Archive for November 2010

All You Can Eat   4 comments

This is where I go for Chinese food.


I love All-You-Can-Eat places.  The food doesn’t have to be especially good, and the service can be minimal, but something about the idea of choosing for myself what and how much I get to eat is just terribly attractive to me. 

And this is bad because nobody among my friends or family really likes all-you-can-eat.  They would rather pay twice as much for a single plateful of something from the Red Lobster or the Olive Garden (both fine restaurants) than go and feast on 20 different kinds of food.  That leaves me all alone when I go out to indulge my taste for variety.

Give me variety in my food, and lots of it.


When you say all-you-can-eat in Phoenix your choices are Chinese, Mexican, and salad bars.  I like them all, especially since the salad bars usually include some kind of cheap pizza too.  This little blog, however, is about the Fuji Restaurant near the corner of 16th Street and Camelback Road in Phoenix.  Signage is not really their strong point.  (That’s kind of weird. Mount Fujiyama, called Fuji by its friends, is in Japan, not China. This is not really a Japanese place–there was nothing teriyaki to be found, but they did have sushi which is Japanese. I guess it offers the best of both.)

They also have a sign in the front window, but you have to look closely to realize what they're calling the place.


When I was a younger man, this same restaurant used to be called the Szechuan Gardens.  Liz Danforth, Pat Mueller, Mike Stackpole, and I once took Fritz Leiber (the author of the Grey Mouser & Fafhrd stories) out to supper here during WesterCon 1978 when it was in Phoenix.  I think I showed the place to Larry DiTillio one night also. What a showoff he is–he ordered in Chinese.   Szechuan Gardens might have been the best Chinese restaurant in town at the time.  But grandeur fades away.  The paint and the gilt is dingy now, much like me.

At least the Fu dogs still guard the entrance and welcome the customer to a place of plenty and goodness.

There are actually two of these little lions, but I couldn't get them both into the same shot.


Sometimes when I’m totally depressed and hungry, I come here to treat myself.  When I worked at the Cent;ury Branch Library only about seven months ago, I’d come here once a month or so to feed the inner Ken on fresh pineapple, fried rice, chop suey, fish, and shrimp–lots and lots of shrimp.  I sometimes got a tummy ache aftewards.  One probably shouldn’t mix pineapple, mushrooms, and chocolate pudding, but yum!

I never learned to like raw fish, but sushi is here for those who want it.


This serve yourself area was the grand dining area back in the glory days of this restaurant.


So, before Thanksgiving Day I came here and seated myself in the cool comfort of what was once the bar, and I had 3 servings of good stuff–mostly shrimp, and fish, and rice.  I washed it all down with a couple glasses of orange soda–ah what a hard drinking man of the world am I!

One thing I love about Chinese restaurants is that they all have these magnificent paintings on the walls.


Once I got the flash working on the camera, I took this picture of the cool, quiet place where I sat down to eat.  As you can see, the place is moderately busy, with lots of people chowing down.  That may be because the place is in a high traffic location–Cameback is a very busy road–or because the food is good–yes it is!  But, it looks like Fiji will stay in business for a while.

As I paid my bill and departed the hostess asked me why I was taking pictures. I tried to explain that I was making a kind of record of places and things I like, but English was not her native language, and I don’t think she understood.  She said it was against the rules to take pictures in the restaurant.  Call me a scofflaw if you want, but it’s my life, my camera, my money that bought lunch, and I’ll take pictures of whatever I want, even of restaurants where I eat.

I love all-you-can-eat places, and I love colorful little dive restaurants–people places that are not all the same–places where the individuality of the owners, managers, and employees shine through.  These places both entertain and feed me.  I’ll be talking about more of them, I’m sure.


Posted November 27, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Painted Picture Walls of Phoenix   3 comments

Do other cities do this?  Paint giant murals on the walls of their business establishments?  I haven’t seen it, but then I don’t imagine the casual visitor to Phoenix would see these either.  It seems to be an Hispanic thing–these wall paintings tend to appear in primarily Chicano neighborhoods and on the walls of Chicano organizations or businesses.

Civic Pride? Surely this is a Phoenix bird rising above the mountains of the Southwest.


One picture like this on a wall would be striking enough, but these pictures tend to appear in gigantic murals that cover one or more walls of the building involved.  Here’s the rest of this panorama which is on dispaly about 1900 E. McDowell Road, about 3 miles from my house.

Buildings, mountains, and cloudy skies? Why cloudy? It doesn't rain that much here.


Turning the corner, we learn it is a bright desert day at a Mexican restaurant. I have never even been inside here.


It has to be sunset. You only get these colors when the sun is going down.


Phoenix used to do a lot of spotlights in the night sky, but hasn't been doing that for several years now. This appears to be not the bat-signal, but the Gonzalez signal.


While most of what I intend to show you is epic in scale, sometimes you get just a single short section of  wall all painted up.


