Friday, December 31, 2010

The Last Two Movies of 2010
Of course, we had to see Burlesque, if only to keep our Pink Cards up to date without fear of paying the renewal fees. We went into the theater with moderate expectation, and both enjoyed the film. I found it to be a mix of Chicago, Cabaret and Coyote Ugly, and it was a lot of fun with great singing from both Christina Aguilera and Cher. (Boy, can Cher still belt out a song!!) Not the best acting, but I think that may have to do with the script -- though it had some great one-liners. Stanley Tucci does a funny job as Sean, the club's wardrobe and stage manager, And who could not like the eye candy of Cam Gigandet (pictured) and his little box of Famous Amos cookies? (If you've seen the film, you know what I'm talking about.) Burlesque is a perfect matinee movie, very melodramatic and fun to watch.
Tangled is Disney's take on the classic fairytale Rapunzel. A young girl with long, golden hair remains enclosed high atop a tower thanks to her "mother" who really only wants to use the magical powers borne into Rapunzel's hair. Rapunzel's one dream is to see the lanterns that are released every year on her birthday, thought her "mother" refuses to allow her to leave the tower, warning her that the world is a very, scary place. However, a dashing thief named Flynn is on the lam from the palace guards and stumbles across Rapunzel's tower by accident. He climbs the tower, hoping to hide from the guards, but instead finds a young woman who wields a mean frying pan. Seeing her one chance to flee the tower -- even temporarily -- Rapunzel convinces Flynn to take her to the lanterns.

Definitely a fun film, and I liked Disney's take on the fairytale. The music from Alan Menken and Gary Slater is catchy an fits well with the characters, and I enjoyed both Mandy Moore's and Donna Murphy's vocal performances. And I must say the scene in which the lanterns are released while Rapunzel and Flynn float in the harbor is one of the most beautifully crafted scenes on film. Simply stunning.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: The Beckoning Fair One by Oliver Onions
Paul Oleron is 15 chapters through his latest and probably most important book, the one that will make a name for him in the literary world. And by chance, while roaming the streets, trying to procrastinate rather than work on his novel he happens open an old house with a "To Let" sign tacked to the gate. After a few inquiries and a quick viewing of the hosue, he decides that the first floor would be spacious enough for him to work in -- definitely more room than his current cramped quarters. He moves in and settles himself nicely into his new surroundings.

When his journalist friend Elsie Bengough pays him a visit, she tells him right away to leave the house, that something doesn't seem quite right. Paul shrugs it off, even when Elsie scratches her wrist on a nail trying to open a window box -- a nail that Paul swears he removed days ago. As the days and weeks progress, a change takes over Paul, and he learns too late that perhaps Elsie was right about the house.

The Beckoning Fair One is a classic haunted house story, and what I enjoyed most about it was that the haunting was subtle and psychological. No ghostly vapors or doors opening and slamming shut by themselves. For Paul, a steady drip of water turns into and old Welsh tune or of a sudden he realizes that he's no longer alone in a room though no one else is visible. It reminded me quite a bit of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House in that respect, where the haunting is alluded to and hides in a far corner to infect the atmosphere. This is the way to tell a haunted house tale, with subtlety and hints rather than ghosts jumping from every page.

The Beckoning Fair One
by Oliver Onions
Wildside Press
ISBN: 0-8095-0031-0
softcover, 90 pgs.

purchased book (actually received as Xmas gift)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

One More Musical for the Year

This year has seen quite a drop in the number of shows we normally see. In fact, I think the last performance was Peter Pan way back at the beginning of November. A month ago, though, Caesar bought tickets for one final show to finish out the year. Which is great as I was beginning to experience withdrawals.

