It's not too soon to start thinking about my birthday.

Mr. Microphone by Ronco. I think I want one more now than I did in 1981 when this commercial aired. In case you're planning on getting one for me, note that I'll also need an FM radio to plug it in to.

In the Garden of Beasts

Erik Larson does it again. Fans of Larson's previous work, notably Devil in the White City, will be happy to know that in his latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, which takes its name from the Tiergarten, or Animal Garden, Berlin's largest public park, he proves once again that a history lesson can be every bit as compelling as fiction and reveal far more about the meaning of what it is to be human.

In the Garden of the Beasts takes the reader on a guided tour of Germany and its contentious Nazi politics circa 1933, just as Hitler was coming to power, as told through the eyes of the unwitting, unwillingly and unwelcome U.S. Ambassador, William Dodd, and his family, most notably daughter Martha. Dodd was a history professor with Jeffersonian inclinations who arrived in Nazi Germany with the dangerously naive belief that all statesmen were by nature rational beings.

William and Martha provide first-person accounts of intimate--in the case of Martha, sometimes extremely intimate--encounters with the likes of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Rohm and Gestapo leader and original scarface Rudolf Diels. Larson guides us through their initial enthusiasm for the new Nazi Germany as it turns to disenchantment, and ultimately horror, culminating in the exact moment when the march of progress toward a post-World War I, rebuilt Germany, became the march of the Waffen-SS and the march toward death for millions of innocents.

As with many of Larson's books, the story provides insight into the big questions--how could this happen and was no one paying attention? The answers are all too human, starting with an America in the economic free fall of the Great Depression, afraid of offending Hitler lest he default on much-needed payment of war bonds, and emphasizing the perils of the reigning isolationist attitudes of the day.

Larson reminds us of our own shortcomings, the insidious nature of America's own anti-semitic attitudes and the fear that calling out the Hitler regime's then only repressive and not-yet-murderous policies against Jews might conjure comparisons to our still-pervasive Jim Crow laws. He shows us how things like a long-standing tradition of political patronage in the disbursement of ambassadorships and the elitism of the Foreign Service were inadvertent co-conspirators in the rise of Nazi power.

In the Garden of Beasts is an insightful look at a moment in time when so much hung in the balance, when psychopaths operated unchecked in civilized society, simultaneously terrorizing and desensitizing the vastly average majority while unassuming, everyday heroes sounded alarms that went unheard for reasons large and small, reasonable and ridiculous, and ultimately, imperfectly human.

It's a book that is as relevant today as at any point in history.


Aurelio Zen.

Are you watching Zen? It's KPBS' new Masterpiece Mystery! series based on the Aurelio Zen books by Michael Dibdin, and it's delightful--much more compelling than the usual Masterpiece fare, it's more lively than dour Wallender without being ridiculous like Poirot or Marple.

Aurelio Zen is a Venetian-born detective working in Rome with a reputation for integrity that puts him at odds with Italy's longstanding tradition of political patronage, but his willingness to bend the rules and ruin an impeccably tailored suit to see justice done generally prevails.

Zen is at once sophisticated and steely, sneaky and sincere, sensitive and slightly perplexed. Externally, he's cool customer, even when kidnapped, but internally, we know he's crapping his pants. He looks anywhere but where you would expect when a prostitute disrobes, but tells his cheating wife, "I wouldn't wrap a dead dog in your gratitude."

Like Zen himself, the scenery is a study in contrasts, striking beauty marred by human imperfection, full of wide-shots of ancient, crumbling architecture narrowing to close-ups of modern sports cars racing through oddly traffic-free streets. Zen's Rome is inhabited by handsome men and impossibly chic women in pencil skirts lunching al fresco with graffiti at their backs and cobblestones at their feet. And since this is Rome as conceived by the BBC, all the men have charming English accents.

Need further inducement?

Zen is somewhat broken and lives with his mother, so I'm pretty sure I'd have a chance.

But I might have to fight that creeper Alan Cumming for him.

Watch the first two episodes online until August 31st.

The third and final episode airs next Sunday at 9:00pm, here in San Diego, but check your local listings, as the PBS scheduling is inconsistent.


My sacred cow is skinny.

Skinny Cow Truffle Bars are the best.

At 100 calories each, I figure I can eat 12 of them a day and still be okay. A box for breakfast, a box for lunch and a sensible dinner.


Bad, bad Fluffy Brown.

There were five in one night, one rat, two mice and two birds.

The rat Fluffy tucked under my desk, near my feet, and ate whole as I typed. It was a quiet night and I could hear the crunch of small bones being chewed over the quick, light tapping of my fingers on the keyboard. I tuned it out, my capacity for denial never greater than when a rat is being consumed at my feet.

He came in a while later with a little mouse, a tiny thing, not yet dead, in fact, still squeaking as he batted it behind the curtains. He eventually tired of it, and Rudy, who has never killed anything, never eaten anything but dry food, is suspicious even of treats, eyed it curiously, and gave it a good licking.

