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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 9, 2017

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


New Yorker, Austen Films, Fig, Salmon

I still read The New Yorker, and not just for the cartoons.

OK, yes, I subscribe to it for the cartoons. I do. They're funny. Everyone knows that they publish the best cartoons by the best cartoonists, and their caption-writing contest at the end of every issue results in often brilliant and always funny cartoons.

At the same time, The New Yorker also has an editorial department -- whoever writes "Talk of the Town" -- that seems determined to set new standards of genuinely stupid commentary on how horrible and evil are all conservatives, Republicans, religious people, and people who do not make big bucks in New York City or who are not admired by those who do.

If you ever read a good word about a Republican, either he's been dead for long enough that he probably won't run for office again, or he's the Republican that Hillary Clinton most wants to run against for President.

But there's another category, and that's the deep-research article or essay.

It was in The New Yorker that I first read about the Ebola virus, for instance -- before the information showed up anywhere else.

There are a lot of things that show up first in deep-research pieces in The New Yorker, six months later on NPR (thus proving that NPR writers know what -- and how -- to read), and three years later in a big budget, ridiculously written Hollywood movie -- like Outbreak (1995), in which Dustin Hoffman and his team are able to develop a cure -- not a vaccine, but an instant-acting mass-producible cure -- in about a day.

Thus, through a complete misunderstanding of science and medicine, people get ridiculously high expectations of medicine, which leads to disillusionment and rage when actual medical science does not perform such miracles.

My point is, The New Yorker isn't just about the craziness. Besides, Lewis Lapham exists, proving that no matter how insane The New Yorker gets, it's still kind of middle of the road, when you're talking about left-wing crazy.

There's nothing left- or right-wing, though, about Jane Austen, and in the March 13th issue of The New Yorker (I hate it when publications build "the" into their titles, so that grammar might actually make you want to write, "the The New Yorker, though sanity prevails and I never do), Anthony Lane offers a compelling essay on Jane Austen's final, unfinished novel.

Austen did not give it a title, but it is generally referred to as Sanditon, because that coastal town is the obsession of a couple who are devoting their lives to developing it as a health resort. It's not an inappropriate subject for Jane Austen to skewer during the months when she already had the disease that would kill her. This writer, who thrived on ridiculing the solemnly ridiculous, had plenty to say about the hypochondria that drove such health crazes, and Anthony Lane's synopsis of the portion of the book that exists is clear and entertaining.

The only way I could do a good job of telling you about Sanditon would be to quote Lane's essay in its entirety. Instead, I'll save space and legal wrangles by giving you this link: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/13/reading-jane-austens-final-unfinished-novel

Here's one piece of information I learned that I can pass on. July 18, 2017, marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's untimely death.

Nobody knows what she died of. A writer in 1964 declared it was Addison's disease, but people with Addison's disease have disagreed; a novelist declared in 2011 that it was arsenic poisoning, for which there was no conceivable motive for any human alive at the time.

The one thing Anthony Lane can say with confidence is that whatever the disease was, it did not in any way weaken Austen's bite as a satirical observer of her contemporaries.

Jane Austen, in my opinion, invented the modern viewpoint-centered novel, and she so completely depicted her society that you need no teacher to introduce you to her fiction. Pick up Pride and Prejudice and, working from one family outward, she teaches you all the rules of society at the time. Everything is clear.

Not that Austen's work does not reward study -- oh, it does. But you don't have to study anything in order to enjoy her books. Though, of course, some are easier to enjoy than others, because she did not write to a formula and sometimes her characters are harder to sympathize with.

I would rate her good novels, from best to weakest: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park. (The ones I left out either aren't novels or aren't good.)

But let's remember that we are modern Americans, and confess that what we care most about is which of the Jane Austen movies are best. Because the best way to celebrate the bicentenary of her death is with a movie marathon.

The finest Jane Austen movie ever is Sense and Sensibility, with a script (by star Emma Thompson) that is faithful to the book, yet makes choices, at the end and in the development of the male characters, that actually improve on the book. The cast is flawless -- led by Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and Greg Wise, with Hugh Laurie in a small but telling role. Oh, and yes, Ang Lee directs Austen far better than he directs green comic book superheroes.

