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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 5, 2013

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


Early Readers, Sagal Sings, Packaging

When my wife and I were just starting our family, back in another century, we were delighted to discover Arnold Lobel's Frog & Toad books. Though the language was so simple that early readers could manage very well, the humor was warm and smart and worked just as well for adults as for children.

Even though Lobel has since died, the books live on, and for those of you with early readers, Arnold Lobel's work holds up very well.

But the world of literature moves on, and I am happy to tell you that there is now someone writing early-reader books about a pair of animal friends even more unlikely than -- but every bit as smart and funny as -- Frog and Toad.

I have on my desk before me three early-reader books by Mo Willems: I'm a Frog! (which the cover clearly shows is being said by a pig), A Big Guy Took My Ball!, and Should I Share My Ice Cream?

Because I have never felt or declared myself to be a frog, I didn't instantly identify with that title; the other two seem ripped from my autobiography.

Yes, there were times in my childhood when I willingly held a ball, and on more than one occasion, a bigger (or meaner) human took that ball away from me.

I did not cry or tattle. I just grew up to be a writer and gave their names to characters who were such pathetic losers that nobody feared or cared about them.

(I did not really do that. Why would I immortalize bullies by placing their names in my magna opera?)

(Plus, I don't remember any of their names.)

Should I Share My Ice Cream? is about hypocrisy. Elephant goes far in coming up with reasons why he doesn't need to share with Piggie: Maybe Piggie doesn't like the flavor: Ergo, "Sharing a flavor Piggie does not like would be wrong. I will eat the ice cream!"

This reminds me of the rationalization of the elder brother in Sense & Sensibility, as he and his wife convince themselves that sharing their inheritance with his sisters would really be a burden to them and that their father could not really have intended him to give them money.

I realize that comparing an early-reader book about talking animals with a Jane Austen novel might seem a bit asymmetrical, but stories are stories, and no one should be surprised that Should I Share My Ice Cream? deals with one of the themes that pops up in a great work of literature.

Children's books are as serious for children as adult books are for adults.

A Big Guy Took My Ball is, in its small way, rather like the movie My Bodyguard, in which a picked-on smaller person (Piggie) enlists the help of a much larger friend (Adam Baldwin). But in this book, the "bully" -- who turns out to be nothing of the kind -- is even bigger and more intimidating.

Unfortunately, the lesson that bullies are just misunderstood lonely people who want friends can lead to some unfortunate consequences in the real world.

There really are bad people who simply enjoy making other people unhappy. They aren't misunderstood and lonely. They're mean and bored and stupid, and your attempt to reason with them will merely provoke even more cruelty.

These bad people don't become bad at age eighteen. They already take pleasure in the suffering of others when they're young, and their victims need protection, not lectures about being kind to mean people.

But sometimes childhood disputes really are misunderstandings, so I really don't think A Big Guy Took My Ball! is going to lead to young readers getting beaten up on the playground ... much.

"I'm a Frog" has Piggie declaring herself to be a frog, which confuses and annoys poor unimaginative Gerald (the Elephant actually has a name). "You can just go out and pretend to be something you are not!?" asks Gerald.

"Sure. Everyone pretends," says Piggie.

"Even grown-up people?"

"All the time."

There really is some effort here to entertain the adults who are reading to, or listening to the reading of, young kids.

Mo Willems is also the author of the Pigeon books -- Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late!, for instance. These books are every bit as delightful as the Elephant & Piggie books.

Amazon.com has an exclusive memoir by Mo Willems, recounting (with art) how the Pigeon character emerged from his notebooks and gave him a career as a children's book author and illustrator.

You have to scroll down to "Editorial Reviews," where, under Amazon.com Review, you'll see: "Exclusive: The Pigeon: A Life in Pictures." It's worth remembering that wonderful, whimsical, inventing books don't come out of nowhere.

They have a path, both in the creator's mind and in the publishing industry, where there has to be at least one editor who can persuade the marketing department to get behind a book that doesn't look like anything they've tried to sell before.

