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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 6, 2018

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

Bell Elkins, Casseroles, Beautiful Fantastic, "Gone"

I've been reading the Bell Elkins mysteries by Julia Keller. Set in West Virginia, and featuring Belfa Elkins, the county prosecutor, we get immersed in smalltown West Virginia culture -- particularly the burgeoning drug culture built around the abuse and sale of restricted opioids.

I started reading with Bone on Bone, which was, I fear, a mistake. Not because I didn't understand the book -- Julia Keller is a good writer and the story makes perfect sense, even when read out of order.

The problem is that Bone on Bone actually steps on some of the huge revelations about Bell's own past in the earlier books. But I'm not going to point out what those revelations are, because you're going to read the series in order, so you won't have some of the huge changes in Bell Elkins's life revealed out of place.

The first book, where you most definitely should start (and which I'm halfway through reading) is A Killing in the Hills. It's very intriguing, as it starts with a mob-style hit on three old local codgers who are having a pleasant breakfast in a diner. Bell's teenage daughter Carla is a witness.

Julia Keller takes a daring approach to viewpoint in these books. It's all in third person, but not only the viewpoint of Bell Elkins herself. We are given information from chapters concerning several different characters, which means that the book more often relies on dramatic irony than suspense.

At this moment, I've paused in my reading with Bell Elkins driving down a narrow, winding, cliffy rural road with someone coming up behind her whom we know to have been assigned to kill her in a way that doesn't look like murder. Plunging over a cliff in a small car would certainly do that job.

These are well-written mysteries, highly recommended (and not just by me).

However, I do have a bone to pick.

At one point, Bell Elkins is anticipating that, in response to a crisis, friends and neighbors will bring over endless casseroles -- in Tupperware containers.

Has Julia Keller never actually eaten a casserole in her life? The point of bringing over a casserole is to provide the recipient with a meal-in-one-dish, which you simply pop in the oven, heat up, and serve in the same container.

The favored choice is usually Corningware casserole dishes with lids, because the recipient can put the casserole in the fridge, then take it directly to the oven, and heat it up -- again, without ever transferring it from one container to another.

Who on God's green Earth would put a casserole in Tupperware? Certain fairly new kinds of Tupperware are microwave safe, but nuking a casserole is a perfect way to turn it into indigestible glop.

Casseroles are baked in the oven, so the top can get a bit of crispness and so the innards of the casserole get some, but not all, of the moisture baked out. Usually you bake it lidless for part of the time, and with the lid on the rest. There's an art to this. Anyone who has taken part in the covered-dish supper tradition takes pride in knowing how to get just the right amount of browning on the top of the casserole.

So if you bring a Tupperware dish with a casserole inside, either you expect the recipient to scoop out the ingredients and place them in a casserole dish of their own, and bake it for the first time rather than reheating it; or you nuked it yourself in the Tupperware, so it will be disgusting no matter what they do with it. No pride at all.

Admittedly, casseroles tend to be dishes favored by those who have to feed a group of people on a highly limited budget. That's why most casseroles involve noodles mixed with something like a can of tuna, cream of chicken soup, and/or canned chicken. The expensive protein is padded with the cheap noodles, but the result can be delicious.

(Of course, many casserole makers used Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, which consists of a murky broth with bits of old Goodyear and Firestone tires dropped in, pretending to be mushrooms. I was astonished, upon reaching adulthood, to realize that my mother could have made casseroles with Campbell's delicious Cream of Chicken soup for exactly the same price.)

Some people, who have no judgment, try to fake the crispiness of the top of a casserole by crumbling potato chips on it. Crisp they are, but potato chips spoil the flavor, and turn the top "crust" into the equivalent of broken glass atop a stone wall.

Real casserole makers use bread crumbs or crumbled soda crackers throughout the casserole to help absorb the moisture in the soup or cream; the top crust is then formed by whatever bread or cracker crumbs simply happen to be on top when the casserole is baking with the lid off. That crust will enhance the flavor and texture perfectly, without lacerating your palate behind your teeth.

But a self-respecting cook bringing a casserole to the home of people going through troublous times makes sure that the dish is presented in such a way as to cause the recipient no labor at all. They'll usually say, "Don't you even think of washing it. Part of the gift is that you don't have to take any trouble except to put it in the oven at 350 for twenty minutes to get it piping hot, then pull it out and serve it."

Now, nobody follows that instruction -- but scouring that casserole dish is part of the therapy, taking your mind off your troubles for a few minutes.

But if you try to reheat a casserole in a Tupperware container, you'll be scraping melted Tupperware plastic out of your oven for a month.

