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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 9, 2012

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


Joe Name It, Good Snacks, Good Books

To the impatient driver behind me as I prepared to "merge" onto Lawndale southbound from Cone:

Yes, sir, I know that there's a yield sign, not a stop sign, at the bottom of the ramp. So to you, it looked like I was one of those idiots who doesn't know how to merge. That's why you honked. Repeatedly.

But you see, I've been using that intersection for years, and it must have been your first time. That's why you didn't know that this is one of those intersections that should have gotten somebody fired, either for designing the road the way it is, or for putting a yield sign at the bottom of the ramp.

First, perhaps you'll notice that there's no merge lane. So you have to pull directly from the ramp into a driving lane in order to "merge."

Second, because you're coming down a steep ramp, you have no view of the fast oncoming traffic until you reach that spot where I was waiting.

Third, whether you use your rear view mirror or crane your neck at a difficult angle to see the oncoming traffic, you still can't see if there are any cars in the dip beyond the overpass. A car going fifty -- not at all unusual on that stretch of Lawndale -- can be entirely hidden in that declivity, only to pop up at a high speed just as you're pulling into the intersection.

If no one has been killed at that intersection, it's because drivers like me come to a full stop, regardless of what the sign says, and then wait -- incurring the wrath of impatient drivers like you -- until we can be sure there is no oncoming car hidden in the dip beyond the overpass.

Sorry I cost you a whole eight seconds. And raised your blood pressure. But at least honking your horn and then making flamboyant gestures at me gave you a little exercise.

*

There aren't many trivia games that are worth a dime, compared to Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy. That's because most of them have badly written questions. TP and Jeopardy questions are carefully written to be guessable.

For instance, if there were a trivia question about one of my more obscure books, the usual bad question would be like this: "Which character in Xenocide thinks her obsessive-compulsive disorder is a way of communicating with the gods?" Or: "What form did Li Qing-jao's obsessive-compulsive disorder take in Xenocide?"

Only a few deeply obsessed fans are going to be able to come up with either answer.

But the Trivial Pursuit writers would instead give you the obscure information and have you guess the easier part. "Li Qing-jao obsessively traced wood grain lines in Xenocide, the sequel to which Orson Scott Card novel?" -- and then either Ender's Game or Speaker for the Dead would be the answer.

Even if the player has never read anything of mine, if they recognize my name at all they can probably guess Ender's Game.

Apparently this technique is either not known to the creators of most other trivia games, or they simply don't have the skill to bring it off. So as a general rule, new trivia games aren't as fun for ordinary people to play.

That's why I was delighted to get the trivia game Joe Name It for Christmas.

There's no game board. There's only a single box of question cards, smaller than the cards from a Trivial Pursuit game, and one six-sided die. That's it.

Doesn't that mean that you'll start repeating questions after just a few games?

Yep. But it's not a problem, because all the questions include a number, which changes depending on the roll of that die, making it harder or easier, randomly, each time you play.

If the header on the card says "Any Joe," then any player can guess. "Just Joe" can only be guessed by the player who drew the card.

An "Any Joe" question is going to be like this: "Name a planet that's _____ away from Earth," or: "Name a television family with _____ kids." The first person who can come up with an answer gets the card.

A "Just Joe" question will usually require the player to come up with a list: "Name _____ stop-motion animated movie(s)," or: "Name _____ William Shatner role(s)."

Most people can name two or three Shatner roles; most people can name a planet that's one or two away from Earth. A planet six away from Earth will start an argument: Is Pluto a planet or not?

And six William Shatner roles? Probably not without going onto the Web and looking him up on IMDB.

What's fun is that every now and then someone is able to come up with "Buck Murdock, in Airplane II: The Sequel," or "General Mortars, in Loaded Weapon 1."

The point is that the game is fun, over and over. Some questions become impossible -- but only because of the roll of the die, not because they're badly written.

"Name a group that recorded exactly _____ album(s)." You couldn't put that question in any other trivia game, if only because, depending on the number, there might be dozens of correct answers.