What if you don't have children? What if you don't even know any children?

Well, isn't your view of the world just a little brighter because you know that somewhere out there, children are learning to read with the help of genuinely funny, clever, smart, and wise books like those of Mo Willems?

And if you do have children in your life -- your own, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, or the children of friends -- then it's hard to imagine better Christmas gifts than the books of Mo Willems.

*

The best thing about the old TV series Married with Children was the character of Peg Bundy. And most of the reason for that was the performance of Katey Sagal.

Her weary, self-satisfied, trashy, cynical performance was a complete delight.

Then she popped up on That '70s Show. Lost, Boston Legal, and a bunch of other shows -- enough to prove she's a wonderful performer.

Did you know that she can sing?

That's how she began. Four of her first six film and video citations on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) are as a singer.

But it goes deeper than that. Sagal performed on stage as a member of Bette Midler's backup group "The Harlettes" in 1978 and the early '80s, and did backup album work for Gene Simmons and Olivia Newton-John.

So unlike many other actors who parlay their actor-fame into getting an album made, Sagal has paid serious dues as a singer ... and it shows. Her new album, Covered, is not her first -- just her first in nine years.

And the first one I happened to see. Which is fortunate, because her previous album was, to put it kindly, a bit of a mess. But let's not dwell on all the wrong choices that were made then.

Because the new album -- in my mind, her first album -- is beyond brilliant.

It joins my list of Perfect Albums.

There aren't a lot of albums on that list, mostly because even the best albums usually have one or two tracks that you have to skip every time they come up. Songs that don't work. Decisions that were ... how to put this? ... self-indulgent. Deeply dumb.

Here's what you get with Katey Sagal's Covered.

First, there's her voice. Some singers are brilliant right out of the gate; some have to mature into a voice that is rich and full. Sagal is in her glory right now. Her singing has maturity and depth.

Before I knew she had sung with the Harlettes, I recognized a similarity with Bette Midler -- not the brassy Bette, nor the funny one, but the downtempo, lush, balls-out real Bette Midler.

Only, unlike Bette Midler, Sagal does not lose pitch control when she sings like that. Dare I say that she has a better vocal instrument?

But the singer Sagal most reminds me of is not Midler: It's Patti Scialfa. Sagal isn't a songwriter (or if she is, the songs aren't on this album); it's as a singer that she makes me think of Scialfa. It's in the choice of songs, the choice of tempo, the style of delivery.

Since Patty Scialfa is one of my favorite singers on earth, it's not a bad thing to remind me of her.

But Sagal is by no means imitating anyone. She's simply chosen to move into the land of dreamy-paced music where my favorite singers almost all go, not every time, but often enough that it's part of their vocabulary.

(Short list: Shirley Eikhard, Mary Chapin Carpenter, k.d. lang, Shawn Colvin, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Janis Ian, Patty Scialfa, the Opera Babes, Julee Cruise, Joni Mitchell, Carrie Rodriguez, Diana Krall.

(There are some guys, too: Art Garfunkel's whole Breakaway album, for instance. Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent, and again with The Rising. Fogelberg. Cockburn. Darden Smith. Marc Cohn. Leon Russell. Neil Young. Michael McDonald. But male singers usually hit it with a track or two, almost never a whole album.)

Sagal's whole Covered album lives in that musical fantasyland. Maybe you'll understand when I tell you I liked her "Free Fallin'" better than Tom Petty's original -- and Tom Petty's was perfect. Her version of "For Free" is better than either of Joni Mitchell's -- and Mitchell is one of the great singer-songwriters of all time.

But every song has power and range -- from the country-gospel "Orphan Girl" to the sad and smoky "Roses & Cigarettes," which sounds like it should be by a depressed jazz musician of the early 1950s, but was written by Ray LaMontagne, who first released it only five years ago.

This album shows what great vocalists do: Find songs that matter to them, get arrangements that work for their vocal strengths, and then sing them with purity and clarity.

