Sunday, July 26, 2015

July Favorites

1) Disneyland's 60th Anniversary - The only bad thing about Disneyland turning 60 is that I remember the 50th Anniversary Celebration as if it were only a couple of years ago, and that makes me feel old. Pretty soon it'll be the 75th, and I'll be saying the same thing about being there when the park turned 50. Anyway, I'm very excited about another decade going by for The Happiest Place on Earth, not least of all because I got to be there for it (not the actual day, but the same month, at least). More on that later.

2) Gemstone Pendant - This was a gift brought over to me from Colorado. What's so nice about it is the oval shape, which makes it blend in nicely with my cameos, except instead of a face in the middle there is a glittering stone. Very pretty.

3) Cameo Conch Shell - Speaking of cameos, I went to an antique store with a friend; I was just stepping inside, really, and I most definitely wasn't planning on buying anything (saving for Disneyland, you know). But then I saw this thing and it was like the world ended: I didn't want to spend any money but I really wanted it. I hated myself for wanting to spend money, but I knew I would hate myself for not getting it, and I am so glad I did (side note: I did have the money for it--it's not like I didn't, and I'm not advocating spending beyond your bounds). I love cameos, which are carved out of shells, and here we have a cameo carved straight into the shell. Wow, what a beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece.

4) Arnica Salve - I do a lot of writing and such with my hands and so sometimes they bother me. I've started using this arnica salve from Cave Creek (which is near Phoenix). Arnica, rosemary, thyme, olive oil, rice bran oil, beeswax, shea butter--all good ingredients. I just wanted to give it a shout out as an alternative to other, less natural products; wherever you live, I'm sure there is a comparable product available to buy. (If not, you can always blend arnica and rosemary into some shea butter yourself.)

5) Taking some time off - The end of July here is my vacation time, so with that I'll end my favorites early; I really don't have anything much more to add. Until next time.

Chocolat Stella: 80% Dark

Do you have a cocoa content preference? I tend to say that chocolate in the 80% range is my favorite--provided it's nicely done, there can be a wonderful range of flavor as well as an all-encompassing deep taste that is quite unlike anything else. 

Now, I've been feeling like World Market hasn't had much interesting on the chocolate side these days--at least, the interesting things they have are things that I've already tried, and I always like the chance to try new chocolate. Chocolat Stella is, however, one of the brands I've been seeing there lately. The simple packaging strikes me as boring enough, though, that it's taken me a while to get to trying one of the bars, despite glancing at the ingredients list to see positive signs. 

Just cocoa, sugar, and vanilla, and all three are fair trade and organic. Those are good signs. And, honestly, so is the fact that it's made by a Swiss company: I've had better chocolate from Switzerland from Belgium (it seems like the only Belgian chocolate that makes it to the U.S. is cheap and mass-produced, meaning that I'm more likely to avoid something that says it's Belgian than to go after it). After all, there are a lot of important points in chocolate's history that took place in Switzerland. So should I forgive the bland packaging? I mean, it's okay: a brown box with a black cacao pod could be simple and sleek, but somehow the way the design is carried out doesn't hold my eye. 

The answer to my question is most definitely yes. Let my bland photographs (sorry, it was bad lighting when I had to take the pictures) express my slight misconceptions about this chocolate: what I wasn't excited to try turned out to be very good. 

Aromatic and just lightly bitter in its scent, the chocolate has a good and clean snap when it breaks. The taste is dark and bold as it begins to melt in your mouth and the almost bitterness fades into warmth and richness. Usually I call dark chocolate either blue or red in the feel of its flavor (I was never so great at flavor notes, so I settle for colors instead, I suppose); this chocolate appears to be neither. Maybe it's purple, a combination of the two feels. The warmth of the red but with the coolness also of the blue. Overall: extremely chocolate in its flavor. It's also smooth and not at all either gritty or plasticy. It does perhaps leave a slight bitter aftertaste, but not bitter in a bad sense--just bitter as a flavor.

You know what I know one of the secrets is with this chocolate bar? Good ingredients. The cacao has to be good and anything you add to it has to be good. The vanilla is listed as vanilla pods, so I figure that means that Chocolat Stella isn't just using any vanilla they find lying around: they're using good quality vanilla. Sugar, too, I deem. This is just a completely plain dark chocolate--and that is its strength.

If you're craving a good dark chocolate, definitely give this one a try. Despite 80% cocoa being a little higher than average (which is more around 70%), I wouldn't call this an overly dark or intimidating chocolate: I'd call it approachable. And being that it tastes primarily of chocolate without piles of flavor notes, it will also satisfy a regular chocolate craving. I'm impressed. I'll have to try more of Chocolat Stella's bars the next time I'm at World Market.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Food in Fiction

I love reading about food and looking at food, and I know I'm not alone. Eating can be nice but it can also be a chore (didn't I just finish washing the dishes and now I'm hungry again?), but thinking about  food is simply wonderful. And sometimes it's fiction that makes you think of or crave a certain kind of food. TV shows where the characters are always drinking orange juice or books with a killer description of pumpkin pie, for instance. Here are just a few examples.

1) I Dream of Jeannie: coffee, maybe with toast and (turkey) bacon - Seriously, they're always drinking coffee in this show, and even though an episode says that Major Nelson drinks his with "a little bit of sugar and a little bit of cream," all the coffee always looks black--which makes it look even more crave-able and coffee-like. It was this show that made me start drinking coffee to begin with and to this day I generally prefer it black (and weak . . . ). With the coffee is often toast, like in that delightful bit when Roger is on the phone in the morning while putting jelly on little triangles of toast--oh, that scene makes me want toast so bad that I often do cut toast into little triangles just to make it mimic this scene. They also tend to eat bacon with their coffee; my choice is turkey bacon, and pair it with toast triangles and black coffee and it's like I'm straight in the show.