The next film is really the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice -- a 327-minute BBC series written by Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones's Diary, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason). With more than five hours of screen time to work with, it would have been surprising if it weren't the best.

The whole cast meets the exacting standard of British national television, and besides Colin Firth's leap to stardom, this also marks our first view of Julia Sawalha (playing Lydia), whom we later loved in the BBC Horatio Hornblower series and in Lark Rise to Candleford.

The third film is the only version of Emma that actually understands the character as Austen created her: The BBC series from 2009, starring Romola Garai in the title role, and Jonny Lee Miller (of Elementary) as Knightley. Romola Garai is, in a word, perfect, while Jonny Lee Miller may give the best performance of an Austen gentleman ever filmed. If you want any other proof of Miller's incredible range, after Trainspotting and Elementary, it's this four-hour film.

The fourth film is the beautiful and sensitive Persuasion (1995), with Amanda Root quite perfect as the young woman who allows herself to be talked out of accepting the man she really loved, dooming her to loneliness until fate brings her a second chance with Ciarán Hinds ... who usually plays scary guys.

Directed by Roger Michell, with a script by Nick Dear, this film was shot using period lighting -- that is, a candlelit room was filmed using only the light of the candles; rooms lit only by outdoor sunlight were shot using only the light that made it through the windows.

More important than the authentic light and the authentic settings is Nick Dear's delicately balanced screenplay, which allowed the actors to understand why this woman who was once a victim of other people's opinions has gained enough maturity to deserve the man she turned away.

It was Nick Dear's first screenwriting credit -- one which has been swallowed up by IMDbPro's apparent disbelief in the existence of this version of Persuasion. The 2007 TV movie of Persuasion is fine -- but it doesn't hold a candle to this 1995 version. (Did someone involved with the movie offend IMDbPro, causing it to be unfindable there? I know it was released as a feature film in America; my wife and I saw it in a theater. And Roger Ebert reviewed it:

"The details are right (in particular, we notice how dark the houses are), but this is not a costume piece; it is a film about two people who are shy and proud, and about a process of mutual persuasion that takes place between them almost without a word being spoken on the real subject."

The fifth Austen film is Pride & Prejudice again, this time the feature film starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, Rosamund Pike as Jane, Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennet, and Matthew Macfadyen as Darcy.

Coming a decade after the Colin Firth Pride, some thought this movie was unnecessary, and with only 129 minutes to play with, it could not possibly be as faithful to Austen's original. Yet writer Deborah Moggach (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and director Joe Wright included more of the lives of the serving classes than any other Jane Austen film has even attempted to do. And Keira Knightley makes a wonderful Elizabeth.

Sixth on the list is 2016's Love & Friendship, based on an early epistolary novel of Austen's that was not published in her lifetime. Whit Stillman wrote the script and directed and produced the film, which throws at us an astonishing number of characters with complicated relationships, and yet manages to keep the action clean and clear.

Depending on your tolerance for epistolary novels (that is, stories told entirely through the letters that characters write to each other), I would argue that this is yet another movie that is better than Austen's original.

Furthermore, I think Stillman's hand is so clever and right that I would love to see him take on a film adaptation of Jane Austen's favorite novel, Frances Burney's Evelina, also an epistolary.

And seventh on the list is the Pride and Prejudice that I grew up on: The Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier black-and-white version. The screenplay makes some totally unnecessary fudges -- showing Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a well-meaning aide to Darcy in "testing" Elizabeth's regard for him is quite a betrayal of Austen -- but it is impossible not to love Greer Garson, as she proved from her first feature film (Goodbye, Mr. Chips, 1939) and her signature war film, Mrs. Miniver (1942). If Greer Garson can't make you laugh and cry, you have no heart.

There are some creditable BBC adaptations quite apart from the ones listed here, and if it were possible to make a good adaptation of Mansfield Park, the 2007 TV movie would have to be it. But it is not possible, because of the nature of the experiment that Jane Austen was carrying out with this novel.

