Monday, December 28, 2015

Before the Awakening

I might make some mention of Episode VII, so be cautious if you haven't seen the movie yet.

I'll come in with another chocolate review next post, but for now while I'm still recovering from Christmastime, here is the latest Star Wars read. Before the Awakening came out on the same day as the movie, and I was only able to buy it that weekend because Wal-Mart is carrying it right now (I can't wait until I can go to Barnes & Noble this week to buy the movie art book--no, I don't want to buy it online). So in this case, thank you, Wal-Mart.

Although it's a short book like the Luke, Leia, and Han Solo adventure books (with the same red and black color scheme), it took me a few days to read it since it was Christmastime. Monday I was baking cookies, Tuesday I was trying to finish off regular tasks, Wednesday I think I was finishing some gift-wrapping, Thursday I was cleaning and prepping a turkey, Friday was Christmas (and the Doctor Who Christmas special, which I watched at midnight), Saturday was a day of rest (also the day in which I finished reading this book), and I can't quite remember what I did yesterday. So. It's a quick read if you have the time to sit there for a few minutes reading.

In a way, it feels like this book had more content than the previously-mentioned three. Maybe it feels that way because the trio are already established characters who were just having separate adventures in those books, while the new trio of this book is still, well, new. Even after seeing The Force Awakens, we still know only so much about them. So anything we glean about who they are (not just their identity, but also their character, since their characters are still being established) is significant.

Poe is the most established character. In the movie, his identity isn't really mysterious and his character is so straightforward as to be quick to establish. And this book explains his backstory. Finn, though not quite as straightforward, is also not too mysterious. The book takes off from what we know about him already and provides a look at the time before the movie scenes, showing that his decision wasn't quite spur-of-the-moment. Rey being the most mysterious character also has the least backstory in here: we just see her scavenging on Jakku and learn more about her state of mind than her identity or her history. It makes you realize more where she is emotionally and in terms of hope and resolve than anything else.

Each story was told on its own: the first section is for Finn, the second for Rey, and the third for Poe. Rey's was by far my favorite section (I love characters walking around the desert, I really do--battles are less interesting to me), and Finn's was probably my least favorite (part of the reason might be that it was a little dragging to keep reading him as FN-2187, though of course it's necessary for the story). For being such a short book with such a quick look at these characters, this story is a nice after-the-movie read to feed your craving for more without really taking away from the ultimate mysteries.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Force Awakens

This post contains spoilers. Do not continue reading if you have not seen the movie yet.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Twilight Company & the Wars in the Stars

I knew this was probably a book I could skip but I wanted to read all the Star Wars books that came out this year. Even still, when I picked it up to buy at the bookstore, I hesitated over seeing the cover in person: it just looks like a book I wouldn't be interested in. But I got it, anyway.

I've never been a video game person, so it's a little strange to be reading a book based on a video game. While I was seeing all the displays in stores about Battlefront: Twilight Company the game, I was at home reading Battlefront: Twilight Company the novel. I guess that was my way of taking part in the game everyone else was enjoying?

Anyway, the fact that the book is based on a video game isn't exactly what made it not my type of book. It's the battle and military focus that wasn't quite in line with my interests: I like the drama, the literary qualities, and the character arcs in Star Wars more than the actual wars. And this book is all about one battle after the next. First they go to this planet and fight, then this planet, then that planet. Maybe a battle in space in between. Morale in the company is low and then it goes back up and then it's low again and then it goes back up. All kind of monotonous to someone who isn't interested in military stories.

When I started reading this book, I had three weeks until Episode VII was going to come out. So I figured I would read the book in a week and then have a couple of weeks to rest from my Star Wars book marathon of the last several months. It didn't quite happen that way. I spent the first two weeks just getting through the first fourth of the novel. Then I spent about three days on the middle half. And then I read the last fourth yesterday in a desperate attempt to finish before the movie's opening day (even though I don't think I'll be watching it until Saturday).

So suffice it to say, as I'd expected, I had trouble getting into this book. But you know, in those last couple of days I think it did start to draw me in, in its own way. The characters were starting to feel like people: I felt like I was watching them in a TV show, like they were tangibly there, moving from one episode to the next. And it is always kind of nice to get a new perspective on the Star Wars events that we're all used to. The main force of the Rebellion plays out certain battles, but Twilight Company does a lot of dirty work and a lot of widespread work on the many, many planets under the Empire's hold. (Side note: for this being a military book, it wasn't graphic about the wounds and fighting--other Star Wars books I've read this year have been more graphic, which was kind of surprising.)