But Joe Name It cheats: They don't include the answers. If somebody disputes the correctness of the answer, the rules say, "pull out your portable internet-capable device and look it up."

And if a question is impossible ("Name something with exactly __5__ eyes"), the first player to say, "No Joe!" gets the card.

First player to get ten cards wins the game. Simple. Fun. Highly recommended.

*

As I get older, I keep losing favorite snacks.

Not because I forget where I put them. But because I have to watch my health more carefully, or because I develop new allergies.

About a year ago, I started getting bouts of terrible itching in various uncomfortable places, and it took several months to isolate the cause: I had become allergic to peanuts.

I love peanuts. I love peanut butter. But I hate those days of unbearable itching a lot more than I love peanut products.

Only when you're allergic to peanuts to you realize just how pervasive they are. It's not enough to snack on cashews or almonds instead of peanuts -- you have to make sure they weren't cooked in peanut oil.

And if the jar says that a product may have been cooked in peanut oil, count on it -- it was.

(However, for me, at least, the warning "this product was prepared on equipment that also processes peanuts" does not rule it out. So far.)

You'd be surprised how many non-peanut products contain peanut oil -- especially other kinds of nuts. I was disappointed (and itched badly because I didn't notice it at first) to discover that Planters "NUT-rition" line has peanut oil even in the mixes that don't contain peanuts.

So here's the good news: Back To Nature's Cashew, Almond, & Pistachio Mix contains no peanuts or peanut oil -- it contains no added oils at all.

They're delicious. They're good for you (these are the three healthiest nuts).

The trouble is, Back to Nature products aren't carried in every store. So here's more good news: Not only can you buy them on Amazon, you can subscribe to them.

No joke. I've now subscribed to get three ten-ounce packages every two months. I may up the frequency once I see how fast I run out, but I don't have to go in search of these excellent, healthy snack nuts -- they come to me as regularly as magazines.

Other good nutty snacks I found in a grocery store in Los Angeles are the strange and wonderful varieties from Sahale. You do have to be careful -- some of the Sahale blends have peanuts. But some don't.

For instance, Sahale Southwest Cashews are cooked in soybean oil -- still not the best for you, but not peanut oil! Really spicy and delicious. I also love the Tuscan Almonds.

Alas, some of the snack packs contain dried fruit, which I loathe without exception, and some do contain peanuts -- but if you don't have my allergies or aversions, I bet they're terrific, too.

If Sahale snacks aren't available in a store you visit, you can find them online at Amazon.com or at LuckyVitamin.com. To check on ingredients, visit Sahale's own website, SahaleSnacks.com.

*

I became a fan of flatbread the first time I ate at a restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, that served it. Ever since, I've been on the watch for commercially available flatbreads that were as good.

The trouble is that most packed flatbreads aren't as good as regular saltine crackers, and most of them also crumble badly in the shipping process.

Much of the pleasure of flatbread is to break it yourself -- not to have to get it up off the serving plate with a whisk broom.

So I am pleased to announce that for the first time outside a restaurant, I have found flatbreads that are not just good, not just "better than saltines," but excellent and well-packaged.

And Fresh Market carries them. So we who live in Greensboro can get them whenever we want.

Stonewall Kitchen makes an amazing line of flatbreads and crackers -- and you can buy from their full selection at their website.

I've tried only the ones that Fresh Market had in stock, but they were all great, in my opinion. My wife liked the Parmesan Flatbread Crisps as much as I did; I'm afraid I was alone with the Sweet Onion Flatbread Crisps. They also make an Everything flavor.

Their cracker selection is also amazing, from simple Sea Salt and Simply White crackers to Olive Oil, Asiago Cheese, Roasted Garlic, Blue Cheese Sesame Seed, or Rosemary Parmesan crackers.

Their website has a lot of other selections. I just ordered some of their mustards -- I've been in search of a great mustard ever since Duck Puddle Farm stopped making their best-in-the-world sweet/hot mustard. So if Stonewall Kitchen is as good at mustard as they are at flatbreads and crackers, I'll let you know.