And going to the theater always means trying a new restaurant. This time, he happened to find The Local Place, a coffee shop run by King's Hawaiian and situated next door to their bakery. It's a cute little place, located just a few off-ramps from us on the 405 North and complete with a mini store with all their baked goods -- from loaves of sweet bread to chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies. I ordered a Hawaiian Bento Box filled with rice, potato salad, Hawaiian fried chicken, shredded pork and teriyaki chicken; Caesar's plate came with ribs, Hawaiian fried chicken and kim chee. And it was delicious! The fried chicken was a little sweeter than what I would have expected, and the ribs were tender and tasted like candy.
After dinner, we sped up the freeway to the Ahmanson for Tuesday night's performance of Next To Normal. The show centers on Diana, a woman dealing with bi-polar disorder and depression. Her husband Dan does whatever he can to make home life easier for her, but the constant visits to the doctor with no visible changes are beginning to wear on both him and their relationship. Their daughter Natalie always seems to feel left out no matter how hard she tries in school and at home, but finds herself resorting to other means to bring some kind of normalcy to her life.

I know -- not your typical musical theater fare. We even talked about that on the drive home. 10-15 years ago, this subject matter probably would not have made for a show, unless somehow they managed to lighten it up, make the doctor visits more fluffy and comical. What we both liked about Next To Normal is that the writers didn't sugarcoat anything. Diana's experiences with depression and mental illness and how her doctors handle treatment were right on the money, very stark and sometimes scary. Alice Ripley -- who earned a Tony award for her portrayal of Diana -- reprised her role here in Los Angeles, and it was easy to see why she deserved that award. She carries out all the hesitant movements and the uncertainty of what is and isn't real in Diana's mind with finesse, and she can belt out a song without any effort at all. In fact, the entire cast performed the same way, from Asa Somers' Dan to Emma Hunton's Natalie and Curt Hansen's Gabe. A stellar cast that I felt treated the material and the story with much respect.

Such an amazing show and a great way to end the 2010 theater year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Quick Tale of Two Christmases

My Family

My family has always celebrated the Yuletide holiday on Christmas Eve. The family gathers at either my Parents' or my Aunt & Uncle's home, we enjoy a large home-cooked meal, tell embarrassing family stories and memories over dessert, then spend the next two hours or so ripping through the gifts under the tree. We usually takes turns opening them, allowing everyone to ogle and ooh and aah at the presents, make snarky comments that bring everyone to fits of laughter, then relax and take a family photo or two (or three).

And this year was no exception, with Caesar joining in the fun. My Aunt used us a guinea pigs to test some new Spanish recipes: the chili rellenos pie was delicious, and the enchiladas not too bad -- maybe a little dry -- and the homemade flan turned out to be pretty good. After dinner, my Sister-in-Law was recruited to hand out the gifts, and instead of randomly picking one and handing it over to the intended, she organized them so that everyone would have a gift to open and not feel left out. Books, Wii games, a new Revere tea kettle for Mom, gift cards, clothes, and more -- we all made out like bandits even though fewer gifts were under the tree.

His Family

Christmas Day was the first I'd spent with Caesar's family. We stopped first at his parents to make sure they were ready, then headed to his Niece's house in La Puente.

Caesar's family is huge -- brothers, sisters, nieces, great-nieces and -nephews -- I think about 15-20 people in all. With all the kids at this time of year, his family draws names for the adults, and everyone buys gifts for the kids. And I find it amazing that we all fit into that house, mostly the kitchen and the living room. The kids immediately wanted to open their gifts, especially when they saw me hefting the three bean bags for the youngest of the bunch. But they were forced to wait until we all had a bit of food in our stomachs -- refried beans, tamales, scrambled eggs. Then it was a free for all as far as the kids were concerned. Though Caesar's sister tried to pass the gifts out in an orderly fashion, the kids grabbed gifts, ripped through them, screamed with delight and dove in for more. Controlled chaos comes to mind. It was fun standing aside, watching the kids having so much fun and remembering how it was when I was that age, the joy and surprise and finding all those boxes with my name on them under the tree.

Once they settled down somewhat to enjoy their V-readers or toy cars, or Bratz dolls, out came the karaoke machine, and we laughed our way through another hour or two of mangled songs and laughs. This particular karaoke machine scores your performance, and once one of the Uncle's scored a perfect 100 for thrashing Celebration from Kool & The Gang, the gauntlet was tossed, and we all tried to find a song that he couldn't get through. Yet he managed to score four more perfect 100's. Then, one of the kids tried his hand at Twinkle, Twinkle, but it came out sounding like the Alphabet; we cheered him on, clapping, hooting and hollering. God, that was so much fun!

