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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 11, 2014

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


Landing, Couples' Pillows, Mom's Soup

I haven't seen this year's sci-fi masterpiece, Interstellar, because the film is nearly three hours long and because despite Christopher Nolan's brilliance as a storyteller, he has a penchant for cheating his audiences out of a resolution at the end.

So I've kept putting off watching Interstellar until this semester's teaching is over and I have time to allow another infuriating, open-ended Christopher Nolan epic into my brain space.

However, for those still irritated by Nolan's ending to Inception, the what-is-real-and-what-is-a-dream ambiguity that he could so easily have resolved, the website Screen Rant offers an explanation, not of what "really" happened, but of why Nolan believed it didn't really matter, to him or to the character, whether the world he ended up in was real or not.

Here is a link to the explanation, which they claim has since been endorsed by Christopher Nolan himself. But let me add that even if this was exactly what Nolan intended all along, he also knew perfectly well that by raising the issue of "what is real" the audience would be distracted and frustrated by his failure to answer that question.

http://screenrant.com/inception-spoilers-discussion-kofi-68330/3/

Of course, nothing in a fictional world is real -- but it matters a great deal to audiences whether certain events were real within the world of the story, and since only the storyteller knows, when the storyteller refuses to tell, it's a cheat. It will always be a cheat, no matter how many cool arty explanations the storyteller has for why he cheated us.

Anyway, that's why I don't trust Nolan as a storyteller, despite his being one of the most skillful sci-fi moviemakers ever. He doesn't keep the sacred bargain between storyteller and audience -- the promise to actually tell the story -- and so I both anticipate and dread seeing each of his films.

Meanwhile, a friend just pointed out a well-written, well-acted sci-fi film with a powerful ending that you can watch for free in sixteen minutes. Yet it's memorable, complete, and, in my opinion, perfectly clear.

The film is called The Landing, and it takes place at the dawn of the space age, back in the 1960s. I have clear memories of the era, and I have to say that the events are not at all implausible -- which makes the film all the more disturbing.

But enough of my review: It's much better if you simply see the film, which won awards when it first appeared last year. To me it's unbelievable that it was not nominated in the short-film Oscar category -- but on the rare occasions when a science fiction film is excellent, it rarely gets the respect that it deserves.

http://vimeo.com/113841869

*

If you don't already have a family tradition of attending the Greensboro Oratorio Society's annual live performance of Handel's Messiah, I'm happy to assure you that the tearing-down of War Memorial Auditorium won't interfere.

Handel's Messiah will be performed by the Oratorio singers, with orchestra and soloists, on Thursday, December 18th, at 7:00 p.m. at the Carolina Theater. There is no admission charge but cash donations are appreciated. All adults and children who can sit quietly for a couple of hours are invited.

*

I happened to meet Susannah O'Brien the other day, and she mentioned that she makes "couples' pillowcases" and sells them on Etsy.

I had never heard of "couples' pillowcases," so I nodded and smiled and pretended that I had any idea of what she was talking about.

So many things sold on Etsy have an "oh how sweet" quality about them that it's perfectly natural to approach Etsy products with skepticism. Especially because a lot more of them have an "oh how sad" quality!

But Oh Susannah's pillowcases are nothing short of brilliant. The idea is to have stark white pillowcases with clear black-on-white messages that make the most sense if the two pillowcases are side by side.

One pairing has a pillow saying, "I belong with you," and the other saying, "You belong with me."

In another pair, one pillow says "I like you" and the other says "& naps." Or there's "All I want for Christmas is you" paired with "& donuts."

Some messages make no sense unless both pillows are together. For instance, there's a pair of pillows, one saying "my side" and the other, "your side." But the "my side" pillow has an arrow that stretches from one side to the other and beyond -- taking up about a third of the space on the other pillow -- while the "your side" arrow is less than half the size. A humorous comment on the fact that couples sharing a bed often have to reconcile different sleeping habits.

