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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 21, 2017

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

Oasis Strap, Sister's Keeper, 1944, Albums

I love my Kindle Oasis, especially because it's so much smaller than the original Kindles -- yet has plenty of surface area to show each page in large enough type to be read by old and tired eyes.

However, the trick is to hold the thing. It's just wide enough to be hard to grasp when you're lying on your back in bed -- which is when I do ninety percent of my Kindle reading.

And the burnished metal surface wants to slide off my hand, meaning I have to exert actual grip strength to hold up the Oasis.

I tried a leather cover. I wasn't sure how it would attach to the Oasis, because there's almost no margin around the screen. To my surprise, the cover was partially magnetic. The short side of the cover attached to the back of the Oasis, covering the thin portion that doesn't contain the battery and computer parts.

Then the wider part of the leather cover folded over to cover the screen. It does a lovely job of making the Oasis look cool, keeping the screen free of dust, and then folding back in a triangular way that allows the Oasis to stand up for hands-free reading on a flat surface.

Which is great, if I ever read my Kindle on a desk or at a table. But I don't.

Because the cover's attachment to the Oasis is magnetic, you can't put any tension on it, or the cover simply comes off. So lying in bed, you can't hold the Oasis by the cover. The Oasis simply slides off.

However, the leather cover was not useless when I was reading in bed. I still had to hold the Oasis in the regular way, but now the cover increased the friction between my hand and the device, so it didn't slide. I adapted, and found that I could live with the arrangement.

Meanwhile, though, I had ordered a product from a company called TFY: "Hand-Strap for Tablets."

I had rejected most hand-straps because they seemed to require that I glue something to the back of the Kindle reader or tablet in order to attach the hand-strap. I wouldn't have done that to my phone or my Android tablet, but I couldn't do it to the Oasis because the back isn't flat!

I was also looking for hand-straps for my Kindle Fire, and found a pretty good one. But in that same search I ran across the TFY product I ended up with. (However, Amazon.com didn't find it for me again until I searched for "hand-strap for Kindle Oasis.")

What sets this one apart is that it's triangular. Each of the three straps clips on, either at the corner or along one side of the device. You can arrange it however you want. The only drawback is that there is a button on the top edge of the Oasis, near enough to the corner that I worried about the hook depressing it.

So it's along that top edge that I attach the lone clip, so it's centered. Then the other two clips attach to the bottom corners -- leaving plenty of room to attach the USB cable for charging (though with the Oasis, you can go a few weeks between charges).

The strap is lightweight enough that it's not adding any serious weight to the Oasis -- yet it's strong enough to keep your hand tightly attached to the device. In short: It's perfect for my habit of reading the Kindle in bed.

I've already reviewed the Oasis, raving about it because it really is better in most ways than reading from the Kindle app on my phone or tablet. One reason is that if the Oasis has that blue-light effect, I've never sensed it; while the blue-light effect from my Android devices really does affect my ability to sleep. (Some reviewers report that for them, the Oasis has a blue-light effect that's even stronger than usual. There is a product called iLLumiShield that supposedly corrects the Oasis's blueness.) The Oasis relies on ambient light for its paperwhite viewing surface, instead of eating up power by pumping out light from the screen, so I'm baffled as to how it can cause the blue-light effect.

Another benefit is that because the Kindle contains only books (and magazines), there aren't any games or emails to seduce me away from actually reading. And because the Oasis is so lightweight, I can hold it in one hand while squeezing my Zona Plus, a blood-pressure-aiding device that helps me keep a consistent squeezing pressure for two minutes at a time, twice with each hand, with a minute of rest in between.

That comes to nearly twelve minutes a day, and I would go insane if I were doing only those squeezes during that time. Instead, thanks to the Kindle Oasis with the TFY hand-strap, I make several pages of progress in a book while "doing my squeezes."

Now, I confess that because I only read fascinating books during this activity, I often continue reading after the physical exercise is done. But it's hard for me to think how that could be construed as a bad thing.

