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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 23, 2005

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


Shoes, Cooky Dough, Kite Runner, and Little Books

I like chick flicks.

In fact, I resent that they're called "chick flicks" because I'm far from being the only person of the male persuasion who is far more interested in films about complex relationships than films about winning or blowing things up.

It's a dumb, sad situation in our culture when most of the best movies are called "chick flicks" as if men were too dumb or insensitive to like movies about the things that matter most in life.

I do have testosterone at reasonable levels: I think The Dirty Dozen is one of the greatest movies ever made; ditto with Stalag 17. Of course, those are both about relationships, too. Chick flicks with bullets and dead bodies ...

All of this being the long way around toward explaining what I was doing at a showing of In Her Shoes. Based on a novel by Jennifer Weiner about a pair of sisters whose lives have been distorted by the early death of their mother, it has been given a gorgeous screenplay by Susannah Grant, the writer of Pocahontas, Ever After, and Erin Brockovich. (She also wrote the script for the new Charlotte's Web -- a promising sign.)

The younger sister, Maggie (Cameron Diaz), is a hard-drinking, way-too-easy playgirl who doesn't even pretend to have respect for anybody, least of all herself. The older sister, Rose (Toni Collette), has been Maggie's protector since their mother died -- which made sense back when they were both trapped in the home of their needy, selfish stepmother.

But now, her "protection" amounts to little more than enabling Maggie to continue trampling on everyone around her. And when Maggie sleeps with Rose's boyfriend (and boss), it's too much. Rose gets, not tough, but furious, and ejects Maggie from her apartment and her life.

Oddly enough, however, it also ejects Rose from her own life. She quits her law firm and begins to see the world differently. Without Maggie to take care of, she's finally able to be a bit of an adolescent herself, trying out a new job and a new way of seeing herself and the world around her.

Along the way, she gets attached to the most terrific yet realistic romantic hero I've seen in movies in ages, Simon Stein (Mark Feuerstein), who is especially appealing because he is the kind of guy I always aspired to be. (Harrison Ford being beyond my reach.)

Meanwhile, Maggie finds a long-lost relative, played by Shirley MacLaine, who treats her with honesty and strength. The more Maggie gets control of herself and turns outward toward others, the happier she becomes. Until the sisters are finally able to face truths that neither of them had been able to deal with until now.

It's a deeply moving story, yet not really sentimental. Any emotions I felt were earned by a tough and believable storyline. Also, I laughed a lot -- it is a comedy.

The director, Curtis Hanson, did not direct a "chick flick." He had higher aims than pandering to one segment of the audience. What he created was a film for grownups about being a grownup. Hanson has avoided the easy road from the start of his career. Bad Influence and L.A. Confidential were a far cry from In Her Shoes in every way except for a brilliantly quirky way of telling a clear and emotionally compelling story.

*

I haven't seen Dreamer and I probably won't, because the only reason I would have gone already went and saw it with her cousins. But from what I hear, it's pretty good. This from a brutally tough critic who doesn't cut anyone a break.

*

The other day I was assigned to bring dessert to a large gathering at church. I was going to bake my fabulous chocolate chip cookies ... but my chocolate chip cookies are fabulous because I put so much work into them. (I start with the basic Toll House recipe, but I caramelize the sugar and butter in a sauce pan before mixing it with the other ingredients, and I add only half as many chocolate chips, so you can actually taste the cooky.)

I was tired. I didn't have time. And when I was at the store, picking up chocolate chips (we had all the other ingredients), I saw several packages of Nestle's "Refrigerated Cookie and Brownie Dough." The lazy man inside me (who is astonishingly alert) forced me to reach out and pick up a couple of packages each of the Jumbo Cookies and the Mini Cookies.

Each contains about the same amount of dough; the only real difference is that the Jumbo Cookies are pre-divided into twelve big squares of dough, and the Mini Cookies are divided into forty much-smaller squares.

You really do just break off strips and then break the individual cookies from the strip. You could just break off and bake five or ten of the minis or three or four of the jumbos and put the rest of the dough back in the fridge. But that was not my plan.

I baked all 80 minis and 24 jumbos, and to my surprise, there were still 65 minis and 21 jumbos left to take to the gathering at church. There were none left to take home, so it's a good thing I subjected the baked cookies to so much rigorous taste-testing before I shared them.

I've heard people tell me that they hadn't bought them because "who wants square cookies." Well, they melt and become round, or at least round enough. Besides, if you put the dough blobs close enough together on the cooky sheet, you can always get square cookies.

For my taste, there are simply too many chocolate chips. Thus they remain less brilliant than my own cookies. But my own cookies take a lot of work. And I won't always be there to bake them for you. This is an excellent second choice. And since you still have cooky sheets and cooling racks to wash afterward, and crumbs all over the table, it feels like you really baked.

