Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 19, 2013
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Bellman, Hyperbole, Great Performances
It happens that one of the best bands working today is an overtly Christian
one: Casting Crowns. I never thought that would happen, because for years,
Christian music was derivative and the lyrics were either sappy or so on-the-nose that it was embarrassing to hear them.
Credited to Mark Hall and Bernie Herms, the song "All You've Ever Wanted
Was My Heart" is musically pleasing and interesting, and -- more
important, at least to a writer like me -- the lyrics (a) make sense and (b) are
poignant and real.
None of the smug self-congratulation of so much Christian music, not for
You can download it -- how else do we get singles these days? I don't see a
rack of 45 rpms in the stores.
The new Casting Crowns album, called Thrive, will go on sale on 28 January.
But why wait to get this great song?
Also, I really like the cover art. Not a reason to buy a tune -- especially since
you don't actually get to handle a record jacket or CD case when you download
a song. But depending on your mp3-playing software, you may get to look at it
when you play the song, so it helps if it's good art.
So you're in a shopping mall in Amsterdam, and all of a sudden there are
people in Renaissance costumes chasing a thief all over the place. And at
the end, they come together in a tableau of Rembrandt's famous painting,
"Night Watch." http://sn.im/RembrandtLive
The logistics of this were pretty demanding. And not just because they had to
find a bunch of actors who were fat enough to play the burghers in the original
In fact, I doubt something like this could ever be staged in America. First,
because we have no painter (no, not Grant Wood, not Andy Warhol, not Andrew
Wyeth) whose work would be instantly recognizable to our ordinary citizenry
the way Rembrandt's work is known to the Dutch.
Second, because every American mall is run by a company with risk
management experts making all their decisions. And there's no way the
experts would allow horses to come into the mall, or actors to swing across the
central atrium on ropes, or the "thief" character to plummet from a balcony
onto stairs. Too much danger -- in America -- of getting sued.
What's most moving, though, is the response of the crowd. They don't just
recognize the painting. The stunt was staged to announce and promote the
reopening of Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, which has just concluded a decade-long renovation.
With all the changes in the museum, the only painting that remains in its
original place is Rembrandt's "The Night Watch." The Dutch shoppers
responded with genuine affection and delight -- to a show, yes, but also to a
matter of national pride.
Is there any artist, in any field of work, that Americans respond to with
universal pride? A couple of poets might have qualified, once upon a time --
Robert Frost, Walt Whitman -- but that was back when we valued poetry. Now
it's just a weird interlude in seventh or eighth grade.
Maybe "Sweet Home Alabama" qualifies -- for some Americans, at least. I wish
I could say that Barber's "Adagio for Strings" or Copland's "Appalachian
Spring" or "Fanfare for the Common Man" were universally recognized and
beloved -- but few people even pay attention when classical music plays.
Maybe I'm overlooking something obvious. Maybe there's some movie that
everybody loves. Please tell me it's not the revenge movie Godfather. I'd be so
ashamed if that were our national icon.
Shane? The Princess Bride? Ferris Bueller's Day Off? Anyone? Anyone?
Books are the best Christmas gifts. Even better than playing with the box.
For instance, there's Cat vs Human, by Yasmine Surovec. Her cartoons are
delightfully explicit as they detail the horrors of living with cats; and with
people who love cats.
Oddly enough, the book is clearly written by a cat lover. But Surovec is a
realistic cat lover.
Now, I was, once upon a time, a cat lover myself. But a strong cat allergy
intervened. It first surfaced when I attended a sleep-over writing workshop at
the home of my friend Mark Van Name. Mark and Rana love cats. I loved cats.
I didn't mind a bit when a cat slept on my bed.
But as the days went on, I found myself coming down with a really nasty cold.
Which went away the moment I got away from Van Names' house for a day. I
began to understand that cats were not for me.
Imagine you found yourself to be violently allergic to your own children.
What would you do?
Fortunately, I did not own a cat (being married to a committed humans-only-in-my-house person), so there were no draconian decisions to be made.
