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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 13, 2014

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


One Summer, Videri Chocolate

Note to J.K. Rowling: The Harry Potter books are finished. Done. Published. If you wrote something then which you now, as a more mature writer, would probably do differently, so what? You did the best job you knew how to do at the time you wrote the story. Now move on. Your post-publication re-thinks are wasting everybody's time.

Only the first draft is real; your "revisions" in the news media have all, without exception, been pretty stupid, because they completely violate the integrity of what emerged from that first creative fire.

Trust your younger self. Let the older self write the stories that are on fire in your heart today. If there aren't any, then at least have the good taste not to attack the stories that made you rich because people loved them as they were. Not everything you think of is worth saying in public.

*

Anyone who's been reading this column for any length of time -- as in, ever -- will know that I take chocolate very seriously.

So I'm happy to report that not only is the Raleigh-based Videri Chocolate Factory a cool thing to have in North Carolina, it's also very, very good.

It's not so good that it will make you abandon all other chocolates -- I mean, just because Fannie May makes the best vanilla buttercreams doesn't mean that I don't also buy See's chocolates, too. But it's good enough to make a special effort to obtain them.

You can go to their website -- http://VideriChocolateFactory.com -- and read about their philosophy and their process. I'll just tell you about the result.

My wife first noticed these bars at Loco for Coco just off Lawndale in Greensboro. The bars are beautifully packaged -- wrapped in silvery foil, two bars to a package, inside a small matte-finish box. Suitable for gift-giving, but also perfectly amenable to being unwrapped and savored yourself.

Loco for Coco carries three flavors: Classic Dark Chocolate, Dark Milk Chocolate, and Dark Chocolate with Sea Salt. "Dark Milk" might sound like a contradiction, but not so. It is definitely darker than standard milk chocolates, but nowhere near as intense as the Classic Dark.

If you're like me, once you acquire the taste for dark chocolate, regular milk chocolate is usually too sweet and bland (though there are exceptions). Videri's Dark Milk Chocolate is for people who have made that transition.

The Sea Salt bars aren't at all excessive. The salt doesn't hit you hard on first tasting, at least not compared to most others. It's even milder and subtler than the salt on the Bark-Eaters sea salt bar I reviewed a few months ago.

If you need a salted-chocolate bar that smacks you in the tongue, this ain't it. But if you like it to be a gentle undertone, then you'll be delighted by the Videri.

Like all chocolates, I think the Videri bars benefit from being chilled, but of course they're also very good at room temperature for those who prefer chocolate that way.

By the way, the name Videri is not an Italian family name. For those who studied North Carolina history in school, you might remember this as being from North Carolina's state motto, written in Latin: Esse Quam Videri, which means "To Be, Rather Than To Seem."

I think this chocolate lives up to that motto -- and is also a manufacture that North Carolinians can be proud of.

*

Bill Bryson, an American who transplanted himself to Britain many years ago, has built a reputation, not as a comedy writer (there are no jokes or gags), but as a witty writer.

Unlike what passes for "wit" on television these days -- sneering comments ridiculing certain people and groups merely for not being "one of us" (think Jon Stewart and Bill Maher) -- Bill Bryson's humor is rarely disdainful of anyone. Nor does he seem to have any kind of political agenda.

Rather, Bryson seems to take and give pleasure merely through finding clever and surprising ways of saying truthful things. It is hard to think of anyone who is his match for conversational wit, in writing. Judith Martin (Miss Manners) comes to mind, and then I have to jump all the way back to Mark Twain and Jane Austen.

That's why Bryson is the mainstay of acrostic puzzlewrights -- those word puzzles where, by finding words to fit a group of cryptic definitions, you fill in a quotation. The key to a good puzzle is to have a quotation that was worth the effort to reveal it. Bill Bryson's writing is replete with worthy quotations.

His original popularity relied on what amounted to travel books -- rather as Mark Twain made his name with Roughing It and Innocents Abroad. Whenever he wrote about places that I knew, I found that his experiences were similar to my own -- though, of course, more cleverly described.