*

After giving you a diatribe last week on how unfortunate it is when an author reads his own work, I have to turn around and recommend Khaled Hosseini's audiobook reading of his own first novel, The Kite Runner.

My wife read this novel during the summer. Usually, we tell each other enough about whatever books we're reading that each of us counts the others' reading as covering both of us. Only rarely does she say, This is so good that I'm not going to tell you anything about it. You need to read it yourself.

I had imagined, from what little I knew about it, that Kite Runner was going to be a medicinal novel -- I would read it in order to get my dose of Afghani culture.

And indeed we get that dose. No, that banquet. Because in all my studies, nothing had made it so real to me as this novel.

The culture and recent history of Afghanistan that is merely background to a compelling, moving novel of fathers and sons, of friendship, and (most importantly) of the lifelong price we and others pay for the bad moral decisions we make.

The novel's main character, Amir, is born to a well-to-do family in Kabul, where he is immediately caught up in a complex network of relationships, especially with his father's friend and servant, Ali, and Ali's hare-lipped son, Hassan, who is Amir's childhood playmate until one day he realizes that Hassan is also his personal bodyservant, born to that role and faithful to it beyond all reason.

Beyond that I will say little else except to warn you of beauty and goodness interspersed with cruelty and harshness. The relationship between Amir and his father blesses and deforms Amir's understanding of himself and the people around him. And when he finds out just how much of his own life has been twisted in order to keep certain dark truths from emerging, it's almost as devastating to us as to him.

The novel is not perfect -- while Hosseini is not so heavy-handed with his metaphors as most, you can still hear the reverberations of the nonsense he learned in his college creative writing classes. And when it comes to plotting (the one thing nobody bothers to teach in those classes), he relies a bit more on coincidences and last-minute arrivals than he will when he is more experienced. I also wished he had been a little less authentic with rough language, so I could recommend it to many people who would otherwise have loved it.

But the flaws are slight compared to the achievement: Hosseini knows how to tell a story.

It is especially noteworthy that, like the hero, Hosseini left Afghanistan as a child -- only he wrote this book without ever going back. Only after The Kite Runner was published did he get a chance to return, where he discovered (no doubt to his relief) that his imagination and the reality of today's Kabul fit together remarkably well.

But Hosseini is not Amir. For one thing, Hosseini's father was a diplomat in Paris when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, and he applied for asylum and got in the United States. For another, his mother did not die in childbirth, she was a teacher of Farsi and history in Kabul until they moved; and Amir grew up with a brother.

Hosseini finished out his childhood in San Jose, California, and attended Santa Clara University. He got a medical degree from UC San Diego and has practiced medicine since 1996 -- which explains why he not only got the Afghani culture right, he also knew what he was talking about when he dealt with medical matters.

As a reader of the audio version of his novel, Hosseini's accent, far from marring the performance, makes it feel so real you can easily forget that it's a novel. And it's nice to have all the Farsi and Pashtoon words correctly pronounced -- native English speakers can't make the "gh" sound in "Afghan."

The audio is somewhat abridged, though not so drastically that you miss anything important. In fact, some of what's cut out is the worst of the rough language -- could he possibly have been uncomfortable saying some of those words aloud? -- so the audiobook is both more real and less off-putting for some readers.

If it did nothing else, The Kite Runner will make Afghanistan a real place to you, not just a word in the news or on a map. But it will also put into your memory some important truths about love and responsibility and courage and tough choices.

*

I'm kind of a sucker for "little" books -- you know, the short compendia of this and that which make perfect bathroom reading.

For instance, my wife and I had a perfectly lovely time finding out how stupid we are by reading Can You Beat Ken? Each double-page spread has eight questions that Ken Jennings had to face in his long reign as Jeopardy champion -- along with his score and his wrong guesses.

Yes, it's fun to try to answer the questions. And my wife and I, twice each, managed to equal or better his score. But that's a total of four question-sets out of 113. And on some pages, you'll look at the page and think, How could any human being know and remember these things?

And then I remember the tournament they had between Jennings and all the previous winners, and how one of them finally managed to beat him. I remember thinking at the time: I don't think Jennings wants to win this. And during that final round, I think he blew questions that, if he had cared, he would have won.

In short, given the things he did know, I think Jennings simply decided that he had had enough -- he didn't want to be known as the all-time best Jeopardy player. He had nothing left to prove, and maybe by losing he could get his life back. So he didn't stretch himself enough to win. Winning that final game would have been hubris. (And you can bet that Ken knows what the word hubris means.)

Even more fun (and less hard on the ego) is The Official Movie Plot Generator. The ring-bound pages are divided into three parts that can be randomly combined by flipping the upper, middle, and lower sections.

