Wednesday, July 31, 2013

July Favorites

1) Flower Necklace - If you're familiar with Prescott, you know that they often hold art/craft fairs and other events at the square. I got this necklace there from Ataggirl Creations, which is based out of Prescott, as well. I liked that it has a Western vibe that isn't too overdone, that it has green, and that it's some sort of metal instead of plastic.

2) Disney Train & Dinosaur Print - When I was in Disneyland last month, I saw this print on Main St. during the day; after thinking about it, I rushed in at midnight to buy it on my way out of the park. A collision of dinosaurs and Disneyland, how could I not? It's the perfect blend of absurdity.

3) Hair Clip Set - These are from Anthropologie, which means they're on the pricey side--but you can tell the difference. They're jewelry for the hair.

4) Framed Chalkboard - Chalkboard paint is rather in right now, but I promise that I have always liked chalkboards. They're more old-fashioned, don't smell terrible like dry erase markers, and are friends with wonderfully-edible-looking chalk (you know, chalk resembles the candy in Fun Dip, Necco Wafers, etc.). I still think I'd like to paint an entire wall someday, but this board will do for now.

5) Fairy Soap - Another local product, this soap comes from Clarkdale. It uses wildflowers, lavender, mint, and lemon to create an aroma that is soft, floral, feminine, and just slightly candy-like. The packaging is beautiful and the soap itself pretty in pink and white. It's also an alright soap with a soft feel. I'll probably buy from this brand, Pie Town Soap and Candle Co., again.

6) Magnifying Glass - A World Market find, a magnifying glass always provides an accent for a bookshelf or desk. Wood, brass, glass, and mystery.

7) Cocoa Perfume - Yes, yes, here we have another item I chose just because of its relation to chocolate. I may do an individual post on this perfume later, describing my mixed feelings about it. Right now, though, it's simply another little bottle decorating my perfume tray.

8) Dinogami - Two dinosaur items in the same list? Goodness. This set was on sale for $3. The last time I tried origami, I was terrible at it, but that was several years ago; for $3, I thought it was worth it to try again. My first dinosaur turned out rather unwell, although you can at least tell what it's supposed to be. I'll keep at it.

9) Green Earrings - Another Sedona jewelry find, these earrings reminded me of the vintage-esque flower earrings floating around these days. Why are they sitting in a shell, you wonder? Well . . .

I had been keeping shells in this box until I decided that it would be nice to use the box for small earrings. Instead of moving the shells out, I just flipped them over to create individual spaces for each pair. Well, except for a couple that share spaces.

10) Rose Pin - A little antique store find, I know nothing about this gold-colored pin except that it's a rose--which is like Beauty and the Beast. I can picture it clipped onto a scarf, purse, jacket, or collar.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hammond's Candies: Malted Milkshake Milk Chocolate

Although I don't too often find one I'm entirely satisfied with, I do enjoy shakes. Usually I choose chocolate, or some sort of flavored chocolate. And then I entertain myself by complaining about how it tastes too milky or is too thick or not thick enough or whatever the case may be. So to find a chocolate bar called Malted Milkshake, well, I was happy about that. 

There are a few more flavors in stock at World Market right now. If I think well enough of this one, I'll try those, as well. But it's best to sample new lines slowly, lest I buy them all at once and hate them all. What I'm finding disappointing about this bar is that it isn't quite what I was expecting. The packaging is plain and vintage, but chic enough that I imagined Hammond's was a fairly new company. Instead, they have been around since 1920, with some more recent changes that have greatly increased the company's size. It's also a candy company rather than a chocolate company. Candy and candy stores are wonderful, but I usually like chocolate best when it is a company's only focus. 

Whatever expectations I built up on my own, however, this is not a pretentious chocolate bar. "Milk chocolate with malted milk" sounds casual, something that can easily come from a candy company. The bar is in six pieces. There is, naturally, no cocoa percentage listed nor anything about the type of chocolate used. It's a light and milky variety.

The bottom side of the chocolate shows all the pieces of malt balls that are added in. When seeing the bar, I didn't expect that it would necessarily have malt balls in it, just that flavor. What's nicer about this bar than traditional, chocolate-dipped malt balls is that there is much more chocolate than malt and the malt balls have an airier texture because they are in smaller pieces. Just these differences of proportion and size are worth seeing.

