Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Theo: Nutcracker Brittle

It makes sense to have Christmas chocolate bars versus other chocolate-based products. If you live in a big city, you can go buy wonderful truffles from a variety of shops. If you don't, you're stuck with what you can buy at grocery stores and other random places. And all of that has to be chocolate with a long shelf life--which automatically rules out decent truffles. So if a company wants to be nice and get some good Christmas chocolate out to us on the outskirts, they'd better make some of it into chocolate bars.

Last year, I spoke highly of Theo's Gingerbread Spice bar (click here for that review). The same store where I found that one had more of the holiday bars this year. I thought the peppermint one might be too close to a regular mint chocolate, so I chose the Nutcracker Brittle. I don't care for peanut brittle, but not to fear: this bar just has pieces of almonds, hazelnut, and sugar brittle scattered around. It's more like eating a nutty chocolate than peanut brittle, though the sugar brittle pieces do add a slightly different texture to it all. 

It's much the same story as last year. The presentation of this chocolate bar is about as close to a wrapped box of truffles as a chocolate bar can be (don't you like how nice it looks against the pretty Downton Abbey wrapping paper?). This would be a lovely mini gift or stocking stuffer. At 85 grams, it's a large chocolate bar, making it enough to share or to hoard. The chocolate is Theo's 70% dark, so it's a nice change away from all of the milk chocolate and sugary dark chocolates floating around during Christmas. It's real chocolate, but still dressed up as holiday fun. The sugar brittle pieces are just a few steps away from rock candy bits--not enough to interfere, but just enough to make you pause and enjoy them. Normally I don't chew dark chocolate, but it's fine with such a crunchy bar as this. 

And we must mention the good stuff, too. I'm fond of Theo because their chocolate is good and their company is aware of ethics. USDA Organic, Fair for Life, and Non-GMO Project Verified all apply here. Even the corn syrup is non-GMO, organic, and fair trade. The sugar is cane sugar and the vanilla is ground vanilla bean--not cutting corners here. 

That should cover it. Theo is good, and both of these holiday chocolate bars are good. Merry Christmas Eve, all. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Merry Christmas, Lions

Last October, I wrote about how much fun the Predator Zip Line at Out of Africa Wildlife Park is--and now I have gone for a second time. Now that I had done it before,  I found myself braver and more excited. Even though your reaction is to hesitate each time you have to jump off one of the towers, I didn't want to hesitate this time; I wanted to show that I wasn't scared of such a thing, which I really wasn't. But stepping out into nothing, that's still the hardest part. It's just odd, against the nature of self-preservation.

Then once you're flying, it's all good. Although I didn't try the full upside down bit, I did lean back and put my head upside down. To be flying through the air and see the horizon (with the Red Rocks of Sedona, no less) upside down is really quite the experience. The lions were also more active this time, which made it all more fun. They were making their territorial yowling sounds (I can't say roaring because it isn't roaring--it's more like an "auuggghh" sound). As I mentioned last time, you zip from tower to tower, so while you're waiting you can watch the animals under you. Sometimes you actually get a better view of them from the view on the ground. I was watching a lioness play with a cardboard box, walking around with it like a cat. The baby grizzly, Sycamore, was digging in his water tub. He's the height of adorable. 

The last tower is where you race, with the lines running right next to each other. I was on the line that ran right over one of the lions, Josiah, where he was basking in the sun. So as I was jumping off, he was almost right in front of me. It's kind of funny, jumping into the arms of a lion. I think he was watching the races, deciding who would be the most delicious. (No, not really: he was enjoying the day too much to care about us.) You can see him below me there in the picture.

This really is quite an attraction. Now that they're keeping the groups smaller, it doesn't take quite as long to move through, which makes it all nicer. No getting thirsty, no wishing for a restroom break, and people who are visiting from out of town can still have time to visit the park itself. I feel so cool now that I've gone twice.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Let the Ring Go

Since I don't think I'll be able to watch the final installment of The Hobbit until after Christmas, I am much consoled because The Hillywood Show's newest parody also came out yesterday. That's right, they've finally realized their dream to do The Lord of the Rings. Like their Pirates of the Caribbean Parody last year came full circle because they used to work a lot with Jack Sparrow's character, the LOTR parody also finishes things off: before they ever started the show, Hilly and Hannah put together a big production of LOTR over months. Now they get to come back to the trilogy with more resources and their current parody approach.

The Lord of the Rings is hard because it has so many characters, costumes, sets, and scenes. I had no idea how they would approach it, so I didn't even guess at much beforehand. Now that the video is out, it's very smart. Taking the tune from "Let It Go" from Frozen and rewriting the lyrics to come from Sam's perspective (mostly in Mordor) narrows the field while also getting right at the heart of the story. Sam is the main focus of LOTR the way that Darth Vader is the main focus of the original Star Wars trilogy: he's the one who helps make happen the events that really need to happen. So it makes absolute sense to focus on Sam. 

On the first watch, this video reminded me somewhat of Hillywood's Breaking Dawn (Part 1) Parody (which remains their most-viewed parody). There is humor, some parodying, but also a love of the material. That's a winning combination that is also very Hillywood. It's silly to combine Frozen with Middle-earth, yet the combination also works so perfectly to express the theme of letting go of what drags you down, of what you do not need. Bartok's appearance as Gollum is hilariously lovely, and everywhere there is such detail in costumes and other visuals. Hilly as Sam and Hannah as Frodo both gave great performances; there is such momentum in this parody. It's reliving what's important about this story--in a light and wonderful way. 

