Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Late breaking news: Me. Onstage. Palace of Wonders.

My favorite club, The Palace of Wonders, will be shutting its doors for renovations and renaming; it's been bought out by the club next door, The Red and the Black, and I've heard it will henceforth be known as the Red Palace.  The future of the DC burlesque/vaudeville/variety scene remains up in the air, but we're hoping.

At any rate, tomorrow night (9/29) there will be a big Grand Finale show, and I'll be onstage, in the guise of my new stage persona, Prof. Leopold von Gröpenhanz, as "stage tiger" (as in the guy who picks up the junk left over from various acts) and maybe whatever else may be needed (trick victim? assistant MC?  who knows?), so it'll be fun.  Maybe someday I'll MC my own show...

But anyway, if you're in DC and are free Wednesday night, c'mon by and say hi.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

D&C's DC: Tudor Place

One hot day over the summer, I took my camera down to Georgetown, partly for a ramble around the neighborhood, but mainly to get a look at Tudor Place, a historic-house museum and garden in the midst of all that urban bustle.

Tudor Place is a grand old house that was inhabited by a single family from 1805 to 1984, the Peters, who were relations of George Washington and who entertained many luminaries from American history.

The permanent exhibits in the house are largely centered on family life over the years, and rotating exhibits of things culled from family collections. Naturally, I couldn't take any photos inside, but I can tell you there's loads of cool stuff, including a 20s era study, loads of old books, and framed silhouettes in the drawing room. (I'm fascinated with silhouettes lately; they were quite the fad once upon a time and are charmingly old-fashioned today.)

But I nabbed some good snaps from the outside...

The southern view of Tudor Place; quite the grand place. The fences are planted with evergreens and lots of tall trees dominate the southern garden, so that even in winter you easily forget that you're in the middle of a city.

I found the floor of the portico fascinating for some reason.

A lovely Japanese tea house for outdoor dining, built by the house's last owner, Armistead Peter.

Overlooking the flower knot garden in the northern part. That's the grape arbor in the distance.

Another view of the knot garden, with a view of the sundial in the middle.

An odd little statue in a quiet corner of the garden.

The house's north face, viewed from a low angle in the garden. I like this shot, it gives the house a bit of an aura of mystery while not contriving to make it sinister or grotesque.

One of a pair of stone whippets that flank the entrance to the summer house and frame a view from there of the bowling green.

This lovely old fountain is one of several in the garden.

I loved this little lily pond in the bowling green area.

A view across the orchard area to the former tennis courts.

After Armistead Peter died in 1984, the house was opened four years later as a museum under the auspices of the Tudor Place trust, and is also rented out for weddings, picnics, and other events. House tours are $8 and well worth it. For researchers there's a manuscript archive as well. And it's only a few blocks from another favorite spot, Dumbarton Oaks.

Tudor Place is a gracious old lady, aging gracefully, clinging to some of her old ways and retaining a ton of her old-time charm, but still making enough progress to function in the modern world. Pay her a call when you're in town, won't you?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Three from the library, and some catching up

September has been a bit weird for me, and I haven't been able to focus on my recreational reading as much. Work is part of it, and also some other hassles in life (my car needs work, my doctor is retiring and I need to find a new one, and whoever heard of $75 being charged for a copy of your medical records?), but largely I've just been in a mood. We've bounced between cool autumn weather and relentless heat (it's 90 out right now) and it's been horrendously dry, so much so that instead of vibrant autumn colors we'll probably just have brown everywhere.

I did get some stuff read, so here's three quick reviews...

This won an Edgar in 2007 for best novel, and I want to know why. Not that it's bad, it's got good settings and interesting characters, but the story is so plodding and muddled that I found it difficult going.

What it has going for it is a meticulously researched setting: Istanbul in 1836. Yashim, a eunuch, is summoned to investigate a murder in the seraglio of the Topkapi Palace. There's also a question of threatening poems being nailed to a tree outside the palace, with veiled threats of a resurgence of the dreaded Janissaries, which had been forcibly disbanded (and mostly executed) a decade before.

Lots of potential there, but it rambles far too much, meandering here and there, spending too much time on what Yashim is cooking for dinner or the background of his transvestite dancer friend, and doesn't focus enough on plot. For those wanting information about Istanbul, it's probably good, but the didactic tone can take away from the energy of the story.

