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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 17, 2006

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


Gifts of Cash, Celtic Harp, Books, and Merry Christmas

I think we need some rules about gift certificates and cash as Christmas gifts.

Some people think that cash is a tacky gift -- it means you are admitting you don't know the other person well enough to select a meaningful gift, so you're giving up and sending them money.

Other people think cash is the best gift -- partly because they know that the recipient will exchange everything anyway, and partly because what they're really giving is the fun of a shopping trip.

Cash is a necessity for, say, aging grandparents, for whom getting out and shopping is simply too hard; you tuck a fiver into a card for each grandchild and it's all done. You know they'll look forward to opening the card every year, and they'll never mumble about how out of touch Grandma is getting if she thinks you'll ever wear those pajamas.

Plus, every single grandchild gets exactly the same amount, so there's no jealousy and nobody thinks somebody else is the favorite. (Unless, of course, you give five bucks to the grandchildren you don't like and ten to the ones you like best. Then you're using Christmas to exacerbate family rivalries, and I'm not speaking to you.)

So cash is only sometimes tacky. Remember the old joke about the friends who always exchanged hundred dollar bills for Christmas, until they finally stopped because they couldn't afford it any more?

What about gift certificates? One school of thought has it that gift certificates are better than cash because at least you chose the store and therefore the kind of merchandise; the other opinion is that gift certificates have all the tackiness of cash but none of the freedom -- you still didn't choose a gift, and they have to pick their own present at a particular store. In other words, it's cash with strings attached.

Again, though, I think this depends on who the recipient is -- and what the gift certificate is for.

For instance, if I want to give books to friends who are great readers, how in the world can I begin to guess which books they already have? But a gift certificate to Borders or Barnes & Noble says, I know you well enough to know that you love browsing through a bookstore -- and here's a trip on me. (And if you know the Borders or B&N nearest them also sells DVDs and CDs, so much the better!)

If you have a friend who is remote from any decent bookstores, then an Amazon.com gift certificate does the same job.

We also love to give restaurant gift certificates. It's a night out, at a restaurant you love, or at least recommend -- maybe a date for a married couple who don't get away from the kids half often enough. And, since they eat the meal, it doesn't clutter up the house and they don't have to remember what you gave them and bring it down from the attic, dust it off, and put it on display when you come to visit. (Or I hope they don't. Let's not go there.)

Many a Christmas we have given gift certificates to movie theaters, too. (In Greensboro, it's a relief that the Carousel finally has gift cards; for many years I could only give tickets to the Grande because the Carousel was always "out" of gift certificates.) This way we're not picking the movie, but we are giving a night of entertainment.

My parents live in a town with an excellent community theater, so we have arranged to purchase season tickets for them. A season ticket is a gift certificate -- you can't be sure they'll even be able to attend during the run of a particular show -- but when you know they enjoy that theatre company's work, it's a genuinely personal gift.

Clothing stores are another matter. If you know somebody well enough to know that their favorite clothing store is Coldwater Creek or Eddie Bauer, then a gift certificate is much more personal than cash.

However, if you think your friend needs a serious makeover and the first step is to send them to the clothing store you think they should shop at, then that's not a gift, is it? That's an insult.

Nor have I ever understood the point of a mall gift certificate. You haven't selected anything except where they should park their car while shopping at the same selection of stores as every other mall.

One warning, though. Don't ever give a gift certificate that expires.

In fact, when I see that a store sells gift certificates with an expiration date, it makes me want to never shop in that store again.

A gift certificate with an expiration date is a slap in the face to the customer. It means they think you're stupid.

A gift certificate isn't a coupon. The store already has the money. So who cares whether the certificate is used in a year, or two years, or ten? To have that certificate expire after a set amount of time is theft, as far as I'm concerned. They took your money and then made a bet that the certificate wouldn't get used in time and they'd win. Whereas you lose the money, period.

But in my opinion, the worst cash/certificate gift ever is the "donation in your name." You know -- the one where you get a little card that announces, "$20 has been donated in your name to the Committee for the Preservation of Snail Slime."

I can understand funerals where people are asked to send, instead of flowers, donations to a particular cause dear to the heart of the deceased (or related to trying to cure the cause of death).

But for Christmas or birthdays, it is not a gift. It's the opposite of a gift. You are telling the recipient, "I had twenty bucks to spend on you. But instead, I gave it to these other people and then told them your name. They don't know you. You don't know them. All they know is that I gave them the money, so I'm the one who gets the tax deduction and the cuddly relationship with the people I donated to.