Look!  There’s a gigantic Olmec head lurking on the side of this picture.

Some murals go around corners and have messages on them.


Because of the way I arrived at this location, and because of heavy traffic on 16th Street, I had to take these pictures from across the street.


The message is above and below the pictures.


Sometimes the picture gets obscured by later additions. I'm sure the shaded bus stop came long after the mural.


The eight panels of this mural are only half a mile from North High School, a school that is about 80% Hispanic.  How many thousands of young minds are influenced by it every year?

It may be worth mentioning that everything in the blog today is located in the east Central section of the city, which is the section where I live.  There are such paintings in other parts of the city, but it’s harder for me to find them, and I didn’t go to those parts of the city when I took these shots.  It’s just as well, because my camera’a batteries failed on me before I finished even this one corner of town.

Here’s another set of message pictures, and this one is a lot easier to read.

Desert landscaping made it hard for me to get a straight-on, unobscured shot of the first panel.


Celebrating ordinary life but with an inspirational theme . . .


Eight panels for this diorama, and there's a winged butterfly person in the last one. Weird.


Not all the ejpic dioramas are so inspirational.  The next one, which was just a mile down the road is flat-out psychelic bizarro.

The trash dumpster is painted too, although that's hard to see from this angle.


This kind of thing makes my eyes hurt.


The artist has a lot of skill, and quite an imagination.


This is the shop window of the building with the psychedelic wall. I still had no idea what kind of business was inside.


I have gone by this place a thousand times at least.  It’s right on the way between my house and the main library downtown, and you all know how connected I am to the library.  This time I was on foot, and I went inside to see what the hell it is.  The psychelic building is a hair salon.  No, I didn’t stay for a haircut, but if I ever decide to dye my beard and put a purple streak in it, this is where I will take my business.

That’s all I have for you right now, although there are many more painted walls in the city.  I like them, even the weirdest ones.  They are a tribute to the human spirit, the urge to beautify and tell stories with art.  Nothing shown in this blog qualifies as great art, but it’s all larger than life.  It brightens the city and lifts my spirits when I see it, and I’m glad that there are painted picture walls in Phoenix.  If I get more pictures I may revisit this scene. 

Please leave a comment if your city also has painted picture walls like these.


Posted November 25, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Backstage at the Bald Soprano   1 comment


I found the no bozos sign in the theater's workshop area.

No Bozos!  That’s a thought to live by.  There are no bozos in the cast of the Bald Soprano, although their antics will have any audience laughing a lot indeed.

It’s 10 p.m. and right now my son James (also known as Corencio in gaming circles altough I doubt if his thespian friends know him by that name) is in the middle of opening night for the Phoenix College dramatic presentation of Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano.  Why am I not there?  Well, I already saw it, two nights ago at the last dress rehearsal, and besides, I’m planning to go again this weekend when I can get a larger party together to go with me.
The Bald Soprano is an odd title.  Those words occur exactly once during the play, are spoken emphatically by The Fire Chief, and make no sense whatsoever.  But then, when you watch the play, not much makes sense at all, and yet,  the audience is invited to grope for meaning amidst the absurdities.  We viewers can’t help it.  Our brains are hardwired to invest meaning into all that we see and do.  And on the surface there seems to be meaning in the increasingly odd actions of the players. 

The playwright, Ionesco, was born in Romania on November 26, 1909, but grew up in France and is considered to be a French writer.  At the age of 40 he decided to teach himself English by studying whole English sentences. He apparently had a text of some sort with dialogue between a typical English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  The sentences were so remarkably banal that they broke his sanity and started him writing absurdist plays.  The Bald Soprano was his first play and it came out in 1950 to remarkably little acclaim, but has since been recongnized as the quintessence of Theater of the Absurd.  It is a glimpse into the lives of an English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the very strange world they live in.  For a more thorough discussion of Ionesco’s life, development, and works, check out the article about him here: .  Ionesco died in 1994.  I don’t intend to recap the history of Ionesco, his weird plays, or the Bald Soprano itself.  I only intend to give you my impressions of what I saw backstage at the Bald Soprano.

Small theater often concentrates on plays without a particular star.  The Bald Soprano features six separate characters, and each one of them has a lot of lines.  IMHO, that’s a very good thing. Everyone gets experience and everyone is indispensable.

The Bald Soprano is very much about the use of language.  It is full of contradictions, and is designed to show how what we say can affect what we think. For example, we can say such absurd things as “That’s the ugliest pretty girl I’ve ever seen.” And what about the phrase “pretty ugly” meaning more than ordinarily ugly. Our language is full of such inconsistencies, and Ionesco has a field day pointing them out.

From my vantage here in 2010, it’s really obvious that The Bald Soprano was written back in the age before television became commonplace.  The opening assumption, that people would simply sit around in a room and talk to each other at night, seems ludicrous today.  Television, radio, computers, motion pictures, sporting events–people have a lot more to do today than they did in 1950.  But Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the Martins, the Fire Chief, and even the Maid have a compulsive need for conversation.  They will listen to even the most trivial of stories.  Such as, “A strange thing happened to me today.  I saw a man tying his shoe, right there on the sidewalk in public.” GASP!