You wouldn't even bring over mac and cheese in Tupperware, because you'd cause the recipient too much work.

Does this matter?

Well, this misstep certainly did not make it so I stopped reading the book. But it did mean that I lost some trust in Julia Keller's knowledge of the semi-rural West Virginia culture.

Now, don't misunderstand: Tupperware is ubiquitous in meals brought over as gifts. But Tupperware is used for cold foods, which will not be heated at any point. You put a salad in Tupperware. A green tossed salad, a fruit salad, a Jell-O salad with fruit or shaved carrots in it, a Cool Whip or Reddi-wip salad, or a salad containing such fruits as mini-marshmallows. (Only in America could marshmallows become a fruit.)

At a pot-luck supper, all the Tupperware is at the cold end of the table, and all the casseroles, usually in Corningware casserole dishes, are at the hot food end of the table.

If it's an upscale gathering, there might be Rubbermaid, Popit, Chefland, Glasslock, Bento Box, or Meal Prep containers alongside the Tupperware and Corningware. The world has not held still since the invention of Tupperware and Corningware.

But my world stopped like the sun in the sky when Joshua needed more time to win a battle. Because I grew up in a world of casseroles at church suppers and as gifts to help families in crisis. And it offended my heart to think of someone so thoughtless as to send a baked dish in Tupperware.

*

If you don't care about grammar, skip this bit.

I long since despaired of the first person singular objective case -- the new normal seems to be "Please serve that to Jack and I" instead of the correct "Jack and me."

But now I'm hearing quite respectable, college-educated people speaking as if past participles did not exist. Admittedly, modern universities are primarily indoctrination camps in political correctness; what professors would model, let alone teach, educated grammar?

But to hear news commentators or talk show participants say things like, "I've went there often," just makes my skin crawl. Didn't they grow up in homes where people would say, correctly, "I've gone there often"? Is gone disappearing from common usage?

When I observed this to a good friend, his reply was, "So what you're saying is, 'Gone has went.'"

Exactly.

*

For my birthday last week, my sister sent me a DVD of a movie I had never heard of -- though it came out in 2016.

This Beautiful Fantastic is, by universal agreement, an absolutely awful title. For one thing, it consists of three adjectives with no referent. This beautiful fantastic what?

The title leads you to expect something vague and twee, and some reviewers have found the movie to be exactly that, because the title practically demands that they do so.

However, I found the movie imaginative and yet thoroughly grounded in a musty English public library and a dirty overgrown backyard garden. The characters live actual lives, even if they are rather extravagantly eccentric.

The heroine of the story, Bella Brown (Jessica Brown Findlay) is trying to write a children's book while supporting herself by working in a library, which is presided over by the English equivalent of Nurse Ratched.

At the library, she meets a charming eccentric (Jeremy Irvine) who defies the library's rules by eating while reading books. He also makes marvelous machines that might be magical or might just be contraptions.

Naturally, Bella falls in love with him a little and is hurt when she sees him with his arm around a pretty girl at exactly the time she was supposed to meet him in the park.

Meanwhile, the landlord demands that Bella maintain the back garden in good condition, but because she has a plant phobia, she hasn't touched it and she had to get it in order within thirty days or be evicted.

Her curmudgeonly next-door neighbor, Alfie, played by Tom Wilkinson, lives for his garden -- but she also sees him grossly abuse Vernon (Andrew Scott), the young man who cooks his meals. Alfie gets angry enough to eject Vernon from his house -- but because there's a contract, Alfie has to keep paying him for several months.

Vernon moves himself and his daughter into Bella's house, where he cooks for her -- and, occasionally, for Alfie, as long as he doesn't have to see or converse with him.

You know, of course, that the nasty curmudgeon will help Bella get her garden in shape just in the nick of time, while Vernon stands up for her against all comers just the way she stood up for him.

Predictability is not a terrible problem for me -- if I care about the characters and the dialogue is good, I'll cope quite happily with plots whose endings I see coming a mile away. In fact, I find such predictability to be rather comfortable, like knowing exactly how your shoe will feel on your foot before you put it on.

I loved this movie. I loved the people and their relationships. Mostly, it's a movie about good people doing good. It's funny, sometimes, but it's not really a rom-com. It's more a delightful month spent in the company of people who are struggling to find a place for themselves in the world, and find it with each other.

*

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, by Chris Voss, is meant to be a businessman's book -- all about how to negotiate with employees, employers, suppliers, customers, and pretty much anybody who has different needs from yours, but must have your cooperation to achieve them.

He really does mean the title advice -- "splitting the difference" may seem like the simplest solution, and in fact the other party might well agree to it, but most of the time it ends up leaving both sides feeling frustrated and even cheated. "Half a loaf" is rarely "better than none."