2) Becoming Earnest: cucumber sandwiches - I don't know where I first heard about cucumber sandwiches, but I was always enchanted by the idea (people don't really eat cucumber sandwiches here and now) and tried to see how thin I could slice cucumbers to make some. So, naturally, all the mentions of cucumber sandwiches and how so and so loves them so much that they must have some for so and so's visit except that what's-his-name eats all of them before she can arrive just made me want go back to my old craving. Care to join me in a tea shop for some lovely little sandwiches with cucumber slices inside?

3) The Chronicles of Narnia: pretty much everything - C.S. Lewis explained that he liked reading about food and therefore knew that children would, as well, so he fills this series with descriptions of food. They're always eating--even the descriptions of the dirt the trees eat at the end of Prince Caspian are tempting. In particular, though, I'd say these books make me crave scrambled eggs--or "buttered eggs," as they're described at one point, making the younger me wonder at what point the butter was added to the eggs. Then there's the infamous fresh fish with the marmalade roll for dessert that the Pevensies have with the Beavers in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; that food is almost heavenly. A lot of fruits in there, too, like the apples in Prince Caspian and a great variety in The Horse and his Boy. And let's not forget the Turkish delight, which I tried specifically because it was in Narnia (Americans don't eat Turkish delight and when they rarely might come across it, most of them think it is very weird, which is of course completely irrational). In fact, I picked up some very nice Turkish delight at Ross earlier this year (later I found a different kind there that was okay but nowhere near as good as the first).

4) The Lord of the Rings: bread and meat - Tolkien describes plenty of food, but I think his descriptions of landscape are generally richer than his descriptions of food, due not in small part to the fact that his characters are off on journeys where they really can't get their hands on much good food. Where he is most vivid, though, is in describing not food exactly but the craving of food--namely, plain bread and meat, which Frodo and Sam crave on their journey to Mount Doom when they have run out of everything except for the lembas bread. It makes you really appreciate a good loaf with a nice crust from your local bakery (if you have a good local bakery, please support it: good bread is one of the wonders of life), and good meat without too much done to it that's just cooked well.

5) Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: candy and chocolate and soda and anything sweet - Okay, let's just go for it. I haven't really read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I'm not fond of the Johnny Depp version, but that original movie is just full of the sweetness. The way that a single chocolate candy bar is so special to Charlie makes you think of how much you enjoyed candy as a child, and the factory makes me think of how much I still love candy stores. I once watched this movie while eating a melted 100 gram bar of chocolate out of a mug with a spoon. Now I just want someone to bring me a bucket full of Smarties--and maybe a few lollipops, too.

Divergent & Mulan

I've been meaning to do this post for so long--I think I just had to contain myself because I was doing a lot of Divergent-related posts back in March, and I thought it was getting to be a bit much. After all, I try to make this blog be about multiple subjects at once, and so if I focus too long on one thing, I always end up feeling like I need to give it a rest. But now that Divergent has had a rest, I am returning with my old post idea.

Though I saw Mulan in theaters when it came out, I didn't see it again until just a couple of years ago. I remembered the basic concept, but that's all--so I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed it. Overall, it's a pretty good movie. And then when I was watching and reading Divergent this spring and every thought and every story seemed to bring me back to Tris and Co., I found myself thinking back to Mulan again and, wham, it was like the two stories were mirrors of each other.

They're both stories of young women who exit from a relatively secluded, more subdued lifestyle (at least, a life where they're taught to be subdued, though neither is particularly good at it) to enter into military training, where they at first struggle greatly but manage to do well through strength of will and perseverance. Oh, yes, and along the way, they make friends with their fellow trainees and fall in love with their trainer and then they all save people in some kind of battle at the end. Yeah, pretty simple and similar.

Tris is Mulan. The Abnegation faction is the domestic life that Mulan was raised to believe was her only path: both settings tried (unsuccessfully) to subdue certain traits in these characters and to tell them that only through subduing these traits could they have success in their lives--when in reality it was these very traits (different, perhaps, from the demeanors of the other people around them) that were their strengths. The initiate training at Dauntless is the army training Mulan goes through in preparation for the war: both characters start out low in this because they have no experience in anything similar, yet they prove themselves in the end because they decide to succeed. Instead of Christina, Will, and the rest, Mulan has Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po; a core group of friends is necessary to both characters.

And then we have Four and Shang, in charge of training and both good at what they do. Both Tris and Mulan make enough of an impression on them for love to quickly follow working-together-relationship they started with. Interestingly, both young women have something to hide: Tris her Divergence and Mulan the fact that she is a woman. Two dangerous secrets that Four and Shang accept without trying to make Tris and Mulan suffer for them: Four doesn't tell anyone Tris's secret and Shang spares Mulan from the death penalty after she is found out.

Bottom line: figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are and promote the former while working on the latter, and don't forget to surround yourself with other people who can recognize your good traits, too (and whose good traits you recognize in return). Discovery of personal identity and strength leads to unified strength. Divergent and Mulan, you both have a great theme.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Peter Pan & the Doctor Flying Through Space

He's found a way to live forever, he's a bit arrogant, he brings travelers to places they had never imaged were possible (and certainly not possible to visit), he can fly, he has lots of friends but can somehow never get too close to any of them, and he's a beloved character to many, many people.

Who is he? Well, he's two people: he's Peter Pan and he's the Doctor.

I love it. Peter Pan and Doctor Who have so much in common.

Peter stays forever young through sheer mind power: he thinks to himself that he is young and that is enough to keep him that way (movies tend to say that Neverland keeps you from aging, but in the original story other characters there do age and it's only Peter who doesn't). The Doctor regenerates, which other Time Lords did, as well, but now he's the only one left and so it becomes a singular, strange, and rare thing for him to do. And both Peter and the Doctor are very thrilled at what they're able to do.

