Reading Log: August 2016

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Books acquired: none

Books read: “Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books,” Paul Collins; “Mary Shelley: A Biography,” Muriel Spark; “John Carter of Mars,” Edgar Rice Burroughs; “The Divine Invasion,” Philip K. Dick.

The dog days of summer were a good time for me as a reader, yielding my first four-book month since March. I read a book about books, a literary biography with criticism, an entry in a classic science fiction-adventure series and a modern-ish science fiction novel.

In “Sixpence House,” an American bibliophile relocates temporarily with wife and toddler to Hay-on-Wye, the small Welsh town with 1,500 people and 40 antiquarian bookstores, where he observes UK life, thinks about books and quotes amusingly from rare ones. Slight, perhaps — some find it twee and annoying, or un-American because he’s (gasp) critical of things like our health care system — but to my taste this was witty and gentle. If you think you would like it, you probably would.

After reading “Frankenstein” and (especially) “The Last Man,” I wanted to know more about Mary Shelley. “Mary Shelley: A Biography” helped. The daughter of a famous feminist (who died days after giving birth) and a famous philosopher, she ran off with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, had five children with him (four of whom died, not atypical for the era) and soldiered on after Shelley’s death. Hers is one of the great literary stories of the 19th century, even if she’s often relegated to the role of Shelley’s wife rather than a great writer in her own regard.

Spark’s writing, alas, was neither here nor there, a fascinating life was made less so, and in the conclusion, the points she said she’d made hadn’t made any impression on me. Oops. You might be better off with her Wikipedia page, although I have a second Shelley tome awaiting me, one that seems more feminist and provocative.

“John Carter of Mars” is, surprisingly given the title, the last in the John Carter of Mars series. I own but haven’t read the previous 10, but saw no reason to stick to the order in this case, as No. 11 is composed of two novellas and required no previous knowledge. The better one was meant as the first part of a novel that was never written. The other was said to have been ghost-written by a Burroughs son. This slim book is an addendum to the whole series and sends it off with a whimper. Nice to have it out of the way. On the other hand, what boy, or former boy, can resist a story titled “The Skeleton Men of Jupiter”?

Lastly, “The Divine Invasion” is the middle part of Dick’s Valis trilogy but is so loosely related that one doesn’t have to have read the first, “Valis.” God has been exiled to a far world by Belial. He chooses two emigrants to be a new Mary and Joseph to carry his son to Earth to redeem it in hopes this time it will take. A serious (mostly), audacious, quasi-mystical disquisition on God, Satan, good and evil, this is one of PKD’s finest, most realized novels, and to my mind a step up from “Valis.”

Where’d I pick up these books? The Collins and Burroughs books were the last of my unread Powell’s Books purchases from 2013 (the former from the Burnside location, the latter from the main store). I wanted to read them before my next trip to Portland, occurring within days! The Spark bio came from the Iliad in North Hollywood earlier this year. The Dick novel was bought off eBay a few years ago.

How was your August, readers?

Next month: I go all Mexican on you.


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Restaurant of the Week: Combine Kitchen

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Combine Kitchen, 12750 E. Foothill Blvd. (at Etiwanda), Rancho Cucamonga; open daily

Combine Kitchen is in what some of us call Foncho, the area east of the 15 Freeway that is almost Fontana but is still Rancho Cucamonga. Specifically, it’s in a modern center near Sacred Heart Catholic that has (ooh-la-la) Tilted Kilt, Starbucks and the area’s first dim sum restaurant, China Republic.

Combine is like almost nothing else in the area: a hipster coffeehouse with gastropub food, from a menu that changes seasonally. A foodie pal raved about it. A friend and I took a long lunch there recently.

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First you order a drink and they prepare it, then they’ll take your food order. They have espresso, chemex, nitro cold brew and pour overs, plus some oddities, like the Mello Yello, which is tumeric and ginger tea mixed with almond milk, and More Fat Coffee, with grass-fed butter, coconut oil and cinnamon — as the menu puts it, “don’t knock it till you try it.”

The menu has only a few items — five sandwiches, five breakfast items and three bowls, plus a special or two. Vegetarian and gluten-free items are marked, although there may not be enough of them; a vegetarian friend whom I invited for dinner declined because all she could get was one item, which had goat cheese, which she didn’t like. So there’s that.

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There are muffins and cookies at the counter, by the way.

