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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 19, 2015

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

Obama's Gift, B-Side, Vision of Fire

The Republican Party owes so much to Barack Obama. Even though the media continue to blame the Republicans whenever the two sides come into conflict -- even when it is Obama who is outrageously stubborn and unwilling to compromise -- the fact remains that the Republican Party owes its current ascendancy more to Obama's blunders than to any particular genius on the Republican side.

Not that the Republican congressional leadership isn't trying to take up the slack. Congress is particularly ill-suited to conducting foreign relations, but with Obama as the sorriest commander-in-chief in American history, if Congress doesn't lead, nobody will.

So I salute them for inviting the head of government of our most loyal ally, Israel, to speak to Congress and, therefore, the nation. The national media condemned themselves for failing to carry the speech nationally -- never have they so nakedly revealed their partisanship, and never have they so badly served the American people's "right to know."

But now and then, Obama gives the Republicans a gift that is so generous you'd think he was secretly trying to help the Republican Party get out of the knots it regularly ties itself into.

The Republican Party's love affair with Know-Nothing anti-immigrant dogma has done the party no favors. Hating immigrants doesn't win elections -- but it does win Republican primaries (except in Florida).

By slicing through all the nonsense and stupidity, Obama has freed the Republican Party from its self-destructive obsession with punishing people who came to America to do the jobs that Americans didn't want to do.

Back in 2005, President George W. Bush and the grownups in Congress worked out a compromise bill on immigration reform that would have provided a legitimate path to citizenship for illegal immigrants while strengthening the policing of our borders. That bill would have passed -- except that Senate Republicans filibustered the bill in 2007, killing it.

That childish, spiteful action has forced us to endure another eight years of limbo. The only people suffering from the current situation are the illegal immigrants themselves -- and the Republican Party. Everything the Republicans do makes them look mean and vindictive, for the excellent reason that their actions on immigration are in fact mean and vindictive.

Even now, they pop up with bills that try to punish illegals forever. Like the bill that would block illegal immigrants from participating in Social Security -- even though their labor helps maintain the economy that will pay for Social Security.

Obama's executive order so far exceeded his constitutional authority that it boggles the mind -- but it has the happy effect of being a move from which there is no return. Like Obamacare, which is horrible but must be replaced with something instead of returning to the mess we had before, Obama's amnesty for illegal immigrants is now a fact, and any attempt to reverse it will be permanent political suicide for any party that wishes to have a share of the hispanic vote in any election for the next thirty years (at least).

Republicans who have thoughts higher than the rabble-rousing level of the extreme right wing have long known that the anti-Spanish, anti-brown-people rhetoric of the immigrant-haters is depriving the Republican Party of the natural loyalty of a significant number of hispanics, who tend to be religiously and morally conservative.

If it weren't for Republican insanity about illegal immigrants, the hispanic vote would probably divide fairly evenly, but with a possibility of tilting toward the Republican Party.

Republicans who care most about the economy also recognize that legalizing the current crop of illegal immigrants is a complete win for America. No longer required to hide, these hard-working people can openly declare their earnings and not only get higher wages but also begin to pay taxes -- for which you have to have a Social Security number.

Millions of new potential high earners and taxpayers might just help balance the books on Social Security -- but not if former illegals are forbidden ever to collect Social Security. To make them pay for what they cannot receive is not just harsh, it's indecent. And Americans will punish any party that tries to do such a malicious thing.

Immigrant-haters keep talking about how much illegal immigrants cost us, and it's true that any group of poor people desperate enough for jobs to make the difficult border crossing is likely to have a few members who end up using American resources without paying taxes to help offset what they use.

But they also perform labor at wages most American workers refuse to accept, thus keeping prices lower on many goods, especially food. Those who complain about how much the illegal immigrants cost us never seem to mention the huge discount they give all of us on goods and services that their cheap labor helps to subsidize.

Most impartial studies show that costs and benefits of the illegal immigrants are about even.

However, the equation changes with amnesty: The costs go down as former illegals are able to contribute to the tax base. Of course, once they aren't subject to extortion from rapacious employers who threaten to call the INS if illegals ask for decent wages, their wages will rise and so will prices.

