Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Chemist

Just a couple of months before the announcement of this new novel, I was talking to someone about authors never finishing a series, like how The Host was supposed to be the first installment in a trilogy and eight years later doesn't even have one sequel. And then came the sudden announcement that Stephenie Meyer would be releasing the first in a new series--an adult thriller this time, The Chemist. Didn't we all kind of wonder what we were even supposed to think of that?

I guess I read a variety of types of books--I always think that I don't, but then I look at my shelves and I compare them to other people's and I realize that I do. But there are a couple of genres that I hardly touch. Mystery, romance, and thriller. I just don't read those genres. And the only book I can think of that I've read that was probably a thriller, Blink of an Eye by Ted Dekker, held my attention while I read it but failed to keep any good opinion of mine once I'd finished it. That's how suspense usually is for me: temporary. It doesn't hold more meaning for me, and I usually prefer my books to have at least some element of lingering meaning.

So I wasn't exactly excited that Stephenie Meyer was releasing a thriller. But she's one of the authors I've said I'll read anything she publishes (until I get disappointed by a book and change my mind, that is). I wasn't able to read the book right when it came out because I was reading other things first, which meant that I read it during Christmastime.

And that did rather bother me at first. During this time of year, I didn't want to be spending my time reading about being on the run, people shooting at each other, and various methods of torture. Add to that that I found the first thirty or so pages exceedingly boring: they're all about spy traps and gadgets and such. I worried that all 500-some pages would be like those first pages. Then I got to the torture stuff and I wondered why I was even reading this because it just really didn't seem like my type of book.

But somewhere at about that point, I started reading Stephenie Meyer again. A couple of characters reminded me of Ian and Kyle from The Host. And I saw in the elements of hiding and preparation pieces from both The Host and Twilight. Then the book started moving in toward the human element that is prevalent in all of Stephenie Meyer's work.

In the midst of all of the "action stuff" (which is the easiest way of putting it without writing out the plot), the characters became people. People with personal struggles and doubts and choices and individuality. That's what allowed the plot to move forward with some interest for me, and that's what kept it from being too much of a generic action story.

There isn't much else for me to say. I guess I did overall enjoy this book, although I didn't overly enjoy it, either. It still isn't really my genre, so I'm sure people who read more of this sort of thing will like it more than I did. It also says something, though, that I could enjoy a book that wasn't a type of genre I usually enjoy. So despite my lukewarm and brief comments, I do find that a success. (I also don't know how to talk about individual aspects of this book without simply giving away the whole plot, which is also why my comments are brief.)

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Untold Story of Rogue One

Here is my non-spoiler bit on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. This was a good film and surpassed my worries about being simply "a war movie" by rooting everything in humanity. It's a good addition to the Star Wars universe. Oh, and other than one or two scenes, the 3D didn't really do much; The Force Awakens was beautiful in 3D but this one would've been fine in 2D.

Okay, now for the spoiler-riddled comments.

Friday, December 16, 2016

La Cure Gourmande: Caramel Milk Chocolate

Okay, so I once again have a chocolate that I bought before I made my comment about what types of chocolate I want to try and stick to from now on.

In fact, I'm not entirely sure why I chose this chocolate from La Cure Gourmande. It's something I haven't tried before, which is enough. But I think also that I found the packaging pretty. The card box isn't just yellow: it's a darker, richer yellow at the bottom that fades to a brighter yellow at the top, and a white lace pattern starts at the bottom and also lightens as it reaches the top. The painted picture in the middle is a late Victorian scene, and the Victorian era is my favored historical setting. And since I'm not really reviewing Christmas chocolates this year, I suppose the frilliness of this packaging acted as a stand in for all the holiday glitz.

I was unprepared, however, for the beautiful way in which this yellow card box folds open. Remove the adhesive from one edge and pull to the side the back cover and you'll find a sort of envelope shape, with one edge made of gentle curves. More Victorian scenes. I hadn't been so delighted in opening up a card box in a while.

The chocolate bar is equally lovely. Light and smooth milk chocolate squares, ten of them, arrange themselves horizontally rather than vertically. That is, you have to hold the chocolate bar horizontally for the initials "CG" (for Cure Gourmande) to become clear. Victorian-style lettering makes for a more unique look than I would have imagined, and even the simple edging on the squares is the perfect detail.

As far as flavor, I feel like this chocolate tastes exactly like (or very nearly exactly like) one I've had before--but I can't seem to remember which chocolate it reminds me of. It may have been a truffle. You'll have noticed that the name of this bar is Caramel Milk Chocolate. It isn't filled with caramel, no. Rather, there is caramelized sugar in here along with the other ingredients (as well as "spices"). You can almost imagine that it's just a very caramel-tasting chocolate since caramel is one of the basic flavor notes of milk chocolate (this one has 31% cocoa content, by the way). But this flavor is stronger and is less linked to the flavor of the chocolate. It's like you get all the flavor of a caramel filling without the separate texture.

