Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Quickie Book Review: James Thurber Stories

The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze by James Thurber

I've been reading too many serious books lately: tales of zombie apocalypses, the Schoolchildren's Blizzard of 1888, gay frontiersmen in the late 18th century. So I thought it about time to find something a little more lighthearted, and after spending twenty minutes perusing my collection of "to be reads", I found the book I wanted.

The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze contains a collection of 36 stories and essays, as well as illustrations, created by humorist James Thurber. Many of the tales focus on married life, usually an unhappy marriage, but always told with a slight bit of dark comedy. Like Mr. Premble Gets Rid of His Wife, in which said Mr. Premble decides to run away with his secretary. She agrees but on the condition that he kill his wife. The problem is that he can't bring himself to do it until his wife walks him through the process, step by step, nagging him the whole time. Or The Curb in the Sky which has Charlie Deshler trying to break his wife's habit of finishing every sentence - whether or not she's correct. Other stories provide funny glimpses into life in the 1930s, such as The Greatest Man in the World about a man who flies non-stop around the world, though he's definitely not who the government would want to be a hero; or even offer "how to" advice, such as How To See a Bad Play which laments the same stale techniques some playwrights use to convey emotion.

I found myself smiling more and more with each story. And I think I needed that respite from all the gloom and doom I usually read.

The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze
by James Thurber
The Universal Library (1935)
softcover, 227 pgs.

purchased book

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Purdy Flowers

Even growing up in the area, I still am constantly surprised by the little hidden gems that I find. Yesterday, my friend Clark and I decided to check out one such gem called the South Coast Botanic Garden located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Following the directions I'd printed, we drove along Pacific Coast Highway through some of the sketchy parts of LA County, eventually turning onto a long road called Palos Verdes North. The road wound up through the hills, passing ranches, horse runs and large mansion-like homes hiding behind trees. We only made a wrong turn once, thanks to an intersection where five streets met, but eventually found our way to the mostly empty parking lot of the garden.

The area of the garden first started as an open-pit mine until the late 1950s when the land was sold to LA County. They turned it into a landfill. Then, in 1961, a group of citizens petitioned the county to change it into a botanic garden. Neither of us was quite sure what to expect as we passed into the first area modeled after Japanese-style gardens. We meandered along the koi pond, through a garden of twenty to thirty variety of fuschia, and into a children's garden filled with fairy tale creatures and brightly colored blooms to attract birds and butterflies. On the other side of that garden, we discovered immense patches of grass, sprinkled with benches and an occasional gazebo; a rose garden; a lake; a cactus garden; and so much more. We wandered the grounds, marveling at everything from Norfolk Pines to Hong Kong Orchid Trees to magnolias to white, pink and rose-colored cherry blossoms, and I happily snapped picture after picture.

We heard dozens of different bird calls, spied a few lizards scrambling through the ground cover, watch large orange and black butterflies flitting from flower to flower. I even managed to snap a picture of just one of the many large black Carpenter Bees that seemed to take a fancy to the purplish blooms. A few times, we met other visitors sitting on benches to enjoy the view or striding along the trails for exercise. It had to be one of the most peaceful and serene places in all of LA County that I couldn't believe we'd wandered the grounds for two hours. And I'll wager we didn't see everything.

I can't wait to return!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Music I'm Digging Right Now

This song is from one of my favorite groups, The Civil Wars. It's a beautiful song called Poison & Wine....

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sad Mouse

The time has finally come.

After almost 20 years...and much thought and hairpulling...I have decided not to renew my Disneyland Annual Pass. My current pass expires on March 6, and I find it difficult to bring myself to spend the $500 for another one.