But in the long run, we all benefit, because a growing population of hard workers (i.e., productive consumers) boosts the economy for everybody. As Baby Boomers start collecting Social Security -- which the first seven years' worth of boomers already are -- tax-paying immigrants will help offset the Baby Bust that threatened to bankrupt the system.

So let the Know-Nothing diehards prattle on about overturning Obama's amnesty. Smart Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief, as they look to make political hay out of the unconstitutionality of Obama's action while carefully setting aside all the nasty immigrant-punishing bills from the crazy fringe of the party.

It's the people who are willing to compromise with those who disagree with them who are worthy and able to govern, and even though it sometimes seems that the serious legislators are a tiny minority in both parties, they do exist and, when push comes to shove, they are the only ones who succeed in getting bills passed. So whatever law emerges to replace Obama's chaotic amnesty will not be a radical right-wing bill -- it will be a law that both of the moderate Democrats in Congress can vote for, along with all five of the sane Republicans.

And then, with a legal path for migrant and guest workers to enter the country, it will no longer be profitable for coyotes to ferry illegals over our border. With the flood turned into a trickle, enforcement of the border will become infinitely easier and less expensive.

Without a horde of illegal immigrants to hide among, would-be terrorists will have a much harder time getting into the country unnoticed -- and the coyotes will charge them far more than they were able to charge the would-be illegal workers.

Best of all, once the law is rational, we can stop hearing Republicans who regularly break the speed limit deliver sanctimonious sermons about how people who break the law shouldn't be allowed to achieve American citizenship.


I grew up in the transition period between the Great American Songbook and the rise of Rock and Roll. I enjoyed some of the "teenage music" that my older sister and brother listened to; certainly our school dances were full of whatever music was popular at the time.

But I really didn't "get" the Beatles. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" ... really? And the surfer music (Beach Boys, Jan & Dean) that was all the rage right before the Beatles was never better than "fun." It really didn't seem to me to achieve the status of good music or good songs.

That's because I kept comparing rock and pop music of my time to the songs of Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart, Rodgers & Hammerstein, the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin, as well as the songs emerging from classic Broadway book musicals, which were in their heyday as I was growing up.

I admit it -- I was a snob. I didn't make a big deal of it, but while my friends raved about this singer or that band, I kept in the back of my mind the secret knowledge that this wasn't the real thing.

Even as I played contemporary folk music (Peter, Paul, and Mary; Gordon Lightfoot; Leonard Cohen) on my guitar and sang my heart out, I knew that however heartfelt or poetic the words might be, they weren't clever. They didn't even begin to have the intricacy of real song lyrics.

It wasn't until I discovered MPB -- Musica Popular Brasileira, or Brazilian popular music -- that my horizons broadened. Once I'd heard Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethania, and others, I realized that there was more than one way for songs to be wonderful.

This was during my mission in Brazil, and for a time I had a companion -- Mark Gibb -- who introduced me in a serious way to some singers that I would never otherwise have heard. Leon Russell may have been the most important to me -- I knew the Carpenters' version of "A Song for You" and "Superstar," so I knew they could be hauntingly beautiful with Karen Carpenter's mezzo voice; but Leon Russell's version instantly became the real song to me.

I also spent a year in the mission office, serving as the mission printer. One of my unofficial duties was to duplicate pop music tapes that arriving missionaries had brought from the States so that they could be shared with guys who had been out of touch with American pop. That's how I became acquainted with Bread, America, Carly Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Nilsson, and, really, everybody who was popular during 1972.

Since then I've branched out and become, not a connoisseur, because I don't actually know that much, but an aficionado of music ranging from rock to country, pop, folk, and jazz.

But always, in the back of my mind, I've held on to my love for the Great American Songbook. I collect all kinds of vocalists who cover or reinvent those songs; I also collect CDs and tracks of original performances. And I'm a snob about it. I don't like Sinatra much, for instance, because he had such a limited voice compared to, say, Bing Crosby. I know that makes me an idiot in some people's eyes, but hey, we all have our preferences.

Terry Teachout's music reviews and essays in Commentary magazine have been some of my best sources of musical history about those long-gone days when lyrics had to be clever to compete, when music was far more complicated than three chords on six strings.

