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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 31, 2003

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


Number One Ladies, Scots, and Pop-up Hampers

I have met the funniest woman in America.

Her name is Melissa McCarthy.

I saw her give a triumphant performance in a sketch-and-improv show at the Groundlings in LA last night.

She can only be compared to Gilda Radner or Phil Hartman. Dead-on timing, characters that fit her like a second skin, screamingly funny material -- even when she's making it up on the fly.

She would have been a star even in the first year of Saturday Night Live. And this year's SNL? -- no offense, kids, but they could fire the rest of the cast, bring her on alone, and she would make it work.

Her shoplifter character is as extravagant as anything Chris Farley did -- at least as funny as the motivational speaker who lived in a van down by the river.

The weird twins (with Jill Matson) are the most hilariously repulsive characters ever to grace a stage.

And her improv of an usher at a showing of an incredibly bad community theater play was topped only by her portrayal of a character in that play.

She wasn't alone in the show, titled "City of the Future." There were other very talented people, and with few exceptions the show is good.

And if you go, you'll be sorry you won't be able to see the improv that used my suggestion of a game called "Eat My Lunch."

But if you want to see Melissa McCarthy, you don't have to go to the Groundlings. It is inconceivable that she'll be there much longer. Talent like that goes national -- and she's overdue.

*

If you're driving cross-country on I-40, I have good news. There is actually something good to eat in Amarillo.

Approaching Amarillo, you may think you're in the flattest, bleakest, driest, emptiest part of America. But I can assure you: Clovis, New Mexico, is that place. Amarillo is just the gateway to Clovis.

The sign for Eat-Rite Deli and Snack Bar is not pretty, but it's big. Look for it on the south side of the freeway -- the store is right under the sign.

It's a good health food store and you'll be tempted by some of the items for sale. But if all you want is a good meal, head straight for the snack bar. The sandwiches are superb, the salad bar is perfectly fresh, and the smoothies are fine indeed.

Not only that, but the staff are hardworking folks who seem kind of surprised that people think their food is so darn good. A pleasure to eat there from beginning to end.

*

Alexander McCall Smith's novel The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is a jewel. The cover blurbs might lead you to expect Miss Marple in Botswana, but I promise you, even if you don't like cozy mysteries and you have no interest in Botswana, this episodic novel is really one of the best books of recent years.

The fact that the arty awards go to predictable, show-offy little books like Donald Franzen's merely show you that the awards committees only look for tried-and-true formulas. When somebody does something really new -- and really good -- it's usually overlooked.

But you don't have to make their mistake. Smith pulls the difficult feat of writing believable, fascinating women, and his evocation of Botswana is so moving and effective -- precisely because it does not depend on language but on experience -- that by the end of it, you can be surprised to look around you and see your own home town.

The detective character is Mma Ramotswe, who inherited nearly two hundred cattle after the death of her father. She sells it and uses the money to buy a small building in which she launches a detective agency.

The mysteries she solves are usually (but not always) small ones, and her solutions only occasionally involve law enforcement. You're more likely to fall in love with the people than want them to be punished.

Not only do I recommend the book, but I recommend even more strongly that you try your best to experience this novel by hearing Lisette Lecat's brilliant reading of it in the unabridged audio version.

Lecat, a South African writer/actress/translator, does dead-on accents that sound like the music of Africa, and she distinguishes characters clearly. Above all, she understands the meaning of everything she's reading and rarely misses a nuance.

I hesitate to suggest that this book is ideal for women's book groups, because that might make men think they shouldn't read it. You should!

*

With Coldplay's second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, it's clear that alternative has finally grown up to be music. There's rock and roll in it, with echoes of U2 and memories of the Beatles and Nilsson. Piano and simple strummed guitar rarely depart from the rock-and-roll one-chord-per-measure pattern. But the lyrics and tunes are their own -- fascinating, haunting, personal, simple, and real.

*

Arthur Herman's book How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It sounds like it might be another "gimmick history," like the histories of salt and the pencil and how the Irish saved civilization.

I'm not disparaging that genre -- it's often great fun to see history from an unusual, if somewhat obsessive, angle, and the books I'm referring to are all quite good, if you have the patience to endure a sometimes excruciating attention to detail, and the occasional overclaimed hypothesis.

