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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 19, 2012

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


Tintin, Smoke, Drop, Flipout, Brioche

I don't really have much to say about Tintin. It's full of adventure and the animation is wonderful. But it's empty at the core -- none of the characters is particularly interesting.

Live action movies can sometimes coast on the actors' charm, but in animation, charm is harder to bring off. I must say that Tintin has a kind of boyish appeal, while Andy Serkis is splendid as the ship captain. And the art is so good you really do forget these aren't live actors.

But in the end, it's easy to enjoy, and just as easy to forget. Children are more generous, and may invest more emotion in it than it deserves. As a family DVD, it may well have a long and happy viewing life in many a home.

But when animation is capable of real greatness, as with Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon or The Iron Giant or Miyazaki's best work, it's hard to think that Tintin's technical and artistic excellence is enough.

Ya gotta have heart.

*

I'm not much of a punk fan. No matter what prefix you put on it, the whole anti-establishment punk thing seems kind of immature to me, especially in fiction, and especially when the picture of the writer on the book jacket makes it look as if she aspires to punkitude ... and fails.

So let's just say that I approached Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor with a bit of a jaundiced eye. So it's all the more remarkable that the story picked me up and dragged me right through to the end.

The heroine is a young art student, Karou, who was raised by the devil. Well, someone quite devil-like, anyway. She is sent out on errands, passing through portals that take her all over the world, with the assignment of picking up teeth.

Yes, teeth, to be used for magical purposes she doesn't understand. She cares a great deal more about her art. Until she meets an angel -- wings and all, a warrior seraph -- who falls in love with her (and vice-versa), even though he seems to be in the business of destroying everything and everyone she has ever loved.

Forget the endless vampire series coasting on Twilight's success. This is an original.

It's smart, funny, moving, inventive. I only bought it because it was recommended to me by a bookseller in Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in Redondo Beach, California. I'm glad I trusted the recommendation.

*

Do I really need to tell you how good Michael Connelly is? Connelly is a journalist, and a good one. That means he has an eye to credibility and he can write.

So his murder mysteries pack a wallop -- you read them not just for pleasure, like, say, an episode of Castle, but because you'll be a little wiser about the world you live in.

Connelly's newest Harry Bosch novel, The Drop, is no exception. It begins with an absolutely devastating chapter about a young man who gets in over his head with gambling. But after this unforgettable beginning it takes three-fourths of the book before we learn how his death connects with the rest of the story.

In fact, the mystery Bosch is pursuing seems to be a locked-room puzzle. Meanwhile, there's what seems to be a side story about a woman who is weary of hearing about how her friends' marriages are all in trouble -- only to realize that not all is rosy in her own home. This one, too, turns out to be intimately connected.

Then we have the 1989 rape-and-murder case in which a DNA test matches the crime to a perpetrator who has already been convicted of another rape; the only problem is that in 1989, he was only eight years old.

I listened to it as read by the incomparable Len Cariou. I kept finding reasons to keep exercising or running errands or puttering in the yard, iPod Nano playing Cariou's voice into my ears, just so I could keep on living inside this story.

*

Games that come as Christmas gifts from my brother Russ are always a joy -- because apparently his taste in games and mine overlap almost perfectly.

This Christmas we were delighted to get two, both of which are lots of fun. Say Anything is a who-cares-if-somebody-wins party game full of questions that you can't answer wrong.

Let me just give you an example from the back of the box. You draw a card that has three questions, beginning always with the phrase: "In My Opinion ..."

Which celebrity would make the worst babysitter?

What would make long car rides more fun?

Where's the best place to have a birthday party?

Depending on the group you're playing with -- adults? college students? teenagers? the whole family? -- you'll get a different group of answers. The back-of-the-box selection to the middle question, about long car rides, offers these choices: "Driving 200 mph," "a flying car," "sitting in front," "internet access," and "a stretch limo with a hot tub."

