Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 23, 2003
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
American Towns, Looney Tunes, and a Pirate Book
Every time I get a chance to travel around America, I find new things to
In fact, one of the games my wife and I play (to the terror of our children)
is: Could we live here?
Not that we're all that serious about moving. We don't uproot our family
on whimsy alone.
But whimsy plus a thin veneer of sensibility is what got us to South
Bend, Indiana, back in the early 80s (did I really think I was going to get a
Ph.D.?) and then, twenty years ago, to Greensboro.
Sometimes you just fall in love with a place.
But living in a town isn't a marriage. I can have a little fling with another
town now and then, can't I?
There are places in foreign countries that we dearly love to visit. My
career has given me a chance to travel on someone else's dime. As a result, we
have fond memories of the town of Cagnes-sur-Mer in Provence; we love
walking the streets of Paris and London, and ambling along the ramblas of
Catalonia; Nantes and Dublin have won our hearts; Poland, Brazil, and Israel
are full of fond memories and good friends -- and we long to go back.
But let's face it. I'm an American. There's something wonderful about
discovering new places that are also, undeniably, home.
Last week, for instance, we were in the downtown Cincinnati Marriott
Hotel -- which is located, of course, across the river in Covington, Kentucky --
and on her morning walk my wife kept discovering America.
The first morning she found a new set of murals being painted along a
big slab of retaining wall along the Ohio River. On a scale suitable for viewing
from riverboats, the paintings depict people and animals crossing the river in
different eras, from bison to the builders of the old suspension bridge.
The second morning, more adventurous now, she walked to a pair of
steeples we had seen from the road. They turned out to be the steeples of a
German Catholic church called Gottes Mutter, a palace of stained glass inside,
and the heart of a lovely neighborhood that seems left over from another
I joined her there the next day, and crossing under a railroad bridge, we
came upon the German part of Covington and walked along Main Strasse. It
suffers from the common blight of many old downtowns -- except one. They
haven't torn down half the graceful old buildings and replaced them with
And the surrounding neighborhoods are still full of people, living in small
detached townhouses with back alleys, where people sit on porches on a warm
day even in December and go around the corner to shop at stores where the
owners know their names.
Half an hour later -- we were walkin' fools that day -- we found
ourselves in a neighborhood of Victorian mansions (mostly law offices now,
alas, but at least they're still standing!).
And as we followed incorrect computerized directions to a Cincinnati
bookstore, we drove through small Ohio neighborhoods that might have been
the setting for Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.
Each part of America has its own character -- its own architecture, its
own flora and fauna, its own attitude. There are neighborhoods everywhere to
win your heart -- to fill you with nostalgia for times you don't even remember.
Then you just pop over to a T.G.I.Friday's or a Johnny Rockets and
remember that there are also nice things about reasonably dependable chain
stores that make every part of America look more than a little bit alike.
No, I'm not going to see Cat in the Hat, not even to have the pleasure of
shredding it for you. The promos were full of the kind of wretched over-elaborate sight gags that are far more labored than funny. And if you want
more reasons not to see it, go to www.screenit.com to find out that Michael
Myers managed to fill this movie with almost as much bad taste as his Austin
Powers movie, with little regard for its being a "family" film.
Forty million bucks for the opening weekend suggests that lots of people
think those promos looked really entertaining. Or a lot of parents couldn't say
no to their kids.
If you want to see something that's actually funny (though still not great
art), spend your bucks at Looney Tunes: Back in Action. With only a quarter
of Cat's opening box office, it doesn't look like a hit. But we enjoyed it, from
age nine to fifty-two.
Mixing live actors with animated characters, this movie is no Roger
Rabbit -- the actors only sometimes "spot" the animated characters, which can
be vaguely disturbing when they get it wrong.
And it's not as if Brendan Fraser or Jenna Elfman gets a chance to play a
character. I think the live actors appeared in this movie mostly because of
affection for the old cartoons, because there is no doubt that the stars of this
movie are Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.
But they're in fine form, and the movie is so thick with satires on
practically every movie from Disney to Star Wars that adults have plenty to
I laughed out loud -- a lot -- and found myself hooting often enough that
the only reason nobody shushed me was because they were laughing, too. You
don't ever actually care about anything, but it moves along at such a fast clip
you don't have many opportunities to notice that you don't care.
I guess liking this movie -- and liking the live and animated players --
made up for not caring about it.
With Christmas coming up, some people are looking for good new picture
books to give to children or grandkids.
As for me, I buy them for myself.
Heartily recommended: How I Became a Pirate, by Melinda Long and
David Shannon. Young Jeremy Jacob, at the beach with his family, is the only
one to spot a pirate ship standing in to shore. He goes aboard and at first is
entranced with the pirating life.
The story is witty and understated, and the illustrations are simply
wonderful -- warm and funny and likeable. Read it before you wrap it and
mail it off -- provided you know how to read a book without getting the pages
stuck together with jam.
Nowhere near as cheerful is M.J. Engh's brilliant but disturbing novel
Originally published in 1976, then reissued in 1987 and most recently in
2001, there's a good reason why this novel keeps going out of print -- and then
keeps coming back again.
It goes out of print because the story of an American town being chosen
as the world capital of an Attila- or Genghis-like conqueror is so realistically
grim that you can hardly bear to recommend it to your friends. You certainly
can't give it to your children.
And yet no one has explored how power works within a community as
effectively as Engh does within these pages. Do you want to get a glimpse of
what it might be like if America were ruled by raw personal power? Not as evil
as Saddam, the character of Arslan eventually wears a human face. But he
can never be trusted, is capable of terrible cruelty, and any bargain you make
with him is more of a bet, with him in control of the outcome.
Don't give this as a gift. Except perhaps as a gift to yourself, if you have
the courage to look into the abyss.