But even if you never negotiate anything with anybody (or you think you don't), this book is most valuable for the amazing stories about Chris Voss's experiences as a hostage negotiator for the government, for businesses, and for the families of kidnap victims.

The stories make the principles taught in the book painfully real -- and unforgettable. I recommend this book as entertainment first, in the sense that you'll want to know how every story turns out, and why. The fact that lives are so often on the line -- and are sometimes lost, when somebody screws things up -- makes the stories all the more poignant.

Time just flew by while I was reading Never Split the Difference. And I'm looking forward to reading it again before my discussion group deals with it at the end of the month.

*

I just reread -- by listening to it on Audible.com -- two books by Rafael Sabatini, an enormously popular author back before and between the World Wars, but one whose name is barely mentioned today.

This is a crying shame, because in many ways Sabatini was a better writer than some much-touted literary writers from the same period.

Yes, both Captain Blood and Scaramouche, his two best-known novels, are swashbuckling adventures. Errol Flynn's first real starring role was as Captain Peter Blood.

Meanwhile, Scaramouche is too thick and rich a story of the run-up to the French Revolution to fit comfortably within the bounds of a movie.

I read up on Sabatini, just a little. Mostly I was provoked to do so, because the built-in "voice" on my iPod Nano has been intrusive lately, coming in with no provocation, announcing all the titles and authors on my MP3 player so loudly that I can't hear the narration of the story I'm listening to.

The most infuriating thing about the voice was that it insisted on pronouncing "Sabatini" with the stress on the second syllable, so that the name rhymes with "botany" and, slantingly, with "lobotomy," instead of having the accent pattern of "spaghettini" or "macaroni," which would be correct.

A similar thing happened with our TiVo, which suddenly started announcing in a loud voice everything that came up on the screen. Change a channel, and you get the channel, the name of the program, and everything else that the TiVo knew about it.

The voice was so similar to Alexa's that we thought it was Alexa doing all the obnoxious chatter -- but it wasn't, which is why she refused to obey us when we told her to shut up.

Finally I found (quite accidentally) that this audio commentary had been triggered by holding down the TiVo remote's A button for longer than a couple of seconds -- and it could only be turned off by doing the same thing.

It seemed to me to be a function without a purpose. Is a blind person really controlling the TiVo with a remote? -- or telling a sighted person what to look for one the television?

For the iPod Nano to go on and on, listing every single audiobook on my device and then starting over at the beginning -- that I could only stop by shutting down the device and then rebooting it. Not a convenient thing to do while I'm exercising.

And when Alexa reads out the names of composers or musicians I request, there are frequent mispronunciations, as if Alexa were studying English as a foreign language; though, to be fair, many of her errors are with non-English names.

Back to Rafael Sabatini.

I learned (at http://www.rafaelsabatini.com/rsbio.html) that he was born in Italy, near the Adriatic. His parents were opera stars, and Rafael was born without the benefit of wedlock. Perhaps that's why being illegitimate is a major point in his two greatest novels.

Rafael's father, Vincenzo, spoke only Italian, while his mother, Anna Trafford, was English by birth, from the Liverpool area. In Italy, Rafael grew up speaking Italian as his first language; but as a very young child, Rafael was sent to live with his mother's parents, where he became a native speaker of English as well.

He picked up other languages, as when his parents took him to Portugal, where his parents opened a singing school -- and where Vincenzo was knighted by the King of Portugal. Naturally, Rafael, still only seven years old, became a native-level speaker of Portuguese as well as Italian and English.

Such polyglot abilities feature prominently in his fiction -- Peter Blood, for instance, speaks Spanish so fluently that he passes for a native..

But when Rafael Sabatini started to write seriously, for publication, he wrote in English because "all the best stories are in English." I can't contradict this opinion, because I'm not close to matching his linguistic range.

Rafael's first paid employment was as a translator for the trade between England and Brazil. But he wrote fiction on the side, and gradually worked his way up to the better-paying markets. His early novels enabled him to live from his writing alone, though during World War I, he served British Intelligence as a translator.

In 1921, Scaramouche made him an overnight success (25 years into his writing career) and Captain Blood became a monster hit the next year. Wealthy now, Sabatini settled near the English/Welsh border. But his idyllic life was broken by the death of his son in a car accident.

Since my mother was born in 1923, she grew up in a world that already contained Sabatini's most famous novels, and like most kids, she read Captain Blood and Scaramouche. The former was one of the first books she gave me to read as a child, and I devoured it.