I'd classify this as a candy bar, or a confection; somehow "candy bar" seems only to apply to grocery store candies from the likes of Hershey's and Mars. It's the same type of thing, just a little cleaner cut. It's sweet and a tad nostalgic. I didn't fall in love with it as much as I would have liked, as hardly ever happens with milkshakes, either; the malt balls had too much of an artificial taste for that, and neither was the chocolate significant enough. But it's a pleasant sweet to nibble on and I do like the wrapper design. I wonder how they would be as party favors . . . 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Density of Xenocide

Click for my thoughts on the first two books: Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead.

I really enjoyed the first book in this set and really liked the second. The third, however, became a little bit much. Xenocide is much longer than they were and I found it even more dense than Speaker for the Dead. If I'm honest, I'm a little disappointed that I didn't like it the way I liked the first two books. But let me explain why.

It was dense. Wonderfully so at times--I still found lines that I could have underlined, concepts that were well-worded, conversations and ponderings about ethics and life. Nothing is, at its center, simple; yet everything is so complex that, in the end, it is rather simple. Much more philosophical questions are in this book and also much more of a sci-fi feel--at least I thought so. The first books were about anti-gravity, space, and aliens, but this book included the long-winded descriptions of such things as philotes and computer communication and viruses and interplanetary travel. Not that any of this is bad; I certainly don't mean to say that.

I'm just pointing out that, after enjoying my foray into sci-fi for the first two books, I'm getting a little bogged down by the setting now. This is more the type of thing I would have expected, in some ways. So now that I've finally gotten through its pages, I think I'll give it a longer wait before I read the last book in this set (not the entire series, I know). You can tell how I felt about this book from the fact that I have so little to say on it: neither much praise nor much criticism. Maybe I'll finally get to the new Tolkien poem and some others that have been lying in wait. There is always much to read.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Reflection on the Comfort of Loneliness

You see, the multiplicity of people surrounding you can in fact increase your sense of isolation. If you are in a crowd and feeling great connection to everyone in it, then the oneness is amazing; but if you are in a crowd and do not feel that oneness, then you become very alone. If, however, you are within Nature, uncovered and wild, then your connection is instantaneous and with the earth. 

Being so near to one of my favorite places, the Painted Desert, the surrounding area of Sunset Crater easily lends to such a feeling. The volcanic land is black and red. The landscape is open with scrubby bushes in one area, mountainous and piney in another. Everywhere, life meets death: sky meets earth, leftover lava meets green plants, and your eyes meet all. Everything is at once open and enclosed, silent and loud. The land tells a story. . . and it wants you to be a part of it.

Being alone with the land is never lonely.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Trader Joe's: PB&J Milk Chocolate Bar

Trader Joe's shoppers should know this, but let me reiterate. The quality of chocolate and candy products can vary greatly since the store likes to provide quality for decent prices. So sometimes you'll find decent items for low prices. And sometimes you'll find uppity products, disguised in Trader Joe's wrappers, for low prices--like the time they had undercover Pralus chocolate bars. Because some of their chocolates can in fact be made by well-respected brands but Trader Joe's doesn't tell you who made them, I can't always tell the quality of something until I try it. I didn't look too closely at the PB&J bar; even just as as a reversion back to childhood thing, it was worth picking up.

Although the use of raspberry jelly is, I imagine, designed to give it more of an adult feel, I don't care too much for raspberry. And since I can't remember ever having a regular peanut butter and jelly chocolate bar, I would have preferred the more basic strawberry jelly. It isn't, after all, as if the colorful wrapper of this bar markets itself as very serious. 

I'm getting to that point now where I still like the candies and sweets, but they have to be good to be worth it. If I'm eating sugar, I want it to taste good. It only took one bite to decide that, no, this bar wasn't worth it. The milk chocolate is alright, if a little slippery in texture. But the filling is more buttery than I wanted and much more peanut butter than jelly. Maybe I shouldn't complain about not tasting the raspberry more, but I felt that it needed more presence. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich has equal parts peanut butter and jelly. Here, the jelly is more prominent in some bites than others. As you can see from the picture, my first piece hardly had any jelly at all; it looked like the raspberry flavor must have just been mixed in with the peanut butter.