There are visual messages that I simply can't explain without spoiling them, so I'll let you go to Susannah's website and discover them for yourself.

There are also single pillows with messages. I love the multi-colored child's pillowcase saying, "Dream big, little one." Others say "Never grow up" and "Always kiss me goodnight."

The astonishing thing is that all the pillowcases are in reasonably good taste -- nothing mean, nothing crude. Just good humor and affection.

Some of them are meant to be gifts to a bride and groom, but there's nothing tacky or embarrassing. You can get "Groom" and "Bride" cases, or cases that in combination say "Let's cuddle (a lot)" or "Let's spoon" (with spoon pictures).

Unfortunately, the pillowcases are all microfiber, which I'm allergic to; but if her process will work with all-cotton pillowcases, I'm hoping to get my favorite pair: "Sleep all night" and "Dream all day." And you can order standard- or king-size cases.

Susannah handmakes all the pillowcases and her work is in such demand that she puts in eighty-hour work weeks in her home here in Greensboro, filling orders from pretty much everywhere. This is accomplished with a very active (but smart and funny) toddler in the house -- and a husband who carries out most of the duties of his demanding international job from an office in the same house!

And I thought our lives were crazy, what with an annoying, self-centered writer playing videogames and making up 300-page lies in his office while his wife does all the real work of the household downstairs.

At some point Susannah O'Brien is going to have to hire more people to keep up with the demand for her excellent pillowcases. But for now, she's the only elf making all the products at O Susannah's.

Here's what you type into the address field of your browser to see her site and place your orders: OSusannahs.etsy.com

Best of all, these are wonderful Valentine's, anniversary, birthday, and wedding gifts -- or you can simply buy them for yourself. So even if you can't get an order placed in time for Christmas, it won't matter, because you can find a good use for them any time of year.

*

After I published my review of Fannie May's brilliant hot chocolate, I tried to order a bunch of packages to give to a few friends along with our favorite hot chocolate-making machine. But when I went to the site where I had ordered six packages only two weeks before, there was no hot chocolate to be found.

My first thought was that the readers of this column, trusting my judgment implicitly, all rushed to their computers and ordered every speck of hot chocolate that Fannie May's had on offer.

But no, there's no evidence I have such a widespread following. Instead what happened was that a fire burned a Fannie May warehouse to the ground over the Thanksgiving weekend. Nobody was hurt -- but a vast portion of their stock was destroyed just before the Christmas buying season.

Now they're scrambling to fill orders for Christmas -- and since their chocolate-dipped berries are always made fresh, that's the main thing their website is touting at the moment.

When will other items like hot chocolate be back in stock? They're working as hard as they can to get everything back on the shelves and ready to sell -- but they're also smart enough not to promise any particular time.

So for this Christmas season, we'll be giving some friends a selection of runners-up in the contest for "best hot chocolate in America."

As for other chocolates, remember that Loco for Coco here in Greensboro is fully stocked and ready to please with truffles, chocolate bars, half-dipped mints, peppermint patties, turtles, fudge, and David Bradley non-pareils.

Also, See's has a holiday store in Friendly Center offering pre-packaged candies. I especially recommend the boxes of nothing but their bordeaux chocolates, though I must say that I have several friends with excellent taste whose favorites are the butterscotch squares (whose filling tastes exactly like the brilliant penuche icing my mother made when I was growing up) and others who prefer the selection of nuts and chews.

*

I had no idea what a "TED Lecture" was until after I agreed to deliver one at Utah State University. But when I told my students at Southern Virginia University that I was giving one, their reaction told me that to their generation, this was a big deal.

Until then, they had no idea how cool I was.

The idea is to give an eighteen-minute (or less) lecture, at a college level, on whatever subject you have expertise in. I had no interest in talking about my own fiction and even less in talking about movies. But I do know something about encouraging creativity in schoolchildren and in working adults -- and also how some schools and some bosses work hard to stifle it.