Is it a good effect? Yes, it is. I can't deny that I'm very much enjoying this sweet caramel flavor combined with the vanilla milk chocolate. A fine milk chocolate with strong caramel notes makes for a more refined experience, that is true. This chocolate bar is more of an elevated confection, and will be a hit with milk chocolate lovers. Come to think of it, it's similar to Lindt's milk chocolate--only I think it takes the flavors further (this is more of a flavored chocolate rather than a plain chocolate, after all). Given that I said this chocolate looked right for Christmas, I'm also going to add that it tastes just right for Christmas gifts or stockings. Milk chocolate works for adults and children alike.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Before Rogue One

I had my plan to post a "Rogue One Expectations" today--and then I decided that I would prefer not to have any expectations for this film. So I deleted the (unwritten) post. Now I'm amending my posting decision: I'm instead simply going to talk about what I think will be different about this movie versus the others and how I'm okay with it being different.

Just as watching Star Wars TV shows and reading Star Wars books prepared me for a stress-free watching of Episode VII (in which I didn't feel like I would be let down if this movie wasn't my favorite out of the seven), it's also prepared me for Rogue One. All of the other films have been part of a continuous story, and Rogue One is sort of just a side story that takes place right in the middle of it all and only has a brief, though still important, connection to the main story. So it's apart from the rest, and I expect that the movie will also feel apart from the rest, not just in its set of characters and its plot but also in its tone and its style.

The question will be, in what ways is it okay for this movie to be different and how similar does it need to be to still fit into the Star Wars universe?

New species of creatures can still have the Star Wars look. New locations can still feel familiar because of the buildings, tools, or technology within them. Visually, I know we'll be getting some of the material from Episode IV to get nostalgic about. I believe I heard that we're getting some new styles of cinematography, which will probably simply be an exciting new lens through which to look at this universe. I'm hoping that, even if the music is different, it won't simply sound like another movie soundtrack--especially not a modern one. Star Wars music has a specific sound that, naturally, harkens back to when the original trilogy was made, and especially given that the timeline of this film goes back to that first movie, I don't want too modern of a sound to the score.

So Rogue One will be a war movie. Okay. That's fine. It is Star Wars after all. And there are battles in all the films, and wars in most of them. If there's a little more attention to the war, that's fine. What I don't want is non-stop fighting. I don't want action scenes all piled on to of one another, even if they're good action scenes (for instance, I love both The Lord of the Rings books and movies and while those films have great battle scenes, I still think that they're much too battle heavy). If we must move from one fight to another, there has to be a thread of humanity constantly in there (which, in fact, they did very well in adding in The Lord of the Rings, for instance again, despite my complaints). Humanity is the heart of Star Wars. Even if there is less of the "use the Force" and "trust the Force" thing in Rogue One, we still need that sense of finding peace within yourself and connecting to others and using that to promote your choice for good.

That is, I don't think that the Force will serve the same role in this film as with the main films. But you know, was I the only one who thought that Catalyst gave hints that Jyn might end up Force-sensitive? (This would actually lend some credence to the theory that Jyn is Rey's mother.) It'll definitely be interesting to watch and see if she does, but I would also enjoy seeing how a movie plays out where none of the protagonists can use the Force.

Really, I haven't said much here. I realize that. I just thought it would be nice to set down some of these thoughts before I see the movie. Probably I'll be seeing it on Saturday because that's just easier--which means I'll have to avoid certain corners of the Internet for a couple of days. My anticipation is really starting to build: I'm just immensely curious to see what Rogue One is like.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 7: Pocahontas

Click to read Part 1 (Snow White)Part 2 (Cinderella)Part 3 (Aurora)Part 4 (Ariel)Part 5 (Belle), and Part 6 (Jasmine).

Did Disney bite off more than they could chew when they chose to make an animated movie out of the legend of Pocahontas? Some say they did--but I find (after watching the movie a couple of more times) that they did about as good of a job as they could have and I'm in fact growing fond of this 1995 film (you just have to remember that the story of Pocahontas, from the beginning, was always intended as a legend rather than a history--people forget that there is little point in talking about it as a history, unless you are analyzing the history of legends). The point remains, however, that this is a difficult film for children to feel much connection toward. But let's move on with our usual analysis of Pocahontas as an animated, female character.

As children, apparently my brother and I said that Pocahontas was ugly--though I have no memory of this (I would have been around four at the time). What she is is a complete departure from the previous Disney princess look, and I guess we just weren't used to seeing diversity in animation. Jasmine was supposed to add diversity--but other than her outfit, she doesn't really look too different from her predecessors. Pocahontas does, and I think the artists gave a real effort to not Europeanize her features. Her skin is a warm color, and her profile is completely different from Cinderella's or Belle's. And of course the actress, Irene Bedard, who performed her speaking voice is Native American. So I give Pocahontas full points for actually adding racial diversity to the princess group.