There is one 45 minute behind the scenes video, with another (I'm guessing shorter) one on the way. After watching the behind the scenes, go back and watch the parody again. And again. And then again, for good measure. Then make your friends watch it. Ah, I love The Hillywood Show.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Merry Christmas Carol

Oh, I do love watching things live. Plays and such. And ever since I watched their production of Pygmalion in, oh, 2008, I think, I've had a bit of a crush on the Southwest Shakespeare Company. The problem is, I still don't watch very many of their productions. (I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream earlier this year, but it seems I didn't post on it.) I have, for instance, been wanting to watch A Christmas Carol from the first year they started it. Was that four years ago? Or only three? Then, finally, this year was the year.

A Christmas Carol is kind of like Romeo and Juliet--it's done so much, in so many different ways and with so many references to it, that it is sometimes overdone. But it's unlike it in this way: I think more people get at the essence of A Christmas Carol. Maybe it's just because Charles Dickens has a more direct message and Shakespeare is more up for interpretation. So Dickens created a story that has become so very familiar--and yet still so very touching.

Southwest Shakespeare had an interesting production. It was traditional and simple in a heartwarming way. I think it ran for about an hour and a half, so of course it's abridged, but still with all of the basic scenes. The main angle that this play took was music. The actors enter as carolers--which makes for a nice play on the title of the story. They sing several songs throughout the course of the play, whether in the context of the story or again as introductions or during transitions. Not just live acting, but also live singing. Though they're traditional Christmas songs, still I had to admire that these actors sing so much better than I ever will. The music added an extra touch of life to it all.

Ah, why don't I see more plays. What's so nice is getting to see a story that you know unfold right in front of you, to experience it anew, to see it happen. It's heartbreaking all over again to see how Scrooge has treated the son of his sister he loved so much; it's endearing to see the Cratchit family interacting; it's horrifying to see what the future can be. And it's so very uplifting to see how happiness and joy can come back into life and back into people's relationships.

To all of the cast and crew, thank you for the Merry, Merry Christmas Carol.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Hope in the Mockingjay

It was Thanksgiving; we were all sitting around the house, thinking that maybe it would be nice to go see a movie the next day. The Hunger Games is out; yeah, let's go watch The Hunger Games. Although I would have been perfectly happy to wait until it was out on DVD, I went with the flow. So I found myself watching part 1 of Mockingjay on Black Friday.

I've referred before to my general distaste for dystopia and my mixed, often lukewarm feelings toward the first two installments in The Hunger Games. Basically, I felt like there is already so much violence and so much that is negative in the world, that why do you want to create even more in fiction? I found it all draining. Basically. But I knew that when fiction shows horrible things happening, it's to counter it with characters who are persevering through all that and rising above it. And I knew people were saying that the books show more of the thoughts Katniss has during all of these events--which can certainly change how you look at something happening.

It wasn't until this third movie, though, that I began to see all that for myself. This movie was kind of poignant, something I hadn't been expecting. This movie, with as much if not more horrible events happening, actually felt less sad to me: it was about the arising of hope. Hope. That wonderful, invincible thing that can turn around any amount of chaos. This time I saw more of what Katniss was thinking; I felt closer to the inside of her head. While we'd seen her family and friends before, this time we spent more time with them and really saw what they all mean to each other.

And I like the hesitancy Katniss has towards being part of or endorsing the rebellion. It reminds me of something in The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak (non-fiction). This young man was in the Lodz Ghetto in Nazi Europe; he was very intelligent and bright. So he when he came into contact with some sort of resistance group (I forget what it was called), they wanted him to join and he wanted to also--but he didn't want to agree that, if called for, he would give his life for the cause. To him, that was contradictory to what they were trying to do: survive. That kind of reminds me of Katniss, who wants to survive and wants what's best for her family and her friends, but doesn't want to be part of a big, violent undertaking. I like that a story can show that hesitancy instead of just focusing on the rebel/resistance spirit.

A picture of hope arising. That's what this movie was to me. And you know what? While I now people of different ages read these books, I've always felt too old to read them. (I obviously don't feel too old to read children's books, but I like to keep YA to a minimum.) And then once I watched the first two movies, I didn't feel any need to read them. But now I'm tempted. I really want to see how the story finishes. I was so wrapped up in this movie; it was like an eternal moment that I didn't want to end. But as much as I'm tempted, I don't think I will read the books: this story has only exited on screen for me. If I start mixing film and text while I'm still in the middle of it, I think you lose something of the uniqueness of each form. Each form is best when it can stand on its own, undistracted by the other.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fearless Chocolate: Midnight

You know, sometimes that's just how the world tumbles. There I was, all set to give a pretty positive review of this chocolate bar when I took a moment to first visit their website. And what do I find there? News, from one week ago, that the company has had to close down due to funding issues. Well, that will make my review more glum. I can't exactly recommend a chocolate that you won't be able to buy for much longer. So if Fearless Chocolate never returns, then what I will be doing is saying what I think worked about this particular bar of chocolate.

There were I think around three Fearless bars on the shelf. I'd never heard of the company, so I wanted to try something, but they were mostly superfood-type chocolates. I have absolutely nothing against eating healthy, believe me, but I don't like to eat foods just because they're trendy--or superfood. Cabbage is healthy and tasty, thank you very much. And chocolate is mighty tasty on its own, without the addition of weird ingredients to try and make it healthy. So I ignored the flavored bars for the plain one. At 75% cacao, it's a dark chocolate of average cocoa percentage. Interesting to note, though, is that the other ingredient is cane sugar. That's right, no vanilla. Most chocolate has vanilla. So if a company can pull off a great-tasting chocolate without vanilla, then their chocolate making process has things right.

