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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 23, 2015

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


Craft, Pizza, Broadway, Six of Crows

In the past week, I read -- or, rather, listened to -- two partly-autobiographical books by men of the counterculture.

Their lives were very little like mine. Yes, we all came of age in the post-Vietnam era, but one was a full-bore anti-war hippie, the other a punk rock devotee, who passed through weed on his way to alcoholism and then sobriety.

To me, hippies were people you saw parodied badly in movies, discussed pretentiously in magazines, and arrested on television. Their "philosophy" seemed childish when it wasn't openly stupid, and, while I agreed that the world needed changing, one of the most-needed changes, in my opinion, was for somebody to teach the hippie and punk-rock generations what logic and evidence were, since all their opinions seemed to be formed in the absence of both.

At the same time, I resented the way the pundits all referred to the actions of hippies as being the choices of my "generation." What were the non-hippies, non-punkers like me, canned fish?

After all, I went to college at Brigham Young University, which banned long hair and beards because of the hippies. We officially stood on the side of the old morality, and while we students listened to Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, most of us rejected the pro-drug, free love culture of the people who drove around in VW buses decorated with flowers and/or psychedelic art.

That was before I realized that an astonishing number of my friends were getting and using various drugs -- speed (methamphetamine) being the one that outed them when an overdose landed them in the university medical center.

Oh. Apparently my friends were taking on some of the trappings of hippie culture. They just weren't inviting me. Which is fine -- I would have said no. And if I hadn't, I probably would have been the one who got everybody else to clean up their act by dying.

My impression of the hippie portion of my generation, as of the punk rockers of the succeeding one, was that they didn't understand the adult world well enough to rebel effectively against it. They really were irrelevant, even as they dismissed any kind of knowledge, fact, and skill for irrelevancy.

The courses and programs they pushed to have introduced into university curricula -- where they still remain, as signs of how pathetically spineless most universities were and are -- would prepare students for exactly nothing in the real world.

How did all those hippies and, later, punk rockers manage when they had to do things like, you know, earn a living, maintain a lasting relationship, raise kids?

*

Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters.

Peter Korn was a son of educated parents, and his well-to-do lawyer father expected him to go to college and major in a field that would lead him to a career in one of the clean-hands professions.

But before he finished college, and while he still needed a college deferment to avoid the draft (he had a low draft lottery number, which made it almost certain he would be taken), he realized that college was not for him. It was not the life he wanted to lead.

He found himself in Nantucket, before it became gentrified, and began working on a carpenter's crew. He found that he loved working with his hands, making things take the shape he wanted them to have. And, to his father's horror, he dropped out of college to become a carpenter full time.

Korn is very candid about the fact that his parents did not punish him or try to control him with money. Over many years, he turned to his father again and again to keep him financially afloat as he learned the craft that would be the center of his life.

For he soon turned from carpentry to joining -- from putting up walls to making furniture. This is an entirely different kind of woodworking, because chairs and tables must have grace as well as function, and they will be observed closely, so there can be no sloppiness in the work.

What Korn realized early on was that working in wood was not just a physical experience, but also a deeply personal one. He was finding himself, not in the wood, but in what he made from the wood. Fortunately, though he echoes some of the pop philosophy that prevails in our time, his actual thoughts are often much deeper and apply to more endeavors than laboring in a handicraft.

I have done physical work in my day, from baking to candy-making, from scenery construction and painting to costume and makeup design and creation. But I never put in the kind of time and love that he gave to his craft; the only craft I've really devoted myself to is storytelling.

Korn seems to accept that becoming excellent at a craft requires a kind of dedication that often puts family and other concerns in the background. He has loved and married more than once, demonstrating that he needs normal human companionship. But as he says himself, becoming a master craftsman does not make you a masterful human being.

The book is written with great candor. It's quite possible that his transition from woodcraft to teaching, then writing and administering a school, will contain more detail than some readers will care for ... but that's why skimming was invented.

Because I listened to the book (read quite well by Traber Burns) I missed out on illustrations and photographs, but having only the words still made for an excellent read. Korn is a clear and candid writer, and I imagine that his books on woodworking (Woodworking Basics; Working with Wood; The Woodworker's Guide to Hand Tools) are very useful.