I think this ranks as one of my favorite Christmases of all time.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Everything's Better With . . .

Ever since our return from Hershey, Caesar's become a baking machine, trying all sorts of recipes for cookies: chocolate chip, peanut butter blossoms, and so on. but tonight, I believe he has outdone himself.

I found this recipe on-line, and thought it would be fun to try it. But it was Caesar who took the initiative and set to baking these chocolaty concoctions: Chocolate-Chocolate Chip-Bacon cookies. Yes, you read that correctly. BACON. Doesn't sound as though chocolate and bacon would make for a good combination, but surprisingly, these taste yummy! The bacon comes across with the crunch factor and adds that little bit of salt to mix with the sweetness of the chocolate chips.

We won't tell anyone tomorrow night about the bacon until after they've told us how delicious they are.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shiver in my bones, just thinking about the weather.*

We've had a smidgen of rain the past few days, in case you haven't heard. And by "smidgen", I mean torrential downpours since Friday of last week. Almost non-stop. And windy. And cold. Yet, we managed to host a friend visiting from Las Vegas, finish most of our Christmas shopping, play some Wii and prevent our cars from becoming waterlogged. (The streets around the apartment tend to overflow the sidewalks in such heavy rains.)

Today, a 45-minute window of sunshine became available so I hoofed it from the office and got my 30 minutes of walking time in. Along the way, I spotted the branch in the picture. The heavy winds and water-soaked wood probably was too much for the tree, and something had to give.

The rains returned within minutes of my stepping back into the office and let loose with a raging fury, pelting the ground hard enough to resemble hail. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it lets up soon so I won't have to swim home after work.

*Lyrics from Like the Weather by 10,000 Maniacs

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Book Review: Android Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters
Anna Karenina's marriage to Alexei Karenin holds nothing to interest her, other than their son Seryohza. Besides, Karenin spends too much time at the Ministry of Robotics and State Administration, tinkering with his robots and his new groznium face plate, which seems to have a life all its own. After a chance encounter with the Count Vronsky at a Grav station, the Anna finds herself inexplicably drawn to him and soon begins a love affair that threatens her standing in society and may bring about the destruction of the Russian people.

Android Karenina takes the classic Leo Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina about a noblewoman risking her family and her standing in society for the love of a man other than her husband and mashes it up with a tale of robotics and of alien lifeforms trying to invade the Earth. Sounds bizarre -- and it could have been in the hands of another author, but Ben H. Winters deftly mixes what should be two completely opposite worlds into one engrossing novel. Even though the story takes place in the late 1800s, the robots have always been part of Russian society, performing menial tasks and acting as companions in the form of personal robots, such as Android Karenina is to Anna. Winters has manages to not make them feel futuristic but rather very Victorian, very Jules Vernian -- especially with how they travel to the Moon or to Venus.

Winters also sticks to the main storyline with which most who have read Tolstoy's novel are familiar, but the tweaking of plot elements and of characters themselves makes the story seem fresh. Android Karenina turns out to be a surprisingly satisfying and appealing read. Definitely one of the more fun books of 2010.

Android Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy and Ben H. Winters
Quirk Classics
ISBN: 978-1-59474-460-0
softcover, 545 pgs.

Received book from publisher

Monday, December 20, 2010

More Holiday Music

What do you do when you don't have time to jot down a quick post? Try something from YouTube!!

Here's another Christmas favorite: Christmas Wrapping from The Waitresses.

Sorry, I guess there's no official video.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Tunnel (II)

Garver slipped, wrapping his arms around a mossy tree stump to keep from sliding into the river. He froze, strained to hear if the hunters were still on the chase. The faint sound of dogs barking and muffled shouts of men egging them on filtered through the trees, and he sucked in his breath, pursing his lips and hoping the dogs wouldn't follow his trail down the hillside.

