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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 17, 2005

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


Selling Harry, Princess Academy, Headphones, ComicCon

I haven't read it yet, so there's I'm not reviewing the new Harry Potter. Besides, this book will be in more homes than the Bible, so it's not as if anything I say will affect sales.

Keep in mind that while many millions of dollars are being earned this weekend by the rush of Harry Potter sales, almost none of that money will be earned by bookstores -- not directly, anyway.

That's because a surefire seller like this becomes an immediate loss leader for the big discount stores. Sam's Club and CostCo have to provide copies to their members at such a ridiculously low price that they're certainly losing a few cents on every copy they sell.

It's worth it to them because it's vital that they keep the confidence of their members that they offer the lowest prices anywhere.

WalMart, Target, KMart and others probably sell slightly above cost -- but that's not profit, since they have to spend so much time stocking the book.

And as for the bookstores, any profit they make is swallowed up in the extra employee hours involved in staying open past midnight on the laydown date and moving stock around to make room for the enormous Harry Potter displays.

Even the publishers run the enormous risk that by printing enough copies to meet the anticipated demand, they might have inadvertently overprinted and will be stuck with copies they can't sell. Even if a book sells ten million copies, if you printed eleven million, you've got a million unsold books.

So only Rowling is guaranteed an enormous profit from the book. And that's fine -- she created it; it's hers.

Don't feel sorry for the bookstores, though. They think it's worth it for the simple reason that many people don't buy just the one book. (People with that idea in mind -- "Let's buy this book and nothing else" -- probably don't buy it at a bookstore anyway.)

Bookstores are trying to piggyback other products onto the rush of Harry Potter sales. There are even bookstores that are touting my new novel as something that might appeal to Harry Potter readers.

Of course, there's also the theory that the Harry Potter novel is so thick that many people won't need to buy another book for months, thus depressing sales of everything non-Harry.

So we in the book business contemplate Harry Potter with Smeagol-like indecision ...

*

I've been telling people for a long time that some of the best contemporary literature is being written and published for children. And I'm not just talking about Harry Potter.

And it takes nothing away from J.K. Rowling's series to tell you: I just read a book that is, quite frankly, better than any of the Harry Potter books. (Though of course it won't sell as well. Nothing does!)

It's by a writer named Shannon Hale, whose previous books (Goose Girl; Enna Burning) got a lot of well-deserved praise.

The title is, of all things, Princess Academy.

It's a perfect title for a book, if the target audience is dreamy-eyed ten-year-old girls.

And dreamy-eyed ten-year-old girls will adore this book. But not one whit more than this old man did.

I believe it's a book for everybody. Grownups especially.

It's been a long time since I've read an adult novel with anything like Hale's knowledge of human nature and human communities.

The story sounds almost formulaic in the simplicity of its situation. In an imaginary kingdom, the priests announce that the heir to the throne will choose his bride from among the girls in an obscure territory -- not even a province.

It happens that the only people who live in that territory are villagers high on a mountain, who make their living by quarrying valuable linder stone for subsistence-level goods.

So the rough, uneducated daughters of these quarry-folk are gathered up and assigned a stern teacher who will make ladies out of them -- including the training they'll need to help govern a kingdom. And at the end of a year, the prince will come and choose one of them to be his bride.

What makes this book more than the predictable imitation of Princess Diaries that it might seem to be is that Hale creates real girls who don't all want to be princesses, and who are tightly bound to each other and the mountain.

There is a magical element in their world, and it's crucial to the story; but there are no spells or fairy godmothers or pumpkin coaches. Instead, there are real girls learning real-world lessons that nevertheless will set readers dreaming in completely unexpected ways.

Above all, Hale knows that "realistic" doesn't have to mean "unrelentingly ugly." In an era when writers strive to be "edgy," which invariably translates into creating truly vile characters and situations, Hale offers us a world full of grief and fear and loneliness -- but also full of love and trust and decency.

I was moved to tears and to laughter, and caught up in the grace and beauty of the way Hale smoothly moves us into this village and the lives of these girls and makes us feel at home there.

There are adventures and dangers, and the most compelling, believable, poignant love story I have read in many a year. Compared to the life of this academy, Rowling's Hogwarts seems almost a caricature of a school.

Don't buy this book as a gift for a child. Read it for yourself, then share it with anybody you love.

*

And speaking of this love story, it's a relief to be back in a world where the press of two hands or a few whispered words can be far more emotionally and romantically charged than any amount of the nonsense that passes for "romance" in our movies and tv shows and lives today.

By being so "free" these days, we have stolen romance from our children. Our daughters grow up thinking they have nothing to offer a man but their bodies; our young men grow up thinking that someone is cheating them if they can't satisfy themselves however they wish.