And now I'm officially read for Episode VII. Which, in turn, means that starting tonight, I think I'll hide from the Internet for the next couple of days until after I've seen the movie. You never know where spoilers will appear.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Mouse's Chocolates: Assortment

I love it when people bring me back chocolate from their travels. I've only been to Colorado once, when my plane landed there for a connection and I had to run to the gate because the first plane had left late due to weather conditions--I made it, even though it was past the time that the doors were supposed to close. While I've been to few enough states that I consider this brief moment to have been time in Colorado, I realize that I haven't really been to Colorado.

But these chocolates are from Colorado, deep in mountains in the "Switzerland of America," also known as Ouray. The company? Mouse's Chocolates & Coffee. Cute name. Cute logo. Basic style to the boxes and the chocolates. They look like simple confections, like what you might find at any little chocolate shop in any city. I took pictures and arranged them and didn't think about much. But then I began to taste them and I realized there was something more to these simple chocolates.

I can't remember now which one I had first (I didn't think, in this case, I would need to take notes like usual). So let's start with Peanut Butter (dark chocolate with milk chocolate stripes). A lot of the times, I'll prefer a Reese's cup to peanut butter chocolates: Americans are so used to that salty, crumbly peanut butter filling that the more creamy, buttery ones just don't seem quite right. That's the type of filling I was expecting here, but it isn't what I found. The texture is actually quite similar to real peanut butter, softer than what's in a Reese's cup but not too buttery; and there is just the right light hint of salt to distinguish this chocolate from others.

Now for Mint (milk chocolate with green stripes). Mint doesn't always work well with milk chocolate: the milk chocolate isn't always strong enough to hold the mint in. And mint tastes bad if it isn't fresh-tasting. This chocolate, though, is nice. The mint is strong and sweet, and the milk chocolate is cool and neutral. It has a nice melty flavor and texture. This is probably the most basic of the four chocolates I tried, but it's still alright.

The other two are seasonal flavors, starting with Gingerbread (milk chocolate with three white dots that mimic the buttons on a gingerbread man). Good work with flavor here. The ginger comes in nice and fresh, accompanied by the other usual spices and the warmth of the chocolate. As I learned with Theo's Gingerbread Spice bar a couple of years ago, the gingerbread flavors work especially well with milk chocolate. Put them in the right balance, as they are in this chocolate, and you have a winning holiday confection.

But if the flavor work was good in the Gingerbread chocolate, it's excellent with the Egg Nog one (dark chocolate with white stripes). I seem to have tried at least one egg nog chocolate before, but when it was is escaping my memory, so maybe this one is the first. Either way, I have nothing to use for comparison besides egg nog itself. And even to egg nog itself this chocolate stands tall. The filling is white and a little stiffer than the fillings on these other chocolates. And it hits all the points of egg nog right on the dot: the thick texture, the almost eggy flavor of cream, the nutmeg in the center with other spices on the edges. Very well done and amazing, definitely the best of the four.

So I was kind of wrong. I was expecting basic confections like the kind you'd find anywhere. But these are nicely done confections. The simple flavors are balanced well enough to be a step above the usual, and the seasonal flavors have a lot of thought put into them to have exactly the taste that you'd expect from gingerbread and egg nog. If at some point I actually set foot on Colorado's soil and made my way all the way to Ouray, I would definitely make a stop at Mouse's for some more chocolates.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Writing Adventures: Part 2

Click here to read Part 1. 

After I graduated college, it was exciting to have more time to focus on this writing project of mine--but it also took some getting used to. Suddenly I was able to often spend hours at a time on a project that I had once added to with one tiny piece every couple months at a time. I needed focus now and I needed organization and I needed constant, renewable drive. Music helped some; I'll do a separate post with the book's playlist later, but for now I'll just say that Flyleaf's Memento Mori is so very in sync with this book.

By this point, my book was divided into twenty sections that were each in turn divided into three sections (one per each of the three narrators). Some of the sections, though, had as little as one sentence, while others were fully developed but were only a page or so long. So I developed a method of adding to it all. I went from beginning to end, sub-section to sub-section, and edited the parts I had already written while also adding a pre-determined length to each section.

I did this a few times, slowly adding length so that I could end up with a decent word count. Each time I would finish, I would realize I wasn't there yet and needed more: my book is based less on plot than on imagery, so I had to fill in and brush on details (and even a sprinkling of plot) to make it full. I kept going until I had reached a mild 71,000 words and enough coherency and cohesiveness and all that was left was another edit for grammar/typos and any final adjustments.