The Doctor's arrogance is usually funny or endearing or at least something you're willing to put up with, but Peter Pan is probably even worse. Though he has managed to become a beloved character because he reminds us all of our childhood, he can be quite rude and irresponsible and so self-centered that he either annoys or is a danger to the characters around him--which is not always endearing. Then again, the Doctor often puts the people around him in danger, too. But they don't necessarily mind, do they?

That's what both characters offer: adventure beyond the scope of sight. Peter takes Wendy and her brothers to see Neverland and she is in awe of this land up in the stars. The Doctor invites Rose and all the rest to be his companions on his endless journeys through time and space, showing them worlds they would never otherwise have visited and time periods they never thought they could enter; most of them love it so much that they get almost addicted to it and have a hard time leaving.

But no one stays forever with Peter Pan and no one stays forever with the Doctor. Peter's friends all grow up: there's that (semi-disturbing, if you think about it) line in the book that explains that he finds a way to let the boys who are getting older die, or characters like the Darlings leave Neverland and go on to live adult lives in the regular world. It's the same for friends of the Doctor: they either die in one of the Doctor's dangerous adventures or go on to live essentially normal lives (some choose to leave and some are forced to by outside circumstances). It's the choice, tragic at times, that we all must face: do we try and make adventure last forever until it tears us apart, or do we put an end to it and live the life everyone else leads? Peter looks in on Wendy only to find she's an adult with a daughter of her own, and the Doctor meets Sarah Jane again only to find that she's over the hill--and that gap is so deep, despite the fun adventures these characters had together when both sides were young.

Peter wants to remain young because he keeps making himself so, but he does feel pain at moments like this: there is tragedy that he, unlike Wendy, will never grow up. But he accepts that cost. The Doctor, on the other hand, has no choice: all he can do is continue to live while everyone he has known withers away. Both characters are eternal--all characters are eternal because they live forever within the (metaphorical) pages of fiction, yet these two characters are doubly eternal because they are literally living forever within those literal pages, as well as the metaphorical ones (not that Doctor Who is a book instead of a TV show, and therefore the main bulk of the story isn't on literal pages, but I'm taking "literal pages" to mean the content of the story as it is presented to the audience and "metaphorical pages" to mean what the audience can always go back to revisit, whether through rereading, rewatching, or going back over in their heads).

Oh, yes, and when I said that both characters can fly, I was naturally referring to the TARDIS. Through it, the Doctor can fly--through both time and space. Peter Pan just literally flies through the sky. Two characters, forever flying away from the stable life they will never have--forever flying away toward adventure.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Theme of Bondage in Star Wars

Did you realize how much slavery there is in Star Wars? There is literal slavery and there is servitude and there is bondage so weighty that it becomes equal to slavery. Let's start with the literal slavery.

In the original trilogy, of course, there is Leia's slavery under Jabba the Hutt. It's temporary and all part of the plan to free Han Solo, but still: she's powerless there for a moment. Yet Leia chooses the (strong) possibility of being put in this situation in order to free Han, and then there is that wonderful moment when she kills Jabba with the very chains he used to enslave her. Talk about powerful symbolism; now that's triumphant.

Then in the prequel trilogy we have the slavery on Tatooine. It is because Anakin and his mother are slaves on this far off planet that the Jedi don't find him sooner, as they generally find children in the Republic who are sensitive to the Force. And it is because he left his mother on a dangerous planet that Anakin remains haunted by his worry for her (although she is in fact no longer a slave when she dies). I don't know if there is anything triumphant here. Yes, Anakin proves himself to Qui-Gon and Qui-Gon manages to free him and bring him to the Jedi, but there's still enough sorrow (and doom, you might say) attached to this action that it kind of ruins any jubilance over becoming free from slavery. That and the fact that there are still so many slaves left on Tatooine, including Shmi; Anakin's dream of returning and freeing all the slaves never comes true.

Now let's move on to servitude, willing and non-willing. I'm mostly thinking of the droids here: they're constantly following along their owners without being asked what they think of what's going on, though they seem to feel fear and doubt. C-3PO's the more reluctant one, constantly wishing he didn't have to go up into space or out into battle scenes; he just wants to sit quietly and act as a butler in a nice house, it seems, but he hardly ever gets his way. R2-D2, though, seems to love the action and being a little hero: he's like a dog who is only to happy to serve his master and really relishes his role. For all the able masters the droids have over the years, they all seem to need help from their servants the droids.

There are also other servants who, like R2, perform their roles willingly (and who also have the option of leaving if they choose). Padme's handmaidens, for instance, are her inner circle, and certain of them also act as her decoy at the risk of death--just because they believe in her and want to help her. This isn't so much choosing slavery as choosing to serve something you deem worthy, and that's admirable.

Then there is the Jedi Order. It's funny because, while the Jedi choose to remain in the Order, they're also raised within it from infancy, greatly decreasing the likelihood that anyone will choose to leave the only thing they have ever known. It isn't slavery because they can leave, but it is complete servitude that encompasses every aspect of their lives. The Jedi, though, like Padme's handmaidens, believe in their cause and are willing follow its guidelines--except, of course, for Anakin.

Which brings us to an interesting point. Anakin begins as a slave on Tatooine, the property of Watto. Qui-Gob frees him only to introduce him to the Jedi Order, where Anakin willingly accepts servitude as Obi-Wan's apprentice and then as a Jedi under the Order. So he's kind of still a slave--from a certain point of view. He still can't do what he wants: he can't return home to free his mother or check up on her and he can't (according to the rules) act on his love for Padme.

