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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 21, 2003

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


Rat-a-Tat Cat, Grammar, Bublé, and Sci-Fi

Tonight we were having our weekly family gathering -- a bit smaller, now that the two older kids have found the lure of the Pacific too much to resist -- and our nine-year-old brought up a game that we hadn't played in a couple of years: Rat-a-Tat Cat.

The game is played simply enough. Everyone is dealt four cards face down. You can peek at the two outer cards, but you don't know what the two inner ones are.

Each turn, you draw a card. If you think it's a lower number than one of the cards facedown in front of you, you can swap them. When you think all your cards are lower than anyone else's cards, you knock on the table and call "rat-a-tat cat," whereupon everyone else gets one more draw. Then you add up the cards and the lowest total wins.

It sounds simple, but in fact it requires dexterous memory, alertness to what other people are doing, and a bit of luck.

That's what separates the games that are only for children from the games that you can keep on enjoying even as adults.

The games of early childhood are designed to make it so a little kid has as good a chance of winning as any adult. Chutes & Ladders and Candyland are in this category. So is Life. It's all about rolling the dice. If you have any choices at all, they're trivial -- the outcome is decided by chance.

What makes them even remotely interesting (and with some of them, interest is pretty remote) is the surrounding story. Oh, you had to ride the chutes down to the bottom again! Oh, you had another baby!

(Life thus teaches the correct lesson that having babies is all about fitting them into a car with three rows of seating. Come to think of it, we can probably credit Milton Bradley for thinking up the concept of the minivan.)

When you're using a game as a way to interact with a little child, then it's fine that the game itself is boring -- what you care about is the child.

I, of course, prefer to play viciously competitive games where at the end you get to say things like, "Gee, I can't figure out why the game was so lopsided ... in my favor. You seemed to be playing well enough...." You know, gloating.

But you can't gloat with a little child, especially when they have as good a chance of winning as you do. I mean, does anyone have Chutes & Ladders tournaments?

(Though, come to think of it, people do play The Sims for hours at a time -- a great irony, since if they would devote the care and attention to their real life that they devote to this computerized version of Life, they would probably have lives full enough that The Sims would seem like a colossal waste of time.)

Rat-a-tat Cat finds just the right balance between random chance and choices that when you win, you feel like you've accomplished something; though you can commiserate with the loser (especially when the loser is nine and you love her) by pointing out that she just didn't draw enough cat cards. (The higher cards have rats on them.)

Besides, little kids have really sharp memories, if they're paying close attention - way better than 51-year-olds who are skating along the borderline of senility. So the grownups lose a lot, and it isn't all just chance.

So those of you who look at family table games with trepidation because most of them are so boring, I can happily tell you that Rat-a-tat Cat (by Gamewright) is a happy exception.

*

Every now and then I go off on a rant about stupid rules of "grammar" that are made up just to get people to think that when they speak naturally they're doing something wrong.

I'm speaking of rules like not ending sentences with prepositions and not splitting infinitives.

Even worse are the rules that are poorly taught, so that in order to correct a minor problem, they create a much larger one.

For instance, children have a natural tendency to utter a noun phrase with the objective pronoun in order to introduce the subject of a sentence: "Me and Anna, we swam for two hours!" This is certainly informal, but most children outgrow it naturally, the way they gradually learn not to say "bestest" and "gooder."

But in order to wipe out this semi-grammatical form, teachers correct them: Not "me and Anna," say "Anna and I."

The trouble is, kids then learn that the "correct" way to put together names and pronouns is always to use "Anna and I."

So you get the horrible barbarisms of "between Anna and I" or even the absolutely shocking "between he and I." The sort of wretched grammar that could only be introduced into the language by teachers who, instead of teaching, merely correct their students, so they never learn the principle.

Of course, today's teachers are not responsible for this travesty. The blame must be placed on the teachers of the early 1900s, who taught their false lesson so well that three generations of parents have been correcting their children.

The sad thing is that the correct forms are still present in the language -- still vibrant and alive, as a matter of fact. So that people who make these hyper-corrective errors look like half-educated dolts, when in fact they're simply unable to get their parents' and teachers' voices out of their heads.

If you are among the pathetic victims of the bad teaching of an earlier century, then I have the perfect guidebook for sorting out the real rules from the phony ones. It was recently recommended to me by a student, after one of my diatribes on how writers need to know the rules before they break them.

The book is Bryan A. Garner's The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style.

Now, I admit that some of the passages are a little thick with grammarspeak -- but anything you don't understand, you can simply skim and get the main points. And it's not really a dictionary -- the topics are divided up in alphabetical order, but the "superstitions" entry doesn't define the word superstition, it lists and discusses phony rules that turn good English speakers into bad.

