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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 15, 2012

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


John Carter, Cowfish, Lights

Back in 1975, when I was working as a proofreader at BYU Press, one of my most interesting assignments was to create the index for Irwin Porges's biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of Tarzan of the Apes and the John Carter of Mars series

Nobody reads a text more closely than the indexer, which meant that for a few days I was immersed in the life of a professional writer who had created an enduring classic character and became quite wealthy from his dozens of novels -- all without any discernible talent.

No, that's cruel. Tarzan is almost unreadable today, but not because Burroughs was any worse than most pulp writers of his time. As always, the style of commercial writers is a generation or two behind the writing of the cutting edge of the literary elite.

The elite of Burroughs's time, of course, was in the process of destroying literature -- this was the era of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, when writing began to be about the writer instead of a subject matter, when writing became a conversation among too-cool-for-the-rest-of-us litterateurs instead of an effort to communicate with the public at large.

So it's just as well that Burroughs wasn't au courant. Still, even if you compare him to florid over-writers like Lew Wallace (Ben-Hur) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom's Cabin), he was over the top -- and to little effect.

Yet he created a character and situation that captured the hearts and minds of his generation and every generation since.

Here's the great secret of literature: No matter how good a writer is, both language and fashion change over time, and what was once a vivid part of the culture becomes a footnote in literary history.

The stories and characters that endure do so for reasons having almost nothing to do with the talent of the writer.

After all, the greatest stories are translated into other languages and they still work. Even when the language of the original storyteller is replaced by someone else's prose, the story as it unfolds has power for readers in other places and other times.

In most creative writing programs, teachers lamely attempt to teach the unteachable -- style -- even though this is precisely the aspect of the storyteller's art that is not translatable and will not last. (Even Shakespeare we do not hear as his contemporaries did, because we are not native speakers of that language.)

Burroughs created at least one story, one character, that became the foundation of a long career as one of the most popular writers in the world -- all without any particular ability to write.

Only when he stopped writing entirely, and began to dictate his fiction into a recording device for someone else to transcribe, did he begin to reveal his natural style -- which showed him to be an engaging storyteller and something of a stylist after all.

Successful as Burroughs was, it is ironic that Tarzan was so very popular and enduring that relatively few people have any idea that he wrote other series that were as popular as the Tarzan books. For that matter, not many people remember that there were many Tarzan novels, they way many people overlook the sequels to The Wizard of Oz.

In Burroughs's case, it is possible that his best and most inventive storytelling were in the John Carter of Mars series. Begun before the term "science fiction" even existed, this story of an American who inadvertently got transported to Mars, where he had amazing physical powers, captured the imaginations of many thousands of readers.

The science was silly -- it wasn't until the 1940s and 1950s that scientific accuracy became a serious component of science fiction. But it didn't matter that Burroughs had a Mars that was inhabited by more than one intelligent species; it also didn't matter that many of them were human.

Tarzan has been filmed over and over (my favorite being Greystoke), but the John Carter stories not so much.

Now we have a good-natured movie based on the second John Carter novel, A Princess of Mars, under the title John Carter. The writers (Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon, and director Andrew Stanton) do a pretty good job of keeping the flavor of the John Carter stories, the "sense of wonder" that made sci-fi work in those early days.

One might wish that they had de-camped some of the dialogue -- there were stretches of dialogue so deeply overwrought that my wife and daughter and I laughed, and I found myself muttering, "Moses, Moses," in memory of the dreadful dialogue in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments.

What matters, though, is that the actors played their parts in earnest. There's no sense of embarrassment, of awareness that they're in a very expensive B movie, and that's why it mostly works. They may be in the midst of a very silly story, but their earnestness makes it work.

Not brilliantly, alas. Unlike Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which turned a very campy series on its head and made a fine, fine movie, John Carter is not a great movie or even a particularly good one.

But it isn't bad, either. It's fun to watch.

Mistakes? There were some. The frame story of Edgar Rice Burroughs -- moved out of his actual lifetime and made the nephew of John Carter -- is unnecessary and distracting, but I know why the writers resorted to it and it does no harm.

The worst mistakes are in the utterly formulaic structure of the film. They left no storytelling cliche unturned -- again, provoking a bit of laughter in our family. But these cliches became cliches because they usually work, as they mostly do here.

Unfortunately, one of the cliches they use is the obnoxious hero -- the hero who doesn't want to be a hero. This is carried to such absurd excess that I wanted to sit down with the writers and ask, "Do you actually know any living human being who acts like that? And if you do, do you actually like him? I didn't think so. So why do you think that such a repulsive person would be a suitable hero for a two-hour story?"

