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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 7, 2018

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

Deadpool, Talk to Girls, Walking in Manhattan

If you liked the first Deadpool movie -- and I did -- you will like Deadpool II -- and I did.

If you hated the first one, then for heaven's sake don't go to the second, because everything you hated in the first movie is doubled down in the second.

If you've never seen either, then make sure you watch the first one before you watch the second, because then you'll already care about some of the people and relationships. The second movie takes it for granted that you're already familiar with the people and situations.

What else is there to say? The sequel does its job -- it reminds you of all the pleasures of the first, brings a few new pleasures to the experience, and it isn't just the same story all over again. Nuff said.

*

Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman get top billing in How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a strange, sometimes repulsive sci-fi romantic comedy movie set in London in 1977. But the film belongs to Alex Sharp, who plays Enn (short for Henry), who is deeply into the Punk scene, along with two friends.

For the first ten minutes of the movie, I despised everybody because there was nothing to them but their devotion to the Punk aesthetic, which is to say there was nothing to them.

But when, in search of music and partying, they come to an old house in which some very, very strange music is going on, and young people in various vinyl uniforms are behaving in strange dancelike ways, the story picks up.

Cut to the chase: These "partiers" are aliens who travel the universe, taking tourist stops in places like Earth, and then, when they've learned enough, each group's parent-teacher devours the young ones, and then gets devoured in turn by the Leader.

Yeah. Devoured. Eaten. By mouth. By very large, repulsive mouth.

Then they're all reborn at the next world they visit. Kind of revolting, but also a kind of immortality.

Except that Zan (Elle Fanning) and Enn fall in love, disrupting everything.

Let's be candid: There's a reason why you haven't heard of this movie, because the story is really bizarre and the design and acting all hark back to the "future" as conceived in 1970. It's marginally sci-fi -- after all, it's based on a story by Neil Gaiman -- but I daresay that the audience for this movie is very, very small.

The fact that I'm definitely in that audience doesn't change the fact that unless your mind is open to odd behavior and mostly bad music in movies, you will hate this film. If, however, you are someone who is already drawn to watch it by what I've said so far, then yes, you will find that this is a very good film of its kind. The fact that it may be the only film of its kind doesn't change that.

What can I say? Give it a try. If you last through the first twenty minutes, you'll probably stay for the whole thing, because it gets steadily better as it goes along.

And by the end, you want to keep seeing Alex Sharp, preferably in more accessible movies. This guy can act, and his face is so evocative that you think way more is going on inside him than the action and dialogue allow him to show.

*

If you're trying to start an exercise program -- and I mean start, not ramp up -- then a business trip to New York City is a really good way to force yourself out of a chair and into a program of serious walking.

That's because in Manhattan, everything is so close together that it makes no sense to operate a car yourself, and as for cabs, if you ask them to take you for ten blocks, they hate you. They'll usually do it -- it's the law -- but the waves of loathing pass right through the thick plastic barrier and practically smother you in the back seat.

You're going to walk, like it or not. Even if you're going thirty blocks and take a cab, chances are something's going to have traffic backed up along the entire island, so you might as well have walked.

I was in New York City for Book Expo America 2018. I arrived early, because I was there at the invitation of Blackstone, for decades best known as an audiobook publisher. The audiobook portion of the program was the day before the official opening of Book Expo, and I took part on a panel mainly directed at audiobook narrators.

I've done some audiobook narration and I'm not awful, but the others on the panel were far more expert than I. They were all professional narrators, and they were much better suited than I to answer specific questions about techniques and choices.

I quickly realized that my role was to talk about what authors want from their audiobook narrators, and then to speak as a constant listener to audiobooks: what drives me crazy, what not to do.

I got to gripe about stupidbad (new word, but we need it) pronunciations, not just of foreign words or names, but of perfectly normal English words as well.

I was able to complain about distracting narrative techniques, like trying to read in an excited way (which makes me ditch the recording almost at once); or constant shifts in volume level, so in a car I have to keep increasing and decreasing the volume; or reading with a sonorous voice, which might be regarded as attempted murder since it will put to sleep anyone listening while driving a car.

Mostly, though, it was cool to talk about audiobooks with a panel and audience who narrate them for a living. I tried to speak for all the listeners everywhere, and if you notice the quality of narration becoming less annoying or more effective over the next few years, I claim complete credit. (If it gets worse, not my fault. I tried.)

Here's the thing about New York City. The first couple of days my wife was with me. She has been walking for exercise for the past umpteen years, including hiking on every trail in Guilford County, or at least in or near Greensboro and High Point. So she is always up to walking three to five miles at a time.

