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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 27, 2011

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


Books as Gifts This Christmas

We're coming up on Christmas, and a lot of you are wondering what to get nieces and nephews or grandchildren.

The nice thing about being a grandparent or uncle or aunt is that you don't have to get them a gift they'll be thrilled about, because you won't be there to see the splash of boredom and ingratitude that crosses their eager little faces.

That's why, all through my early childhood, one set of grandparents got away with sending us new pajamas every Christmas.

It was a great gift -- they had decent taste, and it really helped my parents because buying new jammies is an expense that can chew into the budget of a growing family.

But come on, was I ever thrilled to get the jammies from Nana Lu and Grandpa? I was a good kid, but not that good. The jammies were nice. I set them aside.

And that was OK, because they weren't in the room, so they couldn't have their feelings hurt by my momentary ingratitude. And then, for months and months to come, I wore those pajamas and yes, I did remember that I got them from my dad's folks.

Aunts and Uncles and Grandparents, you are in the marvelous, enviable position of being free to give your young relatives the best and yet least-appreciated gift of all: Books!

Least-appreciated, because if the kid hasn't read it yet, a book is just a stack of paper with letters printed on it. (Unless it's a sequel in a series, and you already ascertained that this was the next book the kid wanted, in which case it's a gift from a wish list and not a surprise at all.)

The best gift, because books as Christmas gifts sneak up on the recipients.

The books were set aside on Christmas morning, while toys and games (and packaging) were played with, DVDs watched, CDs listened to, clothes tried on, meals eaten, naps taken.

In other words, books are generally the lowest priority. Even jammies usually come before books.

But a few days, a few weeks later, there comes a moment when that book is finally noticed.

Books are so well-behaved. Quiet; still; they stay right where you (or somebody) put them. And yet their cover is constantly in "attract mode" -- the cover art and title whisper at first, but after the recipient has seen them for a few days or weeks, they're practically screaming.

Pick me up! I can take you places where no videogame, no DVD, no toy can possibly take you! I can give you memories that you will treasure!

Or (and let's be honest) I might suck. Or I might be Moby-Dick, completely useless to you now, but an absolute jewel when you finally grow into me.

I remember when my other grandma, Parkee, a widow with very little money -- jammies for all the grandkids were out of the question -- gave me a used book.

The jacket was a bit tattered. And it was kind of thick and nothing like any book I had ever read before.

But inside the cover, she wrote to me that this was a book she herself had loved, and she thought she knew me well enough to know that I would love it too.

It was Forgive Us Our Trespasses, by Lloyd Douglas. I was ten years old. I had already read The Robe, so I knew his name. But this wasn't a biblical novel. It was contemporary -- or, rather, twenty years away from contemporary. It wasn't for kids at all, it was an adult novel.

So it sat there for a few days, then a few weeks. And I was a kid who loved books. But this one was too strange. Not in a genre I was used to.

Still, the day came when this well-worn book kept whispering and then finally shouting to me, and I opened it and began to read.

And it snared me. Reading that began as a kind of duty became a pleasure. It was a quiet book, but it was a good one, and Parkee was right: It was exactly right for me.

Because I didn't know it yet, but this was the kind of book that I would come to love most throughout my life, the kind I would someday set out to write: A novel about good people trying to do good.

Lloyd Douglas's time is past. Where once he dominated the bestseller lists, his work is now largely forgotten. And I don't know if they still speak to anybody -- The Robe is almost as hard to get into as Ben-Hur (which has the worst opening of any novel, ever).

But in that era of American literature, and at that point in my life, it was in fact the perfect book. I wept when I read it because of the story. I weep remembering the experience now because it makes me think of Parkee, whom I still love and miss all the more as I watch my mother age into a face that looks so much like her own mother.

That book is now a symbol of my whole relationship with a beloved woman who pivotal in my growing up. What a gift. A lifetime gift.

Not every book becomes so closely identified with the giver of the gift. Nor is every book so successful in touching the heart of the recipient. But I can tell you this: When a book works as a gift, it can keep on working in a way no other gift can possibly match.

I remember the talking-animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess that my parents gave me when I was little, just starting to read. The adventures of Reddy Fox, Blacky the Crow, Jerry Muskrat, and Peter Cottontail, as they avoided Bowser the Hound and the farmer's boy -- I loved those stories, partly because they never seemed to me as if I was being talked down to.

No toys were able to compete with Burgess's books for my attention. I read them before I played with anything on Christmas morning.

(And how I envied my older brother, who got the coveted book about Mr. Mocker, the mockingbird. Even now, there's a thrill when I see a mockingbird in my yard, though they're somewhat drab birds, because Mr. Mocker was such a wonderful troublemaking mystery in that book.)

All of this is an introduction to my reviews of a few books that I have discovered recently, and which might well be the perfect gift for a bright child of the right age.

I'll Be There, by Holly Goldberg Sloan, is gripping and powerful, moving and truthful. It's hard to think of a child between nine and sixteen who won't enjoy it. It's hard to think of an adult who will be able to put it down, once you start reading.