This chocolate is bean to bar, organic, and fair trade, made with cacao from family farms in the Mata-Atlantica rainforests of Bahia, Brazil. The company is based out of Berkeley, California. The outer card box is made of 100% recycled material, and with its simple, matte coloring, it gives off that cool hippie vibe. But once you start unwrapping, there's more color, both on the inside flap of the box and on the chocolate's clear wrapper. They're like psychedelic, flying elephants--that colorful sequence in Dumbo meets Greek mythology. 

The colorfulness continues onto the chocolate bar, though in a plain shade of brown. The chocolate squares are covered in stars of different sizes and one elephant towards the bottom--this time, for some reason, without wings. The bite mark out of the top the portion of proceeds the company donates to help make a better world. All admirable, but given that the company just closed, perhaps they needed more focus on their own income instead of giving donations? After all, just by promoting ethical and sustainable chocolate, you're already helping make a better world without putting donations on top of that. 

From the aroma of this chocolate, I was putting it somewhere in the same range as the Dark Chocolate Lover's Bar from Trader Joe's--you know, the one that kind of has those marshmallow notes coming out of the dark. But, really, there's a lot more going on than that. As you begin to taste, berry notes come in and the flavor becomes so tender. There was just a moment where I felt like the texture was a tad grainy, but that quickly faded; I read later that Fearless used a "low temperature environment" so perhaps if the chocolate was refined and melted at a lower temperature, that would explain any slight graininess. Going back to taste, there is no bitterness in this chocolate. Those berry notes hint at what I call brownie richness, nice and warm, although there is also something cool about the flavor of this bar. It really does have a layering of flavors. It's nice. I would recommend it if you still see it for sale anywhere.

I have one final point to ponder. If anyone watched the EAT: The Story of Food documentary series recently, you'll recall something they said during the section about beer. Someone on there said that beer was the only product that you can be knowledgeable about, etc. without being snobby. That's true. There is wine snobbery. Bread snobbery. Steak snobbery. And chocolate snobbery. That's why I always try and tell people that the best kind of chocolate is the kind that you enjoy best, though I do also encourage them to taste different kinds of chocolate so that they can see what's out there and find what they ultimately do like best, apart from what marketing tells them they should like. I don't want to be a chocolate snob. I just don't like Hershey's chocolate anymore. I just can't stand overpriced, cheap chocolate when there are such amazing chocolate products out there. 

All of this brings me back to the image I got from this one bar of Fearless chocolate. The hippie outer shell, the colorful inside. There's nothing snobby about it--and there isn't much gourmet about it. It's rustic in some ways, silly in others. It's casual. It's approachable. Yeah, they mention their ethics, but they don't shove them down your throat. Yeah, it's great tasting chocolate, but it comes in a simple, matte card box. Gourmet in taste yet approachable in design. Goodness knows I love Amano with their amazing chocolate bars in glossy boxes, but nothing needs to be like that. We could use more chocolate like this. Fearless chocolate may be gone, but they understood many of the important facets of chocolate making.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Star Wars Trailer

You know, that's pretty good timing for my generation. People who were young when the original Star Wars trilogy came out say they grew up with it, but think about this. I'm guessing I was around five when my family bought the VHS set of the original trilogy; I watched the prequel trilogy between the ages of eight and fourteen; and this new trilogy (what are we going to call it besides "the new trilogy?") will come out while I am in my twenties. That's growing up with Star Wars.

I like how they had the first trailer for Episode VII come out on Black Friday, when families might still be gathered together. My first declaration was that I loved all the sand. I have a fondness for Tatooine, the landscape and the colors and the double-sided sense of home. You think of Star Wars and (setting-wise) you don't just think of space, you also think of Tatooine. So to see all that sand, that was exciting for me. The Millennium Falcon at the end was also exciting, though at the same time as I was excited, I was trying to convince myself that I had no reason to be excited: additions to a series can include new things, too, not just the familiar and comforting things.

But you know what was also the best thing about this trailer, besides the sand? Its mere existence. We've been hearing about Episode VII for a while now, but it's finally becoming something tangible. It comes out one year from now, and that's a length of time I can comprehend. Seeing the first glimpse at the footage is like finally receiving acknowledgement that this movie does exist, that all the stories about its filming are true--that it is real. It is coming. The excitement is awakening. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Till We Have Faces

Most people seem to still think of C.S. Lewis mainly as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia. As loved, however, as those books are and as much as I care for them, they are not always considered his best and he did write many other books, both fiction and non-fiction. The Space Trilogy is pretty good and so is The Screwtape Letters, but (other than some articles and things) those are the only other of his books I've read. It was time, I decided, to broaden out. I had heard amazing things about Till We Have Faces, that it's his best book and a life-changing book and such, so Till We Have Faces it was.

For some books, timing matters greatly. For some books, it seems that you loved them so much because you read them at exactly the time that you needed to read them. Your reaction to a book can be very different depending on what age you are, what you're going through at the moment, or simply where you are in life. I find myself wondering if I read Till We Have Faces at the wrong time. Did I read it too old? Or too young? Why, my question is, didn't it touch me so deeply as it did for other people?

As you can see from the cover, it is "A Novel of Cupid and Psyche." The title page calls it "A Myth Retold." You probably know this myth: Cupid marries Psyche but only lets her see him at night in the dark, so she brings a lamp one night and is struck by how beautiful he is because he's a god, but then he is angered that she disobeyed him, etc. I kind of wondered, before reading, what this story had to do with C.S. Lewis. But he tells it from the perspective of Psyche's sister, Orual. (C.S. Lewis writing from a woman's perspective? Weird--this is the first person I've come across it, not counting the brief moments from girls' perspectives in Narnia.)

