I nod at what she's written, or shake my head -- and then hand it to
my wife (or random passerby) and say, "You gotta see this."
There have been several collections of Chast's work, but her newest is not a
collection of cartoons. It's a single coherent story -- a memoir, really -- about
her relationship with her parents.
Well, no, let's be accurate. That relationship is the backstory, but the book
Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is about her parents in
their old age, their physical decline, their deaths.
Roz Chast was an only child of hardworking parents with a complicated but
not uncommon kind of marriage. Feminists can talk about "the patriarchy" all
they want, but many marriages are completely wife-driven.
That's how Chast characterizes her parents' marriage. Her mother had a
strong will, yes -- but she prevailed mostly by getting so angry that her
husband (and their daughter) learned to give in quickly so that peace and
quiet could be restored.
Personally, I couldn't have stayed in such a marriage -- either as the angry
dominant or the submissive get-along spouse. Creating a true partnership of
equals is hard, and maybe improbable -- maybe one person usually gets his
or her way more often than is fair or even wise.
But certainly a marriage in which rage determines who "wins" is not a good
one. Even if both spouses are content with it, it's a bad environment for
children to grow up in.
To put it plainly, a fear-driven childhood is not a good foundation, even if
there are compensating forces.
Chast describes her relationship with her father as close, or at least
comfortable; but with both of them cowed by the mother's rages, it left their
only child ambivalent about both parents -- and uncertain about herself.
It's easy to say, "But she turned out OK," because this book is, in fact, a
declaration that she did not turn out as OK as she would have liked.
She wanted to love both parents, and to feel loved and sustained by them --
as almost all children wish. And they did not permit that.
Yet this is not an angry book. In fact, it's a very tender book. Chast is as
ruthlessly candid about her own thoughts and feelings as about her parents'
behavior. There's no sense of condemnation, only a declaration: "This is
how this family was and how they ended up."
And the story of Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is not just
honest, not just fair-minded. It is, above all, entertaining.
Yep. Even for somebody of my age, with aging parents and my own mortality
keenly in mind, it's a book I couldn't stop reading till it was done.
For me as a husband and parent, it provoked a lot of self-evaluation and a lot
of speculation: If one of my kids were writing such a book, how would they
characterize my wife's and my marriage?
One thing is obvious: They think they know who we are, but of course they
only know part of it. And I realized that Roz Chast also only knew part of who
her parents were.
But she definitely knew who her parents were to her, which is one of the
main reasons the book is so powerful.
And, most encouraging of all, the book shows her love, not only for her mild-mannered father, but also for her problematic rage-filled my-way-or-the-highway mother.
Though if it didn't happen to be true, making the mother have a career as a
school vice-principal would have been overkill ...
Seriously, don't buy this book for your parents. There is no way to receive
this book from a child without reading it as a condemnation.
Also, parents don't wish to receive, from their children, books about how hard
it is to deal with them in the final years before they die.
Buy this book for yourself, because it's a wise, moving, sometimes-funny story,
told in words and in art, and you'll be a better person for having read it.
Either you'll think, Wow, my parents weren't so bad! or you'll think, She
doesn't know the half of it! But either way, Roz Chast sets an example for
compassionate self-evaluation and evaluation of family.
This is not the juvenile anger of bad writers like Jonathan Franzen when he
writes about family. Roz Chast is a grownup, with perspective and
understanding. She's not working out old grievances, she's thinking back over
everything, good and bad.
So at the end, I was filled with a keen sense of her mourning, for her dead
parents and also for the things they all missed because of choices they made.
Including choices Chast made herself.
And without saying so directly, Chast makes it clear: There are wounds but
they've healed over; there are scars, but they haven't disfigured her present life.
Out of a family filled with crevices, she emerged an unbroken person.
That's a benediction.
And this book is, if not an ode to marriage, at least an elegy for parents who
didn't do the best that could be imagined, but may have done the best that was
within their reach.
I'm a sucker for floor-stand displays in grocery stores, and it's all your
If people didn't read this column, the Rhino Times would have stopped
publishing it. And if they stopped publishing it, I certainly wouldn't have
maintained anything close to a weekly schedule of reviews.
When I see a dump (the term for cardboard floor displays) with a new product,
I often buy it because I have this excuse: Maybe it'll suck, but I can write a
review of it in my column!
A column which exists because you read it. Do you have any idea how much
money you're costing me?
Here's the math on that: I buy lots of stuff I wouldn't ordinarily buy, so I
can write reviews for which I am paid exactly nothing.
I don't make much of a profit that way. But after nearly thirteen years of
weekly columns, it's safe to say I make up for it on volume.
