Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 24, 2007
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Nancy Drew, Orvis, five singers, Mars Needs Moms!
If only they hadn't used the name "Nancy Drew," the movie Nancy Drew would
have qualified as a pretty good pre-teen chick flick.
The one thing they got right was that the mystery itself was a pretty good one.
And they hit the right tone with "supernatural" events that always have a
natural explanation. If you're doing a Nancy Drew and you have a hidden
staircase, people with disguised identities, and Nancy having to be resourceful
and rescue herself from tight spots, you know what you're doing.
Unfortunately, there's this other movie going on at the same time, using the
same actors, and constantly interrupting the pretty-good mystery. This other
movie is a cheap teen flick about a girl who, due to mental illness, dresses in
retro garb and is completely oblivious to how she doesn't fit in with other
people. Eventually, without every understanding or learning anything, she is
accepted because in true idiot savant fashion, she saves the day.
That movie was kind of embarrassing, and I felt bad for the actress trying to
play the insane girl.
I felt a whole lot worse because they kept calling the insane girl "Nancy Drew."
In the books, Nancy Drew was never written to be trapped in a bygone era. In
fact, they've updated the series twice to try to keep her from getting too dated.
But when a series is popular year after year, decade after decade, what was
meant as contemporary literature becomes historical.
It's fine to update her. It's not fine to mock her for being old-fashioned when
she wasn't old-fashioned as first written.
In the books, Nancy's father is the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper.
He's smart, he has money, he knows everybody and is accepted at all levels of
society. Nancy has grown up with money, but she isn't impressed with herself.
She, like her father, feels a responsibility to make the world a better place.
In the movie, "sleuthing" is an obsession that makes her a complete dweeb. In
the books, she stumbles into situations where somebody is miserable and there
are clues to how things might be set to rights. In other words, it is her brains,
her courage, and her compassion that keep embroiling her in mysteries.
In this movie, however, her sleuthing is a joke -- not a funny one, but a joke --
with the police chief and the crooks playing a parody role. It's a joke movie at
the level of Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead.
The result is a movie that lurches back and forth between pretty good and
disastrously bad, with poor Emma Roberts torn between playing the spunky
but delusional Nancy in the bad movie and the smart, courageous, and clever
Nancy in the pretty good one.
The theater was full of teenage girls and quite a few of their mothers. Those
who have grown up with the "real" Nancy Drew are going to be bothered, even
offended by the patronizing way she is treated during the bad-movie sections.
But the good-movie parts will probably make up for it.
The sad thing is that a sequel is already scheduled, and no doubt the same
director is going to make the same deeply stupid mistakes.
Meanwhile, the real Nancy Drew movie still is waiting to be made. This one has
postponed the good one by a decade.
I realized something the other day, as "Rodeo" came on the XM classical station
I was listening to in the car: Every piece of music I know of by Aaron Copland
fills me with joy. "Fanfare to the Common Man," "Appalachian Spring,"
"Rodeo," "Billy the Kid." Whenever I hear them, I feel glad.
That's quite an astonishing thing. The music itself is pleasing -- I especially
like his penchant for never quite repeating the same theme twice, so that the
music is always surprising. And there's an energy, a life force that fills this
depressive personality with a joie de vivre that I don't ordinarily have.
I realized at that moment that while I know the above-listed pieces very well,
that's all I know of Copland's work. It's quite possible that he has major works
that are downright morose. So I've now ordered from Amazon everything that I
didn't already own, just to see if all his works make me happy, or if it is only
the works that make people happy that get performed a lot.
A few years ago I tried buying a shirt in Mexico. My Spanish isn't great, but it's
not hard to translate "Extra Grande" into "Extra Large."
This was a time in my life when I was wearing Large and even Medium shirts,
so knew that when I got it back to my hotel, it would fit loosely.
I was shocked when I couldn't even get the shirt to meet in front.