And while I was in Fresh Market, I picked up Sesmark's Ancient Grains all natural snack crackers.

Often when there's an ideological bent to the marketing of a food product, you get more theory than flavor. But these are an exception. Made with amaranth, millet, sorghum, and quinoa -- and therefore completely gluten free -- they are hearty and delicious. They are also compulsively eatable. I went through an entire box while watching Downton Abbey a few days ago. Nuff said.

*

Now let's completely forget about healthy snacking and head for the chocolate.

Specifically, Jules Destrooper Rice Crisp Crunch, which I picked up at Fresh Market. (WalMart also carries some Jules Destrooper products -- but these aren't listed among them.)

This product is so new that the Jules Destrooper website doesn't even mention them.

Officially, they're in the cookie category ("biscuit" if you're from Europe). But somewhere between Belgium and here, the concept of cookie and candy bar got smooshed together.

Because what you actually get with these Rice Crisp Crunch "biscuits" is a bunch of little candy bars that are of the same type as Nestle's Crunch, but ten times better.

Each box contains both dark and light chocolate varieties. Buy two, because you'll hardly notice that any time has passed before the first box is empty.

Oh, wait. Fresh Market will have to restock at the Lawndale location before you can find anybody, because somebody came in and bought every last box of them.

*

I've got to admit that when friends (or strangers) send me links to online videos, I usually ignore them. Time is short, and I don't usually have the patience to turn off the music I'm listening to, only to watch some grainy video with a cute child, cat, or sports accident in it.

But there are certain people who only send me videos worth watching, and that's how I found this video about villagers in a flood-prone (and absolutely gorgeous) location who create bridges that outlast the floods ... because they're made from living trees.

That's right, they train the trees to grow in an interweaving pattern that forms a bridge across the streams. Woven together like that, and deeply rooted in the soil, these bridges are never washed away.

At the end of the video, there's a little sermonette about how we should all be like these resourceful people. It conjures up images of growing our own airplanes out of genetically altered bats or something -- red-eye flights only.

Or cellphones made of dandelion fluff. I mean, there aren't many opportunities to create things we actually need out of natural, living things that aren't killed in the process.

But the sermonette from the Church of Environmentalism doesn't detract from the beauty and grace and wonder of these bridges. Do watch the video, if only for the scenery and the structure.

*

I met Jack McDevitt more than twenty years ago. He was still a young whippersnapper starting out as a sci-fi writer. But then, so was I.

Haven't talked to him since, but a few weeks ago Audible.com had one of his novels on special, and I thought, Let's see what Jack's been doing.

You have to understand that I don't read much science fiction these days. I used to read and review so much of it that I burned out. I'd be three pages in and think, "Oh, it's one of these, and he's using this device instead of that one." In other words, I was like a tailor who can only see the stitching. It wasn't a pleasure to read it anymore.

So when I do enjoy a science fiction novel these days, it's kind of a big deal.

McDevitt's sci-fi mystery series about Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath was a delight from first to last -- because, of course, it took only one novel for me to be hooked and read them all.

In fact, I happened to begin with the weakest of the novels, The Devil's Eye, and it was good enough that I kept on going, only to find that all the others were even better.

The heroes are Alex Benedict, a dealer in antiquities who has more in common with Heinrich Schliemann or Indiana Jones or Thor Heyerdahl than with your garden-variety archaeologist or antiques dealer.

And since the novels take place thousands of years from now, in an era when humans have settled on many worlds and travel between them in faster-than-light vehicles, the concept of "antiquity" means that Benedict is exploring a past that to us is still a far-distant future.

The formula McDevitt has created is an intriguing one. Benedict becomes involved in a search for something ancient, but someone wants him not to find it -- or wants to find it first. Almost always, these are artifacts that people know about but lost, and Benedict has to figure out where they might have gone.

He has enemies who think of him as something between a grave robber and an anti-scientist. He also has customers who pay a lot of money for ancient objects -- as long as he can prove they're genuine.

