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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 wrong company.

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 use.

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 work?)

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 whole thing.

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 the matter.

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 does.

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 friend.

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 0.014 LU."

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 least, skeptical.

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 partial nonsense.

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.


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