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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 24, 2009

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


1001 Dumb Things, Young Spenser, Flip-Flops

In the bookstore, I'm a sucker for books like 1001 Dumbest Things Ever Said and 101 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen. Not that I always buy them; I just have to pick them up and start thumbing through.

But then I feel guilty, because it's wrong to stand in the bookstore and read the whole thing. The book starts to look used, so nobody will buy it -- therefore I have just deprived the authors of the royalties they're entitled to because, after all, I read their stupid book.

Guilt, that's what drives my life.

Here's my review of 101 Things You Didn't Know About Jane Austen, by Patrice Hannon. Even though I've read two biographies of Austen and all her novels at least twice, within the first three pages, Hannon actually did have something that I didn't know about Jane Austen.

And it was interesting. So it lives up to its billing. If, of course, you care about Jane Austen.

I mean, compare the potential audience size for a Jane Austen trivia book and a book of "dumbest things ever said." Hannon's book must have been a labor of love, because nobody could seriously have expected to make any money from it.

Then again, since people who walk into bookstores are usually the kind of people who buy books, and Jane Austen is the greatest novelist who ever lived (except me, of course, but I'm including in that list my greatest books, which I haven't written yet, and you of course have not seen those, so you'll just have to trust me on that), so it's quite possible that Hannon made a small fortune from her Austen trivia book.

Meanwhile, on to 1001 Dumbest Things Ever Said.

What do you think will be in a book like this? Well, there'll be "bloopers" -- verbal mistake people made on the air, like: "...and from Washington comes word that President and Mrs. Lincoln will spend Nixon's birthday at Key Biscayne, Florida, on February twelfth" (p. 146).

A lot of the bloopers involve inadvertently saying bad words. I find this less and less amusing the older I get, but hey, there was a time when I would have found them all hilarious.

Then there's the prattle of sports commentators, who really have a very hard job -- they have to watch the game and talk continuously. So they start off a sentence and by the time they get to the end of it they've long since stopped paying attention to what they're saying because they're already watching the next thing happening on the field.

So you get things like a British sports commentator saying, "There's Pam watching anxiously. She doesn't look anxious, though." Well, that's amusing, I suppose.

But are any of these things "dumb"? I mean, dumb was when my then-six-year-old son was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He couldn't remember the word "paleontologist" for a moment, so he said, "A scientist who studies dinosaurs." The teacher said, "That's 'archaeologist.'" "No," said my son, "that's not it." But the teacher made him write it anyway.

That was genuinely dumb because the teacher insisted on something that was wrong, and it was her job to either be right or say, "Well, we'll just have to look that up."

It's like the cowardly teacher who wrote "potatoe" on the spelling card that she gave Dan Quayle to read, and when he corrected the child who spelled "p-o-t-a-t-o," because the card had an "e" on the end, the teacher "lost" the card and let Quayle take all the heat for it. So the teacher was dumb, and was a bad enough human being that she let someone else take all the blame for her dumbitude.

But you know before you even open the book, that the bread and butter here is going to be politics. And it doesn't take many pages to know that editor Steven D. Price is a politically correct Democrat.

That means that only Republicans and Lyndon Johnson are going to be ridiculed. Oh, sure, he tossed in the John F. Kennedy "Ich bin ein berliner" gaffe, but that doesn't even count because you know it was written by a speech writer so it wasn't even his mistake.

Now, admittedly this book was published before we had Obamasplats like his declaration, when Russia invaded Georgia, that the matter should be dealt with by the UN Security Council. I mean, that's so dumb it should have a book by itself, since Russia has a veto on the Security Council.

But I've gotten used to having to swallow hard and overlook the bias. Sort of.

What surprised me, though, was that a lot of times it seemed to me that Price considered "dumb" what I would have taken to be "ironic." For instance, when he quotes Nguyen Co Thach, the Vietnamese foreign minister, as saying "We are not without accomplishment. We have managed to distribute poverty equally" (p. 33), that's not dumb, that's deliberately ironic and therefore funny and self-deprecating. What's it doing in this book?

Even Lyndon B. Johnson's "But we are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves" (p. 32) was not "dumb," it was a lie. He said it at a time when the plans for the escalation of the war in Vietnam were already on the table, pretty much waiting for the 1964 election, in which Johnson was the "peace candidate" painting Goldwater as the insane war hawk.