John Carter also does some things right. The aliens that John Carter meets first, for instance, are not the pathetically cute anthropomorphized twits of Avatar, nor are they treated with the offensive condescension that was shown to Jar-Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels.

Instead, they are made sufficiently non-human to be alien, and yet sufficiently comprehensible for us to care about them. In my opinion they were the best thing about the movie.

Will you go back and see John Carter twice? I can't think why you would. But it's worth going to see it once, not for great art, but because you wanted to go to the movies and it was on.

In our time, when filthy unfunny comedies seem to be the only kind they make, and most adventure movies are Die Hard over and over again, and the studios would rather make a sequel than anything with a spark of originality, John Carter is actually above average.

Most weekends, when I want to go to a movie my wife and daughter and I look at what's on offer and decide to stay home and watch a DVD or play a game. John Carter was worth getting out of the house to watch it.

*

A friend told me that when I went to Charlotte for my week of residency in the Queens University program I'm enrolled in, I should top and eat at a restaurant called Cowfish, at South Park mall.

The name is exactly apt: It's a "sushi burger bar." Fishes and cows, get it?

Sushi and hamburgers? Who decided to put those together?

I tried to go there twice during my residency, but by the time I was out of class there was always a wait of at least an hour to get a table. Instead, I went next door to Zink American Kitchen -- and that was the better choice. If I lived in Charlotte, I suspect I would go to Zink far more often than to Cowfish.

But that's mostly because of the "bar" part of the Cowfish concept. It has a T.G.I.Friday's atmosphere -- loud and "fun" in an extroverted way that doesn't suit me all that well.

The food, however, is excellent. The sushi is every bit as good as the sushi at Fuji Sushi (on Pisgah Church at Elm in Greensboro) -- but not a bit better. So if my wife and I had driven the hour-and-a-half to Charlotte just for the sushi, we would have felt let down.

The hamburgers, on the other hand, really are superb. Whether you want sushi or not, there's simply no hamburger in Greensboro as good as the one I ate at Cowfish.

Oddly enough, they make little effort to combine the Japanese and the American fare. My burger was improved by putting wasabi and ginger on it -- but that was my idea, not anything on the menu. Still, most burger places don't have ginger or wasabi so you don't even have the option.

But my wife doesn't eat hamburger. Period. So my dining at Cowfish will likely be during future residency weeks, when I'm there alone -- even if I have to cut class to get a table.

I've lived in North Carolina for 29 years now, and while I've found excellent reasons to visit Raleigh, Asheville, Asheboro, the coastal cities, and even Fayetteville, I just haven't found much reason to go to Charlotte. Whenever I do, I find that I hate the traffic and simply don't have any wish to repeat the experience. What does Charlotte have that isn't everywhere else?

Until now. Because there are places in Charlotte that are worth the pain of driving around. It's not just the pleasing architecture in the area around Queens University. What makes Charlotte a pleasure to spend time in is what makes any city a pleasure to visit: The things that aren't available in every other city.

I've already written about Amelie French Bakery -- which my wife and I learned only has brioche on weekends. But their spreadable cheese selection made the trip worthwhile. If I lived in Charlotte I'd be there every week.

And near South Park, just across the parking lot from the Barnes & Noble, my wife and I found the perfect story for grandparents of little kids: Shower Me With Love (Corner of Colony and Sharon Rd., 532 Governor Morrison Street; www.ShowerMeWithLove.com ).

It has the best collection of charming, durable, comfortable clothing for children from babies on up, plus a lot of other delightful offerings, including really first-rate baby furniture.

It's worth the drive if you're looking for children's clothes and gifts that are better than the big-box store offerings. The website is still apparently under construction -- lots of items don't have pictures, and under clothing there is nothing remotely like the selection in the store. I guess you'll just have to go in person, for the time being!

*

I carry a flashlight on my keychain. It keeps me sane in restaurants where the combination of low light levels and tiny or overly fancy type make it impossible to read the menu.

I also need the flashlight when I'm out in a rural, unlighted area and need to find my way back to my car.

When I exercise, I carry a housekey on a wristband, and keep an LED flashlight attached to that as well -- for those times when my run takes me into dusk or darkness and I need to blink a light to make me visible to oncoming cars.

The trouble is, good keychain flashlights are hard to find. Yes, they all use LEDs and they all officially last forever -- in fact, they usually outlast the cheesy little fittings that attach them to the keyring.