I've had one of the shiny, hard plastic cards with me since 1995 when I rewarded myself for earning A's in my first three Workers Compensation classes. Back then, I spent quite a bit of time at Disneyland -- when it was still just Disneyland. I watched the demise of the PeopleMover and the Skyway, the rise and fall of the Rocket Rods, the construction of Disney's California Adventure, the updating of Tomorrowland from the vision of 1986 to a more earth-friendly glimpse at space and technology. I ate churros, Mickey-shaped ice cream sandwiches, turkey legs, dined at the Blue Bayou and the Napa Rose. Waited for three hours to ride Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye on its opening day and still have my opening day ticket for Disney's California Adventure. What a great time those past years were.

But now...I tend to go by myself as my friends don't have the same days off as I do, and we can never seem to coordinate. The parks are being overrun by strollers that spread like a fungus and overtake any available walking space. Much of the charm and fun has been replaced by the need to push as many people through as possible. Take the Haunted Mansion, as an example. I still fondly remember when they only allowed a specific number of people through the front door of the attraction before a stern-faced employee slid the door closed and warned the rest of us not to worry because our time would be up soon (fade into maniacal laughter). Nowadays, the cast members herd you through, neglecting the ambiance of the Mansion, chattering away about whose boyfriend did what or how they did on some English test.

I simply don't enjoy the parks anymore so why spend the money? Plus, I think it's about time I explored what else Long Beach, Los Angeles and Orange County have to offer.

It'll probably be less expensive, too.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

I Really Didn't Want To Know This....

I took my car in for it's usual oil change and check up on Saturday, knowing that I was going to spend quite a bit of money because my brakes also needed repairs. Again. Slamming on the brakes for every bicyclist that doesn't pay attention as he/she speeds through a Stop sign or red light really takes its toll after a few months.... The supervisor at the repair shop told me that the brakes and the oil change will take about two hours so I left my car with and said that I was walking over to Starbucks to get a snack and provided my cell phone number in case something happened.

As I'm enjoying my first bite of the cranberry orange scone, my phone rang. As it turned out, there was a tiny problem after they ran through the initial check on the car. I rushed back, and the supervisor ushered me to the work bay where my car sat looking sad and despondent: hood open, front tires removed, cables jutting from various parts of the engine. The supervisor reached into the engine and pulled out what I knew once used to be a clean, white air filter, now caked with months of dirt and...black clumps? I bent forward to get a better look and almost gagged. "Are those what I think they are?" I managed somehow to say while keeping the bile at the back of my throat.

"Yes, sir. Those are rat droppings." (I swear he almost smiled as he said it.) "Mice or rats have been running around your engine and under your dashboard."

My hand flew to my mouth. That would probably explain the burning-dog-hair smell I've noticed when I start my car in the mornings.

"Don't worry. They haven't made any nests, and the wiring checks out." He didn't even need to ask if I wanted it replaced.

Friday, February 17, 2012

I, Don Quixote

Last night, my friend Clark and I caught a performance of Man of La Mancha at Musical Theatre West. As always, it was an incredible, Broadway-caliber show featuring performances from Davis Gaines as Miguel de Cervantes/Don Quixote and Lesli Margherita as Aldonza.

I saw a production years ago with Robert Goulet in the title role, but had forgotten that the show isn't really about Don Quixote. The story actually focuses on Miguel de Cervantes after he's thrown into a Spanish prison awaiting a trial by the Spanish Inquisition. In order to keep the other prisoners from raiding his trunk filled with costumes and props for his plays, Cervantes decides to prove his worth by re-telling one of his stories to his fellow inmates. He proceeds to show the inmates the power of imagination to lift the spirits even in the darkest of places.

For a Thursday night, the theatre was packed, and we were all treated to an excellent production.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

French Toast and...

Caesar and I tried a new restaurant for a late breakfast on Saturday. New to us, anyway; the restaurant -- 320 Main -- has been around a while, but we rarely venture into the OC for a meal. When a friend was visiting in December, we tried a deli across the street because of its reputation on Yelp, and while we windowshopped after breakfast, I stopped in front of 320 Main to browse the menu. Duck fries, fried PB&J and other interesting dishes teased us that day, but it took a little convincing to get Caesar to try it.