But let's back up a step to the strangest part. At about the period where I was able to spend more time on writing, I encountered a certain difficulty with the third narrator (who is the only present day narrator). She used to be a twenty-something. But I was beginning to feel like she was glaring at me, accusing me of not getting her story right; I was afraid to work on her sections because I didn't know what was wrong. And then it hit me. She wasn't in her twenties at all: she's middle-aged. And then some other pieces quickly adjusted to fit in with the different age and suddenly everything was smooth again, so swiftly. This, in turn, meant that I emphasized the youngness of the second narrator (whom I picture to be around sixteen or so) more than I had before (in a positive way, though). And the fact that the three narrators aren't the same age somehow became more cohesive than if they were all, say, in their twenties.

I spent a lot of time while I was working on this book hating it: I think that's just my style. In college, as soon as I would finish writing a paper, I would hate it but it would be too late. So I would turn it in and try and not think about it anymore; but when I got it back, I ended up with an A and realized my hate was unfounded. The hate, hopefully, just means that I can keep a critical eye and change what needs to be changed and make better what is okay but could be wonderful. So ultimately I came to create a novel that I thought made sense as a piece of writing, as something that could be talked about and written about.

Next up: trying to convince outside sources that this novel was worth publishing.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Christmas Movies

I don't watch all of these every year, but when I think of Christmas movies, these are usually the ones I mean. Once I put them all in a list, I realize that there aren't really that many--and when I hear other people talk about Christmas movies, I realize that they include a lot of others that I've never really seen much of. But here's the type of movie that usually surrounds my December.

1) Mickey's Christmas Carol - Growing up, we didn't have too many movies, but this was one of them. I suppose it was my first introduction to A Christmas Carol. It was slightly creepy to me because it does have a bit of a dark, shadowy tone to it (even to the Christmas carols, I thought), but I also liked it. And who better to share the idea of the Christmas spirit than Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the rest? This is probably my favorite version, though Patrick Stewart's is good, too; I never watched the Muppet version until a couple years ago, so I don't have that connection with it that other people have (though I did like it).

2) How the Grinch Stole Christmas - I'm referring to the Jim Carrey version. We did have the animated one (not the more popular version that has the song in it--the other one), but kind of stopped watching it after the live action movie came out. It's the right kind of movie for winter: it's funny and lighthearted but also makes you think that it had a nice message in the end.

3) The Nativity Story - I still get a kick out of the fact that Catherine Hardwicke directed both this movie and Twilight, though there is in fact a lot of common ground. And that's I think what I liked about this movie: it approached Mary as a person more than most movies of this story tend to do. Keeping it simple and maintaining focus on the right things helped, too. Overall I find it nicely done.

4) Home Alone (1 & 2) - Given what I said before about not owning a lot of movies, we would sometimes watch this one at other times of the year than Christmas: it almost felt only like half a Christmas movie, even though it's filled with Christmas scenery. I would only occasionally catch a little of the second movie if it was playing on TV; the last couple of years, though, I've tried to watch both of them because they're both good. The second one is mainly just a repeat of the first one, but in this case that's perfectly okay.

5) The Santa Claus - You guessed it; this was another of the few movies we owned (I mean, we owned more than a few, just not a huge amount). It's been good to return to this one over the years: jokes that I didn't understand when I was seven I suddenly understand years later. Another movie that combines goofy comedy with some fantasy and something of a nice message. And it's easier to watch over and over than The Grinch, I think: something about the way the plot just rolls out has that cult classic feel.

6) Fitzwilly - This isn't really a Christmas movie, but I realized that it almost can be since it takes place during Christmastime. It's from the sixties, starring Dick Van Dyke and Barbara Feldon and a lot of other great cast members from the era. I first saw it a few years ago and somehow it wormed its way into being one of my favorite movies. It also has a little of a cult classic feel to it. It's kind of quotable, if only I had anyone to quote it to who's also seen the movie ("The one with the pink eyelids." I love that line.) It's about servants who work for a previously wealthy woman who doesn't know that she's now in debt; they have an elaborate business of stealing to maintain her lavish lifestyle and are doing quite well at it until she decides to hire her own secretary (Barbara Feldon), whom the butler (Dick Van Dyke) tried to scare away but ends up falling in love with instead. It's just a fun movie that gets better once you've seen it a couple times.

