Monday, December 5, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 6: Jasmine

Click to read Part 1 (Snow White), Part 2 (Cinderella), Part 3 (Aurora), Part 4 (Ariel), and Part 5 (Belle).

I must admit straightaway that, while most of my generation loves 1992's Aladdin, I don't overly care for the film. I didn't really watch it when I was younger, so watching it today I'm just not convinced that it's as good as some of the other Disney offerings. But it's starting to grow on me, and I'm trying to give it a chance, so I'll try and also give Jasmine a fair assessment.

The strange thing is, I was getting ready to talk about race in my next post on Pocahontas--and then I realized that Jasmine perhaps isn't exactly white, either. (I don't know, anyways, what white is--but she's not white or European like the previous five princesses). But I followed my realization by thinking that Jasmine almost might as well be European. I won't get into that any further, except to say that, in terms of race or whatever you'd like to call it, Jasmine doesn't offer as much as she could have to the Disney princess group--except that perhaps girls with darker skin tones might feel like they look more like Jasmine than like Snow White or the rest up to this point (even though Jasmine is still pretty light, she is less "white").

So what does Jasmine offer?

To start with, she is the first Disney princess whose movie is not named after her. It's named after Aladdin, and the movie does center around him more than her--because we have to give the menfolk a chance, too (I might later on do another series focusing on Disney's attempts around this time to also give boys male representation in their films). Aladdin is in fact a more interesting character than Jasmine. He has more of a character arc and a better theme. Jasmine is just another girl trapped in a marriage plot--maybe for children watching the movie, this is one of the first marriage plots they'll see, but I'm kind of sick of marriage plots. So I think that rather than Jasmine's declaration that she will marry for love strengthening her character, it diminishes her that he plot has so much to do with marriage. (For clarification, I don't mind there being a love story; it's just the marriage plot that I find overdone.)

Still, we must admire Jasmine for being able to speak her own mind and stick up for herself. She is also daring when she leaves the palace on her own, even if she's a little ignorant in the marketplace. Her attempts to give food to a hungry child, however, show her inherent kindness--and her ignorance is simply meant to be a sign of how tightly she has been locked up in the palace. Jasmine is very much a victim of circumstance--and I'm not sure if I am neutral toward this plot point or if I dislike it. Jasmine seems as if she needs Aladdin to rescue her even more than Aurora needed Philip: without Philip, Aurora would've just slept on in oblivion, but without Aladdin, Jasmine would have continued to live a shackled life. Out of all the princesses, Jasmine lives in the most constrained world: it is not just individual events that hold her down, it is the entire system.

It is, though, more Jasmine's environment that I am criticizing. Jasmine herself is alright. There is some attempt at making her smart, and she is kind in a natural way rather than a contrived way. And if she were a Victorian heroine, she would be very praise-worthy. I just wish that she didn't have to waste her time rebelling against a system that didn't need to be part of her plot to begin with (as fantasy stories, these films have the freedom to pick and choose whatever historical details they do or don't want).

Friday, December 2, 2016

TCHO: Toffee + Sea Salt

For some reason I can't quite explain, I find that I have been avoiding TCHO Chocolate. It has been so long since I've had any of their products that I can't even remember which ones I have tried. Wondering if perhaps I hadn't favored their plain chocolate (although this is simply a guess because I have no memory anymore of what TCHO's chocolate tasted like), I decided to experiment by getting a flavored chocolate instead of a plain one. After all, every company has its strengths, and some are better at either plain or flavored chocolate. So let's start afresh with TCHO with their Toffee + Sea Salt bar.

I am growing increasingly aware that I need to be buying organic and fair trade (not "Fair Trade," just something with that concept--certain of the gourmet chocolatiers, for instance, don't necessarily work within the Fair Trade system but they do work with the cocoa farmers all the same) products. Coffee, tea, and chocolate are three products that stand out. I used to say that I would mainly buy fair trade chocolate except when I wanted to try a new product so I could review it. I'm still going to do it; I can't say that I won't because I know that isn't true. But I am growing increasingly guilty about buying mass-produced chocolate that I know isn't made with what we would call ethical cocoa. You vote with your dollar and you help change the world with those votes, after all. So. You might see something of a change in the type of chocolate I'm willing to review now.