Then somebody pointed out: Every place in the world but the U.S. uses
I've been to Europe and seen all the toy-sized people. People my size go naked
in Europe, or wear tents. The Mexican shirt I bought was an extra-large shirt
-- at 1:2 scale.
Lately, though, European sizing is showing up in American stores, too. It used
to be I could count on XL to be big enough for me to wear -- but no more.
I am not just oblivious to my own body shape. I have dozens of older XL shirts
that fit me quite loosely, thanks very much. So when a new XL won't meet
across my middle, and the old ones are still baggy, It's the sizing that has
For those men who are running into the same problem, I'm happy to tell you
that the Orvis catalog still means what it says: XL is the same size it has been
for twenty years. It's not a big-and-tall catalog -- it's a grown-up man's
They use lots of cotton and almost no polyester, which means I can wear their
clothes; and the styling looks very good to these middle-aged eyes. And the
pricing is not out of line with the quality.
I bought four shirts, just to try them out; I went back and bought five more.
They are now most of my favorites, and some of those older shirts are on their
way to GoodWill.
Check it out at http://www.orvis.com.
I recently bought new CDs from Martina McBride, Alison Krauss, Angela
Hacker, Bucky Covington, and Michael Buble.
Martina McBride is a big-voice country singer, and her new album, Waking
Up Laughing, is just what you'd expect: Torch songs, love songs, anthems.
There's not a bad cut on the album.
"Anyway" is the kind of ballad that should be sung by the second-place finisher
on American Idol. That's a good thing -- it's about grim determination and
holding on, and she sings it so convincingly that you almost believe her
optimism might bear some relation to reality.
"Cry Cry (Till the Sun Shines)" is the anthem of the forgive-yourself generation
-- which means the message makes my skin crawl -- but the last verse has a
good blue-collar message that redeems the song.
"House of a Thousand Dreams" is a beauty-in-the-midst-of-struggle song with
some genuinely loving lyrics. Made me cry in a good way. "I'll Still Be Me" is
achingly sweet about married love. A good strong album from one of the best
voices in country music.
Then I listened to Alison Krauss's A Hundred Miles or More and heard a
completely different side of country music. In this album Krauss is in that
neverland between folk, country, and pop where Beth Nielson Chapman has
made her home.
"Away Down the River" is a sweet dreamy song about someone who is dying or
dead, talking to loved ones left behind. "Down to the River to Pray" is down-home gospel that stays with you like the best songs do.
"Jacob's Dream" is a folk ballad about a man who dreams where two missing
children can be found, only they're dead before they can be found -- just the
kind of bleak, miserable, life-sucks song that lives on and on in folk music.
I grew up singing "Polly Von," which, while fun to sing, seemed to me to be a
really stupid story. But Krauss sings a variant called "Molly Ban" that makes
way more sense, thought it is turned into a cautionary tale for hunters; what I
liked was the unusual melody.
Where McBride's voice is huge, Krauss sometimes sounds almost like a child
as she sings the heartbreaking lullaby of "I Give You to His Heart," and the line
"heaven's love at stake and hell to pay" stays in my mind.
So many songs on this album are wistful or sad that it's a happy relief to get
songs like the pure-country "Sawing on the Strings."
My favorite, though, is the nostalgic anthem for po' folks, "Simple Love." It'll
make you want to call your folks.
So between McBride and Krauss, you might think you had covered the whole
range of country music. And you'd be wrong.
Because here comes Angela Hacker's album And the Winner Is. I didn't
watch the show Nashville Star, but apparently last year's competition came
down to Angela Hacker and her little brother Zac. Talk about sibling rivalry.
But Angela Hacker is the real thing, not just a fluke from a weird contest year
that pitted sister against brother. She's only thirty, but she sings like she's
lived through three or four lifetimes of troubles. She has a gritty voice and a
dead-on interpretation that makes McBride and Krauss both seem naive.
Hacker is a singer-songwriter who created half the songs on this album. The
covers include "When Will I Be Loved" and "I Was Country When Country
Wasn't Cool." These are songs that I'd heard in what I thought was the
definitive performance. Ha. Now I've heard the definitive version!