In an era when a virtuous girl was not to show any resistance to authority -- especially not a girl completely dependent on the support of her wealthy relatives -- Austen set herself the challenge of trying to help us understand how Fanny Price managed to keep her virtue and find a road to happiness.

The trouble is that the story is completely hijacked by her far more active and interesting relatives, Maria Bertram and her brothers, and by the conniving Henry and Mary Crawford, a brother-and-sister combo who are only an inch shy of being high-class grifters.

Anna Massey is brilliant as the manipulative Mrs. Norris (yes, this is the character the cat in the Harry Potter books was named for). I'm glad I saw this film. But I can't actually recommend the movie because its only payoff is the miserable end for some of the bad people. I never cared much whether Fanny found happiness, because in this movie the story leaves her behind almost at once. The man she ends up with was kind to her, but was clearly drawn to more interesting women; one knows that they would have a life of soul-numbing boredom together.

As a boring husband myself, I must say that life is a pleasure only because I married someone far more interesting than myself. Fanny's poor husband, a bit of a muddy stick himself, could have had no such hope.

If you think the Gwyneth Paltrow Emma (1996) belongs on this list, think again. It heads my list of worst films that were actually based on a Jane Austen work. (Clueless doesn't count because it only cribs its plot from Emma.)

Not for an instant does Gwyneth Paltrow show even the slightest understanding of her character, which made her a perfect match for director/writer Douglas McGrath, who got everything -- yes, everything -- hopelessly wrong. He, and this movie, understood nothing, so even glimpses of this movie make me angry, sad, and a little bit nauseated.

Why couldn't this movie have ended with someone finding Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box?

If IMDbPro was determined to make a Jane Austen movie disappear, why couldn't it have been this one, instead of Persuasion?

My wife and I will be spending a happy week this summer in the company of Austen-loving friends, watching the best movies based on the works of the best novelist of all time. Fortunately, all these movies are available as DVDs -- along with other worthy efforts by the BBC to keep Austen's never-ending audience satisfied.

*

I learned about Baron Fig writing products from Brian Greene at OfficeSupplyGeek.com, one of my favorite online reviewers. I've learned about many cool products through his newsletter, and now I want to tell you about Baron Fig.

I was first drawn to the Baron Fig Alphabet Limited Edition Squire pen. That's a mouthful. Let me translate. Baron Fig makes a simple, no-pocket-clip, high-quality, high-style pen called the Squire. They recently offered the Squire Pen in a limited edition Alphabet version with the English letters displayed down the pen's shaft.

No, they do not assume that their customers need to be reminded of letter shapes or of alphabetical order. It's just ... cool.

The Squire pens are also comfortable to use, with a smooth line that doesn't skip. And since I don't carry pens in my shirt pocket -- that's where my iPod Nano clips on -- but instead stash them in a mid-thigh cargo pocket, the lack of a pocket clip is actually a plus for me.

(To those who try to bully old men like me into giving up our out-of-fashion cargo pants, not on your life. I don't know how I lived before cargo pants, and I have no intention of finding out how I might survive without them. Worrying about fashion over function is for socially needy children.)

But the pen alone might not have pushed me to review Baron Fig products, if it had not been for their notebooks.

The whole idea behind Baron Fig's writing products is the "creative journey" that balances "Discipline and Impulse." This is not just promotional cant: As somebody who lives on the results of the creative process, I can assure you that successful creation depends on a melding of imaginative leaps and grinding self-discipline.

So when they were naming their company, they derived the name "Baron Fig" from symbols associated with the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus.

Here's when I fell in love with Baron Fig. Not only do they offer the new dot-grid format as an optional replacement for lines, which I find extremely useful for both writing and drawing, but also they have a crazy notebook called "Askew," which does have lines.

Only they're not all straight. Of course, you're free to write in straight lines, regardless of the weird things the preprinted lines are doing. But the strange-looking pages invited you to do unusual, unexpected things.