For most of the book, you know that something is coming, something to contrast with everything Orual has been saying. Because you know she is wrong. At least, you know she must be partially wrong--it's just hard to see how wrong. She has doubts about this god that has taken her sister, about all the gods that her people and other people believe in. The bulk of the book is about her doubts, about her struggle to live her life after her sister is taken from her. And then, almost at the end, comes the contrast (if you haven't read it yet, I'll leave you to experience it for yourself). 

And I get that. I get how, when you understand and see and accept the truth, it changes everything. Your whole life before, you understand how that was twisted or in darkness or whatever else. And I love what the title of this book expresses. That concept, which you don't get until the end, is wonderful. Till we have faces. It's very good. The answer that is in itself complete. That's very good. I like it. But the book as a whole? I don't know. I keep pausing over it.

It took me longer than I'd expected to read. I moved slowly. I didn't always know why there was so much page length devoted to certain things. I wanted to get to the part I could contemplate. Why do I feel this way? (Let's also take a moment to acknowledge that, whatever great things people who've read it say about it, it's never been his most popular book.) Maybe it's the kind of book that you do just need to read slowly and rethink from time to time, reread every so often. And maybe, the very fact that I'm pausing over it instead of just saying that it was a wonderful book means that it was a good book. If it has you thinking, that's success. And maybe the structure of this book is how life is: there is bulk beforehand that we don't always want to sit through or we don't always understand its place, and then when we know the truth, all the repetition or confusion and such all fade away. Till we have faces. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

November Favorites

1) Huntington Rose Tea - When I was at the Huntington Library earlier this month, we had lunch in their tea room. I do love tea . . . and little sandwiches . . . and little desserts . . . and more tea. I tried out the rose tea because the tea room is in the rose garden and also because I knew that they sell the rose tea in the gift shop, so I wanted to test it out and see if I liked it. What makes this tea nice is that it has a black tea base. Sometimes floral teas are too lofty or too sweet, but the black tea base keeps this one grounded. It has the sweetness of roses but nothing more; it's a perfect summer tea (or maybe winter tea, too, since it's almost winter?). Absolutely elegant.

2) Green Glasses - I've had frameless glasses for, oh, three or four years now at least. Although I was used to them now, it's hard to find frameless glasses when thick plastic frames are so in style. So I figured I would go back to plastic, and if I went back to plastic, I might as well go all the way. I told the person helping me I was looking for black or brown frames but when she showed me a pair of green frames that were also available in black, I kind of liked the green. So if I ever liked to add green accents to my wardrobe, I really do now: I always feel like I need a second touch of green to help balance out the glasses. I also feel like I need bright color on my lips.

3) Mini Notebooks - These were from the Arboretum. They were so adorable that in my weakness for notebooks, I decided I didn't need to choose between designs: I could get them all. So I did.

4) Cameo Barrette - Another one of my random antique store finds, this barrette was ten dollars and probably not worth anything more than that. But I figure, a pretty barrette at Anthropologie will cost thirty dollars, so this was a nice little buy. Somehow with my new glasses, I often like to put up the top half of my hair, and that means that I can definitely use another barrette.

5) Food Poems Book - My second buy at the Huntington Library, this book just called to me. Everyone knows food writing these days can be incredibly lush, but what about poems about food from any era? Some of these are quite old, some are newer, some are short, some are longer, some are about simple foods, and some are about elaborate eatings. It's just a fun collection.

6) Yellow Sweater Tunic - I actually got this one last year at Anthropologie, but this time of year is the right weather for it. I don't know what it's called, so I call it a sweater tunic. It's a loose and chunky knit with short sleeves that comes down almost halfway to my knees (then again, it is a size small and I'm usually extra small, so maybe it's meant to come a little higher). I wear it with leggings and usually with long sleeves underneath. It's comfy for wearing at home (so much better than sweats--yuck) and also a pretty piece of clothing if you wear it out.

7) Mrs. Patmore's Pudding Tea - I know, I know, I say I don't like Downton Abbey all that much, yet I buy all their teas. But I love tea; you know this. They had three last year, and I think there are about four new ones this year. I love vanilla in tea, so this one was perfect for me. It also has caramel and blackberry leaves and carob, which gives it kind of an earthy sweetness. It's really delicious.

8) Scarves - I'm not a huge scarf person, but I do own a few scarves. Usually I have to remind myself to wear them. Usually I don't wear them on days when I'm just going to be at home. But guess what I just realized? Scarves keep you warmer. Even thin scarves. So if the weather is just close to being cold, I can wear a scarf instead of a sweater when I'm inside. Or a scarf instead of a thicker jacket.

9) Holiday Spice Tea - Given that there are fifty tea bags in here, I'm going to be hard-pressed to finish it before Christmas. It's basically a black tea base with apples and cinnamon (there are also cloves and licorice. Sort of a hot apple cider version of tea. I like it, but sometimes all the spices end up tasting so sweet to me that I have to add in a little (almond) milk to take the edge off.