Now there's a book that does a superb job of tracking the whole history of that great moment in American culture. The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song, by Ben Yagoda, takes us from the roots of great songs out of the sentiment and bouncy-bounce of Tin Pan Alley.

Yagoda makes a strong case for the idea that the great songwriters were losing -- or had lost -- their hold on American music before rock and roll arose. Silly or empty sentiment had come to predominate, without a speck of cleverness, and now that I think back to what was playing on the radio alongside rock and roll, there was a lot of "Teenangel," "Tell Laura I Love Her," "Purple People Eater," "Little Blue Man," and the generally empty songs of Pat Boone, Connie Francis, and others.

But most of Elvis's songs were pretty silly, too -- remember that he wanted to sing like Bing, which explains "It's Now or Never" (to the tune of "O Sole Mio") and other attempts at matching Bing Crosby's bass voice, without the great songs that Bing often sang (though he had his share of silly songs, as well).

Yagoda makes the point that dumb songs always outnumber the good ones. But in the era of the Great American Songbook -- the 20s, 30s, and 40s -- the best songs were highly valued. People enjoyed "Mairzy Doats" but they knew that there were some really terrific songs that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

The surprise in The B-Side is that Yagoda doesn't bother mourning the end of period of the Great American Song. Instead, he tracks the way that the emergence of singer-songwriters in the late sixties and early seventies actually restored the idea of well-made songs.

The singer-songwriters might have Tin Pan Alley roots, like Carole King, or folk roots, like Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon, or rock roots, like Bob Dylan, or a toehold in jazz, like Joni Mitchell. But they cared about the words and music the way that the great songwriters of the Depression and War years did. Their music was different, but it was serious.

Their moment, too, could not last forever. Disco came and then Rap and Hip-Hop, and the well-made lyric and harmonically interesting song faded yet again, with only a few songwriters carrying the torch.

The value of Yagoda's book is that he bridges two eras and asserts, not equivalence, but similarity in the level of quality.

Plus, Yagoda is a very good writer -- clear and interesting. I don't know if the book will be quite as enjoyable for readers who don't hear the melodies and words of every single song as soon as the title is mentioned. It helps if you know the music of both eras.

But I think it will still have value even if this is the first time you've heard of most of the songs. And it will certainly serve as an excellent guide if you want to discover both eras. After all, when I was a kid the Great American Songbook was only a decade behind us; now, kids are growing up with the Singer-Songwriter era much farther behind them. It's all "old music" to them, popping up as grocery-store and elevator tunes, with, occasionally, a contemporary cover.

Reading The B-Side will help you select the best tracks from music download sites in order to give yourself a course in the American popular song. Nobody will grade you, though; the reward from this course is broadening or refreshing your musical experience.


I wasn't sure what to expect from Gillian Anderson's first novel, A Vision of Fire, co-written with Jeff Rovin. Though Gillian Anderson is a good and smart actress, and might be perfectly capable of writing a novel, the presence of a co-writer who has a history of ghost-writing (he's the writer of Tom Clancy's Op-Center books) suggests that he may well have written the novel after a few conversations with Anderson.

After all, Gillian Anderson's association with The X-Files makes her a natural brand name; and because A Vision of Fire has a mix of sci-fi, real-world adventure, and the immanence of the supernatural, I suspect fans of the TV series make a natural audience for this book. So publishers would be easy to talk into a project where her name was on a book someone else wrote from beginning to end.

The question is: No matter who actually wrote it down, is Vision of Fire a good book, worth the time spent reading it?

And the answer is: Yes. If you like the genre as I just described it.

On the other hand, if you like your sci-fi without any connection with mystic religion, then this might have some annoying bits in it. But no matter what, the characters are well drawn and the real-world connections are strong.

Caitlin O'Hara is a renowned child psychologist who is raising a son who has his own needs and limitations, because he's partially deaf, so when he's mad at her he turns off his hearing aids and closes his eyes, so he can't hear her or read notes or sign language.

In fact, much of this story is really about communication between people who can't explain themselves because they don't really understand what's happening to them. Caitlin O'Hara is drawn into an international incident because India's ambassador to the UN survives an assassination attempt in New York -- only to have his teenage daughter Maanik react to the experience by doing some crazy things that hint at suicidal impulses.