Many of the ideas I talked about have already been addressed in these pages. But in case you're interested in seeing how it all came together when crammed into eighteen minutes, here's a link to the TED lecture I gave at Utah State University a few weeks ago: "Creative Education: How to Keep the Spark Alive in Children and Adults":

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=weBTtaMqpHM

*

One of the delights of eating at La Madeleine, a Texas-based chain of French casual dining establishments, is their brilliant tomato-basil soup.

I didn't know that I loved tomato basil soup until I ate at La Madeleine, and there I discovered that the soup is even better with a thick sprinkling of grated cheese added at the last moment.

La Madeleine sells bottles of their soup, but my experience has been that the period before their expiration date is so brief that it's not worth buying more than one bottle at a time -- especially since I only get to eat at La Madeleine when I'm in northern Virginia, where there are locations at the Reston Town Center and in Tyson's Corner Center.

The other day, though, I was walking through Fresh Market at a time when an employee was restocking shelves in a particular aisle, and a customer was completely blocking the remaining space while having a long conversation. Being an undemanding soul who takes several drugs to keep my blood pressure down, instead of going through the "excuse me" ritual I simply backed out of that aisle and walked down another.

Which is why I happened to notice, on the second aisle, a new product line: Mom's brand of spaghetti sauces ... and tomato basil soup.

Now, I know very well the old maxim: "Never eat at a place called 'Mom's,' never play poker with a man named 'Doc,' and ..." well, there are variations on the third part, and none of them are nice.

I know a man who paid his way through grad school in Utah by playing poker across the border in Nevada. He was called "Doc" and he was a terrific writer and I wrote a story about him -- but I never played poker with him, because I'm not stupid. Or rather, I am stupid, at least about cards, but because I know I'm stupid I'm smart enough not to test my skill against a professional.

However, what I saw on the shelf at Fresh Market wasn't a place called "Mom's," it was a food labeled "Mom's." And it looked really good. The ingredient list was excellent -- the most important feature being that it was not based on a wine stock, so my wife's allergy wouldn't get all excited. So I bought a couple of jars so we could try it out.

The result: Mom's Limited Edition Ready to Eat Tomato Basil Soup is a winner. It's every bit as good as the tomato basil soup from La Madeleine, but because it has a bit of calcium chloride its shelf life is considerably longer.

In America, everything we buy in the grocery store has to accommodate the need for a long shelf life. And I'm including the produce section, because most of the fruits and vegetables we buy have been carefully bred to be picked green, to ripen on the truck or train, and then hold its fresh, bright appearance for as long as possible in the grocery store.

There are much better-tasting versions of all this produce -- and healthier, too -- but because it ripens and then goes bad so quickly, you can only get it if you grow it yourself or live close to where it's grown and buy it from roadside stands.

Which means that most of what's grown is the long-shelf-life variety of each and every fruit or vegetable.

It's like the acidy, nasty pineapples grown in Hawaii. There are much better pineapples grown in places like Brazil, where you go to the pineapple farm and they sell you a pineapple and hand you two machetes. You jam one up into the pineapple from the bottom and then use the other to slice off the juiciest, sweetest pineapple you could possibly imagine.

Try not to cut yourself. As an American, I thought those machetes were a lawsuit waiting to happen.

They could grow those sweet pineapples in Hawaii, too -- but Dole owns all the land and they're not going to waste time and space growing fruit that isn't perfectly sized and shaped for the tin can or bred to have a long, long shelf-life. Too bad if all those versions of pineapple are sour and cause many people to get cankers. Because the sweeter pineapples will be rotten long before they can reach the mainland grocery stores.

So yes, there's a bit of preservative in Mom's Tomato Basil Soup, but according to the HellaWella website, it's "generally recognized as safe by the FDA. There's currently no evidence to suggest it's dangerous to consume in the amounts found in food and drink products." Basically, it's salt but with calcium instead of sodium. It's a mineral our bodies need anyway.