10) Quilted Pillow & Cushion - I had been eyeing these at World Market for a while, until I finally got them for setting in front of my little TV. The height's perfect. And when I'm not using them, they sit in front of my new bookcase.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Christmas Music

Even though I profess so much love of Thanksgiving to be talking of Christmas before Thanksgiving is over, Thanksgiving always comes paired with the following Friday, which is the day that I decorate for Christmas. And to decorate for Christmas, you have to have your Christmas playlist ready. I have had the same playlist for a while, so this year I decided it was time to get a little new music. Here is most of the old and new:
  • Winter Magic by Hayley Westenra - Sometimes when classical artists put out a Christmas album, it ends up sounding sad: they try and show their vocal ability, so they songs end up slower and hence more sorrowful in tone. But Hayley has a nice Christmas album. It's mostly traditional albums with a few lesser sung ones and a couple of originals. Her vocals are beautiful and smooth but also happy.
  • Noel by Josh Groban - Josh is more pop crossover than classical, but when his Christmas album came out several years ago, it felt like the first time I was hearing these familiar songs sung well. He stayed with more of a traditional, decorative approach to this album that suits Christmas. It's also a generally good selection of songs.
  • Holiday EP by Blondfire - Having these two classical Christmas albums, it was a little different or me to get an indie pop selection, but I was a big fan of Blondfire (I still am, just maybe not as much of all their newer music). And these four songs have made a nice addition: they're soft and cool like a snowy evening, with a touch of vintage style. They're all, I believe, original songs, which means there are less repeats of the usuals.
  • "Do You Hear What I Hear" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" by Flyleaf - I also really like Flyleaf, so I have both of their Christmas singles. A little more of a rock sound here, which, again, differs from the crowd. But at the same time, a new approach to a regular song is good.
  • "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" by Norah Jones - This (along with the following two songs) was a free download from iTunes. Although I don't usually listen to Norah Jones, she does have a talent for singing. Her rendition of this song is clear and classic.
  • "Christmas in the Room" by Sufjan Stevens - This song has a soft, slightly bittersweet sound that makes for a quiet, in-between moment.
  • "Twinkling Lights" by Office Romance - More upbeat, this one's just a random glitzy, indie pop type of sound. 
  • "Silent Night" by Forte - Included on their first album, this song from Forte has a completely classical sound, soft and strong with clear vocals.
  • "All I Want for Christmas Is You" by Alex & Sierra - Back to pop, we also come back to the casual, upbeat, glowing sound.
  • Campfire Christmas by Rend Collective - These last four items are my new additions this year. Opening up iTunes, I decided to take a look at this newly-released album--and promptly loved the spirit of it. It's celebratory. Absolutely celebratory. It's a lot of recognizable Christmas songs with a couple of new ones, but everything feels new. The arrangements are so unique and specific, and everything celebrates everything that is wonderful about Christmas. It's one of the best Christmas albums I've come across. This is Christmas joy and Christmas spirit.
  • Into the Silent Night - EP by KING & COUNTRY - I'd never heard of this group, either, but their album has a nice mix of a slight rock sound within the Christmasness without going overboard. Two regular songs and two new ones. 
  • "Mary Did You Know" by Kutless - I kind of wanted to get one of their Christmas songs, but most of them either felt like repetitions of what I already had or just not interesting enough in sound. Since I like this song, it was the one I went with. More of a rock sound again.
  • "Away in a Manger" and "I Wish You Christmas" by Katherine Jenkins - Now back to classical. Strangely enough, I came across Katherine Jenkins years ago when I was listening to a lot of classical and classical crossover--but I thought she wasn't the best singer. Then I watched her in that Doctor Who Christmas special from a couple years ago and was amazed at how beautiful her voice sounded. I guess it's been several years since I first listened to her, so she probably has continued with voice lessons, as any good singer does. Anyway, I had to pick out a couple of songs from her Christmas album. They're rich and melodious.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Thanksgiving Stories

I love Thanksgiving and while I realize that part of the fun of Thanksgiving is that it ushers in the Christmas season, I do wish that there were more specific Thanksgiving offerings available. Turkeys to decorate with, cards to send out, movies to watch. The problem with the few Thanksgiving stories out there, though, is that they're mostly the same: some sort of problem arises as Thanksgiving day is looming but the characters make up with their families just in time for dinner. Okay, family and eating are a big part of the holiday, but what about stories that aren't specifically Thanksgiving but still touch on the broader themes of the holiday? In no particular order . . .

1) Little House on the Prairie - I throw this one into every category because it's always so perfect. But whether we're talking about the one book, the whole series, or the TV show, it has the same concepts. Family, very good friends, new relationships with new people, hard work bringing in results, and complete and utter thankfulness for the things that are good.

2) Silas Marner - This is an odd choice since the story is British and the time is the 19th century, but this story has a very striking illustration of familial love. Silas loved money until it was stolen from him and he found the child Eppie in his house, choosing to adopt her and coming to love her. She, too, cares for him--enough to refuse the offer of a wealthy social standing that eventually comes from her biological father.

3) Pretty much every reference to food in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - If ever there were people grateful for food, it's those on long travels with dwindling supplies. Or hobbits--or hobbits on long travels. Whether it's a feast in Rivendell, a homely bounty in Bag End, lembas on the road, or provisions from Faramir's company, food in these stories is always accompanied by thankfulness and a great relish. Oh, yes, and the bond among the people who are breaking bread together.

4) A Little Princess - Sara has a true Thanksgiving spirit. She begins wealthy--and very sociable. But not only does she make friends with the other girls in the school (including those on the bottom of the ladder), she also befriends Becky, the maid. When she's in this higher position, she shares food with Becky--even once Sara loses everything and is starving herself, she still shares food with others. And she keeps up spirit, for herself and for Becky. That's friendship and appreciation.

5) Little Women - I suppose if I put Little House on the Prairie and A Little Princess on here, then Little Women has to come, too. Basically all the same things I said there hold true here--friendship, family, giving out of both plenty and poverty, and thankfulness.