Ditto with J. Edgar Hoover's "I regret to say that we of the FBI are powerless to act in cases of oral-genital intimacy, unless it has in some way obstructed interstate commerce" (30). Hoover was a really smart guy. He knew he was saying something funny. It wasn't just smart, it was smart-alecky.

Nor is it dumb for Orrin Hatch of Utah to say, "Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life" (p. 31). Even if you subscribe to the principle that all human life is of exactly equal value -- the murderer and the victim -- it is still an affirmation of the sanctity of human life to take away from the murderer something that is just as precious to him as it was to the person he took it away from.

"I can't believe that we are going to let a majority of the people decide what is best for this state," said John Travis of Louisiana (p. 23). But that's only a dumb statement to people who are so dumb they don't know how undemocratic Louisiana has always been. Letting the people decide things was innovative!

When Abraham Lincoln said, "People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like" (p. 11), that wasn't dumb, that was a brilliant way of saying that he hated it but wasn't going to say so.

And then there's the clincher: Arnold Schwarzenegger saying, "Marriage is something that should be between a man and a woman."

Why is that in this book? Why would it be considered a "dumb" statement? Dumb because it's so obvious that it doesn't need saying? Or dumb because a tiny minority in America has decided to redefine marriage and Schwarzennegger didn't get with the program fast enough?

To give Price credit, at least he didn't have any global warming quotes -- i.e., labeling as dumb the statements of global warming skeptics.

Look, the book is kind of fun here and there, but for me, there's not that much sport in finding "dumb" quotes. I hear people say dumb things like "between you and I" every day. That's the curse of being a former copy editor. I know all the rules and I know when people speak and write with ignorance of the rules of grammar and orthography.

On the other hand, I also am just as capable as anyone else of making those verbal mistakes. Our brains are wired in such a way that sometimes, when we reach for a word, we pick up a different word instead; sometimes we swap word openings (spoonerisms); sometimes we have two words so closely linked in our minds that they come out together even when they shouldn't.

What makes me most impatient with this book, though, is this quotation: "One of our nation's greatest leaders was Hubert Horatio Hornblower ...," cited as having been said by "Jimmy Carter, referring to Vice President Hubert Horatio Humphrey in Carter's 1978 presidential nomination acceptance speech" (p. 45).

First, this is a standard speech-habit gaffe. The name Horatio is now so rare that we never say it except with "Hornblower" immediately afterward. And Carter was far from being the first -- I had already read that exact blooper in a book while Humphrey was still Vice President. Some local politician in Minnesota had said it.

So it's hardly a "dumb" thing -- it's a perfectly natural thing to say. And since Carter was trying to show respect for a late, great politician, the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party only eight years before, it was actually quite childish of the media to make such a big deal about it.

But here's what I think is the real howler. Price himself makes a far dumber mistake when he says that Carter made this blooper in his "1978 presidential nomination acceptance speech."

Can you divide by four? Carter was nominated in 1976.

Fact-checking. Proofreading. These are worth doing, folks. Full employment for copy editors!

Oh, who cares. The book was remaindered anyway, sellling for $4.98 at Barnes & Noble.

*

Robert B. Parker, the author of the Spenser mysteries and now three other series, has added a potential new series to his writing routine: A young-adult novel entitled Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel.

Makes me think of "Young Indiana Jones."

In fact, I thought of doing a "Young Ender Wiggin" series, but kind of dropped the idea when I remembered that at the beginning of my novel Ender's Game, the kid is only five. Hard to give him a lot of cool adventures younger than that.

I was with a friend in the bookstore when I spotted Chasing the Bear, and my friend admittedly leapt to the conclusion that Parker was "cashing in." He was from out of the U.S., though, so there's no way he could know. Writing a YA novel is not how a bestselling novelist "cashes in."

When Parker wants to "cash in," he writes a short adult Spenser novel and they back the armored car up to his front door and bring in the bags of money.

On the contrary, I think Parker did it because he thought writing a YA novel about Spenser's youth was a cool idea, on two levels. It would be a challenge to write in a different genre, and he had some good ideas about what Spenser's upbringing and youthful experiences would have been like.

Well, it is a challenge to write in a different genre, and I'm not sure Parker brought it off.

Oh, Chasing the Bear is a terrific book -- I loved every moment of it. But I'm a grownup. (Hey, cut me a little slack. At 57, when I act like a child it's not immaturity, it's senility.)