The person who drew the card chooses which answer is his favorite. Then everybody else guesses which one he picked -- which one is closest to his opinion. Eventually somebody wins. What matters is the fun you have along the way.

Every card gives you choices: "What would be the best job to have?" "What's the funniest TV show?" "What would be the scariest insect to find inside my closet?" Then, on the flip side: "What section of the grocery store is the most fun to walk through?" "Which TV character would I least want to be?" "How does Santa get around so quickly?"

Come on, you instantly thought of answers to all the questions, didn't you? That's why games like this work -- you're not trying to guess the right answer, you're coming up with the games real content yourselves.

That's a talking, chatting party game. Flipout is a very different thing -- a card-based strategy game.

The cards are like nothing I've seen before: They are all backs, no fronts. That is, it looks as if you have cards from five different decks, with different designs for the back that, quite frankly, look nauseating together.

The trouble is, when you flip them over, there's another back -- sometimes from the same deck, but usually from a different one.

The players all have arc-shaped display racks. You set the cards up so you can see one side of the cards, and the other players all see the other side. You don't know what they can see; they don't know what you can see.

On your turn, you can change the positions of cards on your rack -- or on someone else's. You can also trade a card with another player, or between two other players.

You don't know what you're doing to the side of the cards the other player can see -- you only know what you're doing to the side you can see. On each turn, you can do two things.

So if your swap or shift puts four or more cards from the same deck in a row, you can grab them all and put them on the table in front of you to keep. When the game ends, the player who has snagged the most cards wins.

It sounds simple, but with other players constantly changing your cards, you have to constantly re-process your plans in order to adapt to the new situation. Lots of fun and lots of replayability.

It's not the party game Say Anything is -- but it's a good mix of strategy and luck, and even young players (age 8 and older) can compete.

I recommend both of them highly.

*

Downton Abbey is back -- a smart British TV series about life in a manor house during World War I. Two years have passed since the end of the first season; the war is in full swing.

You keep expecting characters you really like to die; meanwhile, you enjoy the delightful way that people make stupid or mean or honorable or stupidly honorable decisions and then have to live with the consequences.

There's nobility and pathos and evil and foolishness, and through it all, Julian Fellowes shows us what a brilliant chronicler of the class distinctions of English society he is. Not to mention a very witty writer.

It's on Masterpiece Theater on PBS. Even if you haven't seen the first series, this one is a pleasure.

Then again, it'll also be great fun to spend a few nights catching up by watching the first season, easily available on DVD, so you have no trouble keeping up with the new season.

*

Is Charlotte local? It's the biggest city in North Carolina (or, as some say, the biggest in South Carolina, hanging out as it does right on the border), and more than a few of us who live in Greensboro find ourselves down there for business.

I, for one, spent a week there during my first residency in the Queens University MFA program. Naturally, spending a week in Charlotte means I have something to say about restaurants.

Let me start with the food that Chartwell's provides on the Queens University campus.

That's right, I'm reviewing a university's food service.

What can I say? It's superb -- amazingly good at low student-affordable prices. The cafeteria sandwiches and pizza and salad bar are wonderful. They had a prepacked ham-and-cheese-on-brioche sandwich that was shockingly good. Even the hors d'oeuvres at the reception on the first night were worth going back for seconds.

But let's face it -- you aren't going to try to park near campus just to stop in for lunch. And besides, I was staying at the Marriott South Park, which put me in close proximity to a lot of restaurants.

In fact, I was in walking distance. Sidewalks everywhere. Safe to walk from the hotel to a Barnes & Noble, to a large shopping mall, to some fine restaurants and also some cheap and middle-sized ones.

Dennis Dougherty of Zee Medical here in Greensboro recommended that I stop by Cowfish, a restaurant that, weirdly enough, combines sushi and burgers. He swore it was wonderful.