For instance, when you first open the book, you see: A cop who doesn't play by the rules / fight(s) crime / with a mischievous orangutan.

Now, this will probably make you think of Clint Eastwood getting his every-which-way and Dirty Harry movies mixed up. But then you flip the second and third sections and you might get:

A copy who doesn't play by the rules / coach(es) a hapless Little League baseball team / in a blood-filled teen slasher; or:

A cop who doesn't play by the rules / help(s) children learn to read / in a rousing adaptation of the Broadway musical.

I swear it's just like being in a pitch meeting in Hollywood.

Military Encounters: Quotations on War & Peace (edited by Robert Edwards) contains fascinating snippets of wisdom or irony on warfare; but most of it also applies to other aspects of life. For instance:

"Hereafter, if you should observe an occasion to give your officers and friends a little more praise than is their due, and to confess more fault than you can justly be charged with, you will only become the sooner for it, a great captain" (Benjamin Franklin in a letter to John Paul Jones).

"The first method of estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him" (Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince).

If you can't figure out what these quotations have to do with business or politics, then you won't understand how they apply to military leadership, either.

Distory: A Treasury of Historical Insults leaves no politician unstoned. Editor Robert Schnakenberg works hard to be complete and even-handed, though sometimes the book suffers from the fact that American insults are rarely clever (just look at the sheer clumsiness of the attacks on our most recent presidents). Sometimes the insults are funny mostly because they are so witless and inept.

But there are also many gems, like this comment by John Randolph about Edward Livingstone: "Like rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks."

Or Abraham Lincoln on the diminutive Confederate vice-president, Alexander Stephens: "Never have I seen so small a nubbin come out of so much husk."

But when you read Patton's insults, they only make Patton himself look small, and much of the invective is mere spite, badly phrased.

Count on the British, though, to bring us some jewels, like Benjamin Disraeli's assessment of Prime Minister Robert Peel: "The right honorable gentleman is reminiscent of a poker. The only difference is that a poker gives off the occasional signs of warmth."

The other night, as I sat with my family rewatching the 1995 BBC/A&E production of Pride & Prejudice, which introduced American audiences to Colin Firth, I could not help but marvel at how the extreme courtesy of Jane Austen's English society made it possible to offer far cleverer and deadlier insults than our coarse culture allows.

(And, while it has nothing whatever to do with my review of quick little books, I think it's worth pointing out that no matter how good the Kiera Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen P&P turns out to be, the sheer length of the 1995 miniseries and the excellence of the script and performances will leave it as the perfect screen retelling of Jane Austen's masterpiece.

(And perhaps it is also worth remembering that Sense & Sensibility, which was not Austen's best novel, nevertheless became, with Emma Thompson's brilliant script and performance, the best movie ever made from a Jane Austen novel, and one of the best movies of all time. If you haven't seen either of these films, how can you judge whether any other movie is good or not? And how will you know a good insult when you hear one?)

Not all these little books is particularly good. Take, for instance, the wretched little So, Now You Know: A Compendium of Completely Useless Information. Written by Harry Bright and Harlan Briscoe, it manages to be quite entertaining -- if you don't know a thing about the subjects they talk about. But if you do, they seem to have a knack for either deliberately or inadvertently distorting everything.

The inescapable conclusion is that if you read and believe this book, you will definitely emerge knowing less than when you started.

*

There are lots of wonderful websites and mail-order catalogues from companies offering wonderful, high-quality, hard-to-find kitchen tools, gadgets, and supplies, like Chef's Catalog, Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma.

But I'm happy to report that my favorite kitchen store in all the world, Greensboro's own The Extra Ingredient, has joined the ranks of catalogue and online stores. If you haven't already got their wonderful book, call 1-800-528-3618 and order one. Or go online to http://www.extraingredient.com.

Still, nothing can compare with stopping by the store itself (in Friendly Center) and browsing the shelves, where sometimes I think the store's buyers surprise even themselves with the wonderful things they assemble. Trust me, you have no idea what your kitchen even needs till you've been to The Extra Ingredient.

*

Christmas shopping season is nearly upon us, and neither Friendly Center nor the city of Greensboro has done a thing about the wretched traffic flow on the main road that passes through the center from the Wendover offramp past Barnes and Noble and on past the theater complex.

Last year they installed lovely brick crosswalks that double as extremely effective suspension wreckers speed bumps. Only they didn't make those intersections into four-way stops. So they actually make it harder for cars to turn from the parking lots onto the main road, because all the cars passing long the main road have to slow down but they never surrender the right-of-way, so you wait twice and three times as long to get a break.

Four-way stops are the only things that make sense at those crosswalk intersections. Apparently they can afford brick, but they can't afford signs. Maybe they figure that once you get to Friendly Center, they don't much care whether you can ever leave again ...


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