But Anakin breaks the rules. And then what does he do? He switches from the Jedi to the Sith, from obeying the Jedi Council to obeying the Emperor. What? You mean Qui-Gon freed the slave boy just so he could go and throw his life away to obey Darth Sidious? So he could become a slave again? Except this time Anakin willingly chooses his bondage--and it isn't the noble choice of serving under something you believe in. This is bondage to the Dark Side; this is letting himself be controlled by forces that destroy everything that once was good in his life. He loses Padme, he loses his friendship with Obi-Wan, and he loses his ability to help other people that was once so strong (stronger than his willingness to obey orders). Anakin becomes more a slave than ever he was before.

It is only his son who can convince him to break free of his bonds, leaving behind the Dark Side and killing Sidious; it is his son, who also had a bit of a taste of slavery (of a very mild sort) when his uncle kept him at the farm year after year and also when he saw how much power the Empire had over people, no matter how "unimportant." Perhaps that's why Luke is so unwilling to fall prey to the same bondage that took in his father: he knows that even if he lets go his lightsaber and becomes completely vulnerable to the Emperor (let's him throw deadly bolts of lightning at him, for instance), that will not be worse than if he were to let him have power over his self.

Bondage can mean lots of things, but it would seem that the worst kind is the kind that does not allow you to be who you know it is right to be. And so slavery can be self-imposed--which is all the more tragic given that there are people who are unwillingly enslaved and there you are, willingly putting bonds on yourself.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Disneyland Encyclopedia

Disneyland is, I believe, in the blood of people who are born in California. And I, like many Arizonans, was born in California--and so I have my eternal allegiance to Disneyland, that place of hopes and dreams that just turned 60 years old on Friday.

Though I am interested in Disneyland past and present and spent hours during my middle school to high school summer breaks reading about Disneyland online, I haven't really read many books on the park/s. So a couple of years ago I bought this one, thinking it would be a good way to dig in. The Disneyland Encyclopedia: The Unofficial, Unauthorized, and Unprecedented History of Every Land, Attraction, Restaurant, Shop, and Major Event in the Original Magic Kingdom by Chris Strodder (mine is the Second Edition). Yeah, exciting and first and then a bit intimidating.

The text is basically about 450 pages of encyclopedia-style entries, which was enough for me to let this book sit in waiting for about two years. But this year being Disneyland's 60th Anniversary and considering that I'll be there later this month, I thought to myself that now was the time to read this book. I thought it would be good to read about ten pages or so, slowly, over two months. And you know what? It turns out that this isn't as intimidating a read as I thought it would be.

There are some very pretty Disneyland pictures out there with artful pictures and historical pictures and all sorts of things that make them nice to flip through. This book isn't like that. There are a few (mostly present day) pictures just to set the scene, but mostly it's about the straightforward text. Names of attractions, dates they were open during, people who worked on them, descriptions as needed, and even a bit of guests' general reactions. It's all very informative and the format makes it easy to quickly look up a fact without having to skim through a whole chapter.

Most of the entries are short, a couple of paragraphs, but the longer ones merit a couple of pages, usually not more than two or three. So if you do choose to read cover to cover, it's all at your own pace, and you can go as slowly as you like without having to stop right in the middle of something.

For being so straightforward, the writing style is also easy to read: it isn't dry or overly "factual" because there is just enough personality to keep you interested in continuous entries of extinct attractions. And it was all very fascinating: there were many things that I had heard of before but never really knew the details about or other things I was familiar with but didn't know the full story behind them. 

This is the perfect book if you're interested in Disneyland's history (or facts you can use as trivia), whether you're just starting to dig in or you already know quite a bit. In the first case, you can read it al the way through like I did; if the second, you can also read through or just flip through individual entries from time to time. Either way, it's a useful reference book that I wouldn't mind having with me in the park: just imagine using it as a way to pass the time in line, quizzing your friends/family and reading out the sections that have to do with the part of the park you're in. If it were just a bit smaller, I really would bring it. As it is, I'll leave it either at home or the hotel and call it a great purchase. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Rancho Gordo: Drinking Chocolate

Forget Swiss Miss hot chocolate; I used to drink it all the time when I was ten, but eventually I upgraded to Nestle's Abuelita chocolate (Ibarra is very similar). As far as hot chocolate (sorry, I make no distinction between hot chocolate and hot cocoa: I always think of hot cocoa as an old-fashioned, not a technical, term) from the grocery store, I generally consider Abuelita one of the better options: the round discs of sugar and chocolate appear to have more chocolate in them than the powdered milk, sugar, and chocolate powders of the Swiss Miss and similar varieties.

A friend of mine brought back this hot chocolate from Tucson, where the woman in the shop had claimed it was her favorite ever. Honestly, I'm a bit confused on how to label it. The name up top is Rancho Gordo, but that's the importer based out of Napa, California. The little snippet on the side explains that the chocolate is "grown, roasted, and ground by the Mujeres [women] de Xochis Collective in Guerrero, Mexico using local cacao and evaporated cane juice. The chocolate beans are roasted on clay pans before being stoneground with soft cinnamon." And the box has "Chocolate" written all across it, while this little section calls it "hand crafted stoneground cacao for drinking and cooking." So I've settled for leaving Rancho Gordo as the company and drinking chocolate as the product name.

The style is very similar to Abuelita, except for the details. This six-sided box is just a tad smaller and thinner and is plain, uncolored brown with brown lettering as compared to the bright yellow Abuelita box. This natural look is, from my view, much preferable, and promises something more natural and (hopefully) of greater quality.

Inside, the five round discs are individually wrapped in wax paper and then stuffed into this clear bag; it's all perfect for keeping them fresh. 

The minimalist look continues onto the discs. Instead of being divided into eight pieces as both Abuelita and Ibarra chocolate are, the circle is plain and without markings of any kind. You decide if it looks sad or rustic or elegant like a flourless chocolate cake. Funnily enough, even though I'd thought that the lack of markings would make this disc harder to break, it in fact breaks easier than Abuelita chocolate tends to. Just pierce a knife into it where you'd like it to break and you'll find that the chocolate is quite soft and willing to work with you.