The HellaWella site has a lot of explanations about additives -- some dangerous, some safe -- and I think those who are concerned about additives may find it interesting. Of course, if you're already committed to hating a particular additive that they say is perfectly all right (like, for instance, high-fructose corn syrup, which has been found to metabolize like any other sugar), you are free to go on avoiding it.

They express doubt about whether monosodium glutamate (MSG) causes problems, but I can affirm that every time I eat something that contains it, and only when I eat things that contain it, I get a scaly, patchy rash on my face that resembles, and responds to salves designed to treat, psoriasis. So they don't know everything. But they do know something.

Here's the site:

http://sn.im/hellawella-additives

Anyway, what this review is about is that Mom's Tomato Basil Soup tastes great, with or without grated cheese on top. It's thick and hearty, and one jar of it makes just enough soup to satisfy two hungry adults, or me plus a person on a diet.

We who live close to Fresh Market are lucky because we can simply pick up a few jars when we're in the store. Those who live farther away may want to order it online from Fischer & Wieser, the Texas-based manufacturer of specialty foods that makes and sells Mom's products at the website www.jelly.com.

Here's a link to the very page: http://sn.im/MomsTomatoSoup .

The tomato basil soup is sold in identical jars right along with various pasta sauces, so you have to look at the writing underneath to find the soup. At this moment, it's the fifth jar depicted.

I worry that it's called "Limited Edition" tomato basil soup, because I don't want this to be another one of those products that I fall in love with -- only to have it immediately discontinued. I hope my reviewing it won't cause their warehouse to burn down.

*

There are still a few days left to get signed, personalized copies of some of my books to give as gifts. I have arranged with the good folks at Barnes & Noble in Greensboro for them to take orders from local customers -- and customers far and wide.

All the orders they get by each Monday at noon, I stop in and personalize and sign. Then they either call the local customer to come pick up the signed copy, or they ship it out to the remote customer. Shipping costs a little, of course, but if you're picking up your own copy there's no extra charge.

I'll sign to the person you specify -- but I can't promise to deliver the message you specify. I will never write "to my biggest fan" or "you have to read this book," and really personal, intrusive messages -- "get sober and stay sober"; "don't move to Ohio"; "you can beat this cancer" -- are out of the question.

I have specific things I write when I personalize each of my books, which I'll use unless you have a compelling story about the person to whom the book is being inscribed.

Here is the list of books available in this program -- until the store runs out of any particular title:

Boxed sets of all three hardcovers of the now-complete young-adult trilogy Pathfinder, Ruins, and Visitors. We will remove the shrink-wrap so I can sign all three volumes to the person you specify.

The Pathfinder trilogy is my best, most mind-blowing sci-fi ever, in my opinion, so any one of the books (or all three) are a good follow-up for someone who already owns Ender's Game.

Hardcovers: Ender's Game, Earth Awakens (First Formic War #3), Visitors (Pathfinder #3), The Gate Thief (Mithermages #2). I try to write my series books so that you can enjoy the later volumes without having read the earlier ones.

Trade paperbacks: Pathfinder, Ruins (Pathfinder #2), Enchantment, Magic Street. These last two are standalone novels and I think they're among my best, especially for people who think they might not like sci-fi or fantasy.

Small format paperbacks: Ender's Shadow, Speaker for the Dead.

If you're a local customer, just stop in at Barnes & Noble and ask for the book you want. They'll charge you for it, then hold it till Monday when I come in to sign it. Once it's signed, they'll phone or email you.

If you're ordering remotely, email the store at crm2795@bn.com and let them know the titles you want, the names you want them signed for, and the address to which the books should be shipped after signing. Include your phone number, too, because a store employee will call you to get credit card information (we don't want you including credit card info in emails!).

This offer is from our local Barnes & Noble ONLY. The national chain and the Barnes & Noble website have nothing to do with this, so they won't know what you're talking about if you try to participate through them.

Local orders will be taken through Monday, 22 December. Remote orders will be accepted through Monday, 15 December.


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