My only quibble with their Work/Play II notebook -- offered with lovely solid covers, fine binding, a ribbon bookmark, a sewn binding, and a small but highly usable size -- is that the dot-grid is placed on the verso, and the plain blank pages for drawing on the recto.

That is, when the notebook is open (it easily lies flat), the right-hand page has no lines, and the lefthand page has the dot-grid to help guide your writing.

This is the opposite of what I wanted. The left page is where I want to draw, and the right page is where I want to write, which I, at least, cannot do without some kind of grid to keep my lines straight.

But I found a simple, if inelegant solution. I simply use the Baron Fig Work/Play II notebook upside down, putting the pages just as I want them.

Go to BaronFig.com, look at their products, and spend some time playing with the fun stuff on their site. Their attention to quality is meticulous, so that their products are well worth the cost; and their sense of fun and whimsy are contagious.

Will Baron Fig make me forget about Levenger, my longtime office-product supplier? Not at all. The things I buy from Levenger, Baron Fig does not offer -- and vice versa.

*

Fresh Market regularly stocks high quality wild-caught, fresh-frozen salmon, so whenever I wanted to barbecue a skin-on half-salmon I've never had the slightest problem getting one (or more) from the butcher shop/fish market at Fresh Market.

Yet the Vital Choice catalogue was too seductive to ignore. For one thing, this is ecologically correct food -- they go to some effort to offer "sustainable seafood," with the highest standards of purity. Check out their information at VitalChoice.com.

They offer a whole array of very high quality seafood, starting with salmon, halibut, cod, and tuna. When they ship frozen fish, it arrives in perfect condition; when you thaw it and cook it, the results are excellent.

The frozen salmon I ordered came in perfectly-sized packages. Along with rice or potatoes and fruits and vegetables, my wife and I have a full meal with a single packet of salmon each.

The first time we ate them, though, we didn't know the size would be exactly right, so I cooked four. It was too much for one meal, so the next day I mixed the cold leftovers with mayonnaise, and we had salmon-salad sandwiches. My wife ate hers like a dip, on sourdough flatbread from Fresh Market. So we got two days of salmon from four packages.

Vital Choice also offer canned and pouched seafood. When you open a can of Vital Choice tuna, it does not look like ordinary canned tuna. There's a slight fishy smell that canned tuna never has, but that's a result of its freshness and natural treatment. It tastes as good as the best prepackaged tuna you've ever had.

But it's the snackable pouches of salmon that I appreciate most, along with a highly unusual product: Omega-3 Salmon Oil supplements.

Meeting all the same specs as the fish oil supplements I've been taking for years (under doctor's orders), the Vital Choice Salmon Oil has a singular advantage. From time to time, if you take it regularly, fish oil may happen to be in your stomach when you have an episode of eructation (the fancy word for belching, acid reflux, or throwing up a little in your mouth). The taste can be nauseating ... but not if you're taking the pure Salmon Oil capsules from Vital Choice.

It's like the difference between salmon caviar and regular caviar. Salmon caviar is delicious without any accompaniments; and while salmon-belching isn't exactly delicious, it's also not icky.

But Vital Choice isn't only about fish. They offer grass-fed bison and wagyu beef, heritage chicken, and all kinds of burgers and hot dogs made from fish and/or meat. Wild Alaskan Salmon "Dogs" sound even better to me than the "Bison Hot Dogs" they offer, and I'm definitely going to try their bison-burger patties.

I can vouch for the excellence of everything I've tried so far, so my expectations are high. So are the prices. It depends on what you can afford -- and how much you care about the quality they offer.

For big salmon barbecues, I'm going to stick with the large slabs of wild salmon from Fresh Market. But for small meals for two salmon lovers like my wife and me, I think it's worth investing in Vital Choice products.

*

Try the word "eructation" or "eructate" on your friends. "Oh dear, I'm afraid your new blouse has made me eructate." "Yes, let's eat at Olive Garden; I haven't eructated enough this month." "Disney can't do worse with Star Wars than the three eructations that Lucas called prequels."

It will make you popular. People are always impressed by those who know and use obscure but slightly dirty-sounding words.


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