I take the time to say all of this at this moment because I see that TCHO is in fact organic and fair trade--they're also a bean to bar U.S. company, which is nice. So I should in fact be paying more attention to TCHO (World Market keeps a nice supply of their bars right now).

The chocolate in this bar comes in at 53% cocoa, but it's labeled here as milk chocolate--which I appreciate. I rather dislike sweet chocolate being passed off as dark chocolate, and milk chocolate being something ridiculously watered down.

The paper wrapper is casual in its style, though also modern and trendy with a enough of a touch of elegance to hint at quality. It has been so long since I've seen a TCHO chocolate that I'm taken anew with the design of the bar. That geometric pattern has so many lines and so many details; even the small squares are set at angles rather than keeping the usual flat, level surface. This look is what I've been calling quality that's approachable.

Once you break a piece of the chocolate, you can see the small toffee crystals; they're mostly clear but with a slight shade of yellow. Now, I am fond of toffee, but these small pieces are still a nice change from the big, thick toffee that gets stuck in your teeth.

The first taste I had was of the sea salt, which is crisp and sharp in flavor. The chocolate comes in next, followed soon by the sweet and salty toffee. Each element has its moment, and each moment blends well with the others. I was slightly worried about the cocoa content of the chocolate: sometimes chocolate in the 50's range is bland and stuck in the middle of two concepts, sweet and dark. This chocolate is neither exactly sweet nor dark and yet it isn't bland: it's more solid in flavor than anything else, and its taste does have warmth. It makes for just the right companion to the toffee and salt.

It's quite a good bar of chocolate. And the more casual nature of the toffee means that you can use this one as a replacement for chocolate candy bars. Sure, it costs more than a candy bar, but there are nine squares (or three rows) in one of these bars, so it in fact works out to be a good value. Now that December is upon us, this would be a great addition to Christmas stockings, too.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 5: Belle

Click for Part 1 (Snow White), Part 2 (Cinderella), Part 3 (Aurora), and Part 4 (Ariel).

By default, I started answering that Belle was my favorite Disney princess because she, like me, has brown hair and brown eyes and she also reads. And I suppose, when I was younger, I did relate to her sense of longing, a longing for an indefinable something.

Like Ariel, Belle came from what we would consider a more modern age, as compared with the 30's or 50's. Two years after The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast came out in 1991 (which also happens to be the year I was born, which further links me with this film). So Belle shares some of the feistiness of Ariel. For instance, she doesn't feel compelled to accept Gaston, she defends her father against Gaston and LeFou, and she talks back to the Beast when he shouts at her. Further, though, I find that Belle's feistiness, if that's what we're calling it, is grounded better than Ariel's teenage rebellion.

For one thing, Belle is a little older than Ariel. While Ariel is a teenager, Belle seems to be more of an adult (technically, it seems that Belle is only 17, but that still makes her older than majority of the princesses). She picks her battles better than Ariel does, as well: she defends herself and she defends the people she cares about (let's take a moment to appreciate Belle's good relationship with her father). And for the first time, instead of simply stressing good virtues, this story introduces the idea of intelligence. Belle reads constantly and her father is an inventor, so she is used to thinking about various ideas (note that when her father asks her to hand him a tool, she knows it by name--therefore we can assume that she is familiar with the work he does). This is in fact the most significant contribution Belle gave to the princess group--after all, if you want the princesses to make good/admirable decisions, then they have to be characters capable of making those decisions.

Belle's weakness goes hand in hand with her strength. Because she is a thinking person, she is also curious--and sometimes that curiosity takes her too far. With her head so stuck in novels (similar to Catherine in Northanger Abbey), she wants to see what's going on in the castle and so ventures into the forbidden West Wing. I can never forgive Belle for this. She has free range of the entire castle except for this one section (which can, and in fact is, simply be the Beast's quarters), and yet she just has to go snooping over there. Still, it worked out in the end: her argument with the Beast led to their making up and trying to be nicer to each other. And what would a character be without some faults?