The young people who put on the Bald Soprano are a lively and talented bunch.  I really enjoyed talking to them.  Here are some pictures from backstage.

Cassandra Barnes (in purple) plays Mrs. Smith, an English woman. She has the most lines. James St. Andre is taking the picture with his cell phone and using the mirror to get himself into the shot. He plays Mr. Smith, who has perfected the art of the meaningful "hmmm" as part of his nightly conversation.


Quincy Holden plays Mr. Martin, a victim of incredible coincidences.

 Mrs. Martin was played with verve and fire by Andrea Elena Villanueva.  Unfortunately, I never got a good picture of her.

Martin Ruan plays the Fire Chief. Apparently he wanders around London looking for fires to douse.


Jude Asadi plays Mary the Maid. She figures as the symbol of class discrimination in English society and may also be "The Great Detective".


When I was there, I had the pleasure of talking with most of the actors. I didn’t get to speak to either Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Martin.  I did get to talk to the Drama Department at Phoenix College, Professor Gerald Burgess.   I want to put in a shout here for Aurora, the assistant director; Julia, who runs the clock; Candice, and Tyler.  I’m sorry I don’t have pictures of them all. 

The Bald Soprano was directed by Mr. Gary Imel. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him on Wednesday night. He had been injured recently and had just gotten out of the hospital that afternoon.

Originally I had planned to have a lot more pictures, but somehow the flash got turned off on my camera and the shots I took during the play all came out looking like this:

If you look closely you can just make out Mr. and Mrs. Martin cuddling in the chair with Mary standing behind and to the side.


A major character in this production of the play is the clock.  Not only is it an irregular quadrangle, but the hands spin wildly backwards and forwards, and it chimes as loudly as Big Ben.  The beginning and ending of each scene was dominated by the clock, and all the actors stared at it as if hypnotized.  I couldn’t help but think it was some kind of mental monstrosity that  ruled all of the characters and made slaves of them. 

If you get a chance to attend live theater, by all means take it, my friends.  It is a totally different experience from going to the movies.  You will be amazed at how much the actors can memorize–at how they can lose themselves in their parts, and how they can bring other times and worlds to life for you. 

My thanks to all the members of the Phoenix College Acting Department who allowed me a backstage look at the Bald Soprano.  I enjoyed it very much. And I’ll be in the audience to see you all again before your production run is over.


There was a beautiful full moon in the sky when I returned with family and friends to see an official presentation of The  Bald Soprano and the second play called The Lesson.

The Moon is the big light object next to the tree at the top of the screen. I wondered how night time photography would come out with this camera.


Along with my wife Cathy and friends Diane and Harley Kluttz, I made my way back to see The Bald Soprano as it was meant to be seen.  The room was draped in black curtains and full of chairs.  They had an audience of about 20 people.  Bizarre atonal music played while we waited for the play to start.  At about 7:30 my son James St. Andre and the beautiful Cassandra Marie Barnes came out to start the play.  This time I was able to get a good picture of the Bald Soprano set.  If you add Mr. and Mrs. Smith in your imagination, you will have an idea of how it should look. (For reasons that defy logic, flash photography is forbidden during the show.)

It's watching you.

Now you can really see the weird clock whose chiming marks the end of every scene, and the beginnings of some of them.


I must say that watching the actual play is far superior to just watching a rehearsal.  The audience was laughing quietly all the way through.  The Bald Soprano is not a guffaw producing piece of theater, but it does evoke many a grim chuckle in the course of the evening.

During the intermission, they changed the set.  I got up, found a drinking fountain, and walked around a bit.  The other three members of my group stayed seated.  I got this picture of the new set and the back of my group’s heads.

A rather bleak set for The Lesson.

The lesson starred Matthew J. Stohr as the Professor and Cassandra Barnes as the pupil.  She played Mrs. Smith in the Soprano, so appearing twice, I guess she was the real star of the show.  Other players in the Lesson included Andrea Villanueva as Pupil #2 and Nadine Lockhart as Marie the Maid.

Three people in a row, backs of their heads. Wife Cathy on the left, then Diane, and then Harley who is James' best friend.

Cathy asked me what the connection was between the two plays.  There is a detailed answer that would spoil the ending. In short, the connection is the absurdities possible within the use of language.  The Bald Soprano’s use of language is more playful; the Lesson’s use is more grim; but both are equally absurd.

It was an evening well spent.


(Edited by James St. Andre, also known as Corencio or Mr. Smith)

Posted November 20, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Hike to Big Quartz Outcrop   5 comments

Old. (63.5 years)

Fat. (250 pounds).

Stupid. (I left my hat at home this morning.)