No, that isn't the case: other pieces do have a dark jelly sitting on top of the peanut butter. It tends to hang out in the middle of each piece. Sometimes you taste it quite strong; other times it's barely there. More consistency, please. And that's my problem: the details. While there are no added oils in the chocolate portion, the peanut butter has palm oil (I guess most peanut butters that most people buy do have oil added, though, don't they?) and the bar also has corn syrup. At least the raspberry flavor comes from raspberry juice concentrate and organic raspberry flavor instead of artificial flavorings. It might all be good enough for a casual candy bar, if that's what you're looking for when you go to pay at Trader Joe's. But for me and my more thoughtful approach, it isn't quite enough. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The New Downton

So. Now that I've gotten around to watching the third season of Downton Abbey, like you to know what I thought of it?

As I explained last year, the first two seasons didn't make me such a big fan of the show as many people are. I sort of enjoyed watching it once and that was it. So it figures that, when I've heard some say that Season 3 was the worst so far, it would be the one I enjoy the most. But what factors exactly made that difference? Three things come to mind.

Most shows need some time to get on their feet, get the characters settled in, and get the audience used to the characters. In the first season, I didn't exactly like any of the characters; by Season 2, I started to be more interested in some than others. But in Season 3, I actually started to care about them--still not all of them, but some of them. That in itself can make a big difference. (If you were wondering, I usually like Branson and Anna and sometimes Daisy.)

There is also the timeline. It mildly bothered me that the show made such big leaps across time over so few episodes. Pre-war, then suddenly the war starts, then suddenly it's over, and so on. I felt like that didn't allow the small things to develop, if everything was constantly being forced forward. But Season 3 remained in a relatively small amount of time.

Last year I described the camera's fly-on-the-wall approach, saying that it left the audience to make their own judgments. I didn't always know what my reaction was supposed to be. But now I know. Carson and Maggie Smith's character deliver funny lines (unintentionally on the characters' parts). Everyone hopes for things to work out for Anna and Bates and for Mary and Matthew. So on and so forth. If I had originally fell in love with the old format, I can see how I might be slower to embrace the new, more common one. But I didn't, so I enjoy this one better.

It feels like more of a drama now, whereas before there was a certain distance from the characters' emotions, I thought. It was that distance that I didn't like. Now, however, I find myself rather wishing Season 4 weren't so far away (in the U.S., that is).

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Wuthering Heights: Seasons of Good & Ill

I wasn't even going to write anything about this movie until I glanced at the Netflix reviews and saw that, with a couple of exceptions, most of them were terrible. Really? Was it really as bad as that?

The thing is, I've never watched another movie adaption of Wuthering Heights. I just couldn't, ironically, stomach any others. I only started watching one and stopped a few minutes in: it was too ridiculously different from the book. Although I believe that there is a love story within the book, there is much more to it--and it is a very specific kind of love story.

The 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights by Andrea Arnold was, from start to finish, confusing and disturbing. Slow, too. But that, my friends, is why I could stomach it. The novel is confusing and disturbing and multi-layered (which can force slower reading). It's a brilliant masterpiece, but it is also confusing and disturbing. So for the movie to include these rather non-cinematic traits was, in my view, a success, whatever else the film did or did not do. Everything that is outside of the cinematic norm (from the lack of music, the often close camera angles, the dialogue shown from a distance, the quietness, the nature shots, the violence, etc.) is what helps make this movie different and moving in a much more methodical way.

That isn't to say I loved everything about this movie. For instance, while the cinematography constantly likened Heathcliff to Nature, implying the theory that the cycles of violence in the story are just seasons of Nature that will run their course and then pass away, there is no cycle after Heathcliff. There is no story of the "new generation" that takes over once Heathcliff and Cathy and Linton are all gone. But, as I understand it, this isn't something that most films include, anyway. And it's understandable: the plot is long, convoluted, confusing, and circular. It's a great plot, but a difficult one to portray on film. So while this version may not have portrayed all the cycles, at least it got one near right.

It needs at least a mention to address the (first) casting of Heathcliff as black. What could have been a complicated introduction of race into the story felt, in fact, more subtle. It simply helps to emphasize, for modern audiences, Heathcliff's isolation. In the book, he does look like an outsider and he is nearly always treated this way; the casting just gives a visual to this difference. It also helps to further liken Heathcliff with Nature. In the scene where he starts covering Cathy in mud, it isn't as if he's trying to make her black--it's as if he's trying to connect her deeper with the earth.