It's sad that the gentle romance of this novel will feel like a fantasy to many young readers.

But when I was young, this was the romantic world I lived in -- where a held hand was full of daring and excitement, and it didn't occur to me for a long, long time that I could even hope for more.

Where a first kiss might not come until late in one's teens, and decent young men and women did not want to sully themselves by attempting sex outside of marriage.

Am I the only one who remembers that world? Of course many of my generation were impatient with the rules that seemed to restrict us. But it was those very rules -- the chaperones, the separation between the sexes, the "repression" of "natural desires" -- that made romance even possible.

Why couldn't we, as a generation, have had the sense, the unselfishness to give that same gift to our children? To let them chafe against the limitations that kept them from disastrous mistakes and bitter memories?

Like cliche stage mothers, my generation acted out our youthful sexual fantasies through our children's lives, turning them loose to fumble about in matters too difficult and feelings too powerful for children to deal with.

Those who should have been chaperones instead taught little children about condoms and thought that would make them "safe." From some things, perhaps, but not from the worst thing: the cheapening of one of life's most precious gifts into a small coin to be spent too soon, to gain too little.

*

A few years ago, some friends gave me a wonderful gift: Bose noise-cancelling headphones. I had already owned a pair of Panasonic 'phones that supposedly did the same job, but the Bose pair cupped my ears far more comfortably, and the noise-cancelling was far more effective.

I could put them on during a long flight and tamp down all other noise so I could sleep or concentrate on work or on whatever book I was reading.

So naturally, in the haste to get off an airplane and make a connection, I idiotically left them nicely tucked away in the seat pocket of one flight or another. It broke my heart. What a fool!

I went back to using my old Panasonics, but now I was unhappy with them. So I tried the Brookstone ear-cupping headphones. They came much closer to matching the much-missed Bose 'phones.

But recently I went another direction entirely. In a Laptop Lane I saw a display of Shure earphones -- little earplug-style headphones.

I've tried earbuds before, and they always fall out of my ears almost immediately. Unless I jam them in so tightly that they hurt.

They had models you could test, however -- which they cleaned off antiseptically between users -- and I discovered that the tips of the earphones were a comfortable, flexible, somewhat rubbery plastic that slid comfortably into my ears and stayed until I wanted them out.

This in itself was somewhat miraculous. But even nicer was the fact that the 'phones I was about to buy had a selection of different-sized caps to let them fit into many different-sized ears.

$179. That's way less than the Bose headphones, but way more than your normal earbuds (which are usually given away free with MP3 players).

Here's the verdict: Worth it! To me, anyway.

They don't work like noise-cancelling headphones, which "listen" to the ambient sound and emit frequencies that cancel out loud, continuous noises.

Instead, the flexible caps on the Shure earphones shut out everything.

This is a good thing, for some purposes -- sleeping on an airplane being one of them. But if the flight attendant asks you a question, you literally cannot hear a sound she's making, whereas you do hear voices, however faintly, through regular noise-cancelling headphones.

And I wouldn't wear these earphones while running or walking on the street, because safety requires that I remain able to hear vehicles approaching from behind me.

These earphones are so good at shutting out noise that they could get you run over by a truck.

But for long flights -- especially west-to-east red-eyes, where it's essential that you get some sleep or you'll be the walking dead upon arrival -- I have found nothing that does a better job of shutting out unwanted noise while providing excellent music quality and staying comfortably in place for hours on end.

*

I'd heard of ComicCon in San Diego -- the world's biggest convention for consumers of illustrated fiction -- but figured that because I didn't read comics or graphic novels, it wasn't for me.

To my surprise, however, during my current book-signing tour they booked me to spend four days in San Diego -- the whole convention!

Why are they wasting time like this? Yes, I've recently authored a comic book series, but the publisher who sent me to ComicCon was not the publisher of those comics! No, I was being sent there to sell a regular book, the kind with no pictures.

Guess what? There's a reason why a hundred thousand people flock to San Diego to attend one or more days of this convention. Because it's about a lot more than just comics -- though comics remain at the heart of it.

Traditionally, comics conventions grew out of the sci-fi convention tradition. A bunch of fans get together, rent hotel space, and charge enough money to pay the bills. They have panel discussions about various aspects of the art that brings them together, they have displays of artwork, many of them wear costumes as if they were characters in one of the made-up worlds -- and they have a "dealers' room," where a few hardy entrepreneurs sell books and media tie-ins and other paraphernalia. Everybody has fun, nobody gets rich, but the bills are paid.

Add steroids, and you have ComicCon.