7) Doctor Who Christmas Episodes - These aren't movies; they're TV episodes--but given that most of the Christmas episodes are at least an hour, you can watch them like short movies. I tried that out last year and I'm starting it again this year. I just watched "Voyage of the Damned" today, which is pretty good. "A Christmas Carol" is also actually quite touching, with a good cast.

I have this feeling like I've forgotten something but I can't think of what. Anyway, I suppose seven is a good enough number to leave on. Happy movie-watching.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Holly Nog: Chocolate Mint Nog

I stopped drinking milk before it was popular to do so, back when regular grocery stores didn't carry soy or anything. My family had to go to Trader Joe's (which was about two hours away) and buy a case of soy to last us until our next trip over. Then at some point we all switched to almond (soy's rather chalky after you stop drinking it, though almond does have a nutty flavor that occasionally gets in the way--but there is more organic almond for sale than organic soy). So Christmastime is pretty much the only time when I still buy milk, in the form of egg nog, that is.

It took time to even realize whether or not I liked egg nog. I just had to buy one small carton each year for a while, just for the tradition of it. It has such a strange, thick texture that it's entertaining somehow to drink it. But now I tend to still buy the one carton of milk egg nog and then supplement it throughout the season with different brands of soy or almond egg nog to see which one tastes most like the regular milk kind. It's kind of a game now.

And then I saw this bottle at World Market. It's wine nog. I've only had one kind of alcoholic egg nog (the kind they sell at Costco) and I thought it was horrible (too much like alcohol rather than a spiked drink). So why I should get excited at this bottle, I don't know. . . . Oh, yes, because it is also chocolate nog. With mint. And made with cream. Shouldn't that be too much flavor to maintain the regular egg nog taste? Well, it still sounded really good to me, maybe because the chocolate-milky liquid in the bottle looked like a chocolate wine from World Market that I did enjoy a few years ago.

In taste, first this drink is sweet, then the alcohol comes in and that milky/creamy chocolate flavor, and then the milk. I don't know that it tastes specifically like wine; it just has that mild alcoholic taste to show that there is something besides cream and mint.

As far as the chocolate element goes, it is more of a milk chocolate than a dark or semisweet. While in a chocolate candy you would want dark chocolate to go with the mint instead of milk chocolate, here it works as milk chocolate because the mint flavor comes in more during the last stage and as an aftertaste. The two don't overlap at precisely the same moment. It's more as if you're eating a milk chocolate cream followed by a peppermint.

While this nog is sweet, it isn't sweet like dessert wine; rather, it is sweet like an actual dessert. The sweetness pairs with the cream and the chocolate just as it would in a dessert. So the chocolate isn't overly pronounced and maybe not even the dominant flavor--but I like the proportions as they are because this keeps the drink light and casual.

Once again we come to the question: is it like egg nog? Kind of. It has some of that thicker, creamier consistency that definitely puts you in mind of egg nog. But the flavor reminds me less of traditional egg nog because I'm not paying as much attention to the spices as to the chocolate and mint--which is the idea, after all. But there is enough of that spiced flavor to taste like the holidays.

Overall, I quite like it. I find that I can't drink much of it, whether it's because it's alcohol or because it's sweet (or a combination) I'm not sure. But it would be nice for a party, maybe because it's alcohol without really feeling like alcohol; and if your guests are like me, you can just split one bottle into small portions and you'll all be happy. It would be great with dessert, whether a flourless chocolate cake or gingerbread men or something lighter like sponge cake or vanilla ice cream. Or just let it be dessert in itself.

Monday, December 7, 2015

What Do You Celebrate? Christmas Edition

'Tis the time when I bring to you some sort of expression not of what you celebrate or what the person sitting over there celebrates but of what I celebrate. 'Tis the time for celebrating Christmas.

Christmas, as the biggest holiday of the year, may also be the most multi-faceted. It means so many things at once and also so many different things to different people. And also what we do celebrate may differ from what we may say that we're celebrating.

I think that one of my favorite things (as in physical things) about Christmas is the Christmas tree. I love setting it up and looking at all the glowing lights and each individual ornament and building up the pretty presents underneath. I love spotting trees at the mall or in people's windows. Christmas trees are like happiness in the darkened, cold winter days. They're like beacons: they bring people together, first to set them up and then later on to serve as the mailbox for gifts to one another. It's very sweet. And, yes, I do have a preference to a star on top, though there are some very pretty angels, too.

Visually, Christmas gives you something to look at and think about when it's cold and the days get dark so early and you just need a little something sparkly to cheer you up.