I've come to admit something to myself: except for a small cup of elegant (and usually flavored) drinking chocolate from time to time, I don't like to drink thick chocolate. I'd go so much as to say that I'd rather melt a bar of chocolate and eat it with a spoon (which, of course, I have done before) than to drink certain hot chocolates as thick as the instructions say to make them. I have found that I like this particular hot chocolate with half of the chocolate that's recommended: that means one quarter disc per cup as opposed to half a disc. And this is, in fact, more like the ratio for Abuelita, in case you were wondering. 

Note that, as always, I'm doing my review of this chocolate as made with almond milk. 

There are simply three ingredients to this chocolate: cacao, evaporated cane juice, and cinnamon--in that order. Abuelita places sugar in first place, adds vegetable oil, and uses artificial flavor. So if you're just looking for purer, better quality ingredients, this chocolate definitely wins: I give it much respect for that alone. And hearing all of that info about how the chocolate is roasted on clay pans and stone ground makes me really look forward to something special. The question after tasting, though, is whether or not I prefer this flavor.

It's good hot chocolate. It tastes like chocolate and only faintly like cinnamon. It isn't bitter or dark and yet it isn't particularly sweet, either. There's almost an earthy flavor to it that I can't quite place--I'm not sure if it's the lack of sugar that gives it this flavor, if it's a flavor from the chocolate itself, or if it's a product of the way this chocolate was prepared and the tools with which it was prepared. 

You see, when I drink this chocolate, I enjoy it. But I'm not left in awe of it. And then when I pick up the box of Abuelita chocolate and sniff it, my mind smiles at the familiar aroma and happily pictures the taste. Is it just nostalgia?

I don't know. It could be. But the fact remains that I'll continue buying Abuelita chocolate and if I were to come across Rancho Gordo hot chocolate myself at some point, well, I might or I might not buy it. It would just depend on whether or not I felt like buying hot chocolate on that particular day: I wouldn't feel like this chocolate was so delicious that I absolutely couldn't pass it up.

With that said, however, I still highly recommend it for the sake of its ingredients: this is more how hot chocolate should be made and it shows in the fact that this drink tastes primarily of chocolate--the main ingredient for which it is named and which so many hot chocolates out there barely use and therefore barely taste of. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Beautiful Book Covers?

Having been seeing BookTubers talk about beautiful book covers and show off some really lovely-looking books, I thought to have a look at my own shelves and stacks of books to see what good-looking books I own. Then somehow it seemed that I wasn't finding books like the ones the BookTubers show--partly because I don't own many that look like that and partly because, perhaps, my tastes are a little more singular. 

First of all, I won't buy a book simply because it's pretty: it has to be a book that I think I might want to read or a book that I've already read. For instance, I bought this lovely vintage copy of Wuthering Heights even though I already owned the book. It has Heathcliff leaning strikingly against a tree on both the front and back and a green spine that suggests that it used to have a book jacket. This is one of my favorite book covers: I can't resist trees.

I was also finding less "beautiful book covers" because many of my books happen to be classics, and classics tend to all look the same. The Penguin books with the black spines, the Barnes & Noble classics with the pastel spines, and the Norton editions with the generally darker yet still colorful spines, and all with some sort of classic painting on the front that may or may not have anything to do with the book. Some of those paintings are quite pretty and make the books look nice, but somehow I felt like that wasn't in the spirit of what people mean when they talk about "beautiful book covers," so I deliberately left all of them out.

Next I found myself alighting on The Space Trilogy from C.S. Lewis. This trilogy is one of those lesser-talked about things where everyone who's read it simply can't understand why hardly anyone has read it. This trilogy's pretty good (the first one's pretty standard sci-fi style, the second is more philosophical, and the third may be more of a preference that not everyone might like as much), and these covers help show off their highly imaginative (yet deeply thoughtful) style. I only have to see these covers to want to dive into this trilogy again--or to have memories coming back at me of what was in these pages.

I couldn't resist throwing in The Silmarillion, too: that picture, with those colors and that lighting, just makes this copy irresistible. I didn't include the illustrated edition, though that one's nice, too. I also avoided my long row of movie books: somehow I felt like that was a different category that shouldn't be brought in with the novels.

Here's a random one. I bought this book and its sequel (which are part of a trilogy) because they were very pretty. Many of the similar books also have similar covers of pretty Victorian women, but I always liked the simplicity of this one. Keeping the color palette to a dusty pink makes it softer and classier. The trilogy itself I have mixed feelings about: sometimes I think it isn't very good or singular, but other times I find myself thinking back to the story and wanting to read it again. But the cover remains pretty.

I'm just adding this one out of stubbornness. I deliberately left out the big, hardcover, leather-bound Barnes & Noble classics because nearly all of them are gorgeous and I don't think you need me to tell you that. The Arabian Nights, the Jules Verne set, and Little House on the Prairie are some of my favorites. I did, however, have a strange inclination to include something from Barnes & Noble's extinct Collector's Library series. 

I absolutely adored these and managed to collect several before they vanished. See, I'm the type of person who tends to feel self-conscious reading a book where other people can see its cover, not because I'm reading anything I should be embarrassed about but just because that's how I am. Especially back in school I didn't like books with huge pictures on them (to this day I put books, no matter if they're fiction or non-fiction or have completely blank covers, upside down when I set them down). So it was like this series was made exactly for me. 

The books were bound in red cloth and then given a striped book jacket of one of various colors: red, blue, green, orange, or yellow were the usuals. The pages were edged in gold and there was a red ribbon bookmaker built in. 

Best of all, they were about five to eight dollars and were what would probably be considered pocket-sized. Take a look at Uncle Tom's Cabin (which is over 600 pages) next to the average-sized Tracie Peterson book: it's much smaller, easy to hold and easy to store in a purse, all without the distracting pictures. Ideal. (The text, by the way, wasn't really smaller than the average size for classics--it was even bigger than it is in some editions.)