"Plus, I get the warm fuzzy feeling of having sacrificed to donate to this cause.

"You get ... well, this little card, informing you that you aren't getting a gift from me this year, and telling you who is getting your gift instead."

Unless you are absolutely sure that the "recipient" is an avid supporter of the cause, and he has actually said to you, "It really hurts that I don't have any money to donate to Snail Slime Preservation this year," don't do it.

Better to just send me a Christmas card with no gift, then make your donation in your own name and leave me out of it.

*

At the Carolina Craftsman fair this year one of the highlights was passing by the booth where Pamela Bruner was playing the harp and singing her beautiful arrangements and compositions of Celtic and Celtic-inspired music.

I bought four of the CDs and have been delighted with all of them. The Celtic harp has a piercing sharpness to the tone, but I actually appreciate that -- the music of the concert harp, with its gentler attack, often seems to me to be designed for glissando but not for melody, for there isn't enough clarity in the tone.

(In fact, I often wonder why they keep making the harpist play while the rest of the orchestra is playing, since the harp's contribution to what you can actually hear is zero.)

Pamela Bruner's harp you can hear; but I like it best when she also sings, because she has a pure and lovely voice. I bought two Christmas albums (On Christmas Morn and A Midnight Clear) along with Till We Meet Again: Songs of Celtic Women and Irish Journeys.

If you missed Bruner at the crafts fair, go to her website, http://www.pamelabrunermusic.com, where you can order vocal and instrumental CDs and instructional books on playing the harp.

*

I wanted to like Amy Sedaris's book far more than I did. In I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, she's often quite funny, in an Erma Bombeckian way.

The concept of the book is intriguing. She gives sometimes serious, sometimes ironic, and sometimes just slapstick advice about entertaining -- giving parties, putting on dinners, etc. She even includes recipes that are in complete earnest.

But the running gags get old very, very quickly. The joke that she leaves a tip jar for guests or solicits money is repeated so often that I begin to think that maybe she means it -- which, of course, would make her the scum of the earth, as hosts go.

And I'm not amused by people who slyly advocate the use of illegal drugs; nor am I much interested in people for whom the point of a party is to drink as much as possible.

Drinking heavily is what you do instead of enjoying each other's company. It's how you get through evenings with truly awful people, evenings which are worth the hangover the next day, if it means you won't remember anything that happened.

The parts that were amusing became steadily rarer; the parts that were desperately trying too hard became more frequent, and longer.

I listened to about half of the book on CD -- read quite charmingly by the author, which is essential with comedy books -- and finally realized that I was only listening to it to get it out of the way so I could listen to something I actually looked forward to hearing.

*

Carl Hiaasen is a wonderful writer and storyteller. He has a flair for exposing the absurdity of human behavior, and his novels Strip Tease and Skinny Dip were excellent thrillers with intriguing and sympathetic characters, lots of wit and the occasional sight gag that makes you want to see the movie.

The trouble is that I think that Hiaasen thinks he's writing comedy. So in some of his books, he skips that "intriguing and sympathetic characters" part and even the "excellent thriller" part and spends all his time and effort on comedy -- especially the sight gags.

And sight gags just don't work in fiction. It's funny to see a stage or screen pratfall (as long as you weren't expecting it, or the person deserves it), because the pratfall just happens. But in fiction, it doesn't happen, it's only told about. Most of the time, sight gags in fiction are like sight gags in gossip: They always end up with, "Well, I guess you had to be there."

Hiaasen's newest, Nature Girl, falls somewhere between the two extremes. Because the driving character of the plot is definitely mentally ill -- she has audio hallucinations, and she's obsessive and lacks impulse control -- our sympathies are entirely with her son and her ex-husband.

But the plot is structured as if our sympathies were with her. Half the book, I'm thinking, this kid is having a "caretaker childhood," all because his mother is so selfish she refuses to take her meds. Why isn't he in the custody of his father? Oh, wait -- because his dad is an ex-con who still knows how to hire people to seriously hurt anybody who mistreats his ex-wife.

The most likeable character (after the son) is the half-Seminole, half-Anglo character who thinks he has to hide out in the Everglades like his Indian ancestors because a guy died (of a heart attack) on his boat. But since his entire storyline depends on his having made the genuinely stupid decision to hide the body instead of simply taking it back and reporting the death, and then taking along a nubile and but selfish and talkative Anglo girl, again, it's hard to get too worked up about his cause.