"I Can't Make You Love Me" is flat brilliant in its evocation of unrequited love:
"I'll feel the power but you won't ..." -- just devastating.
"Do Right Woman Do Right Man" sounds like Janis Joplin was reborn to sing
this song. "Emotionless" is an angry song directed at a man who seems to be
able to jilt women without showing a scrap of feeling.
"Love Me Wild" is the kind of song that most men want to hear from a woman,
but never do. And "Total Loss" is the song that most women want to be able to
sing after a breakup, but never get a chance to.
I could listen to Hacker all day. In fact, I have. I love her voice. She makes
Lacy J. Dalton seem shallow and perky. I'm impatient for her next album.
And I hope that next time it isn't a "WalMart Exclusive." This is a great
country singer and to have her music treated as a promotional device for a
town-killing labor-exploiting retail chain just makes me feel icky.
I would tell you right now that Angela Hacker is the best of the albums I'm
reviewing today, if it weren't for the fact that I heard Bucky Covington's
album, simply titled Bucky Covington.
You remember Bucky Covington. He and Kellie Pickler were the country
singers on American Idol the year that Taylor Hicks won.
On the cover, Covington still looks like a fourteen-year-old boy trying to make
himself appear grown-up with a glued-on mustache. So when I started
listening to the powerhouse music my first thought was, "Oh, no, they've
overproduced this album."
Then I heard him singing and realized: They haven't overproduced anything.
He's got a voice and a way with a song that can handle anything they throw at
him. He may look fourteen, but he sings forty.
And I mean not just his vocal sound, but also his subject matter. What
business does a kid that young have singing "A Different World"? There's no
way he grew up in a time before seat belts and computer games! And "Back
When We Were Gods" talks about how he and his friends were "just kids" --
except that Covington looks like a kid now.
So forget his picture on the album cover. Forget that sweet aw-shucks kid
from American Idol. Just listen to the voice.
In a way, this album is like a walk through cliches of country music. "I'll Walk"
starts out like a vaguely creepy weeper, in which the singer's girlfriend got
mad, made him stop the car, and said "I'll walk." Only she's hit by a car and
paralyzed so she can't walk. But heck, tearjerkers are a country music staple,
and this one works as well as most.
"I'm Good" is a cute play on words -- "I got my eye on the deacon's daughter,"
he sings. He hasn't been righteous but if God will give him this girl, "I'm good."
It's with "Hometown" and "It's Good To Be Us" that he gets the kind of song
that sticks to your ribs. He knows how to sing nostalgia and po'-folks-lovin'
songs with the best of them. Like Angela Hacker, Covington can sound world-weary; but he also has a tenderness that makes it feel as if he's singing from
love, and not just pain.
For me, though, the best song on the album is "The Bible and the Belt," a
rocker about growing up with a church-going sweetie of a mom, and a dad
whose belt makes darn sure the boy stays on the straight and narrow.
"Mamma brought the Bible, daddy brung the belt. / Mamma set the table,
daddy rung the bell. / The preacher did his best to show me the light / But
daddy was the one that kept me walkin' the line.... One foot in heaven, one foot
in hell: I found religion 'tween the bible and the belt."
(Lyrics from CountryMusicOnline.net; written by Billy Austin, Tim Gates and
Marc Beeson; copyright © 2007 Songs of Platinum Pen [ASCAP] et al.)
With this song, Covington makes my permanent list. Great song, perfectly
American Idol doesn't always pick the right winner, but it has found some
terrific singers -- Bucky Covington being the best country singer they've found
yet. And with Angela Hacker winning this past year's Nashville Star, I have to
say, these talent shows are finding good people and bringing them before the
It makes me eager to hear the albums from people like this year's Phil Stacey,
who sang country even more convincingly than Bucky Covington or Kellie
Pickler did on the show. I mean, if Covington can go from where he was on the
show to what he is on this album in just a year or so, I can't wait to see what
And now for a complete musical change of pace. Michael Buble is many
things, but "country singer" isn't one of them. If you already know his great-American-songbook singing, all you need to be told is that he has a new album,
Call Me Irresponsible.