I complained, in my analysis  of Aurora, about how one of the gifts from the fairies was beauty. So perhaps I should also be complaining that so much is made of Belle's looks? But this brings us to an interesting topic. Consider who talks about Belle's looks and in what context. Primarily it's the villagers: they bemoan the fact that Belle is so good-looking and yet so odd (remember, her name does mean beauty and many English translations of the story also choose to translate her name from the French Belle and call her Beauty--so the film had to address her looks, one way or another). Gaston also talks about how Belle is the most beautiful girl in town and that's why he wants to marry her. So the obsession with looks is paired with triviality, and there is also a comparison made between how someone looks and how they act. Even LeFou basically tells Gaston that, yes, Belle is beautiful, but isn't her personality ill-suited for you? Belle sees it--she tells her father that Gaston is "handsome alright" and yet "he's not for me." This, of course, in turn leads us to the theme of the movie--the whole "beauty is found within" concept.

Now, then, I have one more big issue to try and cover in a short space: the fact that Belle falls in love with her temper tantrum captor. Here is also the part where I start rolling my eyes because I think that people make far more of a fuss about this than they need to. Beauty and the Beast doesn't encourage abusive relationships; it encourages intelligence. Here is what's really going on. A sorceress decided to teach a spoiled prince a lesson by putting a spell on him that would only break if he could overcome the concept of looks. He looks like a beast but he has to act kinder than he did when he was a (probably good-looking) boy/young man. Belle eventually has enough generosity to give him a chance (remember, she knows from the start that there is a spell--she doesn't know exactly what it is but the fact that the furniture talk shows that there is something going on--and the fact that Belle is used to reading fantasy stories prepares her for possibilities). And he does take this chance: he lets her go. You heard that, right? This means that when Belle tells the Beast that she loves him, she is not his captive--she has instead chosen to return to the castle to protect him from Gaston and the angry mob. He, too, chose to turn his back on the past by literally turning his back on Gaston instead of fighting him back.

So the lesson that the Beast had to learn (to look at the person inside rather than the outer shell) is a lesson that Belle shared in--only it took her a few days or weeks (I'm always confused about how much time passes in the movie) instead of several years like it did for him. And for those who complain about Snow White or Aurora's lack of agency, Belle has agency. The Beast fell in love with her first, making the declaration to his servants after he let her leave the castle. But it is Belle's declaration that is the last piece, the piece that breaks the spell and frees him.

I'm therefore naming Belle as one of the most well-rounded of the Disney princesses.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Post Thanksgiving Thoughts on Hospitality

Most everyone knows that I love Thanksgiving; I have adopted it as one of my favorite holidays. Perhaps I like that, compared with the bright colors of other holidays, Thanksgiving exists in neutral tones and incorporates many natural materials--visually it is more my style. Perhaps I like that it's a simple enough holiday that I can imprint my own meaning on it without feeling like "this" is what it's supposed to mean to me. Or perhaps I simply like it because it's become my project: for the past several years, I've been doing a good amount or even almost all of the food preparation for Thanksgiving dinner.

So this past Thanksgiving, I really felt like the theme of the day was hospitality. People say that Thanksgiving is about taking time to appreciate what you have--and while that is certainly a good thing to do, it is also something that should be part of every day life. So when you sit around telling everyone to say what they're thankful for, you're telling them to think about themselves, to look inward. That's not a bad thing, and yet it can come across as . . . less gracious than it's supposed to be. Your thoughts turn inward when holidays are a chance to turn your thoughts outward.

When I said that Thanksgiving felt like a day of hospitality, of course I was referring in great part to the food. Feeding other people is something special, whether you're cooking the whole dinner, bringing a dish, or helping serve. Inviting people into your home, or accepting an invitation into someone else's home, or choosing a meeting place is special. Receiving others is special.

And I think that that's the spirit of Thanksgiving--and indeed of many holidays. Receiving other people is rooted in respect for others, and this is something so deep and so important that we must not forget it. When you give thanks, after all, for what you have, that action allows you to share your life and your blessings with others. When you begin with peace in yourself, you spread that peace.