But I have no interest in becoming a craftsman in wood. Words and characters are the lumber of my trade. Fortunately, Korn's thoughts on craft apply to any labor that results in some kind of observable artifact, and which can be done badly or well.

It is in caring about the difference between good work and bad that the soul of the artist is not so much discovered as made.

But I do start from, and arrive at, a different place from Korn. Though he acknowledges that becoming a superb craftsman doesn't make you a superb person, I don't believe that it is ever necessary to sacrifice decent behavior in order to do excellent work.

For instance, I've never noticed a correlation between the quality of a film or play director's work and his disposition toward abusing cast and crew.

My dictum on this is: Genius excuses nothing. A bully who's good at his art is still a bully. A self-indulgent narcissist who has become famous for his achievements is no less a self-indulgent narcissist. I would rather be a person who is kind and helpful to others than the creator of works that outlast me; but it isn't an either-or choice.

The way we treat other people partially creates the world they live in and the memories they carry with them: If I make a beautiful chair or a memorable book, and yet make the world bleaker for someone that I should have loved, my miscreation of their world outweighs the useful artifacts by a large margin.

Korn does not deny this thought; to his credit, he ends his book by putting greater weight on co-creation of our shared world than on his handiwork in wood.

But setting all that philosophy aside, I treasure the difference between a well-made, comfortable chair and chairs that look nice but are awkward to use. In the matter of usefulness, he and I see eye to eye.

No art is a matter for the artist alone. In crafting any work, the artist brings his culture and all his personal relationships with him, and the artifact that results only has value to the degree that its function is recognizable and valuable to at least some others.

*

Colin Atrophy Hagendorf, Slice Harvester: A Memoir in Pizza

The other book by a semi-reformed counterculturalist is Colin Hagendorf's Slice Harvester. A punk rocker by choice -- with parents even more understanding than Peter Korn's -- Hagendorf, hanging out with his drug- and alcohol-addled punk rocker friends (he was addled-in-chief at the time), announced his decision to sample and review every single Manhattan restaurant serving pizza by the slice.

Now, I'm not a by-the-slice pizza eater. It's just not part of the culture I live in. (In fact, I'm so old that I pre-date the birth of the pizza industry in America; I remember my older siblings telling me about this new kind of food, with bread topped with melty cheese and tomato sauce and various kinds of meat. Sounded icky to me. But as I grew older, I watched the "fad" turn into a permanent part of American culture.

For me, pizza is supposed to arrive round, and then get shared out among friends (or eaten alone, if the pizza is individual-sized). The only debates that matter are thin-crust versus thick-crust, and which toppings are best.

(Delivery vs. frozen isn't even an interesting discussion. If you're thinking of resorting to frozen pizza, why not just get a hamburger? Make a tuna sandwich? Or chew on cardboard till it's soft enough to swallow?)

Hagendorf began at the top of the island of Manhattan and worked his way through the neighborhoods, recording his impressions on a blog.

The blog attracted a lot of attention -- many New Yorkers care about quality, and many readers from around the world followed the blog, either because they intended to visit New York and wanted to know which pizzas to try and which to avoid, or because they simply enjoyed Hagendorf's insouciance and insights.

Slice Harvester includes many sample reviews, and I can see why he got such a following. But the book is not a collection of reviews. Rather it is Hagendorf's life story, more or less, starting with his days as a punk rocker finding out that nothing he did could make his parents reject him.

The book carries the subtheme of Hagendorf's love for his family and his process of maturing past the I-hate-everything stance of teenage punkers at the dawn of the genre.

What Hagendorf's and Korn's memoirs have in common is that even though they represent recent history, they both grew up in a different world -- without mobile phones, let alone smart phones and tablets. When Korn was setting up his first school, he remembers renting the building, getting a phone number, and buying advertising in print publications. Hagendorf went from vinyl to cd to download.

Korn writes about meeting the leading figures in the craft world. For Hagendorf, the heroes he meets aren't pizza gurus, they're punk rockers and others from the music world.

