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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 28, 2011

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


Captain America, Dragons, Little Books

Captain America was a joke when I was young -- the superpatriotism was so out of fashion, and the costume was just plain silly.

But Marvel Comics has been doing such a good job of developing comic book movies that appeal to a general audience, while still pleasing the fanboys, that my wife and I actually had high expectations when we went to see Captain America on its opening weekend.

You know what? We really liked it.

The premise is that in the middle of World War II, a superscientist (Stanley Tucci at his likeable best) has developed a treatment that turns ordinary people into extraordinary fighting machines -- quick-healing, incredibly fast and strong.

Tucci chooses, for his first test subject, a skinny, weak, but very intelligent young American who is irresistibly plucky and determined to join in the battle to defeat Hitler.

The transformation works -- both within the story and in the filmmaking. They used the same actor, Chris Evans, for both the before and after versions of Steve Rogers (Captain America). Evans beefed up for the after version of himself; computer graphics helped him look convincingly skinny and weak for the before version.

But it all comes down to the story, and writers Chrisopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (of Narnia movie fame) did a fine job of making us like Captain America -- and believe in him.

Oh, the science is just silly, but we did know we were coming to a comic book movie. What matters is not the fake science, but why Tucci chose skinny-but-plucky Steve Rogers as his test subject.

The film's real achievement is to satisfyingly answer this question: When you put a superhero in the middle of World War II, and he doesn't defeat Hitler and save twelve million death camp victims, what was he good for?

Their answer is a supervillain who is convincingly worse than Hitler, if only because he's smarter and has more dangerous weapons.

Not so dangerous that Captain America's shield can't deflect it; not so dangerous that they don't conveniently miss with their superweapons an awful lot of the time (but not always). But I did mention that it's a comic book movie, right?

They made me care. They made me grieve a little for lost love. They made me believe in a friendship. And that's quite an achievement -- for a comic book movie.

It's not the best movie I ever saw. Not even in my top hundred. But I would see it again, and enjoy myself.

*

We had a pretty long wait for the new book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and it's not as if it even comes close to ending the series.

We've seen the tricks that Martin is pulling out of his hat -- a significant percentage of people "killed" in each book turn out to be somewhat less dead than we thought we saw, and he loves to leave us dangling on several cliffhangers.

But he also answers a lot of questions -- the story does move along -- and most of the dead from the previous books are still dead in A Dance with Dragons. But the character whose seeming death most infuriated me at the end of A Feast for Crows pops up alive in a brief scene, so much is forgiven.

As other characters seem to be murdered near the end of this book, I have my own candidate for "Martin better not leave this one dead," but I can't tell you who it is.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a monumental achievement, and while there are times in this book when I said, "Really, George, you're going to spend a whole chapter on this character and this is all we got?" by and large he keeps the story moving on with great intensity.

The world is so deep and rich with history, while it is also wide and populated with an astonishing array of fully believable cultures, polities, clans, and individuals, that it redefines "epic" and "big" -- most other series now look like the work of dabblers and dilettantes compared to this one.

I've been griping about the pornographic HBO series made from the first volume, and there were moments in this book when Martin seemed (to me) to have gone farther down the road of needless crudity than before, as if the HBO series gave him permission (or laid on him a sense of obligation) to get a bit nastier. (Oh, so her costume will leave a breast exposed? I wonder why? Ah, yes, HBO!)

But in the main, the series remains true to itself, and far, far better than the poor pair of writers who are charged with putting it on the screen.

Forget the HBO series. Read the books. While you must have a high tolerance for Elizabethan levels of candor and crudity about sex and other bodily processes, this is still one of the most intellectually and emotionally rewarding books ever written. Even though everybody is believably real, and some people do absolutely horrific things, Martin makes us love even some of the worst criminals because we understand their actions.

Martin is a little older than I am, and so I worry about him. I don't want him to take so long writing the last two books that he dies with the series unfinished, as Robert Jordan did. Jordan's estate was able to find a fine writer (Brandon Sanderson) to finish Jordan's Wheel of Time series, but Martin's books are, without doubt, vastly better -- and I can't think of a writer working today who is capable of finishing them. Not up to Martin's standard, at any rate.

I listened to A Dance with Dragons as read by Roy Dotrice -- the brilliant reader of the first three books (but not the fourth, alas). But I also read sections, because I've learned from experience that if I try to listen to a book in bed, I end up sleeping through several hours of audio and then have a devil of a time finding my place.

It's also tricky to sync up the audiobook after I've read in the printed book, but it's still easier than trying to figure out where I was when I fell asleep listening!

The nice thing about the audiobook is that I can't succumb to the temptation to start skimming ahead because I'm so eager to find out how things turn out. I end up cheating myself when I skip and skim; the audiobook keeps me honest.

*

There is a genre of small books of humor that I often enjoy very much. Last month I went on a bit of a binge, buying quite a few that sounded promising.

Let's just say that some of them are quite wonderful, and some of them are appalling. Some are funny, and some are only mean-spirited and ugly.