In fact, because my Audible.com download of Brandon Sanderson's third Stormlight Archive novel, Oathbringer, turned out to be defective, so that it skipped to the end right in the middle of my listening, and because I'm going to be teaching the Stormlight Archive starting on the first day of class in mid-January, it's important that I read consistently and thoughtfully. That's way more likely to happen with my Oasis than with the Kindle app on a smartphone or tablet, so the Oasis has already earned its way into the habits of my life.

Next thing you know, I'll start downloading songs or books onto my Fitbit Ionic smartwatch, then listening on my PowerBeats3 bluetooth earphones. Those kids who live with their faces glued to a screen have nothing on me. I just engage in a better grade of electronic experience ...

*

I was channel flipping through the HBO sequence on Spectrum and saw Cameron Diaz. I checked the Info button and saw the title of the movie was My Sister's Keeper. For a few moments, I thought this meant the movie with Toni Collette, where Cameron Diaz is the younger sister who has a fling with the very man that her less flamboyant older sister is in love with.

You know, My Sister's Keeper ... except that that movie was called In Her Shoes, a fine film based on the very good Jennifer Weiner novel.

Then I recognized the plotline of My Sister's Keeper from the promotional trailers at the time it was first released. It was based on the book by Judy Picoult, and when it was in theaters, I deliberately chose not to see it. Why? Because there's a limit to how much I can bear to fall apart emotionally in front of strangers.

Pretty much the same reason that I'm grateful that as a member of SAG/AFTRA and Writer's Guild, I can watch this year's parental weepfest, Wonder, at home on a screener.

The premise of Sister's Keeper is that when Sara Fitzgerald (Cameron Diaz) learns that her young daughter, Kate, has an almost certainly fatal disease, instead of collapsing in grief, she is grimly determined that her daughter will live.

The only hope of a cure seems to be bone marrow transplants -- but this would require a donor who was a close genetic match. Neither Sara nor her husband is close enough; neither is little Kate's big brother, Jesse.

So Sara and Brian (Jason Patric) decide to have a third child in the hope that the new child will be a close enough match to save Kate's life.

This is all in the first few minutes of the movie, because this film is not about how the family outsmarts the disease (though their efforts do prolong Kate's life far beyond the normal lifespan of children with her condition).

This movie is about the day when the third child, daughter Anna (Abigail Breslin), rebels against the way she has undergone an endless series of agonizing procedures and surgeries since birth -- not because she was sick and needed medical attention, but solely as a donor to her sister.

Anna files a lawsuit against her parents, seeking medical emancipation. Not full emancipation -- that would mean she would legally be no longer the legal child of her parents. No, she wants to keep living at home, under her parents' authority, except that they would no longer have the right to decide whether or not Anna would submit to these agonizing surgical procedures to help keep Kate alive.

Alec Baldwin comes into the film then, as Anna's lawyer. His character is also interesting and he gives one of his best performances in the legal-drama portion of the film. Then there's Joan Cusack, giving an absolutely brilliant performance as Judge De Salvo, who is viewing this case from her own fairly recent experience of the death of her own daughter.

Since this movie came out in 2009, I'm not terribly worried about spoilers, but if you are, skip to the end of this review. In this film everybody has a story, but not all of them get much of a resolution.

Kate is in her teens now, played by Sofia Vassilieva, who was so astonishingly effective as the older daughter in the TV series Medium. During her time in the hospital, she falls in love with another chemo patient, Taylor (Thomas Dekker). Her relationship with him helps her clarify her complete lack of freedom. Her mother completely rules her life -- all in Mom's relentless effort to save her.

But Kate finally knows what life is, and reaches the conclusion, after Taylor dies, that she doesn't actually have one. She, like Kate, is just a tool of her mother's determination to keep her alive.

Toward the end of the film, it's clear that the story has turned against Mom's relentless choices. Cameron Diaz does a beautiful job of never losing track of her character's deep love for her children, even as she acts out her absolute terror of losing Kate.