Thematically, I realize that I have almost been treating Christmas like Part 2 of Thanksgiving. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. Christmas, in true A Christmas Carol style, is about remembering the good things that you have been giving and returning that kindness to your family, your friends, and anybody that you pass by in your life. That's where the presents come in and the gifting of cookies (I have a tradition of gingerbread cookie giving) and such. Which is good. And it's an easy way to make Christmas universal for people of different backgrounds (or to make Christmas a public holiday, that is). But Christmas is something more than that, isn't it?

In addition to the trees, I also like the nativity sets. One of mine is a teeny, tiny, vintage one of some sort of tan plastic with many, many little pieces. I like decorating with nativity sets because they remind me of what, past the cookies and the presents and the glittering lights and the generic wishes of goodwill, I should really be celebrating. Easter is about the death and resurrection, but Christmas is simply a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Simply a grand, joyous celebration of God's gift to Mankind. It's a memory and it's a thank you and it's worship. Suddenly Christmas is not so complicated anymore; suddenly it is the simplest of holidays. I think listening to Rend Collective's Christmas album last year helped me realize that celebration should be the biggest part of Christmas: and it's really the most amazing thing to celebrate. We have every reason to be joyous around Christmastime.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Question that Must Be Asked

On Wednesday, Andrea Bocelli was in Phoenix and I had the pleasure of attending his concert. It was very good: the backdrop and projections were beautiful and all of the accompanying musicians and singers were also wonderful. Heather Headley sang a rendition of "Over the Rainbow" that was so unique that it made me start about the song and the story all over again.

You see, I had recently commented that it's almost odd that "Over the Rainbow" has become such a popular song, an anthem for The Wizard of Oz: the song speaks about longing for something else, while the theme of the story is about realizing that what you already have is what you want and need. And there isn't really a song at the end of the movie to illustrate that theme.

But if it were all so simple as realizing the theme of the movie before it is even stated or actualized, then we wouldn't need a movie to illustrate that theme, would we? And Dorothy wouldn't have needed to go on a whole adventure to realize that message, either.

So the reason that "Over the Rainbow" is the anthem is because, no matter how much we are told to be thankful for what we have, we must still ask the question for ourselves. We must ask why we cannot soar far away, far beyond our scope of sight. We must dream . . . because in dreaming we realize our full potential.

If you never ask why you cannot be, then you will never be. If you never ask why you cannot achieve, then you will never achieve. If you never ask why you cannot soar, then you will never soar.

The key matter is simply that in order to be, to achieve, and to soar, we do not need the fantasy of wings like birds. We don't need to transfigure ourselves or to fly away to another world. Everything that we need is right here at our fingertips. That does not, of course, mean that simply by wanting something you will have it. It just means that contentment is in your hands, joy is in your reach, and accomplishment is in your power. And in order to realize that, you must first ask the question of why. Why can't I fly over the rainbow? . . . Oh, yes, that's right: I'm already there.

The Hillywood Show's Hocus Pocus Parody

Well, well, well, what do we have here? It's the newest parody by The Hillywood Show. Though their last one was very good, it's been several months now since it was released, enough time to make me want something more. Hilly and Hannah have begun asking for regular fan funding through Patreon, and I think they might have been hoping to have enough funding to start this project sooner. Then YouTube was giving problems with the upload and it didn't come out until Wednesday, though it was supposed to debut last weekend. And I didn't have the chance to watch it until last night (which felt really strange because I can usually watch their videos as soon as they're out).

But if there there delays or complications getting this video made, it's all in the past now: the final product turned out great. The subject is the early '90's movie Hocus Pocus, which I had to watch to prepare for the parody since I'd never seen it before. And the song is a medley from The Nightmare Before Christmas, making this the second time Hillywood has used a song from there (Gagaween a few years ago was the first time). The songs work flawlessly and have a lighthearted, fun tone that helps to portray the comedy side of the movie. The chorus may be about kidnapping children, but it's never sinister or dark--just fun and silly. And the fact that the songs are from a Halloween/Christmas movie is kind of nice now that it's closer to Christmas than to Halloween.

I didn't realize until I watched the Behind the Scenes that this parody involved their first complete 360 degree set. And it really is detailed. The costumes and makeup are also so well done, some of their best work. Overall, very polished and yet also filmed and edited together in such a way as to not detract from the spontaneity of the song and storyline. Maybe less people will happen on this parody because less people are YouTubing Hocus Pocus than than are big movies, but it has good rewatchability, which leads to more views (and happy viewers).