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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 26, 2009

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


Bruster's Ice Cream, Literary Writing, Atlas Obscura

There are so many ways that ice cream can be good. I've written before about how much I love Baskin-Robbins' ice cream -- especially their chocolate chip, pralines & cream, and chocolate mousse royale.

I've loved their ice cream since we used to drive from Santa Clara to Los Gatos, California, where the first Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors opened in the South Bay area of California.

But that isn't the only good ice cream I remember from my childhood. In fact, before Baskin-Robbins, there was Edy's. That name is now used for various packaged ice creams, but in my childhood, it was an ice cream shop in Palo Alto, which was about as far a drive for us as Los Gatos.

The lesson was well learned: Good ice cream is worth the drive.

In my childhood, though, there was only one perfect ice cream: the caramel cashew flavor sold at Snelgrove's, a small chain in Salt Lake City, Utah. My parents had grown up with Snelgrove's, which was already thriving during the Great Depression.

In those days, Mormons weren't as meticulous Sabbath-keepers as we try to be now. So a good number of Mormons would head for Snelgrove's after church on Sunday, and a good deal of courting happened over dishes of their perfectly creamy ice cream.

So naturally whenever we visited Utah, where our grandparents and many cousins lived, we always had to drive to the 21st South location, with its huge double-ice-cream-cone sculpture that rotated slowly at the top of a pole -- a beacon for ice-cream lovers.

Now Snelgrove's, like Edy's, seems to be just a brand in a store. It's good, but it's just not the same as when it was handscooped in the ice cream parlor.

Here in Greensboro, there was also Swenson's. We already knew Swenson's ice cream from parlors in other cities and other states, but the Gutman family ran a great ice cream parlor and sandwich shop here in Greensboro, and for many years it functioned for us rather the way Snelgrove's had for my family in Salt Lake.

We tied a lot of memories into that store. So we mourned when Swenson's moved to make way for one of Friendly Center's periodic remodelings. And then when it closed entirely, we were so sad.

We have many memories tied to the small Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor at 1620 Battleground. For one thing, they've made a special effort to keep chocolate mousse royale in stock for me! And the new Baskin-Robbins parlor in the shopping center at Pisgah Church and Elm is also a good place for a perfect treat.

My wife and I take walks together, and most of the time, bowing to my need to feel like I'm walking somewhere rather than just walking, we go to the Harris-Teeter at Elm and Pisgah Church and buy a couple of bottles of water. Then we walk home by crossing Elm to Baylor Street, where we check out whatever's on the marquee at Hillcrest Baptist Church.

We've watched, over the years, as rental houses were torn down to make way for Walgreen's and Starbuck's and a bank and a fast-food place. In fact, sometimes we think people build things just to amuse us by providing new scenery for us to look at on our walks.

So we watched with interest as the property across Baylor from Hillcrest Baptist Church started buzzing with construction. What would it be? Given the way the foundations were laid, it didn't seem there could be a drive-through. We assumed it would be yet another bank, and therefore boring.

But then we finally found out what it was: With a red-orange roof and umbrellas to shade the benches around the outside of the building, and with a cleverly designed drive-through after all, it's an ice cream shop called Bruster's.

Not an ice cream parlor, mind you -- you can't go inside. The room is filled with ice cream freezers and the equipment for making sundaes and splits and shakes and frappes and parfaits and whatever else you can think of.

Instead, you either bring your car up to the drive-through, or you park, get out of your car, and walk up to a window.

In the heat of a summer day, that can be a hot wait -- but it only makes you gladder for the ice cream when it comes. And Bruster's has enough employees on duty all afternoon that whenever I've been there, they quickly opened more windows to accommodate the customers of a line started to form.

I learned from one customer as we waited in line that there have been a couple of Bruster's ice cream stores in High Point for several years -- she was just glad that she wouldn't have to drive so far to get their ice cream now.

And for my part, I'm just as glad none of my friends in High Point bothered to tell me about the place, because it saved me so much money in gasoline, because, like Edy's and Baskin-Robbins and Snelgrove's when I was a kid, this is ice cream that is well worth the drive.

I feel a little disloyal to Baskin-Robbins for saying this, because I don't want to hurt their trade in any way. Don't go to Bruster's instead of Baskin-Robbins. Just buy ice cream more often! Because I promise you, you'll want to.

Bruster's doesn't have its ice cream trucked in -- as with Swenson's, they make it on the premises. And what an ice cream it is! Few of you will know what I mean, I know, but this is the first ice cream I've tasted that matches Snelgrove's for sheer creaminess.

Sometimes the flavors are a little too sweet for my taste, but most of the ones I've tried are pretty darn near perfect.

My chocolate-hating daughter has pronounced their vanilla and strawberry excellent, my wife swears by the black raspberry and fudge brownie, and I can vouch for the banana, chocolate chip, pistachio, and double chocolate chip.