The barking grew louder, approaching the spot thirty or so feet above him. Just about to the bend, he squeezed the stump harder. The taunting shouts and steady footsteps of the men followed close behind. "Go get, 'em, boys!" "Look at them dogs! Those boys ought to be close by!" "I promise, the first of you to get one of those boys earns a little something extra with his dinner tonight!" A scramble of paws on gravel mixed with the almost frantic yelping.

Garver squeezed shut his eyes and willed the dogs to round that bend, to head for the tunnel and pass him by.

A few moments passed before the happy, manic yelping turned to whines and hushed growls. He heard a few dogs running like wildfire away from the men, away from the tunnel. "Shilo! Get back here! . . . . Damn fool dogs! Don't know what the Hell's got into them. Jessup, take a look around there, let me know what might've put the fear in those dogs."

A single set of footsteps ran, crunching through the dirt and clinking tiny stones against the tracks, and slowed to a stop. "Nothing back there but a tunnel. The train tracks look kinda funny, but -- I think I see one them in there!"

"Jessup! Hold on!"

His steps echoed around the bend. "C'mon, fellas! I think we got one of 'em tra --"

"Jessup?" Not a sound. "Jessup!"

Garver held his breath. Footsteps rumbled along the ground above him, rounding the bend. Then confusion, a soft wrenching of the ground, muffled screams, two gunshots echoing down the valley, silence.

He let go of the stump only when his arms began to hurt. Garver didn't know how long he'd been sitting like that, listening to the quiet of the valley. He carefully slid the rest of the way down the hillside to the river, and plunged his shaking, cupped hands into the water for a drink.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What the Phò?

A friend visiting from Las Vegas treated us to dinner last night at a little Vietnamese place on E. Anaheim St. call Phò Hanh. My experience with Vietnamese food isn't very extensive -- I think I tried something that a classmate's mother made for our second grade class many, many . . . many years ago. Last night's foray into foreign foods found me with a large bowl of phò set on the table before me.

Phò (sounds like fuh) is a traditional, hearty soup dish, usually of chicken or beef broth with rice noodles and other goodies. What I ordered came with the long white rice noodles, lemon grass, chopped green onions and bits of flank and of skirt steak simmering in a beef broth. Our server also set a plate heaped with fresh bean sprouts, lemon wedges, slices of jalapeños and basil stalks between myself and our friend from Las Vegas, and I followed his lead, pulling a few basil leaves from the stalks, tearing them to pieces and sprinkling them in the phò. I also squeezed in some lemon juice, tossed in two handfuls of the bean sprouts and a few thick squirts of bean paste and allowed the mixture to simmer for a bit longer.

I debated adding some srirachi sauce to add more flavor, and looking back, I think that would have been a good idea. Even with the lemon juice, lemon grass and onions, my phò was a little on the bland side. It wasn't bad, but on our next visit, I may opt for one of the rice dishes.

At least we can check off another restaurant from our list of "Must Tries in Long Beach".

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Favorite Albums of 2010

The end of the year seems to approach faster and faster -- unless it's just my age finally catching up with me. And with the end of the year comes all those wonderful and wacky "Best Of" lists. Like mine. However, unlike other such lists, mine consist only of things that I've seen, read or bought myself. So within the next few weeks, I will bombard all my wonderful readers with what I feel are the best CDs/Albums, reads and live performances of 2010 -- though the performances may have to wait until after the first of the year since we're seeing Next To Normal on the 28th.
1. The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe
Hands down, my favorite album this year. Monáe has an incredible voice that switches seamlessly from James Brown infused funk of Tightrope to jazz to pop to traditional R&B and even to the very Jimi Hendrix psychedelia of Mushrooms and Roses. And she combines them all to tell the story of an android falling in love with a human. Inventive, fun and soulful, this is a masterpiece of an album.

2. Go by Jónsi - Icelandic pop from the lead singer of Sigur Rós. Very lush, melodic and definitely not the American/British version of pop. And it doesn't hurt that he's openly gay.

3. Music for Men by Gossip - A mix of 80s new wave and punk, with strong vocals from Beth Ditto.

4. The Lady Killer by Cee Lo Green - The first single is a fantastic song, and the entire album does a fine job bringing back the 70s Motown and funk sound with a 21st-century twist.

