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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 7, 2010

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


Bush Billboard, Lark Rise, Amazon's War

I got a nasty piece of slander forwarded to me recently, attacking Michelle Obama for having an "unprecedented" number of staffers, when previous first ladies have made do with two or fewer.

The numbering of Mrs. Obama's staffers is accurate enough. The lying starts when they start telling you how her staff compares with her predecessors'.

The truth is that Michelle Obama has no more staffers than any of her predecessors since Jacqueline Kennedy -- who had nearly twice as many as Obama

This is an easy matter to check at Snopes.com. It took me about thirty seconds to go there, find the report, and discover that it was a pack of lies.

So let me say it again: If you pass on an internet story without bothering to find out whether or not it's true, and it turns out to be a lie, then by passing it on you are a liar, too.

*

It's not a fake. There's a real billboard on I-35 near Wyoming, Minnesota, which consists of a picture of George W. Bush and the caption: "Miss me yet?"

Paid for by a group of local small businessmen, the sign is apparently designed to point out that after all the demonizing of George W. Bush by the Democrats and the mainstream media, a year later all the policies Obama has that are actually working seem to be pretty much Bush's policies, while the policies that are radically different from Bush's are the ones that either don't work or that people really, really hate.

Check out the billboard.

*

I first heard of Lark Rise to Candleford from a friend. I guess I haven't been keeping up with PBS.

So I bought the season one on DVD and I've watched the first six episodes. I must say that it's some of the best television -- no, some of the best film -- I've ever seen.

But be warned: It's British, it's in costume, and it's mostly about women. For some people, that information makes their hearts leap with joy. For others, it makes them want to take a nap.

Lark Rise is the name of a hamlet; Candleford is the nearby village. The people of Candleford regard the folk of Lark Rise as bumpkins, and though their assessment isn't far wrong, the bumpkins resent it.

We're talking about poverty here -- people living from job to job, searching for anything they can get wages for. At the same time, they manage to enjoy themselves -- though their pleasures are regarded as "simple" and tedious by people of fashion.

The story is seen mostly through the eyes of Laura Timmins, whose Lark Rise family can no longer support her; at age sixteen, she goes to Candleford to work in the post office with their cousin, Dorcas Lane -- played by Julia Sawalha, who did such a brilliant job of playing foolish Lydia in the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, and now plays just about the opposite character.

The show does not pull any punches about the ignorance, illiteracy, superstition, and sometimes irresponsibility of the people of the hamlet of Lark Rise. It also shows the love and generosity among them. And when we come to Candleford, there is plenty of hypocrisy and quarrelsomeness -- but there is also generosity and kindness.

No one is made into an out-and-out villain; even the worst-behaved people are at least explained to us, and some of them are redeemed.

Some of the most powerful moments come in the conversations between Robert and Emma Timmins (Brendan Coyle and Claudie Blakley). I have never seen such a loving and yet realistic depiction of a married couple. They are constantly at odds with each other; yet they also need each other, and know it.

One of the greatest things about British drama and film is the deep, rich stable of character actors that can be drawn on again and again. Just the sight of them can be endearing and astonishing. The old housekeeper Zillah, who began life as a foundling; the beekeeper, Queenie Turrill, and her husband, Twister; Caroline Arless, the ne'er-do-well who simply can't control her impulses -- they, and so many others, are simply magnificent.

Characters that you think will be the butt of jokes -- like the postman, Thomas Brown (Mark Heap), who is a devout Christian and makes himself rather obnoxious as he checks on the degree of commitment of the people to whom he delivers mail -- are instead developed into real people whom we can love, even if we wouldn't want to spend an hour in their company.

The remarkable thing, to me, is that the source of all this wonderful storytelling is not fiction at all, but a memoir by Flora Thompson of her years growing up in rural and near-rural England in the 1880s and 1890s. I haven't read the books, but I have ordered them online from Barnes & Noble.

Even though I've reached the ripe old age of nearly sixty and have a master's degree in English lit, I managed never to hear of Flora Thompson until now. But there is a Flora Thompson website that makes it clear that she has aficionados every bit as dedicated as any Janeite is to Austen. It has a good bit of intriguing information. Check it out at http://www.johnowensmith.co.uk/flora/.

This television series, written primarily by Bill Gallagher, is as well-crafted as the best of the BBC period dramas. The second season comes out on DVD on February 16th -- mine is already ordered.

*

I'm pretty sure you're not staying up at night, trying desperately to remember all the kings and queens of England in the order of their reigns.

Nor do you struggle to remember who was who in the Wars of the Roses, or just how Stephen of Blois managed to steal the throne from Queen Matilda, or how Henry Tudor (Henry VII) was able to make his absurd claim to the throne.

As a lifelong Anglophile, I'm afraid I'm rather proud of knowing my way through the monarchs and having a pretty good idea of what happened in their reigns. But I committed it all to memory before I was in my teens, and sometimes memory plays me false.

If you share my affliction, then the book Kings and Queens of England and Scotland is for you. Each brief bio leaves out much -- but what it includes is quite helpful. The most important part of each is "Events of the Reign," full of good reminders to help you keep English history straight.