This was more like it. The fifth in Harper's series about Elizabeth I, and this time she's more comfortable with the characters and feels free to develop the plot. It kicks off with an attack on Elizabeth near a maze in her own palace, becomes complicated when a lawyer is murdered in the center of that maze, and gets dire as Bess and her court try to flee the plague striking London and figure out the identity and motive of the killer in their midst. There's some good stuff here about old English manor houses and garden mazes, and the climax is set in an unusual water maze, negotiated by boat. Good fun.

This was a pleasant surprise, a mystery set in the Regency that isn't suffocatingly twee and tries too hard to be humorous. Sebastian St. Cyr, a young nobleman with acute senses (given a good explanation) and a troubled family, is accused of the rape and murder of an actress, and must go on the lam to find out the real murderer. He gets together a good team, including a loyal street urchin, a disreputable doctor, and another actress (who happens to be an old flame). It's well-paced, nasty when it needs to be, full of good detail and twisted villainy. There's espionage, threats to the throne, and all sorts of fun. I can't wait to read the next book, I enjoyed it that much.

So there's three quick ones. I'm climbing out of whatever mood I was in, and hope to get back into regular posting soon.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

FUNGUS OF THE HEART, by Jeremy C. Shipp

Jeremy Shipp is a cool guy. He's the Bram Stoker-nominated author of books like CURSED and VACATION. He's a fan of THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, one of the funniest sci-fi spoofs ever made. And he's a friend of mine on Facebook and Twitter. And that's how I managed to read his upcoming book, FUNGUS OF THE HEART.

You have to love a title like that.

FUNGUS was a bracing change from the usual stuff I read. Shipp's not about the drawn, antiquarian horrors I so often read about. He's very modern, and while his stories are often as much fantasy or sci-fi as horror, they're all informed by a wonderful sense of feeling. Shipp's horrors are reflections of his characters' inner emotions and torments, and the stories that are played out are often the vicious result of the characters' pettiness or inability to cope with their feelings.

This is really at the forefront in "The Haunted House," a phantasmagorical ghost story narrated by a ghost who hires itself out to resolve mortal folks' problems with the supernatural. However, it's haunted by its own ghost, The Man in the Crate, who's a manifestation of...well, I'll leave that for the reader. But it's a good story, a nicely harrowing glimpse into the afterlife.

A similar story is "Ticketyboo," in which two children undergo a series of weird ordeals in a nightmare world where houses are made of glass and restaurant patrons eat sponges that make them vomit.

The brief "Just Another Vampire Story" uses fictional vampires as an element of a larger drama of infidelity and a relationship at a crisis point. "Boy in the Cabinet" looks at the human desire for, and fear of, seeking love, and our habit of being caught in the same traps over and over. The sci-fi/noir "The Sun Never Rises in the Big City" tells a tale of futuristic enslavement to explore the narrator's sense of status and entitlement.

"Kingdom Come" has special resonance for me, being set in a futuristic version of Kingdom Come State Park, which I remember visiting several times during yearly family visits to my grandmother and countless other relatives in Cumberland, KY. But it's also a great, effective dystopian story of a future prison and "filters" that manipulate our sensations.

There's also some good dark-fantasy/horror bits, in the title story and others like "Spider House" and "The Escapist" which have quests set against surreal landscapes, although the enemy isn't necessarily an external Dark Lord but interior darkness.

At every turn in these stories, Shipp demonstrates a macabre whimsy. He throws in all sorts of surreal stuff that wouldn't seem out of place in a children's fantasy, but it works as part of the story and for what he's trying to depict and reflect in his characters. He ends up comparing favorably to Jonathan Carroll in this regard, whose THE GHOST IN LOVE had all sorts of supernatural hijinx going on in a story that was basically an interior crisis made external.

This is the first Shipp I've read, and I hope to read more of his stuff in the future. He's hardly traditional, but he's definitely talented at using his stories' milieu to reflect what's going on inside their heads. And that's all too rare.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Musical Interlude for the September Mists

Here's a little Debussy, one of his Preludes. "Brouillards," which illustrates a rising mist...and perhaps, suggests what lies within?

I remember the mists of September mornings, and also doing a late-night drive on side roads between Winchester, VA, and Washington, and seeing the low-lying mists in hollows and meadows, and being thrilled by the sight and the mystery it evoked. Consider this a gearing-up for the autumn days ahead.