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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 14, 2007

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


Restaurant names, Pesos, New Books, Speak, Dumb Businesses

Restaurants whose names guarantee that I will never, never try their food:

Froggy Dog (on the Outer Banks).

Mama Steve's (in Williamsburg).

They may be wonderful. I'll never know. Because I just can't bring myself to try the food in a place that is so obviously lost in confusion.

Other restaurant names that just don't work for me: BisQuik House. Okra-ke-bab. Slug-o-rama. Jell-O Heaven. Ritzy Gritzy. The Happy Haggis.

Liver 'n' Lox. Cephalotomy. Oxygen Deprivation. The Loo. Heimlich's. The Bloody Flux.

PBJ 'n' Baloney. Dissin' Terry. Pack-Your-Own-Lunch. Bring-Your-Own-Fork. Tripe Delite. The Total Boar. Bite Me.

Boo Bonnick's. Pig Drop. The Wasp Nest. Lickety-Split. Hot to Trot. Puppies 'n' Guppies. The Knackery. Pick o' the Bog. Bob's House of Platypus.

Hey, after that list, doesn't Fuddrucker's sound like a classy name?

*

Pizza Patron, a fast food chain in Texas, has been getting hate mail and death threats since they announced that they would accept Mexican pesos.

Apparently, some xenophobic Americans have got the wacko idea that this somehow encourages illegal immigration.

Get a clue, you small-brained, tiny-hearted haters: Illegal immigrants do not come to America to spend pesos. They come here to earn dollars and send them home.

Anybody spending pesos in Texas is a tourist. They came to America with money, and they're spending it here. That's the opposite of what illegal immigrants do.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina long had signs in many a store window: "We accept Canadian dollars." Of course, I last saw those signs back in the day when a Canadian dollar was worth 90 cents; who knows whether the signs are still there.

The point is, it is not promoting immigration, legal or otherwise, to accept foreign currencies. People all over the world accept American dollars, and we Americans find it quite convenient when we travel. It encourages tourism. Raise your hands if you think it's a bad idea for Mexican tourists to spend their money in the United States.

OK, yes, you with your hands up -- we know exactly what you are. You just don't like brown-skinned, furrin-talkin' people, whether they're here legally or not. Fortunately, American civilization is still working reasonably well, despite the efforts of pinheaded bigots to turn it into a land of angry barbarians.

*

From time to time, I get advance copies of books that have not yet been published. The sensible thing would be for me to time my review to coincide with the publication of the book. But that would require me to have some idea of how the calendar works, and then remember to publish the review when the day finally arrives.

In other words, fat chance.

Fortunately, we live in the magical day when Amazon.com and other online booksellers allow you to buy a book that hasn't been published yet. They don't actually take your money, but they let you sign up to pay, so your account will be charged and the book shipped on the day it becomes available.

So if you want to buy one of the books I review that hasn't been published yet, you can go to Amazon and make a pre-release purchase. Which is something I do regularly, so I don't miss a book I'm waiting for.

Which brings me to two outstanding Young Adult novels that will be released in coming months.

Mette Harrison's second novel, Mira, Mirror, was a brilliant and original rethinking of the Snow White story -- from the perspective of the mirror! I recommended it highly when it first came out, and still do.

Now, writing with her full name, Mette Ivie Harrison, she brings us a novel of such astonishing originality and power that it makes me proud, as a fantasy writer, to know that such work is possible in my genre.

Unfortunately, the title of The Princess and the Hound might lead young male readers to think it's a "girl's book" -- but it simply is not so. The hero of the story is the prince who is expected to marry the princess of the title.

They live in a culture where people with a magical connection to animals are persecuted and often killed. Thus the prince has grown up trying to conceal his own magical gifts.

A dutiful son, he will marry a foreign princess in order to keep the peace. But when he meets her, she is a strange girl indeed, who is regularly abused, not just by her father, but also by practically everyone else in the court. Why is she treated this way?

When Mette Ivie Harrison takes us into a magical world, she is really taking us deeper into our own reality, where teenagers struggle to find some balance between the demands of the adult world, which insists that they fit in with established roles, and the demands of their own hearts, which yearn for freedom, for greatness, for something that is uniquely themselves.

The result is a book that, on the surface, seems to be an extraordinarily edgy YA fantasy, but which is in fact as telling a novel of adolescence as A Separate Peace or Catcher in the Rye. Harrison is no longer merely a "promising" author, she is an accomplished one, and The Princess and the Hound is a classic. It defies rules and formulas. It does nothing in the way that other fantasies have taught us to expect. Yet every rule-defying decision by Harrison is exactly right, leading to a breathtakingly right ending.

Harrison is an extraordinary author for other reasons. Most writers are, to put it kindly, flabby and pudgy because we spend our lives typing. Not Harrison. As her first novel, The Monster in Me, makes clear, Harrison is an athlete. As a young mother, she managed to keep finding time for swimming and bicycling, but running hurt her knees.