It is fitting, as well, that we prepare our hearts in particular to receive others as we move from Thanksgiving into the Christmas season.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 4: Ariel

Click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

I warn you that I'm going to be a little harsh on Ariel. The thing is, The Little Mermaid was released 30 years after the previous princess film, Sleeping Beauty. So while you would expect that Ariel moved the whole princess concept into modern times, I'm not always convinced that she did. (Yes, I'm calling the late 80's and early 90's "modern" because these are the films that were new when my generation was growing up--even though I realize that they're now over a quarter century old.)

We must first acknowledge that many things about Ariel are different than with her predecessors. Compared with the others, Ariel looks and talks like a modern girl. If I'm not mistaken, the dresses in this movie would place the timeline vaguely around 1850--Cinderella, though, looks to me like the 1830's or 1840's (I can't remember which). Yet The Little Mermaid feels all around more modern: Cinderella is filled with the fantasy of fairy godmothers, talking mice, and castles, whereas the only magical/fantastical elements of The Little Mermaid are linked with the sea and therefore the "real world" elements of aboveground stand out more. Cinderella speaks with grace and poise in both her tone and vocabulary. Ariel, however, speaks more casually--she doesn't speak like a princess, or even necessarily like someone raised in the upper class. She does speak like a rebelling teenager.

Snow White may be the youngest Disney princess, but Ariel acts the youngest. I find it strange that a team in 1989 decided to make Ariel act more like a modern figure and yet kept her as a sixteen year old who falls in love with a man and then finds a way to marry him. She tells her father that she's sixteen as a way of saying that she is old enough to be treated more like an adult than a child--but sixteen is still underage to us in modern times. So Ariel's age is odd. (Snow White's and Aurora's ages are not so odd because their stories take place in more medieval times and were arguably created before we started analyzing Disney princesses in so much detail.)

I think Ariel is intended to be empowering because she speaks for herself and makes her own choices about who she is, what she believes, and what she does. It's true that it is admirable of her to see the humans as people even though the rest of the merfolk fear them--this is an alright theme of equality among differing peoples. But most of what Ariel argues about doesn't have to do with deep political, social, or philosophical questions. She just wants to be free to swim around without anyone watching her or telling her where she has to be and when--and she is very quick to fancy herself in love with a man she saw once.

Now, I am not demeaning Ariel for this. There's nothing wrong with a youthful falling in love with someone you see, someone who represents something to you that you may or may not realize. And I don't necessarily mind The Little Mermaid's love story: after the first meeting, Ariel does spend enough time with Eric (in movie terms, that is) to get to know him. And it's all very pretty, classic fantasy: the mermaid leaving the sea because she fell in love with a man on land. However. Ariel's crush on Eric (that is, the feeling she had for him before she left the sea) put her into a lot of trouble.

For one thing, it causes her to defy her father. I did always find it harsh and unfeeling of Triton to just destroy everything in Ariel's grotto: that didn't help--it drove her away. But Ariel was perhaps rather naively ignoring her father's warnings of the land, and she talks back to him more than she needs to (out of anger and sadness, yes, because no one is perfect, I realize, but still).

And most of all, Ariel's crush leads her to make a deal with Ursula, a deal that puts herself in essentially mortal danger. Then, of course, Triton trades places with her to save her--which puts him and thereby the entire ocean and all the merfolk in danger. Making a deal with Ursula was extremely rash, selfish, and naive of Ariel. If only she had had more patience, then perhaps she could have met Eric again as herself and even eventually talked her father into seeing her side of things. She could have achieved the ending of the movie without all of that "dark stuff" in the middle.

But perhaps that's the point. Ariel was never designed as a figure of virtue or a representation of royalty. She's just a girl whose father is king. She therefore has flaws to show that she is a real person and to show how people can overcome their mistakes. (Though I'm not really sure how she overcame her mistake. I think the situation healed with the death of Ursula, but didn't Eric do that when he ran the ship into Ursula? Thematically, though, Ariel overcame her mistake--at least because she saw how badly her deal with Ursula turned out.)

It all comes down to what you prefer. Do you want a Disney princess who is like you? Or do you want someone you can look up? If you want to relate to a Disney princess, then Ariel is your type (this figures since so many young and youngish women love to dress like Ariel or take pictures like her and such). For me, though, I prefer a character I can admire. Ariel was an interesting addition to the mix and I do like her movie--but she isn't my favorite of the princesses.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Milka: Leo

This chocolate candy is quite the opposite of last week's Theo Peanut Butter Cups--but I already had this Milka Leo bar at home before I picked up that one, so we'll just go on ahead with this (brief) review.