I bought a whole bunch of different flavors in quarts and half-gallons and invited friends over for a sampling party. The universal favorite was fudge brownie, but a lactose-intolerant friend was delighted with the ices and sorbets (the milk-free flavors--"sherbets" do have dairy products, I was told).

And when you order that takeaway ice cream, they don't take packages out of a freezer -- those kids working at the store dig into the freezers and hand pack every container. (If I have any complaint, it's that the lids are so darn hard to peel off the top of the container without tearing them.)

The ice cream is so good we haven't even bothered to try their toppings yet. But we've seen absolutely gorgeous looking sundaes and banana splits that other customers at the window ordered.

And it's just about perfect on a sunny 90-degree day to sit on a bench under the umbrella's shade and eat ice cream that's trying its best to melt before you can finish it. (I win every time, by the way.)

The Bruster's website lists flavors I haven't seen on their menu in the store -- I'd love to taste what they do with pure lime, for instance, though they do have a delicious key lime pie.

What about the drive-through? At first my wife and I were skeptical. Who wants to buy ice cream and then try to eat it while driving? Unless you routinely wear a bib, it's a recipe for having sticky new colors added to your clothes.

But that isn't holding people back. Every time I've been to Bruster's, there's been a steady stream of cars through the drive-through, besides an equally steady group of pedestrian customers lining up at the windows.

I suspect that in the near future, ice cream stores that don't have a drive-up will be unable to compete. They'll either have to become fullscale sit-down ice cream parlors with table service, or follow the Bruster's model.

Just a word of advice for drivers. There is no stoplight, so when you pull up to Pisgah Church on Baylor, you take your life in your hands, especially if you want to turn left. Visibility is sharply limited to the right, and cars come zipping along as if they were in a drag race. It's not even safe to turn right, but the left turn is like Russian roulette.

Eventually there will be a light at this intersection, but that will depend on whatever formula the traffic department follows. Is it twenty fender-benders, two hospitalizations, or one fatality before they put in a light?

So if you wish to enjoy your ice cream instead of having them peel it off your body in the ambulance, I'd suggest that instead of trying to turn directly onto Pisgah Church, you go the other way on Baylor, turn left on Greenbriar or Spicewood, and then make your turn onto Elm Street, where you can see a long way to both left and right. You drive about a minute farther, but your likelihood of arriving at your destination with your car intact is higher.

*

I may be the last person in America to find out about "Garfield Minus Garfield," but I hadn't seen or heard of this variation on the Garfield comic strip until my son sent me a link a few days ago.

I was so delighted I immediately ordered the book Garfield Minus Garfield from Amazon, and it's a wonderful read.

Here's the story. A cartoonist named Dan Walsh had a great deal of affection for the Garfield comic strip, but he saw past the smokescreen and understood that the strip is not about Garfield the cat at all.

It's about Jon Arbuckle, Garfield's owner, a pathetic dweeb whose luck with women is in inverse proportion to his attempts to impress them. Garfield is merely the cynical observer of Jon's life, and if he weren't there, we'd see the angst and sturm of Jon's life in all its pathos.

So Walsh started removing Garfield from the strip and posting the results online. He lived in dread of what would happen to him if Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield, ever found out what he was doing.

Not to worry -- Davis was as delighted with Walsh's website as anyone. Like Walsh, Davis identifies with Jon, and while Davis has no intention of removing Garfield from his comic strip, he doesn't mind if Walsh does.

The result is a book that is nothing but strips by Jim Davis. In full color on each page is the altered, Garfield-free version; but then, below it and smaller, the original is included in black and white.

Sometimes the Garfield-free version is merely inscrutable, but most of the time it becomes a different creature, and the juxtaposition is at times funnier, at other times rather dark and sad -- but always entertaining.

*

Anyone who has read my reviews over the years knows the disdain I have for bad literary writing. This is not because I hate literary writing -- on the contrary, I love and admire the best practitioners of the genre, most notably Richard Russo and Anne Tyler.

But because English professors act as if the literary genre were the only kind of writing worth discussing, literary writers too often act, talk, and write as if even bad writing in their genre were superior to the best of other genres. This is ludicrously and offensively untrue.

Bad literary writing is every bit as hackneyed, formulaic, empty, and sad as bad writing in any other genre of fiction. Maybe even worse, because of all the pretentiousness that goes with it.

And I think I am not wrong to say that bad writing is far more prevalent in the literary genre than in any other, if only because so many young writers think that merely by getting published in that genre they have arrived -- they are certified "good" -- and therefore they don't have to learn anything.

I remember a would-be literary giant in a graduate writing program at a local university who actually said to his fellow novices, "It doesn't really matter what the story is about, you have to work on getting a voice."

This brain-dead attitude toward literature is widely held. It's all about how you write -- who cares what you write.