But Hiaasen does write charmingly. And even though he ends up treating untreated mental illness as something you can sort of control and work around -- his solution is that she magically stops hearing the hallucinations after a whap on the head -- the whole thing comes out pretty much ok.

Which amounts to this: I enjoyed reading the whole thing, even though I had to squint in order not to see that in fact this kid is having a damaging childhood, because he has to take care of his custodial parent instead of the other way around. And even though the bad guys in the story are both so egregiously, insanely self-destructive that it's hard to keep believing in them.

I listened to it on CD, narrated by Lee Adams, who did an excellent job. I was never tempted to stop listening. That's not quite a rave review, is it?

This book is simply not in the league of Hiaasen's best work -- but it's entertaining, and I'd go to see the movie.

*

As a child I watched a documentary on Pompeii, and was moved by the plaster castings of people who died in the ashfall from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.

The ash filled in completely around their bodies; then their corpses decayed and disappeared, leaving behind a space in the exact form of the clothed body. Archaeologists then pumped plaster into the gap, let it set, and removed the ash from around it. Voila: Tragic statues of people caught in the throes of death by asphyxiation.

The result, for me, was that I had no interest in ever visiting Pompeii; it was just too sad. And too overrun with tourists. It felt macabre to me, like a sideshow. Let them rest in peace.

Now comes a superb book by Alex Butterworth and Ray Laurence: Pompeii: The Living City. The authors' goal was to show Pompeii, not in the moment of its death, but rather in the last years of its life. Because there is no better-preserved site from the Roman Empire, it allows us to see, not what was deliberately preserved in writings or sculpture gardens, but the trivia of day-to-day life.

The graffiti; the houses and shops with furniture intact; the second-rate art right along with the good stuff -- it's as close to a complete snapshot of ancient life as we're likely to get.

Of course, it doesn't include the corpses and prized possessions of people who were timid or wise enough to heed the many warnings of the coming eruption and get out of town. And the panic at the end did distort the picture -- we don't exactly see people going about their business, not when they're choking to death in searing ash.

Still, this book, scholarly and popular by turns, does a superb job of showing us daily life in an important imperial Roman city, while tying it closely to the evidence.

*

Kati Marton's book The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World is fascinating reading, as she gives us mini-biographies of some of the most important people in the twentieth century.

We can often forget that Hitler sowed the seeds of his own eventual destruction by his anti-semitic policies. We remember the six million Jews (and six million other victims) who died because of Hitler's genocidal policies -- but just as many people heeded the warnings and left Pompeii before the city was destroyed, so also many Jews had the luck, the courage, the sense, or the money to get out of Europe before the gates of the Third Reich swung irrevocably shut.

And some of those Jews were among the greatest resources of Europe. They came to America and were part of making us the most powerful and culturally dominant nation on earth.

Some of the people Marton writes about were scientists, pivotal in creating computers and the atomic bomb -- and not just through their scientific work, but also through their relentless effort to warn President Roosevelt about the German nuclear-weapon program and the need for the Allies to get there first.

Others were movie makers -- Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca, and Alexander Korda, producer of The Third Man. The writer Arthur Koestler; the photographers Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz.

It's easy to forget how important immigrant and native-born American Jews were to American culture during and after World War II. Europe's foolish, tragic loss was our gain. And while our enemies love their Nazi-born propaganda that Jews secretly run America, history shows us instead that a gifted people gave their intellectual and artistic best to the country that provided them with safe haven -- and much of America's twentieth-century greatness is owed to them.

*

Ian Mortimer's biography, The Greatest Traitor: The Life of Sir Roger Mortimer, Ruler of England 1327-1330, is based on sound scholarship -- this is not a gossipy tell-all or soap opera. But the very scholarliness of his approach makes this incredible story all the more effective -- because we cannot doubt that it really happened.

Mortimer was as loyal a subject of Edward II of England as the often-foolish king was likely to find. The king had to work hard to turn him into an implacable enemy -- but he succeeded. And Mortimer fought the king so successfully that he became, not only the ruler of England, but also the paramour of Edward II's queen.

That Mortimer ended up receiving a traitor's death seems almost inevitable. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that he was the better ruler and that England wasn't so badly served by having him rule.

