Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 10, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
The Unit, Medium, books
I hate to begin with a retraction, but last week, on my way to reviewing
something else, I casually mentioned that one manufacturer of orthodontic wax
was better than the others. The trouble is, my aging memory plugged in the
The good one is Dentemp's Dental Wax -- it's the one for people with braces.
(You can get them at http://Majesticdrug.stores.yahoo.net.)
The others are a bit softer and easier to mold -- but the price you pay for that
is that they also stick to your fingers rather than to the braces, so you have a
hard time getting them off your hands and into your mouth.
But if it's any consolation to you who might have followed my false
recommendation last week: I followed it myself, ordered more of the wrong
brand, and now I have more squishy, hard-to-put-in dental wax than I will ever
The cylinders of wax don't even make good birthday candles. Bummer.
All summer, when I was working on a book and a screenplay and had no time
to breathe, my wife was surreptitiously DVRing a prize for me: David Mamet's
TV series The Unit. Starring Dennis Haysbert, who played President David
Palmer for four years on 24, along with a fine ensemble of action-heroes-with-soul, this CBS show sizzles with smart dialogue, and characters with depth in
a genre where you don't usually need much depth.
The idea is that a small, secret, powerful unit of the U.S. military is prepared to
undertake difficult missions at any moment, at any place. What's interesting is
that many of the men on the team are married, and their wives are part of the
story. The need for complete secrecy applies to them, and in the first episode I
saw, one of the wives had just got her husband booted out of the unit by
mentioning in casual conversation off base that her husband didn't really do
logistics as the official name of his unit implied.
What evolved during the first hour I watched was a kind of hard-hitting soap
opera with guns. My kind of story. I plan to watch many more episodes.
For my birthday, my older daughter gave me the first season of Medium. This
NBC series, starring Patricia Arquette as "Allison Dubois," had not looked
interesting to me at all when it was first promoted. I don't believe in mediums
or "channeling" or psychics, and so I didn't want to watch a tv series that
glorified one. But when my daughter told me it was one of the best shows on
television, I paid attention.
This well-written series (created by Glenn Gordon Caron) doesn't glorify
anyone. It's a serious look at what extraordinary ability can do to a family.
Allison feels a responsibility to use her gifts to help make the world safer --
specifically, for her own family of three little girls and a rocket-scientist
husband, "Joe." But she also feels that her first priority is her family.
The relationship between Allison and Joe is wonderfully depicted. Joe is played
by Jake Weber, whose face you'll recognize but you won't necessarily know
why. He's been a character actor for the past fifteen years in features and on
television, and he creates the perfect balance of love, humor, and peevishness
that makes us like them as a couple. Whenever he's on the screen, he softens
the petulance that prevails in Arquette's performance.
Arquette is a wonderful actress, but not a warm one. We delight, however, in
her impatience with people who refuse to see what is so obvious to her. And
she makes the dilemma of this wife, mother, and rescuer seem utterly
believable -- she helps us across the gap between reality and fantasy.
I'm not sure that I love all the choices that have been made in filming her
dream sequences -- the watercolor-on-glass sequences in the "Coming Soon"
episode were quite jarring at first, though I understood why they had to be
different from any of her other "visions." It's a very tricky set of stories to film,
and I think they're doing a fine job.
What's most astonishing about this series is the work they do with the two
older daughters. Sofia Vassilieva plays the nine-year-old, who is sometimes
bratty and resentful of her younger sister, but without ever making us hate
her; and Maria Lark as Bridgett is almost never aware of her own cuteness.
The directors are doing a superb job of getting natural performances --
including mind-numbing screaming matches -- out of children who are, as a
general rule, way too young to act.
We're watching this as a family, but only because our youngest is a mature 12-year-old. Any younger, and we'd keep her out of the room. Some of the images
are simply too disturbing. The crimes Allison helps to solve are not purse-snatchings, to put it mildly.
The second volume of Robin Hobb's "Soldier Son Trilogy," Forest Mage, is now
available, and it brilliantly continues the story of Nevare, a young man caught
up between his own family's expectations and a magical destiny that was
imposed on him through his own unknowing choices.
But I have to say, this is one of the most bleak books I've ever read. Hobb is
pitiless. Everything turns to ashes in Nevare's hands.
The consolation is that in the third book, there's nowhere to go but up. And in
the meanwhile, the world is fascinating and the story is moving.
Margaret Maron's newest Deborah Knott mystery, Winter's Child, is full of
the wow-she-lives-here moments that North Carolians' especially delight in, but
of course there's far more to her fiction than mere local color.
Usually I cringe when bad guys start messing around with the sleuth's family
-- it seems like a sign of desperation to me. That's why I stopped reading
Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta novels -- it seemed like all the bad guys had
a personal vendetta against the state medical examiner, which to me seemed
unlikely in the extreme.
In this story, however, Judge Knott's husband (of one month), chief deputy
sheriff Dwight Bryant, gets summoned to a town in the upper Shenandoah
Valley by his son to help with a school project -- only to find out that his ex-wife never came home the night before. And as he prepares to start looking for
her, the son is snatched away -- apparently by the ex-wife.
