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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 27, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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


Siphon vs. Suction, Summer Reading

Somebody wrote in complaining about my explanation that siphoning works by gravity. No, it's the difference in pressure! our correspondent said, rather testily. And a lot of people think the same way.

But that's because they don't know the difference in definition between suction and siphon.

I suppose it's understandable, since most siphoning operations start with sucking on the tube to fill it with liquid. But that's not siphoning, that's, well, sucking. The siphoning is what happens after you put the end of the liquid-filled hose down into the lower container that you're trying to fill.

As liquid flows upward into the hose out of the higher container and then down the long end of the tube into the lower container, it is definitely gravity driving the process. It's true that as the liquid falls through the long end, it creates suction behind it to draw up the liquid from the higher container -- but the cause of it all is gravity.

Meanwhile, nobody who has a clue what he's talking about would imagine that the oil spill in the Gulf can be siphoned off. That's because it could only be siphoned away if you could find a lower container than the ocean's surface into which to siphon it.

Yet in article after article about the Gulf spill, you'll see them talking about "siphoning up" the oil, when they mean "suctioning" it up. If this keeps up, it won't be long before one of the accepted meanings of siphon is "to suck up," and then just see how hard it'll be to explain siphoning to schoolkids, when the same word is used for both processes!

*

Did anybody notice that in Obama's speech about how he's absolutely in charge of dealing with the oil spill and in no way is any part of it his fault (no doubt Bush did it), he ended with "Thank you, God bless you, and may God bless the United States of America"?

Bush used to get criticized mercilessly by the Leftist elite for his "theocratic" tendencies when he ended his speeches exactly that way. Yet when Obama uses the same language Bush always used, nobody blinks an eye.

The difference is obvious, of course. Bush is a church-going born-again Christian, and Obama is a Sunday golfer who, when he does go to church, apparently never notices what is said in the sermon.

In other words, it bothered people when Bush ended his speeches with an invocation to God, because they knew he meant it.

Whereas when Obama does it, his supporters all recognize that he's only saying it to placate those poor saps who have turned to "guns and religion" in order to get through hard times.

*

Summer Reading

For kids, reading is a mandatory activity during the school year -- a lot of them resent the fact that teachers want to mandate what they'll read during the summer. (Especially when teachers hit upon the evil plan of making them keep a reading diary, destroying any possibility of reading for pleasure.)

But for adults who like to read at all, summer is when they can plan for reading time. In other parts of the country, summer vacation is likely to mean a week or two of intensely planned activity -- lots of driving, amusement parks, getting from here to there, following an itinerary.

That's why one of our favorite things about coming to North Carolina was learning what it meant to go to the beach.

At the beach, there is no itinerary. If somebody feels like golfing, they golf. If somebody wants to ride jet-skis or kayaks on the Sound, they go rent something. But nothing is planned, and there is actually time to stretch out on the beach or on the deck of a rented house or condo and read a good thick book from beginning to end.

Or three slim books. It's not a competition, it's a joy. And, of course, it keeps novelists like me employed.

So if you haven't already gone to the beach this summer, here's a quick list of some terrific mystery novels you might want to consider taking along.

I just finished reading The Neighbor, by Lisa Gardner. And by "just finished" I mean three minutes ago, and by "reading" I mean "listening to the unabridged recording."

There are thrillers that hit you with shock after shock, filling your mind with vile images. I dislike such experiences and stay away from novelists who do that -- even when I know they're very talented writers. That's why I don't read Harlan Coben or John Sandford any more. There's only so much ugliness I can stand.

But there are thriller writers who don't feel obliged to bend everything so that there is no possibility of decency or happiness in the world. Lisa Gardner is one of those writers. In The Neighbor, Jason and Sandy Jones have a strange marriage. They're both so devoted to their four-year-old daughter that they work in shifts -- Jason working nights as a journalist and tending the kid by day, and Sandy teaching sixth grade by day and taking care of their daughter by night. Until Sandy disappears. Then all the secrets start coming out -- but will they come out soon enough to save them?

(A handful of F-bombs and not-very-explicit sex scenes make this an audiobook you don't want to listen to in a car full of kids.)

Sitting in Barnes & Noble's coffee shop the other day, nursing our hot chocolates, my wife and I noticed the name C.J. Box on the cover of a mystery novel. "That's a great name for a writer," my wife said. "So few letters that they can make them huge enough on the cover to be read this far away."

Curiosity piqued, I want and picked up, not Box's new hardcover, but his first novel, Three Weeks to Say Good-bye. In the story, Jack and Melissa have adopted a little girl, Angelina, with the full permission of the birth mother. The birth father was unfindable -- until nine months after the adoption, when he suddenly shows up and demands that the adoption be rescinded.