Though this is Sloan's first novel, she is the screenwriter of Made in America and Angels in the Outfield, and she wrote and directed The Big Green, The Secret Life of Girls, and Heidi 4 Paws. I found this annoying, because as I read it I kept thinking what a perfect movie it would make, and how the screenplay would practically write itself.

But it won't be me writing it, because Sloan will do it all herself. That's fine with me, because it will make a great movie.

Yet right now it's a great young-adult novel, and you know what? Sloan hasn't just novelized a movie, she's written a novel that works as a novel. Her writing technique is superb in novelistic terms. When I think of how much trouble I went to in learning to write screenplays, despite being a much-published novelist and much-produced playwright, it's quite irritating that she has made this transition into my bailiwick so easily.

But it won't irritate you. It's the story of two brothers, Sam and Riddle, who are trapped in a wandering life under the thumb of their more-than-slightly insane father. And by insane, I don't mean "charmingly eccentric." I mean violently paranoid.

Quite by accident, music-loving, self-taught blues-guitarist Sam gets his life intertwined with the daughter of a music teacher, who inadvertently draws him to a point where he is able to get himself and his younger brother out of their hellish life.

Not without danger, though, for if there's one thing their father can't stand, it's the thought of his children having connections with other people. What begins as a romance eventually becomes a survival story, an adventure, and finally a story about what it means to have a family -- a good one or a bad one.

So by all means, give this book to your young relative -- even one who doesn't yet know that he or she is a reader. This is the kind of book that will make them into readers.

But don't just have Amazon send it to them. Buy I'll Be There in a local bookstore (I found it at Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA) so you can read it yourself first.

Or just have Amazon send a copy to you, too, so you can honestly tell the recipient how much you loved the book yourself. And you will, I promise you, if you have any heart at all.

Another haunting story, but with a rather bittersweet ending and a powerful yet strange fantasy element, is The Mostly True Story of Jack, by Kelly Barnhill.

Jack has had a strange life. His mother barely notices he's there. Quite literally, he is forgotten all the time, while his brother -- a good kid; these are no Dursleys -- is showered with attention.

As the book begins, Jack is getting dumped on an aunt and uncle in the small town of Hazelwood, Iowa, about as far from Jack's familiar life in California as it's possible to get.

Gradually, Jack begins to realize that he has deeper roots in this place than he ever imagined -- that in fact his parents might not be his parents at all. There are neighbor kids who know something about his magical past, and his aunt and uncle definitely take more notice of him than his parents ever did.

If the book has any flaw, it's that Barnhill tries to keep us from finding out anything, even though all the answers are in the book that Jack is given right at the beginning.

Like many first-time novelists, Barnhill makes the mistake of thinking that suspense comes from not knowing anything; the opposite is true. Suspense comes from knowing almost everything, and caring very much about the few things that one doesn't yet know.

Imagine Lord of the Rings if Frodo had never been told anything about the ring. Imagine Moby-Dick if nobody knew that there was a great white whale out there with Ahab's name on it.

Why would you even read such a story? Worse, how would anybody write it, when you have to keep concealing the very information that makes everything make sense?

So it's a testament of just what a good writer Kelly Barnhill is that despite this common yet usually-fatal mistake, The Mostly True Story of Jack is still compulsively readable.

What makes the story work so well is that the characters of Jack and the other kids are so vividly drawn and so very likeable.

But that's also why the ending, while it feels inevitable and right, also leaves us with wounded hearts. Some of the best books do that -- like, for instance, Lord of the Rings.

Boys and girls will enjoy this book, I assure you, especially if they have a bent toward fantasy and mystery.

Just a side note: Kelly Barnhill has a gender-ambiguous name, so I'm happy to tell you that she is a woman. This matters to me only because in my review of Amor Towles's Rules of Civility last week, I referred to Towles repeatedly as a woman. And I was wrong.

"Amor" is an uncommon name, but the classical original is male. Still, it's also a name that you would only give to a boy if he was going to be privately tutored, or if you wanted him to learn to defend himself in grade school.

For all I know, there's a picture of the definitely-male writer on the book jacket. But I never saw a book jacket. I downloaded the book from Audible.com, and it was narrated (of course) by a woman. So in my mind, it was a book "by" a woman. It took a letter from the author himself to set me straight.

Fortunately, it doesn't matter. I've found that good writers can easily write convincing characters of any gender. It's not actually hard to do, if you simply pay attention to the people around you.

But while nobody bats an eye when a woman writes from the viewpoint of male characters (as with Kelly Barnhill and The Mostly True Story of Jack), people get absurdly surprised when a male writer creates convincing females.

To me, that seems to be a minimal standard of competence. If you can't write characters of a gender other than your own, you shouldn't be in the writing biz.

So I didn't assume Amor Towles was female because "no man could write a woman so well." I assumed it because the name "Amor" communicated nothing about gender, and the narrator was female, and I listened to the book rather than seeing it as a physical artifact.