Because this album is also Katey Sagal's best acting performance. No, not because she's "acting like a singer," but because she sings each song as if she means it. As if she just thought of the words and is saying them because they express exactly what's in her heart.

I think of those poor young kids on American Idol, adding useless, trite decorations to their singing -- all the runs and tricks -- and then I listen to Katey Sagal and the contrast couldn't be clearer.

Those immature singers are trying to dazzle us. Their message is "Hear me sing!"

Katey Sagal's message is, "I found this song. You have to hear this." It's not about her voice, it's about the words and music, and because of that, her voice is so much more gorgeous and powerful than anything belted out by the try-too-hards on the American Idol stage.

(Don't get me wrong -- there have been a handful of Idol singers who knew what Sagal knows, or figured it out by the end. But not many.)

Music is hard to pick out for other people. When others play me their favorite tracks, I am sometimes hard-pressed to stay in the room for the whole song. I know they love the track, but it just doesn't reach me.

So maybe what moves me won't have the same effect on you. Maybe you won't sink into this album, maybe you won't turn it up so it shuts out the rest of the world, maybe you won't play it over and over because it creates a world you don't want to leave.

But that's what I did.

*

Here's the thing about packaging something safely: Somebody at the other end of the shipping process is going to have to open the package.

The idea, then, is to protect the item you're shipping from the actual dangers of transportation, and then make it possible to get the object out of the wrappings without damaging it.

Is this hard to understand? Is this list of goals too long and complicated for anyone involved in the shipping trade to keep them all in mind?

Let's take the simple mailing tube. The idea is that you are shipping a rolled-up poster or canvas. The cardboard tube is hard-sided and has a firm structure, so that the object inside will not be bent or punctured or torn during transit.

But then, at the other end, the recipient needs to be able to get the poster or painting or whatever it is out of the tube without harming it -- or himself.

Mailing tubes are usually designed with an easy pop-out plastic cap, so that the recipient can easily get the tube open and slide out the fragile rolled-up item inside.

Why, then, do packagers cover this plastic cap with a complete seal of plastic tape?

Do they expect part of the voyage to be made under water, so the tube has to be watertight? Or do they think live mice are being transported through deep space, so oxygen must be retained inside?

A single strip of tape across each end of the tube should do the job of holding the cap in place. Then the recipient could easily clip the tape and pull out the plastic end cap.

Instead, with the end completely sealed in tape, the recipient has to use a knife to slice into the tape along the outer edge of the plastic cap. This is a curved surface and the knife is going to slip many times in the process.

Meanwhile, you have to hold the tube somewhere. Chance of cutting yourself: too high.

That thick seal of tape protects against nothing but makes extraction of the item dangerous and difficult.

Other absurdities: Shipping books in padded envelopes.

Books are not porcelain. You don't have to protect them from bumps. The real danger to books in transit is that something will bend or dent the edges of the cover, or, in the case of a paperback, bend the whole book.

Padded envelopes do not protect against these dangers. That's why Amazon and other sane booksellers ship books, not in padded envelopes, but in cardboard boxes that provide a structure that extends far beyond the edges of the book.

Structure, not padding. That's a huge difference.

But I still receive books from various sources -- including some of my foreign publishers -- in lightly padded envelopes. Inevitably, the books are miserably bent-up inside. Used book dealers would class them as being in "poor" or "worn" condition; but I am supposed to accept them as my contractual complimentary copies.

Another real danger in shipping is that items packed together in the same box will beat each other up. The outer shell of the box may show no marks of damage -- but every jostle and drop has made the items inside the box crash into each other.

There's a reason why egg cartons aren't just boxes with eggs stacked loosely inside. Instead, the eggs are carefully separated from each other so they don't collide and break each other.

But I received two ceramics from one Louisiana art dealer packed in the same box, surrounded by styrofoam peanuts, without anything keeping the items from shifting inside the peanuts and smashing each other.

Guess what. They smashed each other.

The result? The dealer had to send me two replacements -- so that their incompetent packaging had wiped out their profit from the sale.