Other than our comment about Pocahontas's looks, I'm guessing that what makes this film more inaccessible for children is the depth of its themes. There is so much material in there. Questions of two worlds colliding. Of people following or listening to others without checking to see if what they say is true. Of respect--for other people and for the world we live in. You could take this film as a message from environmentalists.

I bring this up to speak to this aspect of Pocahontas's character. She is not at all like Snow White, the moral figure representing all good virtues. Yet she doesn't have the childish rebellion of Ariel, either. She is perhaps the most intelligent of all the Disney princesses, taking Belle's love of reading one step further into wisdom that has nothing to do with books. Pocahontas respects and she thinks--two highly laudable traits. When she hesitates about marrying Kocoum, for instance, she truly takes time to consider what it would mean to marry him and what it would mean to refuse him. She doesn't rashly yell out that she won't marry him, and she doesn't submissively agree without hesitation, either.

What I describe could almost sound like hesitation. But Pocahontas is not the hesitating sort. She thinks before she acts, yes, but she also takes risks and tries to see the full potential of circumstances. She's an optimist. When she knows a waterfall, she will dive headfirst into the water below just for the fun of it. And so when she meets a stranger, she will think well of him until he proves otherwise--and then she will try to turn him from the wrong. Since she doesn't fear situations, you could call her brave. It's hard to find anything to pick on when it comes to Pocahontas: like Belle, she is a well-rounded character, and she is kinder and less quick to anger than Belle.

Pocahontas is wise, with a sense of right and wrong, and yet she also has a sense of fun to accompany her sense of duty. A time to be serious, and a time to play. This is why the river metaphor is so strong throughout the movie: it expresses this sense of being many things at once, or many things throughout the length of life.

I think Pocahontas does get the short end of the stick. With all the merch Disney sells, there is little to nothing for Pocahontas because people just don't want to buy when they can buy Snow White or Rapunzel merch instead. And people try to be smart by saying that Pocahontas is nothing like "what really happened"--even though they're missing the fact that John Smith himself intentionally wrote the story of Pocahontas the legend, not the history, and it's that legend that Disney made a movie on (if you miss John Rolfe that much, he shows up in the sequel). So we get sidetracked from what the film does offer. Pocahontas is intelligent, respectful, adventurous, and a diverse addition to the Disney princess group.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Catalyst for Rogue One

I've been trying not to think too much about Rogue One because I don't to spend all that time wishing it were out already and because I simply want to enjoy it for what it is when it comes out versus forming all these expectations in my mind beforehand. Still, the release of the movie's prequel novel, Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel by James Luceno, was pretty exciting.

And it's ever so much more of a catalyst for the film than the main lead-in book, Aftermath, was for The Force Awakens last year. Whereas Aftermath was setting up its own book trilogy and not necessarily setting up the movie, Catalyst really is setting up for Rogue One. It's basically all about the Death Star, and of course we all know that Rogue One will be about the team that stole the plans for the Death Star from the Empire.

Mainly the book focuses on Galen Erso, who is the father of the film's main character, Jyn, and also a highly intelligent scientist. There is quite a bit of technical speak in this book, but it didn't really bore me--it somehow fascinated me instead. It isn't just science; it's also about the Force, and about where the two intersect. And in with all the technical speak and company politics (if that's the right phrase) are questions of scientific ethics and personal morals. What makes something good? And if something is better than something else, is it really bad? All very interesting to read, and all very Star Wars.

From the Star Wars books I've read so far, I thought that I preferred the more dramatic books. This one seems less dramatic, and yet I really enjoyed it; it's kind of a slower read, but I didn't mind that. And I think the reason that it still appealed to me was that everything was in fact grounded in individual characters and human nature and all of that side of things. James Luceno also penned every passage so well that instead of just looking at plot, I was also noticing the way this story was written--which is a treat for what you might be able to call genre fiction.

The way this book is physically composed was also, well, rather awesome. The chapters have names, which I'm not used to anymore--that helped to spur on my excitement for each next phase of the book (because, of course, we all know going in what the basic story will be, so it isn't simply a question of what will happen, as it is with other books). And in the page before each chapter starts, there is a close-up of, presumably, the Death Star plans themselves. Grey lines on a white background that at first just look like a pattern--until you realize what they are and the awareness becomes almost chilling.

One more week until Rogue One, and this book has indeed whet my appetite for the film.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

On Location

I lived in California until I was almost eight. Then I grew up in a couple of small towns in the center of Arizona. I moved to the Phoenix area for college. And when I graduated, I couldn't get back home fast enough to the area that I said I loved so much. I said that I liked living out here, that I preferred it to living in the city.

Three and a half years passed, and all of a sudden on Saturday morning I decided to move back to the city.