I tried to go. But on my schedule, I simply didn't have time to wait an hour or more for a table -- because apparently the entire city of Charlottes shares Dennis's high opinion of the place! I still have to take it on faith -- I'll make it a point to stop there when I'm just passing through Charlotte and don't have to prepare for class the next day.

However, the fact that Cowfish was packed led me to a happy discovery: Zink American Kitchen.

There it was, practically next door to Cowfish. The menu looked ambitious and interesting -- "American kitchen," as a culinary concept, is very California. And they had room for me without waiting.

To my delight, the quality lives up to the menu and then some. Since it changes day to day, I can hardly tell you any useful information except to say that it is surprising, inventive, and delicious, with gorgeous presentation and excellent service.

That was Tuesday night. On Wednesday, the students and faculty in the MFA program had a banquet together and only then did I realize it was being held at ... Zink American Kitchen.

So back I went, to find that while the selection was more limited than the full menu, there were still choices -- all of them good. And they handled a banquet for a hundred with just as much quality and service as they showed with my dinner for one.

Here's the kicker: Zink American Kitchen is owned by the same folks who run Harper's here in Greensboro.

Why haven't I ever eaten at Harper's? I don't know. As the manager at Zink said, Harper's is more casual; but if the attention to quality is as high as at Zink, I really owe it to myself to try it. If I like it, I'll tell you about it here.

Meanwhile, if you find yourself in Charlotte, hungry for something good and unusual, maybe you can get a table at Cowfish -- but if you can't, or if you know starting out that it's topflight California cuisine you're looking for, you can hardly do better than Zink American Kitchen.

They're both at the corner of Sharon and Morrison, in the satellite of Southpark Mall that includes Crate and Barrel.

The MFA program kept me so busy I did not get a chance to try any other restaurants -- I was surviving on Planter's Nut-ritious nut packs. But when I commented to a fellow student who was also a Charlotte native that I was delighted with the ham-on-brioche sandwich from the lunch room, she told me about ... ta-da! ... Amelie's French Bakery.

It's a good thing I had GPS on my Blackberry, because this is a tough place to find. It's in the NoDa district -- a depressed-looking part of town where artist types are living because it's cheap.

Amelie's is likely to wreck all that, because it's going to bring in, well, people like me. Tourists, foodies, out-of-towners, upscale customers.

Amelie's is the real thing. Tarts, eclairs, cream puffs, cream cheese puffs, real European-style hot chocolate (i.e., not oversweetend) -- everything to make a true foodie's heart go pit-a-pat. (Or pit-a-pit-a-pitapat-pat-pat, if you have high blood pressure already.)

The piece de resistance? Loaves of fresh brioche bread.

Brioche. If you've never had this half-caky, half-glutenous bread, then you won't know what I'm talking about, but this is the bread that all other breads wish they could have been instead.

I bought a couple of loaves and brought them home because I love my wife. A loaf of cinnamon bread for toasting and buttering; a loaf of plain brioche for making sandwiches with Laughing Cow cheese or just eating plain.

I lived on brioche during our summer in Provence back in 1996 -- has it really been more than fifteen years? That summer completely changed our eating habits; I lost twenty-five pounds just by walking a lot and eating fresh food with the finest ingredients. You know, the kind of diet that French people take for granted.

I ate constantly and lost weight because this stuff is so grand it makes you healthy against your will and against your heredity -- or at least that's how it felt.

And for me, the center of it all was brioche. It's almost impossible to find in America because it's so time consuming to bake it.

Yet there it is, made fresh day after day at Amelie's French Bakery on North Davidson in Charlotte. Only a little way off I-85.

So yes. I'll get down to Charlotte to try Cowfish and to introduce my family to Zink's. But the real reason for my trip will be Amelie's. It will be the brioche.

Other people buy tickets to ball games when they want a special occasion. Or take camping trips or go to Busch Gardens.

Me? I follow my heart to a bakery that serves brioche. It's who I am.


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