Wait, what did I just say? The distractions of imagery? Does that mean that I don't even like my books to be beautiful? Does that mean that this topic of discussion, beautiful book covers, is not for me?

Maybe. But maybe it also means that I want my beautiful books to be books that I have already formed a connection with. I tend to favor plainer or simpler covers for books I'm unfamiliar with, and then when I know what a book is about, I want to see its essence poured out on the cover in a piece of art. 

The reason I don't need all my books to be spectacular visual creations is, I suppose, because I fall into the category of people who prefer physical books to e-books. I don't need the beauty of a book to justify its existence as a physical item: its mere physical nature is beautiful to me and is, most of the time, enough for me.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jumping into the Children's Crusade

A while back, there was this movie streaming on Netflix called Crusade: A March Through Time. Given that I used to watch a lot of movies during my college days (almost one every night, sometimes more), I watched this one just because it was there, not because I thought it would be a great movie. But I enjoyed it. And then it kind of stuck with me so that I found myself watching it again at least once more and then thinking of it from time to time.

Recently it occurred to me that since this movie was based a book, maybe I should read the book. Now both the book and the movie are from the Netherlands. So if you want the book in the U.S. you have to order it: no one will have it in stock. The book was first published in 1973, the translation into English is from 1975, and the cover imagery on my copy is from the 2006 movie.

The basic on the story is a teenage boy from modern times travels back through time and encounters the Children's Crusade. Not certain if/when he can return to his time, he stays with the children and seeing the horrible conditions they have been traveling under, helps them get organized in terms of food, protection, and other means of survival. So technically it's a story about time travel, but since the bulk of it takes place in the thirteenth century, it's almost more like straight historical fiction. And the beauty of it is in its simplicity.

That was what interested me about the movie, I think. It was somehow different from anything else. It's straightforward in the way that it approaches events, and the book is the same way.

For being a children's book (I'm not sure what the exact age group is--middle school to high school perhaps?), it contains many of the horrors of this era in history. Death, disease, injuries, animal attacks, battles, yeah, it's all in here. And yet that matter of fact tone that everything is described in somehow makes it okay: the events and the descriptions of places and everything else are described almost like records, like you can see them happening right in front of you and therefore you can't complain about something that is described because it did happen. Does that make sense? (By the way, while the book does describe all of these, um, horrible things, it isn't graphic about it--this is still a children's/YA book. I definitely would have considered it on the graphic side for what I'd read when I was twelve, but that's as far as it goes. In case you were worried.)

It's like, in a very simple way, this book plunges head forward into deep topics--and yet does not pretend to do anything other than present the reader with events that are happening. If you want, you can react to the book and ponder questions of faith, of science, of psychology, etc., but hardly any of that pondering is in the book. The book just gives you what happens. So you can also just take it as an adventure story. It can be sad or it can be exciting: it's your choice. And somehow that makes it incredibly moving--maybe because it makes it feel real.

I'm probably doing a horrible job of trying to get you to read this book, but I really do recommend it if you like historical fiction or you're just looking for something a little different; this story is special. And watch the movie, too, if you get the chance--it's a little different from the book but also very alike in tone and essence. I really want to watch it again now but it's no longer streaming on Netflix and the DVD isn't available from them, either; I might just buy it but I'll have to wait until next month or so and by then I might decide I don't need it. I don't know; we'll see. Until then, I'll just keep reliving it all in my head.


Friday, July 10, 2015

From First to Second

Wow, I hadn't realized I had spent so much time on the Second Doctor's episodes of Doctor Who. My post on the First Doctor was in October of last year; that means it took me somewhere around nine months to watch the Second Doctor's episodes. That's a long time.


Technically, though, it was less. I didn't want to watch too many of the Classic episodes at the same time as the new episodes, which were still airing at the end of last year, so I put the Classic ones on hold. And then I had to give myself time to transition from William Hartnell to Patrick Troughton. That was really hard. Really hard.

I liked William Hartnell, and then it was also hard to lose him because there weren't really any familiar companions to help smooth out the transition. The missing episodes meant that the companions at the time of the Doctor's first regeneration felt like strangers to me: I had barely met them and they didn't feel worthy to guide the First Doctor into the Second. That's what it felt like: like the Doctor and his companions were suddenly all strangers and I didn't want to watch strangers. Then the great amount of missing episodes in the beginning also made it hard to adapt: by the time I was able to watch the Second Doctor, I had missed the settling in and he was already settled in, while I wasn't.

The Companions

Jamie and Victoria helped, though I'm sad that their first episodes are missing and so I never got a proper introduction to them (I do read the summaries online of the missing episodes). But I liked Jamie and Victoria almost right away. They were both from points in history instead of modern times: Jamie with his brash and courageous (and yet also gentlemanly) ways and Victoria with her delicate face and demeanor. It was they who helped me soften to the Second Doctor: through first liking his companions, I was also able to like him.

Then Victoria was gone, and we got Zoe instead, and while I missed Victoria, Zoe was a good character and completed the trio nicely. While Victoria was from Victorian times, Zoe is a modern character (since she's from the future): she's young and pretty and yet she's very smart and quick to give her ideas and opinions, too. I love when Zoe is giving complex calculations to the men at UNIT in The Invasion. Her intelligence makes her a good companion to the Doctor: he has someone there who can understand some of the sciencey things he talks about or refers to and can help him make plans.

Jamie, on the other hand, is a fit for the Doctor's courage and willingness to get into the middle of situations. I like the fact that he's uneducated and the show is constantly pointing out that difference between him and Zoe: it somehow makes him more endearing and yet also makes him no less valuable in the Doctor's travels. The Doctor trusts Jamie more than, I think, any previous companion, and they get along as well as the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond. These are two characters that are just meant to be in the same place, and so it was a pleasure to see them interacting on screen. I'm going to miss Jamie just as much as the Second Doctor.

