Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 30, 2017
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Signo Pens, Storytelling Animal, Memory Man
For years I've been so happy with UniBall pens that I buy them by the box. But I'm also an
office-supply fanatic, which is why I get the OfficeSupplyGeek.com weekly newsletter.
Needless to say, Brian Greene, the reviewer there, does not have my fanatical loyalty to UniBall.
Instead, he reports on all the brands.
Not only that, but OfficeSupplyGeek.com introduced me to an online dealership called
JetPens.com, where they not only sell all kinds of writing implements, from cool fountain pens
to hardworking office pens, from mechanical pencils to calligraphy supplies, but also test and
They recently offered a review of extra-fine point pens that blew me away. In all my years of
looking at pens in office supply stores, I thought that a 0.5 millimeter tip was the finest point you
could get in a pen.
Wrong. In Japan, because their language is written in characters that are a lot more complicated
than our Roman alphabet letters, they need a very, very fine point -- with ink that flows smoothly
so that not a stroke is ever lost.
As I get older and my handwriting gets worse (something no one ever thought possible), I need a
much finer point so that other people -- proofreaders, editors, and my students -- can make decent
guesses at what in the world I thought I was writing.
So when Jet Pens made an exhaustive review of pens with a 0.38 mm tip, imagine my delight
when the all-around winner turned out to be by ... UniBall. Brand loyalty, in this case at least,
was based on something real.
However, I have never seen UniBall's ultrafine point Signo pens in the United States.
Fortunately, I found them on both Amazon.com and, of course, JetPens.com. I ordered a 20-color bundle of Signo 0.38mm pens from JetPens.
And then, in the interest of fairness, I ordered a bunch of the runner-up pens, Pilot Hi-Tec-C Gel
Pens with a 0.25 mm tip.
This Sunday, I had my 9-year-old Sunday school class select pens from this new assortment in
order to play through a maze, and this field test by 9-year-olds gave me the following
The Pilot 0.25 mm pens did indeed have a finer point. But they also skipped constantly in the
hands of admittedly inexperienced pen users. The same kids, though, never had a skip with the
Signo pens. You can guess which ones go into the discard pile.
Maybe the lesson is that you can't make a good pen tip finer than 0.38 mm. Or maybe the lesson
is that UniBall makes a much better-flowing gel ink. I don't know which, but my new pen of
choice is the UniBall Signo 0.38 mm pen. Which means I now walk past the pen-and-pencil
aisle at Office Depot without a glance.
All the Signo pens come with labels in Japanese. The only English on one box of pens I ordered
was "uni-ball Signo" and "Mitsubishi Pencil Co., Ltd." But whatever the Japanese characters
say, the label peels right off the pen. I'm assuming the writing consists of instructions at the level
of shampoo: "Wash. Rinse. Repeat." Maybe something like "Replace cap when not in use."
Only much more politely expressed than in English.
Maybe you like your pens to have a bold line. To each his own. Or, as we pretentious people
say, who don't speak Latin but like to quote Latin taglines in order to appear cooler than we
are: "De gustibus non disputandum est."
(Just to show what a poser I am, I almost always forget to put on the "est," either before or after
"disputandum." Without the verb, it's not even a sentence, but then, I'm almost completely
But wait! There's more! JetPens also prompted me to look at a delightfully innovative "pencil
case," the Kokuyo Neo Critz Large Pencil Case, offered in at least four colors. The case is
sturdy, holds quite a few pens, and when it's zipped up, no pen or pencil can escape. Plus, you
can carry it by a finger-sized loop.
There's one really brilliant added feature. When you unzip it completely and fold back the top,
it forms a convenient standing pen-and-pencil cup, which makes it easy to pull out whatever
implement you want, using just one hand.
The kids liked having the pens displayed in that cup, so they could see the choices all at once,
and more than one of them could grab their pen of choice at the same time. (Unless, of course, it
was the same pen.)
I have now loaded all the ultrafine pens I'm keeping in the four Kokuyo Neo Critz Large Pencil
Cases I ordered -- in black, blue, grey, and green.
At my future autographing sessions, should anyone want a book signed, it will be done using a
Signo. It'll still be the same flamboyant, unreadable signature, but the lines will be much thinner.
You won't care, but I will be much happier.
However, my real use for these ultrafine pens will be in my map-making, because with most
of my fiction I create maps at different scales, so I can remember where things are in relation to
each other. Some of my novels began as maps (Treason, Hart's Hope), and in doodling a map of
a crowded ancient or medieval city, with all the buildings drawn in, I need a really fine pointed
pen for clarity and accuracy. Now I finally have the right tool for the job.