We took a cab to the Javits Center from the Empire Hotel on 63rd Street and Broadway. But when we came out, there wasn't a cab in sight. My wife has the Uber app, but Uber is hurting the taxi business in New York, and I love New York taxis. I don't want them to decrease in number. So it's kind of a point of honor for me not to use Uber in cities that have excellent cab service.

In Greensboro, that means I feel free to use Uber all the time. Ever since the cab service at the airport forced ride-sharing a few years ago, I have refused to ride in a taxi in Greensboro.

Forced ride-sharing is an intolerable evil for an introvert like me -- why would I want to ride all squished together with a bunch of strangers, sitting there while they're delivered to their destinations? I'd rather walk home from the airport, dragging my bags behind me.

Anyway, my wife and I decided to walk over to the next avenue with northbound traffic. That was Tenth Ave., and we were encouraged when we saw about a dozen cabs in a service station just a block south. But apparently, they all hate people walking on Tenth Avenue, because, lights on or not, they ignored our attempts to flag them down.

We ended up walking all the way back to the hotel. And right there, New York City did its job of jump-starting my exercise program.

City blocks in Manhattan, north to south, are ten blocks to the mile. (The "long blocks," from east to west, are usually about three times the distance of the short blocks.) So going from 34th Street (the same street that Macy's is on; hence the title Miracle on 34th Street) to 63rd Street is about a mile and a half; add in the east-west distance and it's 1.7 miles.

That is not a long walk for my wife. She barely broke a sweat, even on a warm afternoon. But I was working hard, despite my doing two- and three-mile walks around my neighborhood in Greensboro for a couple of weeks before this trip. I had also walked a lot (for me) in Poznan, Poland, the week before. I should have been fit.

But it takes an extended period of exercise to bring you back from years of indolence.

Fitbit was thrilled with me. From that first day on, I got my 5,000 steps every day I was in Manhattan. One day I even got 12,825 steps. You should see how the Fitbit Ionic sings and dances when you actually get serious exercise.

Just walking around the Javits Convention Center added thousands of steps to each day's total. Book Expo America has wonderful exhibits of recent and upcoming books from most American publishers.

They trot out a few of their authors to sign their newest books at the publisher's booth, and I did a couple of autographing sessions at the Blackstone booth.

What thrilled me was that Blackstone had printed very expensive bound copies of the galleys of A Town Divided by Christmas, which they're bringing out in print and audio in the fall. They were giving these pre-publication copies to booksellers attending Book Expo and the convention that followed it immediately in the same space: Book Con.

So I was able to sign actual copies of a book that officially won't exist till October. They'll be sending me a few of those copies to give away on my website, www.Hatrack.com.

Now, a few people have already received bound copies that I printed up last Christmas, because that's why I wrote this slim book. Immersed in Hallmark Christmas movies, I wrote a very short novel about a pair of scientists who find love -- not with each other -- doing DNA studies in an isolated town in North Carolina.

Because there are scientists in it, you could call it fiction-with-science, but definitely not science fiction. It's a Christmas romance, for pete's sake! Anyway, it went out as our family Christmas card this year to the people who are on our list. I didn't think of it as a way to make money.

But since a copy went to my friend and longtime audiobook producer, Stefan Rudnicki (those who've heard the Ender's Game audiobook already know his marvelous reading voice), he naturally suggested that A Town Divided by Christmas would make a good audiobook original. With my happy consent, he offered it to Blackstone for that purpose.

Blackstone counter-offered: Why not audio and print? That was the first I heard of them publishing books in print as well as audiobooks, but I thought it was a splendid idea. Publishing Christmas books is hard, and requires considerable advance planning -- but they had plenty of time to do it right, and they seemed to be determined to accomplish just that.

Thus does a fun little Christmas gift project turn into a real book that will be in stores before Christmas. Maybe you'll read it; maybe you'll like it. I'm quite proud of it, or I wouldn't have given it as a gift to friends (several of whom actually read it, which is about the norm for family Christmas letters).

After sitting for an hour or so, signing books for some very lovely people -- booksellers who actually wait in line to get a book signed by an author must be serious about enjoying that author's work, because there's so much else they could be doing -- I was ready to stretch my legs.

During that whole convention, only once did I get a ride back to the hotel -- the last day, when I finally caught on that the line of black cars at the curb in front of the Javits Center were car-service limos, and, for a slightly-higher-than-taxi-cab rate, I could engage one to take me back to the hotel.

It's not like I had become a walking fanatic. I was going to get more than 5,000 steps that day no matter what.

All the other days, though, I walked back to the hotel from Javits, and I have to say, it was some of the most pleasant walking I've done, period.