Take the day when Kate, clearly dying now as the court case postpones her receipt of more bone marrow (or something) from her little sister, expresses her desire to go to the seashore. Dad checks with the doctor, who approves. They see that there's no reason not to let Kate have any experience she's physically capable of -- because they know, as Kate does, that she's dying, sooner rather than later.

But Mom doesn't see it that way. She is grimly determined that Kate not do anything that will jeopardize her survival. She threatens to divorce her husband if he goes ahead and takes Kate to the beach; she tries to take the car keys away from him; it's a powerful, terrifying scene. But they go to the beach.

Through all of this, two things keep coming up. First, we see Kate putting together a collage of her whole life, apologizing to her siblings for having stolen all the family's attention, and expressing her love for everyone. Then we also see, during Anna's narration and in several scenes, that Kate seems to have no resentment at all while her sister goes to court to get the right to stop donating body parts and substances to keep Kate alive.

Here's the big reveal that comes out in court -- when brother Jesse (Evan Ellingson) speaks out from the audience. We learn that Anna has embarked on this lawsuit at Kate's request, because Kate is weary of all the surgeries and procedures, and doesn't want her beloved little sister to go through any more agony for her sake. "Kate wants to die," Anna finally admits.

The judge goes to the hospital to confirm this. And because it's clear that Mom absolutely rejects the idea that Kate wants to die, and insists that even if it's true, it doesn't matter -- she's still a minor, and Mom will not tolerate anything that does not tend toward keeping her alive -- the judge grants Anna's medical emancipation.

But that decision is moot when it arrives, because Kate dies in the hospital, holding her mother in her arms, the dying child comforting the grieving parent. Mom has lost her struggle; yet the bittersweet ending leaves us with several kind gifts. Though the reason was to help save Kate, Anna was born, she is alive, and she's a wonderful person in her own right. Meanwhile, Jesse is recovering from his own issues and problems, and Mom has Kate's book, full of love and compassion and forgiveness and gratitude.

Here's the thing: My wife and I also had a child for whom we had to be constant advocates. There were no possible medical treatments for his cerebral palsy, but there was the constant struggle with "experts" who were assigned to evaluate whether our non-speaking son had enough intelligence to be in a class at Gateway where real education was attempted.

We knew that Charlie Ben was very bright; he found ways to communicate with us; we saw him act with responsibility and with kindness. We knew his definite preferences (yes to classical music, no to any electric instruments; no to audiobooks, yes to any music taking its place on car trips). Charlie Ben's teachers at Gateway knew him well, and had no question that he was well worth educating.

But somehow, outside experts who watched him for only an hour were given the right to determine what educational track he should be on. One expert, after her hour of "expert" observation, reported that while the interaction between my wife and our son during feeding time convinced her at first that there was real communication, on reflection she decided that it was merely a meaningless dance and she assigned our son to be in a class for those with "severe and profound" mental retardation.

Now, many kids with cerebral palsy suffer from that condition because of oxygen deprivation during birth, and in that case the whole brain is affected. Those in the "severe and profound" class were well and kindly treated, and were given such stimulation and training as they could respond to.

But we knew -- as did the Gateway teachers who knew Charlie Ben best -- that the lessons in the "severe and profound" class would bore Charlie Ben, because he was used to getting -- and responding to -- a much more interesting and challenging school experience.

So they handed my wife a form that she had to sign, agreeing to Gateway assigning Charlie Ben to the wrong class.

"You will never have my signature on a paper that misdiagnoses Charlie Ben's condition so badly," said my wife, and she meant it. When they suggested that either parent could sign the form, my wife only laughed, knowing that my position would be just as adamant and far less civil than hers.

In a world of paperwork and documents, that lack of signature was a real barrier for the bureaucrats. But when the authorities realized that we really would never sign, they did the obvious thing. They weren't going to kick this sweet, loving, happy boy out of school. So he spent a year in the "severe and profound" class without our signatures on the form -- and at the end of the year, that class's teacher joined us and his other teachers in declaring that he did not belong there. He was never evaluated like that again.