All this said, I still wouldn't recommend the movie to most viewers. It's more of an art house film, and yes, you're right if you call some of it disturbing (but I thought The Hunger Games was disturbing, and look how popular that was). So watch it if you're familiar with the book and want to ponder one visual approach to the story.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Simón Coll: Xocolata A La Pedra

As I finish off with my last little gift from Santa Fe, we take a new turn toward drinking chocolate. I seem to only have been covering weirder incarnations of chocolate, as opposed to a plain and solid quality chocolate bar. Not that I'm calling drinking chocolate weird; in fact, it is heavenly and perhaps a more natural way to consume chocolate than as a bar. Part of chocolate's beauty is the way that it melts in your mouth, so drinking chocolate just simplifies the process. 

I didn't recognize the name Simón Coll, but I have in fact had contact with them, in a roundabout way. Back on Chocablog, I once reviewed a product by another Spanish company, Chocolate Amatller. It turns out that Simón Coll now owns Chocolate Amattler. They do share one thing in common: beautiful, historic packaging on certain products. I thought that the Xocolata A La Pedra packaging was nice, but gained more appreciation when I discovered that this same wrapper design has been on the market since 1880. Why change it when it's already perfect?

The bar is bulky and thick; it lets you know right away that it wasn't designed for eating straight. Being trusting, I followed the instructions on the back exactly. You heat milk (or almond beverage, in my case), remove it from the heat, add three squares of chocolate, stir them occasionally for two minutes, return to heat, and allow to boil so that it can thicken. Three fat squares plus a cup of milk means that each serving is big. Unless you're used to rich drinking chocolate, I would recommend that amount for two or maybe even three people. 

At about 45% cacao, this chocolate would be fairly light as a bar. But as drinking chocolate, the lower percentage keeps it from being too dark; I imagine it also helps keep the texture in control. While the drink is thick, it isn't mud thick. Sip it slowly and it feels just right. There is cinnamon added in, although I can't say that I tasted it much. I would call this drink neither sweet nor bitter, but if it leans more to one side, it would be toward the darker side. It's rich enough that I got nowhere near being able to finish off my "one serving." But maybe I'm just thinking in long term. If I used three squares each time, I'd only get four servings out of this bar; as it is, I can get eight to twelve. That's a week and a half of perfect, chocolate evenings.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Anna Karenina's Stage

I mean only to talk about one aspect of last year's film Anna Karenina: the use of the stage.

Most people who have taken the time to read the very long (though of course not as long as War and Peace) Tolstoy book love it; but I know that I read it a little young. So I don't have the same connection to the story that others have. This, in turn, is why I'm focusing only on one stylistic choice in the film version.

When I heard about the stage usage, I imagined that the film would be like a play, taking place entirely on the platform. Visibly. But it in fact moves around the stage, above it and in front of it. Some scenes are barely recognizable as using the stage, they're placed around it so creatively. The result is that the stage becomes a character and a symbol, representing the idea of looking and being looked at. Sometimes it is barely noticeable, sometimes it fits well into its surroundings, and other times it is painfully obvious.

All this fits into the story's commentary about society. Generally, the wealthy are at the center of the stage, with the bustle of the city streets, for instance, taking place in the rafters above the stage. This example sets up the wealthy as capable of ignoring the common people but also depending on them--because they are the hands behind the scenes. It's a little dizzying at times, which I took to be the point. Movie Anna is caught between her awareness of being looked at and her own conflicting gazes.

Whatever else the movie did, its use of the stage I found effective and innovative. If such a method has been used in such a way before, I don't think I've seen it. So for me, it may have been the best part of the movie.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Speaker Finds a Home

Oh, Ender. One of the most wonderful fictional characters I have met. How was I to know I was missing out so much by not reading Ender's Game earlier?

Reading it was enough of an impact that I had to wait a few days before beginning the sequel, Speaker for the Dead. If there be any need, let it be known that I don't know how to talk about this book without going into slight plot details.

At first, I was resentful of the new setting and characters, until I realized that Ender was on his way back into the center of the plot. But by not starting with him in the center, the format builds up the importance of other people and relationships in his life--a full life cannot be focused solely on itself. To think of Ender nearly alone, hiding his past for so many years breaks my heart. Then to see him finally finding a place to call home, that was heartbreakingly sweet.