Along the way, Benedict and his pilot-and-sole-employee, an annoyingly beautiful woman named Chase Kolpath, constantly find themselves the targets of would-be assassins. (But this is a convention of the mystery genre, and it's never as preposterous as, say, Patricia Cornwell's Kate Scarpetta series, in which bad guys are always wanting to murder the Virginia state medical examiner. Oh, yeah, right.)

This is a somewhat old-fashioned kind of science fiction, but that's a plus. It's straightforward, clear storytelling, and McDevitt trusts his storytelling skills enough that he doesn't resort to the semi-porn and rough language that become the crutch of many less-confident writers.

The first novel, A Talent for War, is the only one that is not narrated by Chase Kolpath, for the very good reason that it is in this novel that she and Alex first meet. From then on, however, Chase is the Watson to Alex's Holmes, and the combination works charmingly.

I listened to all of them on audiobooks I downloaded from Audible.com, but they're also available in print at Barnes & Noble and other fine bookstores.

If you want to read them in order, this is the list: A Talent for War, Polaris, Seeker, The Devil's Eye, Echo, and Firebird. My favorites are the first and the last, but they were all very good reads and handled the mystery and the science with intelligence. Isn't it nice to find pleasurable books that don't make you dumber for having read them?

*

I picked up Ilona Andrews's novel On the Edge, the first book in a fantasy-romance series, from Audible in the same promotion that led me to Jack McDevitt's books.

The problem with fantasy-romance is that it suffers from the same semi-porn disease that has so grossly polluted the romance genre.

The great romance writers didn't have to have explicit sex scenes -- which are usually ridiculous and time-wasting when they occur, unless pornography is your purpose in reading.

Andrews has a really interesting magical world to work with: The Edge is a region between "the Weird" -- fairyland, basically -- and "The Broken," which is us. You know, WalMart, McDonald's, and high school.

The people living in the Edge have varying degrees of magical ability, but they generally have to make their living in the Broken, where magic doesn't work and where people without social security numbers have a hard time getting good jobs. They're all illegal aliens, basically.

Rose Drayton's parents are dead or gone, and she's working as a janitor to put bread on the table for her two younger brothers. All three of them are magically talented -- in fact, Rose is so gifted that she has been the target of occasional marriage offers and kidnapping attempts, as people want to get her genes into their family, preferably without actually marrying her.

It's a plausible reason for the heroine to be the object of a lot of loveless "romantic" interest. And the family dynamics are well-handled and make the characters quite sympathetic.

Into their more-or-less stable world come three new things. A guy named William, in the Broken, who befriends the boys and seems interested in Rose, though she just doesn't "feel that way" about him; Declan a "blue-blood" from the Weird, a magical warrior lord who she assumes is out to kidnap her for her magical power; and a series of terrible monsters who attack her and her brothers because of their unusual magic abilities.

This could have been a splendid book, and it almost is. But the tropes and formulas of romance intrude in a very counterproductive way, making the love story feel silly every time it interrupts the forward movement of the character and adventure stories.

The obligatory sex scene, when it comes (and thank heaven there's only the one), is hilarious -- it's right on the eve of the big battle, and if it were playing in a movie theater all the guys would hoot and laugh and throw popcorn, because it's so ludicrous that they'd pick this moment to hump like bunnies.

But their romance-loving girlfriends and wives would shush them and sigh, as long as George Clooney were playing Lord Declan.

The fantasy and character stories are fresh and interesting and unpredictable; the romance story is straight formula, as perfunctory as a flight attendant's safety instructions.

So here's the thing: I listened to Renée Raudman's excellent reading of the entire book, skipping nothing. I fast-forwarded through the sex scene -- I've been married since 1977; this scene had nothing to tell me, it's only there for really young or lonely people -- and the result was that I got a pretty good book for my pains.

If you love romance-porn novels, this one's awfully light on the porn. If you like formulaic girl-hates-boy, girl-falls-in-love-with-boy romance, then this one has it all. If you'd rather have a good story of magic impinging on the real world, with interesting characters and a magic system you haven't seen before, then On The Edge has that, too.

What can I say? I enjoyed it, I finished it, I didn't regret the time spent.


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