Lately, though, he's been turning to books outside of his direct experience This is a perilous journey, rather like Asimov's books on Shakespeare and the Bible. Did I really trust a writer known for another field to teach me anything in subject areas where I was already immersively up-to-date on the scholarship?

I had passed on his book about the English language -- I've read McWhorter; why would I read Bryson? -- and the very title of A Short History of Nearly Everything told me that this would be only a dilettante's view of many subjects, which can be very amusing (1066 and All That; It All Started with Columbus), but only if you don't know much about the subject.

Then, this past October, Bryson came out with One Summer: America, 1927. The concept was an intriguing one. Not a history of a particular subject; not a biography of a person. Instead, he researched the major events preoccupying the American people for three months in a rather nondescript year.

There are many years that have particular events tied to them. In fact, let's play a game. I'm going to list a bunch of years important in American history (so the subject is limited in scope), and I'll bet you can name the pivotal thing (or several things) that happened in those years.

These will be events that mattered to a lot of people. I'll start with the easy, obvious ones, and then go from there.

1776, 1861, 1783, 1929, 1941, 1917, 1963.

Easy, right? Declaration of Independence; start of the Civil War; ratification of the Constitution; stock market crash that began the Great Depression; bombing of Pearl Harbor; American entry into World War I; assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Now a slightly harder list:

2001, 1865, 1968, 1945, 1607, 1812, 1620, 1969

We say "9/11," but already people are getting hazy on the actual year, 2001; then the assassination of Lincoln and the end of the Civil War; the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy; the first atomic bombs and the end of World War II; the English colony in Jamestown; the War of 1812; the Pilgrims' founding of Plymouth colony; the Moon landing.

You might sneer at 1812, but it's only a no-brainer if you know that there was a thing called "The War of 1812." Similarly, the Compromise of 1830 is only going to pop into the minds of people educated before they stopped teaching American history in our schools.

Now, you might also tie other events to these years. For instance, 1968 was also the year of Richard Nixon's win in a three-way election, the last time a third-party candidate carried any states. (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina went for George Wallace.)

And 1968 was the year Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl) and Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) tied for the Best Actress Oscar, with 3030 votes each. But major assassinations tend to stick with us, because we tend to remember them in the context of what we were doing when we heard the news.

One last quiz and then on with the review. Let's narrow the topic and think of years when ships captured America's attention. See if you can either name the ship, or remember why a ship was important that year.

1912, 1915, 1898, 1807, 1812, 1779, 1968, 1975, 2000

Titanic; Lusitania; Maine; Clermont; Constitution and Guerriere; Bonhomme Richard and Serapis; Pueblo; Mayaguez; Cole.

Everyone knows Titanic (1912) because of the movie. Lusitania (1915) was a British passenger ship, with many Americans aboard, that was sunk by a German U-Boat and helped turn American opinion against Germany in World War I.

But now we get into more obscure territory: The Maine (1898) was a U.S. warship that exploded in Havana harbor, which became a rallying cry that helped lead us into the Spanish-American War.

The Clermont (1807) was one of the names of Robert Fulton's first practical commercial steamship. (Did you know Fulton also created the first working submarine for Napoleon in 1800?)

The Constitution (1812), nicknamed Old Ironsides, proved the U.S. Navy was a serious threat to the British fleet in its defeat of Guerriere at the outset of the War of 1812, though, oddly enough, almost no one remembers the name of the American commander, Isaac Hull.

Everyone remembers John Paul Jones, though, the commander of Bonhomme Richard (1779) in its epic battle with the British Serapis during the Revolutionary War, mostly because, with his ship crippled, he refused to surrender, with the words "I have not yet begun to fight." He lived up to that defiant statement by taking the Serapis -- and sailing it home, since his own ship sank after the battle.

The Pueblo (1968) was a U.S. Navy spy ship seized by North Korea in international waters; the crew was eventually returned. The Mayaguez (1975) was a cargo ship taken by Khmer Rouge pirates, and the Marines who died in the effort to rescue the crew are the last names listed on the Vietnam War Memorial. And the Cole (2000) was the Navy destroyer attacked by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers while in the port of Aden.

