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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 12, 2017

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


Vow, Falling, Paul Simon, Children of the Fleet

Thanks, John Hammer, for your many years of vetting the candidates for local office and telling us the unvarnished truth about them.

Readers of the Rhino Times are well aware of your principled positions on the important issues, but what you have never been is partisan. Though you seem more likely to favor Republican candidates, you are perfectly capable of exposing incompetent, dishonest, and stupid candidates regardless of their party -- while you give even those whose views you oppose a fear hearing in your endorsement issues, so readers can make up their own minds.

I think that in all the years I've been reading your endorsements, only once have I gone ahead and voted contrary to your recommendation. And in that case you were pretty iffy on the candidate I ended up favoring, so it's not as if I've ever found any reason to reject your evidence and arguments entirely.

In short: Good work. Thanks for making Rhino Times one of the best local papers in America. Maybe the best, but I haven't read all of them, and besides, I wouldn't want to embarrass you.

*

Old movie discovery: I never noticed the 2012 Channing Tatum/Rachel McAdams movie The Vow, but that's probably because it would have been hyped as one of those contrived, implausible tearjerker movies that I ignore the way I ignore the kinds of books they're usually based on.

The Vow isn't based on a book. In fact, it seems to be based, however loosely, on a real-life couple who faced and dealt with the central dilemma: A married couple, still in their first year of marriage, are devastated when the bride loses her memory of the past four years.

So for her, when she wakes up, she still remembers being engaged to somebody else and being close to her parents. She has no memories of her husband Leo, because they met during those lost years.

Leo, however, remembers that she was estranged from her parents, wanting nothing to do with them; he also remembers how much in love they were, how she devoted she was to working on her sculptures (she had several commissions, so she was the real thing), and how she had encouraged him to go into business for himself with his own recording studio.

When he takes her to her beloved art studio, she picks up a sculpting tool and has no idea of what to do with it.

To her, this strange man is likeable enough -- but he's not the sort of man she was particularly attracted to before. She sees a video of their wedding, in which they two of them exchange vows and seem very much in love, so she knows it isn't a lie.

But she doesn't feel now what she can see that she must have felt then.

Meanwhile, though, her mother and father try to pull her back into her old life: living at home with the family, attending law school, and being engaged to the sort of guy that Stepford wives usually marry.

Sure, it's an amnesia plot; yeah, you can track the film-school formulas step by step through the script. But the story works. The writers never overplay their hand.

And here's something cool. We always knew that Rachel McAdams can act (for one thing, she's been certified by Woody Allen); but it's possible to think Channing Tatum is merely sculpted testosterone, given some of the roles he's played.

The Vow shows that Channing Tatum can act. Not because he does anything flamboyant, but because he takes some sentimental speeches that could have been goopy and he makes them utterly believable.

And he has some dramatic moments that he handles perfectly, especially when he speaks with complete candor to his wife's father. If you like a good love story -- not really a rom-com because it's never particularly funny -- then The Vow is one of the best.

Not Affair to Remember or You've Got Mail best, but worth comparing to the performances in other high-concept love stories like, say, Sleepless in Seattle. Give it a look.

And as long as I'm recommending love-story movies, let me point out a new Hallmark Channel movie that really surprised me. Falling for Vermont follows the formula of their Christmas movies, only the small-town celebration that the heroine is forced to take part in is the annual Fall Festival.

Julie Gonzalo, who has been around for a few years, mostly in guest spots on various TV series, plays an extravagantly successful children's book author -- think J.K. Rowling-level fame -- who really hates having to do publicity and walks out of an interview to take a drive up into the autumn leaves in Vermont.

Then she has a one-car accident which puts her car in a ravine, and she walks away with a head injury that caused -- see if you can guess -- yeah, you've got it -- amnesia.

She has no idea who she is. She doesn't know she's a writer. She doesn't know anything except that she speaks English fluently and she's still a nice person.

The doctor who treated her, played by Benjamin Ayres, a veteran of films and Hallmark Channel movies for some years, is the extravagantly good-looking but realistic single dad who is still mourning for his wife while raising two kids, who, incidentally, can act.