Obviously, the Leo bar is Milka's equivalent of the KitKat. I do have a soft spot for KitKats, though I prefer when I can get the international versions from World Market instead of the U.S. ones (which are made by Hershey's). I've never had Milka's version before, but I do enjoy Milka's chocolate because it's sweet and creamy like caramel and therefore rather nice when you're in the mood for that sort of chocolate.

The wrapper is the usual purple color Milka always uses. The chocolate surprised me with a swirly, wavy pattern on the four sticks; it gives a sort of modern look that makes more of a statement than simply marking the chocolate with the brand.

Naturally, the wafer sticks are very, very sweet. I'm sure the chocolate has an extremely light cocoa content, so it all tastes as if there could be a layer of caramel in there--which is not a complaint given that Milka chocolate does have a distinct and pleasant caramel flavor.

The wafers are the standout surprise to me, though. They're nice and light and crisp with the perfect level of crunch to make them addicting and to provide a balanced base for the taste of the sweet chocolate. There may also be a light layer of filling in between the wafers, some sort of sweet cream to help keep it all from getting dry.

As far as the wafers dipped in chocolate style of candy goes, Milka makes a nice contribution. I enjoyed these. That's it, though: I can neither more nor less on the subject because there is nothing left to say.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Beginning of the Thrawn Trilogy

At last, it begins. As you know, I am currently trying to keep up with the main new releases in Star Wars novels and have been trying to do so since the whole canon/legends thing started a couple years ago. It's been fun--but I am at last able to stretch out even more and read my first non-canon book. I've written down a couple of titles I want to read, but I had to start with the Thrawn Trilogy given how much I've heard about it. Ahsoka. Thrawn. Mara Jade. All these names I used to hear, knowing they were important but without knowing what they meant. I met Ahsoka in The Clone Wars and then Rebels and eventually in her own novel last month. I had a brief encounter with Thrawn when he showed up in this season of Rebels as a character full terrifying enough to justify his reputation. So, you know, I was pretty excited to read more about him in the first book in this trilogy, Heir to the Empire.

And then, as I read, I stumbled into Mara Jade. Aaaahhhh! I knew basically who she was (or turned out to be?) from when I was reading a couple of pages online several years ago to find out how old the main movie characters were. Since then, I've wondered so much about who she is and what she's like. I wanted to eventually read some of the books that feature her; I just didn't know which ones she was in. So it was quite a welcome surprise to find that this book contains quite a bit of Mara Jade. It may sound funny, but I felt privileged to be reading about her.

The thing is, she just lights up the pages, bounces off of them in full realization. She's one of those characters who instantly become iconic, who so quickly take and hold your interest. And the scenes between her and Luke were probably my favorite out of this book: their banter is more fun than Han and Leia's and greatly entertaining to watch. I now feel for everyone who was heartbroken that Mara Jade was made non-canon.

Mara Jade aside, this was still a great read. Timothy Zahn knows just how to balance out all the elements of a story and all of the different characters. Drama sits alongside action, and the right amount of humor accents the right amount of suspense. And so on. This is one of my favorite Star Wars novels so far--not unsurprisingly given that, out of all the legends books, it's one of the ones that's apparently still talked about so much.

I have only one more note to make. Some people compare events from Episode VII to the plots of the legends books, trying to see if the legends give hints about what will happen next in the movies and also seeing how certain themes or images remain. Likely this one has been pointed out already. In Chapter 11, Luke has a vision of Mara Jade catching the lightsaber that he is reaching for. Does that sound just like Rey catching Kylo Ren's lightsaber (well, Luke's lightsaber that Kylo is reaching for) to anyone else? The similarity may be potential evidence that Rey has or will have a dark side and that Rey and Kylo Ren are connected on a personal level.

Unless I find I have a great deal of comments after reading the second book, I'll probably wait to do a post on both the second and third installments of the trilogy. I'm hoping to finish off both of those before I get around to buying the new Rogue One novel because I know I'll want to start that one as soon as I have it.