Bad sense of balance. (It seems to be deteriorating.  I may try to find my cane and start using it again.)

Considering all that, I probably should not have gone hiking by myself in the desert, but I had thought about showing you all what a hike in the Arizona desert was really like, and I had the time on my hands.  I bought a bottle of water to take with me, and I set out on a hike I used to do every week ten years ago.  Frankly, I was wondering if I could still do it.

This is where the trail starts for me.


Down a steep concrete trail into a gully.


Down, down, down. It's all uphill once you reach the bottom here.


Up the other side. Heading roughly north. Beautiful day.


Do you see how rough the ground is?  Lots of small, sharp broken rocks underfoot.  Treacherous footing, watch your step.

The climbing begins here.


Once past the arroyo, the real trail begins.


The terrain gets rougher. That pass in the distance is my destination.


A couple hundred hikers a day run up and down this trail. I can't run.


I take a new picture each time I reach the end of the path you can see.


The arroyo I crossed parallels the trail. I'm looking down into it here from a scenic overlook wide spot on the trail.


Looking upstream from the same spot. My original plan was to hike up the gully, but I decided not to.


Dried out Cthulhu bushes and Saguaro cacti line my path.


The trail is getting steeper.


There's a baby Saguaro on the right side of the trail. It hasn't grown any arms yet.


Onward. The trail gets rougher here.


Looking backwards. I'm a bit more than half way to my goal.


Keep walking, Ken. Starting to sweat now.


When the going gets rough, the hiker takes a break and drinks some water. Always carry water in the desert. Dehydration is all too easy out here.


The signpost shows I haven't gotten lost.


My favorite spot on the trail. A little dip to give your legs a break from climbing and a shady spot where a body can rest.


As I near the top, the trail gets steeper.


It's rougher than it looks.


Looking back. I've come a long way now. You can see the South Mountains on the other side of the valley in the far distance.


This is rough climbing for an old man.


I have reached the summit at last.


Oops! False summit. The road gets ragged and tought to walk.


Rusty rocks and Cthulhu bushes deep in the Arizona jungle.


The big quartz outcropping in the distance--my goal at last.


Quartz boulder thrusts up out of the mountain itself.


This glassy white rock is a crystal, and is often found near gold deposits. Gold is a lot rarer than quartz, however.


There is a lot more quartz higher up the hill. I was too tired to climb up there, although I have gone there in the past.


The road goes ever on, but I'm turning back now.


The trail splits. This one actually climbs Piestawa Peak from the north side.


Looking all the way back down.


My shadow on the ground proves I actually walked all the way up there today. I simply meant to show all the quartz fragments on the ground.


Up close to the

Up close to the big quartz outcropping. It looks like a mountain range in miniature.


Saying goodbye to the big Q now. I picked up a little piece off the ground as a memento of my hike.


After resting a little bit, I start back down the trail.  It has taken about half an hour to make this hike, and it was perhaps half a mile.  Want to see what it all looks like going down?  Heh!  I thought not.  Maybe next time, I’ll share a few more shots from this hike with you.


Posted November 15, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Megamind! A Movie Masterpiece? Maybe . . .   6 comments

I think they have the same weird disease that attacks the eyebrows.

It’s better to be Lucky than Good.  That has been my motto for a long time, and it could very well be a motto to live by for Megamind, the loveable new comic super villain.

Megamind is a comic take on the archtypal story of Superman and Lex Luthor.  Or maybe it’s Brainiac.  Anyway, it’s Superduper Man vs. some big-brained foe.  Logically Superman’s foes have to be super smart, because Superman already has all the physical abilities.

I don’t want to tell you much about the movie.  You should go see it.  You’ll enjoy it.  I did.  It proved to be much wittier and more entertaining than I thought it would based on the teasers and ads that we all saw for months before it came out.  Dreamworks did a good job on not tipping their hand, not giving away all the good stuff before the film ever reached the theaters.  Go see it.  You will be entertained.  And the more you know about superhero comics, especially the Big Blue Cheese, the more entertained you will be.

MEGAMIND bears a thematic resemblance to Universal’s DESPICABLE ME.  Both deal with the comic struggles of super villains trying to succeed.  Both super villains are transformed into . . . oops I must say no more.  Both are versions of Lex Luthor, but Luthor himself is only a version of the Mastermind archtype.  Before Luthor there was Fu Manchu.  Before Fu, there was Moriarty.  I can’t think of a mastermind who precedes Moriarty, but there probably is one–because, let’s admit it, the Mastermind is an Archtype.

Is it just envy in me, or is Metro Man really a jerk?  And if he’s a jerk, is there a buried subtext in the movie that Superman is also a jerk?  Is that how people really feel about Kal-El, the not-exactly-the-last survivior of doomed Krypton?

Megamind can't succeed as long as Metro Man is in his way. Get out of the way you conceited jerk!