The only thing missing now is the software that will allow me to create my maps on my
supposedly art-ready SurfacePro 4. All the drawing software I've found requires that you draw as
if you were creating, you know, drawings. I'm not. I simply want to be able to doodle lines in
whatever color I want, wherever I want, and then be able to scale the map up or down, to add in
fine details or to extend the map to the next county or the next country -- however big I want to
In other words, I need an infinite doodle pad that doesn't make me follow rules or jump through
hoops every time I lift the stylus off the touchscreen.
If it also had a rubberstamp feature, allowing me (for instance) to create a tree icon or a
mountain icon, and then keep "stamping" it through an area of the map to create a forest or
a mountain range, so much the better. But I can't do any of these things on any software I've
Which is why I'm still using paper with ultrafine pens to draw my maps. Isn't it nice that in
Japan, they make and use a truly excellent pen that serves my purposes?
For years I've been working on storytelling theory, as part of my ongoing speculations in
community theory. From my earliest days as a writer and editor, I wondered why stories matter
so much that there is no such thing as a human community that doesn't tell them all the time.
I reached the conclusion that in our stories -- fictional, factual, or mythic -- we are able to assert
and clarify the one aspect of the real world that can never, never be proven: causality. In fiction,
characters do things for the reasons, and with the motives, that the author tells us. And because
the characters are made up, no amount of research can contradict the story.
I think that's one of the reasons Jesus taught in parables. When he tells us what the Good
Samaritan does and does not do, or why the Prodigal Son returns to his father's house, we are not
free to contradict the tale: "No, the Prodigal Son is really coming home to try to get his brother's
portion." Sure, you can tell your own version of the story, but Jesus' version stands
uncontradicted, because his characters do things for the reasons he reported.
By the stories we tell each other in every community we belong to -- church, family,
neighborhood, school class, office, or shop -- we establish a set of moral values based on
assertions about how the world works and why people do the things they do.
Gossip is, far and away, the most prevalent form of storytelling. And, contrary to myth, it is not
the exclusive domain of women. Men gossip constantly. For instance, when men start trotting
out statistics about athletes or teams, that is gossip. They're telling tales, offered as truth,
about people who are not present.
Journalists also tell stories -- and it's all gossip, with the reporters and pundits displaying the bias
and spin they inevitably add to any tale they tell, whether they mean to or not, just like any other
yenta. The best of them keep a firm hold on whatever facts apply to the story, but it is
impossible to tell any story without inventing elements that cannot be proven.
The who, what, when, where, and why of journalism can collect facts to shape the answers to the
first four questions, but "why" is always fictional. Even in science and history, "why" is the great
unknowable. Yet it's the most important aspect of the story.
After all my own work on story theory, I never even attempted to write a book about what I
had learned and/or devised. Why? Because I recognized at once, and never forgot, that for a
storyteller to come up with a theory stating that storytelling is the most important aspect of
community life in the human species is, to say the least, a bit self-serving.
Yes, folks: I do the most important job!
As soon as I recognized this, I immediately started coming up with stories about why garbage
collectors have the most important job. Or doctors. Or legislators. Or policemen. Or engineers
of every kind. No matter what your work is, it matters to somebody or you wouldn't get paid for
So I taught my theories to my students and otherwise kept them to myself.
But now there's a book by Jonathan Gottschall that reaches similar conclusions to mine about
the importance and nature of storytelling -- only he, not being congenitally lazy, has done the
research to base his book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, on good and
To be fair to my younger self, most of the research Gottschall relies on didn't exist until the last
couple of decades. My book on the subject would have been based on my reasoning and
anecdotal "evidence" alone; his book is far, far more authoritative and reliable than mine would
ever have been.
Let me give you a few quotations from early in the book, to show how seriously he and the
scientists whose work he cites treat the stories that are current in every human society.
When Gottschall discusses story, he begins with the fact that all the interesting stories are
about people in trouble. Notice, he doesn't say "people in conflict." I've been trying for many
years to get rid of false paradigm that almost every creative writing class foists on students, that
story requires "conflict."
Human stories in real life are almost never about conflict. Sure, maybe we sometimes have a
really nasty boss or a romantic rival or a sibling we can't get along with. But most of our
"interesting" problems arise from other, less personal sources.
Right now I'm having troubles with my computers. Microsoft has sold me Word several times --
but I can't get it to install on my Windows 10 machines. AOL's new Desktop Gold software
installed on my desktop, but seemed to forbid me to install it on my laptop.
