Friday, July 24, 2009

It's Almost Like the Greeks


Pulling a Rappleye here, not that anybody's noticed:


The reason, in my case: There's some suggestion that posting a poem (even in draft form) here counts as "publication" and in some quarters thus precludes official submission.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lassitude as Literature: Wearisome "Soul Thief"

I just finished reading Charles Baxter's latest novel,The Soul Thief, and I'm unhappy with it. It seemed so phlegmatic and depressive, and as several reviewers have noted, the plot device that concludes it is cynical, unimaginative and disappointing. The plot, in which a character named Nathaniel Mason is creepily shadowed by another man, creepily named Jerome Coolberg, has two parts: one situated in Buffalo, New York, in the Seventies, when the "identity thefts" occur, and another in the Nineties, when Mason and Coolberg meet up in LA.

It's not as if the book is devoid of pleasures -- it is, after all, Charles Baxter at the loom, and as a much-revered writer's writer, he indisputably knows how to weave John Gardner's "vivid and continuous dream."

As a part-time Angeleno, I was quite fascinated and amused, for example, by how Baxter's disheartened protagonist describes LA. Here is how he sees LA's airport, appropriately some might say abbreviated LAX, through which I've traveled about 40 times over the past eight years:
Although most airports seem to have been designed by committees made up of subcommittees, and are inevitably unattractive and unsightly, Los Angeles International has an exuberant ugliness all its own. The atmosphere of non-invitation is quite distinctive, as if the city's first representative, its airport, is already disgusted, perhaps even repelled, by the traveler. The recent arrival might well imagine that he has landed on the set of a low-budget futuristic film, most of whose main characters will die horribly within the first forty minutes. The pods, as they are called, are careless maintained, and an odor of perfumed urine wafts here and there through the bleary air.

The enervating experience of LA continues in the protagonist's (to me) hilarious take on the thinly disguised (I think) Chateau Marmont (or maybe the Beverly Hills Hotel), which Baxter calls "The Fatal Hotel" ("Celebrities have died there," his host tells him as if assuming the torpid Nathanial has a taste for morbid fun):
...For such a famous place, known for its hospitality to louche celebrities of every stripe, the Fatal seemed rather drab, even seedy. It advertised its own cool indifference to everything by means of dim Art Deco lamps and shabby antique rugs. Indifference constituted its most prized form of discretion. To the left of the entryway sat an ice plant. A dusty standing pot with a sunlit cactus in it, close to the elevators, matched the ice plant for pur floral forlornness. They were emblems of four-star neglect. In front of me, and to the right of the front desk, was a brown Art Deco sofa that looked as if it could have used a thorough cleaning. Scandalized, I saw stains.

Oh, snap! as Jon Stewart would say. Those stains! That's Baxter at his sharply observant best -- but unhappily, Mason's adrenaline in response is among the most energetic moments of the book.

Here's my fantasy, wholly based on conjecture, of what was happening to Baxter -- an old friend from the Eighties in Michigan and a much-cherished teacher in the Warren Wilson program when I went through -- when he wroteThe Soul Thief. I imagine that the experience of seeing his wonderful novel Feast of Love translated into the relatively pallid movie version made him feel violated. I imagine that it felt as if the hard labor of creation was twisted and and its loveliness ripped off. I imagine if he ever went to LA to consult on the making of the movie that it would have struck him, Charlie Baxter, very much as it did the dyspeptic Nathaniel. And I imagine that's why this novel, which never sees enough light, or like an iPhone that's not fully charged and can't quite pull in the call, is the dim and depressive reverse image of The Feast of Love.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How to Serve Tea and Plaudits for Rex's

So, while the airwaves are full of matters of import, drawling Jeff Sessions boringly and predictably interrogating Sonya Sotomayor, I've decided to broach my own issue of consequence: How To Serve Tea.

When I got sick last winter, among other changes I made, sadly abandoning my beloved double espressos at Steady Eddy's for instance, was to cut out almost all caffeine, and my morning beverage of choice became herb tea. Since I felt like I was sacrificing, I became quite attuned to making sure the new way was as pleasant as possible, and thus I've turned into something of a tea crank at restaurants.

First, there always should be non-caffeine options -- and not just some boring decaffeinated green teabags, but at least a handful of lively caffeine-free choices -- Steady Eddy's at the Flint Farmer's Market has one of my favorites, a pomegranate blend, and they also have peach and several citrus varieties.

