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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 15, 2012

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


Iron Hearted Violet, Water, Chocolate, Gretchen Peters

The problem with "reviewing everything" is that everything I read, everything I eat, everywhere I go, everything I experience becomes potential column material.

You cannot imagine the stacks of as-yet-unreviewed material in my office. I can hardly see the surface of my desk -- which is actually a countertop the width of my attic office.

But it's time for me to play catch-up, reviewing a whole assortment of stuff without any attempt to make a coherent essay out of any of it.

By the end of this review, I'm hoping I'll be able to clear at least one corner of my desk. Just to remember what the color of it is.

*

Do you want a good Young Adult fantasy novel to give for Christmas? There are many to choose from, but I highly recommend Kelly Barnhill's Iron Hearted Violet.

Violet is a princess, but not a pretty one, and her family and the kingdom they govern are in great danger. She is left out of important events -- but manages to get into deeply serious trouble when she and a friend find a hidden magical room in the castle.

What lurks there is a great danger, but she can't find information about how to counter it -- or anyone who will take her seriously about what she's found.

I really enjoyed Barnhill's previous novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack, and for many of the same reasons: Just when you think you're getting a traditional fairy tale bit, Barnhill stands it on its head and makes it mean something completely new and different.

Young readers are not jaded, however, and are not looking for fresh takes on old stories. That's why it's so fortunate that Barnhill is not just standing cliches on their heads. She is telling stories that are terrific in their own right, so that young readers will be captivated. The fact that adults are also delighted is simply a bonus.

*

I've been drinking Hint water for years now. It's good clear water with just the lightest of flavors, and no sugar or other additives. (I find most of those "health" waters undrinkably nasty.)

A while ago, the Hint people introduced carbonated waters -- and I have to say, they're quite awful. They apparently forgot their concept of just a hint of flavor. The carbonated ones are seriously overflavored.

If I want carbonated drinks, I'll take the San Pellegrino fruit waters, like Arianciata or Limonata. If you want to sample them, they're available cold and ready-to-drink at Gnam-Gnam.

Meanwhile, though, Hint's regular waters are still the best, most refreshing drink around; they make all the other waters either boring or trying-too-hard.

And at Fresh Market, you can pick up a special holiday Peppermint flavored Hint water. I don't usually like peppermint as a flavor, but because it's Hint, the flavor is mild enough that it's a pleasure to drink.

*

Jacqueline Winspear's wonderful series of "Maisie Dobbs" novels has matured over the years. It began as a gimmick novel -- with a very good gimmick. The idea was that Maisie Dobbs, a maid in a wealthy household, was observed to be far more intelligent and education-seeking than the norm.

The wealthy family, instead of being repelled by an intellectually ambitious servant, nurtured her abilities. She was trained by a psychologist in the era that marked the very beginning of psychology, and through service in World War I came in contact with the wider world.

At first, Winspear relied too much on having Maisie be a true believer and practitioner of psychology as it was understood between the world wars. Unfortunately, we are now aware that the psychology of that era was only slightly more accurate and useful than phrenology. So the stories were weakened by overreliance on the gimmick.

Winspear soon moved past that early training and has now transcended it. Dobbs is a professional investigator, and has replaced weak psychological theory with genuine compassion and empathy, which allows her to do more than merely solve mysteries.

In the latest Maisie Dobbs novel, Elegy for Eddie, the mystery of the death of a retarded man with a gift for caring for horses is solved rather quickly, and justice is done, after a fashion before the novel is half over.

But the story is not over, because this series seeks to understand why, and lays responsibility at many doors instead of just one. The path leading to Eddie's death was set in motion by someone else, but as Maisie comes to know the man who caused the problem in the first place, she finds, not evil, but a complicated man who is actually on the right side of history -- but careless with the price others have to pay for decisions he makes far too casually.

No series of mystery novels is perfectly even; that is, there are books where the story is more satisfying, books where the resonance is deeper, and books that simply misfire. Elegy for Eddie is one of the deep ones, and I'm glad to see that, unlike some mystery writers (one thinks of Janet Evanovich and Joan Hess), Jacqueline Winspear is not content to repeat the same formula over and over and over.

In fact, her books resist formula, and as Maisie moves through the 1930s and Hitler begins to loom on the horizon, there is much promise that we will get a very fresh take on the transformations in Europe, and England in particular, leading up to the second world war.

*

Jean Burnett had a promising idea when she wrote The Bad Miss Bennet, a novel from the point of view of Lydia, the Bennet sister who ran off with a soldier.

The problem is that Burnett had no comprehension whatsoever of Jane Austen as a novelist, so while she bandies about the names of Austen's characters, and plays with some of the same situations, the superficiality of her treatment becomes oppressive.