But was it sudden or not? I've realized that the idea of moving and simply the idea of location had been brewing in my mind since summer. At this time, I did think I was going to move to a somewhat bigger town not too far away, and so I was trying to get myself used to the idea--but that move didn't work out for various reasons. I was part disappointed and part glad, and part of me didn't even know what I thought anymore, or where I wanted to be anymore. So that was when I started thinking about where people live and why they live there and how they choose where they live.

We can all look at a map and point to someplace where we think it would be nice to live. But we end up living in a certain place because that's where our family is, that's where we have a job, that's where we can afford to live, or other such reasons. What makes the difference, I have come to realize, is what we do with our daily lives and how and where we choose to spend our time.

If I say that I don't like cities because there's too much cement and not enough land, I can get membership at the Botanical Garden, for instance, and go there twice a week or even more if I want. I can walk around or find a place to sit and maybe read or write. I can visit trails and parks--if I don't want to stay cooped up at home, then I don't have to.

And there are other things, too. If I want, I can go see every play that Southwest Shakespeare puts on each season. I can go see Ballet Arizona or Phoenix Symphony performances every once in a while and not have to drive two hours home afterward. I can go to the Art Museum more regularly. My point is, I like these things and I sometimes lament that they haven't been a greater part of my life--but I'll have the opportunity now to make them a part of my life.

In some ways, I've let myself go stagnant, and now I want to get back into a rhythm. I'm taking Christmastime as a break and a chance to finish wrapping up some things over here, and then the plan is to move in January.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 6: Jasmine

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

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

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

So what does Jasmine offer?

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2016

TCHO: Toffee + Sea Salt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 5: Belle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2016

Post Thanksgiving Thoughts on Hospitality

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 4: Ariel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

Milka: Leo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Beginning of the Thrawn Trilogy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 3: Aurora

Click to read Part 1 and Part 2.

It's kind of funny. People always talk about how the Disney princes don't have names (even though almost all of them do), yet in Sleeping Beauty it is the princess whose name many people can't seem to remember. It's Aurora. That is, she was named Aurora by her parents when she was born--and the fairies called her Briar Rose when they were raising her in hiding from Maleficent. And the prince's name is Philip--a name that is mentioned many, many times throughout the movie.

Here is one of the big differences in 1959's Sleeping Beauty versus the precious Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella: there was a real and successful effort to also characterize the prince. Prince Philip has scenes on his own without Aurora there, and he has a big part to play in the story. He doesn't just show up when he's needed; he's there at different stages, doing different things. I'm here to talk about Aurora right now, but it bears noting that in this film both the prince and princess have fairly equal focus.

Princess, did I say? Yes, Aurora is already a princess even without marrying Philip. This is, of course, unlike Cinderella and even somewhat unlike Snow White--because Snow White is a princess whose stepmother is not allowing her to live like a princess (she's kind of "dethroned"). Aurora is a princess who doesn't know she's a princess, though. Her parents have entrusted her to the care of the fairies until she is old enough to be free of Maleficent's curse and can return home safely. So she's raised in a unique way, in a kind of bubble out in the woods.

Philip thinks she is a peasant girl (and notably tells his father that he wants to marry this peasant girl), and she must think so, as well. So she is quite used to walking around the woods barefoot and going out to pick berries. But she also has a more regal bearing than either of the princesses who came before her--and perhaps also any of the ones who would follow. She acts like royalty with her posture and her voice, so it is safe to guess that the fairies tried to raise her with a royal upbringing even if they were just in a cottage in the woods: they wanted her to be prepared when she finally did return home. I suppose to think of being royal (that is, a princess) as being more than a pretty dress and a crown but also your entire manner and way of thinking is a good thing.

Now, Aurora is not held by the same characteristics as Snow White and Cinderella. We never see her cleaning. Presumably, she does do work--but even in her small task of picking berries, she spends more time dancing around and talking to the birds about her dream than actually trying to fill her basket (granted, she could be taking her time because she knows the fairies just wanted to get her out of the house for a while). So she isn't a martyr princess or an overly done symbol of morality. She's just a person who happens to be a princess in disguise, beautiful, and a wonderful singer.

Ah, you see what I'm getting at there? Do you remember the beginning of the movie? The fairies bestow gifts on the baby princess. The first two gifts are the gift of beauty and the gift of song. Okay, gift of song is nice, but does this mean that we're to think Aurora would have been ugly without the gift of beauty and that physical beauty is meant to be something so important that, out of all the gifts a fairy could give, it's the one she would choose to give? To me, this is the worst part of the movie in terms of analyzing Aurora's character. I don't mind the princesses being beautiful because fictional characters often are. But I do mind physical beauty being treated in this manner.