Still, when a friend urged her to take part in ironman triathlons, she decided to give it a try. And because she likes to do well at whatever she does, she trained hard -- and has done well in the triathlons she entered. Now she considers herself an "ironmom." Definitely not your typical author.

Another book I got in advance of publication is David Lubar's True Talents, a sequel to his wonderful YA novel Hidden Talents. If you haven't read it yet, Hidden Talents was about a group of misfit teenagers who are thrown together in a high school that represents their last chance before getting sent into the juvenile prison system. They find out that they keep getting in trouble because they have extraordinary, unnatural "talents" that they simply haven't learned to control.

In writing a sequel, Lubar had the good sense not to try to write the same book again. Hidden Talents was about self-discovery; True Talents is a thriller, and a good one. The kids are out of that school, having finally got control (well, most of them) of the abilities that used to get them in trouble.

However, their talents have attracted the attention of some very dangerous people, who may or may not be connected with the government, and who certainly think they have a right to kidnap children, drug them to the gills, and "study" them. It gets worse when one of the bad guys devises a machine that can suppress these kids' talents. They can't be safe until that machine is eliminated; only then can they stop this guy.

It's a complete page-turner. Once you get past the drug-induced hallucination that opens the book, you can't stop reading. Where Harrison's title might scare boys away, True Talents is exactly the book you give to boys who are usually reluctant to read anything.

But it's also a terrific book for anybody who loves a terrific adventure story -- including at least one adult (if we count me as an adult). Lubar manages to be both funny and real, even while telling a story that is fantastical to the core. You don't have to have read Hidden Talents to enjoy True Talents -- no matter which one you start with, you won't rest until you've read the other.

*

A friend recently sent me a link to an interesting business-oriented website called Dig Tank. There's one essay that I think could be helpful to practically anyone, in life as well as in business. In "Lose Your Story," Howard Mann points out -- succinctly -- how we prevent ourselves from learning anything by telling ourselves stories about why the things that go wrong in our lives are never our own fault. By shielding ourselves from responsibility, we guarantee that we can't find out what we need to change in ourselves in order to get better results.

Check it out at http://www.digbusiness.com/blog/archives/lose_your_storybrickyard_brick_3.html

*

My twelve-year-old had been raving about a book called Speak, but when she told me the plot -- "It's about a girl who is attacked by a guy at a party before her freshman year of high school" -- I winced and decided I'd probably never read it myself. Sounded like an after-school movie starring faded child stars.

But over the holidays, somebody got the film version of Speak as a Christmas gift, and I joined with the rest of the family in watching it.

This was writer-director Jessica Sharzer's first feature-length film, but you'd never know it -- she showed a deft hand at telling a story that jumps around in time. The film also deals very tastefully with a difficult subject. It's funny. It's moving.

And it has an amazing cast. Not that everybody's famous -- only a few of the actors are well known (Elizabeth Perkins, D.B. Sweeney, Steve Zahn) and none are "box office." But all the actors give outstanding, nuanced performances, especially the kids.

Kristen Stewart is wonderful as Melinda Sordino, the silent girl whose school year has been wrecked by the fact that her phone call to the police inadvertently caused the whole party to be busted for underage drinking. But the other kids are good, too -- nobody plays a cliche or a "type.

Even the tiny parts are well performed. Leslie Lyles has been playing smallish character parts since 1987 -- but I bet you don't remember her. Yet this whole time, she's been capable of the kind of brilliantly nuanced performance she gives as "Hairwoman" -- the high school English teacher who hides from her students even as she stands in front of them lecturing.

I didn't see this film when it first aired (Showtime Networks is listed as its distributor), but it hasn't lost anything in the couple of years since it first came out. It remains a powerful, unforgettable movie, even if the small screen got it first.

Come to think of it, TV screens aren't necessarily "small" anymore. When you take into account the distance from the screen in the theater, I daresay the "small" screen I saw it on was subjectively larger than any screen I was likely to see it on in a movie theater!

Anyway, having fallen in love with the movie, I knew I'd have to read the book. My 12-year-old is so noble in spirit that she didn't say "I told you so." She loved the book so much she didn't care how long it took me to get around to reading it. Better late than never.

And guess what? Good as the movie is, the book really is better. It's arty in ways that usually annoy me, but in this case it totally works. There's not a thing in the book that I'd change. Everything that the movie altered was right -- for the movie; the way it was in the book was also right -- for the book.

Author Laurie Halse Anderson has achieved something unusual and fine with this novel. As a work of literary art and as a bit of practical moral instruction, I can't imagine how it could be better. It's so entertaining you don't realize you're being taught something important; and the experience is so powerful you can easily forget that it is, after all, just art.

Sadly, since most boys just won't read books about girls, few will read it. Yet I wish all boys could read it, or at least see the movie, because it might help a few lust-powered adolescent males realize that their desires and feelings aren't the only ones that matter. (Too bad that our society has decided to expose such young children to situations where sexual decisions are even possible.)

Meanwhile, I have added the book to my course on the Contemporary American Novel. Speak has already reached -- and changed significantly -- many thousands more people than most "literary" novels for adults. I'll take this one over pretentious drivel like Cold Mountain or The Corrections any day -- this shows contemporary American fiction at its very best.