His placement in that class was no worse than his brother's third-grade year with a teacher who relentlessly persecuted him for his loquaciousness and his failure to act like southern children raised on "ma'am" and "sir."

For the rest of Charlie Ben's life, that issue never came up again. But I knew, watching Cameron Diaz's fiery performance: That's what my wife would do, or at least, that's where she would begin.

I see no ethical dilemma in conceiving and bearing another child in hopes that she would be a donor to the dying child the parents already had; the dilemma came with the decision of just how much they would force the new daughter to suffer in the cause of saving her sister's life.

As I watched the movie, taking it all very personally, I also knew that my wife was much wiser than Cameron Diaz's character was written to be. There were lines to be drawn, and -- though they were not the same lines, since surgery was almost never involved -- we drew them.

Early in Charlie's life, we met several other families coping with a child with cerebral palsy. At that time (the mid 1980s) there were several theories about treatments that might help, like patterning; all of them were very time-consuming, and we could see how the other children in some of these families simply looked on while the mother devoted all her time to the neediest child.

My wife and I talked about it for hours, and we concluded that even though we would do everything in our power to help Charlie Ben achieve the most physical control he could, we would never give his brother and sister (and any later children we'd have) a reason to resent him.

We involved Charlie Ben in our lives as much as we could, and his siblings loved him and watched out for him -- there are too many wonderful stories for me to take time to share them here. And Charlie Ben learned all that he was committed to learning; but when he chose to stop any set of "lessons," we accepted his decision. The other kids had as normal a childhood as was possible for humans whose DNA came from us.

As one of our children told us, years later: It was Charlie Ben, more than any other aspect of our lives, that made our family special. It wasn't that Dad was a "famous" writer, or that Mom was a dynamo in church work and an absolutely fabulous mother. It wasn't our family's travels; it wasn't our kids' considerable achievements in various fields of endeavor. It was Charlie Ben.

So as I watched My Sister's Keeper, weeping along with this fictional family as they faced, and sometimes blew, some powerful ethical decisions, I also felt pretty good about the decisions my wife and I had made: That everybody's life would be as normal as possible, and everybody would have an equal chance of achieving whatever happiness they wanted.

Not only did we not allow Charlie Ben's needs to lead to any neglect of his siblings, but also we gave all our children the chance to make the important choices. We didn't pick out a college for them, except that I told them that (a) I didn't want them to go to Brigham Young University (the educational Mecca for most Mormon families), and (b) I wasn't going to pay to send them to an expensive big-name school just to impress the kind of pinheaded people who are impressed by the big-name colleges people went to.

Naturally, my kids paid no attention to me at all, and two out of three went to BYU. Two of them dropped out without a degree, because they were already working at jobs in their chosen careers. I know so many parents who would regard such things as signs of failure. Oh, no, my kid didn't get into Duke! Oh, no, my kid didn't finish her degree in the major we chose for her!

But all our kids are quite successful at every kind of work they have set their hands to -- including, for those of them with children, parenthood. They have chosen their own path, and since we never chose a path that they were obliged to follow, except to live as civilized beings in an uncivil world, we are proud of all their choices -- even the ones that scared us or disappointed us at first.

And that includes our Charlie Ben; for although he died in August 2000, at age 17, we knew all that he had chosen to do, and the way he had chosen to treat people, and we felt that he lived a life of great accomplishment despite impossible odds.

If we force our children to act out our scripts for them, then how can we or they be proud of the lives they lead? Their lives must be their own, and for me, at least, that ended up being the strongest point made by My Sister's Keeper. Children -- even minor children, who are ignorant of consequences -- must be allowed a degree of freedom. And parents who try to force them into the path that they are sure is best for the kids will find that the children will not thrive, and will usually come to resent the fact that such choices were forced on them, instead of being theirs to make.

Even if the adult kids express gratitude for their parents' having pushed them this way or that, I believe -- though I never say to their faces, since other people's families are none of my business -- that the child would have learned more, grown more, and quite possibly been more happy had the parents butted out and let their children follow their own hearts and minds.