Saturday morning, we headed to Seal Beach and were the first patrons of the day at 320 Main. We both decided to try the brunch special -- French Toast with Fried Chicken (as seen in the picture). And it was good! The French toast was fluffy and topped with fresh blueberries. The chicken was a flattened and breaded breast; I think we expected more traditional, KFC-style fried chicken, but this was excellent -- and a bit spicy. The spice mixed well with the maple syrup, and I devoured my plate.

Safe to say that I think we'll be stopping back to try some of the other dishes. That fried PB&J sounds mighty interesting....

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Quickie Book Review: The 7th Guest by Matthew J. Costello and Craig Shaw Gardner

Way back in the early '90s, I bought my first personal computer: an HP. The main reason behind such a big purchase was to play computer games -- one in particular: The 7th Guest. 6 people invited to a spooky house. Intriguingly and challenging puzzles. State-of-the-art graphics (at the time). I sat for hours struggling my way through each and every room and mindbender that the game threw at me. But all good things come to an end, and I moved on to the iMac.

Unfortunately, that meant no more 7th Guest or its sequel The 11th Hour.

Then a few weeks ago while we were browsing through the books at Dark Delicacies, I spied not one but TWO copies of the novelization of the game. How could I have missed this?! So to right a horrible wrong, I purchased a copy and immediately tore into it.

Henry Stauf's toys and puzzles were once much in demand and the delight of every child for miles around. But when the first child died clutching one of his dolls, then another child and still others, all clinging to one of his beloved toys, Stauf locked himself away in his mansion and disappeared from public view.

Years later, the house still stands with overgrown plants creeping up the walls, flaking paint and crumbling plaster. The children in town dare one another to walk through the rooms, all the while chanting a well-known children's song:

"Old Man Stauf built a house,
And filled it with his toys.
Seven guests came one night;
Their screams the only noise."


Yet even that song doesn't stop the six people from around town from responding to the strange invitations to visit the house. Each one imagines was Stauf and his fortune could do for them, once they meet the fabled toymaker. All they need to do is spend the evening in the house, solving the puzzles Stauf has in store for them, unlocking the secrets of the house and finding the mysterious 7th guest.

Sounds easy, right? But Stauf's puzzles are anything but easy. Especially the puzzle of the house itself....

As a fan of the game, I liked learning more of the back story to Stauf, and the weaving of the puzzles from the game itself into the book was done well. I fondly remember those exact puzzles, too, so it was nice having those added. It would have been disappointing not to include them since they form such an integral part of the gameplay. I also liked that when a character in the book solved a puzzle, it unlocked a room or door somewhere in the house, just as it did in the game.

As for the story in the book, it began well mixing Stauf's history and how he came to create his puzzles and toys with the modern-day story of the six guests finding themselves invited to the house. But once inside the house, the history of Stauf stops altogether, and I would have liked to know more about what happened to him inside the house, what exactly was behind the forces that drove him to create, and how the puzzles and toys were able to act upon living beings.

As for the characters, they felt very flat and pretty much the same: all greedy and trying to find a way out of their bad financial situations. The only truly likeable character Elinor Knox, who started as the meek, henpecked housewife and morphed into the semi-heroine of the story, even after briefly falling prey to the powers of the house.

Overall, The 7th Guest is just okay. If I weren't a fan of the game, I probably would have passed this one by on the shelf.

The 7th Guest
by Matthew J. Costello and Craig Shaw Gardner
Prima Publishing
hard cover, 224 pages


purchased book

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Quickie Book Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Jacob Portman used to be dazzled by the stories his grandfather Abraham told him of growing up in England during the war, of the peculiar children he called his friends -- the girl who could levitate, the boy with a mouth on the back of his head,the invisible boy. Even the monsters from whom he and his friends hid were fanciful creations that delighted young Jacob's imagination, and all the while, his grandfather maintained that the children and the monsters were real. As Jacob grew older, the delight he once took in those tales began to fade, especially after his father insisted that they were just stories.