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the real heart of the movie is the female lead, girl reporter Roxanne Ritchi.  Everyone assumes that she’s an item with Metro Man, but . . . Megamind really likes her, too.  Why, he’d do anything for a kind word from her.  Without Roxanne there is no triumph and redemption for Megamind.  Without Lois Lane, Superman still has more female friends than he knows what to do with.  Everyone alwasys figured that the natural connection for Superman was Wonder Woman anyway.

Does this look like true love to you?


Megamind the movie is as predictable as any good comic should be, but it’s clever.  You know what has to happen, but I confess, that even with all the clues dropped throughout the movie, I never quite knew what would happen next.  I’m no Megamind, that’s for sure.

Atroll’s rating for Megamind: 3.5 stars.  There are flaws in the movie, and someone is likely to find them and point them out before the year is over, but it won’t be me.  I will say that I noticed that the earlier promotional pictures of Megamind show him without the teeny chin beard.  I wonder if there is Megamind cartoon footage that shows him clean shaven all the way through the movie?  I wonder why they added the beard into the mix.  Hmm?

See? No beard for Mr. Big Blue Brains here.

And finally, let me leave you with this thought. Where would any super villain be without his faithful minions? Minions make everything possible, and it behooves all the megaminds and masterminds of the world to treat their minions well.  Megamind’s villain was an alien fish, but as alien fish go, he was the best I’ve ever seen.  Megamind would have been lost without him.


Posted November 14, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

The Tale of the Bad DVD   7 comments

The title sucked you in, didn’t it?  It’s the word “bad”.  When people talk about something bad, you know it’s going to be “good”.  Actually, life is a great deal duller than that for retirees.

I have been offering my readers tours of different parts of Phoenix and Arizona.  I intend to keep doing that, but yesterday afternoon I had about 30 pounds of books I wanted to sell.  (Actually I have hundreds of pounds of lovely new science fiction and the collection of a lifetime that I want to sell, and I sometimes get impatient about it.  When that happens, I pack up a bag of whatever I can reach and head over to Half Price Books on East Camelback Road.)

The best place in town to get money for your books.

And thereby hangs the tale.  I go to this store fairly often.  In fact, when they were just opening last year, I brought them bag after bag of books, and only quit when it reached a point where they were offering less than 10 cents a book for primo brand new stuff.  I figured I had better let them recuperate and sell some stuff. 

Earlier this week I sold some of my old books to Half-Price Books, and with the money I made, I bought a couple of cheap DVDs to watch later at home.  One was the Elmo Lincoln version of Tarzan of the Apes, and the other was 4 episodes of Flash Gordon television program from the fifties.

He almost looks like Buster Crabbe.

I love the old stuff.  Heh, most of the costumes and special effects are laughable, but if a show is making you laugh, then it’s doing its job.  I had high hopes for this being Flash Gordon material I had never seen before.  But when I put it into my dvd player, it simply wouldn’t load.  Rats!  $5 down the drain.

It occurred to me that Half Price might give me a replacement copy.  I’m not exactly Suzy Consumer, but I do believe in talking to stores about problems when I have them, and it has worked out well for me in the past.  Since I was going back to Half Price to sell some books anyway, I took the defective dvd with me.  The first thing I did at the store was bring my big bag of books back to the trade-in counter. (I ran our of b alliteration there–grin.)

The books in the paper bag and close to it are my trade-ins.


While I was waiting for them to price my treasures and make me an offer, I took my faulty dvd back to the checkout counter and explained my sad story.  And here’s why I really like this book store.  Even though I didn’t bring a receipt back with me, the gentleman there could see that it was Half Price merchandise and immediatly agreed to make a swap for me.  In fact, he went out of his way to try and find another copy of Flash Gordon for me.  No luck though.

This is the face of good customer service.

I’m sorry I forgot to ask his name, but this guy was great.  I told him I was going to blog the experience, and gave him the URL, so if you see yourself, pal, why not make a comment and let people know who you are?  After much searchng we had to give up.  There was no replacement Flash Gordon.  I settled for this instead–apparently a silent western.  I haven’t tried to watch it yet.  I hope it works.

Must be the good guy, he has the white hat.

And that’s the tale of the bad dvd–just another adventure in everyday life.  Now on to my real purpose in this blog which is to show you 3 great bookstores in Phoenix that live within half a mile of each other.  The first is Half Price, and here’s what the store looks like inside.

Comics! If I were looking for deals on graphic novels, I'd look here.


I never buy music any more, but it's great to know I could find it if I wanted it.


They have a well-chosen metaphysical section. The book with the purple cover is about fairies--gorgeous, seim-erotic art. Tarot decks and other tools for meditation can be found here. This is the part of the store that really tempts me to respend the money they give me.

It was a highly satisfactory trip.  Not only did I replace my dvd, but I got enough cash for my books to give me spending money this upcoming week, and I left eye-tracks all over some beautiful art.

Just across the street from Half Price is another great bookstore called BookStar. 