In the living room, there were the remnants of a bird, de-feathered and bloody, a real mess, but easy to clean since most of it had already been eaten. I vaccuumed the feathers and sprayed Folex on the stain, and as I blotted the damp carpet, he came in and gently placed another bird by my knees. Just set it there, stepped back admiringly, and casually flicked his tail and purred.

Really Fluffy?

I went for a shoe box, scooping it up and walking toward the back door, where there on the doormat was a mouse skin butt--just the back legs, the tail and a flap of fur holding it all together. I left it there, subconsciously worried that the other half would sneak up on me in the middle of the night seeking revenge, but knowing that dead rodents left on the doormat are usually gone by morning.

I flung bird number two over the fence and when I came back in, I noticed the mouse number one, the squeaky little guy that Rudy was licking, was missing. His absence barely registered, so tired was I by the evening's death and denial and inevitable cleaning up of carcasses. And the next day, when I remarked on it to my sister, she assured me that if it hadn't been eaten, I would find it. It would, Erin advised, eventually start to smell.

Erin was right on both counts. I found the missing mouse, made known again to me by its smell.

It was in the closet under the stairs, a place known to my Swedish nephews as "the Harry Potter cupboard," and to my somewhat more avant garde seven-year old niece as Artopia, a gallery and light show where she is, apparently, the artist-in-residence. To me, it's just the place where I've stored my microwave, new and unopened in its original box, for two years and three months.

Poor little guy must have dragged itself there in an effort to escape the ignominy of death-by-licking. I screamed when I found him, shuddered in spite of myself, although he appeared wholey unmolested, looking perhaps as though he expired while taking a nap.

Cat will hunt.

I'm getting a dog.

Somebody, please install my microwave.


A liver, a kidney and Ewan McGregor.

Back in January, I wrote this post about my college roommate Laurel (who, despite the title of my last post, has never owned a papasan chair but did once bring home a Heywood Wakefield coffee table) and her unsuccessful attempt to unburden herself of a kidney.

Our friend Robert's liver suddenly failed due to Wilson's Disease, and while he was the successful and grateful recipient of a donor liver, (thank you donor's family from the bottom of my heart), his kidney function never came back. And that's where Laurel came in, offering him one of hers.

Despite Laurel's altruistic motives, the kidney gods were reluctant to cooperate. Three surgery dates were scheduled, and three planned surgeries were wisely but disappointingly called off, sometimes as late as the day before, each because the various organs' antibodies couldn't get along. Three trips from Nevada to California for pre-op tests. Three trips from Iowa to California for Laurels' parents. Plasmapharesis. Chemo. And of course, dialysis. Endless hours of dialysis.

(So what I'm saying here is, if you were planning to sell a kidney on eBay to buy, say, a George Smith sofa or some de Gournay wallpaper, you might want to rethink that plan. It's just not that easy.)

I'm happy to report that Laurel finally divested herself of her not-absolutely-necessary and yet not-exactly-extraneous organ Friday morning, and now the kidney of my very small friend with a very large heart and excellent taste in furniture, even in college, is cleansing the blood of my very tall and equally big-hearted friend, Robert.

In other life-affirming news, Ewan McGregor continues to be hot.

I can't wait to see Beginners.


Rattan. It's not just your college roommate's papasan chair.

Photo: Elle Decor

Like everyone who read the April issue of Elle Decor, I fell completely in love with Sid Bergamin's covered patio filled with vintage rattan. The curved back on the sofa and the striped upholstery kill me. They are stunning. For my own patio, I'd like something like this but with black and white ticking and a hot pink coffee table.

Photo: Sunset

The orange cushions on this give it a completely different feel--much funkier and modern.

Photo: House Beautiful

The clean, simple lines, white paint and neutral upholstery make this set feel very traditional.

Photo: Lonny

And the white upholstery on this is completely serene. I love it, but I don't think I could ever exercise this kind of restraint in my own home.

Maine Cottage Furniture does a great job of reinterpreting vintage styles, and it comes in tons of crazy, beautiful paint colors with coordinating upholstery fabrics. Their new site is scheduled to go live on July 1st and I can't wait. In the meantime, they have a great online catalog you can browse through.

Maybe it's because rattan screams beach house and San Diego is a coastal town, but CraigList San Diego has tons of great project pieces--everything from full vintage living room sets to an amazing McGuire mirror and Palecek side chair.

This sofa and matching arm chair are $35o. I'd ask them to throw in the coffee table.

This loveseat and chair have much simpler lines, but for $59, who really cares? $59. I double-checked.

One spectacular side chair to make any home feel like a summer home. This one just sold, but I'm including the pic anyway so you can see what you missed out on.

Four funky dining chairs pulled up to an outdoor table will set you back $125. These are crying out for upholstery in a China Seas print.

A McGuire mirror for $100 and a Palecek side chair, also for for $100 and you have a fabulous entry.

As usual, it's Craigslist for the win.

(Search vintage bamboo, rattan and wicker. There's a ton more where this came from.)