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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 13, 2005

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


Zathura, Signs, Weasels, and Kipling

Chris Van Allsburg writes and illustrates wonderful, quirky children's books that are so thick with imagination and suggestion that you feel like you've read a huge novel rather than just a 32-page picture book.

Back in 1995, his book Jumanji, about a children's board game that turns all too real, was a modest hit movie directed by Joe Johnston. The film was a labor of love for everyone involved, and producers Scott Kroopf and William Teitler have teamed up with Van Allsburg (and the ubiquitous Michael De Luca) to film the sequel, Zathura.

Once again the premise is a children's game that affects the real world in dangerous, albeit thrilling, ways. This time, though, we have two quarrelsome brothers (supposedly being tended by their slacker older sister) who are playing the game against their will.

That is, the younger brother, Danny, was begging the older one to play with him, and started without him. But when the first turn caused a meteor shower in the living room, older brother Walter finds that he's playing whether he wants to or not.

By then, though, Danny is terrified and wants desperately to quit. But there's no way to quit this game. You can only play it through to the end. If you don't, you're stuck in the weird universe of Zathura for the rest of your life.

They have added characters and situations to the story in order to make it feature-film length, but they are all fully in keeping with the spirit of the original picture book. In fact, I've had a chance to meet Mr. Teitler and I know how seriously he takes the obligation to be faithful to the author's vision: Van Allsburg certainly gave his consent at every step of the way -- unless he was himself the source of some of the additional material.

Director Jon Favreau, an actor himself (and director of Elf) proves that he can direct honest performances, as he gets child actors Jonah Bobo and Josh Hutcherson to give superbly real performances as the brothers. In fact, their maddening, screaming quarrels were so real I kept looking around for my own brother, though we stopped the full-out screaming years ago. (Months, anyway.)

My only misgiving is that the older sister (Kristen Stewart), while an excellent actress, is costumed and filmed in such a way that it is impossible to imagine any boy from 13 to 30 actually following the plot when she is on screen. One of the benefits of being old like me is that you never notice things like that. Er, I mean, except to imagine how younger males might respond ...

I would have gone to see this movie without my eleven-year-old in tow. It's not a "kids' movie," it's a good movie that kids over eight will enjoy as much as adults do. If you've ever been a kid, the movie will probably have more to offer you than those who are still busy being one.

*

Amid all the remodeling at Moses Cone Hospital over the years, there's one thing they've overlooked: signs.

Not that there's any sign shortage. Lots of signs. Signs that mean things to people who work in hospitals. Not signs that help visitors figure out where they are or where they're going.

It doesn't help that you're in a building with elevator buttons that say things like "1," "G," and "B," especially when "1" often means the ground floor, "G" means the ground floor but sometimes it's the basement, and "B" means the basement, when they bother to have one.

That's the kind of thing that happens when a building keeps getting added onto.

The insanity starts in the visitors parking garage. You approach a big "Hospital Entrance" sign over an archway, only when you go through the glass doors, you have not entered anything, you've simply left the parking garage and now you're outside, with the hospital fifty yards away.

Then you walk in, hoping that there'll be a map, a sign, something to guide you. You glance around and there is a big reception desk that looks like where you'd go to get information. Only it's seven at night and nobody's sitting there. In fact, the whole big lobby is empty except for a sad-looking guy sitting slumped in a visitors chair, who may just be waiting for a staff member to get off shift, or he might have just heard the worst news in the world. Either way, you don't want to bother him for directions.

So you see a likely looking corridor and you start walking. Sometimes it looks kind of plush and finished, like a public area where visitors are expected. You pass a cafeteria, so you know other people sometimes come down here. But then the corridor starts taking various jogs without any signage at all -- nothing you understand, anyway.

You see "west elevators" but are those the ones you want? Not a single sign says "visitors this way" or "patient rooms." All the signs suggest that wherever you go, people are going to be very busy saving lives or treating diseases or injuries, and you will be in the way. Someone will come up to you and start yelling and calling security because you wandered into the wrong area.

After a while, though, you start wishing they would, so that as they hauled you out, you could ask them where you had been.