Burnett is quite conscious of her cleverness, but is not as clever as she thinks. (As may well be true of me, too, as a writer -- the writer is always last to know.)

Alas, everything that is good in The Bad Miss Bennet is done far, far better in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and everything that one expects from a Jane Austen novel is missing from this book.

It is a dangerous thing to step into worlds and characters and relationships created by better writers than oneself. It would be easy, for instance, to write Scarlet Pimpernel novels, because the original is so shoddy; but to write Pride & Prejudice novels is doomed by the fact that Jane Austen remains the best novelist who ever lived.

It's not enough to love or even admire a great novelist's work. You also have to understand what each work is doing and how it is accomplished, and all of this remains completely out of Burnett's reach. Too bad; she not untalented or unskilled. She's just not Austen.

*

Caryl's Christmas Shop on Lawndale -- which, during the rest of the year, is Caryl's Pool and Spa -- always has new and wonderful things for the holiday season. Each year we think, We bought everything cool from the store last year; but we stop in anyway, and find that they've found new things that we like just as well or better.

What we didn't know was that Caryl's also offers a holiday decorating service. Now, we have no interest in a "designer look" for our living room at Christmas time. Our Christmas decorations all have their own history, and if it looks to others like a bit of a mishmash, we really don't care -- in a lot of ways, our Christmas decorations are a history of our family.

However, that doesn't mean that we don't need Caryl's services! We've tried several things at our front door during the holidays, but this year we're having Caryl's Christmas Shop decorate it on the outside. We were charmed by many of their decorative ideas, and so we engaged them to come look at our front door, measure what needs measuring, and create the outdoor decorations that will work for us.

We're happy with the design and happy with the meticulous way they go about doing their work. It's not free -- they are in business and must make a profit -- but the service is surprisingly affordable. So if you might be in the market for a holiday-decorating service, stop by Caryl's at 2616 Lawndale Drive. Even if you don't use them for this year, you can always keep them in mind for next.

*

My life does not revolve around chocolate. No. It doesn't, I tell you.

Still, even though I found the perfect dark chocolate in E. Guittard's 61% Tsaratana bars and baking wafers, that didn't mean I would stop looking at new chocolates (and revisiting old ones).

For one thing, See's and Fannie May remain two of the great candymaking companies of all time.

Fannie May went out of business a few years ago, but then came roaring back -- there are even some retail stores again, though not around here. As far as I'm concerned, Fannie May exists only to provide me with vanilla buttercreams, both dark and milk chocolate-coated.

You can find them online at http://www.fanniemay.com .

See's, on the other hand, has so many things I like that I can hardly make a selection. http://www.sees.com .

I think this is because I grew up on See's. My childhood favorite, their molasses-flavored Bordeaux, remain on my must-list, but I also love their buttercreams (different from Fannie May's, but neither better nor worse); their mints, caramels, milk patties and dark patties, butterscotch squares, and butterchews.

If you look under "dark chocolates" you can also find See's Semi Sweet Chocolate Chips. Yes, you can put them in cookies and they're amazing. But we put them in the fridge and eat a few of them at a time, and they're even better that way.

Even on Thanksgiving, stuffed with turkey and the rest of the feast, there's always room for a chocolate chip truffle or Bordeau from See's, or a caramel or dark chocolate vanilla buttercream from Fannie May.

Or you can opt for just one Guittard chocolate wafer, or one See's chocolate chip. That can't possibly be overdoing it.

Meanwhile, there are some wonderful chocolates you may not know about right on the rack at Fresh Market. I recently tried two chocolate bars from Nirvana Belgian Chocolates -- though the brand name is so small on the package you can go blind looking for it.

The dominant word on the packaging is "Organic," followed by "Belgian Chocolate All Natural." It's worth the search to make sure you have the right brand.

The two flavors I vouch for are the 72% dark chocolate -- about the darkest chocolate I have ever actually loved -- and the 72% dark chocolate with sea salt and caramel. This latter one is not filled with liquid caramel like the Caramello bar; rather the caramel is mixed in throughout the bar. Both are delicious.

*

I had high hopes for Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn. The story of the Tudors usually follows either Henry VIII with his six wives and complicated relationship with the Catholic Church, or Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen who fought off the Spanish Armada.

But it was Henry VII who founded the dynasty. He had as small a claim on the English throne as William the Conqueror did, but in the Wars of the Roses the various houses got ever more remote from legitimacy. His victory over Richard III was astonishing and unpredictable, but he moved quickly to cement his hold on power.

I wish this were a better book. Penn is so strictly tied to his sources that we get a tone of "this is what happened" with very little of "why this happened" or "what this meant."