So it rather breaks my heart that Sabatini has so thoroughly faded from the public consciousness in America. These are well-written, intelligent, clear, and morally wise books that deal with important issues, both personal and philosophical. They are, in a word, literature.

If only Sabatini had been included in the Authors card game. Then we'd all know his name, and the titles of his major works.

Many books from the past don't hold up well. I recently tried to reread several works by Lloyd Douglas, who ruled the bestseller lists rather like Irving Wallace or Stephen King in later years.

But I found Douglas was every bit as unreadable as Lew Wallace's once-ubiquitous Ben-Hur; in fact, when you get past Lew Wallace's horrible opening, a long theological discussion among scholars of three major religions, none of which Wallace understood at all, Ben-Hur is much more readable than Douglas's scriptural novels.

Even The Robe, which I had loved as a child, was so tedious that I couldn't understand how I had once found it compulsively readable.

This is not true of Sabatini at all. His prose was so lucid, his stories so compelling, that you can simply open Captain Blood or Scaramouche and start reading -- or start listening to the audiobook narrations -- and nothing will be unclear to you.

Of course it will help if you have some grounding in history -- of the French Revolution, or of the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 in England, when Protestant hero William of Orange was brought over to replace the openly Catholic James II on the throne.

But when I first read these books, I knew nothing about either period, and the stories worked splendidly anyway.

We ought to regard Sabatini's fiction as some of the best we have -- I'd take Sabatini over F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, any day. I find Sabatini's pirates and revolutionaries more interesting and more believable than Fitzgerald's Gatsby.

I never cared about any characters in The Great Gatsby, and I cared about everybody in Captain Blood and Scaramouche.

Like Jane Austen, whose works remained in print through centuries of neglect by academia, Sabatini's most popular works remain in print today, without anybody teaching them in school, because readers love them, and urge people they care about to read them too.

Consider this my urgent word-of-mouth recommendation that you add these two greatest novels of Rafael Sabatini to your memory.

*

Because I just pointed out that Errol Flynn became a huge star because of Captain Blood, it's worth mentioning that there's a movie in the works called In Like Flynn, based on an autobiography by Errol Flynn (who died in 1959) about his early years as an unskilled laborer in Australia.

Errol Flynn will be played by Thomas Cocquerel, who was so memorable in the brief role of "Huck" in Table 19. I have high hopes for this movie.

*

This summer's season finale of So You Think You Can Dance will be aired this coming Monday night, and they are likely to feature the best dances from the whole season. Since this is arguably the best group of ten finalists in the show's history, and the final four in particular, it's a must-see for dance aficionados.

*

And it's worth pointing out that the acquisition of all the Harry Potter films by NBCUniversal in early August has been followed immediately by an airing of the whole series on Syfy and the USA Network. I've watched several of them, as I happened upon them in late-night channel flipping, and I'm happy to report that even the early Chris Columbus movies hold up pretty well.

What truly amazed me was how good Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron), and Emma Watson (Hermione) were, right from the start.

Usually, when casting children in roles that are going to carry them across years, horrible errors are made. The most common one is to cast someone who is the right size for the role, but not the right age, so that as they mature we discover that they are, in a word, quite short. There was a bit of that with Daniel Radcliffe -- by the last movies, Ron towers over Harry -- but these were not child actors trading on "cute" shtick.

In fact, all three actors were remarkably intelligent and skilled, and they only got better as the series went on. Even where J.K.Rowling made dreadful mistakes, like the long tedious time spent in a tent in a drab, treeless British wilderness, where they had meaningless arguments with each other -- admit it, you kept dozing off when you read the books -- the actors made it come to life.

In fact, Emma Watson may well be the biggest jackpot in the gamble of casting child actors, because nobody could have been sure she would grow up to be such a beauty. Not since Elizabeth Taylor has a famous child star turned into a fabulous-looking adult.

But there are many other child actors who grew up well, too: Evanna Lynch, for example, as Luna Lovegood, Bonnie Wright as Ginny Weasley, and Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. Whoever did the casting achieved something quite remarkable.

Even the Weasley twins progressed from wretched acting to adequacy by the end of the series, which I had thought impossible.

*

Did you know that in Australia, Father's Day takes place in September? Mother's Day is in May, but in Australia, apparently the people creating this greeting-card holiday thought it made no sense to have Father's Day when sub-equatorial Australia was heading into Winter.

Instead, September puts it in the spring, when gifts relating to sport, recreation, and so on make considerably more sense. Besides, there weren't a lot of competing holidays.

Check out this explanation, by Australians and to Australians: https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/kids/why-didnt-we-celebrate-fathers-day-earlier-this-month-with-the-us-and-the-uk/news-story/ce674631ac4211d795c06b4a36da91f7

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