Come on, parents. We all know, if we're at all observant, that by the age of ten, children are deciding things for themselves. What looks like defiance to a parent may simply be a child recognizing his or her own limitations or interests or strengths or hopes. When we behave tyrannically, we may succeed in pushing them through one door -- but we are slamming shut every other door, including quite possibly the door that connects their hearts to ours.

Yes, that's right. In the last issue of the Rhino before Christmas 2017, I really did review a movie from 2009. My column proclaims that I review everything. It never claims that I review it in a timely manner.

*

I read Jay Winik's book 1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History back last summer, and then invited the discussion group I belong to to read and discuss it. It's a good history book, a decent starting place for anyone who wants to grasp the issues that matter about World War II.

But for me, the most important part of the book was the great amount of time it devotes to the way the United States slammed the door in the faces of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Every argument raised against their admission to the U.S. is now used to justify slamming the door on people who face death if they return to their homeland.

My feelings about American immigration law -- and about those who oppose any policy that makes immigration easier and quicker -- have been expressed many times, so I'm not going to launch into that polemic again right now. Instead, what sticks in my mind are the stories of the people -- Jews and humanitarians of other faiths -- who struggled to awaken America and the Allies to what was going on in the death camps.

1944 includes the astonishing story of the Jewish man who may be the only person ever to escape from one of the Nazi death camps. How he did it, and what he then did to document and warn the world about the death camps, make an unforgettable story. If for nothing else, 1944 is worth reading to get that story.

But the book is also important because of the way it reveals how Franklin Roosevelt tried to control events and hold on to power while preparing America for war. My respect for him, never very high, nearly evaporated, because his decision-making process seemed to range from whimsical to cynical to utterly selfish.

He seems to have made Winston Churchill love and respect him, but he was in almost every way the opposite of Churchill. Where Winston usually acted upon his conscience regardless of the political ramifications, trying instead to persuade others to his point of view, Roosevelt concealed his own convictions -- if he had any -- and was more inclined to follow public opinion than to lead it.

Yet he is frequently ajudged to be one of our greatest presidents, and I won't even dispute it. Being a great president does not even imply that you're a good man -- or a wise one, or a generous one, or any other virtue. We see our presidents as "great" if they lead us through parlous times without making too many terrible decisions.

It's a very generous standard, which frees contemporary politicians to judge previous presidents by transient, partisan, and foolish standards. Democrats are only just beginning to admit that Eisenhower (and no Republican since Ike) might have been a better president than he was given credit for. Republicans, likewise, may have to cringe to admit it, but Lyndon Baines Johnson, by any standard a rather appalling human being, did use his considerable clout in Congress to get the Civil Rights legislation that Kennedy never even dared to ask for.

English schoolchildren were long raised on a version of their history that sorted their monarchs out as "good king but bad man" or "bad king but good man" and other permutations. It was oversimplified and sometimes quite wrong, once we got more information; but American schoolchildren could be -- and usually are -- taught a much stupider view of our history, especially now that political correctness tries to give us the kind of expurgated history that Soviet children grew up with during the Cold War.

Since most people reading this column are likely to be the product of an educational system in which the word "history" was treated like a horrible crime for which the teachers endlessly apologized, let me suggest that if you suspect you have a huge hole in your education, 1944 may be a pretty good bridge to get you over that chasm and help you gain a clear perspective on important aspects of World War II -- surely the most important event in the twentieth century.

*

When "serious" critics dismiss whole genres as worthless, calling them "escapist" or "formulaic," I always have to laugh at their obvious lack of self-knowledge.

All fictional storytelling is escapist, and all art is formulaic -- especially the art that tries to "break" the formulas. No genre of fiction is more formulaic than academic-literary fiction, or, as I unaffectionately call it, "li-fi." Nor is any other genre of fiction more burdened with bad writing, as the practitioners vie with each other to see who can write in a style that is so intrusive that the actual story is completely buried under artifice and pretension.