These were the completely random first five stories I thought of, so I'm sure there are plenty more. But my point is, let's think about Thanksgiving as we celebrate it. Let's get excited. Let's remember it as a coming together of people, of a time of bounty and accompanying thankfulness, of sharing what is good, and of rejoicing in what is good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Albert's Candy: Gothic Chocolate Rose

I realize that, while I bought this chocolate rose on Halloween, it is now more than halfway through November. It's Turkey Time, with Christmas just around the corner; Halloween is now nothing more than a passing fancy. But I did want to put this rose down in the records, even if I'm a little late with it.

It's from Albert's Candy, a name which does not sound at all familiar to me. It's a single black stem with one chocolate rose wrapped in black foil. It's called a Gothic Chocolate Rose, and it comes with a place for To/From so that, I suppose, you can give it as a gift like a real rose. The clear sleeve that carries the label acts like the sleeve that would carry a rose--in fact, it's a nice effect, which is why I picked it up to begin with. I had thought that I might carry it around, a single black rose, during the evening. But I was busy eating candy and people-watching and going out to dinner and all that sort of thing, so the rose remained lonely. 

I've mentioned that I was out of town Halloween weekend, so I had half expected this rose to not survive the return journey very well. I was mistaken. Undamaged it remains, and might I add that it is fairly well molded for a casual candy novelty. The 18 ounce rose is lovely, perhaps even lovelier than a real long stem rose (I prefer freshly picked, full blooms--the long stem kind have always looked fake to me). And you know what's also so nice about this small rose? You can enjoy it for the novelty without being left with a large amount of cheap chocolate. Eighteen ounces is small enough that you probably won't get sick of it before you're done. Maybe this sounds silly, but I am entirely in earnest.

It's also true, though, that this chocolate isn't the worst in the world--especially when it comes to novelty chocolate. Sometimes there's too much focus on the play and not enough on the taste. This chocolate isn't loaded with grease and even has some slight berry notes to go with the usual caramel/vanilla flavor. The rose is, of course, hollow--wouldn't want to be breaking teeth. Once it's gone, you're left with nothing but a black stem, but you know what? This chocolate rose was fun.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Turkeys Approach

It is the Month of the Turkeys . . . and nothing could please me more.

Throwing turkeys around is like happiness. They're all over my new bookcase, even this little lollipop turkey that proclaims everywhere that it is 100% edible (because, frankly, I suppose they're right in thinking that it doesn't look all that edible).

The blue turkey puppet (Did I get it in Santa Fe or San Diego? It was some years ago) sits atop the TARDIS. Blue on blue.

I try to improve each Thanksgiving, to get more excited or to create even more of an event. Last year I tried making stuffing for the first time without a box mix--it took longer, but it was so worth it (and, frankly, not even hard). This year I started bemoaning the lack of bread selection. It might have been possible to order someone coming from more of a city area to bring rolls, but I wanted to choose them. So it came to the next option: try making them. I tried out the recipe yesterday (it's this one from Martha Stewart), and it turned out right. I've always been afraid of yeast (yes, from just one bad experience trying to bake), but this was fun. Such a soft and light dough that I didn't even mind kneading it. 

So today's lunch? One roll filled with some leftover steak and another roll filled with thinly sliced cucumber, all served on my turkey plate. I wasn't exaggerating when I said I had a lot of turkeys around.

The Day of the Turkeys doth approach.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Walking Dead Parody

I'm usually quicker when it comes to The Hillywood Show. But it feels like everything has been off this time. 

First, they announced that their next parody would be based on The Walking Dead. I know it's a popular show, but I've never watched it. Still, this wouldn't be the first time I watch something just for Hillywood--I had been telling everyone I'd get to Doctor Who eventually, but it wasn't until the time in between Hillywood's announcement and their DW parody that I finally watched the 2005-2013 episodes. Although TWD never interested in me, I vaguely thought I would watch at least one episode before the parody. But I've been busy, so time went by until Monday, when this came out:

Trouble is, I started getting sick over the weekend (and as is often the case, I know who got me sick--you know who you are). And Monday was my worst day. I was watching Tangled and getting very sleepy--but the parody was out when the movie was over. So I opened my laptop to watch, said, oh, that's nice, and then closed my laptop and fell asleep. Not the gratitude Hillywood deserves.

I still haven't watched the two behind the scenes videos, over an hour of footage that I'm sure is wonderful, as usual. It feels strange to talk about the parody without having seen the extra footage. And it's also strange to talk about a parody whose source material I've never seen. It feels like that hasn't happened with Hillywood in a while--though it's only technically been since their Warm Bodies Parody last year. And that was another zombie one. Coincidence? But that parody had such a perfect storyline of its own that it wasn't really necessary to have seen the movie first. 

This parody is a little different. I understand that it has different moments from the show, but it also has less of a storyline. It's more about setting than events. The characters, the type of situation going on, the places. So that's easy to follow if you haven't watched the show. And what stands out right away with this video is sleekness. Perhaps the new partnership with Nerdist is paying off because while Hillywood's always been sleek, it's even more so this time. And the slow-motion on the dances, that just fit so well and looked so good. 

While Hilly's played plenty of male characters and has had some amazing makeup, her character here is so fully put together that it did take me a moment to realize it was her--and I'm always expecting her to be in a new video. I'm always looking to see who she'll be, and as good as the makeup and acting are, I can always tell. But this time it did take me a moment. 

So I'm still not really interested in watching The Walking Dead. Funnily enough, the very parody that could have been reason enough for me to watch the show has also half convinced me that it isn't the type of thing I want to watch. I'm so strange. Anyway, though, this was another polished video from The Hillywood Show.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tracking Books or Reading?

I've been asked if I have a Goodreads account and after passing the website by for some time, I've finally decided to try it out. But it's odd: I'm not a social media guru and so I wonder if I'll even end up doing anything with my Goodreads account.