But in the long years of having to watch out for cats in order to avoid them, of
having to decline to visit good friends because it would be rude for me to make
them choose between me and the cat(s) in residence, a strange thing happened.
My self-protective alertness turned into an aversion.
Being deprived of cat-cuddles and sinuous leg-drive-bys gradually makes you
remember only the horrible things about cats.
That is why Cat vs. Human is really not aimed at cat owners. They already
know all these things. No, this is a book that needs to be given to someone
thinking of bringing a cat into their life.
Allie Brosh, the author of Hyperbole and a Half, is not as skilled a
cartoonist as Yasmine Surovec. Or maybe she is, and she merely chooses to
draw all her humans as if they had not quite finished evolving from walking
This is a book born on the internet -- as so many are these days. People try
out their ideas on their blogs. People start to like their blog and link to it.
Their following grows.
Then a publisher looks at their numbers and the quality of the work, and
decides to commit to a book.
Hyperbole and a Half feels real, though of course the title proclaims that it is
an exaggeration. And even though it's aimed at women in particular, there's
nothing to keep guys from becoming enormously well-informed by reading it.
If you've been following the blog, there is a lot of new content (something smart
publishers insist on); there are also classics, like her brilliant "Adventures in
Depression" and "Depression Part 2."
Oh ... and in case you need more information, here's the whole title: Hyperbole
and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and
Other Things That Happened. Yeah, that covers it.
The jewel of this Christmas season, however, was not born on the Internet.
Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale blew us away back in 2007.
By "us" I mean readers of taste and discernment who have no patience with
pretentious twaddle, but who do love a writer who is an absolute master both
of language and of storytelling.
It has been a long six years, but Setterfield is back with a book worthy of her
It is not a sequel. It is not even the same kind of fiction.
Where Thirteenth Tale is a lush gothic in style and story, her new book,
Bellman & Black, is an epic, if you will: an entire life in a surprisingly small
number of pages.
The life is that of William Bellman, the slantwise grandson of a mill owner who
has a gift for business. Without ever pushing himself forward, he takes any
opportunity he is given and magnifies it into real achievement that benefits
even people who despise him.
Bellman attracts and earns the love and devotion of many people in his life.
His style of management is to see what the other person needs and make sure
that they receive it in the process of meeting Bellman's need. You know, "win-win."
Have you noticed how most people who say "it's a win-win" really mean "Are
you stupid enough not to notice that I'm screwing you?" But in Bellman's case,
he really does make good things happen for everyone around him.
But that's not where this story begins. And it's definitely not a tale of a
charmed life, though it could have been.
The tale begins when William Bellman, as a child among children, throws a
stone at a raven on a branch. The bird is too far away to hit, so he hardly
imagines that he will hurt it. He expects that at best the stone will strike
near enough to make the bird take flight.
Instead, the stone describes a perfect arc; the bird never sees it coming; and
the boys arrive at the tree to find the raven stone dead on the ground.
One way of looking at this book is that it is about William Bellman's paying a
price for this truly boyish, inadvertent misdeed. But I don't see it that way at
Instead, I see it as a kind of Job story, in which nearly everything that truly
matters is stripped away, but instead of trusting God and receiving
replacement blessings, this Job rejects every chance of happiness that comes
his way, trying to ensure that nothing bad can happen to him again.
How can you ever make sure of that? Only by acting in such a way as to
prevent anything good from happening to you, apparently.
This is a "told tale." That is, there is little use of standard viewpoint. We are
often given information that doesn't come from Bellman's own mind, and
gradually we become aware that there is, in fact, a narrator, though he is not
revealed until near the end.
Thus we skate across the surface of the story -- which allows Setterfield to
cover enormous amounts of time. Yet when she settles down to tell incidents
and sequences in detail, you get a veritable education in the things that
Bellman himself is learning. I do believe I could start up a mill or a retail
clothing store myself, based on what this book taught me.
I warn you before you start: This is a tragedy about a good man, whose fatal
flaw is that he cannot bear to leave anything to chance. Everything must
be planned out and faithfully executed. You know people like that. Maybe you
Setterfield is saying, in the end, that since "the best-laid schemes o' mice an'
men gang aft agley," it is not always a good idea to force your plans through to
their logical conclusion. Sometimes the real achievement is to know when
to step off the treadmill. Often it would cost you little, except for a bit of
uneasiness about this or that task left unfinished.