So here's Uncle Orson's Guide to Little Books That Are Supposed to Be Amusing And/Or Entertaining.

Worst: Shop & Awe, a collection of candid pictures of people spotted in WalMart stores dressed in ways, or doing things, that provide arrogant jerks with reasons for feeling superior to the poor, uneducated, or obese. Having spent a lot of time hanging around universities, I can assure you that WalMart shoppers have no monopoly on appalling appearance and behavior, but for people with no compassion, I suppose they are safe and suitable targets for the scorn of the would-be funny.

Maybe I simply lack the Contempt Gene that allows people like these writers to look at people who obviously have plenty of grief, loneliness, and health issues in their life, and heap scorn on them. Instead, my response is either to turn away in embarrassment (do I look like that?) or to be filled with pity (I know what it's like to be fat and unhealthy, knowing how people blessed with hereditary thinness cast moral judgment on you).

I think this book is evil for its abuse of the poor and unfortunate, and I heap my own scorn on anyone who participates with glee at the PeopleOfWalMart.com website.

With Shop & Awe providing a low point, we will now climb steadily out of the slough of despond:

The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm congratulates itself on being smart (it actually has a footnote on the cover saying "Not Approved for Use by Stupid People,") but it is not, in fact, a very smart book. In fact, the "jests" are generally so unamusing, while maintaining the smug tone of someone who is quite sure that he's better than other people, that it just makes the reader feel as if he's been trapped at an endless party with an utter bore.

Lawrence Dorfman's The Snark Handbook seems to be promising the same, but in fact it's much better, mostly because Dorfman relies on quotations from actual smart people, so that many of the comments are amusing. If clever meanness is a spectator sport, then this is a genuine amusement.

I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar is another book based on a website, this time a collection of signs that display incorrect spellings and usages. Almost none of the pictures have anything to do with grammar, however, so that I wonder whether author Sharon Eliza Nichols even knows what grammar, as opposed to spelling and punctuation, is.

At some point, I have to say: Yes, Americans are poorly educated about spelling and punctuation. Few of us know where to put apostrophes and many think that quotation marks are for emphasis rather than irony. But aren't all the creators of these offending signs victims rather than perpetrators of a social ill? Isn't sneering at the undereducated a graver flaw of character than misspelling words on a sign?

April Winchell's Regretsy: Where DIY Meets WTF is morally far superior to People of WalMart, if only because her victims are not caught on camera by visual snipers. Instead, they are people who offer appallingly bad or weird items for sale at the website Etsy.com.

I have learned for myself that the offerings at Etsy are very uneven in quality. But Etsy does provide a wonderful service -- a place where people can offer their craftwork for sale. Many of those who sell their goods on Etsy provide good quality items that you can't find any other way -- for instance, the very convenient wastebaskets in three of our cars come from an inventive Etsy seller.

But some items are almost sickening in their awfulness, and because they are offered for sale to the public, I think they are fair game in a way that WalMart shoppers are not.

The only thing that keeps Regretsy from rising higher on this list is author Winchell's crudity of language and disappointing unfunniness. Though in a way, it's appropriate: Since Winchell is offering her homemade examples of the craft of "witty writing" for sale, it's fair to point out how far she falls short of professional standards. Buy this one for the pictures, and skim or skip the long, long passages of text.

Just as I dislike "WTF" in the title of Regretsy, I'm really unhappy with the title of 1,001 Facts That Will Scare the XXXX Out of You: The Ultimate Bathroom Reader. Of course, I used Xes to X out the offending word, which is barely disguised (as in, not at all) by using #* in place of HI in the middle of the word.

And since only a few of the "facts" in the book are actually scary, the title is wrong in many ways. And yet ... the book really is an amusing and sometimes informative compendium of information that you might not have known.

Since I happen to know that some of the "facts" are simply wrong, I urge you not to place full reliance on this book. But they do cite sources, unlike many other such trivia books, so that you can evaluate the reliability of the source for yourself.

And if you can't find a good number of facts that you can't resist reading aloud to people around you (preferably not when they're eating, however), you're not really trying. This is the first of the books on this list that I'm actually glad to own.

Damn You, Autocorrect!, by Jillian Madison, has a very promising premise. Anyone who has struggled to write a text message when the "smartphone" seems grimly determined to "correct" a name or word that it doesn't recognize into a completely unrelated word will eagerly open this book ...

Only to be vaguely disappointed. Yes, many of the entries are amusing; more are embarrassing; but eventually you realize that you're reading a book whose humor is almost entirely generated by badly designed software. How long does it continue to be funny? Not as long as the book, unfortunately.

Tatyana Eckstrand's The Librarian's Book of Quotes is a wonderful compendium of quotes about libraries, many of them wise and many others amusing. If you don't care about libraries, you won't enjoy this book. But I do, and therefore I did. It's published by the American Library Association, so presumably buying the book will benefit that institution, which is, in my opinion, a Good Thing.