I wish I could say that Garner is correct on every point, but every now and then he says something that is quite wrong. For instance, in the entry "freedom of; freedom from" he writes "Both are correct, the first being preferred by most writers on style." But that's absurd -- they have quite distinct meanings, and there's no preferring one over the other. "Freedom of the press" and "freedom from the press" have nearly opposite meanings.

And it's astonishing that he says "American and British printers refer to the more traditional typefaces--the ones with small projections coming off the straight lines--as sans serif." Sorry, Mr. Garner: Those little projections are serifs, so to be sans ("without") them would mean the less-readable smooth-line typefaces.

But such errors are inevitable in any book -- I think I'd fall over dead in a faint if I ever wrote as many as three pages without some kind of inadvertent (and sometimes quite embarrassing) error. I doubt that any book on style and usage is more reliable than this one.

So if you'd like to find out what the real rules are -- or want to be able to help your kids get through high school as English-speakers -- buy and use this book.

*

Somewhere between Harry Connick, Jr., hyper-decorated style and Michael Feinstein's sweet simplicity, there is a vast region of swinging singing that has become woefully underpopulated, as the great old voices fade.

There are plenty of women in that territory, most notably Shirley Eikhard, Jane Monheit, Diana Krall, and others I've reviewed here.

But when it comes to men, who besides Tony Bennett is still alive and swinging?

Don't tell me to pull out my old Sinatra albums. Sinatra was never that good at his best, and through most of his career his range and tone were crippled relics. He keeps getting credit for Bing Crosby's achievements -- it was Bing who brought swing to the American mainstream. Sinatra was always straining to get halfway to what Bing could do without any apparent effort.

Bing Crosby also knew when to stop recording. Sinatra hadn't a clue.

I can say this now because Sinatra isn't around to beat me up.

Anyway, Feinstein can't decide whether he's a scholar, and Harry Connick, though he's a wonderful actor and performer, isn't much as a songwriter and always thinks his embellishments are more interesting than the original songs.

Now, though, there's somebody in between: Michael Buble. (He puts an accent over the final e so you pronounce it "boo-blay" instead of "booble" or "bubble.")

His first album, titled, simply enough, Michael Bublé, is simply wonderful. His voice is rich and warm -- not quite as velvety as Mel Tormé's, and not as brash as Sinatra's, but still his own. The purity of the songs is never violated, yet he interprets them with his own mixture of swing-und-drang that is often quite exciting.

He's also eclectic. Who would have thought that the old BeeGees hit "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart" actually worked in a swing style? But it does! (And it has the Gibbs' blessing -- Barry Gibb actually sings background vocal.)

Now all I have to do is find out when he's doing a live performance somewhere I can get to. Maybe I can catch him at the Hollywood Bowl on August 8th or 9th.

*

When the Science Fiction Writers of America started giving out the annual Nebula Award, they realized that many of the greatest stories had already been published and could never receive that award.

So they voted on the best stories from the years before 1964, and the result was The Science Fiction Hall of Fame. For the past few years it has been out of print, but now TOR (my own publisher) has brought it back, in hardcover no less.

Edited by Robert Silverberg -- one of the great writers and editors in the field, and a mensch to boot -- this book is virtually a complete education in the history of a branch of literature that is rarely taught (and even more rarely taught well) in American universities.

Admittedly, a few of the stories are more important for their historical interest -- nobody in the field today writes quite as badly as Lester del Rey did in "Helen O'Loy," for instance. But at the time he wrote it, del Rey was making the first attempt at character-centered storytelling, and it was partly because of "Helen O'Loy" that the great character stories of science fiction were even possible.

After the first three stories, though, the anthology consists of fine stories representing almost every group within the science fiction field up to 1964. When you realize that Asimov's "Nightfall," Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll," Matheson's "Born of Man and Woman," Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon," and Padgett's "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" are all products of the same literary community, you begin to realize why science fiction is actually larger inside, in the range of possibilities it gives its writers and readers, than is the rest of literature outside it.

Of course, you need more than The Science Fiction Hall of Fame to understand science fiction. For that you need Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, now back in print. This anthology and its sequel redefined science fiction when they first came out in the 1960s.

If you combine them with Isaac Asimov's series of anthologies of the Hugo winners -- and maybe my own anthologies, Future on Fire and Future on Ice (with stories from the 1980s) and Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Century -- then you'll get an idea of the breadth and scope of science fiction, as shown by the short stories, which have always led the way into new literary terrain.


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