Second, and to the point of this post, is how the hot water is served. Some places bring the cup filled with hot water and the little pitcher also filled with hot water. This makes no sense, unless you're also offered two teabags, one for each container. If it's served this way, you have to decide where to put your teabag. Obviously you'd begin with the cup, but then that means by the time your cup of tea is properly steeped, the bag is half-used up and your pitcher of tea would then be weaker than your first cup. Instead, the pitcher only should be filled with water; you put your teabag in there and fill the cup from the pitcher, so that all the tea is of the same strength. Then if you want more tea, you ask the server to bring you another teabag and fill the pitcher, not the cup, with fresh hot water.

Water in the teapot only -- hooray

Finally, the cafe should serve all kinds of sweeteners -- not just the excreble refined white sugar and Sweet 'n low. There should be raw (probably turbinado) sugar, Equal and Splenda. I'm a Splenda fan myself and my husband prefers Equal, and we find it irritating when neither are available.
Four kinds of sweetener -- hooray

The restaurant which consistently meets my tea-serving standards is Rex's Cafe at the corner of 22nd Street and Pacific in San Pedro, where I took the photos included here.

And I added a photo of my breakfast this morning, to note that they serve the best fruit bowl in town -- ordered with my disturbingly mammary but delicious "Green Eggs Cabrillo" (there's spinach under that cheese sauce).
Man, this breakfast needs a bra

Rex's is one of my favorite breakfast spots in Pedro -- a cheery yellow interior, friendly bi-lingual service, consistently fresh and delicious food, including excellent steel-cut oatmeal, and an interestingly varied and mellow clientele.

There, now I feel better. Bring it on, Sessions.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

We're Laughing on the Outside for Spamalot

Here's what you do on a globally-warmed singeing hot Sunday in the midst of a deep recession in LA: get in your American car, crank up the AC, and drive downtown to the Ahmanson Center as fast as you can and get the best seat you can afford to "Spamalot." Then laugh your ass off at the old Monty Python favorites like "I Am Not Dead Yet" and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

John O'Hurley is King Arthur and his madcap crew includes the amazing Merle Dandridge as the Lady of the Lake, Christopher Sutton as both the hilarious "Not Dead Fred" and "Prince Herbert," Rick Holmes as Lancelot (yes, he "comes out" in the second act) and Ben Davis as the musical theater maven Sir Galahad.

I have to admit that "Bright Side" missed some of its deliciously dark incongruity for me by not being warbled by Jesus (oops, I mean Brian) from the cross, with harmony from the thieves, but that lacuna was almost completely redeemed by Prince Herbert's over-the-top renditions of "Where are You?" and Galahad's jazzy "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" ("unless you've got a Jew").

It's impossible not to feel joyously philosophical about life at the endearing, precocious finale, when the crew released clouds of giant confetti on the audience. Most of us joined in on the last refrains of "Bright Side," whistling from center front orchestra and mezzanine alike. Don't know if there were any Bernie Madoff victims or foreclosed inhabitants in the crowd, but for a minute we were all thumbing our noses at bad news and dreadful possibilities.

Clearly, we're not dead yet.

Alva's Does It Again with "One Wing"

All I have to say about last night's sterling performance at Alva's is "Wow." Laurence Juber, former lead guitarist with "Wings," played two generous sets, just one guy sitting alone on the stage with his beautiful maple Martin guitar, and blew the rest of us away.

People rushed to the counter in the Alva's lobby at the intermission and bought his CDs like crazy -- I was among them. I want this beautiful music in my life every day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

If it's yellow...

Mark Rothko
The City of LA is under a severe drought watch, and a number of strategies are being suggested to help save water. The most common goes way back for Ted and me: "If it's yellow, let it mellow...if it's brown, flush it down." We figure this has saved us at least five flushes a day. And, well, we keep the lid down in between. Aren't we the thoughtful pair?

Elephant parade in LA

Photo from the LA Times
One thing I really wish I'd seen: the annual walk of the elephants through downtown LA at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning. (We didn't arrive in LA until 5:30 p.m. that day, safely far away at LAX) It's a tradition going back to 1922, according to the LA Times -- walking 11 Asian elephants three miles to the Staples Center for the Ringling Bros. circus. LA Times elephant story Here's the really eerie part: that was also the day of Michael Jackson's funeral in the Staples Center. A lot of the hundreds of people in the streets waiting to get in thought the pachyderm parade was part of the MJ rites. Could things get any weirder? Do you think the elephants remember that walk, year after year? Has it become part of their literature, a story communicated to the young calves?
P.S. I feel sorry for the elephants. They shouldn't be walking through any damn city. They should be enjoying tall grass and fresh air. But still: to have seen that...