I would tell you who played those children, except that Hallmark Channel does a terrible job of identifying its cast members. IMDb shows tiny pictures of the actors -- but they're almost always nondescript headshots taken after the movie was made. Since it's been many hours since I saw the movie and I don't remember the characters' names, there are several male and several female actors who might have played the doctor's children.

Then, when I go to the Hallmark Channel's website to search for the cast, only the names of the two stars are mentioned. In the synopsis of the story, they don't name the children. So I'm given no help at all in identifying them or any of the other actors in the movie.

Shame on you, Hallmark Channel. We need to be able to identify the actors we like, and you're not helping.

Of course everything works out, including the way she dumps her likeable fiancé/business manager. This is a happy happy movie. Didn't I say this was on Hallmark Channel? But it's unusually good. And it makes me look forward to this season's new Hallmark Channel Christmas movies.

Their Countdown to Christmas begins on 28 October -- yes, all you ridiculous scrooges, that's three days before Halloween; if you don't like it, then don't watch! -- with a couple of brand-new Christmas movies every weekend from then till Christmas.

I plan to see them all. I used to watch them as a public service, solely in order to review them here.

Now I watch them because I'm old. I like happy endings. I've shed enough tears for characters in tragic movies. Since I'm going to cry at every movie anyway, it might as well be about characters I like and actors who provide pleasant company.

By the way, about Julie Gonzalo, who stars in Falling for Vermont. The camera and the makeup artist did not try to conceal the highly visible scar just above the bridge of her nose. It's an indentation in the skin that looks like it might have been caused by getting hit in the head with a wooden block by a sibling when she was a toddler.

That scar may well be the only thing that has barred her from having a more prominent career. There are plenty of casting directors who would shun her for starring roles because it takes a little while, when her face fills the entire screen during a closeup, to stop noticing the scar and get back to the pretty girl and good actor surrounding it.

So let's give Hallmark Channel -- which certainly approves all the casting in every movie they commission -- some praise for saying, Let the audience get used to it, this actress can act the bejeebers out of this part.

*

My thanks to the writers on Jeopardy!, who very kindly used a quotation from me as the thousand-dollar answer during the first round of this past Tuesday's episode.

And having my name pop up like that certainly tells me which of my friends and family watch Jeopardy! We got two texts before the show was over; hilariously, we were told that one of the ten-year-olds I teach on Sunday had no idea that I was an author, so she kind of went ape when she saw my name pop up.

For her, being in an answer on Jeopardy! meant I was really truly famous. And you know what? That's kind of how it feels to me, too.

*

I missed out on a lot of pop music when I was a teenager, for two reasons:

1. I grew up on Broadway, Great American Songbook, and Classical music. For me, music was about singing around the piano or in the car with my family, making up harmonies and trying to remember the words.

I heard a few new songs on the radio, but in the late 1950s and early 1960s it was still as likely to be Barbra Streisand ("My Coloring Book") or Perry Como ("Catch a Falling Star") as songs by "rock-and-rollers" like Pat Boone ("Thee I Love") or Elvis Presley ("It's Now or Never").

2. I also didn't get my drivers license till I was 23, so I never had control of the radio dial or the 8-track tape player.

I did know songs from the folk movement -- I learned guitar by playing "If I Had a Hammer" and "The Sloop John B" -- but I completely missed the folk-rock hybridization that began with Bob Dylan.

It wasn't till I entered college in 1968 that I was first exposed to the then-current generation of hit singers ... just in time for "The Sound of Silence," by Simon and Garfunkel. This was just at the time when we were all going ape over the poetry of Rod McKuen -- which, incredibly, sold millions of copies (Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows; Listen to the Warm).

Best-selling poetry books? Yeah, it happened, and I still own my copies.

So I was ready to think that "The Sound of Silence" was deep, when in fact, as I now see, it was an undergraduate kind of song, full of the shallow wisdom of people who don't know anything yet.