But, as with every other genre, the best artists working in that genre are able to transcend their formulas even as they obey them. No matter how formulaic romance novels may seem to you, for instance -- or mysteries, or westerns, or police procedurals, or medieval fantasies -- every regular reader in those genres can tell you which authors are the best, and which ones are kind of awful -- and why.

In other words, regular participants in all genres have or develop standards of quality, and over time these evolve into standards that are used by critics to judge the works in question.

So it is not meaningless to say "the better Hallmark Christmas movies," because there is a range of quality. And, perhaps more to the point, even where the hand of Hallmark lies heaviest (the near-kiss at the hour-and-a-half mark, the influence of a Beloved Dead person -- usually a parent -- the all-is-lost turn of events at the 1:45 mark), good writing and/or good acting can often make a story more enjoyable than it might otherwise deserve to be.

Christmas at Reindeer Lodge, for instance, is nakedly formulaic, but the actors -- especially Nicky Whelan and Josh Kelly in the leading roles -- are able to deliver howlingly bad dialogue with such conviction and understatement that it's possible to enjoy the movie a lot.

Karen Kingsbury's Maggie's Christmas Miracle has a better script, and Jill Wagner and Luke Macfarlane -- along with child actor Laren Guci -- give performances that only enhance it. Is it the best of this year's new Hallmark Christmas movies? Probably, though "best" is an unprovable opinion in every case.

Come on, what about the sickening sweetness of Christmas in Angel Falls, in which an angel (Rachel Boston) is sent by her boss angel (Beau Bridges) to the town of Angel Falls to help save Christmas there. When she falls in love with the local man who looks after pretty much everybody, of course we recognize the basic plot of the classic The Bishop's Wife (Cary Grant, David Niven, Loretta Young); but in this movie, the angel gets to follow her heart and stay with the man she loves, becoming mortal and gaining happiness.

Because, as we all know, heaven is very boring without love.

Let's face it, once you see Rachel Boston in action on the screen, you want her to get everything she ever wants in life. She's just that likable and vulnerable.

Some Hallmark movies do their best but can't really overcome the laziness or ignorance of the writers. A Joyous Christmas really can't overcome the fact that the whole story depends on the main character being a wildly successful motivational speaker -- even though neither the actress nor the words she's given to say support that premise in any way.

Debbie Macomber's Dashing Through the Snow has a lot of good writing, but either the original novel or the screenplay gave us an FBI-centered plot with as much respect for reality as any episode of the Keystone Kops. So it's like watching two movies -- the romance with clever dialogue, and the FBI chase movie with such stupid writing that you have to keep pausing it to make fun of it.

Hey, that's as valid a way to watch a movie as any other -- the Mystery Science Theaer 3000 approach to Hallmark Christmas film watching.

And some of the formulas completely transcend writing quality. All of the military-centered Christmas movies work because the natural audience for Hallmark Christmas movies is mostly drawn from among that half of the American public who actually know and love people who have served in the military.

So if you don't cry during Home for Christmas Day or Christmas Homecoming, you'd better pull out your passport and make sure it says "United States of America" and not "Land of Lost Souls."

Some of my real favorites -- despite flaws and formulas -- were A Bramble House Christmas (yes, it depends on concealed information revealed at an inopportune moment), A Gift to Remember (yeah, it's an amnesia plot), The Perfect Christmas Present, and Hallmark's big event movie of the season, The Christmas Train.

I like all the "stranded" movies (can't get a flight out, get on the wrong flight and then can't get a flight out).

I like all the road trip movies (have to drive with an unwelcome passenger that you fall in love with).

I like all the save Christmas in this town, lodge, park, or inn movies (I can't pay the rent! You must pay the rent! -- or Don't you remember how much you love Christmas here? Let's save it!)

Every single one of them can be mocked. But not one of them is as badly written or badly acted as, say, the definitive Al Pacino movie Scarface. Let's keep things in perspective! When you settle down to watch a Hallmark movie, you don't turn off your brain, but you must open up your heart or what's the point?

