Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 19, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Antsy, Medicus, "Live" Help, Chips
A few years ago, I declared Neal Shusterman's Everlost to be one of the best
novels I'd ever read.
I haven't changed my mind. I still recommend it to friends. It still haunts my
Shusterman's latest novel, Antsy Does Time, is absolutely nothing like
Where Everlost was brooding and sad, dangerous and terrible, as close to
tragedy as you can get in a young adult novel, Antsy is funny. No, it doesn't
just try to be funny, it really is funny. The narrator's voice is funny. The
things people say are funny. The things people do are funny. It would make a
funny movie. It does make a funny book.
Antsy is the nickname of a high school kid named Anthony. His parents run
an Italian-French restaurant in Brooklyn, where he is a busboy whose specialty
is filling people's water glasses. No matter how high he holds the pitcher, he
never misses the glass.
When he finds out that one of his friends, a big Swedish immigrant named
Gunnar, is dying -- only six months to live -- Antsy, in a flamboyant gesture,
writes up a contract giving Gunnar one month of his own life.
Word gets out, and more people start giving months to Gunnar. Antsy is the
guy drawing up the contract -- making him, in effect, the master of time.
This seems to be what the story is about, but you don't know Shusterman.
Everything that's going on -- even things that seem completely unrelated -- are
part of the story, and it doesn't go anywhere that you think it might go.
It's a story of love -- every kind of love -- and also about death, and about
courage, and about hope and despair and getting through it all. It's about
trying to do the right thing, and then sometimes doing the wrong thing because
justice demands that it be done.
By the end of this book, you love Antsy. But you also love practically
everybody else. Even, in a perverse way, Aunt Mona.
Don't take my word for it. It's marketed as a young adult novel, but I doubt
you'll read a better story this year no matter what age you are.
If you have preteen and teenage children, then of course you'll give them this
book for Christmas. But if you're smart, you'll read it to them -- read it to the
whole family -- because at the end you'll be laughing and crying together and
you'll be reminded of just what a family is, even in hard times -- no, especially
in hard times.
Antsy Does Time, by Neal Shusterman. Book by book, Shusterman is
proving himself to be one of the best writers working today.
How many mystery series set in Roman times do we actually need?
I've already reviewed Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series, and John Maddox
Roberts's SPQR series. Both of those do a fine job of involving their hero in the
major events in Roman history at the end of the Republic.
But there's a new series, written by Ruth Downie, that is not trying to give us
Instead, her stories are set in Britannia, the most remote outpost of the Roman
Empire, during the reign of Hadrian. Since it's the emperor Hadrian who built
-- you guessed it -- Hadrian's Wall, once the boundary between civilization and
those Pictish barbarians, this is something like the highwater mark of Roman
ambitions in Britain. And for Downie, who is English, that makes these novels
part of her history.
I'm not English, however, I'm just a lover of historical novels, mystery novels,
and fantasy novels, and Downie manages to delight me on all three counts.
Not that the fantasy is ever actually fantastic. That is, everything gets a logical
explanation and you don't have to believe. But the characters believe, more or
less. Even the hero, Ruso, a doctor attached to the occupying Roman army,
has moments when he believes enough to utter a few fervent prayers to
Aesculapius, the Roman god of healing, and even, now and then, to one of the
local deities worshiped by the woman he loves way more than is good for him,
especially considering that she's his slave, and so disobedient he ought to
punish her severely.
The mystery aspect of the stories is fascinating, but Ruso is no Miss Marple or
Hercule Poirot. He has no interest in solving mysteries; he just can't keep his
mouth shut when a question comes up. As a result his career is going
nowhere, and no one thanks him for solving mysteries -- that is, when they
find out that the mystery has been solved. Because it's sometimes best just to
let the dead stay buried -- especially if vengeance, or at least poetic justice, has
already been served.
The first book, Medicus, actually kept me awake the night after I got only three
hours of sleep. I would have thought that an impossibility. But I liked these
characters and their British sense of humor and their strange relationships.
I also liked living in a world that partook of the same Roman culture I learned
about from Saylor and Roberts, yet which is, at heart, far closer to the medieval
world of Jack Whyte's fascinating and thoroughly researched Camulod
Chronicles, the realest retelling of the story of King Arthur ever done.
Terra Incognita, the second novel, takes us to the north of England to deal
with sightings of a man with antlers -- taken by many to be a god, and by Ruso
to be a dangerously meddlesome Briton. Since this is the last book to be
written so far, it's possible to get in on the ground floor of a new mystery series.