A couple of years later, I was in a poetry class taught by the late Clinton F. Larson, and he went on a rant about how awful the lyrics of pop music were and how only the ignorant would think any of them could stand in the place of poetry.

While Dr. Larson was still ranting, one of the students got up and went to the chalkboard and started writing:

In the clearing stands a boxer

And a fighter by his trade

And he carries the reminders

Of every glove that laid him down

And cut him till he cried out

In his anger and his shame

"I am leaving, I am leaving"

but the fighter still remains

Dr. Larson fell silent. Then he said, "That's really in a rock song?"

"Paul Simon," said the young man who had written it down from memory.

And then Dr. Larson said, "I stand corrected. It's not perfect, but it's poetry."

Then, years later, after getting exposed to a very wide range of rock and pop on my mission in Brazil, I still had enough shallowness left in me to be impressed by the lyrics from songs like "Horse with No Name" and "Sand Man."

I was talking about that after a meeting on campus one day when a student who was a much better critic than I was very kindly informed me, "There's only one songwriter today who's worth listening to for his words as well as his music: Paul Simon."

That's when I began to be aware of Paul Simon, not as part of the comic-opera duo of Simon and Garfunkel, but as the writer of truly wonderful, wise, and moving songs. He was way past his undergraduate-sounding songs like "The Sound of Silence" and "I Am a Rock."

So as I listened to the outstanding audiobook of Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, written by Peter Ames Carlin and narrated exquisitely by Adam Grupper, the book constantly brought back memories of almost every Paul Simon (or Simon & Garfunkel) track that was mentioned.

Only it wasn't nostalgia or even admiration that kept me listening to the book so avidly. It was the delicate way Carlin walked the narrow line where telling the truth and admiration overlap.

Carlin clearly knows music, and most particularly Paul Simon's music. Everything he said about every song was illuminating even when he liked the song more than I did, or less.

In a way, Paul Simon's life could be seen as too boring for biography. He grew up as a Jewish kid in Brooklyn, short for his age but committed to being an athlete and not the kind of guy you could walk all over. He and his childhood friend Artie Garfunkel liked to sing together, harmonize like a doo-wop group, and Artie's harmonies could soar.

Paul's father was a musician who performed in jazz bands and also taught music. So Paul grew up knowing the music industry from the inside -- on the edges, but still, inside.

In his teens, he began to work as one of the hacks who, for a tiny fee, would take some amateur songwriter's song, give it a credible arrangement, record it, and then give it back in the form of a record.

He also took songs that the publishing company he worked for was touting and would demo them in the offices of the various record producers.

One time, though, he committed the firing offense of staying a little longer in the producer's office and playing him some of his own music.

The result was that Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had their first hit single, "Hey School Girl!" in 1957.

Yeah, that's right. 1957. And it wasn't a bad song -- perfectly credible for the Pat Boone era. (Don't let the rock-and-roll snobs fool you: American teenagers were listening to Pat Boone. In polls in the late 1950s, teenagers rated him far higher than Elvis Presley.)

So when Simon & Garfunkel came "out of nowhere" in the late 1960s, they hadn't been "nowhere" at all. Under the names "Tom and Jerry," complete with fake bios that they talked up on radio and television and print interviews, they looked like they were headed for ...

Oh, wait. One-hit wonder status. Top of the charts, and then, nada.

They went to college. Garfunkel majored in art history at Columbia, then got a master's in mathematics education and completed his doctoral coursework in the same field.

Paul Simon went to Queens College, where he turned a tradition of silly satirical frat skits into highly produced, genuinely clever and biting musical productions. But though he succeeded very well as a frat boy (one with a conscience, however), his heart was in music.

While we were busy not hearing a single song Simon wrote, he was spending much of his time in England, where he fell seriously in love (yeah, that Cathy) and got a hard-earned following in the folk music scene.

During a stint back home in the States, he and Art got together and recorded a simple acoustic version of "The Sound of Silence," then put it into the hands of a trusted manager.