Meanwhile, Dwight has left the investigation of a shooting back in North
Carolina in the hands of a new detective -- a young woman with, of course, a
crush on him. Somehow Maron manages to keep two investigations -- which
end up having four unconnected perps -- alive and interesting.
The only problem is that the Deborah Knott series began as a first-person
detective series -- Knott herself narrated the tales. But as more and more of
the action moved away from her, it became unwieldy to continue using only her
point of view. She simply wasn't present for too much of the action.
What does a writer do in a case like that? Some writers use multiple-first-person viewpoints, but that is almost always a wretched mistake. Every time
you switch from one person's voice to another, you can't help but think, So
when all these adventures were over, they decided to write a book together?
(Now, that would work if the author really used it -- if each one kept correcting
and arguing with and taking umbrage at whatever the previous ones had
written. But how many of those could you write and have the device still
Another choice would have been to drop the first person for Knott herself, and
make everything third person. It would have made the series inconsistent
across the different volumes, but that's far less wrenching than the choice
Maron made: To have Knott's sections be in first person, and everybody else's
sections in third-person.
Because the implication is that Knott's character is also narrating the parts
that she's not in, which means we get the distinct idea that she thinks she can
get inside the head of her husband, Dwight -- and, more ridiculously, the
young cop with a crush on him. Surely that's not what Maron intends us to
think. But when you have a character narrating some sections of a novel, it's
automatic to assume that unless we're told otherwise, she's narrating the
At the same time, I can understand why Maron stuck with Knott's first-person
voice. She's charming and we readers enjoy her company. And once you get
used to the switches from one person to another, it's not so annoying that you
can't enjoy the book.
Especially in this case, where Knott has to deal with her husband's first
marriage from much closer up than she ever wanted to. It's a very personal
story, and yet still a gripping mystery tale.
If there's any real flaw, it's that one obvious suspect doesn't occur to anybody
until far, far later than one would think plausible in real life. We needed
somebody to think -- could it be X? No, because ... Instead, they never think
of X at all, which leads us to assume that X must be the evil-doer, which turns
out to be a partial red herring, which ...
It's very complicated. Let's just say that I don't like it when sleuths in
mysteries overlook obvious suspects. I need to know why they're not pursuing
But let's not quibble. Maron is one of the best, and Winter's Child is one of her
best, and besides, it's got a really cool old house with nifty secrets.
Bob Harris's Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! is a
surprisingly intimate, entertaining book. Harris tells the story of how he tried
out for Jeopardy! many times, finally got on the show, lucked out by winning
his first game -- a Friday show -- and then used the weeks before the taping of
his next game to cram like crazy.
He gives us his memorizing method -- which works, though I've never cared
enough to assemble mental lists that way -- but more importantly, shows us
his own road into Trebekistan, which is the wonderful mental place where you
start assembling information, not to win game shows, but for its own sake.
Harris's roots as a stand-up comedian show up here, perhaps a little too clearly
sometimes -- he can be just a bit more jokey and carry the conceit on just a
little too far sometimes. But by and large the saga of his Jeopardy! contests is
bright and funny, he never takes himself too seriously, he isn't always the good
guy, and he has genuine affection and admiration for the people he came to
know through the show.
He also includes aspects of his personal life that, rather than distracting from
the story, enrich it and make it clear that he remembers just how important
Jeopardy! isn't in the grand scheme of things. I highly recommend this book if
you have ever enjoyed watching the show ... or harbored dreams of being on it.
Because this book completely ended any thought of that for me. Why?
Because it's like Scrabble -- the people who are serious about it work so hard
and memorize so much that they take all the fun out of it for people like me,
who think the contest should be about what you just happen to have learned
through the ordinary course of your life.
So I'll go on watching the show, admiring the people who perform well on it,
and feel no further itch to stand up there with Alex myself.
I read and delighted in Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish back in 1968, when
it was new. Having grown up out west, I rarely heard Yiddish words or phrases
except in movies, novels by Philip Roth and Chaim Potok, or in essays and
stories in eastern magazines. Yet reading Rosten's book awakened me to how
much Yiddish had already penetrated English -- I was amazed at how much
Yiddish I had already absorbed without knowing it.
Now, nearly forty years later, Michael Wex has come out with a new guide to
Yiddish in its cultural context: Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and
Culture in All of Its Moods. I thought I was going to enjoy it even more; I
enjoyed it markedly less.
First, Wex seems to think that it is useful or amusing to identify kvetching -- a
hunger to complain about everything, even good things -- as the core attitude
of the language.
But I have a hard time with any attempt to stereotype an entire language or
cultural group. I've known plenty of non-kvetching Jews in my life, and plenty
of non-Jews who were champion whiners. I just didn't buy his premise.
And then, the farther you go into the book, the more you realize that you would
enjoy it so much more if you already spoke Yiddish. I don't.
With Leo Rosten's book, you don't have to speak a word of it. It's a better read.
If you're an outsider to Yiddish, that's where you start. Wex's book is really for
insiders, whether he thinks so himself or not.