But let's take this a little further and see if we can't overcome it. At what point after the gift scene is Aurora's beauty mentioned (except, of course, for the narrator mentioning that she "did indeed grow in grace and beauty")? I can't think of a single time. Philip is attracted first to hearing her sing--and since singing is something that comes from the heart, we can hardly complain about this. No one seems to relate to Aurora specifically because of her looks; they relate to her because of who she is or because of how they have come to know her. She stands on her own personality, that is. Her parents love her because she is their daughter, the fairies love her because they raised her, and Philip loves her because he felt a connection to her right away (they both talk about meeting each other "once upon a dream," which is to say that they feel like kindred spirits).

Yes, Aurora's story hinges on a man waking her up from an enchanted sleep. But do you know what? Philip went through a lot of danger (in a wonderful sequence of good versus evil, I might add) to save her, so why should we fault one person helping another person just because the person doing the helping happens to be a man and the person who needs help happens to be a woman? People can and should help one another; I have no problem with that. And Aurora was not in danger from any fault of her own; she was just the target for Maleficent's evil wrath. So it isn't as if Philip's helping Aurora in any way weakens Aurora: it's just evidence that she chose well by choosing him.

And after all, isn't that a good thing? If Aurora was comfortable enough in who she was to know how to choose someone to love that she knew would love her back in the right way, then that's a good lesson to have in a movie. In many ways, Sleeping Beauty is a combination of the previous two films: it's simultaneously a story of the triumph of good like Snow White is also also a love story like Cinderella is. So the main message that the film gives is love, many different kinds of love: patriotic, loyalty, parental, familial, and romantic. Aurora loves the three women who raised her, falls in love with the man she met while out picking berries, and will come to love her parents and the country that she will one day rule. There is this sense of responsibility that lingers at the back of it all: Aurora and the people around her show us that love isn't just something you receive, it's something you work for.

A true figure of royalty, Aurora is a fitting part of the Disney princess set.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Theo: Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

I'm not sure whether or not this is a new product. It is, however, new to me. I like Theo's products and their general approach and I like when chocolate candy is well done, with better ingredients that are also organic and fair trade. So all of those factors were enough that I had to investigate Theo's take on Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter cups.

Some other notes about the ingredients before we move on. The front of the wrapper advertises no palm oil and no soy. In addition to the regular cane sugar, there is also powdered sugar in here, which I don't usually see; I'm guessing it went into the peanut butter filling. There is also peanut flour, besides the roasted peanuts. I'm not sure why there is rosemary extract as I don't taste the rosemary (and wouldn't want to taste it, either)--I'm curious to know its role.

The look of the wrapper, with its off-white color accented by brighter shades, fits in with the usual Theo look. Inside the wrapper is the familiar white tray we associate with Reese's Cups, but the cups are a little different from Reese's. They don't sit in paper liners, presumably because Theo has no need of liners and instead uses a mold to get this shape in the same way that they would mold a chocolate bar. In place of the simple round shape, these cups are heart-shaped; the Theo name decorates the bottom of each one, which I find pretty cute. It's still all nice and casual as a candy should be but with nice little details.

When I cut open one of the peanut butter cups, I found what appear to be chips of peanuts inside the filling, which I wasn't overly thrilled about. I'm not, after all, that fond of peanuts: to me, it's the creaminess that makes them nice. If I'm eating them whole, I'd rather have almonds or pecans or walnuts, as those seem to have much more flavor (which makes sense since they're all nuts and peanuts aren't--but this is a tangent).

The first taste that you get with these is of peanuts, strong enough that it is the flavor of eating straight peanuts. Then a sort of buttery taste comes in, accompanied by some salt. More peanut flavor moves back in with a little chocolate. The texture is certainly much drier than that of a Reese's Cup--not that this texture is dry. It just doesn't have all that greasiness. And after all my concern about the pieces of peanuts, they don't add much crunch; I almost forget that they're even there. They seem to be there more for flavor--and perhaps also to keep the texture from being too smooth (Reese's Cups also have a distinctive crumbly texture).

Interestingly, my second bite had more of that distinctive salty, peanut taste that we associate with Reese's Cups. I don't know why I didn't get it as much at first. The main difference in the flavor is that it comes, unsurprisingly, with more actual peanut taste here. I think you might also taste the chocolate less in here than with Reese's, but perhaps that's because the peanut butter filling here has more flavor and because the chocolate is not greasy.

Now, I don't want to be losing anyone's interest by saying that there is no greasiness and the flavor tastes like actual peanuts. These are still satisfactory as a candy. They're still sweet. Those of us who have gotten used to smaller amounts of sugar sweets can be content with just one, and they are more satisfying than Reese's Cups in the sense that you don't feel that you absolutely have to eat the second one because you're still tasting and enjoying the first one even after it's all melted away.