Back in England again, Simon was stunned to get a copy in the mail of "The Sound of Silence" with a whole new folk-rock accompaniment. Still his and Garfunkel's voices, but a completely new instrumentation that the record company had laid in to capitalize on the new folk-rock craze.

Here's where Carlin's biography shines. There are several versions of Paul's reaction to this completely unauthorized revision of his work. In some of them, attested by at least one witness, he was outraged; in others, he realized it was a good move.

Maybe what really convinced him was that while the acoustic version had gone nowhere, the electric version was taking over the world. Literally. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were hugely famous and rich, and the record company was demanding more songs they could turn into folk-rock singles.

So even though Paul Simon viewed Bob Dylan as more a rival than a friend (an attitude Dylan apparently shared, since he went to the trouble of putting Simon down in needling little ways), he was willing to go down that folk-rock path for a while.

Homeward Bound chronicles the ups and downs in Simon's friendship with Garfunkel -- which in some ways never lagged, and in others turned to bitter resentments.

Carlin doesn't pull any punches when he describes some of Simon's business dealings, where he apparently absorbed too many of his ethical standards from the nastiness of the music business in the Brill Building era.

But the ugliest charge against Simon, that he never paid or credited the folk guitarist who taught him the lovely guitar part to "Scarborough Fair," turns out to be false. The guitarist never saw a dime, but not because Simon wasn't sharing royalties with him. Apparently, the guy's manager never bothered to give him any of the considerable sums of money that Simon sent. So they reconciled many years later.

We also hear about all the (to my mind) ridiculous accusations that Simon was "stealing" the music of other cultures, as with the South African music on the Graceland album or the African-Brazilian music on Rhythm of the Saints.

The fact is that Simon didn't just listen and then copy what he heard (though he certainly could have); he went to the place where the musicians lived and worked, and he hired them, paying top rates, to play with him.

He didn't share composition credit very easily, but with money he was more generous than was usual in the music business, and he gave enormous worldwide exposure to musicians who otherwise were living in cultural silos.

What matters most in Carlin's superb biography is that the story is as much about Simon's life as his music, and vice versa. Carlin makes Simon's life far more than a series of hit records, quarrels, and episodes of writer's block; he brings him to life as a human being who could be prickly, foolish, and arrogant -- but who was also vulnerable, sensitive, and as eager to love and trust other people as anybody.

This biography was not authorized, though Carlin spent a good deal of time with Simon and his friends, relatives, and fellow music professionals. But there isn't a note of any of Simon's recordings, or even more than a few words from any of his songs. Yet the scraps we get were enough to put Simon's entire oeuvre in my head while I listened to the book.

Because I knew those songs. I was a fan even after the breakup with Garfunkel, and I have favorites from every one of Simon's albums. They played in my mind at the slightest mention of them. And then Carlin gave them their context, their sources, how they changed Simon's life, how they reflected his life, too.

As showbiz biographies go, this is one of the best. But a biography is rarely better than the life and talent of its subject, so I'm not rushing out to read Carlin's biographies of Paul McCartney or Brian Wilson, because I don't care very much about their music.

When you call Paul Simon a genius, I won't argue with you, even though I hate the term "genius" and all that it implies. But call those other guys "geniuses" and I'm afraid I'm going to go look for somebody else to talk to.

Here's a notable thing about Carlin as a writer: He is the only writer in years who consistently uses "whom" correctly, and doesn't use it when it would have been wrong. You could have knocked me down with a feather.

Well, to be fair, I'm in bad enough shape that you could knock me down with a feather or a puff of air pretty much any time you want. But after saying, for years, that I'm the only writer left who actually understands the who/whom rule, I finally have to admit that there's another: Peter Ames Carlin.

As for the clear, expressive, but unobtrusive narration by Adam Grupper, he has the thankless job of having to recite some very famous lyrics -- yet he does it superbly, never showing the awkwardness of most people who recite rhyming lines.

There's one point when, narrating Carlin's account of a joint charity concert appearance by Simon and Bob Dylan, Grupper has to imitate Bob Dylan's singing style -- Dylan's hideous, anti-musical "singing" style -- in order to set up the punch line, in which Dylan leans into the mike and says, in effect, "Do you think I'm better than Garfunkel?"