Corel sold me Corel Draw -- but when I tried to install it, I was told that I had to uninstall a
previous version first. Only there was no previous version on my brand new computer. So I'm
left with expensive software that I paid for, but can't actually use.
Obviously, there is no antagonist, no conflict in these situations, because the workers at these
companies want me to be able to succeed. Our enemy is bad code -- but nobody at any of these
companies wrote bad code on purpose. Zero conflict, lots of struggle.
I have long used the word "struggle" for what is necessary in fictional stories, because it's not
enough, in my view, to have things go wrong. It becomes a story when the person so afflicted
cares enough to struggle to overcome those troubles. If you aren't trying to make things better,
you've got no story.
But I'm happy enough with Gottschall's "trouble" formulation to quote from Storytelling Animal.
(I'd give you a page number, but I read it on Kindle.)
"Children's pretend play," said Gottschall, "is clearly about many things: mommies and babies,
monsters and heroes, spaceships and unicorns. And it is also about only one thing: trouble.
Sometimes the trouble is routine, as when, playing 'house,' the howling baby won't take her bottle
and the father can't find his good watch. But often the trouble is existential."
By "existential" he means "about life-and-death matters. And believe me, if you've ever watched
children play when they don't know they're observed, their characters are dying like flies. When I
was a kid, the death count in games of Cavalry against Indians, Germans against GIs, or Rebs
against Yankees was astronomical.
(The only real conflict, of course, took this form: "You're dead!" "No I'm not!" "I shot you!" "In
the left arm and then I shot you with my right hand so you're dead." "Dead men can't shoot and
you were dead!")
Gottschall cites the work of researcher Vivian Gussin Paley (Boys and Girls: Superheroes in
the Doll Corner), who started from the premise that children's free-play activities will reveal
what stories they care about. Paley was frustrated by the fact that even when she sent boys to the
doll corner and girls to the big building blocks, boys still played boy games and girls still played
girl games. Says Gottschall:
"Paley's experiment culminated in her declaration of surrender to the deep structures of
gender. She decided to let the girls be girls. She admits, with real self-reproach, that this wasn't
that hard for her: Paley always approved more of the girls' relatively calm and prosocial play. It
was harder to let the boys be boys, but she did. 'Let the boys be robbers,' Paley concluded, 'or
tough guys in space.'"
(For more from Paley, look at her array of books on Amazon.com, and check out this interview:
Gottschall goes on: "Dozens of studies across five decades and a multitude of cultures have
found essentially what Paley found in her midwestern classroom: boys and girls spontaneously
segregate themselves by sex; boys engage in much more rough-and-tumble play; fantasy play is
more frequent in girls, more sophisticated, and more focused on pretend parenting; boys are
generally more aggressive and less nurturing than girls, with the differences being present and
measurable by the seventeenth month of life.
"The psychologists Dorothy and Jerome Singer sum up this research: 'Most of the time we see
clear-cut differences in the way children play. Generally, boys are more vigorous in their
activities, choosing games of adventure, daring, and conflict, while girls tend to choose games
that foster nurturance and affiliation.'"
The message here is clear: Despite the assertions of orthodox feminism, even the youngest
children are drawn to different modes of play -- modes that link closely to the roles that primate
males and females are most likely to need to practice in order to function well as adults.
When you decide to base your conclusions only on ideas that withstand the scrutiny of actual
research, you end up either writing a better book, or, because you hate the research results, no
book at all.
The Storytelling Animal quickly moves beyond gender roles in children's storymaking play and
deals with some of the most common misconceptions about stories. For one thing, neither
children nor adults indulge in fictional stories in order to "escape." By and large, the
movement is the opposite. Most of us enter the world of a story in order to experience far
greater trouble than is offered by our real life.
Maybe some of that is due to our wish to feel relief: At least my troubles aren't as bad as John
Wick's (or the troubles of the people he's mad at). At least I never did anything as stupidly
selfish as Julia Roberts did in My Best Friend's Wedding.
But there's more to it than that. Because whatever else goes on in the stories we care about, the
events of the stories are important -- and, unless we're currently an officer leading soldiers in
combat or a captain leading firefighters into a burning building, they're likely to be more
important to us than any of the troubles we face in our real lives.
We read stories so we can feel worse?
Well, to a point. I get so involved in well-created characters that I walk out of horror movies
because I just can't stand to live in that world for another moment. The real question is:
Knowing this about myself, why did I walk into a horror movie in the first place? The answer is
always the same: Someone I trust -- usually someone I love, and usually someone with whom I
share genetic material -- has told me, "This one is different, this one is special, you'll love this
There are only two horror movies that I actually loved, cared about, and stayed through:
Poltergeist and The Sixth Sense. All the others that I've tried, at someone's heartfelt
recommendation, sent me to the lobby. (Fortunately, I always have my iPod Nano loaded with
two dozen books, so I can blissfully pass the time listening to a non-horror book as I wait for the
rest of my party to emerge from the hideous experience they have chosen to remain for.)