It is hard to come up with a final statement. Obviously this is going to be a very different experience given that they're not made in the same junky way as Reese's Cups (and while it isn't always appropriate to draw direct comparisons between separate products, it's obvious that Theo designed these as an alternative to Reese's Cups, therefore it's part of my role to compare the two). I do find that Theo did a pretty good job of replicating what we enjoy about the experience of Reese's Cups while at the same time, without frightening us away, elevating the experience through more flavorful and honorable ingredients. So these can pretty much replace Reese's Cups. And I'll go so far as to say that if a child is raised with these instead of Reese's Cups, they'll be satisfied and probably find Reese's Cups a bit gross when they finally do try them.

And let me not forget to emphasize how much I appreciate products like this. While most of us enjoy a good gourmet chocolate bar, for a regular day sometimes you just want a chocolate candy. Or children want chocolate candy. There is certainly the time and place for it. But more and more, I and many others, don't want to support brands like Hershey's. We need better quality ingredients and we need our sweets to simply be sweets and not motor oil. And in a country as privileged as ours, why can't we curb out sweet tooths a little in order to only buy fairly traded cocoa products even if that means we eat less chocolate? So thank you, Theo, for having a product like this on the market.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Shelf Unbound Competition

I am pleased to announce that my novel, Black Tree, made it as a runner-up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition.


To know that, out of all of the entries, my book received consideration is an honor. I am most happy to receive this news and to share it with you. If you haven't yet had the opportunity to buy my book, paperback and hardcover copies are currently 30% off at this link. Thank you so much for following me on this journey.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 2: Cinderella

Click here to read Part 1.

In my last post, I expressed quite a high opinion of Snow White as a symbolic figure, a representation of various virtues. We are now moving forward to 1950's Cinderella. Like Pinocchio and Peter Pan, this movie has become known for a famous song and for famous imagery without necessarily being known for "the whole movie." I think that more people could name more individual scenes from Snow White than from Cinderella.

The truth is, I don't think Cinderella is the best of Disney--in fact, I think it's one of the weaker Disney princess movies, despite having some really beautiful elements (the animals might just be the best aspect of this movie, and the visuals are distinctive and wonderful). But this isn't a film review. I'm just talking about Cinderella the character.

Like Snow White, Cinderella embodies certain virtues. She is hardworking, hopeful, kind, and sometimes patient. Even though her stepmother and stepsisters (and the cat, Lucifer) are mean to her, she not only puts up with them but also tries to be nice to them, to at least view them as people. Though the kindness of a Disney princess has become something even Disney is willing to parody, kindness remains a highly important virtue (as expressed so well by the live action Cinderella).

Yet Cinderella falls flatter than Snow White, perhaps because Snow White was designed as a symbolic figure whereas the movie attempts to flesh out the details of Cinderella's story a little more. We see her waking up in the morning, and we see her at work at more types of tasks than just cleaning house (feeding the chickens, for instance). We also see a little more of the world around her; the scenes with the king, however, ultimately add more comic relief than characterization or realism (and notice that there are scenes with the king, but no attempts to characterize the prince, whom I would think would be more important).

And here's the thing: Snow White is a princess hidden in rags who falls in love with a prince that she meets and then longs to see this particular prince again. Cinderella, however, is a downtrodden noblewoman who looks longingly at the glamor of the castle and falls in love with a man she danced with at a ball. So she has a, shall we say, stereotypically feminine longing for glitter and jewels and parties. Granted, a ball at the castle would be a welcome break from the hard life her stepmother has forced her into; however, this longing does come across as a bit trivial. (Now, there is a possibility to look at this in terms of class, with the castle representing the ultimate upper class--but the rest of the movie, particularly the ending, does not address this issue, therefore I'm pretending it isn't there.)

Now, I shouldn't be too hard on Cinderella, anyway, though: if she is so hardworking as she obviously is, what's wrong with her finding glitter and jewels pretty? When it came down to it, she remained what you might call humble, or genuine. When she enters the palace, you'll recall that she gets lost; the prince sees her from afar and goes up to her and they start dancing and then fall in love. Very quick falling in love, but hey, it's a movie. Cinderella doesn't know that he is the prince until the next day--and then she is so shocked that she drops everything in her hands. The fact that the man she has fallen in love with is the prince is only an added bonus; she is happier simply to be in love and to be loved than to think that she'll become part of the royal family.

Cinderella, then, is more of a love story than Snow White. Other than maintaining the concepts of hard work and kindness already established with Snow White, Cinderella doesn't really offer anything new as a character and she also doesn't quite manage to fill her predecessor's shoes. Snow White is a sweet girl, and Cinderella is a young woman who hopes for a better life. I do think that Snow White makes for more of a role model for people in general, and Cinderella is simply someone that girls might like to be because she's pretty and wears a pretty dress. Seeing, however, that there is nothing wrong with enjoying wearing a pretty dress, there is nothing really wrong with that.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Wei of Chocolate Selection

Wei of Chocolate used to have a booth at ASU's farmer's market; since I would usually try and pick up some foods there (I still crave the challah bread one of the clubs on campus sold), I did of course at one point get some chocolate (this is back when I was doing my reviews on Chocablog). They sold a little tube of several flower-shaped chocolates in different varieties. I remember that I liked them but it was long enough ago that I don't particularly remember what they were like. So when I came across Wei of Chocolate again at a shop, I picked up two of them to revisit.