Which made Paul Simon -- and me -- break up laughing.

It's a good read and a good listen.

*

So the other night I accidentally channel-flipped into Sean Hannity railing about how Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker must have decided not to run for another term because he knew he would lose. Corker was obviously out of touch with the voters, that vast majority (or, alternately, "the base") that adores Donald Trump and will never forgive Corker for tweeting some pretty ugly (and accurate) things about Trump.

Corker's biggest sin, apparently, was giving a candid interview with a New York Times reporter -- who then committed the possible ethical breach of posting the raw interview recording online. In that interview, Corker pointed out the obvious: that Trump's tweety-pie rants endanger our foreign relations and, at times, bring us closer to World War III.

Hannity is outraged that a Republican would say such things, along with Corker's recent tweets, including my favorite, in response to one Trump idiocy or another: "It's a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning."

Come on, that's mean, true, and funny. Much more clever than most of Trump's tweets, which are usually mean, very rarely funny, and almost never true -- except in the sense that yes, it's true that the President of the United States just tweeted that.

When Hannity, visibly and audibly furious, declares that Senator Corker "is the swamp" that Trump promised to clean up in Washington, along with dire remarks about all the Republicans in Congress who have failed to enact the Trump agenda, I keep wishing that some grownup would take Hannity aside and explain government and politics to him.

Slowly, and using small words, such a person might help Hannity to realize that Trump isn't President because there was some huge groundswell of support for his populist agenda -- most of which is actually Steve Bannon's agenda, anyway.

Hannity likes to say that Trump won in an "electoral landslide." He has to say "electoral" because, of course, Trump lost the popular vote by kind of a lot.

In my lifetime, I've seen "electoral landslides." Johnson over Goldwater in 1964. Nixon over McGovern in 1972. Reagan over Mondale in 1984. Before my time, there were the victories of Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and FDR.

By contrast, the electoral college victory of Trump over Clinton was a squeaker. No landslide. And definitely no broad public hunger for Trump's agenda to be enacted.

Indeed, many of us were relying on the Republicans in Congress to serve the public as most Republican primary voters hoped they would -- by restoring the national defense, cleaning up Obama's fiscal and foreign-policy mess, and getting the hideous burden of that great fraud called Obamacare off their backs -- and then blocking, as much as possible, the truly insane, hateful aspects of Trump's Know-Nothing agenda.

The populist Trump voters are not the Republican base. Mostly they're what populist voters always are and always have been -- ignorant, angry, frightened people led by a demagogue.

Meanwhile, the true base of the Republican Party -- the kind of people who were energized by Newt Gingrich when he made, then kept, his Contract with America back in 1994 -- still holds true to the rationally conservative principles of the Republican Party.

The real Republican base doesn't care about getting rid of illegal immigrants because, since 2008, we've had a net loss of such immigrants. They only come when there are jobs. It's hard for me to think it's urgent to solve a problem that doesn't actually exist.

It wasn't Hannity's imaginary groundswell or electoral landslide or Republican base that elected Donald Trump. It was Hillary Clinton. Any other Democratic candidate would have beaten him.

But now we have Trump. He's President. And he is showing signs of learning how to do the job. It's a two-steps-forward-one-step-back learning curve, but it does seem to be happening, bit by bit.

No thanks to the advice of pandering enablers like Sean Hannity, however. His role is apparently to join with the diehard ultra-rightwingers in Congress and applaud them when they block every rational compromise -- every bill that might actually have real nationwide support.

Maybe Sean Hannity will get his way. Maybe all the Republican incumbents will be booted out in next year's primaries so only True Trumpicles are on the Republican ticket.

Then Democrats will sweep to easy victories in the congressional elections, and Sean Hannity's imaginary "base" can relish their pyrrhic victory.

*

As of the tenth of October, my newest novel, Children of the Fleet, went on sale.