The Doctor

At first I wasn't exactly sure who the Second Doctor was or was supposed to be: he was William Hartnell's replacement, so was he meant to just be like William Hartnell's Doctor, just a little younger and a little more able to move around and be in more scenes? But with time, I became familiar with Patrick Troughton's particular quirks and I think also he became more able to put himself into the character. If the First Doctor is the grandfatherly character, the Second is the avuncular character. This is why he can get a little closer to his companions: there isn't quite so much distance between them. He's the silly uncle who goes around on adventures acting like he knows what he's doing but not fooling anyone (Jamie always makes fun of how he can't control where the TARDIS lands).

He has authority--but he also has vulnerability. He's quick-thinking, but he's not able to save everyone or everything. He gets frustrated when he can't control everything, but I think he never gets too much of a depth of sadness (certainly nothing like the Tenth Doctor does). It's like he's still figuring out the world and his place in it. When he first brought out the Sonic Screwdriver (well, I know the first episodes is missing, but I mean the first time I saw it), I unexpectedly got really happy; it was funny, though, to see the way he uses it. It was more like just a screwdriver before: and that's like he hasn't quite found out all the uses it can have yet. It's a tool he's still getting to know. There is so much he knows but also so much the Second Doctor doesn't know yet.

It's amazing how this happens: I was so reluctant to meet the Second Doctor and now I really like him.

The Future

Can I just say that the last set of episodes, The War Games, were amazing? Everything about them, I loved those episodes, they were wonderful, and I didn't want them to end. That was a really good way to end the Second Doctor's reign. But now I'm hesitant for the future.

Maybe most people would look forward to finally starting the color episodes, but I'm reluctant. Black and white is much more forgiving for mediocre (or dated) sets and effects, and of course it also hides dated color palettes, making things a little more timeless. Color is unforgiving. So I'm not really looking forward to that.

And then now I'm leaving behind the episodes from the sixties to begin on the seventies. I like sixties TV, but the seventies? Weren't the seventies kind of weird? I don't know: it's like I'm expecting the show to get goofier instead of just quirky, and I'm a little afraid of that happening.

And then I have this Third Doctor to get used to, this third actor to replace someone I've grown accustomed to. It's so sad and so hard, every time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Trader Joe's: 65% Ecuador Dark Chocolate

As I've said before, chocolate from Trader Joe's can be hit or miss--but when it's good, you can find some pretty great deals there. The 65% Cacao Single Origin Ecuador bar has been catching my eye for a while now; will it hold up to the test? On the outside, it looks good. The style is a blend of the Trader Joe's advertising/packaging look with the look of fine/semi-fine chocolate card boxes. A black background lights up letters in blue and green, colorful flowers, and a mountaintop to create a simple look that pops. 

As you can see, the box lists the cacao as fairly traded, another plus. Trader Joe's is one of those stores that sells certain items that are organic and fair trade and others that aren't (the organic bananas are here and the nonorganic bananas are there, the fair trade coffee has a label in front of it and the non-fair trade coffee doesn't, etc.). What they have available in items like chocolate varies even more depending on what they're able to sell at the moment; so the fact that this is supposed to be fair trade chocolate is a definite plus. 

Ingredients-wise, it's interesting to note that there is no vanilla added. As you know, vanilla is added to most chocolate; it helps add in some flavor if there is any lacking or to smoothen out the flavor. But if I were to go by taste alone, I wouldn't have realized there was no vanilla: this chocolate is very flavorful. 

I'm not sure if the light bloom on the chocolate was there when I bought it or developed after I kept it waiting for rather too long before opening it. In any case, it doesn't hurt the flavor. My bar of chocolate was a little on the hard side, not melting as nicely at first. But it's wonderfully fragrant, with what I would describe as a reddish tone (as opposed to blue--most chocolates either lean toward red or blue to me). 

The back of the package describes that the chocolate is made with Arriba cocoa beans grown along the Guayas River. Hmm. Amano (one of the best chocolatiers) makes a Guayas bar (theirs is 70% cacao). Another good thing: information about where the chocolate is grown.

"Subtle fruit and floral notes" are what the card box claims this chocolate will have. I'm impressed that it has enough flavor as it does for being only 65%; 70% is more standard. Yet the slightly lower cocoa content seems to let in just enough sweetness to keep the sharper flavor notes from becoming bitter or too dark for most palates. I would say it tastes from fruity initially, then more floral after it's melted away. It also has what I describe as "brownie redness," this wonderful chocolate warmth that spreads through your mouth and takes a moment to dissipate. Yes, warm, enveloping, and just bold enough is what this chocolate is. 

It's also one of those good deals that sometimes show up at Trader Joe's. At 100 grams, it's quite a big bar, so you definitely get a value here, especially as opposed to the usual prices of finer chocolate. If you haven't tried it yet, I'd recommend picking it up next time you're are Trader Joe's before it's gone.

Monday, July 6, 2015

How Love Stories Work

I've realized the obvious about the formula of love stories in fiction. You know how they often start with characters hating each other before they fall in love? It sometimes feels too formulaic, like, yes, we can already see how they're going to find this person selfish and rude and then discover what a wonderful humanitarian they really are; boring. But I hadn't quite realized what the flip side would be.

Because the thing is, everyone has their bad and good points and when you get to know someone, you get to know both of those sides--and it's easier (or nicer, maybe?) to find their good points last than to find their bad points last.

Picture that love story flipped around. A character would see someone's good points first and then see the bad points and then would probably not want to love them at all because they're left with that negative image instead of the positive one. This is a different formula: this is the tragedy. This is where characters get their hearts broken, where they find out what a cad someone they thought was perfect really is. It doesn't make for a nice love story--so the love story formula remains.