Manhattan has protected itself from losing the street. Greensboro goes in fits and starts, pretending that it wants a downtown, and then regulating traffic, parking, and other things in such a way as to kill whatever downtown is trying to thrive. Horribly, Greensboro allowed something Manhattan doesn't -- Greensboro allowed banks and office buildings to take up entire blocks of street frontage, so that pedestrians have nothing to look at and nothing to do for blocks on end.

Not Manhattan. With the exception of the constant year-round construction that turns sections of street front into tunnels framed with scaffolding, most of Manhattan is like an amusement park for shoppers. Depending on which avenue you choose for your north-south peregrination, you can find practically everything for sale in hundreds and hundreds of storefronts.

Now, admittedly, a lot of storefronts are Duane Reade pharmacies, which are now owned by Walgreen's. New York City may be the only place on Earth with more Walgreen's stores per mile than Greensboro. Or maybe Walgreen's is vying with Starbucks for ubiquity throughout America.

But I have no complaints. There was a Duane Reade around the corner from our hotel. As a Walgreen's, they recognized our customer number; we could have accessed our prescriptions if we had needed to (like the time I left home without my Pradaxa, but I was able to buy some at a Walgreen's in Atlanta); but what we needed most from them was water.

Tap water in New York City used to be some of the best in the country, but ... it isn't so reliable anymore. I couldn't find my Hint Water until I found some in a health food store later in the week, on the last day, of course -- but they had bottled water branded as Nice! Water.

Some of the Nice! Water touted itself as being from Iceland; but the bulk packages did not cite an Icelandic origin. Instead, they called themselves "spring water" or "purified water." The logos were identical, though. I bought both kinds and couldn't tell a difference -- but at room temperature, they were both very good.

Some bottled waters can only be enjoyed if they're so cold you can't taste anything anyway -- like Evian and all the other French still waters I've tasted. Nice! Water doesn't get dull and bland like Poland Spring or Arrowhead when the bottles have been sitting too long at room temperature.

So whether it was Nice! Premium Iceland Pure Spring Water or Nice! Spring Water or Nice! Purified Water, Duane Reade had it and so I had excellent water to take my meds morning and night.

Staying at the Empire Hotel had its ups and downs. The bellmen and doormen were amazingly attentive and always there when you needed help with a door or a bag or to hail a taxi for you. The rooms were nice -- by New York standards.

Because real estate is at a premium in Manhattan, hotels tend to be built to get the maximum number of rooms in the smallest amount of space on every floor. If you can walk around both sides of a "king-size" bed in a New York hotel room, you're doing well. This one had a reasonably comfortable desk and chair for my laptop. The wi-fi connection was sluggish -- a bandwidth issue -- and if we had ever turned it on, I'm sure we would have appreciated the television.

We were in Manhattan. Why would we be watching television?

But the bathroom -- let's just say that they went a little insane. Apparently they had hired a mediocre designer who did all kinds of designery things with the bathroom.

For instance, the sink had a square basin with a flat base. I mean, water did not flow toward the drain. Flat. If you brushed your teeth and spat toothpaste into the sink, there it would be next morning if you hadn't used your hand to brush it toward the drain.

There was nowhere on the sink to set our toothbrushes. We constantly had to put wet things onto a set of wooden shelves over the toilet.

It was the shower that clinched the weirdness of the design. It wasn't a tub, so stepping in and out was easy; the floor wasn't slippery. So far so good.

But there was also no door and no curtain on the shower. Instead, you had a half-wall extending from the front of the shower, and then a wide-open gap through which you, and all the water in the world, could easily pass.

The obvious shower head was attached to the ceiling, so the water drizzled straight down on your head. This is a horrible design, because the only part of your body that gets rinsed is the top of your head, and maybe your shoulders. When the water is not at an angle, you have to contort yourself in ways that my old body doesn't like to bend in order to get any kind of stream to rinse, for instance, your ears and face and under your chin.

Fortunately, they had a hose attached to a wand that was held by a clasp on a pole and that hinted that it might be a movable water delivery device. Close examination of the wand showed that there were a couple of rows of holes that might be designed to extrude water. Except there was nothing on the wand to indicate how to activate it.

Eventually, we discovered that where the hose attached to the wall, there was a small black lever that, when rotated 90 degrees, caused water to emerge quite forcefully from those little holes.

It also caused water to stream out of the base of the wand, in whatever direction it wanted, like a two-year-old boy learning to pee standing up. Fortunately, I was eventually able to hand-tighten the hose connection and then water came only from the designated holes.