That is, I've started adding my books. I have about 244 up--and that is nowhere near all of them. You can have a look, if you like: click here to see my page. Given how much I like organizing my physical books, I'll probably also enjoy organizing all the titles online. But I don't like the five star rating system much (whether toward food or books or whatever else): my opinion is always more complicated than that, and so much of Goodreads seems to be based on the stars you give to each book.

Or maybe it's more about setting reading goals and finding new things to read. But I like to read at whatever pace I feel like at the moment, and I already have plenty of books that I want to read, so I don't really need to find anything new. Or it could be about talking with other readers and with authors. But there, again, we come to the social media question. Sure, social media's great, but I'd rather talk to someone in person about what I'm reading. Typing it all out in an online conversation, well, that's different.

Maybe I hesitate because to me, reading is such a personal thing. I like to read whatever falls into my hands, not whatever is popular. Maybe a book I read referenced another one--so I'll read that. Or I enjoyed one book by an author, so I want to read the rest. Or I find a book at a museum shop. Or I'm browsing the bookstore and something calls out to me. Whatever way, they're books that I've made some sort of connection with before even reading them. If it's just a title that was recommended to me by a website, then that connection is lost. If it's just something popular that other people with my tastes are reading, then maybe I'll like it, but then I also feel like my opinion isn't my own anymore.

But I guess not everyone uses their Goodreads account so often and so extensively. Maybe I will like it as an online catalogue, as a quick place to compare thoughts on books. But will I end up using it, or simply wander away after a while?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

An Abundance of Gardens

I was in California for a couple of days, and while I was there, there was a bit of time that was free. Given that the weather was (mostly) nice, it was the perfect time to be outdoors. So it turned into the time of gardens: the Arboretum, the Huntington Library, and Arlington Gardens.

I've been to the Arboretum innumerable times. While some people who grew up in Southern California say Disneyland was like their park, my family never had annual passes. We would go to Disneyland, but not as often as that. So the Arboretum was my park: eating oranges in the groves, playing hide and seek among the trees, walking through the bamboo paths. It's a gorgeous place, but somehow also casual. And did I mention the peacocks? They're everywhere and very used to people being around. This time, I saw one with her two babies.

The Huntington Library I actually have many less memories of. And the last time I went was, oh, probably at least ten years ago, maybe more. Besides the gardens, there is also art--and the famous library itself. Those types of things I wasn't as interested in when I was younger: I had less context for them. But this time it was exciting. Ooo, there's a Corot painting here. Ah, yes, I can see Fuseli's style in these images, even though I'm not sure if I've seen them before. Look, those paintings were on one of my textbooks. My, these paintings are so old--hundreds of years old. Wow, they have a Gutenberg Bible here. Look, a letter from Mark Twain. And that's Shakespeare's first folio. 

Not to diminish the gardens, here I give one of my favorite of the roses, a merry yellow called Golden Fleece. 

After viewing all of these grand gardens, Arlington Garden in Pasadena was completely different. It's a little nook not far from Old Town. It's free, so it's more like a park, somewhere you can just walk into. The garden is younger than the others and less formal. There are benches and tables for sitting or reading. The plants vary somewhat, trees and bushes and flowers and plants chosen for their heartiness in climates with little water. Visiting this place was like going to Beatrix Potter's garden, like receiving a way to apply gardens to your own home. While the Huntington Library's gardens are grand, we can't all have gardens like that. So visiting all three places was like going full circle through beauty and nature and culture and fun and applicability. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Clever Candy: Halloween Milk Chocolate

I wish I were going to get a free bag full of candy tomorrow . . . in costume, I could probably pass for under twelve, anyway, right? I should do that sometime, pretend I'm eleven and go trick-or-treating. Since, however, acting half my age is not in my plan for tomorrow, I have to get my own candy. One bar of chocolate that has come into my ownership is this milk chocolate from Clever Candy, distributed by Nassau Candy.

While the paper wrapper is standard Halloween fare, I'm pausing over the tagline at the bottom: "Milk chocolate to share with your dark side." On Chocablog, we used to talk about the Dark Side in reference to (usually very dark) dark chocolate. So maybe that's why it sounds odd to me to talk about the dark side in reference to milk chocolate. But I think what the line is supposed to mean is that it's sweet chocolate to bring out your good side and banish away the bad/dark side. A cute-style approach to Halloween.

The chocolate is a lovely bar of ten smooth squares. While the vanilla is artificial (why? why?), there aren't any added oils and such. It's perhaps less melty and greasy than Hershey's, but fairly akin in flavor. Those sweet caramel notes are there, but maybe accompanied by a little more of a nutty flavor than you get with Hershey's. 

Yes, it's still sweet and it's still candy before chocolate, but it's okay. It's okay as my version of Halloween candy since no one is going to be giving away a free bagful to me.

October Favorites

1) Green Purse - Another present, this purse is my oft-chosen accent color, green. Green leather, that is. It's a basic rectangular shape without frills, so that means that while it isn't quite as huge as some purses, it is big enough to hold a water bottle, a book, and a sweater all at once. It's like a miniature suitcase. Let the green take over.

2) Book Cradle - I know I'm probably a few decades too young to own one of these, but I've wanted one since college. I used to read while eating a lot (you have to when you have so many literature classes), and I still often do just because it's a nice time to pick up a book. But most books don't stay open on their own and you don't want to get food all over them, hence the book cradle to hold your book open for you while you read.

3) Dinosaur Earrings - The label called them pterodactyls, but I think they look more like pterosaurs. Either way, they're perfect. Vintage silver makes them good quality in addition to the quirky, unique style. This would be my third piece of dinosaur jewelry.