Our relationships with stories are different, of course. For me, the stories of Jane Austen and
Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury and Richard Russo are a part of my lifeblood; for
others, the idea of caring about any fictional story is absurd. For some, the world is full of
marvels: Bigfoot, UFOs, alien abductions, the coming zombie apocalypse; for others, every
ecological problem is caused by evil humans doing evil things. Either way, the world will soon
We inhabit story-worlds that we agree to call "reality" and then choose new stories to keep giving
shapes and faces to the troubles that matter to us. Then we gravitate toward other people who
care about the same stories, which we repeat to each other. If the stories are about God, we call it
a church, or an equivalent term. If the stories are about athletes, we usually root for a particular
team, and curse the shade of blue used for the uniforms of their nearest rival.
When you read Jonathan Gottschall's The Storytelling Animal, with a firm grounding in serious
research, you will be led through many wonderful possibilities, hypotheses, and facts about the
way storytelling shapes our lives and our communities.
For some, perhaps many, of those who read this book, it will seem as if someone has finally
switched on a light in a dark room -- perhaps our favorite room -- so we can finally see and
understand how the place is furnished, and why we've been so comfortable there.
David Baldacci is an author who does have a few series going, but he's just as likely to pop up
with a novel that stands completely alone.
I'm not in love with the thriller genre, because mere action or jeopardy don't "thrill" me. I have to
care about the characters, and for that to happen, I have to be able to pretend to believe that the
things happening to them are possible.
This means that I would ordinarily be skeptical of a writer who has the "thriller" tag attached
to him, which has certainly been true of David Baldacci since he published Absolute Power back
But Baldacci isn't tied to a genre -- and in the world of contemporary publishing, this means that
he has worked hard to keep his options open. He never writes the same novel twice.
John Grisham was able to publish his domestic novel A Painted House, which I quite enjoyed,
but he keeps returning to dip from his legal-novel well. Baldacci ranges from military novels and
spy novels to detective novels -- and while I don't always love every story, he always takes the
time to make characters and relationships the heart of every tale.
I recently downloaded from Audible.com Baldacci's novel Memory Man, solely because I trust
Baldacci. I was skeptical because the description of the book seemed way too busy. First, the
main character, Amos Decker, was a college football player who struggled to get onto a
professional football team. In his very first game, he takes a hit so brutal that (a) he dies, twice,
on the field, and is revived both times, and (b) the hit goes viral on YouTube, so that everybody
has seen his career go up in flames.
But that hit did more than end his career and almost kill him. It also damaged -- or at least
altered -- his brain. He can't forget anything. No, let's make that clear. Like it or not,
everything that happens to him remains present with him. He can "look" at it and "listen" to it in
memory, and come back with perfectly accurate reports on what happened. And the worst
memories just won't go away or even recede into the background.
He spends several years at an institute in Chicago where his brain capabilities are studied and
various therapists help him to cope with the constant flood of memory that at first overwhelms
him. Most other kids at the institute were born with their freakish memories, so they've been
dealing with them their whole lives; only a few have savant abilities that were induced by
All of this is in the past. From the institute he goes into police work, where remembering
everything is pretty much an asset. He also marries, and he and his beloved wife have a
daughter, whom Decker adores. Then one day he comes home from a day's work and finds his
brother-in-law on the kitchen floor with his throat slit, his wife in their bedroom with a bullet in
her head, and his young daughter in the bathroom, strangled and then tied to the toilet with her
Decker is a man who can never, never forget anything. These are wounds that time can't heal.
But there is no clue as to the identity or motive of the killer.
I've stopped reading serial killer novels. Motiveless killing isn't interesting to me as a storyline.
But this is not a motiveless killing after all.
Decker can't go on working. In fact, it seems as if only chance kept him from killing himself
right there in the bathroom as he looked at the body of his little girl. He soon leaves the police
force and, unable to live in or sell the murder house, he becomes homeless, living in cardboard
boxes. A couple of friends from the force know, more or less, where he is.