You see the bad first and then the good so that you have time to react to the bad and realize that the good is enough to overcome it. Pride and Prejudice is of course the big example of this effect--Han Solo and Leia work, too. Then of course there also usually tends to be more back-and-forthing to fill in the space: like when Jane find that Rochester is already married. She thinks it's the end for them, that it can only be the end for them, but it isn't; it's just the final stage of discovering something bad and then something good.

That's how most things are, aren't they? There are two sides and then there is how we view it all. In some cases, the bad outweighs the good and so we turn from these things (whether people or actions or places); in other cases, our ability to focus on the good over the bad is what makes the good endure and the bad shrink.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

July Fourth

I'm sitting out in Tempe right now, and the Fourth of July is good. It's something like a picnic day--but with an entire community and with more events and entertainment. It's about celebration in unity, isn't it?

Spread out your blanket (preferably a red, white, and blue one) and relax, wearing as much red, white, and blue as possible. Bring water and get drinks and food, listen to music, chat with your group. Sweat under the late afternoon sun. 

And then when the sun sets, let the air cool a bit and take a moment to ponder. Ponder your home and how it came to be your home, and ponder your country and how it came to be and how it is. 

And when you watch those fireworks spread across the sky, celebrate and be joyous. Today is the Fourth of July, Independence Day, and we're all excited together. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Be the Fourth of July

It seems that each year, I keep going more and more crazy over the Fourth of July--and I think everyone else should, too. I've been so happy that nearly every clothing store I've been by lately has at least had a Fourth of July display and many have had specifically patriotic clothing (flag shirts, for instance). So I'd like to just take a quick moment today and list some of the ways that I bring red, white, and blue in; tomorrow I'll do some sort of more general Fourth of July post.

1) I like the flag shirts best, but if you can't get one or don't want one, at least try and wear two to three colors. I actually bought two flag shirts because I decided that the first one I got was too thick of a material (I'll be around Phoenix on the Fourth); the second one is a much lighter material, though they're both tank tops with vertical flags on them. The easiest way, of course, to wear flag colors if you're not wearing a flag shirt is to wear denim shorts with a white or red shirt--maybe add an accessory in the color you're still missing.

2) Nail polish is great. I don't do my fingernails anymore, but I like to make my toenails into a flag design. I alternate the small toes in red and white and paint the big toes in blue with white stars. I've been using Revlon's 680 Revlon Red, L'Oreal's 220 I Will, Sally Hansen's 901 Royal Rage, and the Sally Hansen i Nail Art Pen in 360 Pearly White.

3) Don't forget the makeup, either. Blue eyeshadow and red lips aren't something I would wear together any other day, but they're perfect for July Fourth.

4) Temporary tattoos--I've never had Fourth of July tattoos before, but I came across some in Hobby Lobby that looked good, so why not? There are flags and stars and eagles and butterflies with the flag; they're kind of an alternate to face-painting, I guess.

5) Jewelry is good, too. Depending on where you're going to be, you maybe don't want to wear your nicer jewelry. If you were going to be at home, you might wear pearls and coral and blue beads, but I'd leave those at home if you'll be at a park. This is where fashion jewelry or the cheap kind they sell specifically for the holiday can come in nicely. I have my necklace with all the little triangular flags from Charming Charlie that I'll be wearing (actually, I've been wearing it for the past three days already . . . )

6) Do you use hairbands? Throw on a red, white, or blue one--or try and mix up the colors. Michaels had some good ones for sale, too, if you want something that combines all the colors.

7) Enthusiasm tops it all off. I want us all to be excited, wherever we are and however we're celebrating. Choose your own traditions, but let's make this a big day, a triumphant day, and a thankful day. We, through our attitudes and our collective memory in honoring this day, we are the Fourth of July.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Kimmie Candy: Choco Rocks

Happy July 1st, everybody--I'm super excited because the 4th is almost here. I'm celebrating already by wearing red today, white tomorrow, and blue on Friday. Saturday I'll be all decked out in all three colors.

So for today I'm just going to review a casual chocolate candy from the U.S. that is also semi-regional. They sell a lot of chocolate rocks (both this kind and other kinds) at shops and museums around Arizona because they look good with the other tourist mercy and they hold up to heat a little better than other chocolates. I've also seen them for sale at World Market. These particular ones are made by Kimmie Candy Company of Reno, Nevada. They proudly say on the label that they're "100% Made in the USA."

For chocolate, they really do look a lot like rocks. They come in various colors: light blue, sage green, pale pink, earthy red, golden tan, and coal black. Each color has that gritty-looking texture, though they're almost smooth to the touch. Shapes range from tiny to triangular to long and thin. From looks alone, they're great. 

Basically, these candies are M&Ms. I know they look like they would be rather different, but they're very much like M&Ms. A thin, crunchy, colorful coating of ingredients that shall not be named surrounds a small piece of chocolate. I never thought I'd say this, but the chocolate in M&Ms is better than in these: this compound chocolate. If you're unfamiliar with the phrase, it means they added palm kernel oil to the chocolate; it's cheaper this way. 

You know the Palmer chocolate they sell around Easter? That's compound chocolate. So recall that taste. I used to think that chocolate was pretty good when I was seven; it had kind of a nutty taste. But now it just tastes undeniably cheap. So I'm terribly disappointed that that's what these rocks are made with. I'll let you be the judge, though: at the same time as I see it as cheap, I'm also getter a nice fudge taste from it. 

You know what I do like better than in M&Ms? The shell is thinner. It makes a light crisp sound when your teeth touch it that makes it, in my view, much nicer than the hard cracking of the M&Ms shells. 

Basic story: this is good-looking novelty candy that most people are also going to enjoy eating. It would just be so much better if it wasn't made with compound chocolate.