But that also means I'm going to have to wait a good bit before I can get back to
more of the life of Ruso.
Not everyone can sustain a series. One of the reasons I recommend Saylor and
Roberts so highly is that their books actually get better over time. I hope
Downie can take her own work seriously enough to hold herself to an every
Because mystery writers often do the opposite -- they start repeating the same
gags with every book, the stories slide into nothingness, and the series dies --
though I suppose it must still be making money or they wouldn't keep
publishing new ones. (I think of the Maggody novels, for instance, which began
to sound as if the writer had lost interest in them even before writing them.)
At this point, though, I'm having a wonderful time in Downie's Britannia. Wish
you were here!
So I wanted to create a nonce identity on AOL. I had one unused screen name
on my account. I'd done this before. It should have been easy.
Except when I got to the keyword screen name, I got a message saying that I
didn't have access to that feature.
I'm the only user on that account. If I didn't have access, who did?
So I followed the advice of AOL's help system and signed on to "AOL Billing Live
Support." The idea is that I will be connect in chat mode with a real person,
who will help me deal with my problems.
The trouble is, the "real person" I got didn't sound all that real.
I typed in my problem and the person I was talking to came back with: "Thank
you for the information." I waited a bit more, and then got: "In order to protect
the privacy and security of your account, I will need to verify some account
information. What is the screen name on your AOL account you need
Already I'm thinking, this is not how any natural human being talks. And
when it takes long enough for the next response for me to play a game and a
half of Spider Solitaire, I'm getting more and more frustrated.
The answer was, "I am sorry I am unable to access the account at this time."
Four minutes of waiting, and this person can't even get to my account?
"Right," says I. "So what do I do?"
"I will have to report this issue."
"You're not a human being, are you," I said. "None of your sentences sound
like natural speech. Nor are you responding to my statements except with
"I have forwarded the report to the proper department. Be assured that they
will act on this situation immediately. We would like to thank you for taking
the time to report this to us."
OK, that was so formal and nonresponsive I have to say, "Why do you pretend
that this is a 'live help' situation when it so obviously is not?" I'm figuring that
when the log of this conversation is finally read by a human, they'll see that I
"AOL understands standardized responses to your questions may seem
impersonal. Because we strive to provide rapid answers to questions, it is
necessary to use information verified for accuracy and completeness. The
result of this need for speed, accuracy and completeness means that we use a
knowledge base of information that we continually update and maintain to
provide the latest information to you."
"Again," say I, "non-responsive, generic answers. I'm the sole user of my
account. I am blocked from the Screen Names feature. This is an idiotic
situation, and I'm talking to somebody who can only send me generic answers.
A human being would have said, 'Wow, that's a strange situation, I can see why
"I am a real person and I am here to help you with your inquiries."
"But the fun thing is that I'm a newspaper columnist, so this whole exchange
will be in my column next week."
"However, I am unable to access your account at this time. This is not the
experience we want you to have. Is there anything else I can assist you with at
Since this person has not helped me at all, it is hard to know what "else" he
might help me with.
Look, I know that this was a real person. I also know that instead of being able
to write real sentences, she was only allowed to select from a menu of
prefabricated statements. It wasn't her fault.
And I'm betting the reason they use an online chat instead of a phone service,
besides the cost, is that he probably had a thick accent of one kind or another,
or was a very, very slow typist who couldn't spell. By using prefab written
replies, neither the accent nor the spelling problems would get in the way.
Still, when I'm getting no help at all, it would have been nice to have even a
badly spelled or badly written note that said, "Hey, buddy, I'm so sorry, the real
help guy will call you soon."
And AOL wonders why people are moving away from their service. There I was,
seriously contemplating the idea of Googlemail.
Then comes the phone call from a real person at AOL, and at first I'm thinking
everything is even worse with actual live help. I have to prove my identity six
different ways. And then what she tells me is, "If you tell me the screen name
you want to create, I can set it up for you."
The whole point of the new screen name was that it would not be me.
Sometimes carrying my name with me onto every bulletin board makes it
impossible for me to speak with candor. So the last thing I want to do is tell
the new screen name to somebody else. Besides, I hadn't decided yet what I
wanted to screen name to be.