Finally you come to "central elevators" and only then do you discover you had entered the hospital on the Ground floor, which in the middle of the hospital is actually the basement; so you go up a floor and now, at last (without a single help from any sign) you find yourself in what looks like a main entrance hall, with a gift shop and coffee shop.

And another unattended information desk.

This time, though, there is a helpful sign saying that for information about patients you should go to a certain phone and call a certain number. I went to that phone. I called that number.

The woman who answers immediately asks you where you are.

"That's what I called you to find out," you answer helpfully. "Doesn't your system tell you which phone I'm calling from?"

"That would be nice, wouldn't it?" says the woman without a trace of sarcasm, as if you're the first person ever to make the suggestion.

Finally you deduce, from what you can see where you're standing, which entrance you're at. Then she helps you go back to the elevators and go up to another floor where you're supposed to go a certain direction only she didn't tell you that there were a huge set of heavy uninviting doors blocking it. They don't say "keep out," but they imply it. Still, you bravely go through and lo! You are in a section of the hospital where people are going in and out of patients' rooms and you are there.

Only as you leave do you discover, on that first information desk, a helpful sign telling you that you could have called that nice lady from the lobby near the parking garage. The sign, however, was carefully placed so that when you're first standing there looking around, you see only its edge. Only when you are leaving the hospital is it readable.

Whoever designed the signage at Moses Cone hospital has obviously moved on to a lucrative career designing websites, where the thing most people are going to want to do ("buy stuff"; "pay money") is hidden away in tiny type somewhere, or buried within a seven-level menu structure that you can only reach if you guess that "I want more information" is the sign that will lead you to "pricing" which will lead you to "shop for items."

Doesn't anybody ever test these things? You know, walk through the doors (or open the website) as if you had never been there before, but had a specific, common, obvious purpose in mind, like "visit a patient"?

I know the answer. "Thousands of people every year manage to find the patients they mean to visit. So it must be working."

Yes, and even without signs or traffic lights, thousands of cars a year could drive around Greensboro. But they'd constantly be bumping into each other, going the wrong way, and having to stop to ask for directions.

Then again, maybe signs don't make all that much difference.

*

There are many of us with that perverse sense of humor that allows "nasty" and "funny" to be applied to the same thing at the same time. Humor that makes you feel just a little bit guilty afterward. But not so guilty you won't still share it with equally nasty-funny friends.

For those who share this trait, look for The Bloodthirsty Weasels: On the Loose and Buck Wild, written and drawn by Theresa "Terry" Bane. Bane has a nasty mind and a funny pen, and the result is a delightful book full of captioned pictures that you will want to xerox and post on your office door ... just so that some blood-thirsty weasel will have to circulate a memo demanding that you take them all down.

Topics are wide-ranging, from what Bloodthirsty Weasels do in the sea of humanity to what they do with the lemons that life deals to them.

Humor is hard to do, and Bane has done it well. I only wish she had had an editor who would tell her to avoid the two missteps that mar the book a little. I'm afraid that when most of the Bloodthirsty Weasel offenses are in the category of wearing too much cologne or inventing pyramid schemes.

So it's startling and, in my view at least, Not Funny to suddenly face a "joke" about BWs leaving babies in dumpsters. Since the premise of the book is that BWs are doing what they do specifically to annoy you, the abandonment of babies just doesn't seem to fit with the comic premise.

And the joke about BWs, "male and female alike," having mustaches -- to me, Not Funny for a very different reason. All the other jokes are about voluntary actions. But women with overly hirsute upper lips do not grow that hair to annoy you. It grows because of the genes they happened to get. So what, exactly, are we ridiculing here? The poverty or oversensitive skin that put electrolysis or laser hair removal out of their reach?

This is why editors exist -- to help an author see when she's about to do something that, while it seems hilarious to her, will be jarring to some readers -- in fact, I hope, most readers -- and urge the author to think again.

But you know what? While I wish those two NotFunny gags weren't in the book, I wish that sort of thing about a lot of humor books (with some books, in fact, all the pages are in that category). So keep this in perspective and recognize that Bane has created something wonderful here that could well catch on and become part of our vocabulary.

Because this is a locally published book, it may be hard to find. It's available on Amazon, but not if you look it up under "Blood-Thirsty Weasels." You must search for "Bloodthirsty Weasels" -- no hyphen.