The brilliant afternoon sun was directly above the store's title sign. I couldn't take a picture of it, so settled for the modest logo on the store entrance.

This is another bookstore that I like a lot.  It was in here that I first discovered the Lemony Snicket books: A Series of Unfortunate Events.  I browsed them throroughly and knew they’d be a big hit with children in the libraries.  They are so amazingly horrific and downbeat.  I also bought a copy of the Thomas Yeates (he’s an artist) version of JOHN CARTER OF MARS.  Barnes & Noble published their own version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ science fantasy classic including the first three books and got Yeates to illustrate them.  They couldn’t have made a better choice, imho.

It's not like this was new material for me. I just wanted the pictures.

I don’t know why Barnes & Noble needs an alternate name for its bookstores, but they do offer a fine selection of new materials and I approve of their reprinting various classics in handsome editions like these.  It’s sort of the best of book club publishing without a monthly commitment.

Found this new collection of fine Conan stories by Robert E. Howard in the SciFi section. Almost bought it on the spot.

When I was younger, a find like this would have been an instant impulse buy for me.  It’s not like I haven’t read the stories, or don’t already have them in fine editions at home.  I do, but seeing them republished like this is like meeting an old friend.

Comics are getting treated very nicely in bookstores these days also.


The Teen Fiction section is dominated by books about vampires. You probably already knew that.


Local pride as shown in calendars for 2011. Bookstores are a great place to get touristy souvenirs if you visit an unfamiliar city.

That’s enough about BookStar.  There was one more place for me to visit, arguably the biggest and best of them all just half a mile closer to home.  That was the local Borders Store.  Borders is trying hard to get my business.  They send me a coupon for up to 40% off new books in my email every day.  Should I ever actually need to buy a book again, or perhaps for Christmas shopping, this is the place to go.

As bookstores go, Borders is huge.


I'm dreaming of a pink . . . Christmas.


Yes, this store is all ready for Christmas.  There are probably 20 Christmas trees set up inside it.  I didn’t go around and count them.  It has two floors, with good stuff on both of them.   There are comfortable places to sit down and look at things before you buy them.  I’m half tempted to go there in my free time and just read their books.  I can’t buy them.  The house is groaning under the weight of books now, but wouldn’t it be sweet to just read all the good stuff like the place was a library?

A clean, well-lighted place to read and relax.

 And, in the children’s section on the second floor, there is a huge collection of manga.  I’m not really a manga/anime fan.  Too many talking heads for me, but the stories have depth, and I’m pretty happy that a lot of kids read them.

How do they get that spiky hair?

And also on this level there is a bookstore cafe–with great coffee to drink, delicious sweets to eat, and wifi if you have your laptop along and need a good place to go online on someone else’s dime.  I sometimes use this cafe as a neutral meeting point for meeting friends or strangers.

It looks yummy, but nothing for me today, thanks!

I took even more pictures, but I’ve probably already bored you, dear reader, to tears, so let’s take the high road and get out of here.  Thanks for coming along on my tour of three of Phoenix’s best bookstores.

Looks like I found the way out.



Posted November 13, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Blood and Honor–Game as Contradictions in Action   Leave a comment




John Wick isn’t (so much) a game designer!  He’s a gods-damned philosopher!

Now, there isn’t much call for philosophers in today’s world.  Game designer is a much better gig.  John, being a smart fellow, and a man with a keen sense of fun, has cunningly disguised himself as a game designer.  He sneaks his philosophy into his games.

John Wick has a philosophy of Contradiction.  He’s the kind of man who can believe Seven Impossible Things before breakfast (and Crom only knows how many more he could sneak in before the day was over!).  John Wick is Talented.  He is a stage magician, and a stage musician.  He is smart and funny and personable.  I like him a lot.  I can say these things about him because I know him.  I see him at Game and SF conventions three or four times a year.  He’s my Friend on Facebook, and I even have his phone number. 

And as a Philosophers disguised as a Game Designer, John has an impressive body of Work.  He is either author or a major contributor to all of these games:

Legend of Five Rings

7th Sea


Houses of the Blooded

Enemy Gods

Blood and Honor

and I know there are others. I seem to recall playing a Discordian game with him last year, and not playing his Cat game this year, and who knows how many other trifles there may be?  Hey, John, your article at is out of date!

It’s impossible for me to actually review Blood and Honor.  I’ve played it (once in a demo with John), and I’ve read the book (twice now), and I find it kind of impossible to adequately describe it.  It took John 170 pages to describe it in his rule book, and I’m supposed to do it in a few paragraphs–not possible.  It’s like trying to describe a lake by skipping a flat stone across the surface–bounce, bounce, bounce, sink–gone!

So, if you want to understand John’s game, buy his book Blood and Honor, read it, gather your zen friends, and try to play it.  Meanwhile, let me skip my stone across John’s lake of rules, and let me give you an impression of what the water is like.  As I said at the beginning, John expounds a philosophy of Contradiction, and you can see it pretty clearly if you look at Blood and Honor.