So here I am, getting even madder (which means I speak more slowly and with
greater precision and, of course, condescension, because I'm even more
irritating when I'm mad than when I'm happy), and all of a sudden she finally
explains it to me.
It seems that my name is on their list of people whose screen names are the
targets of constant attacks by hackers.
Remember what that son-of-a-Democratic-Party-official did to Sarah Palin's
email account? Well, that's what people are constantly trying to do to mine.
The hacker who stole Palin's email did it by trying a lot of different passwords.
Mine aren't highly guessable, but I suppose it could be done. So AOL has very
thoughtfully set up my account so that even if you have the password, you
can't change any of the screen names or passwords, period. This means that
even if someone breaks in and reads all my old and new mail, at least they
can't change things so I get shut out of my own account.
Once I knew why things weren't working, I suddenly loved AOL for looking out
Look, that "Live Support" thing is maddening -- but if I had actually been
getting useful information, I probably would have been fine with it. People rag
on AOL all the time, but I've known these people from the pre-Windows days,
when AOL was the best piece of software on my computer; I've hung out at
their headquarters back when they wanted me to be a content provider for
them; and even since then, I've had good friends working for them. They really
do mean well.
And here's the most important thing AOL did for me: Their software got my
mother online. Up through AOL version 9.x, AOL was still the friendliest,
easiest-to-learn email software. My computer-shy mom actually used AOL
because she didn't feel like she could break anything if she made a mistake. It
still does that job. (Though AOL 10.x is not so easy or intuitive, I'm sorry to
If they would just let me print out or export my address book and, with a single
command, print out my thousands of stored emails so I can archive them on
paper, I would swear my undying loyalty to them. I would even, now and then,
click on one of their ads.
AOL, thanks for taking good care of me. Yeah, AOL users have a reputation of
being babies and novices. I don't care. I like it, I'm used to it, and I hope they
A few weeks ago I reviewed the Chilean Lime Avocado Oil Potato Chips from
Good Health Natural Products. In the review I admitted that I ate the entire
package before my wife could get around to trying them.
So we got a package in the mail the other day and in it were a couple of
packages of the chips. On them was written, "For Mrs. Card only."
That's right. Somebody at Good Health Natural Products had read my review
and, taking pity of my wife, made sure she got to taste the chips.
Now, you have to understand: People don't send me free stuff, as a rule. That
only happens if you say the name of the product on, like, The Tonight Show. If
they sent freebies to everybody who blogged their name, they'd be out of
business in about a week.
So why did someone at Good Health Natural Products notice my review and
then -- with a lovely sense of humor -- send my wife the chips I had cheated
her out of?
Because they're cool, of course.
But also because they're located in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was my wife
who noticed this after she actually got her hands on the packages they sent.
When you buy a packaged product in the grocery store, you don't usually
think, "I wonder if this is made right here in town." It simply hadn't crossed
So to the folks at Good Health Natural Foods, I wasn't just another blogger. I
was a columnist in the Rhinoceros Times -- the hometown paper!
Now we're looking forward to trying out their South of France soaps -- in bar
and liquid form. After all, there is such a thing as hometown loyalty.
And I did not eat a single chip out of their specially marked Mrs.-Card-Only
packages. Instead, I went to Earth Fare and bought a couple more packages
By the way, when you're searching on their website for locations where you can
buy their products, North Carolina is weirdly out of alphabetical order (it comes
between Maine and Maryland). Delaware is misspelled, and Idaho and Iowa
are on there twice. And these mistakes are duplicated in the list in the left-hand margin. And the U.S. map is not clickable. Bummer, huh?
Good Health Natural Foods
My thanks to Janis Ian, her noble crew, and all the good folks who came to her
book signing at Barnes & Noble last Tuesday night. As she told stories we
laughed again and again; but by the time she was through, there was hardly a
dry eye in the audience.
Then she cheerfully signed all the tear-stained books and cds and the vinyl
records people had saved from bygone years. I was happy to see, however, that
not everybody there was old enough to remember when "Society's Child" and
"At Seventeen" were monster hits -- she's doing some of the best work of her
career right now, and I'm happy that there are young people discovering this as
I believe there may still be signed copies of her autobiography, Society's Child,
at B&N, and I'm hoping to score some to offer on my website for people who
aren't close enough to cities where she's performing to get them signed in
Meanwhile, she's still nearby. She's doing a concert at The Arts Center in
Carrboro NC on Thursday, 23 October; she'll be performing in Greenville SC at
The Handlebar Café the very next night, 24 October; and then she's signing at
a Charlotte Barnes & Noble on Saturday, 25 October, and doing a concert at
McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square on Sunday.