Meanwhile, much of the book is devoted to proving -- with much success, I believe -- the seemingly preposterous idea that Edward II was not murdered, but instead was exiled into obscurity, his death faked in order to keep him from being the continuing focal point of rebellion. I'll leave it to you to decide for yourself whether you think Ian Mortimer makes that case.

*

When I visited Israel a few years back for a science fiction convention, I happened to be there during the Feast of Tabernacles. One of the nights in my hotel, the indoor restaurant was closed. Instead, meals were served outside in a tent.

I'm not a Jew, but I was in a country that is predominantly Jewish. I didn't feel persecuted by being "compelled" to take part in a Jewish celebration. It was actually kind of cool. Nobody thought it meant I was being proselytized; I didn't feel that my Christian beliefs were being compromised. I didn't have to take part in any Jewish prayers or rituals. I simply dwelt in their country during the time of a religious festival.

Plenty of Jews in Israel are non-observant; to them, the Feast of Tabernacles is merely a charming old custom. They enjoy it without belief, or ignore it, as they choose. But regardless of their attitude, those days are the Feast of Tabernacles in Israel.

We're in America. Christmas is definitely a Christian holiday -- as witness the name -- but it is also a secular American custom. I hear religious Christians bemoaning the secularization and commercialization of Christmas, but I think that's just silly.

Nothing about the way we celebrate Christmas publicly prevents a religious Christian from having a solemn or joyful religious celebration, at church and at home. I live in an intensely Christian religious community, and even we have a great variety in the degree to which each family involves Santa Claus and gift-giving and stockings and Christmas trees in the commemoration of the birth of Jesus (who was probably not even born in December anyway).

And just as I don't have much sympathy with Christians who seem to want to make everybody celebrate Christmas with the exact degree of religious fervor they prefer, I have little sympathy with unbelievers who want to use Christmas as the occasion to beat up Christianity a little.

Whether you're Christian or not, December 25th, in the United States of America, is Christmas Day. Believe in Jesus or not, that's the holiday, and the entire season leading up to it is full of Christian and secular Christmas decorations, references, and memorabilia.

Those who want to nitpick and sort their way through the different Christmas customs, declaring that this one is too religious and that one is just secular enough to be included in public observances of the season are, to my way of thinking, oppressive puritans, and we should throw out their silly, selfish court cases and stop them from wasting our time.

Christmas drives the American retail economy. Christmas customs transcend the religion that founded them. Christmas doesn't convert anybody to Christianity. But it is a vital part of the national calendar. It's part of the American way of life. And when puritans try to ban the religious aspects of Christianity from any support by local governments or schools, they are engaged in an absurdity.

American tolerance of different religions exists because Christians decided to be tolerant. There were hardly any non-Christians involved in the early days of this country, so the much-vaunted "separation of church and state" came into existence only because Christians willed it so. We decided to tolerate all the different brands of Christianity, and ultimately extended it to tolerating all the non-Christian beliefs as well.

In reply, we now find the unbelievers trying to use the mechanisms of government to attack any publicly funded participation in the greatest holiday in the American calendar. Christmas can be tolerated -- except for the Christian parts of it.

It's gotten to the point where these days, people I talk to on the phone in New York and Los Angeles actually say, "Is it OK to wish you a merry Christmas?"

To which I have to answer, How could it not be OK to wish me pleasure during the celebration of this great public holiday? It's Christmas whether I'm a Christian or not; to wish me a merry one shouldn't give anybody offense; and if it does, then they should look around them, decide whether they like living in this country, with all its tolerance, and then shut up.

Because Christians are the ones who invented religious tolerance. We did it because we got fed up with all the bloodshed, large-scale and small-, that came as the price of centuries of intolerance. And it was in America that tolerance became the law of the land.

Those people who complain about Christian "domination" really ought to visit a Muslim country, where you can't quit the ruling religion or offer the slightest bit of information about a rival belief system without serious danger of being killed, by the government or by vigilantes.

Or go to England, where the ministers of the moribund Church of England are still paid by tax money.

Get a clue about what intolerance and establishment look like, and then come back to America, and when somebody wishes you a merry Christmas, accept the genial greeting and wish them one too. It won't turn you into a Christian. It will turn you into a polite American.

We need a lot more of both, in my opinion, but I'll be happy if the Christmas season increases only the number of the latter group. You can wish me a merry Christmas. I wish you one, too. All of you, Christians and non-Christians.

Except those who are offended by this; and you, I wish a very merry 25th of December. The only thing that might prevent you from having one is your own intolerance.


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