Still, there was no way to use this wand, no matter how carefully you aimed it, without completely soaking the bathroom floor and the door to the bathroom, which showed the water damage in its peeling, bulging paint. This bad shower stall design is going to cost the hotel a lot of money in replacing doors and repairing leaks in the floor.

However, once we learned the system, we were able to take successful showers with enough room to turn around -- making it infinitely better than the strange (but fully enclosed) shower we used in Poznan the week before.

Look, shower oddities are just some of the adventures of traveling. If you can get clean and then dry, the shower is good enough.

The best thing about the Empire Hotel on 63rd Street was its neighborhood. The Time-Warner Center, with several passable restaurants and fun shops, is a couple of blocks away; the hotel has a lovely pool and breakfast space on the roof; the Lincoln Square AMC Theaters are just a short walk from the hotel; Central Park is only a couple of blocks over, and there's a postage-stamp part with a statue of Dante right across the street ...

And there's Lincoln Center.

We were able to get tickets for the American Ballet Theatre, which was performing in the Metropolitan Opera House that was diagonally across the street from the hotel. The ballet we saw was La Bayadere, whose plot is as bizarre and stupid as the plots of all the other ballets ever performed. Fortunately, if you read the synopsis in advance, you could follow the entire ballet perfectly, because most of the time nothing happened at all.

Let's face it, you don't come to the ballet for the story. You don't even come for the choreography, because classical ballet rarely departs from the catalogue of standard ballet moves. The only issue is, how well can the dancers perform all these dance exercises.

Often, it's a test of endurance -- how many times can they repeat the exact same movements without losing form? Since most of the ballet consisted of large groups of dancers in processions coming in or going out, we had plenty of chances to recognize that the stars definitely surpassed the company in their technique.

I think I've been spoiled by the brilliant choreography and performances on So You Think You Can Dance. The intensity, creativity, and originality of the choreographers on that show reach levels that can't be achieved with classical ballet when it confines itself to repetitions of old movements.

One entrance procession of ballerinas in tutus consisted of about twenty dancers, in single file, entering at the back and snaking back and forth until the front row reached about halfway to the front of the stage.

The processional movement consisted of this: Arabesque, rock back, step step step, and Arabesque again, repeating over and over and over again.

Even though at other moments in the ballet, one ballerina or another would falter or wobble in a pose, by heaven they were perfect in those endless repetitions of Arabesque, rock back, step step step.

Fortunately, the orchestra was superb, with a solo violinist who managed to outperform anything going on on the stage while she performed.

The scenery was also splendid. The designer, Pierluigi Samaritani, had to devise a substantial set that could collapse in an earthquake at the end, killing everybody. This is hard to bring off, but he did a beautiful job, with a substantial set piece that rocked backward, and then a series of boulders or big stones that fell (slowly) from the ceiling down to the stage floor, where they were revealed to be large cloth bags the collapsed into nothing on the floor. Very clever, very theatrical (and definitely within budget).

I appreciated their mastery of balletic technique. The leads, including the famous Misty Copeland, were excellent, and to my shock, I found that they actually achieved one moment that actually moved me. When Copeland has refused the antidote to the snakebite that was meant to murder her, her lover -- who has just married the jealous daughter of the Radjah -- comes running back to beg her to take the antidote after all.

But too late; she has already died. Tears came to my eyes. I was stunned to realize that despite the deep stupidity of the story and the long periods in which nothing happened, I did care. And the physical movement -- Jeffrey Cirio (as Solor) running onto the stage, stopping, and collapsing in grief -- was so eloquent that I was moved in spite of myself.

My wife was a dancer in her youth (and, secretly, she still is) and so for her, she was experiencing all these movements from the inside out; she remembered doing most of the set patterns herself. For me, not a dancer, I was only a spectator. Yet we both sat through the whole three hours without feeling it as a very long time, and we emerged exhilarated to walk about a single short block back to the hotel.

In the past, we've always stayed in hotels in the theatre district, because it was Broadway plays we came for. But in the future, we may try to book the Empire Hotel again, because it might be Lincoln Center that draws us more. And since we've already mastered the use of the shower and the sink, we won't have a learning curve next time.

I was able to spend nearly a week in Manhattan without ever having the city's left-wing political culture intrude itself into my consciousness. Manhattan is the heart of American culture, and it's also the best city in America.

I say that despite my love for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Seattle, and many other smaller cities around the country. It takes nothing away from them to say that New York City, even with garbage bags piled at the curb, is the quintessential American city.

Every now and then it's fun to talk about the nuts and bolts of writing!
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 1
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 2
A Town Divided by Christmas

Available November 6, 2018

- - - P R E - O R D E R     T H E     B O O K - - -


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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.

Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com

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