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Title: Me and Orson Welles
Author: Robert Kaplow
Year Published: 2003
Pages: 260

Although Me and Orson Welles is fiction, Robert Kaplow drops 1930s pop-culture references as naturally as if it were 1937 and name drops enough actual performers to fill a dozen Orson Welles productions. It is set in 1937 when a just-twenty-two-years-old Orson Welles produced a stage production of Julius Caesar. That is the second-half of the title, and that much is historical.

The “Me” of the title is the wholly fabricated Richard Samuels. Welles rose to worldwide fame overnight after being cast in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet at the young age of nineteen. Samuels was hoping to rise to fame at a similarly young age when he happened to run into Welles himself while taking a stroll through downtown New York after taking a train there from his home in New Jersey. Through a series of coincidences, Samuels is cast in Welles’ upcoming production of Julius Caesar.

For me the first-half of the title (Richard Samuels) was mostly uninteresting while the second-half (Orson Welles) was fascinating. Kaplow hits the nail on the head with his portrayal of Welles’ personality. Whenever the book would veer—fortunately, usually for no more than a chapter or two—to Samuels’ home life, I would be thinking the whole time, get back to Welles, get back to Welles!

There was no attempt to idolize Welles. If anything, the opposite: he was lecherous and selfish albeit a creative genius. After just being showed the fliers for Julius Caesar: “‘This is completely inadequate,’ said Welles. ‘Very possibly the worst-looking thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ ‘We just had two hundred thousand of them printed.’ ‘They’re not entirely bad’ said Welles” (26-27). Kaplow also captures Welles’ dramatic flourishes. The Mercury Theatre sign has just been plugged in and turned on for the very first time, and Houseman has asked him when the play will open: “‘Thursday! Thursday! I told you. We let Tallulah open on Wednesday in her three-million-dollar Hindenburg of Antony and Cleopatra. And then we open Thursday—a lean, brutal Caesar—a Caesar that will bestride the narrow world like a Colossus!’ He slapped his hand on my [Richard Samuels’] back. ‘Sonja! Teach this kid the part. Know it by the time I come back, Junior, or you’re fired. And to you, my mighty Mercury company, and to you, my mighty illuminated sign, how many ages hence shall this our lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown! Behold, the Mecury Theatre!’” (30)

Nor does the book idolize the 1930s. The content of Me and Orson Welles could be described as R-rated. This coming of age story included the ultimate coming of age cliche—losing one’s virginity. Each generation seems to think that the generation that came before represented some golden age or higher moral standard. One character even declared, “Morally right? This is 1937, Richard—I don’t think the words ‘morally right’ mean anything anymore” (197). Our questions today about what is right and wrong are nothing new. They stretch back to the 1930s and even back to ancient Greece and Rome and further.

Unlike many historical fiction novels that try to cover huge swaths of history or entire eras, Me and Orson Welles takes place entirely during a single week—the hectic last week of dress rehearsals before the debut of Julius Caesar. This gave the book a sense of urgency hence the story was rarely dull.

Title: The Color of Magic (The Discworld Series)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year Published: 1983
Pages: 207

In The Color of Magic (or The Colour of Magic as it’s spelled in its native Britain), Terry Pratchett takes you to the edge of the world—and beyond! And on Discworld where this book and the thirty-seven books in the series (the very prolific!) Pratchett has written since it are set, there really is an edge of the world. Discworld is a flat disc that rests upon the shoulders of four elephants whom are standing upon a giant turtle.

In addition to spawning a long-running fantasy series, The Color of Magic was first published twenty-seven years ago and remains in print to this day. If you ask me, that qualifies it as a bona fide classic. Pratchett is a creative genius—and that is not a title I use lightly. For comparison, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and George Orwell (coincidentally, also all British) are the other writers I give that title to.

The plot—insurance fraud—is not one—if you’re familiar with fantasy literature—you’d expect to find in a fantasy novel, but it fits perfectly in the inventive universe Pratchett has created. Twoflower is a tourist from another part of Discworld. Insurance is a common concept where he comes from but an entirely new idea to the pub owner he introduces it to. After being sold an “inn-sewer-ants-polly-sea,” the pub owner promptly burns down his pub—and consequently the entire town—in order to immediately collect on his newly purchased policy.

Twoflower and his tour guide, the wizard Rincewind, subsequently go on the run. Rincewind is an incompetent wizard who doesn’t know magic (okay, he knows one spell, but he can’t use it). My favorite character is one who doesn’t even have any spoken dialogue, The Luggage. It is a trunk made of sapient pearwood which Twoflower brought with (or followed) him. Pratchett describes it as a trunk with hundreds of little legs with which it uses to follow its master. And it will follow its master everywhere. Rincewind says that if you die, at least you will have clean socks in heaven.

At one point in the story, The Luggage gets separated from Twoflower; The Luggage remains on a pirate ship while Twoflower and Rincewind escape. Bits and pieces of The Luggage’s story are interspersed with Twoflower and Rincewind’s continuing tale. The Luggage went on a murderous rampage in which it ate several pirates and forced several others overboard:

The captain was not quite certain. The Thing looked like an ordinary sea chest. A bit larger than usual, maybe, but not suspiciously so. But while it sometimes seemed to contain things like old socks and miscellaneous luggage, at other times—and he shuddered—it seemed to be, seemed to be, seemed to have… He tried not to think about it. It was just that the men who had been drowned overboard had probably been more fortunate than those it had caught. He tried not to think about it. There had been teeth, teeth like white wooden gravestones, and a tongue red as mahogany… (160-161)

The captain ordered the ship abandoned and burned. It sank in an area of the sea “that was so black, so deep and so reputedly evil that even the krakens went there fearfully, and in pairs” (176). As it was sinking, a sea monster swallowed the ship in one mouthful. The hideous monster was found later dead and beached with an expression of horror on its face. Got to love The Luggage! Pratchett describes it thus in another beautifully descriptive passage:

[A] perfectly ordinary, if somewhat large, wooden chest…rose up on dozens of what could only be legs and turned to face the Arch-Astronomer. A perfectly ordinary if somewhat large wooden chest does not, of course, have a face with which to face, but this one was quite definitely facing. In precisely the same way as he understood that, the Arch-astronomer [sic] was also horribly aware that this perfectly normal box was in some indescribable way narrowing its eyes. (200-201)

Pratchett divides the entire book into only four large chapters, so if like me you try to reach the end of a chapter whenever you have to take a break from reading, it is unlikely you will be able to do so. Much of Pratchett’s humor stems from a mastery and manipulation of language. The Discworld universe is polytheistic, and at one point, Rincewind exclaims, “We are going over the Edge godsdammit!” They encounter dragon riders whose unpronounceable names such contain punctuation (e.g. K!sdra). Pratchett is as great a humorist as Douglas Adams, but he is the far greater storyteller.