On to another new children's book, Tris and Izzie, by Mette Ivie Harrison. (Her first name is pronounced as if it were spelled "Mettie.") Harrison is the author of the brilliant YA fantasy novel Mira, Mirror -- the story of Snow White from the point of view of the magic mirror.

She also wrote the deliciously magical fantasies The Princess and the Hound, The Princess and the Bear, and The Princess and the Snowbird.

But with Tris and Izzie, a contemporary high-school novel based in the story of Tristan and Isolde, Harrison jumps from her deep-and-dark stories into a completely different mood.

Comedy. Truthful comedy, because it is Harrison writing it, but this story is funny all the way through.

It's also great adventure.

Izzie's mother is a witch, but the family magic is easy to keep a secret because Izzie herself hasn't a speck of magical ability. Or so her mother has always told her.

Izzie's father died when she was a child, in a battle with a terrible magic-eating dragon (though Tris and Izzie always calls him a worm). But in an American high school, all Izzie worries about is finding a boyfriend for her tall and fashion-inept best friend.

Izzie's own boyfriend is perfect -- captain of the football team, handsome, attentive. But Izzie is blind to what is obvious to the reader almost at once: that her best friend is absolutely stone-cold in love with Mark.

So when Izzie hits on the "wonderful" idea of stealing a love-philtre from her mother's stash and using it to make her best friend fall in love with Tristan, the strange new kid who just showed up at the high school, it's no surprise that nothing works the way she planned.

And just as well! Because from the first moment Izzie uses magic, strange and terrible creatures start showing up to kill her. It's the two-headed dog behind the stadium at a football game. Then it's the giant that pretty much smashes the school into ruins before Izzie and Tris manage to bring it down.

Oh, yes. People keep dying and being brought back to life through magic. Which only draws more monsters.

Oddly enough, the cover looks misleadingly sexy. But that doesn't worry me. It might even get boys to read the book, and they will enjoy it if they do, even though it's from a female point of view.

It's actually a very good thing for high-school boys to read books with female narrators and to watch chick flicks. It's the only way they'll get any clue about how girls think.

But because this is the real world, you'll probably end up giving this book as a gift to a girl. And she'll enjoy it, whether she's normally a fantasy reader or not.

Think of it as a funny antidote to Twilight-mania. And this time the hero is actually a hero, and not a blood-sucking impossibility. (I must mention that I hate vampire stories as a genre; nothing against Twilight per se.)

Sad Monsters: Growling on the Outside, Crying on the Inside, by Frank Lesser earned its way into my shopping bag (via the cash register -- I haven't stolen a book in, like, years) because of the brilliant Stephen Colbert quote on the cover:

"Thanks to this hilarious book, I'm no longer scared of monsters. However, I am still terrified of books."

I could almost let that stand as my full review of the book, but then, it wouldn't be my review, would it?

Books like this -- I think of Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events -- often consist of the same joke over and over again. Which is fine, if the joke is good enough.

But with Sad Monsters, no two entries are really all that alike. The joke keeps getting reinvented in creative and wonderful ways. So yes, it's funny -- but it's also smart and creative and I'm not sure it's really for kids.

Maybe it's for your completely grown-up relatives. And maybe it will actually get read on Christmas Day. Because it begs for public readings.

Geek Wisdom: The Sacred Teachings of Nerd Culture, edited by Stephen H. Segal, looks like it might be similar. But it's not.

In fact, it's weirdly serious. That is, Segal (who didn't "edit" the book, he wrote it) reports that he grew up essentially without religion. Yet he found a moral code, a guide to life, in quotations from movies that he watched and books he read as he was growing up.

As a collection of quotations, it's quite a wonderful and wise book. For instance, opening the book at random, I see these two quotations:

"Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration."

"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."

The first quote is instantly recognizable to any minimally-educated reader as being the Bene Gesserit litany against fear from Frank Herbert's Dune.

The second quote is from Isaac Asimov, well-known as a compulsive writer whose lifetime output of fiction and nonfiction are a library larger than Thomas Jefferson's -- and more wide-ranging.

But this is not just a collection of quotes. Most of the book consists of Segal's comments on the quotes. And here's where I get a little sad. These quotes are potentially quite deep and wise, as well as (often) funny.

Segal's commentary, however, rarely plumbs the depths of their possibilities. On the contrary, he frequently trivializes them. As if, instead of exploring the philosophy of the quotes, he's commenting on them to friends at a party.

Maybe I have smarter friends than his, but I can't imagine starting with all this great material and getting no better conversation out of it than Segal's.

So is the book worth buying?

It depends on what $14.95 means to you. For me, the collection of quotations is worth the price, even if I regard the commentary as pretty much worthless.

I intend to use the book just as described: Drop the quotation into a conversation and then see where my much-smarter-than-Segal friends take it.

For instance, from the movie Labyrinth: "I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave."

Or, from Henri Poincaré, "To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the need for thought."

"I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit" -- from Alien, a bit of advice, which, if followed, would have made the movie and its sequels entirely unnecessary.

"To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not answer them: This skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness" -- Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness.

But if I go on and quote all the best bits, I'll take all the fun out of browsing through the book in the bookstore.


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