All of this amounts to historical trivia, right? And people still sneer at the idea of teaching history through the memorization of a lot of dates.

But memorized dates are the skeleton around which we build our concept of history; if you don't know the dates, you don't really know anything at all.

It's like trying to learn to read without memorizing the alphabet, or trying to understand chemistry without the periodic table of elements, or trying to do arithmetic without memorizing the times tables up to 12, or trying to program computers without knowing hexadecimal, or the values of round binary numbers up to at least a byte (256) or two (65,535, or 64K).

What Bill Bryson does with One Summer: America, 1927 is to take a year in which no single event makes us hold the year in memory, and then lead us through some truly memorable events that all happened at roughly the same time.

There was a sensational murder "of the century" that I had never heard of; it was also the summer of flagpole sitting. So what, right?

But it was also the summer of Charles Lindbergh's first solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic, and the year when Babe Ruth led the once-despised Yankees as he set a single-season home-run record (60) that lasted till Roger Maris topped it in 1961.

Meanwhile, the American midwest was suffering from its most devastating flood season in history, and Herbert Hoover was making his reputation by heading up relief efforts.

I remember when, about ten years into our marriage, my wife pulled out an old journal she had kept, and started reading things that happened within a few days of each other, or even on the same day.

What amazed us was that one thing that seemed to have happened long ago took place within days of something that seemed to us to have "just" happened a little while ago. Memory compresses and expands quite flexibly. Thus much of the entertainment value of One Summer comes from realizing that so many memorable things happened in the same "nonmemorable" year.

Bill Bryson not only tells what happened; he also gives us background and, inevitably, his assessments. Bryson clearly despises Herbert Hoover, for instance, but vain and ambitious as Hoover might have been, those are hardly rare traits in government and politics. What's rare is that he got the job done.

The usual thing in politics is for someone to make a great show of doing a noble thing, while actually wrecking the efforts of people who are actually trying to do that job.

Think of Obamacare, and then remember that this is how government usually functions. Like company bailouts that preserve bad management, and stimulus packages that prolong recessions, and military interventions that do no good and have horrible collateral damage, and withdrawals that encourage enemies to engage in much bolder attacks, and ultimatums that aren't lived up to. And in case you think I'm playing politics, half this list is Obama, and half is Reagan, the two darlings of their parties, and both were disastrous presidencies in these areas.

Anyway, even when I disagree with Bill Bryson's attitude toward this or that historical figure or event, he's never mean and he's never stupid. His conclusions are all justifiable by actual evidence, and he gives everyone his due, something that "mainstream journalists" today don't even bother attempting.

I enjoyed the whole book, especially because Bryson makes a credible narrator of his own audiobook. Usually, authors are dreadful readers, and Bryson certainly is not good enough to warrant hiring him to read someone else's book.

But it's fascinating to hear his voice, his dry, understated tone. And to hear the slight Britishizing of his vowels after years of residence in England, though his accent remains mostly midwestern American.

Not many writers could have brought off such a historical project with such panache. I don't know that I want to read a whole series of such books. "1881 (or 1890, or 1892): The Summer of the Sundae"; "Pogo Stick: America, 1957"; "1958: The Year of the Hula Hoop," "Sting Ray, 1963: The Chevy and the Schwinn"; "Pet Rocks: America, 1975."

Oddly, this may be Bryson's least funny book. That's not a bad thing. His travel books are memoirs, in a way -- "How I spent my summer vacation." They're meant to be personal, and so his self-deprecating humor has a place in every paragraph.

But One Summer does not have Bryson himself in it. After all, he was born three-and-a-half months after me, which means he was definitely not a firsthand observer of these events.

He writes the story well and clearly, and he has an eye for the telling detail -- he includes a lot of fascinating details, and yet, obviously, leaves out far more. This is almost always the historian's job -- to decide which things matter enough to be worth telling, and which aren't worth including.

Bryson strikes a fair balance between accuracy and entertainment. One Summer is an enjoyable read, and it won't make you dumber if you believe what he says. As popular history goes these days, that's high praise.


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