And, just in case you're wondering, I can also recite all the U.S. presidents in order, with the years of their presidency and the main events during their terms in office.

(I didn't learn it as early as I did the English king list, but I started feeling guilty as an American, and so I even managed to get straight that wasteland of largely forgettable presidents between Jackson and Lincoln. If you actually know something about each one, they aren't so forgettable after all.)

Perhaps this all seems like a colossal waste of time, but these lists are the skeletons on which one can hang the whole body of English or American history. Rote memorization is vastly underrated -- these lists are as useful in understanding history as memorizing the multiplication tables or the periodic table of elements is to arithmetic or chemistry.

*

Trader Joe's products are not all perfect -- for instance, their refried beans are nothing special. But their "Fully Cooked Roast Beef Hash" is worth driving to a Trader Joe's. It's made in Brazil, which means it contains Brazilian beef -- better than any I've had in America, thanks, and rivaled only by Kobe beef from Japan. It takes very little time to fry up, stores well, and it's simply the best hash I've ever had.

*

The very fact that I just reviewed hash suggests that perhaps I don't qualify as a genuine "food snob," but I still enjoyed reading through The Food Snob's Dictionary, by David Kamp and Marion Rosenfeld.

Written with a great deal of self-deprecating humor and irony, it has definitions like this:

Salsify. Confusingly named vegetable whose long, parsnip-like root is said to taste like an oyster when cooked but doesn't really. Correctly pronounced "SAL-si-fee," especially by Snobs who enjoy perplexing nouns that sound like verbs.

And I learned a few things. I long ago got used to the idea that Haagen Dazs is actually a completely American product -- the foreign name is just to make us think we're getting something exotic.

Well, I was certainly disappointed to discover the Scharffen Berger chocolates are actually a product of San Francisco -- and not only that, the company's been bought by Hershey.

But that knowledge doesn't change the fact that it's really good stuff.

And it's fun to watch the authors out-snob the snobs, as in this definition:

Dirty Girl Produce. Fruit and vegetable suppplier whose wares, grown on a tiny farm in Santa Cruz, California, have been adjudged groovy by the Bay Area food mafia, and, therefore, by the greater Snob firmament. Founded in 1994 by two charismatic young surfer chicks, Ali Edwards and Jane Freedman, Dirty Girl is now owned and operated by a charismatic young surfer dude, Joe Schirmer....

If these definitions -- both the style and the substance of them -- sound good to you, then this is a book you need.

Otherwise, get back to buying those familiar brand names on the grocery store shelves. You're doing just fine.

*

I hate to say it, because it's not that long ago that I first discovered M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth mystery series, but ... having read the whole run of them, I must report that the most recent ones are barely worth reading.

Beaton didn't descend into self-imitation and phoned-in storytelling anywhere near as quickly as, say, Joan Hess with her endlessly repetitive Maggody series (read one; you've read them all).

But she reached that point eventually, alas. The actual mysteries now -- most recently with Death of a Valentine -- are perfunctory, and the author's hand is clearly visible as she works so very hard to keep Hamish Macbeth from growing or changing in any way.

Same old romantic entanglements, same verging on marriage but never quite getting it to happen ... I'm afraid I'm not going to be reading any more of this series.

*

A real prize for dedicated readers is The Broken Teaglass, the first novel by Emily Arsenault. This murder mystery is set in offices of the Samuelson Company, which publishes a dictionary.

Our hero, Billy Webb, is fresh from college, and he isn't sure whether to be relieved or appalled to find himself poring over old citations and writing definitions of new and evolving words in the English language.

Then a co-worker, Mona Minot, gets him to join her in searching out some very strange citations that seem to be telling part of a story. They're scattered not-quite-randomly through the files -- they could only have been put there by an employee of the company. And they seem to be hinting at a murder that took place at this very company not all that many years ago.

The characters are strange and wonderful, and the murder mystery, when it finally unravels, is quite satisfying.

However, the process of reading the book is at some points rather like reading the dictionary. Because as they try to put the bits of story in order, we are expected to read through all the ones they have so far; and then, when more are added, to read it all again.

How often can you read long passages over and over again in the same book? My answer is: twice. I started skimming them after the first time, and only read them again when they were finally assembled and all the key information was finally revealed.

I suppose this makes the book arty and therefore "above" ordinary mysteries. But ... not really. At least this repetition isn't inserted to be arty -- I really don't know how else this particular story could have been told. And Arsenault does a very good job of keeping the story alive whenever we're not reading repetitions of the same citations.

This mystery novel is not for everyone. But it was certainly for me -- and for many others, including the Barnes & Noble employee who first told me about it and urged me to buy it.

By the way, that is precisely the reason why I hope online bookselling doesn't drive the real bookstores out of the marketplace -- because nothing replaces the employees whom you come to know and who eagerly tell you about books they think you'll like.

Sometimes they're wrong, but more often they're right.

*

Which brings me at last to a recent tempest in a teapot between Amazon.com and the Macmillan publishing group, which owns the publisher of most of my fiction, TOR.