I don't mind that he gave short shrift to the question of the princes in the tower -- though Henry VII had a motive for killing them, and Richard III did not. That's a matter for speculation and empty argument, so he was wise to mention it and move on.

However, Penn did the book no favor by not weaving in a wider context, by not making connections that could have been fascinating. It's as if he specialized so totally in the period, and focused so tightly on his sources, that he lost track of the bigger picture.

Few usurpers have been as ready to govern as Henry VII was. Most of them have no idea how to actually rule a kingdom. William the Conqueror had plenty of experience governing the fractious nobles of Normandy -- but Henry VII had never governed anything. How did he learn what he learned? Why was he so unusual?

There are tantalizing hints, but Penn never deigns to discuss them, or at least not in the way and at the depth I would have liked. So we get endless pages of ceremonies -- primarily, I think, because there are bills to provide us data about what was bought and paid for, and who did what. But we get precious little history drawn from that data.

Too bad. We need a good biography of Henry VII. Instead, what Penn gave us was source material that a real biographer can use as a guide.

*

The Memory of Blood, by Christopher Fowler, is one of his Peculiar Crimes Unit series, and it has a lot of promise -- then fails to deliver.

Part of the problem is that Fowler spends a lot of time adoring his charming characters. Unfortunately, that is all time spent with them not doing anything; they're just being charming. Which is, paradoxically, not charming at all.

But the real difficulty is that Fowler is more of a puzzle-maker than a storyteller. Nobody becomes real; the relationships seem forced, even the relationships among the main characters.

Here's the kiss of death: At the end, the bad guy is caught and handcuffed to a rusty standpipe. Suddenly we cut to him running around carrying a broken-off standpipe. We completely skip the scene where he rips the pipe off the wall and runs away.

This is an amateurish mistake, but one that typifies the whole novel and makes me uninterested in reading any other books in the series. Fowler doesn't actually know how to make a story flow in an interesting way, or to tell it in a useful order.

He thought he was "cutting to the chase," but in fact he was tripping over his shoelaces. Too bad, because the idea was a good one.

*

Ian Stewart's The Mathematics of Life should have been a good book; or, rather, I would really like to read a good book with that topic. But for it to work, the writer would need to:

1. Understand mathematics.

2. Understand life (i.e., history, biology, psychology, sociology, politics, religion -- the whole context of human experience).

3. Understand how to relate the two together in an interesting way.

What he actually achieved was, to my great frustration and boredom: None of the above.

*

Frank Partnoy's Wait: The Art and Science of Delay looks like it might be a really interesting book, and then turns out not to be. It's just a hodgepodge of different aspects of delay. Some of them could have been interesting if he had developed them into something useful, but he merely skims the surface and whenever he says something that isn't obvious, it also isn't likely to be true.

Too bad. But maybe the writer who'll do an excellent book on matters like delay-of-gratification, procrastination-as-action, etc., is still putting it off until he has more time.

*

The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, by David Hughes, is a better idea than book. Don't get me wrong -- Hughes does a fine job of researching, and he's a good writer. The problem is simply that the stories of films that don't get made are pretty much all alike.

Somebody has an idea or a script or a book to adapt. But in order to satisfy the fears of the people-with-money, many "elements" must be brought together -- stars, script, director, etc. By the time the right director says yes, the star has moved on and they have to find another; or the star demands rewrites that make it so the director no longer wants to direct it.

The only constant is that no matter what happens, the writer gets screwed.

The more you know about how Hollywood works, the less you need this book, yet the more truthful and bitter and sad it will seem.

By the end of this book, you won't be surprised by anything but this: Somehow, now and then, a good movie actually does get made. That's the miracle.

*

All Through the Night: Peaceful Lullabies on Flute and Harp, by Opus 2 (Steve Alder and Julie Keys) isn't available on Amazon. You have to go to http://www.fluteandharpcd.com to find this album and download it as .mp3s or buy it as a cd. But if you're looking for soothing background music using two gentle instruments, it's worth the look.

*

Gretchen Peters doesn't have a huge voice; her vibrato is thin, really more of a tremolo. But she knows how to sing a bluesy song with irony and guts. Her 2007 album Burnt Toast & Offerings was my introduction to her work, but it would be hard to find a better one.

Peters apparently doesn't know that there are high walls between genres. This album keeps being Country and Great American Songbook and Jazz all at the same time.

Her singing is the opposite of the overdecorated and overwrought Mariah Carey style. But it's also purely melodic, with none of the anti-musical tendency that used to dominate alternative music.

There's never a bad time to discover a singer. Just because you came late to the party doesn't mean she isn't new to you.


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