Sometimes I wonder how some art galleries stay in business -- while others do a superb job. When I buy from Frameworks (aka Repartee) in Orem, Utah, they ship prints and unstretched canvases inside multiple layers of corrugated cardboard.

The cardboard extends far beyond the edges of art, providing structure and protection from tearing and edge-collisions.

When they ship framed canvases, however, they put them inside wooden crates. Of course the shipping costs more -- but the art and the frame arrive intact.

Then I bought an original from another Utah gallery. I also bought an artist's proof of the same piece, so I could frame it and hang it in a more public place where there was a risk of damage from children.

What shows up at my door is a simple cardboard box, as if they had taken the art to the UPS Store and bought a carton and dropped the art inside.

The piece had been mounted on fiberboard and very cheaply and lightly framed. In shipping, the flimsy carton had been badly compressed and as a result, the crappy frame had broken and the fiberboard had bowed.

This caused it to pop out of the heavy metal staples that supposedly held the fiberboard in place. But then, when the flexion stopped, the board tried to flatten itself again.

This caused the surface of the art to rub against the metal staples throughout the rest of the journey, permanently and visibly scarring the art.

I was so relieved to discover that it was the copy, not the original, that had suffered this irreparable damage.

Yet this only added to the outrage, because I had not asked for the print to be framed.

It had never crossed my mind that they would mount the print, permanently, on fiberboard. This is not what you do with a piece you value!

I assumed (having dealt with professionals in the past), that it would arrive as a flat sheet between thick layers of cardboard -- the way Repartee ships their unframed art. Then I would have my framers matte it, not mount it.

The whole thing was a fiasco that left me in terror of what condition the original would arrive in.

Fortunately, though the original was shipped in a box just as flimsy as the copy, it had been framed in a heavy, high-quality frame that gave structure even if the box collapsed. I'm assuming the artist had done the framing himself -- and he actually cared.

Meanwhile, not trusting this gallery to get anything right, instead of asking for a replacement, I had the copy framed so as to hide the damage done by the staples. And I will not buy from them again, or recommend them. (That's why I'm not mentioning their name in this review, though they had many fine pieces.)

By the way, it's Irving Park Art and Frame at 2105-A West Cornwallis Drive that I trust to do an excellent job with all our frames. Frames are not just decorative -- they also provide structure and edge-protection for the art. The careful women at Irving Park Art & Frame have never let me down; instead, they have proven to be reliable allies in creating a sturdy, harmonious presentation for every art piece we have brought them.

When it comes to shipping, sometimes you need padding; sometimes you need structure; sometimes you need sturdiness; sometimes you need separation of items. These are real concerns -- and when you find a shipper who understands which elements matter for particular pieces, you buy from them again and again.

But you stop buying from the companies that can't figure out how to get your purchases to you intact.

*

Do you want a book by Orson Scott Card signed to a particular person as a Christmas gift? While OSC will not be doing any public book signings before Christmas, he will stop in every Monday before Christmas to sign books that are pre-purchased from the Barnes & Noble in Friendly Center here in Greensboro.

Please note that this is not Barnes & Noble online -- it's this particular store in Card's hometown. And he will only sign hardcovers from the following list of books that B&N was able to get in stock: From the Ender series: A War of Gifts, Earth Unaware, Earth Afire, Ender's Game, Shadows in Flight.

Also, The Lost Gate (first of the Mithermages novels) and Zanna's Gift -- a Christmas story which is the only paperback in the list.

You can either come into the store and make your purchase, or phone the store at 336-854-4200 and place a credit card order. If you order by phone, make sure you spell out the name(s) of the people you want each book signed for. Names can easily be misheard.

And if you buy a book in the store, print the name carefully. Your "e" might look to Card like "o" or "a" or "I" if you write it quickly or in cursive. Nobody wants to receive a book with their own name misspelled!

Card will stop by the store sometime during the day each Monday, and the books will be available for pickup (or will be mailed out) first thing Tuesday.


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