Here's the verdict on that display in the middle of the frozen foods aisle at
Earth Fare last week:
The Primizie brand "thick cut CrispBreads" are flavorful and delicious.
They're more substantial than potato chips, and they don't need any kind of
dip to be good.
I can imagine they'd be great with cottage cheese or hummus, but I didn't
wait long enough to find out.
My favorite flavor is the Cheese: Smoked Dutch Gouda and Garlic. The miracle
is that these crispbreads don't just have your standard "cheese-dust" flavoring.
They taste, very specifically, like gouda.
Which is one of the best cheeses known to humankind.
They're also spicy. Not hot enough for a Mexican or Nigerian to be impressed,
but hot enough that you can tell you've been spiced.
These are good enough that I'm willing to forgive them for spelling the Chili-and-Lime flavor "Chile," like the country, instead of "chili," like the vegetable.
(And don't write to me about how the dictionary now shows both spellings. The
dictionary records the spellings of idiots right along with those of educated
The other flavors are good, too. In my case, compulsively good. Empty-package-in-a-few-minutes good.
And if you can't stop by Earth Fare, or they're already out by the time you get
there, you can find them on Amazon.com. Though if you search for
"crispbread" you get a whole page of other brands. You have to type "Primizie
crispbread" and then you have a bunch of buying options.
I first noticed Devin Brown because of his books about Tolkien and Hobbits,
but I'm glad I also ordered his young-adult novel, Not Exactly Normal.
It's not a bestseller -- no vampires, no werewolves, no sexual tension, no mean
girls or persecuting jocks, and no superpowers.
In fact, the sixth-graders in Not Exactly Normal are, in fact, pretty normal. They
come mostly from religious families (though Brown is not pushing any
particular religion). Their teachers are known to be religious, too -- no
surprise, since the school is St. Luke's Episcopal K-8.
But this is not a religious novel, not in the sense that such books are usually
about conversions or miracles.
Religion is simply part of the air these kids breathe. The way it is for most
of the families I know, including most of the sixth-graders in my current
The story is about a friendship between Alex "Nitro" Epstein (yes, a Jewish kid
going to an Episcopal school) and Todd, the narrator of the novel. There's also
a somewhat oddball girl named Leda, and that's the main cast of characters.
If it weren't for Brown's calmer-than-Bradbury prose, I'd compare this book
to Dandelion Wine in its depiction of kids who are surprisingly free.
It's the kind of freedom that still exists in smallish towns where parents aren't
afraid of awful things happening to their kids on a regular basis. The kind of
freedom I had growing up in the 1950s and 1960s.
Of course, that doesn't mean these kids are always smart, and it doesn't mean
they can't find spectacular ways to come face to face with death.
I can see why this book isn't a bestseller. There's nothing to put on the cover
to "tease" the book. But it's smart and funny from the start, and the more
you read, the more you like the narrator and the deeper you get into his
friendships and the way these kids sustain each other.
It's a novel about good people doing good -- except for when they screw up.
And there's plenty of excitement in it, because there are adventures -- but
believable ones. The kind of adventure that can happen in a real life in a
So no, this isn't a book that's going to leap off the shelves -- especially not with
the dull mostly-text cover. But it's a book that, if given to a ten-year-old boy or
girl who already loves to read, may well bring them real pleasure.
I specify that they must already love to read because this is likely to be a book
they only pick up when they've "read everything else" and they aren't quite
ready to start in on Plato's Dialogues.
It doesn't deserve to be that far down their reading queue, but a lot of favorite
books sneak up on young readers that way.
I remember that my grandmother gave me a copy, when I was about nine, of
Lloyd Douglas's Forgive Us Our Trespasses. Like this one, it was a book
about characters who had a religious aspect to their lives and weren't ashamed
of it. And the author also wrote The Robe.
But the cover was dull, and the story was about adults in modern times -- not
biblical characters, as with The Robe. So I set it aside until ...
Until the day when I had "read everything else" and so, just to kill time -- like
doing a crossword puzzle or reading TV Guide -- I started reading.
And put it down with bleary eyes when I had read the whole thing. And still
remember the experience today. A book published in 1932, read by me in
about 1960, and still remembered in 2014.
For some readers, at least, Not Exactly Normal will have that kind of
impact. The writer is an ecumenical Christian -- the book doesn't preach, but
it includes, sympathetically, a religious dimension to the characters' lives.
And for many young readers, that will come as a relief. They live in religious
families, and so do their friends, but almost no books are published about
kids like them -- kids who go to church or synagogue and don't hate it.
If you sometimes buy books for kids like that, I can tell you: This is a good one,
if it's given a chance. The writing is excellent. The story is strong. The
characters are believable and good.