But how many tasks you set yourself will never be achieved in your lifetime.
Picasso said, "Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die
having left undone."
Sure, that means "do it now" -- with some tasks. But with others, it means,
"Yeah, if I died with this undone, neither I nor anyone else would care, so I'm
not going to do it at all. I'm going to do this other thing, which I will be glad I
didn't leave undone."
There's a lot of dying in this book. That happens when you tell a tale that
spans an entire lifetime. In fact, there's a lot of dying in real life, too. Our
chance of death is a hundred percent; our life expectancy may be high, but it is
So a book that is deeply committed to being a story about the inexorability of
death may be too honest for some to take much pleasure in.
I can only promise you this: William Bellman's is, in the main, a life worth
living. An exemplary life. Would that more of us could live as generously as
he. And his mistakes hurt mostly himself.
In its private, polished way, Bellman & Black is something like The Apocalypse
of Diane Setterfield. Here's how the world ends.
Every year, Mormons are treated to a "First Presidency Christmas Broadcast"
which includes a lot of music from the Tabernacle Choir. However, the real
Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert is not that "in-group" event -- it's the
PBS Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
The days when the Mo-Tab Choir all sounded like Utahns -- hard R sounds
and flat vowels -- are over. Their music is wonderful.
But I've seen a preview of the concert, and I have to tell you, you're really going
to tune in to hear tenor Alfie Boe sing "Bring Him Home," from Les Miserables.
One of the most moving pieces of theatrical music ever written, "Bring Him
Home" requires a real tenor, and that's what Boe delivers.
Tom Brokaw is also on hand, telling a great Christmas story from the
Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949. (I only regret that PBS uses a profile shot of
Brokaw that shows his earphone wire emerging from under the back of his
toupee. The whole point of the arrangement is that you only shoot him from
But don't just take my word for it. Go to pbs.org and see their preview:
I've been delighted with the quality of PBS's Great Performances series. For
instance, the Pavarotti: A Voice for the Ages special amazed me. Yes, I
knew who Pavarotti was -- a famous Italian tenor, whose stoutness made
cliches of fat opera singers come true. How could anyone take him seriously in
a romantic lead?
Now I know. Because for the first time, I was able to see closeups of Pavarotti
while acting. Yes, he's singing, but he's also acting. His face is beautifully
expressive, without ever seeming to be mugging.
In most singers, the face is an instrument of voice production, and it is
distorted in order to produce the sound. But Pavarotti seemed to produce the
sound effortlessly, so that his face was available for expressing the character.
Pavarotti himself was aware of this, as the interviews reveal. But why
shouldn't an artist know and say where his strengths lie? He knew he was
unconvincing if he tried to move around the stage -- the lumbering movement
would surely undo the effect of the song.
So instead he relied on his face and his voice, and with that combination he
stood head and shoulders above all other tenors. And if you doubt it, there's a
moment of "sing-off" between Pavarotti and the other two of the Three Tenors,
Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. They are also wonderful singers, but
when they try to match one of Pavarotti's incredible trills, it's obvious they're
out of their league.
Of course, the trill itself is just showing off. It doesn't really add to the
music, it merely makes the audience clap at the virtuosity of the singer. But
that's where opera is today, rather as ballet was until recently: Set forms,
endlessly repeated, mean that the performers must juice up the performance
with individual stunts. And Pavarotti was the best.
Another PBS Great Performance is Barbra Streisand's Back to Brooklyn
concert. Since for most of her life, Brooklyn was just across a bridge from
Manhattan, I am quite sure she has been back to Brooklyn many times. But
this title refers to her doing a concert there, and why not? Whatever gets
Streisand on stage.
Yes, she's getting older. Her voice is showing the effects of age. But Streisand
-- the same woman who never had a nose-job done despite her aching desire to
be "beautiful," because it might damage her voice -- is quite aware of her new
limitations and sings around them with skill and inventiveness.