Then, a year after the destruction of his family, Decker learns that a man has come forward and
confessed to the killings. At the same time, there is a mass murder at a local high school -- and
the killer used the same gun that was used to shoot Decker's wife. The two murder sprees are
linked, and Decker now has a purpose in life: to find this mass murderer and put a stop to the
Let's see: pro football player with a career-ending hit; savant-like memory; effective police
officer because of perfect memory; family slaughtered, leading to endless grief and
homelessness; a confession to the murders; mass killing at the high school using the same
This is all the starting point of the novel. If a student writer described all this to me, I'd say, Get
a grip, kid, and pick one or at most two of those things. It's too overloaded to be believable.
You don't need all that.
But this is David Baldacci we're talking about, not a student writer, and he handles it all so
skillfully that in the actual telling of the tale, I bought it all, I cared about it all. Baldacci's
strategy is to start at the crux: Decker learns about the confession, then walks through his house,
reliving every moment of finding the bodies. This is our anchor; this is how we come to
understand the way his memory works, what happened to destroy his life, and how he now has a
reason to come back to work again as a cop.
Along the way, we pick up bits of his life at the institute, his football days, and the people on the
force that he trusts. We also see how difficult he is to work with -- but we understand that he
really did suffer brain damage, and along with gaining perfect memory, he lost some of the
awareness and empathy that allow most of us to have decent social skills.
I've told you all I can. Now the conclusion is simple: Memory Man is a terrific mystery novel,
with characters you can care about.
The audiobook publisher, Hachette Audio, did something deeply weird with the narration. Ron
McLarty does a wonderful job of reading the entire book -- except any dialogue spoken by a
woman. Since Decker's partner is a woman, and so is his nemesis reporter, that's kind of a lot of
dialogue. The women's voices are all read, quite skillfully, by Orlagh Cassidy.
But in the editing -- splicing the female dialogue into the gaps in the main narration -- the editor
consistently left an annoyingly long gap between the woman's dialogue and McLarty saying,
I know enough about sound editing to say, confidently, that this was a deliberate choice -- and it
was a terrible one. Every time a woman speaks in this book, you're thrown out of the story and
forced to notice their clever trick, and how ineptly they brought it off.
Here's the fact: A male narrator can read all the dialogue, male and female, and a female narrator
can perform all the dialogue, female and male. They don't even have to "do voices" -- in a well-tagged book, it's always clear who's speaking, and the best narrators don't try to do anything
special to simulate maleness or femaleness.
I think the producers of the Memory Man audiobook thought they were adding value. They
certainly found good voice performers for both parts. But they need to stop this nonsense.
Even with good voice actors, it makes the listening experience markedly worse.
Having said that, I must also say that it didn't wreck the listening experience. I never got used to
it, but the story was so strong that I didn't allow the distractions to keep me from finishing -- and
enjoying -- the book.
As I was listening to the book, it began to dawn on me that Baldacci probably thought Decker
would be a reusable character. And sure enough, there is an "Amos Decker series," with one
sequel already out and available -- The Last Mile -- and another -- The Fix -- due to be released
Here's the problem. The first book was about solving the mystery of the slaughter of Decker's
own family. But in all the other books, while working on unrelated cases, Decker will still
constantly remember how they died, and all the other mayhem in Memory Man. This means that
in every book, we'll have to watch Decker being a damaged man even though we already know
who killed his family and why.
So I've downloaded The Last Mile and I'll see whether Baldacci finds a way to write around that
obstacle and turn Decker into a viable series hero. It's hard to move a detective from a deeply
personal story to stories in which solving cases is his job.
Meanwhile, though, forget the whole series question. Memory Man works beautifully as a
standalone mystery novel, with characters you can believe in and care about. If you like
mysteries, this is a good one. If you like thrillers, you'll like this. If you like psychological
stories, nuff said.
Game of Thrones started this whole spate of TV shows in which any character can die. Thus,
many actors in different series on every network now live in constant dread of being handed the
script that has their death scene in it.
Since Designated Survivor began with the death of the entire government, there was hardly
anybody left to kill. Except Kiefer Sutherland, and let's get serious here: If they kill his character,
the series is over. (That would be like killing James Spader on Blacklist.)
But even on Designated Survivor, as we learned in episode 12, a character that they seemed to be
building up as the greatest threat to Tom Kirkman's (Kiefer Sutherland's) presidency can
suddenly, horribly, die. Chaos ensues!
I'm just hoping that there isn't chaos in the writers' room. Please let this not be a situation
like Lost, where the writers had no idea what to do with all the elements they had spawned, and
brought us, in the end, to confusion, frustration, and disappointment.
I'm hoping they have a plan, a sensible plan, one that will give us an interesting, believable,
satisfying story right to the end of the series. Because when the writers make me care this
much, it's their duty not to mess around with the people they made me care about.