Reviews matter -- if they didn't, then I would be wasting my time writing this column for fourteen years (so far), wouldn't I? Hagendorf's book reaches its climax when he enters into conversation with the owner of the pizza place whose slice he ended up rating as the best in Manhattan.

It turns out that the owner had been following Hagendorf's blog and was waiting for him to show up. Plenty of the pizzeristas obviously didn't care about quality. Like the worst cases on Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, they bragged about their quality without actually putting in the work and care that are required to achieve high quality.

When the owners cared, it showed.

In a way, though Hagendorf isn't a pizza maker, his book is still largely about the same search for excellence in making that Korn wrote about.

Both Korn and Hagendorf made many life choices that I'm glad I didn't make. But in other ways, they made the same choice I made: To work on a craft until I'd mastered it well enough to make a living at it.

On the other hand, I didn't assume that I could just pick up their art and be good at it; but they both plunged into my craft, writing, as if the mere fact that they spoke English made them competent.

And you know what? It does. Writers are rarely bad when they write the language that they speak -- they're fluent in it, and they've already learned how to speak so that others will understand them. Writers usually don't become awful until they try to "write well" -- you know, trying to duplicate all the absurd irrelevancies that literature teachers assure them are the factors separating good from bad writing.

By not trying to write in some impressively arty way, Hagendorf and Korn end up being very effective writers of the American Plain Style. They aren't as clear and fluid as Isaac Asimov was, but nobody else ever has been and I doubt that anybody else ever will be. But they're clear and fluid enough to make both books well worth reading.

*

Michael Riedel is a theatre critic for the New York Post, but I've never opened that publication. I have come to know him in his role as co-host of public television's Theater Talk.

This show is the opposite of what most people think public tv talk shows will be. Where Charlie Rose seems never to lose sight of his main goal -- impressing people with Charlie Rose's unflappable demeanor and deep insights -- Theater Talk is about theatre. The writers, directors, designers, and actors. The performances of new shows, and memories of great shows of the past.

One of the challenges of theatre history, as opposed to film history, is that you can't binge-watch productions from decades ago. Even if they were filmed or taped, all you have is the shadow, the fingerprint of a show; theatre only exists live, in the moment, with living people watching living people perform in the same room.

So in a talk show like Theater Talk, you can't have an intelligent conversation unless the hosts have deep knowledge and memories of great and terrible plays from the past. It's not a young person's game.

Susan Haskins, Riedel's co-host, is his equal in knowledge, but she can be forgiven for not matching his relaxed domination of the discussion. They don't compete; they make room for each other. It's great fun to watch, even when they're conversing with people about shows I'm not impressed with.

Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that Riedel had written a book about the history of Broadway, called Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway. I ordered it immediately as a hardcover, but ended up listening to it as an audiobook (narrated very well by Peter Berkrot).

In order to understand the last fifty years of Broadway, you have to have some idea of the roots, and so Riedel takes us through the rise of the Shubert Organization, the dominant theater-owners in Manhattan after they won their struggle with the Syndicate.

Riedel then shows us, in detail, the decay of the Shubert family, until two lawyers working for the Shuberts, Bernard Jacobs and Jerry Schoenfeld, realized that the only way to save New York theatre was to get the Shubert theaters out of the hands of the Shubert family.

It was a good choice, to build the book around the story of the Shubert empire and the two fascinating men who saved it, and then saved Broadway.

Where the early years are summarized -- you're expected to already have a good idea of the works of Rodgers, Hammerstein, Lerner, Loewe, and others from the great age of the book musical, though Riedel refreshes your memory quite well -- the years that began with Michael Bennett, Tommy Tune, and Andrew Lloyd Webber are covered in great detail, often show by show.

Riedel isn't a fanboy, and he isn't out to dish dirt. He is candid about flaws as well as talents, and he helps us see clearly how ambition, talent, and hunger drew so many talented people into close proximity, sometimes productively, sometimes disastrously.

At the heart of it all is the surrogate-father relationship between director-choreographer Michael Bennett and Shubert leader Bernie Jacobs. Because Riedel shows both of them as crusaders who, in different ways, kept Broadway alive against entropy and opposition, we feel the tragedy of their falling-out all the more keenly.