5. A Low High by All India Radio - I love atmospheric electronica, and this is one of the best examples of the genre from 2010.

6. Scratch My Back by Peter Gabriel - An album of covers songs molded into Gabriel's African-tinged, epic sound. He selected songs and placed them in the perfect order to tell a story of love and loss. (And the concert was incredible!)

7. Makara by E.S. Posthumus - Bombastic, cinematic music that re-creates the feel of an epic adventure tale. This music should be blasted as loud as possible from the speakers.

8. A Christmas Cornucopia by Annie Lennox - Yes, a holiday album, but how can you go wrong with Annie Lennox? She breaks the mold of holiday albums for me by including all the verses of the carols, and she tints quite a few with a bit of African flavor. Though, my favorite track is her version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, turning it into more of a mummer's dance.

9. Barbara by We Are Scientists - A catchy little rock album.

10. Night Train by Keane - A good album that features their lush vocals and instrumentations. Not a fan of the rap section, only because some of the lyrics seem a bit silly and out of place, but a still a good album.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Out of Sorts

Maybe it's the time of the year, but lately, I've been feeling. . .not under the weather, but more out of sorts. Something overwhelms me, and I'm either saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing, and that winds up upsetting people. Is Mercury in retrograde? Is it S.A.D.? Am I simply not in the holiday spirit?

Normally by this time, most of my holiday shopping would be done. As of today -- maybe three or four gifts. And that includes the Wii and a few games (which we've already opened). The holiday decorations are finally up as of an hour or so ago, but I held back, only hung the important ornaments on the tree, placed a few Santas around the apartment.

This year has flown by, and all I want to do is hit the Rewind button. Or Pause or Slow Motion. Anything to allow me to catch my breath.

I do have a vacation coming up, a much longer one than the trip to Pennsylvania back in October. Hopefully, that will allow me to relax, to give my brain a chance to wind down.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Holiday Music

Still one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs: Merry Christmas, Darling from The Carpenters . . . .

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Book Review: Tapas on the Ramblas by Anthony Bidulka
Charity Wiser, head of Wiser Meats and the head of the Wiser Clan, delights in tormenting her family with the monies she plans of divvying up in her will. Her form of torment, however, is unusual -- she forces the family to gather together for yearly Charity Events (Charity meaning her and not actual charities). She finds either the most unsuitable location or runs the family through a horrendous onslaught of group activities, convincing them that this is what they need to do in order to garner a good spot in her will. At the last such event, though, someone finally had enough of the terrorizing and decided to take action, mistakenly poisoning her cat.

To uncover who in the Wiser family has it in for her, Charity stages one final event and brings in Russell Quant, a gay private investigator. Charity's family will be gathering for a Mediterranean cruise aboard the Friend of Dorothy Cruiseliner -- a gay-friendly cruise chosen specifically to make her family uncomfortable. On top of that, she's let the family know that she plans on changing her will so it's up to Russell to untangle the web of greed and lies within the Wiser family before Charity -- or even Russell himself -- winds up dead in the water.

I liked the characters. Most of the gay/lesbian characters showed the diversity of the gay community -- from the sometimes in-your-face drag queens to the business-like lesbian captain of the ship -- and I like that Charity Wiser never hid her relationship with her lover Dottie from her family, no matter what they may have felt about it.

But it was the twists and turns of the story kept my attention. I never had a solid inkling as to who the murder could be thanks to all the re-directing of potential culpability. With many mysteries, it sometime becomes apparent early on in the story just who the guilty party is, but this story had so many different trails to follow that even I didn't know how Russell would pull off solving the mystery.

Tapas on the Ramblas is a fun mystery, something that is filled with enough interesting characters (from the Wiser clan and members of the ship's crew to two Mary and Rhoda drag queens), plot twists, well thought out red herrings, and murders to keep any reader entertained.

Tapas on the Ramblas
by Anthony Bidulka
Insomniac Press
ISBN: 1-894663-97-7
trade paperback, 289 pgs.

purchased book

Monday, December 06, 2010

How Much for That Pot of Tea?

"What do you want for Christmas?" Ceasar asked my Mom as we chitchatted around the lunch table.

