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