But How the Scots ... does not overclaim at all. This overview of Scottish history in the 18th and 19th centuries, with emphasis on its intellectual history, shows that country's transformation from a theocracy, in which a loudmouthed college student could be executed for atheism -- even though he recanted and his accuser was probably guiltier than he was -- to Europe's leading salon of openly secular philosophy.

Herman gives a good overview of the lives and views of Adam Smith and other great thinkers whose observations about human life and society still shape our views -- mostly positively -- today.

He also ties Scotland to its legitimate place in history, especially the struggle over union with England, which opened up American markets and transformed Scotland from an impoverished backwater to a commercial center.

America was transformed -- and, in some senses, given its character as a nation -- by the immigrants who fled Scotland to our shores when the Scottish highlands were converted from a great web of small farmers to a depopulated pastureland. The great internal migration that populated the frontier in its crucial stages consisted predominantly of these Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants, and we still hear their tunes and themes echoed in folk songs and country music.

He also covers the influence of Sir Walter Scott and the roots of the romantic movement in European literature.

It truly is astonishing how a relatively small society, charged with enormous pent-up energy, was able to nurture (or provoke) such an outpouring of brilliant innovation and creative productivity.

It makes one wonder what might be coming from nations today whose situations are not entirely dissimilar to Scotland's in the 1700s -- emerging from poverty and oppression into freedom and hope. Poland (or other eastern European nations)? Brazil and Mexico (or other newly democratic Latin American nations)? Perhaps the Arab or Persian peoples, right now groaning under the burden of a rigidly intolerant religious system and prone to pointless war against more powerful nations, as the Scots were, might shrug off the shackles of intolerance and bellicosity and bloom, as the Scots did, into the teacher of the world.

*

For anyone who loves mystery novels, I have only to tell you that Robert B. Parker has a new Spenser novel, Back Story. Sadly, when the novel opens, someone near and dear to Spenser has recently died. For some, at least, the saddest news will be that it's not Susan Silverman.

*

If you don't already know the main outlines of Winston Churchill's life and the history of England in the twentieth century, there's no point in reading John Lukacs's extended essay Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian.

But if, like me, you find Churchill one of the great -- and fascinating -- figures in recent history, Lukacs's book is essential reading. In a way, it's like a critical review of his life, weighing the opinions that other historians have offered, defending Churchill against some critics, and evaluating aspects of his life and work that few have examined in any detail.

Best of all, though, is the way the book ends, with an admittedly sentimental account of Lukacs's thoughts and feelings as he attended Churchill's funeral back in January of 1965.

*

Pop-up hampers from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It's simply the best way of dealing with laundry I've ever seen.

Since most of us are cursed by architectural history and have to lug our dirty laundry downstairs and then haul it all back up when it's clean, it's nice that someone has finally come up with a more convenient way to store and carry it than the standard Rubbermaid basket.

Meanwhile, though, why do architects continue to build houses with the hookups for washer and drier on the main floor?

In most two-story houses, all the clothes-changing and bed-changing take place on the second floor. Why aren't the appliances there, where you need them?

Is it because it's hard to get heavy appliances up the stairs? That doesn't stop people who live in bi-levels or split levels, where every appliance goes up and down half a flight of stairs.

Maybe it's like eight-packs of hot dog buns and six-packs of hot dogs -- they do it that way because that's how they've always done it.

Still, as long as they're still putting laundries on the wrong floor, invest in these pop-open hampers that have convenient handles on top. You can carry them up and down stairs, one in each hand -- instead of holding them in front of you so you can't actually see the steps.

And you can cram them as full as you like, with little risk of anything spilling out.

What? Laundry day, with no stray socks strewn along the hall or down the stairs?

Yes, Virginia.

*

If you're a fan of audio drama, as I am, you should look at Neil Gaiman's Two Plays for Voices. The plays, "Snow Glass Apples" and "Murder Mysteries," are performed by Bebe Neuwirth and Brian Dennehy, respectively. One might quibble over whether these are indeed "plays" or simply narrated stories, but you can't quarrel with the strange dark vision, the powerful performances, or Gaiman's obvious emergence as an important literary figure.


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