Needless to say, the good writers have no such delusion. With just a moment's thought, the reason is obvious. Great literature can almost always be translated into other languages, and yet retain its greatness.

Think about that for a moment. What is it that is being reproduced in the foreign language? Not the style! Not the voice! Try as they might, translators cannot translate style and voice, they can only strive to create similar effects in their own language.

That's why it's an adage in the translation business that the translator of a book needs to be exactly as good a writer as the original author -- and no better! (Though I am perfectly happy to hope that all my translators will be better writers than I am -- because I still get to spend the royalties their talent brings to me.)

What translates, what holds together, is the story -- the assertions about why people do the things they do, and how relationships form and change, and how people interact with the world around them.

This is the heart and soul of fiction, it's what fiction of any genre is for, and any writer who thinks style is even close to being as important as that is doomed to end up in the dustbin of literary history.

When bad literary writers try to tell a story, they inevitably fall into the next trap of the genre: that "true" stories are always dark, that "true" characters always hate their parents, and their parents deserve it, and ditto for their parents' values, unless they happened to be absolutely politically correct, in which case they have the true religion.

This sounds absolutely absurd, but in book after book, story after story, it's the fundamental cliche of the literary genre. It's as if you have to remain a perpetual angry teenager in order to be a literary writer; you're forbidden to grow up enough to realize your parents were doing the best they could, and most of the time they were absolutely right about the things they tried to teach their stupid, ungrateful children.

I don't know why I understood this even when I was myself a stupid ungrateful child, but I did. I was impatient with this teenagers-know-the-truth viewpoint even when I was a teenager, and I have grown even more contemptuous of it as an adult writer. Why do I still have to see the books of fifty-year-old writers that take it for granted that anyone who takes responsibility is a dull and oppressive person?

All of this is a lead-up to one of my rare announcements of having found a literary writer who tells good, truthful stories in which, now and then, grownups are allowed to appear without being slapped around.

Not that you won't find conflict between parents and children in Richard Cohen's marvelous story collection Pronoun Music. There's plenty of that. Here's the shocker, though: The children are often ignorant of their own wrong-headed arrogance, but the writer isn't.

The children judge their parents, yes -- what children don't? -- but the author does not always show them to be right to do so. On the contrary, the author usually sees that the truth lies outside the beliefs of any of the characters, and Cohen is deft enough to let us get his ironic viewpoint without ever departing from the characters' viewpoint.

Cohen is not a bestseller. You won't find his books on the shelf -- they have to be ordered. Furthermore, Pronoun Music is a story collection, which means that it's better to read the stories one at a time, with space between them -- it's like having a whole bunch of really short books.

And if you like to read stories full of adventure, danger, suspense, or romance, then maybe you want to think twice. Cohen is a literary writer, and the stories tend to be quiet, with all the tension arising out of relationships, not physical danger; and happy endings are few and far between.

But if you look forward to each new Anne Tyler and Richard Russo novel, and remember Faulkner and Bellow with fondness, then I propose Richard Cohen as a worthy addition to your bookshelf.

*

There are a lot of websites out there vying for our attention, but now and then there's a gem that absolutely rewards you as much as a really intriguing book. A friend of mine who works at the Pentagon of all places recently recommended to me one of his favorite sites, Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica.

Like many of the best (and worst) websites, Atlas Obscura is user-created and user-refereed. People put up pictures and descriptions of places in the real world that deserve to be considered "curiosities" or "wonders," and then others respond. As a page gets more and more visitors, it rises to the top of the atlas.

For instance, there's the Sidoarjo Mud Volcano in Indonesia. It's really more of a geyser, but it slops up mud instead of just hot water -- 50,000 cubic meters a day. And the spreading mud is swallowing up homes as it grows.

Then there's the first penitentiary, right in the middle of Philadelphia -- Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in 1829, its designers meant it to be a place of humane incarceration. The inmates had indoor toilets, for instance, in an era when the White House still relied on chamber pots. With individual skylights in every cell, it was viewed as being almost heavenly compared to other prisons of the day.

Instead, the prison turned out to be a nightmare, a hellhole -- because the prisoners were kept in total isolation, all the time. People didn't understand at that time that human company is an essential component of sanity, and even when your companions are the kind of people who end up in a penitentiary, it's better to be around somebody than nobody at all.

Then there's the Last Handwoven Bridge, in Peru; Holy Land USA, Cactus Dome in the Marshall Islands, and the Last Tree of Tenere in Niger. Or Blood Falls in Antarctica, where a red goop falls five stories into the sea. Or the underground Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira.

That's the kind of thing that pops up in the Atlas Obscura -- as eclectic a mix of facts as you can find outside a Trivial Pursuit game. (In fact, I expect to see many of these places show up in the geography section of future editions of Trivial Pursuit.)

The website is, simply enough, AtlasObscura.com. Go and see for yourself!


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