Also, Riedel does a superb job of dealing with the way AIDS shattered New York theatre. Instead of trying to blame AIDS on outsiders who didn't care about gay people -- the politically correct but absurdly incomplete party line -- Riedel simply tells it as it happened.

At first no one understood the danger. One group of gay friends tried to make a pact that they would only have sex with members of that group, "since all of us are healthy." But because of the pernicious way HIV was transmitted and then lurked in the body before striking, it's highly likely that at least a few and perhaps nearly everybody in that group was already infected.

Some of my friends from my days as a drama student at BYU were caught up in the epidemic. I know of several who definitely died of AIDS, and assume that there were others I didn't hear about, since the diagnosis was concealed in those early days.

AIDS was no respecter of talent. Brilliant artists were taken along with those who were still struggling to get better parts, or to get on stage at all.

Painful as the era of AIDS's first arrival was, Riedel does not let it take over the book. If there's anything that we learn from Razzle Dazzle, it's that while individual people may seem irreplaceable, they are always replaced. What couldn't be replaced were the theater buildings themselves.

Manhattan real estate is so expensive that it would be almost unimaginable to try to replace all the theaters built in the first half of the twentieth century. What Broadway needed was preservation and revival, and Riedel tells the story of how Times Square was eventually cleaned up so that Broadway theatre could drive an important tourist industry.

Riedel has his opinions about the quality of various shows, but this book is not a collection of reviews. Quite the opposite -- he's looking at the social and financial impact that various producers, theater owners, directors, writers, and composers had in reviving Broadway after it seemed at the point of collapse.

If you don't care about theatre or Broadway, this book might still be interesting; but if acting, directing, playwriting, and theatre-going are in your blood, then reading Razzle Dazzle will be a soul-stirring experience. Figures like the Shuberts are both legendary and largely forgotten; Riedel makes the whole history of modern Broadway come to life.

*

If there's any flaw in Leigh Bardugo's young adult fantasy novel Six of Crows, it's the way that Bardugo brings in elements from cultures in our world that only coincidentally go along with the technological level she's given her fictional setting.

But such anachronisms and weird misplacements are relatively rare, and they are not even close to the level of careless stupidity found in the world of Hunger Games. What matters is that the characters and their relationships are interesting and believable, so that by the time I reached the end of what turns out to be the first volume in a series, I was completely hooked.

I was also completely satisfied, because Bardugo completely closes the adventure at the center of this volume, so that the reader isn't left gasping with outrage at having been left without an ending. The book ends, kids. Only then does it set up the dilemma that will stretch across one or more future books in the series.

The world is one in which magic users are called Grishans (pronounced exactly as if the word were spelled "Grecians," confusing when you're listening to the audiobook). Some nations fear and hate the Grishans; others honor and rely on them; and still others are eager to control them and harness their power to serve their own ends.

Thus, like most magical fantasy fiction, the story is about power -- who has it and how they use it. The main characters are all teenagers, but they function as adults in the real world -- you know, the way teenagers did only eighty years ago. It's only our culture that artificially keeps teenagers out of the adult world until they've finished obedience training in high school and college.

So for teen readers, this book is an excellent entertainment. There have been earlier books set in Bardugo's world, and I'm looking forward to reading them; but everything you need to know in order to understand Six of Crows is contained within it, and it's as good an introduction to Bardugo's fictional universe as I can imagine.

But the level of violence and sexual tension is such that parents should think carefully before handing the book to, say, a ten-year-old. On the other hand, it raises moral issues clearly enough that parents who got a second copy and read along with their child might find that the discussions provoked by the moral dilemmas in Six of Crows were far more effective at preparing their children for adult life than any attempt to shelter them.

And any reader over, say, fourteen will probably be fine with the level of misbehavior in the book.

Bardugo herself seems to have led a fascinating life -- born in Jerusalem, reared in Los Angeles, and a graduate of Yale. I haven't read enough YA fantasies this year to know whether Six of Crows is the best in category -- but I know that in any year it would deserve to make a fantasy reader's top ten list.


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