When those fittings break, it's not a keychain light any more, even if it still gives off light.

At Lowe's I found a nice stock of keychain lights made by Energizer and I bought a bunch of them -- only to discover that, being made of good quality metal, they're so heavy they stretch out the elastic on my exercise keyring holders.

You also have to squeeze them continuously. There's no on-off switch, just squeeze=on, let go=off.

In other words, useless to me (though they certainly cast a bright light).

Then I found the consummate keychain-LED-flashlight store online: Photon Lights ( www.PhotonLight.com. )

They make high-quality LED lights, but made of plastic so they are definitely not heavy.

They have lights that are full of options. Squeeze them and they turn on and stay on; squeeze again, and they go off. But squeeze and hold, and they either fade on slowly or dim slowly so you can set them to the brightness you want.

The Photon Freedom model comes with a little clip attachment, so you have the option of attaching it to your clothing.

Some models (including the Freedom) even have a blinker feature -- you can set them to pulse, so that when you're a pedestrian or runner at night in our sidewalk-poor city you have a chance of being noticed by drivers.

They have a model with a tiny plastic cowl around the lamp, so it only shines forward -- perfect for reading a program in a darkened theater without annoying the other audience members with the splash from you light.

Some models have a simple on-off switch, others work by squeeze alone -- but none of them will accidentally go on in your pocket or purse, running down the battery while illuminating nothing.

Talk about specialization: They have lights that emit infrared or ultraviolet light, so you can scan currency to check for counterfeit bills or check for fluorescent hand stamps -- or for finding scorpions.

Did you know that UV light causes them to fluoresce in the dark? If you're in the desert, you definitely want to scan your shoes before you put your feet in them. But who knew they made LED flashlights for that?

The PhotonLight store also sells Leatherman and Spyderco keychain knives -- some of which are bundled in sets with keychain flashlights. Of course, you won't be allowed to carry these on the airplane with you, but then, I don't take my keys with me when I fly.

The Spyderco "Ladybug" knife I got bundled with the dazzlingly bright Photon II is sharp, and the design is superb. You have to be careful not to cut yourself, but the mechanism is smooth and sturdy -- it stays open when you need it to, but folds closed easily when you're done.

Seriously -- you can use it as a tool, or use it for self-defense or cutting your bonds if you find yourself trapped in a television adventure show.

The Leatherman Freestyle knife, also bundled with a Photon II, is a multi-tool pocket knife. It's so small that it's hard to close the knife blade without stabbing yourself; but the tiny nailfile/screwdriver and the teeny-weeny scissors work superbly.

I'd be getting these for everybody I know for Christmas (stocking stuffers, anyone?) if it weren't for the fact that my kids already ridicule me for my devotion to finding good small flashlights.

But light is important -- and I try always to have the capability of illuminating my path in the darkness. So instead of giving them to my kids, I'm telling you about them.

*

There are books and shows that I enjoy that I really can't recommend to the general audience.

For instance, Simon Doonan's book Gay Men Don't Get Fat isn't for everyone.

Doonan is the kind of flamboyantly gay celebrity who is proud of having been rated as even gayer than Harvey Fierstein.

Doonan is relentlessly, hilariously chauvinistic about his gayness, with something cleverly nasty to say about anyone and everyone -- including himself.

So I enjoyed every page of his book, even where I think his views are ridiculously wrong. Doonan is very much into "in" fashion, with contempt for people who wear things that he classifies as uncool.

Since that describes my entire wardrobe, I suppose I could take offense. But I'm an introvert who regards people-who-try-to-be-cool with benign contempt; I can hardly complain if they regard me and my ilk the same way.

It's a delight to read Doonan's hopelessly bigoted remarks about straight men; wrong and unfair but really, really funny. And considering all the wrong and unfair things that are said about gay men and lesbian women, turnabout is certainly not out of line.

Now, there are lots of gay people who are embarrassed or put off by homosexual men who make a great display of their queenliness, or lesbians who try to outdyke each other -- but there are also plenty of heterosexual people who are put off by hypermacho hetero men and icky-cute women, too.

So don't imagine for a moment that Doonan speaks for all gays. For one thing, his title is obviously meant just for laughs -- I know plenty of gay men who most definitely do get fat.

There is so much in this book to offend straight people that I really don't recommend the book at all to people who don't already have gay friends and are not acquainted with gay culture. You won't get the jokes. Don't buy this book.

But if, like me, you have gay friends and delight in the excesses of self-consciously bi---y gay conversation, then you'll feel right at home with Doonan, and you'll laugh your ascot off.


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