The idea of losing their daughter is devastating enough, but the more Jack and Melissa find out about the father and his family, the more horrifying is the prospect of turning their beloved daughter over to him. But there's no way to prevent losing their child except to prove how awful the birth father is. Only his father is a Denver judge who is doing everything in his power to block anything Jack and Melissa try to do.

A year or so ago, Alan Bradley burst on the scene with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie -- a mystery told from the point of view of poison-obsessed young genius Flavia de Luce. I loved it; my wife didn't. Now comes the sequel, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, and while it doesn't have the same sense of surprise the first one brought, it's a good solid mystery in a charming English village. Think of it as the Alfred Hitchcock version of You Can't Take It with You.

Jane Stanton Hitchcock is a wonderful writer of high-society mysteries, and Mortal Friends may be the best of them (though I still delight in Social Crimes, which has an ending worthy of Agatha Christie). Set in Georgetown, the rich section of Washington DC, a series of murders at first seem mere background to the story of Reven Lynch, who is trying to hold on to her marriage against an extravagantly wealthy and beautiful rival, while at the same time falling in love with a detective working on the killings.

Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series follows the strivings of a young female psychologist in England in the dark years after the Great War (WWI), where victims of shell shock still linger and must be cared for -- and exploited, if they happen to seem useful to somebody in power. Maisie's ability to move easily from upper to middle to lower class helps her find her way through the maze of Among the Mad. Where Jane Stanton Hitchcock definitely writes glitzy chick lit, Winspear has a more universal appeal, and since Dobbs has already lost the love of her life, romance doesn't play a big role in the story.

Robert Crais has long been known for his Elvis Cole mysteries, set in L.A. But recently he's started writing novels from the point of view of Cole's taciturn and sometimes brutal sidekick, Joe Pike (cf. Hawk, Mouse, and other "muscle" characters from other mystery writers). The First Rule is set in a harsh and cruel layer of society, where justice is hard to come by but getting killed is easy. Yet because Crais is one of our best mystery writers, he never settles for mere vengeance or adventure -- there is also redemption amid the loss and pain.

The late Robert B. Parker's Split Image is a fitting end to the series of mysteries centered around Jesse Stone. While I doubt Parker thought of it as the last episode, it provides some genuine resolutions to the dilemmas of Stone's life -- while providing a terrific mystery about a "retired" gangster who isn't having much luck in the staying-alive department. (Just in case there isn't another Sunny Randall mystery, she's in this one, too.) Parker's spare writing style packs a novel's worth of plot and character into a very quick read.

Last year I picked up Agatha Christie's Christmas-season-1938 potboiler, Hercule Poirot's Christmas: A Holiday Mystery. I remember as a kid loving the Hercule Poirot stories (though I always liked Miss Marple better), but this time around I was very disappointed. Christie's writing seems perfunctory, dutiful; she introduces the characters as if in a catalog. I set it aside and only picked it up again in order to give it away; but I started reading where I left off, soon remembered who the characters were, and read to the end. Even when she's bad, she's good. But if you want to read Agatha Christie at the beach, this title should be at the bottom of your list.

Finally, for the real mystery fan -- or student -- or would-be writer -- there's P.D. James's Talking about Detective Fiction, which is partly a history of the modern mystery genre, partly a critical analysis of different periods and leading writers, and partly a master class by one of the best ever to write the modern psychological mystery.

Near the end of the book, after lamenting the trend away from storytelling in the world of English literature, James writes: "Happily there now seems to be a return to the art of storytelling. But this, of course, the detective novel has never lost. We are presented with a mystery at the heart of the novel and we know that by the end it will be solved. Very few readers can put down a detective story until it is solved, although some have fallen into the reprehensible expedient of taking a quick look at the last chapter."

I plead guilty. Sometimes, knowing I must get some sleep and that I cannot sleep till I know how it all comes out, I preserve my health by checking out the ending. Sadly, it still doesn't help, because I inevitably end up reading a chapter at a time backward through the book until the ending makes perfect sense -- which usually means I've read the whole thing anyway and didn't get any sleep and read it backward.

But however you read mysteries, they remain one of the most entertaining forms of literature, and for summertime reading, you really can't go wrong -- whether your taste runs to cozies (you know, mysteries with cats and/or recipes), thrillers, psychological suspense, private eyes, or police procedurals.

Besides the above listed authors, you also can't go wrong with Sue Grafton, Michael Connelly, Walter Mosley, Sara Paretsky, Margaret Maron, Sharyn McCrumb, Ross MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, Charles Todd, and P.D. James herself -- plus all the mystery writers who have somehow managed to slip my mind at this moment ...

Truth to tell, there is no other section of the bookstore where you can be more confident of finding a terrific entertainment (at least) than Mystery Fiction. As the Young Adult and Sci-Fi/Fantasy sections fill up with vampire romances, crowding out everything else, mystery may soon be the only place to go!


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