Or visit http://www.TheBloodthirstyWeasels.com. (Which takes you to the NeDeo Press website, where The Bloodthirsty Weasels is a tiny little clickable line over on the righthand side of the screen. And they do not show you a single image from the book that is large enough to let you know how wickedly funny and well-done it is. The Website gets a "why do you bother" sticker from me.)

*

(Another little postscript: "Bane" is a great last name for someone who writes about annoyances. But why did she include both her first name, Theresa, and the obvious nickname, Terry, in her byline? Is anyone going to be surprised that someone named Theresa has the nickname Terry? Now, if her byline were Theresa "Bogus" Bane or Theresa "Alex" Bane, that's not obvious, and we could use the information.

(But maybe she goes by both names. "Hi, I'm Theresa 'Terry' Bane." "Oh, so I should call you 'Terry'?" "No, you should call me Theresa Terry."

(Is this how she's going to autograph the books, complete with quotation marks? It's as if she couldn't decide whether she was going to be friendly and accessible ("you can call me Terry!") or dignified and aloof ("the name is Theresa, thank you"), so she thought that she could be both at once. Didn't work.

(But now that I've spent three paragraphs reviewing her choice of byline, one thing is certain: I have done all I could to help her name stick in your memory.)

*

I have two little clocks by my computer, both of which are still on daylight savings time, because they are both so annoyingly hard to change. So I keep looking up and being shocked by how late it is. Yet I'm so lazy that even now, I'd rather write a paragraph about it than actually take the little clocks down and wring their little necks till they tell the right time.

If I just wait another few months, they'll be right again.

*

A friend sent me a copy of the audiobook version of Victoria Vinton's novel The Jungle Law.

On the one hand, it's about one of the great English fiction writers of the Victorian era, Rudyard Kipling, during the time he lived in Vermont, when he was working on The Jungle Book, and Vinton does a good job of letting us see something of the kind of man he was.

On the other hand, the book is self-consciously literary -- written in present tense, working very hard to make sure that very little happens, while everybody is astonishingly self-aware and analytical about it.

On the other hand, the American family that the story is really about are interesting people, and I found myself caring about them all.

On the other hand, it's hard to love a novel about a great writer, when the not-so-great writer of the novel tries very hard to do Great Writing. Vinton, in the effort to write incantatory prose, is often repetitive, and sometimes shows she may not know what the words actually mean.

For instance, one of her incantatory series is of phrases or words meaning "had a strong impact": A realization hit the character hard, even "bowled her over," but the series ends with "sideswiped her." Which is just baffling. Sideswiping is a glancing blow; surely a bathetic ending for a list that includes "bowled her over."

Usually this kind of ineptness is quite overlooked because we're caught up in the story. But when the writer uses language as a substitute for event, making the choice of words one of the primary features of the performance, then those words had better be worthy of the attention the writer demands for them.

On the other hand, the audio performance by narrator Henry Strozier is superb, helping carry us along through the jungle of language to keep track of the story itself.

Vinton is scrupulously fair with her characters -- nobody is a villain in his or her own mind and heart, however many weaknesses might reside there. I wish that in the process of writing about Kipling, she had learned a little more from him about how storytelling is done, and a little less from her creative writing courses.

But maybe she'll do as Anne Tyler did, and move beyond the nothing-happens, introspective, don't-I-write-evocatively literary novel she was trained to write, and begin to let the characters carry the story while keeping herself and her style out of the limelight. That change has made Tyler one of the great writers of our day, and for reasons not too different from those that made Kipling one of the greats of his time -- because the writers who are truly beloved, whose works are remembered and passed along by someone other than college professors, are the ones who remember to tell stories that ordinary people can believe in and care about.

Vinton isn't there yet, but she can see it from where she is. I hope she makes the leap on her next books, realizing that the best bits in The Jungle Law are invariably we are least aware of Vinton and most aware of the characters.

And maybe next time she'll know better than to skip over the entire scene where a main character is trapped in an abandoned building with a broken ankle. It's such a shame when talented writers let fear or loftiness keep them from letting the reader experience the key events in the characters' lives.


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