4) Chocolate Necco Wafers - Such a messy-looking picture of the corner of my desk. As you can see, in the bowl where I keep my chalk, some chalky Necco wafers also dwell. They're wonderful little things to keep at a desk.

5) Outremer Vanille Perfume - I have this brand's Rose perfume, which I love. I also tend to like vanilla, so why not get their vanilla scent, too? I may end up using it more as a room spray than a perfume, but it smells lovely. It smells just like Main St., USA in Disneyland--like nostalgia and candy and happiness.

6) Disney Vile Villains Jelly Beans - Last year, I think I got the Evil Queen packet; this year I chose Hook and Maleficent. I pretended they were decorations for most of the month, and now it is time to eat them. I do love candy.

7) Barr-Co. Honeysuckle Perfume - I also love perfume, apparently, though five years ago I didn't own a single bottle. The label says it's "honeysuckle nectar and herbaceous greens," but I wouldn't say it's a single scent Honeysuckle perfume the way that Outremer makes the Rose perfume. It feels like there's another floral scent in here besides honeysuckle, something that makes it less sweet and a little more, maybe woodsy? Still very pleasant.

8) Selfie - I don't watch a lot of (modern) comedies, but I had been seeing the commercials for Selfie and since I'd watched so much of Karen Gillan on Doctor Who, I thought I'd watch an episode just to see what it was like. Turns out, I kind of look forward to seeing it each week. It's quirky and cute and also thoughtful, commenting on social media/technology and social interaction. I love that it takes some inspiration from Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady, the botched-up musical version), a play with which I was rather obsessed for a while.

9) Carol's Daughter Cupuacu Blow Dry Cream - I used to use the Chocolat blow dry cream, but now it's only available online. It would seem, though, that this one is basically the same. It looks the same, smells the same, and works the same. Since I have such long hair, it only makes sense to use something to help protect it--and make the blow drying go a little bit faster. And since it's Carol's Daughter, the ingredients are a little more natural than with other brands.

10) Verona Six-Shelf Bookcase - I had been without a bookcase for years. Finally I made it a priority to get one, though of course one case is not nearly big enough for all my books. This one is from World Market, and it's a pretty good price/quality ratio. Though it comes with some sort of finish, it is at least some kind of solid wood. It's tall and wide, with six shelves (sometimes shelves of this size only have four). I had forgotten how nice it is to actually have books in a case.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Just One Last Comment

Click for my thoughts on Just One Day and its sequel, Just One Year.

For the most part, I enjoyed Gayle Forman's two book set, Just One Day and Just One Year. It was a love story, but also a story of self-discovery and identity. The two books complemented each other well and they told everything about the story that needed to be told. But at the same time, when you reach the ending, you want just a tiny bit more. You want confirmation of what will happen in just the next hour or day or so, just that.

So that's where this ebook-only novella comes in. Just One Night. Although that title goes along with the "Just One" trend of the two full books . . . I'm not a big fan of it. Again, it sounds not just like a love story but like a romance--which is maybe what this novella morphs into by the end. A tad too much, I would say. Amazon says it's about 43 pages, so it is short. I wouldn't call it so much a novella as an epilogue. You have to think of it as an epilogue, not as a stand-alone story.

Stylistically, it's a little problematic for something so short. Or maybe it is problematic because it is so short; I don't know. But while the two books were told from the first person, this one is from the third person and it switches (sometimes rather quickly) between persons. It isn't just Willem and Allyson, either; we also hear from the other characters, and it's kind of a lot for just one short space. The words don't always flow as naturally as Gayle Forman's writing usually does. And given that she has such a talent for beautiful writing and expression, that's a bit disappointing, even for "just a novella."

But all my complaints aside, it was nice to have just one last moment with these characters, just one last glance to see that they were happy and ready to move into the future. To know that they had grown throughout the space of pages and that they were going to continue to grow and to do and to live. After all, it is "just a novella."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Simon Coll: Cacao Nibs

I have a weakness for containers. I know this; I try to combat it. When I was choosing some tea at one of the gift shops in the Petrified Forest last month, I kept myself from getting the one that came in a (somewhat flimsy) little wooden box that I knew I didn't need. But when I saw this tin of cacao nibs from Simon Coll, well, I pounced on it.

Isn't it so gorgeous, though? A white base holds the trunk of a cacao tree on the back, with its vines spreading to the rest of the tin. They're all covered in red and yellow cacao pods, and there's even a green bird off to one side. The lid and bottom of the tin are dark brown. Perhaps even more than a bar of chocolate's wrappings, it matters that a tin like this be good-looking. Something like this you can carry/keep with you in your purse, briefcase, car, desk, or wherever. (I am a big proponent of keeping candy and chocolate at my desk, though I remain quite a thin person.) So if you're carrying something around, you want it to look nice.

I never have much new to say when reviewing nibs. They're either good or not, and then there is nothing more to say. These nibs are covered in 70% cacao chocolate grown in Ghana. While I realize that 70% isn't usually considered sweet, in terms of nibs, this chocolate gives sweetness to the overall effect. Nibs are, of course, pure cacao with nothing added to them, so they are not sweet and they are quite strong (not just in taste, also in terms of how much of a chocolate hit they give you). So they're more pleasant coated in chocolate. I want to say the ration for each piece is half nib and half chocolate; you really get a chance to taste both.

First your teeth softly sink through the chocolate, then they hit the cacao nib. Nibs have wonderful texture, absolutely distinctive and not quite like anything else. It's lighter than the crunch of a nut, but also more jagged. The result? A sophisticated desk or purse snack. And Simon Coll makes a nice tin of just such a chocolate hit. That makes my third product from this company a third success.