Blood and Honor is a game about the tragic life of a Samurai in a feudal fantasy Japan.  John knows a lot about feudal Japan–it shows in his choice of language, illustration, and examples.  He knows about Duty (giri) and he knows about Proper Behavior (makoto).  But to make a game of it–not a factual simulation of what Japan was like before the Europeans arrived, but a real game–everything is simplified.  There are four types of Sword (poor, Average, Good, Exquisite).  There are six Virtues (Beauty, Courage, Cunning, Prowess, Strength, and Wisdom). Any one of those Virtues can also be a player’s Weakness.  Remember what I said about contradictions.  Here’s another: Virtue is Weakness.

Contradiction number 1: Roleplaying is not about rolling dice and then making a story out of the numbers. In Blood and Honor roleplaying is about telling a story–the dice are only there to let you know who’s turn it is to be the storyteller.  The game uses Privelege and Wagers and Honor Points to determine who’s talking.  If you want to play this game, you had better have an Imagination and be willing to Talk.

Contradiction number 2: Tragedy is fun.  Now the truth is that Life in general is a Tragedy.  It ends badly for all of us.  We die.  The two faces of Janus–the God of Drama and Storytelling–are Comedy and Tragedy.  Comedy ends with a marriage; Tragedy ends with a funeral.  Conversely, Comedy starts with a funeral; Tragedy starts with a marriage.  Some people would be depressed and distressed by these truths–but not John.  The Purpose of Life is to enjoy it–have fun!  So, if Tragedy is inevitable, how can we make it enjoyable, and John’s answer is to make it a story–a story that entertains even as it points out how a person should live.  Make your Tragedy a story that builds Empathy. 

Contradiction number 3: It is forbidden to say NO.  The rule for life in Blood and Honor is to say YES, BUT . . .   For example one player might say, “The Daimyo is a drunkard.” and another would add, “Yes, but when he is sober he is cruel and tyrannical. When he is drunk he is kindly and caring for his clan.” 

Contradiction number 4: Simplify by complicating things.  The whole purpose of saying “Yes, but . . .” is to add complications to the game.  When players mention complications that have an element in common, then let that element be the same for both of them.  Example: Character A knows an Assassin who is a lovely woman.  Character B is in love with a lovely Woman.  Character C is afraid of a lovely Woman.  Guess what?  It’s the same Woman.  Character D is a lovely Woman.  Guess what, Character D, you’re the woman that is so important to Characters A, B, and C.  Suddenly you have a story, and it’s based on Character and characters.

There are more.  There are ten chapters in this book.  Each chapter is built around some basic contradiction in old Japanese society.  For example, the chapter about War shows how it is natural and inevitable in old Japan.  War is a source of wealth and prestige and honor.  War is the cause of misery and defeat and poverty.  Contradiction is story and story is fun.

Contradictions!  Blood and Honor is written completely in prose.  Because of its parallel structure it reads like an epic poem in blank verse.  Prose is Poetry.  In most roleplaying games, the controller is called the Game Master. In John’s games, that player is called the Narrator, and he functions as a servant, not a master.  I have seen John run games of Houses of the Blooded, and he delights in his role of the servant who makes everything possible.  Humility is Glory.

Blood and Honor is the best book of Philosophy I have ever read.  It shows a way of living one’s life to gain honor and to enjoy it.  It teaches one to revel in one’s defeats. It teaches Grace under Pressure, Imagination in everyday life, and the importance of the Virtues in our humdrum existences.  There’s a lesson on almost every page.  And yet, for such a didactic work, it’s a Fun Read.

When I was a reviewer for Library Journal, I would end every review with a recommendation–things like Recommended for large Libraries with strong Science Fiction collections.  I’m going to end this review the same way.  Blood and Honor is recommended for gamers with brains.




Posted November 8, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Desert Mountains   5 comments

Just a little history of the park . . .

On Wednesday, November 3, 2010, I had nothing much to do after dropping my son off at Phoenix College, so I took my trusty digital camera and went to one of my favorite places: South Mountain Park.  The South Mountains are a huge city park/mountain preserve conisting of more than 16000 acres of undeveloped Arizona deserts and mountains.  The good thing about the area is that there are roads leading to all parts of it, and hiking trails that will take the adventurous to the more inaccesible locations.

I consider the South Mountain Park area to be one of the Wonders of Phoenix, probably the greatest Wonder of Phoenix.  Going there calms me down and brings a kind of quiet happiness to my spirit.  There is always a breeze on the mountaintops.  The city smog lies below you.  And you can see for 50 miles in any direction, sometimes farther.

What follows are just a bunch of the pictures (I took 41, but I won’t hit you with all of them) that I took while visiting various locales in the mountains.

The entrance to the park is guarded by three stable.