Until one night when his grandfather calls him, frantically searching for a key to his gun cabinet because "they" were at the house to get him. Jacob hurries to his home only to find him in the woods, cut to shreds and bleeding. But he also catches a glimpse of one of grandfather's monsters watching them from the trees. At least he thinks he does.

Could his grandfather's tales be true? Do the peculiar children truly exist? The only way for Jacob to find out is to travel to the isle of Cairnholm to dig up any information about the children and what happened to them.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is a fun read, filled with strange characters and monsters. I enjoyed the story, too, following Jacob as he learns more about his grandfather and discovers his own uniqueness -- or peculiarity, if you will. Uncovering such an interesting history for a relative is a fantasy that many kids have, to keep them from feeling ordinary. I also like the idea of having Jacob jump back and forth between present day and a time loop in World War I, and it provides a nice little twist and is the perfect set up for (hopefully) a second book.

The only gripe I have with the ebook is the pictures of the peculiar children. My Nook doesn't have the ability to zoom in on a picture or page so the dark, black & white images were difficult to see. I ended up immediately skipping those pages when they appeared, which is unfortunate; I've skimmed the traditional book, and the pictures add so much to establishing the children and their different peculiarities.

I definitely recommend this book, but suggest picking up a paper copy instead of the electronic one.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books
ebook, 225 pgs.

Purchased book

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

On the Tube

We ventured to Burbank yesterday to sit in the audience for a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show. (In case you didn't know, the tickets are free.) Traffic was surprisingly light during the morning drive, and we arrived around 9:15AM, though the letter from the Production Staff said we didn't need to be there until 2PM. But Caesar did a little snooping and discovered that they hand out numbers to the Stand-Bys (i.e., us) very hour on the hour and that StandBys are let into the studio in numerical order. So we opted to get our numbers early.

That left us with a few hours to play around so we lunched at the Cheesecake Factory over at The Americana at Brand in Glendale as well as shopped. (Bought a long-sleeved, button-down shirt at Old Navy for $6.50!) We made it back with plenty of time to spare.

Good thing we obtained our numbers early. VIPs were seated first, followed by those who had guaranteed seating. We were worried that we would be forced to remain in the Riff Raff Room, but as luck would have it, they cut the line about 5 people after me. We were the last to be seated inside the studio! (Back row at the top, stage left) She interviewed two friends whom the show sent to the SuperBowl, then Martin Scorsese took the seat for about 20 minutes, followed by Rachel McAdams.

We hurried from the studio and were back in Long Beach in time to watch The Voice.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Badger*



* = See this blog post, but watch out for the Honey Badger with a foursquare addiction....

Friday, February 03, 2012

If I Can't Say Something Nice....

Not sure what's up with Blogger, but during the past few weeks, I've noticed that comments I've posted to Blogspot blogs don't stick -- even after signing in, deciphering the funky words that prove I'm a human being and not some automaton peddling male enhancement drugs, and seeing my pithy comments posted to the blog. A few hours later, and the same comment is gone. It hasn't been deleted, but simply vanished into the ether known as the blogosphere.

All that work, those clever retorts and snappy comebacks...all for nothing.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

If I only Had...

Being sick is awful, even if it is just allergies. I hate the stuffy nose, the runny, watery eyes, and the general feeling of I really don't give a shit what happens. Productivity drops, I neglect my blog, and I feel like crawling under the electric blanket to sleep for a few days. But then, there's the medicine. I only took a spoonful of Tussin cough syrup before going to bed, but I woke myself after the strangest dream. I remember attending a lecture in the crowded living room of my house, a lecture about zombies. A UPS man arrives with two boxes containing body parts that I had ordered: a right lung and a human brain. Excited, I tear open the box with the brain, then run around showing it off to everyone in the neighborhood. By the time I return to the house, the brain has morphed into a chocolate-dipped scone.

That's when the radio clicked on, and I awoke to the cat perched on my right side, staring me in the face.