"Well, let me show you." She ambled into the kitchen, grabbing a well-worn tea kettle from a cold burner on the stove. She held it high so that both Caesar and I could see it. The copper bottom had almost burned away with hard water stains creeping from the bottom and up the sides. "I want a new one of the these, a Revere with a copper bottom."

My Mom's tea kettle of choice. We had one with us on camping trips, and I remember filling it with water and setting it oftentimes on a small metal grating atop the campfire, waiting for the whistle which meant time for hot chocolate with marshmallows. Ever since those trips, we've always had one of those particular tea kettles, with the shiny copper bottom and the name "Paul Revere" pressed on the side.

On the way home after lunch, we decided to do a little shopping, check around a place or two for the tea kettle. After all, it couldn't be too difficult to find a tea kettle.
First stop, Bed, Bath & Beyond. All sorts of tea kettles: stainless steel, mutli-colored ceramic, and those new-fangled Keurig one shots. But no luck with the Revere. We moved on to South Coast Plaza. After wandering through all the potential tea-kettle stores -- Sears, Sur la Table, Crate & Barrel, Macy's Home Store -- and glancing through all the tea pots available in the one store that specialized in just teas and the methods of their brewing, we finally stopped at Williams-Sonoma. No copper-bottomed object of our treasure hunt, but they did offer one made (i.e., plated) completely in copper. That sold for a meager $115.

If the kettle costs that much, then it had better whistle the entire Hallelujah Chorus when that water's ready, steep the tea and pour me a cup.

Two hours later, we finally arrived at the apartment while the rain beat down. I turned on the computer and immediately found the tea kettle at an Ace Hardware, of all places. Within walking distance of the apartment!!!

Saturday, December 04, 2010

What To Do at a 5-Year-Old's Birthday Party

Yesterday, one of Caesar's Great-Nieces turned the Big 5, but today, the family celebrated the milestone event. Lots of kids running and screaming all over the place, a Dora the Explorer Bounce House, tons of food, Paul Frank's Julius on every plate and napkin as far as the eye could see, and one large birthday cake in the shape of a cupcake surrounded by dozens of smaller cupcakes. Perfect for the kids, and believe me they enjoyed every bit of it.

The adults in the group did, too, but with most of being too big to fit inside the bounce house, we entertained ourselves with balloon fights -- throwing and hitting balloons at each other without allowing them to touch the ground. Caesar's sister even stuffed two balloons inside her sweatshirt -- albeit it with the help of their Mother -- to give Dolly Parton a run for her money. We also experimented with static electricity, and I had a balloon or two stuck to my hair or shirt during portions of the festivities. I have never seen adults having so much fun with party balloon, especially ones not filled with helium.

Also while the kids were running themselves ragged, high on sugar and emotions, the adults sat around the big screen watching movies on Turner Classic Movies. First, we caught the last 30 minutes of The Thin Man, then followed that with 1948's The Snake Pit starring Olivia de Havilland as a Virginia Cunningham, a woman who wakes up in a mental institution without any knowledge of how she got there or why. Fantastic film, by the way.

At some point during the viewing, the birthday girl's little sister stomped about with blue frosting smeared around her lips from one of the six or so cupcakes she commandeered. And ice cream was spilled on the hardwood floors. And both a dog and a child ran into the closed screen door leading into the backyard. And at any given time, one or more children cried over not getting what he/she wanted. And many cans of Fanta Strawberry Soda were consumed.

All in all, a successful birthday party.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Table O' Contents

I haven't posted much about my short story since I received word it had been accepted. Perhaps I'm still in subdued shock, but I checked out the publisher's site to learn where in the books my story fits in. (Yes, the collection morphed into a two-volume anthology, thanks to all the submissions and great first-time writers out there.) Imagine my surprise when I noticed where my story, "What the Cat Dragged In", placed: May December Publications (see the News entry for 11/12/10).

My first thought was: my story was that bad, that the publisher decided to bury it. But after letting it stew and simmer, I convinced myself that maybe -- just maybe -- this was a good thing. "End on a good note." Please let that be it!!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010