This book had so much to take in, both emotionally and philosophically. Or socially and politically. The format, combining elements of mystery, allows the reader to go through the questioning process. You question who the different characters are and who the different groups of characters are, as well as how they might best interact. You question the impact the past has on the present and the responsibility of the individual. It's the story of life and death, war and peace, aloneness and community.

I found myself quickly making comparisons as I read to things like C.S. Lewis's The Space Trilogy, The Host, and Star Wars (isn't Ender a bit like a Jedi?). But as generalizations, these are of course useless. My point is that elements in this book reminded me of elements, whether having to do with setting or characters, that I have enjoyed in other stories. The Ender's Game series is dressed up in the sci-fi packaging I don't usually reach for, which is one thing that kept me from reading it for so long. But at its heart, it isn't so very foreign to me, after all. I may need a few more days to finish taking in this book before I move on to the next one.

I match the book to Michelle Chamuel's cover of "Somewhere Only We Know."

Friday, July 5, 2013

Nestle: Thin Mints Crunch Bar

They used to sell Girl Scouts cookies on campus sometimes; I almost bought a box once, until I got close enough to realize that they were $4 a box, which was more money than I had with me. Not that I had anything against the idea of giving $4 to Girl Scouts. But that's the thing, isn't it? When you buy a box of those cookies, you're donating more than you are purchasing. The Thin Mints are the most popular--and their quality is still in line with Little Debbie's, which are not $4. But they're still Thin Mints. We've all had them at some point and their association with child entrepreneurs makes them a bit of an American icon. Slightly. 

Now Nestle has paired up with the Girl Scouts, colliding their Crunch bar with the cookies. If someone offered me one of the other flavors, I would take it, but on my own I'm only interested in the Thin Mints variety. And I hope I don't disappoint any ex-Girl Scouts out there, but the Crunch bar version is better than the regular cookie version. Definitely.

Don't misunderstand me, there are still plenty of cheap ingredients in these candy bars, from hydrogenated palm kernel oil to artificial flavors (surprisingly to me, there is in fact a little natural mint flavor, as well). But they have more chocolate and more texture than the cookies, due in large part to their fatter size. The candy bar is somewhere around the thickness of a Snickers. There are about three dark wafer layers wrapped in chocolate. The top chocolate layer, as you can see, comes studded with crisped rice--that appears to be the only Crunch-inspired element. Rather than coming in one bar, each packet contains two pieces. You can share, save one for later, or just pretend that they're two rectangular cookies.

The wafers and crisped rice give airy crunch to the bar, and the (oily) chocolate keeps it sweet. Unless my memory fails me, the level of minty flavor matches the Thin Mint cookies: ever present without being strong. It all strikes me as a less dry version of the cookies.

You know, even when I was hungry, I couldn't eat more than just one of the pieces; they're sweet. So they're not something I would want to buy all the time if they weren't Limited Edition. But as a one-time novelty, they're interesting. Do you think Girl Scouts would sell more or less if, instead of cookie boxes, they had candy bars like this to sell?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

In Celebration

Forgive me if I do go overboard, but in celebration of the Fourth of July (Independence Day, that is), I'd like to go over a few memories from the past year. Let's start with images from last year:
Then there came the stormy monsoon season.
Along with a friendly visit to Fort Verde; this is one of the upstairs bedrooms.
Must not forget Sedona and its Red Rocks.
With Thanksgiving came a multitude of my favorite, turkeys. 
December brought cold and an evening trip to Prescott to walk around the Square and admire the lights on the Courthouse. 
February saw clear skies and a sprinkling of sunshine.
Spring Break took me to the enchanting Mission Inn in Riverside, CA.
We must not exclude a picture from Disneyland (California Adventure, actually). You're cool if you know where this picture was taken.
Visiting dinosaurs in the Discovery area of the Natural History Museum.
Saying goodbye to the outside of the main library at ASU.
While I'm at it, here's graduation.
That's enough of pictures of me. Here's a tiger at Out of Africa heading back to its habitat.
And here's a baby turkey.
Here it is a little older, in what I call the dinosaur stage (with chickens it's the alien stage).
And here's a different bird swimming in the ocean. 
Sunset Crater, up in Flagstaff. 
 Now let's finish with a branch reaching away from the obsidian and basalt encrusted earth toward the sky.
I promise, I'm done now. Happy Fourth.