If you're one of those who think he tries too hard to sound like Sinatra, on this
album he mostly gets away from that kind of swing sound. Besides, I always
thought he owed more to Dean Martin and Bing Crosby, but what do I know?
I almost ordered a copy of this for my mother, until I listened again to the lyrics
to "It Had Better Be Tonight" and "I'm Your Man." The duet with Meglio
Stasera is very good on "Tonight," but I don't want my daughters to listen to
"I'm Your Man," let alone my mom. The great American songbook has some
dirty little ditties in it, my friends.
Buble's voice is sweet and tender on "Always on My Mind" and "Dream," but for
me the standout of the album is the generous duet with Brazilian jazz icon Ivan
Lins on the classic "Wonderful Tonight." Both Buble and Lins are at their best
in this; those who understand Portuguese will, I think, agree with me that the
Portuguese lyrics Lins sings are actually better than the American originals.
If you've been wondering what Bloom County creator Berkeley Breathed has
been doing lately, check out the picture book Mars Needs Moms! Lush
illustrations show us a kid who, forced to do chores by his mother, doesn't
understand what moms are for. "Anyone could see that they were giant,
summer-stealing, child-working, perfumy garden goblins."
The pictures are worth studying, both for detail and the sheer personality of
the work. Especially when the Martian invaders come, intent on kidnapping a
mother. "They don't have mothers on Mars, you know. Martians grow
motherless from the ground like potatoes."
Check it out. The story and pictures will delight kids, but the adults reading it
to them will enjoy it even more.
We hear about all kinds of religions and philosophies and movements and
groups, and half the time we don't have a clue what they're all about. Now
here comes a book worth keeping on a shelf at home so you can look up
whatever doctrinaire group it is that's just blown something up or put forward
an American presidential candidate or converted a British prime minister.
'Isms and 'Ologies: The 453 Basic Tenets You've Only Pretended to
Understand, by Arthur Goldwag, has a funny title, but Goldwag took his
I judged the book the only way I could. I looked up the belief-sets that I adhere
to. Almost every time someone summarizes them, they make hopeless,
laughable, and often offensive mistakes (or perpetuate deliberate slanders).
But Goldwag played it straight. He makes no judgments. He presents
everything fairly. While he isn't perfect, his errors don't lean toward "doing a
number" on his subject (well, almost never, anyway).
In short, it's a book you can trust, not to give you a deep understanding of
other people's beliefs, but to give you a decent overview so at least you aren't
carrying around ludicrous misconceptions.
In other words, read this book and you will expunge your brain of so many
errors and so much ignorance that you will be in the intellectual top five
percent of the American public.
Heck, I don't know that many college professors who can accurately claim as
The history book Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire, byy Edwin
Mullins, is about a fascinating subject. During the middle ages, the monastery
at Cluny became, almost as soon as it was established, a force for monastic
reform throughout Christian Europe.
Cluny became fantastically wealthy and used the money to build some of the
most beautiful buildings in the world. Oh, and they also helped feed the poor
and promote the Christian liberation of Spain from the Muslim conquerors.
Popes and emperors consulted the abbots of Cluny; kings begged Cluny to send
them monks they had trained; in short, during an era of warring anti-popes
and fights between popes and empires, Cluny was, in most ways that matter,
the center of Western Christianity.
I only wish that this were a better book. It's not that Mullins didn't do his
research, or that he's not a good writer. He just didn't have enough material to
fill the pages he was assigned to fill.
The result is that the book is full of repetitions and padding. It's like a reality
show that spends half the program telling you what you saw before the last
commercial break and what you'll see later in the program, over and over, until
you realize that they only had ten minutes of actual footage and 44 minutes to
I'm glad I know the things I learned from Cluny. I just wish that I'd read them
in a good long essay somewhere instead of in the too-many pages of this book.