Check her website to get phone
numbers for these venues. If you've never had a chance to see and hear her
onstage, you've missed something wonderful. Her music is brilliant, but so is
her storytelling. I've been telling her she needs to get off the road, find a smart
backer, and put this one-woman show in an Off-Broadway house in New York.
A friend just sent me a webjoke I had seen before, but enjoyed greatly. It goes
Children's Books That Didn't Make It
1. You Are Different and That's Bad
2. The Boy Who Died From Eating All His Vegetables
3. Dad's New Wife Scott
4. Fun Four-Letter Words to Know and Share
5. Hammers, Screwdrivers, and Scissors: An I-Can-Do-It Book
6. The Kids' Guide to Hitchhiking
7. Kathy Was So Bad Her Mom Stopped Loving Her
8. Curious George and the High-Voltage Fence
9. All Cats Go to Hell
10. The Little Sissy Who Snitched
11. Some Kittens Can Fly
12. That's It, I'm Putting You Up For Adoption
13. Grandpa Gets a Casket
14. The Magic World Inside the Abandoned Refrigerator
15. Garfield Gets Feline Leukemia
16. The Pop-Up Book of Human Anatomy
17. Strangers Have the Best Candy
18. Whining, Kicking, and Crying to Get Your Way
19. You Were An Accident
20. Things Rich Kids Have, But You Never Will
21. Pop! Goes the Hamster.and Other Great Microwave Games
22. The Man in the Moon is Actually Satan
23. Your Nightmares Are Real
24. Where Would You Like to Be Buried?
25. Eggs, Toilet Paper, and Your School
26. Why Can't Mr. Fork and Ms. Electrical Outlet Be Friends?
27. Places Where Mommy and Daddy Hide Neat Things
28. Daddy Drinks Because You Cry
This one has been around a few years, but I like it, and so I decided to try to
look up the author.
What I found was that while there most certainly must have been an author
somewhere, sometime, the list shows up in a lot of places and has been
growing and changing.
The list my friend sent me was identical to the version that appears at a
University of Pennsylvania site:
But at a British science fiction and fantasy website, the list was different:
In this list, the lead-off was "Dad's New Wife Robert." (Note that the American
version used "Scott.") The order was mostly the same, but there were a few that
had been moved to the front. It was obvious they had the same source, but I
can't begin to guess which one is closer to the original.
I found other sites and the lists were different at almost all of them.
Look, things get posted all over the web and they get forwarded from person to
person, but they get corrupted along the way. People "improve" what they
receive, or transcribe inaccurately. Stuff happens.
If this can happen to a joke, it can happen to things that people are taking
quite seriously. I have received many forwards tied to this election season, as I
bet you have, too. Some of them are downright fraudulent. Some of them
began as truth but have since been corrected or are now outdated.
For instance, there was a link I got to an article about lawsuits pending against
Obama, demanding that he produce his birth certificate to show he was a
natural-born American citizen. I dismissed this immediately as nonsense,
because his mother was an American citizen, and I thought that no matter
where he was born, he was eligible for the presidency.
But then the friend who sent me the first link sent me a newer one that
explained why he might not have been. Apparently there was a law that
applied during the era when Obama was born that said that if you were born
outside the U.S., and your father was foreign, then your American-citizen
mother had to have lived in the U.S. for at least ten years, five of which had to
be after the age of 16.
I thought, "What a stupid law. That means that a child born to a foreign father
and an American mother who had lived all her life in the U.S. except the day
the child was born could not be a citizen unless Mom was 21 or over." And,
with a comment to that effect, I passed the link along to a few people as an
example of a really stupid law.
Only when my son emailed me the link to Snopes.com did I realize that the
article was fundamentally flatulent. The Obama campaign had already
provided the Honolulu birth certificate, so the whole question was moot; the
lawsuit is a frivolous one that claims the certificate was a forgery.
I have learned the hard and embarrassing way to check everything that
purports to be factual at Snopes.com.
In fact, the joke I researched was far more accurately transmitted than many of
the supposedly factual stuff I get sent. And even though I try to remember to
check everything, I get sucked in so often I'm thinking of putting masking tape
over the "forward" command on my AOL software.
But I won't, because that would make it too hard to play Spider Solitaire.