It was all a dispute over the pricing of electronic books for the Kindle. It seems that Amazon, in its infinite wisdom, decided that the price of all Kindle books would be $9.99. But Macmillan saw several things wrong with this.

First, bookstores don't set the price -- publishers do. And the reason they have that privilege is that they pay for everything in advance of publication.

Second, Amazon wants to sell books at that price from the start -- coming out with a ten-dollar version of the book on the same day that the hardcover debuts at $25 to $30.

This makes perfect sense if you sell Kindles -- Amazon gets to sell a lot more of them when people think they'll be sure to get the latest titles at a third or two fifths of the price.

But Macmillan looked at the numbers and they just didn't work. It's fine to set an arbitrary -- and cheap -- price, but Amazon's price point only works as an aftermarket, not as first publication.

Publishers spend a lot of money developing books. Not as much as they used to, which is why there are so many more typos in published books -- but some costs just don't go away.

First, publishers select books. The very fact that a book is published by an established company means that the reader can expect that it will be professionally written, even if not brilliantly so.

So the publisher has to pay for the salaries of the editors who find the manuscripts, the editors and artists who prep them for publication, the marketers who try to create demand for them, and so on.

And -- oh yes -- the authors think they should be paid, too.

And they have to price all the books so that the relatively few that sell extremely well can subsidize the many books that don't make back the cost of publishing them.

Those costs don't go away just because Amazon waves its wand. And if Amazon is successful in selling these Kindle books, then fewer and fewer people will pay for the hardcovers that they so deeply undercut in price.

The numbers don't work, and Macmillan said so. If you want our books, then the price to consumers has to be higher. We'll even give you a bigger share of the pie -- but the pie has to be big enough that we can meet our costs and, we hope, still be able to sell hardcovers.

Here's where it got interesting. Amazon said, Well, if you don't do things our way, then we'll stop carrying all Macmillan books. And we don't mean just the Kindle versions -- we won't sell any of your printed books, either.

Which effectively took most of my titles off the shelves at Amazon. You could still find them there from the used-book dealers that Amazon has deals with -- but I don't get paid for used copies of my books.

In other words, in the process of trying to bully Macmillan into giving in and essentially selling their books under cost while destroying the market for hardcovers, Amazon declared war on me.

Ironically, I have been (and still am) a happy Kindle-reader. And over the past few months I was doing my best to get all my books available for the Kindle. I even tried to get them to serialize my latest novel, Hidden Empire, on the Kindle before it came out in the stores -- but their programmers couldn't figure out how to do it, so the project died.

We have also had -- for many years -- a link to Amazon.com on my website. And I have spend many thousands of dollars buying from them; I have treated Amazon.com like a department store, the first place I search for books and many other kinds of merchandise.

After a few weeks of Amazon's ban on my books (along with the rest of Macmillan's many lists), Amazon essentially caved in and accepted Macmillan's pricing structure.

Perhaps they noticed that books aren't soap, and people who can't find a particular author's books on Amazon won't buy something else from Amazon instead, they'll leave Amazon and buy the author they want from some other vendor.

Maybe Amazon is actually discovering that they are, in fact, a bookstore, and not a publisher. They don't get to set the list price -- the publisher gets to do that. Amazon can discount that price all they want -- but they have to take the discount out of their share, and not the publisher's and author's shares.

So the link to Amazon, which I took down from my site while they were banning my books, is back up. But it's not in first position anymore. And I'm buying anything I can find elsewhere from somebody else.

Because Amazon stands revealed as the worst sort of vertical monopolist, at least by design. They want to control publishing from top to bottom.

They want to have all the control that a publisher has, without doing any of the work or taking any of the risks. They seem to think that books are soap and can be standardized at any price point they choose. And when they don't get their way, they punish people.

You know, like the Obama administration tried to do with Fox News.

This is such an ugly way to do business that I am disgusted. Now, instead of enjoying shopping at Amazon, I feel like I'm defeated whenever I give them any of my money.

Contrast them with, of all companies, Apple. Apple knows they're a retailer; they don't think they're the publisher. So yes, I might end up buying the iPad to see if it's a decent Kindle replacement.

Despite everything, though, Amazon is still the best online book retailer. For instance, when I was searching for the Flora Thompson books about Lark Rise and Candleford, they were simply not to be found on Barnes & Noble's or Borders's sites. But Amazon had them.

Amazon has done so many things right. But it's gone to their heads. Instead of remaining cooperative with the people -- including authors like me -- who actually make the things they sell, they've decided they're so big and important now that they can slap us around as much as they want, if we happen not to be willing to let them dictate to us.

I'm not calling for a boycott of Amazon -- after all, they did give in, finally, and they're still a terrific online bookstore.

I'm just saying: If you've had an Amazon habit, the way I have, going to Amazon for everything, maybe you need to spread your shopping around a little. Find other online bookstores. Show Amazon that they do not, in fact, control the online book trade. Maybe if they don't think they are a monopoly, they'll learn to play well with others.


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