O'Hara soon connects what's happening to Maanik to a self-immolation by an Iranian whose brother had just been executed by the government, and a Haitian girl whose family doesn't want a psychologist to come in and block the local vodun priest from dealing with her symptoms.

The authors handle human relationships quite well, and O'Hara's adaptation to the scary-strange things happening to the kids, and the way she builds trust and rapport, show a lot of understanding. Also, the crisis over Kashmir is well-handled, since both Pakistan and India are nuclear powers, and any all-out war raises the possibility of a general nuclear exchange.

But because the novel is the first in a series (Earthend Saga), there's a macro-plot involving The Group, who go around finding ancient high-tech artifacts and acting as if they're saving the world. No doubt the significance of these people will be revealed in later books -- a favorite trick of The X-Files, by the way -- but it amounts to nothing in this first novel, except to add another layer of weirdness.

That's a forgiveable distraction. As is the fact that the religious stuff that O'Hara learns from a wise woman in Haiti turns out to be true without ever turning into anything verifiably scientific. Since I don't believe in these religious ideas, it strains credulity in a way that the normal tropes of fantasy don't. Partly because this novel pretends to be sci-fi.

The hardest thing to accept, though, is the idea of a high civilization on a habitable Antarctica during a time when physically modern humans existed. But look, if sci-fi couldn't stretch the bounds of plausibility, it would stop being sci-fi. After all, time travel is impossible, as is faster-than-light travel, and we routinely accept both.

Co-author Jeff Rovin recently published Conversations with the Devil, in which the heroine, for whatever reason, conjures up the devil and chats with him. A lot. This makes me wonder if the Haitian religion in Vision of Fire grows out of Rovin's interest in religious contrarianism.

Between a warm Antarctica and voodoo metaphysics, I found myself keeping more distance from the story than I wanted, despite the adequate handling of geopolitics and the deft treatment of therapist-patient relationships.

Oddly, some of the amateur reviews of the book sound like petulant fans disappointed that it didn't deliver another great X-Files episode. They seem to have forgotten some key things:

1. Gillian Anderson didn't write The X-Files, so why should she be able to or even want to write an X-Files episode?

2. The X-Files was really cool because it was doing things TV shows hadn't done before. But I watched more than one episode that seemed to be just meaningless oogly-boo scary stuff that resolved into natural explanations like an episode of Scooby-Doo. And the overall explanation, when it emerged at all, was way lamer than what this book seems to offer.

3. The X-Files movie was a real disappointment. This book is better than that. So, die-hard X-Files fans, stop comparing. This is not a perfect book, but it's a pretty good one.

I listened to A Vision of Fire in part because Gillian Anderson narrates it herself. Unlike many actors, she's a superb audiobook reader. She understates the exciting bits (just as she did when acting the part of Scully), which makes them more exciting than when the narrator tries to juice it up with a hyper-excited reading.

I didn't regret the money or time I spent on this book. Yet I wasn't intrigued enough by the macro-story to be faunching to get the next installment. I don't expect the overall story to be any better than the X-Files Movie, the Matrix series, or Lost -- which is a low bar, since all of those macro-stories collapsed under their own weight.

I was impressed enough by the writing of this volume, however, that I want to at least give the next one a chance to be good on its own. Especially if Gillian Anderson keeps narrating them herself. In fact, I wish she'd narrate more books. But she seems to be chosen only to narrate books with an occult spin to them, as if her participation in The X-Files should define her forever.

Her Miss Havisham in a production of Great Expectations was pretty wonderful; she shouldn't be forced to remain within the sci-fi orbit.

Then again, whatever keeps her working is a good thing. After all, I'm the guy who keeps writing books set in the Ender's Game universe, and can't escape from sci-fi and fantasy, even though my heart's in romantic comedy. But whatever lets you earn an honest living is a good thing, and there are a lot of actors who would love to be "trapped" like Gillian Anderson.

So ... is A Vision of Fire a great novel? No; nor do I expect it to be part of a great series.

But not everything has to be "great." "Good" is good enough. In fact, pretty good is often good enough. Not every movie has to win the Best Picture Oscar in order to be worth watching; not every sci-fi novel has to be Hugo-worthy to be worth reading.

I'm glad I read A Vision of Fire, and you may well feel the same way.

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