Kerry Miller's Passive Aggressive Notes: Painfully Polite and Hilariously Hostile Writings celebrates notes written by people who are desperate to register their unhappiness -- while still trying to remain a decent human being.

In other words, these are the notes written instead of keying a car or torching a bed. And often the notes are answered with other notes, so that a full dialogue emerges.

Usually the answering notes reveal that the person being complained about really is a complete jerk who doesn't care about other people's feelings, just as the original complainant supposed. So these sequences of notes (all photographed and quite believable) might also serve as exhibits in the sentencing phase of the trial.

Second Runner-Up: Richard Beason's F in Exams: the Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers is most amusing when you actually know the right answer; in an embarrassing number of cases I had no idea what the answer was supposed to be.

Often the answers are funny because they suggest that the student is blessed with self-knowledge and the gift of irony. As, for instance, the geometry test question in which one side of a triangle is labeled "3 cm," another "4 cm," and the third "x." The instruction is: "Find x." The student's response was to circle the little x and write, "Here it is!"

Sometimes the "wrong" answer is absolutely right -- it's the question that was stupid. For instance: "Jeff has been asked to collect data about the amount of television his friends watch. Think of an appropriate question he could ask them." The "wrong" answer: "How much TV do you watch?"

That's a seriously miswritten test question, in my opinion.

Some wrong answers are simply an admission of despair. "Summarize the key developments of the Industrial Revolution." Answer: "Industry revolved."

Yep, you didn't know, and this is your way of admitting it.

First Runner-Up: A genuine delight -- and a work of serious scholarship, in a weird way -- is Russell Ash's Morecock, Fartwell, & Hoare: A Collection of Unfortunate but True Names.

Ash (and others) combed through birth registries, wedding records, and other sources to find genuine names that are simply funny or weird.

Some of the names are only funny because of the combination of first name and surname. Others are clearly a cruel joke by the parents. A few seem to be fakes, entered into a registry merely to be amusing (but Ash points out these likely frauds).

I suppose if your last name is Daddilums, you have to name your child something -- but Diddy? Diddy Daddilums?

And if your last name is Deadman, you owe it to your children to change that name, not saddle one of them with a hideous first name like Earwacker.

Children of persons named "Day" should have a right to sue -- or shoot -- parents who gave them names like Any Day, Godfrey Armistice Day, Lucky Day, or Time Of Day.

I must warn you that some of the names are, in fact, obscene to modern readers, however innocent (or not!) the names might have been when they were bestowed in previous centuries. I give no examples of such here -- I just don't want you writing to me that you weren't warned. You were.

It is impossible to read this book without shouting out some of the names to anyone who will listen. I suggest that you might liven up a party by forcing your guests to wear name tags with some of these monikers, drawn from a hat.

Best Little Book: Jimmy Fallon's Thank You Notes. Some of these are better than Letterman's Top Ten Lists ever were (and they were once very, very funny). These are little thank-you letters to completely inappropriate people or objects. A few samples:

Thank you, first week in January, for being the one week of the year when there are people at my gym who are fatter than I am.

Thank you, cockroaches living under the sink in my bathroom. First there were two of you, then there were four, then ten, then thirty. I don't know how you reproduce so quickly, but I can only come to one conclusion: You guys are sluts.

Thank you, fantasy football draft, for letting me know that even in my fantasies, I am bad at sports.

Excuse me now -- I have some thank-you letters to write.

*

We heard from a couple of friends that we really needed to visit Greensboro's Bog Garden.

Unless you're Slavic, the word "bog" suggests a slog through muddy water with leeches clinging to any exposed skin (think African Queen). But the Bog Garden is a far cry from that! For one thing, there are walkways of gravel, concrete, or wooden planks. You get views of a small (artificial but lovely) waterfall, and a huge pond (or tiny lake). There are plenty of birds but surprisingly few annoying insects.

Best of all, on hot summer days, the water cools the air and the trees provide welcome shade. It becomes one of the most pleasant walks in the city.

Close to the Tanger Bicentennial Garden, the Bog Garden has no dedicated parking. You can either park at the Bicentennial Garden (you enter most easily from Hobbs Road) and walk south on Hobbs, then cross the street when you spot the tiny sign; or you can simply park on the street at Starmount Farms Drive.

Delightful as the Bog Garden is, we found the best moment of our afternoon outing in the Bicentennial Garden, when we came upon Camberly's Garden. Named for the daughter of former mayor Keith Holliday and his wife, Cindy, the garden commemorates children who died young.

Camberly Holliday died unexpectedly of a brain aneurism in 2002. Because she loved music and dance, two sculptures remind us of those arts.

But what gave this garden its greatest impact on me was the paving stones engraved with the names of other children who had died, at ages ranging from the day of birth to late teens. Having lost children of our own, we were quite overcome with our own memories and emotions when we came upon this place of grace. I believe many visitors will find Camberly's Garden a haven of remembered love and private reflection. I thank those who created and maintain it.


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