Though they are the same foil-wrapped, floral shape that I remember, these flowers are smaller; unless I'm mistaken, they're about half the size. And I love this tiny size. The shop I was at had them in a bowl at the register, making them perfect for picking up when you need just a touch of chocolate--or a handful to share. Each one was under a dollar, and for reference the circumference of the chocolate flowers is just a little bigger around than a quarter. This is about as small as chocolates get, considering that plenty of truffles are bigger.

I love the size, though, because not only does it allow for the possibility of just wanting a little bit of chocolate--it also makes the experience more casual. If we had more chocolate like this, then we would need less KitKats and Reese's Cups (I confess, I had some of these for Halloween and they were delicious because I hadn't had any in a while--but the world needs less of these chocolate candies rather than more). In the bowl, all of the foil wrappers were reminiscent of M&Ms. (One more side note: with a name like "Wei of Chocolate," you'd think they would use a more environmentally friendly material than foil.)

I can't offer a picture of the chocolates this time--though I do apologize for that because the mold that Wei of Chocolate uses is rather nice, showing off all of the flower petals. (You can see in the first picture that the silver chocolate is smashed; I didn't really take care of these because I wasn't sure if I would even review them since I've covered Wei of Chocolate before. So perhaps this is more of a note than a review.)

As you can see, the silver chocolate is named Pure Wei and described as being rich and luscious. It has flowery notes and the taste of cane sugar mixed in with deep chocolate. It isn't bitter at all except perhaps in the aftertaste.

The purple chocolate, Wei Radiant, is supposed to be super dark. And it is. It's bitter in a way that I don't consider very pleasing. The second half of the chocolate, though, is more pleasing than the first; at this point, your taste buds get used to the flavors and the flavors themselves start mellowing more. Now, this one does offer a rich chocolate taste that's rather nice, but I prefer not to also have to get that dose of thick, biting bitterness.

I definitely, then, prefer the Pure Wei to the Wei Radiant. I don't mind very dark chocolate; I just like it done a certain way. I do wonder what cocoa percentage these chocolates are. I want to say the Wei Radiant is around 80%, and the Pure Wei might be in the 60's range. But I'm not used to trying to guess on these. I usually don't care for dark chocolate under 70%, but this one (if it's even under 70%, which it might not be) offers a unique approach. You know the Mexican hot chocolate that comes in thick discs? If you nibble it, you can taste the chocolate and the sugar crystals. That is, you can even see the sugar crystals. You can't see them in this chocolate, but you can taste them in that same distinct way. It makes for a nice flavor effect.

I can't say that these are the best chocolates I've ever had. But they're alright. I like their small size, and I like the fact that they're made in Arizona. They're nice and simple.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 1: Snow White

There is this . . . concept in people's minds that the Disney princess movies are love stories about girls being rescued by princes. Snow White and Cinderella take most of the heat, and Ariel and Rapunzel get most of the praise. (By the way, I am going with the twelve official Disney princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora/Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, and Elena.) I, however, don't see things in that way, and often the characters who get the most criticism deserve it least and those who get the least attention deserve more and those who are favorited most could actually get more criticism. So. I'm starting this series to look at what these characters really are like and what message or theme their stories really try and get across.

Let's start at the beginning, with Snow White from 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The way I see this movie, it is not a love story--despite what a beautiful love song "One Song" is. I believe this is the reason why the prince has no name: he is a metaphorical prince. Now, we all know that fairy tales have background as moral tales. And Walt Disney supported the promotion of good values as part of the Disney name. So let's look at Snow White that way. She is a hard worker who doesn't complain, not when she is washing the steps outside the castle nor when she is helping to clean the dwarfs' home. She takes initiative, as evidenced by her proposition to keep house for the dwarfs if they'll offer her shelter in return. And she knows that fear is something to overcome: when she is afraid, fleeing into the wild forest after attempted murder, she cheers herself up and tries to make friends with whoever is around, even if it's only forest animals. This, too, represents a respect for the natural world: she doesn't just consider them birds and rabbits but rather living beings whose environment she shares.

Here's the part that people overlook with Snow White, though: she knows about periods of waiting. Patience is a virtue, after all, they say, and Snow White knows this. When she is at the castle under her stepmother, she sings into the Wishing Well because she has hope that she won't have to live under disrespect and cruelty forever. At the dwarves' home, she also sings about her prince, whom she has now met; she sings about meeting him again in spring, that is, the time after the winter has passed. Good times follow the bad, or rewards come to those who wait. Either way, Snow White has been a classic example of all of the virtues, and she deserves a reward for this.