But back to lunch. My friend had the Combine breakfast, scrambled eggs with bacon, potatoes and garlic toast ($11.50), plus an iced coffee ($4.45). I got the pork belly banh mi sandwich ($11.50) and potatoes, plus a cold brew float ($6.50).

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For seating, there’s a counter, communal tables and a shallow window counter, plus some nooks and crannies, the whole room sleek and modern, with lots of natural light. At one table, a mother was teaching her young son to read. There are a few shelves with specialty items arranged for sale, including books.

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We liked our food, including the potatoes, which are smashed flat. As a non-coffee person, I’m not sure what I was thinking by ordering a cold brew float. I had the jitters from the first sip that lasted the rest of the day. But that might be your thing.

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My foodie friend at last report had enjoyed the steak and eggs on garlic toast, shrooms and eggs on toast, lox and pork belly, all of which he called amazing, as well as several coffee drinks.

Combine is open for coffee from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. For food, breakfast and lunch are served from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.; after a two-hour break, the dinner menu runs from 5 to 9 p.m., except Mondays.

Basically, it’s a bit of Silver Lake in Rancho Cucamonga. If that sounds as appealing to you as it does to me, further instructions are unnecessary.

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Update September 2016: I had breakfast: shrooms on toast, with a side of bacon, and it was even better than I’d hoped, plus a chai latte.

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Column: Ontario dreamed of high-rises, settled for warehouses

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You know that sprawling field north of the 10 Freeway in Ontario? Since the Reagan years it was set aside for a new, urban downtown with high-rise offices, restaurants, apartments and more. Now it’s being developed with warehouses. (This is why we can’t have nice things.) Wednesday’s column delves into the dream that was.

Above, the view from Fourth Street, looking east.

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Restaurant of the Week: Oke Poke, Chino Hills

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Oke Poke, 3277 Grand Ave. (at Peyton), Chino Hills

Poke, as the menu helpfully explains “is a classic Hawaiian dish comprised of sliced, raw fish and various mix-ins.” It’s becoming popular out our way, with several poke spots having opened in Rancho Cucamonga, for instance, and two in the works for Claremont, which currently has none.

Oke Poke, pronounced like okey-dokey, is a chain with a location in Chino Hills in Payne Ranch Center across Peyton from the Shoppes. It opened in 2015. I met a CHills friend there for lunch recently for my second poke experience this summer (the other was in LA).

As with Chipotle or Pieology, you get in line and proceed to make a series of choices for your bowl: a size (regular $9, large $11), a base (white or brown rice, salad, noodles or cucumber), add-ons, fish (up to five selections for a large), sauce and toppings. Or you can save some brain cells and order a pre-selected bowl. Bowls are all they have, except for miso soup and dessert. Note that all seafood options are the same price, a rarity, and that avocado is free, likewise.

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I got salmon, ahi tuna and scallops atop brown rice with moku seasoning, above; my friend had ahi atop a salad with sesame dressing, below. Both were regular sized.

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They were tasty, light but filling. “I think that was a carb-free lunch,” my friend said with satisfaction. Then she pulled out her phone and played Pokemon Go for a minute (her daughter is hooked too) when a virtual creature appeared at the table next to ours.

Yes, fittingly, the poke restaurant is a poke stop.

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Remembering Magic Towers

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Magic Towers opened in Pomona (540 E. Foothill Blvd.) in 1968 and lasted until 1978. As you can see, it was built to be reminiscent of a castle, specifically Sleeping Beauty’s Castle from Disneyland, according to the owner, with four turrets.

I wrote a little about Magic Towers in a column about Friar Tuck’s, the bar that took over the castle in 1990 and changed to Stein Haus after a “Bar Rescue” makeover (and expired in late 2015):

The castle was built in 1968, about the same time as another piece of roadside architecture, a restaurant a half-mile east in Claremont that resembles a fishing boat.

Originally the castle was Magic Towers, a medieval-themed stand that sold knightburgers, castleburgers and the King Arthur burger, touted as a “triple hamburger with dragon sauce.”

Within two years, an addition made room for a diner and ice cream parlor, and the chef, “Monsieur Leonard,” had trained at the Waldorf Astoria, according to a Progress-Bulletin story.

Owner Monte Radlovic had hoped to expand his empire to other cities and nations, but it’s unclear if any other Magic Towers were developed.

I’m giving the restaurant its own blog post because of this photo, turned up by picture maven Darin Kuna and posted recently on Facebook. How could I not share it in all its medieval glory! It shows the castle after the 1970 addition in front.

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