I'm just not sure it works as YA fiction. Here's the thing. Parker wanted to write it in first person -- from Spenser's viewpoint. But the adult character Spenser is not the kind of guy who sits down to write a book.

So instead, Parker frames it as a conversation between Spenser and his oh-so-smug-and-tedious shrink girlfriend, Susan Silverman. So that means that between every cool adventure and fascinating moral dilemma, which YA readers will love, we get adult conversation and banter and mutual analysis.

There are kids who will get it and love it, and kids who won't.

In a way, the best audience for this is girls and non-macho boys (here I raise my hand to be in the group), so they can get a glimmer of what's going on in the mind of the kind of kid who knows how to beat the crap out of somebody else.

In a way, though, Parker cheats: Young Spenser comes by his boxing skills almost by accident, because he's raised by his father and two uncles who make him learn to fight. In their family it's what charades was in mine.

So Parker is able to have Young Spenser be an excellent boxer, without having him be the kind of kid who actually likes fighting. Right from the start, he only fights to protect other people from bullies.

Wouldn't it have been more interesting if he found that he liked the sensation of power, the brute strength of it? Then let us see him wrestle with that self-discovery for a while.

But no. His heart was pure from the very start.

Forget my carping. If you're a Spenser fan already, you're going to buy this book, and you won't be disappointed. It's fascinating, it's fun, and it takes about an hour and a half, it's that short.

But if you're buying it for a kid, take note: Young Spenser thinks nothing of having sex when the opportunity comes along, even though he grew up in the same era as me, where that was a very big deal, and nothing in the book implies that it was wrong to do this, even though he knew that the girl he was with was not "the one."

Second, do you really want to have yet another reinforcement for the sadly misleading idea that for each person there is "the one"; and when you find "the one" it won't matter if either of you is married, you're just flat out going to go for it? I don't think either idea leads to a happy, honorable life.

And if kids who read this book try to emulate Young Spenser, some very bad things can happen. Judge the maturity level of the kid before you give him or her this book.

*

All over Greensboro, retail space is going begging, and the new development on Pisgah Church near Elm Street is no exception. Some good little businesses have disappeared, to my disappointment.

But some of the eating places there seem to be prospering, so there's hope. The recession won't last forever, right? Because sometime early in 2012, all that stimulus money will kick in just in time for the presidential election.

Recently the Chop House Grille changed its sign to Graffiti's Bistro. Along with the name, the menu changed -- and the quality. I had been a little disappointed with the quality of service on my first visit to Chop House Grille and never found an occasion to go back.

But Graffiti's menu looked ambitious and promising and so we picked a night and went there to eat.

We've gone from night to day, folks. Of course, what we went ape for were the appetizers; with the entrees, even when we specified that the fish had to be absolutely cooked through, it arrived with a significant portion of it still translucent.

But, you see, we didn't mind, because we had stuffed ourselves on the brilliant appetizers and the delicious bread. And next time we'll be even more urgent about the need to cook all the fish, not just the outside layer. Because the cooked parts were perfectly seasoned, and the presentation was lovely, and the service was absolutely terrific.

We'll go again. And soon.

*

Summer is sandal season.

No, let's be honest here. Summer is flip-flop season. (I grew up calling those things "thongs," but that word has taken on a completely different meaning in recent years, so flip-flops it is.)

I don't like flip-flops. I never have. They irritate the space between my big toe and the stupid, untalented toe beside it. They make me walk like a mental case with my toes curled and my feet grazing the ground so the darn things don't fall off.

But my wife loves them. So does my daughter. And these are shoe people, so they're actually quite fussy about the thongs they buy. They even try them on -- can you imagine?

So this isn't coming from me. This is coming from my wife, the thong expert -- er, I mean, flip-flop expert. (We have no thong experts in my family, I'll have you know.)

Teva's "Women's Mandalyn Wedge Ola" is the best flip-flop ever.

It still has the thing between the toes, but it's got a couple of other straps, too. It also has a somewhat built-up heel. So it actually looks like a strappy shoe. And it stays on her feet. And it's comfortable. And it's built with Teva quality so it's not going to fall apart on the third day at the beach.

(Of course, that also means you're going to feel bad if you lose it because it isn't just cheap junk anyway like most flip-flops.)

So just in case you care about that sort of thing, and want to spend $28 plus shipping on a pair of flip-flops, here's the link


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