They still have panel discussions -- which are attended by hundreds and hundreds of people.

But it's the "dealers' room" that dominates everything. Because instead of a few hardy entrepreneurs, the big guys show up and the exhibits go on and on and on.

Major movie studios have huge displays promoting current films, with teasers and making-of featurettes playing on big screen tvs.

Electronic games publishers noisily promote their games, and people line up in endless queues to play new games for a few minutes at a time.

And the comics publishers are all there, big and small. Marvel and DC, of course, but also the quirky publishers who bring out innovative, clever, funny, dark, compelling, delightful, or (sometimes) downright filthy comics, all of them hoping that at this convention, their work will catch on with the public.

Artists and writers also attend in large numbers. For instance, I ran into a booth where Roger Dean himself, the man who redefined fantasy art with his magnificent covers for Yes albums back in the sixties and seventies, was signing his work (http://www.rogerdean.com). (And the vendor who was selling Dean's work was from, of all places, Apex, North Carolina!)

Then there was the booth where Michel Gagné was selling and signing copies of his brilliantly perverse book Insanely Twisted Rabbits and other delights, like Odd Numbers, a counting book in which each number is expressed by particular body parts on extremely unusual creatures. Gagné and his wife publish his work, and both were there in person to chat with and sign books for all comers (http://www.gagneint.com).

There are many good fantasy artists, but the exigencies of illustration -- you have to paint what the art director will buy, and you have to meet the deadline -- often mean the work is hasty or ill-constructed. And, to be candid, not all artists are equally skilled, so that paintings that look fine on book covers turn out, on closer examination, to be ill-composed or badly executed or full of incompetently drawn human figures.

A few artists, however, look better and better the more closely you examine their work; one of them is the brilliant fantasy painter Ciruelo. His work is painstakingly detailed, like that of the best wildlife artists, and his composition and use of light are exemplary (http://www.dac-editions.com).

And there he was, in person, selling prints and books and t-shirts emblazoned with some of his most compelling images. A charming, shy man; I was torn between being irritated that he had to sully his own hands with selling instead of staying home painting something, and being thrilled to have a chance to meet him and get a couple of his books personally signed.

Then there's Robert A. Kraus ("RAK"), who creates tiny paintings of famousfigures from films, comics, and literature -- all given an ironic, perverse twist. Each one can be purchased on a small card, personally signed by the artist, and packaged in plastic so they'll get home protected. Three dollars each; two if you buy in bulk. And there he was, drawing yet more darkly funny figures (http://www.rakgraphics.com).

There are many dealers selling comic books, new and used, and many others selling t-shirts and action figures and art prints. There are even book dealers -- San Diego's own Mysterious Galaxy bookstore was there with a large selection of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery books (including mine, which is the most important test of a bookstore's quality).

But for me, the greatest enjoyment came from walking among the artists' and small-publishers' booths to find work that is blazing new trails, or talented newcomers that I can hire at ridiculously low rates to create illustrations for my new online fantasy/sci-fi magazine. I hit paydirt several times; and in the meantime, had a chance to talk with talented young (and not so young) artists for whom the future is still wide open.

I was delighted to find one publisher specializing in comics for young girls. I loved the delightfully drawn and cleverly written "Amelia Rules" series, which is being joined by more kid-centered comics series. (You can get a sample at the AmeliaRules.com website, but it hasn't been updated since 2003, judging from some of the entries.) You can order Amelia Rules comics from Amazon.

And I fell in love with some of the work being done by Art Thibert's Hack Shack Studios. Thibert himself is a well-known comics artist; he has assembled a team that produces really interesting work. My favorite is Chrono Mechanics, a series of brilliantly drawn comics about the crew whose job it is to repair the flow of time whenever and wherever it goes awry (http://www.hackshackstudios.com/).

There are lots of artist co-ops, too, where up-and-comers join forces so they can afford to display and sell samples of their work -- while hoping to be discovered by one of the big publishers.

I had a great time, spent too much money, had to ship stuff home in two separate boxes ... and I'm coming back next year, bringing my then-twelve-year-old with me, because she would love this show.

Besides, it's in San Diego, where the weather is almost always perfect, they have a great zoo and many other tourist attractions, and some fine restaurants, which of course is my minimum standard of civilization.

ComicCon is worth the trip, folks -- whether you're a comics geek or merely a consumer of popular culture.

*

We opened last night, but there's still one performance of Steel Magnolias. It's free of charge, and the performances are splended.

The curtain opens at 7 pm tonight (Thursday) at the LDS Church at 3719 Pinetop (right across from Claxton Elementary).

It's a grownup show -- no one under age ten will be admitted.


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