Here’s a long shot of one of the stabes you can find near the entrance to the park.  If you look closely you can just make out a white horse in the center of the picture.  There are signs throughout the park warning drivers to be wary of horseback riders.  The picture also shows a bit of typical desert landscape around the stable–mesquite trees and cactus are everywhere.

There's a park ranger station at the entrance to the park.

The ranger station at the entrance to the park is a good place to stop for a soft drink, a trip to the bathroom, a map, or a walk on the nature trail that shows what kinds of vegetation and critters you can find inside the preserve. It is good to stop here.  There are no sanitary facilities of any sort once you get inside.  This is a desert park.  You want to bring water or other drinkables, and perhaps some food when you enter.  I brought two bottles of ice cold Coca Cola.

Just the beginning of the Nature Trail. It's a good short walk.


Keep your eyes open and you might find pictoglyphs.

This stone actually came from outside the park area, and was brought here as a good example of the kind of thing you want to watch for when hiking in the park.  Under today’s laws, it would be illegal to move such a stone, but the engineer who found this one back in the 30s had no such restrictions.  The Hidden Valley part of the park is especially rich in pictoglyphs.

Excellent roads take you wherever you want to go inside the park.

As you can see, I really like to just stop and take pictures through the open window of my car.  The western end of the park isn’t as popular as the eastern and central parts, and is closed off at the moment.  Budget cuts.

Can you see Camelback Mountain in the distance?

There are many places to stop and enjoy panoramic views of the Valley of the Sun.  Although I could see downtown Phoenix clearly in these shots, you may not be able to make out the bigger buildings without a magnifying glass.

Television and radio towers crowd the highest part of the mountains.


She didn’t want a ride. Wouldn’t take one despite my most winning smile.

Some people actually hike inside the park.  I met this extremely fit young woman near the Gila Valley lookout point. She was practicing for some kind of marathon hike that is scheduled to take place on Friday the 5th of November.   I talked to her for a few minutes and got her to take my picture, and I took hers. She was carrying a camera also, and had me take one of her.  A favor for a favor is a fair trade indeed.

As for me, I don’t hike much any more.  Feet and back will knock me out in less than a quarter of a mile.  I don’t have to hike.  I have a car, and I’m not afraid to use it. (Grin).

See! Atroll really was on top of the mountains.

Leaving my hiking acquaintance behind, I went on to visit a few of the other high spots in the park. 

Back in the day, ten years or so ago, I liked to hike a mile or so along this trail just for the scnenery.

 The mountains are full of hiking trails.  This one goes about six miles and comes out at the eastern end of the park in the Ahwahtukee section of extreme southern Phoenix.

I thought it was higher.

Dobbins Point lookout is the main place for parking and looking out over the city of Phoenix.  It’s a great place to come and park with your girl at night.  The lights of the city are all below you from here.

IMHO, this is the strangest cactus in the desert, waving its thorny tentacles at the sky. I call them Cthulhu bushes.

The desert is full of weird beauty if you let your imagination roam at all.  I stopped to take a picture of the strangest but not the most dangerous plant in the desert on my way down.  I had been in the park for about two hours.

I love the mountains.

My trip is about finished for the day.  I just have to drive down and go home now.  This was a good spot to look back over the long and winding road (cue music) that would soon be taking me home.  Being in the desert is peaceful and beautiful, but I was getting hungry.  Home is where the food is.  I’ll return to these moutains some day.  I come here once or twice a year, just to refresh my soul.  I’d love to share these vistas with a friend.


Posted November 4, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized

Better Red Than Dead   Leave a comment


Last week I thought I was going to see Red in a sneak preview.  I had the free tickets and everything, but when I got to the theater, it was full.  No spy guy sneak preview for Atroll.

This week on Saturday, some friends invited me (and Corencio) to go see Red with them at the neighborhood theater.  At first I thought about turning them down, but thennnnnnnn . . . ah, what the heck, I wanted to see it anyway, and I needed to get out of the house.  I changed my mind and went to the movies.

And I’m glad I did.  Red, a production of D.C. Comics, is the feel good spy movie for the older generation.  Red is an acronym for Retired. Extremely Dangerous.  When the CIA decided to put a hit on a retired super spy black ops guy named Frank Moses, they bit off more than they could chew. 

The plot is a typical corruption in high places sort of thing.  I’m not gonna tell you about it, except to say that there are plenty of bullets and explosions and riding around the country.  There’s a young hitman vs. old hitman angle that’s kind of funny.  Fifty year old Bruce Willis kidnaps himself a girlfriend only half his age, and makes it work.    She does zing him with a line about wishing he had hair.

It’s the over-the-hill gang, back in action to save their own lives, and restore democracy to America.  I liked it.  But then, I’m pretty far over the hill myself, and fantasizing about the days when I was a superhero is about all I have left.  Nice to see the movies playing to those fantasies.


But this is the movie I'm really looking forward to.



Posted November 2, 2010 by atroll in Uncategorized