Does the story, then, teach people that a reward for a good woman is a man? No, not at all. Remember, I said the prince was metaphorical. You know that scene at the end, when the prince is leading Snow White home to his castle? Yeah, everyone references him kissing her to wake her up from the spell, but people seem to forget the image of his castle, which I prefer to the waking. His castle is up in the clouds--it isn't just far off in the distance so that it appears on the pink sunset horizon. It's in the clouds. Okay, this can just be a pretty image because animation isn't limited by the "physicalness" of live action. But none of the other images in the movie are fantasized like this. So it must be significant that Snow White is looking out and seeing this castle in the clouds.

A castle in the clouds, if you put it that way, sounds like heaven. Which would make Prince Charming a sort of symbolic stand in for the Prince of Peace, the one who is escorting Snow White to this heavenly place in the sky. I'm not saying she died at the end of the movie: I'm just saying that, to me, the whole prince thing is representative of her choice to lead a good life and the positive results that follow that choice. So Snow White is never "dependent" on a man and getting a man isn't her reward/happy ending. The point of her story is simply her never-ending goodness, hope, and perseverance. These are important virtues for everyone to learn, and Snow White is simply a female character expressing these virtues.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate: Madagascar Sambirano

Here I have the last of a couple of chocolate gifts that came to me from Utah. This one is another chocolate bar, and it is also from a California company, Dick Taylor Craft Chocolate. This company seems familiar but I know I've never tried their products before. Adam Dick and Dustin Taylor started the factory six years ago in Eureka, California, where they make their chocolate from the bean; they add only organic cocoa and organic cane sugar. The chocolate bar that I have is their Madagascar Sambirano.

More good signs are there in the packaging. The cream paper and black ink illustrations of boats give it an old world feel. I love the way the foil is wrapped, with an envelope shape. The chocolate is set at a different angle in the foil so that it brings up images of diamond shapes when you unwrap it. And the chocolate bar's mold is the most intricate one I have ever seen. Look at the fine details of that pattern and how small all of those shapes are. It's beautiful. There are certainly plenty of tiny air bubbles in the surface because of how small and fine the pattern's cuts are, but that isn't at all a problem.

Now it's time to mention the one downside, which is not a fault of the company: this chocolate bar's best by date was back in April. That's the thing about fine chocolate in little, random shops: not everyone chooses to buy it instead of caramels or lollipops or cheaper chocolate or whatever else is there. So it sits waiting on the shelf much longer than it should have to. Consequently, the original shine of the chocolate is completely gone because of how old it is, so I have no way to judge the quality of that, unfortunately.

The color is rather light with a reddish tone. This is a 72% cacao content chocolate, by the way. Its aroma is deep but not bitter.

Now the question of whether or not all the good signs are accurate predictions for the chocolate itself.

The taste is slightly bitter at first and there is a slightly dusty texture in the beginning. Then these fade and I forget they were ever there. Everything starts simultaneously to mellow and deepen. Sweet and fruity flavors emerge; the light almost-bitterness of citrus floats toward the top while the base flavor remains rich and solid. This chocolate, in fact, tastes more like citrus than any other that I can think of tasting--not, of course, like orange-flavored chocolate but simply like chocolate with citrus flavor notes. The finish is a friendly and mild goodbye.

My opinion: it's very nice.

And then I looked at the Dick Taylor online page for this chocolate bar and found that it won Gold at the Academy of Chocolate Awards this year. So it is apparent that my opinion does not belong to me alone: this chocolate has certainly received positive attention if it won Gold.

If you were wondering, here are the flavor notes that they provide online: aroma - molasses, flavor - orange/raisin, finish - toast. I did get the main flavor, and I would say that the rest make sense, even if I didn't specifically pick them up (I'm the first to admit that I never can name a collection of flavor notes, which is why I've made up my own way to describe chocolate.)

I admit that, even though I loved the packaging here and the chocolate bar's mold was so unique, I worried that the chocolate wouldn't live up to the implied quality. So I'm happy to report that it did live up to that high standard. I would definitely try more from this company if I ever come across them again.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Top Disney Animated Films

I've been thinking of Disney so much lately, that I'm going to take a moment to list the best of Disney's animated, feature length films--and explain why I consider these the best. I'm putting them in the order they were released rather than ranking them.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) - Walt Disney felt like the studio would never again be able to do what it did with Snow White, and in a way, he was right. This, however, isn't to say that Disney would never again make great movies--it's just an immense compliment to what they did do with this film. This film is pretty much perfect, and remains so nearly 80 years later. Something of the 1930's film style permeates it, emphasizing the fairy tale darkness and softening out the romance (by which I refer to the style of romance, rather than specifically love romance) into something swirly, thematic, and poetic. