Friday, August 18, 2017

Madecasse: Mint Crunch Dark Chocolate

Time to make our way through more Madecasse chocolate. This time the familiar lemur sits against a green background--because this is the Mint Crunch Dark Chocolate bar. The cocoa content is 63%.

As soon as I broke the seal on the foil wrapper, out came the scent of Andes Mints. This was, for the first moment, a welcome and inviting scent--Andes Mints, after all, can be rather nice. But then I began to wonder if that was really the scent association that I wanted to find--Andes Mints, after all, are also rather cheap.

The same mint scent carries through to the taste, so the mint aspect of this chocolate bar is the same as in Andes Mints. Andes Mints are labeled as containing "peppermint oil" and this bar lists "organic mint oil." Pretty much that's the same ingredient, at least as far as taste goes. While this particular mint taste is often the flavor that we get in products, it just . . . doesn't taste all that much like a mint leaf.

Here's my problem. Andes Mints, while they're marked as something to add sophistication to get-togethers (like Ferrero Rocher), they're in the same category as Hershey's Kisses--that is, the mass-produced candy category. So that's the scene with which I associate this particular mint flavor. But the other elements of this Madecasse bar suggest a different scene.

I have spoken favorably in the past about most of Madecasse's dark chocolate, and the same goes for this case. In addition to the chocolate (which is already a different species from candy chocolate), there are nibs in this bar. This is where the Mint Crunch part comes in. The use of cocoa nibs to give that crunch is a smart idea. Nibs do have that pleasant and particular crunch that's hard to describe but impossible to not recognize. So I like the idea of just adding this basic chocolate product instead of adding cookie pieces or something like that, in which case you'd also be adding in at least another five ingredients. The thing is, though, nibs elevate the chocolate and draw more emphasis to the richer, more flavorful notes.

This would be great--except that then there are two opposites in this chocolate. Fresh and flavorful cocoa and watered down mint oil.

It's kind of a shame.

And it isn't that this chocolate is bad. It tastes fine and maybe majority of people wouldn't be pausing over it as long as I am. I just think that it could be (and was so close to being) better. I'm only being hard on Madecasse because I expected more from them. You know when you unwrap certain chocolates and get a fresh mint scent, like there's a mint plant right next to you? That's what I wanted here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Star Wars & the Inferno Squad

I wasn't exactly excited about another Star Wars: Battlefront book. Then I saw that Inferno Squad would be written by Christie Golden, who also wrote Dark Disciple, and I thought that perhaps the book would hold some interest for me, after all.

As I'm beginning to realize and talk about, certain of the Star Wars books interest me more or less depending on where they place the focus. Books about characters and places and emotional themes are best. Books about politics and battles not so much. The first Battlefront book was very much just a wartime, army book focusing on a team making it through the fighting. This book starts off as if it's going to be similar. There are some skirmishes. Then the setting changes.

Inferno Squad takes place directly after the destruction of the first Death Star. Inferno Squad is a small Imperial group that goes undercover in a rebel group based around Saw Gerrera's ideals. Basically they've living in a cave trying to act like people they aren't--and sometimes feeling gray areas develop. Perfect. The cave living almost reminded me of The Host at times (though it's nowhere near as rustic as that), especially given that you have a close-up look at a confined group of people trying to get along with one another. And all of these questions about identity and loyalty are exactly the types of things I like to get from Star Wars--and the type of character-based content that I expected from Christie Golden.

Sometimes I don't like when stories explore the gray areas, when they try to portray villains as not being wholly evil or show that neither side is perfect. I get it, and it does usually make for interesting storytelling. But Star Wars is great because of its themes of good and evil, so you do have to be careful in what ways you explore those gray areas. Somehow, even though Inferno Squad is all about showing the perspective of Imperials who are just trying to do their duty to restore peace and order to the galaxy, it works. The reason that it works is that it's straightforward: the characters don't really waver much in their ultimate loyalty because they believe in their cause. And it works because the rebels that they're seeing up close aren't the Rebel Alliance--they're like Saw's rebels.

Here, of course, we have the welcome tie-in to Rogue One. There are plenty of references to that storyline. And we have further exploration of the rebel groups who are quicker to action (and quicker to violence) than the Alliance. You can't argue with Iden choosing to stay loyal to the Empire versus joining this group.

So, yes, there's action in here, but it's all character-based, making this one of the Star Wars books I've enjoyed more rather than less.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Glass Castle on Film

Click here to read last week's post focusing on the book.

While there were certain greatly noticeable changes made in the book to movie adaptation of The Glass Castle, I find that I can understand why the filmmakers made these changes--and such coherency isn't always the case in adaptations.

Part of it is timing. Jeannette and her siblings start off a little older in the movie and we see more time from when they are older children and even adults than in the book, where more is shown of them as very young children. This is practical: there are already three (three, right?) actors playing each of the children at different ages. It would be too much to have even more actors. And it's easier to play through crucial scenes with slightly older actors than very young actors.

There was also a mixed timeline. The book starts with a loosely-defined "present" and then moves into the past (childhood/youth) before finishing off with the present/adulthood again. The movie moves back and forth between the two, which I at first found a little strange. This change meant that certain notes fall at different times or places in the movie than in the book.

Most of the movie takes place in Welch, instead of showing the family's time in the Southwest. I particularly missed getting to see early Phoenix on film. I also didn't like this change because I felt that the move to Welch represented the loss of hope. Before Welch, the family was doing okay (well, sometimes and in some ways) and the children still had some degree of faith in their parents. In Welch, the children lost that faith as their parents just let everything physical fall downhill--and the children, in light of that, grew up and took it on themselves to try and take care of one another. So from that sense I don't like this change in the movie. However, in another sense this change just meant that, once more, notes just fell in different places/times.

One more change. While the book maintains that direct telling-of-truth tone (it's easy to picture Jeannette with a background in journalism) and lets the readers put everything together themselves, the movie gathers all the little threads and knits them together into a central theme. I glanced at one review that condemned the film for this, basically stating that it made the story shallow. I can kind of understand: the focus went more onto maintaining love for the parents than on understanding to get out of a bad situation. So part of the power may have been lost: we all know that we're supposed to try and keep love for our parents but it can be harder for people who have been raised in bad situations to be able to say that those situations were negative and that they deserve and can have better (while also understanding that to say this isn't to say that you hate or disrespect your parents).

Ultimately, though, I'm going to go with what I've said twice already: the notes just fell in different places. I still felt the same things watching this film as I did in reading the book--and that's the main point. What this film did was take what readers got out of the book and make that into the film. It's almost like when Andrew Adams tried to make The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into an action film because that's what he remembered getting from the book as a child (although the problem there was that he missed out on what was important about the story--it wasn't the "exciting" parts). Fortunately, in this case the filmmakers better understood what mattered in The Glass Castle. So while, yes, adaptations can be difficult to approach, I find that this was one of the better ones I've seen.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Chocolat Suisse: Chocolat au Lait

Probably this is more the type of chocolate I would have reviewed a few years ago than what I tend to select nowadays. It's a Swiss milk chocolate that came to me by way of the friend-of-a-friend type situation--and I believe it did make its way all the way from Switzerland. Since I have it and since foreign chocolate is an interesting sub-topic of chocolate to cover (since we all get used to the styles of chocolate that are sold in our home countries), I'll go ahead with a review.

The packaging implies that this is a pretty standard chocolate in Switzerland. No "fine chocolate" style but also not really the candy bar look. I'm not sure if I should be referring to the brand as Confi Swiss or Chocolat Suisse, so we'll go with the latter. As you can see, this particular bar is simply labeled as Lait: Chocolat au Lait, or Milk Chocolate. The ingredients list tells me that the cocoa content is 25%, which is, once again, a pretty standard lower end of the cocoa content spectrum for casual milk chocolate.

The shiny surface of the chocolate contains an interesting design. While the simple rectangles are nothing new, they do have a curved rectangle pattern inside them that is less usual. For some reason the look reminds me of Willy Wonka. The chocolate gives off a creamy, caramel, lightly nutty scent with a sweet richness.

Texture-wise, this chocolate is very smooth in the mouth, possibly too smooth. The texture is thick and sticky, almost like peanut butter. While interesting simply as a novelty, I don't ultimately care for this kind of texture. The flavor quickly works up to a nutty caramel and finishes off with a warm cocoa aftertaste. I was expecting it to taste milkier than average, but I don't find it to be so after all.

Basically, it's just a milk chocolate, sweet and greasy. But it is rather different from most milk chocolates I come across. (There was another chocolate that had this same type of plasticy texture and possibly a similar flavor, but I can't quite remember what it was.) It's okay--and maybe some people will enjoy that thick texture because it gives the chocolate more of a munching quality. I said that the outside didn't look like candy bar style, but in fact the effect of the texture and flavors isn't entirely unlike a chocolate candy made with caramel and nougat.

So I am going to categorize this chocolate in the candy category, not my loosely-defined "casual" category. I could see it for sale in the U.S. and doing just as well as Hershey's and Mars and Nestle (Nestle is, of course, also a Swiss brand, though I think most Americans don't realize that). But would I seek out this brand again? Probably not.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

John Keats & the Art of Beauty

Last month I wrote about the emotional quality of John Keats's poetry. I also mentioned that I had been moving slowly (quite slowly) through his complete poems. Actually mentioning this fact of my slow reading made me feel like I really had better just finish the volume instead of dragging it out any longer. Add to that the fact that I have a specific reason right now for wanting to get my voice used to speaking for a long period of time, and I decided to read Keats for an hour out loud every day. Here's to hoping my neighbors couldn't hear me reading out all of his love poems.

Reading in this daily way, like how you would read a novel, proved quite different from reading in order to provide literary analysis. I had no pressure to think of any particular topic or to think with any admiration toward any particular piece. So I easily settled in to enjoying a particular poem or passage--or disliking a particular poem or passage. I didn't care much, for instance, for his experiments (is it bad that I'm calling them experiments?) with plays; while Otho the Great did have its moments, these moments were the times when the lines reminded me most of the regular poems. And I can see why even Keats wrote in his preface for Endymion that certain sections were weaker or better than others; I tended to agree with him that there were some wonderful sections and also some that didn't quite keep my interest.

The greatest power that Keats had, as a writer, was his ability to put together beautiful language. This is why we love his descriptions of nature and of love--they're simple concepts that can fold out into an endless array of images and emotions. So even when he is writing his longer poems that have multiple characters and bigger plot lines, these moments of description are still the best. (I'm not even going to try and give examples because this is just a short blog post; I don't have space to go into more detail.)

But what I also found in this daily reading was the hollow quality of beauty for beauty's sake. Keats intentionally focused on beauty--and the results are indeed beautiful. But when you are focusing only on beauty in, shall we say, a more shallow sense of the word, then the impact can only go so far. You admire how a rose looks and you smell its aroma and then you're done; that's it--it can give you no more. That's how Keats can be. Don't get me wrong; I much prefer Keats to Oscar Wilde. Wilde was also about aesthetics above all else--but in a different way. I think Keats more respected the world around him--and he loved the natural world, which Wilde I think couldn't stand (that quote where he says that manmade chairs are so much better than anywhere you can sit in nature--that just describes every way in which Wilde and I disagree).

Back to Keats. His poetry is oftentimes, as we know, tragic. That's part of what makes it beautiful; we all love a good tragedy. But it's also part of what keeps his work from having deeper meaning. He remarks on beauty but he gives no hope--beauty in itself (this definition of beauty, that is) is not enough to give hope, especially for all of the tragedy that he describes.

I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, artistically speaking. A single poem (or any single piece of whatever kind of art) can only do so much. That's where the reader (or viewer) comes in. We absorb each piece individually for what it offers and then we put them together in our minds. This artist shows us this and that artist taught us that and so on--until we have our heads filled with art in all its contexts. We look at pretty things and we feel different emotions and we ponder different themes--and then we draw conclusions and live our lives, with all of this art sitting somewhere in the background.

"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" ("Ode on a Grecian Urn") That is what beautiful art tells us, but it is not what we know when we are done admiring said beautiful art.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Glass Castle

Normally I don't get into the whole "read the book before the movie comes out" thing. Either it's a book I've read or it isn't; either it's a movie I want to see or it isn't. This case, however, was different. I've been hearing of Jeannette Walls for a while, so when I saw a secondhand copy of The Glass Castle a while back, I picked it up. Then I was talking to someone recently who said she was looking forward to the movie because she had really enjoyed the book--and I thought I'd better finally get around to reading it myself. I do that: some books I read as soon as I get them and others wait for years for my attention.

Sometimes that just makes for the right timing.

Now must have been good timing because I found that there is something in The Glass Castle that's absolutely brilliant. The quote on the front cover from People draws a comparison to Frank McCourt--but I mostly disliked Angela's Ashes so I don't know how much I agree. I think there is a more subtle sparkle within this book. Not the sparkle of goodness or the sparkle of happy memories. It's the sparkle of decision.

This book is a memoir, describing Jeannette Walls's childhood and leading up to her first adult years. There are sad things and there are happy things. There are things that a child wouldn't have seen as bad but an adult would. While the tone in which she describes events is matter of fact and therefore often neutral (you get the sense that she is mainly just trying to tell the truth of what happened and not imprint later thoughts on the past), there is a subtle change that takes place about halfway through, when Jeannette is changing from a child into a young woman.

There comes a point when she sees past the adventure and resilience that her parents speak of and sees their failings. As she realizes her parents' faults, she still holds into the resilience that they taught her. She decides that she doesn't want to live like they do--and that's a powerful decision.

Some people will relate to elements of this book. While I can't say that I do personally, I have heard stories from other people that made some of this sound familiar. So what I really found powerful was this decision that Jeannette and her siblings made to lift themselves out of the rut that their parents set up for them. It's one thing to be raised to have a positive sense of self and your self within society, but to be able to stand up above the various ways in which parents can be holding you down must really be something, something difficult and also powerful.

And it isn't from a lack of respect for or love for parents, either. This is why the matter of fact tone of this book works so well. It isn't about hatred. And it isn't even about a childlike choice to hold onto magical illusions. It's just about the truth. Jeannette's parents raised her to be smart, and for that reason she couldn't wait to make for herself a better life than they had ultimately made for her.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Green & Black's: Toffee Milk Chocolate

I did it again. I bought another sugar crystal/toffee chocolate. This time it's part of my "second look" at Green & Black's. As I mentioned before, I've probably reviewed all of the bars from Green & Black's at some point--but it's been years, so I've mostly forgotten what their chocolate is like. This is me starting over with Green & Black's, today with their Toffee Milk Chocolate.

I have nothing more to say about the familiar packaging for now; let's move on to the chocolate. I was surprised to find the chocolate's aroma generic. It has that typical sweet, caramel milk chocolate aroma, which is nice enough but not singular. The implication is also more of confection-style chocolate.

Though the toffee isn't visible from either the front or back of the car, the fairly big little bits of toffee are visible once you break off a piece from the whole. (Forgive the melty look in the picture; it's summer.) The first taste of this chocolate is simply sweet; the caramel and vanilla notes come in next, then a touch of earthy richness along with more vanilla. After having all of these chocolates lately with sugar crystals and crunchy caramel pieces, it's pleasant to come back to actual toffee. There is a difference: toffee has a more specific crunch and more of a glassy flavor. The proportion of toffee in the chocolate is balanced.

I do like toffee, so this chocolate bar is nice. I'm enjoying eating it. But it's probably easy to see that I'm somewhat disappointed. The chocolate is pretty standard--above the candy bar level, certainly, but I had expected more. This is indeed what I would categorize as confectionery, and not simply because there is toffee involved. The only problem with that, if it is a problem, is that I didn't think of Green & Black's as making confectionery chocolate. This is indeed a casual, sweet bar of organic, fair trade chocolate that's great for when you're craving sweet chocolate, not fancy artisan dark chocolate full of flavor notes. But the simple packaging implies that this is sleek and refined chocolate.

Or does it?

Maybe Green & Black's lets you fill in the style. Maybe they have such a generic packaging because they don't want to imply anything about their product. Their main selling point has always been their organic, fair trade status. Before there were so many fair trade chocolates to choose from, Green & Black's was there to provide that option. So they let the consumer decide if this is fancy chocolate or casual chocolate--and all they tell you is that it's a good product. I'm labeling it as a confection, but to you it might be something different. And I suppose that works. As I keep stressing, while artisan chocolate is absolutely wonderful, we don't need all fair trade chocolate to be in that style. So if Green & Black's is one of the companies that offers some of the more casual options, then I am supportive of that.