It's a sequel to Ender's Game, telling a story about what happens to Battle School now that the war against the Formics seems to be over. Ender Wiggin himself makes an appearance in the book, but it's mostly about other children, who are now being educated, not for war, but for interstellar exploration and colonization.

That is, if they can keep from being turned into pawns in Earthside wars.

And another bit of personal publishing news, if you'll indulge me a bit more: My publisher, TOR Books, is bringing out a new, smaller hardcover edition of Ender's Game. I really love seeing the book in this convenient yet durable format, and come on, a $15 hardcover doesn't come along very often anymore.

I suspect that this will become the new favorite edition for anyone giving the book as a gift.

*

The most recent issue of Publishers Weekly carried a highly unusual announcement. Regnery, the publisher of many bestselling conservative authors (for a full list, go to https://www.regnery.com/our-authors/ ), has decided to cut itself loose from the New York Times bestseller list.

This doesn't mean that they're forbidding the NYTimes list from including their books -- only that they aren't going to use "New York Times bestselling author" or "New York Times bestseller" on their book covers or any of their promotions.

Instead, they're going to use the much more accurate and politically neutral Publishers Weekly in their promotions. "PW bestseller" means more, to industry insiders at least, because it is based on actual sales, as far as they are knowable.

Why abandon the much-more-famous NYTimes list? A statement from Regnery president Marji Ross says:

"Increasingly, it appears that the Times has gathered book sale data in a manner which prioritizes liberal-themed books over conservative books and authors. The net result has been a bestseller list that has increasingly become less relevant to the Regnery audience, and less reflective of which books are actually selling best in the country, regardless of one's political persuasion."

A recent NYTimes bestseller list, for instance, showed The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi roots of the American Left as seventh on their list, despite the fact that the book was number one in sales compared to all the other books on the NYTimes list.

Now, the New York Times has long admitted -- no, insisted -- that their "bestseller list" was fictional and proprietary. When William Peter Blatty sued the NYTimes in 1983 for $6 million in damages because they didn't include his book Legion on the list despite its selling more copies than books that were on it, the newspaper's defense was that the list was "editorial content," not straight reporting, and thus they could leave books off the list if they felt like it.

The courts upheld that position.

Such was the public influence of the NYTimes list that despite this frank admission that their list does not reflect sales (along with many other flaws in its method -- see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_York_Times_Best_Seller_list ), publishers really had no choice but to heavily promote any New York Times bestselling book or author they had.

One publishing insider explained to me once that the bias in the list often begins with the bookstore. He told me that when he was a jobber, delivering books to bookstores, he noticed that he was bringing in huge stacks of a particular bestselling book to one New York Times-reporting store, yet when he asked the store's owner whether this would move the book onto the bestseller list, the owner snootily replied, "This is not the kind of book that our bookstore will report as a bestseller."

In other words, some stores report only books they are not embarrassed to be selling in large quantities. They have to maintain their image of appealing to an enlightened clientele!

But now that I live on the blacklist, I'm quite aware of how many publications do the cruelest thing they can do to any author they disapprove of: never mention him or her at all.

The New York Times list hasn't quite cut itself free from reality, but they go as far as they think they can to ignore the sales of conservative books and auhors -- or at least, so claims Regnery, and I have no reason to doubt their claim.

Regnery, knowing that their books were routinely underreported or unreported, finally decided that they owed nothing to the New York Times. Every time a book cover says "New York Times bestseller," it not only promotes the book, but it also promotes the New York Times list. Why should Regnery continue to do that, since the liberal bias of the NYTimes was doing no favors to Regnery?

So now Regnery's conservative-oriented books will promote the unbiased PW bestseller list. It, too, has its imperfections, but they aren't specifically aimed at books of any particular ideological stripe. PW isn't trying to be America's newspaper of record; it's just the publishing industry's paper of record. That means that if their list, based exclusively on sales, is wrong, publishers will figure it out and come to distrust them. Too much of that, and they're out of business.

Please notice that my publisher is not Regnery, so you'll still probably see "New York Times bestselling author" on the covers of my books.


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