If Back to Brooklyn is her last concert -- and perhaps wisdom will make it so --
it's a fitting recap of her career. Of course, you don't have to watch it on PBS
now -- it was released as a CD and DVD almost immediately after the first
If, like me, you're always on the lookout for a new singer, one of the best times
to sample their work is Christmastime.
Of course, sometimes it can be misleading. For Christmas, a lot of singers offer
much more traditional music than their ordinary work.
But I confidently offer you Merry and Bright, a short album by Liz Callaway.
She's a Broadway-style singer who has moved on into the world of cool jazz and
Great American Songbook.
The acid test? She put "Grown-Up Christmas List" on her album and it didn't
make me sick. (The most childish thing ever to go under the name "grownup.")
All the other songs are simply delightful. I like her voice. I like the album. I've
got some of her other albums on order.
Speaking of Christmas songs, have you noticed how "Jolly Old St. Nicholas"
has been bowdlerized, presumably to please feminists?
Here are the words I memorized as a child:
Jolly Old Saint Nicholas,
Lean your ear this way;
Don't you tell a single soul
What I'm going to say.
Christmas Eve is coming soon;
Now you dear old man,
Whisper what you'll bring to me;
Tell me if you can.
When the clock is striking twelve,
When I'm fast asleep,
Down the chimney, broad and black,
With your pack you'll creep;
All the stockings you will find
Hanging in a row;
Mine will be the shortest one.
You'll be sure to know.
Johnny wants a pair of skates.
Susy wants a dolly.
Nellie wants a storybook;
She thinks dolls are folly;
As for me, my little brain
Isn't very bright;
Choose for me, old Santa Claus,
What you think is right.
But those aren't the words you're likely to find today. The middle stanza has
mostly disappeared completely -- perhaps because of the word "black," though
this song was written back when nobody referred to African-Americans as
If you've ever been inside a chimney, you know that anyone passing through
one will be jet black upon arrival. Nothing racial.
The true absurdity, though, is the feminist change to what the children want.
It is wrong wrong wrong to show a boy wanting an outdoor toy, and a girl
wanting a doll! Sexual stereotype! Anathema! Off with their heads!
So the new stanza says:
Johnny wants a pair of skates.
Susy wants a sled.
Nellie wants a picture book,
Yellow, blue, and red.
Now I think I'll leave to you
What to give the rest.
Choose for me dear Santa Claus.
You will know the best.
Never mind that there are a lot of dolls for sale in toy stores. Somebody's
buying them. Anybody seriously think that they aren't overwhelmingly going to
Here's what rubs me raw: This song already had a feminist spirit. Susy may
want a dolly, but Nellie thinks dolls are stupid and she wants a storybook.
But the new verse, in order to find a rhyme for the egregious "sled," makes
Nellie illiterate. Nay, not just illiterate, but so dim-witted that she doesn't care
what the pictures are of, as long as they contain the primary colors.
Another version shows up that has Nellie want a "storybook; one she hasn't
read." Slightly better. But it misses the point: The children are all different,
and the song isn't saying what all boys want, or all girls; it's saying what the
singer's older brother and sisters want. They're individuals.
Then we come to the last quatrain. The littlest kid in a family often feels like
"his little brain isn't very bright," because the older kids all know so much.
They have definite preferences, but he doesn't yet know what's even available
in the wide world. (This was written before television, remember.)
But apparently we can't let a child sing a self-deprecating verse.
Too bad, because when you think about it, this is a touchingly altruistic song.
The child is asking Santa Claus to merely tell what he's bringing. He has no
specific gift request. Instead, he's making sure Santa knows what his siblings
want! He's looking out for the older kids!
Come on. Isn't that the Christmas spirit?
So no, I'm not playing. The "new, improved" words are stupid, and they
messed with a pretty wonderful little song. The old words are the only ones
I'll sing. Though that may only prove that my little brain isn't very bright.
It's a song, by the way, that apparently wrote itself -- no author can be found,
at least not with a cursory Google search.
Fortunately, we also can't find who made the politically correct modernizations.