*

It happens that I ran across the cast albums of several musical comedies that I haven't seen. A couple of them are revivals -- the Jake Gyllenhaal revival of Sunday in the Park with George and the Bette Midler revival of Hello, Dolly! Both of the albums are worth listening to.

Yes, Gyllenhaal can sing; but there's enough talking and acting in the cast album that you realize that his version was almost certainly more convincing than the Mandy Patinkin version, and Annaleigh Ashford is better in the part of his model/lover than the original. It's a good album, and it reminded me of why, even though the second act of this musical fails because of the sheer pretentious stupidity of the "art" of Seurat's purported grandson, Sondheim's music is still amazing.

As for Hello, Dolly!, Bette Midler was born to play this role. She just had to get old enough to play it. Now, if you know the Streisand movie performance, you have to figure that Midler cannot now and never could match Streisand's vocal virtuosity. From Midler's first albums, it was obvious that brassiness trumped accuracy and technique -- and we who loved her didn't care a bit. This new cast album is well worth owning and hearing. And I didn't wish for Streisand's version; no, not once.

I first heard Laura Osnes when she sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a Christmas concert; I thought that she was a classically trained singer.

Well, she is -- but unlike many operatic sopranos, she absolutely nails Broadway as well, and that's a really good thing, since Broadway has been her career.

Osnes's album Dream a Little Dream: Live at the Cafe Carlyle not only showcases her absolutely gorgeous voice and song stylings, but also there's a lot of talk on the album, in which we get to know her a little -- and I found her likable as well as talented. However, all that talk demands attention -- it's a terrible choice for background music. You have to pay attention.

So Osnes's album If I Tell You: The Songs of Maury Yeston is in some ways more listenable. However, there are reasons why you haven't heard of Yeston, because I definitely was not aware of the name of the songwriter behind "Shimmy Like They Do in Paree." In fact, I never heard most of the songs on the album. But Osnes's singing makes them pleasurable and, sometimes, memorable. This is a voice to hear at every opportunity, in my opinion.

If you can lay hands on the original cast recording of Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn, then give it a listen. Of course you don't get the performances of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, et al., but despite the bad reviews the musical got on Broadway, the songs -- and the cast -- are always worth hearing. I like listening to this album.

Then there's Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, based on a portion of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Unlike Tolstoy's original, however, the songs often poke fun at Russian novels -- everybody has multiple names and you can't keep track of who anybody is, let alone everybody. The score is funny at times, but even though it's called a "sung-through musical," like Les Miz and Sweeney Todd, this one lacks any memorable arias. It sounds like nothing but recitative, so when it isn't funny, it's tedious. You can miss it without apology or regret.

A good friend called my attention to The Piano Guys, a jazzy ensemble who have two good Christmas albums, Christmas Together and A Family Christmas. Their name is misleading, because of the four guys who originated the group, only one is a pianist. The other musician is a cellist, which is why so much of the music is cello-centered and many tracks have no piano at all.

The other two "guys" are a videographer/music store owner and a songwriter/music producer. So, like, this is not your traditional quartet. In fact, the whole things started with music-store-owner Paul Anderson's idea of making videos of people playing the piano in order to spur piano sales in his store.

And why shouldn't that be the way a good musical group starts? It's way less cynical than the Monkees or the Partridge Family (they weren't really a family!).

It isn't just their Christmas albums that are worth hearing. There's a lot of talent and musical knowledge here, and naturally their videos are way worth checking out online.

And I've enjoyed a couple of albums of instrumental hymn music. Both John Troutman's 51 Instrumental Hymns and Pianissimo's You Raise Me Up: 40 Instrumental Christian Songs of Worship are pretty straightforward -- nothing jazzy here. But then, the purpose isn't to dazzle an audience, it's to support worship or create a churchlike mood. These albums may not keep you awake on a car trip, but they're comfortable to listen to -- and the better you know the hymns, the more you're likely to enjoy the performances.

Eight Master Classes

on the art and business of science fiction writing.

Over five hours of insight and advice.

Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.

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