Speaking of books that are really for insiders, Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong:
The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law is a perfect
example. Woit thinks he's writing a book that explains high-level physics to
people who don't have the math to actually understand it.
Instead, trapped within the mindset of academic science, Woit has a terrible
time writing in comprehensible English. Without realizing it, he makes even
the easy parts sound hard and forbidding.
The trouble is, we need this book. It's a perfect example of how a speculative
insight can quickly become a science fad, and then grow so dominant that it's
treated as "truth" without ever having proven itself to be useful in any way.
Admittedly, mathematicians pride themselves on the uselessness of most of
their work -- that's why it's so pure -- but physicists do require each other to
occasionally describe a universe that functions much the way the real one
Woit's main point is that string theory, far from describing this universe, is so
malleable that it could easily describe any universe. It's like getting directions
to a friend's house: "You get on a freeway and you make eighteen turns, give or
take thirty, and there you are!" That may describe millions of possible
destinations, but does not guide you to any particular one. So many fudge
factors have been introduced into string theory over the decades that it's about
as useful, in the view of some scientists, at least, as those directions from a
I'm always amused to watch as science corrects itself. We often talk about
science as monolithic: "Science has brought us ..." "Science has shown us ..."
But of course we always mean "Scientists have shown us." It's work done by
human beings, with the normal range of emotions, ambitions, envies, fears,
hopes, and blindnesses. They gravitate toward the "hot" field -- the one where
the grant money is -- in order to advance their careers.
That's part of the reason why these days, you can hardly read any science book
or article without some reference to global warming in it. You don't seem quite
contemporary if you can't have some dire warning about global warming in
whatever you write -- no matter how tangential it is to the actual subject
matter. It's now a joke between my wife and me when we read at night in bed.
"Here's the global warming reference," I'll say, and we both chuckle.
Science only gets it right in the long run, and only because science -- unlike,
say, literature, women's studies, or the soft sciences until very recently --
insists on constant reality checks. You may get caught up in a fad, but
ultimately, somebody's going to point out that your work doesn't have anything
to do with the real world, so let's get back to work, kids! Your time in the
sandbox is over, we've got a house to build.
I have a few other books I'm looking at on the same subject. Maybe theirs will
be legible. Or maybe, if you have a scientific background yourself, Woit's book
will do. He's certainly smart. He just let go of plain English long ago and
hasn't found his way back.
A Measure of Everything: An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Measurement
isn't a book you sit down and read for fun. But it is a good one to have in the
house. In the room where the kids study. Or in the bathroom, where you
might have a moment or two to ponder the fact that there is such a
measurement as a "livestock unit" (LU), with the general idea being that large
domesticated beasts like horses and cows constitute one LU each.
However, when you have a cow and a suckling calf, then they become a cow-calf unit, comprising either 1 LU or, under some definitions, 1.2 LU.
You'll be fascinated to learn that under the European definition, "a cow
weighing 600 kg producing 3,000 liters of milk per year = 1 LU, a calf for
slaughter = 0.45 LU, a nursing ewe = 0.18 LU, a sow = 0.5 LU and a duck
OK, so maybe you won't be fascinated.
But there are people for whom the unit "centiMorgan" is a matter for daily
reference, and who know that a "tribometer" has nothing to do with either
ethnicity or the metric system. And I bet when you said, "Just a moment" to
somebody you never thought of the word "moment" as meaning "the vector
product of the force vector and the vector connecting the pivot to the point at
which the force is applied."
When I first saw the premise of Paul Chiasson's The Island of Seven Cities:
Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America, I was, to say the
Having read Gavin Menzies's 1421: The Year China Discovered America, I
bought the idea that the Chinese might have visited our shores. But Menzies
had been rather too quick to seize on anything and everything as proof of his
theory, which set off alarms for me. And to claim that Cape Breton Island (part
of Nova Scotia) is not only the place where the Chinese established a long-lasting colony, but also the source of the legends of the "Seven Cities of Cibola"
-- well, that just seemed too much for me.
But eventually I opened the book, just to see whether it was complete or only
And discovered that it seems not to be nonsense at all. For one thing, unlike
Menzies, Chiasson did not start his exploration in order to prove a theory.
Instead, he was simply fascinated by some strange patterns of ruins near his
childhood home, and when he came back later, as a trained architect, he
realized that there were ancient artifacts -- roads, foundations -- that bore no
resemblance to anything done by the local Native Americans, and just as little
to anything done by Europeans when they arrived on these shores.
In other words, he began with the problem, and only came to coalesce with
Menzies book after much independent work.
Has anything been proven? No. But the ruins there seem well worth the effort
of investigating. I ended up taking both Chiasson and his thesis very seriously.
And if it turns out to be true -- well, who knew that the strongest Chinese
presence in pre-Columbian North America would be on east coast?
Just a note. Having just finished the round of medication for my second bout
of bacterial pneumonia (with ten years between infections), I can assure you
that despite the ten-pound weight loss, it isn't a pretty ten pounds.
Hard to feel more svelte when you're so exhausted by either the disease or the
drugs to stand up for more than a few minutes at a time.