*

Sometimes the way companies do business is astonishingly inept. Amazon.com, for instance, is a remarkable success story -- they're the ones who got online retail (as opposed to auctions) right. And yet ... when I went to Amazon and searched for the title Speak, I got really weird results.

The right novel came up, all right, but the top listing was of an early paperback edition that Amazon doesn't sell anymore. You can only buy it from third-party sellers. Now, Amazon makes money from those sales, but this is why it's so weird: Amazon actually sells a more recent paperback edition. But that edition came up as the thirteenth item in their listing.

Thirteenth! Before it on the list came not just the hardcover and audiobook, but also multiple editions of the author's other books. Now, I hadn't searched for works by that author, I had searched for the title Speak. Why in the world would their software throw other titles into the list ahead of the only print edition that Amazon actually sells directly?

Does that make any business sense? When would-be buyers see these search results, are they going to scroll down three or four screens to find the new paperback edition? Most are surely going to conclude, as soon as they start seeing other titles by the same author, that they have already seen all the editions of Speak that are available.

That's great for the used-book dealers that work with Amazon -- they'll get some sales. But I needed 23 copies for my Contemporary American Novel class at Southern Virginia University. No way was I going to buy one copy each from 23 separate used-book dealers! They might have lost my sale to Barnes & Noble, just because their software doesn't put the newest edition first!

Another shoot-yourself-in-the-foot company is Verizon. We love Verizon, by the way -- we recently switched away from two other companies to unify all our cellphone accounts with Verizon and have no regrets.

But their policies regarding cancellations are absurd to the point of stupidity. Our very first cellphone was a carphone -- you remember, the ones that were mounted directly to the car? -- and we've kept it all these years, transferring it from car to car, because we loved the convenience of having handsfree phone use without ever having to fumble for a cellphone in purse or pocket, and without having to remember to bring a cellphone with us in the first place.

However, the car was finally on its last legs -- we used it as a trade-in. The carphone still worked fine, however. We would have kept it and transferred it to another vehicle -- but we couldn't find anybody in town willing to touch that "old" equipment. It was time to say good-bye to our very first cellphone number.

Now, our account had originally been with Cellular One, but through various purchases of one company by another, that old account was now with Verizon like all our other phones. And, because my wife handles the family finances, we had long since put her name on the account as a person with full authorization to do anything.

Anything, it seems, except cancel the phone number. I was traveling on the day she tried to disconnect the number, and both of us were very annoyed that despite my having given her "all privileges" on the account, she could not get it disconnected. I had to call.

Good thing I wasn't in a coma or dead -- apparently she would have had to pay for the account forever.

So despite the gross inconvenience of being interrupted in my work in order to handle an account I knew nothing about, but which happened to be in my name, I placed the call. I called using my Verizon cellphone. But after explaining everything, I was told that because my cellphone has an LA number, the person I was talking to couldn't do anything with a North Carolina account.

OK, fine. She forwarded me to a guy in North Carolina. I explained everything again. And he told me that he couldn't do it either. He had to connect me to their disconnection people, who specialized in this. So I gave the identical information (phone number I'm trying to disconnect; my name; last four digits of my social security number) for the third time.

And then he asked me to defend my decision. "Why are you disconnecting?"

"I've already explained this twice," I said. "It's not my fault that nobody has authority to disconnect me. I know it's not your fault personally, but why is it taking me so long just to terminate a phone number in a carphone that will almost certainly go to the junkyard as they strip the old car for parts? Why is it that my fully-authorized wife could not do it for me, while I kept working at the job that pays for the cellphone accounts we will have with Verizon?"

"I'm sorry, sir," he said. "That's just the way we have to do it."

Remember, the disconnection happens by clicking on a choice on a computer screen that only they can see. The barriers I'm running into are not technological, they're systemic -- Verizon has made it difficult and time-consuming to disconnect.

Do they really think that if they make disconnection tedious, time-consuming, and annoying, this will cause people to change their minds at the last minute and not disconnect? "Oh, wait -- now that I've told my story to the third person, I realize that I don't want to leave this wonderful company."

Puh-leeeeeze. It just makes people who are switching services glad they're leaving Verizon. And when they become unhappy with their new carrier, and they think, Maybe I should go back to Verizon, they'll have a memory of their distaste at dealing with a company that made it so inconvenient to carry out a transaction. "No, forget them," they'll say.

Promotions and discounts pass quickly; ill will lasts forever.

Don't these companies have people who pretend to be consumers and test their interface, so they can find out how inconvenient or irrational their system design really is? Apparently not.

So I'll help save them from themselves by offering this lovely little rant. You can bet that this column will be forwarded or quoted to both Amazon and Verizon.

Where it will be read by some executive who can't see how doing anything about these problems will advance his career, and my comments will be flushed away.

*

For those who haven't figured it out yet: "Cephalotomy," if the word existed, would mean "surgery to put a hole in your head."


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