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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 appropriate.

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 1976.

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 sing.

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 spectacular scale.

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 a family.

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 fault.

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 people.)

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 acquaintance.

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 real place.

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.


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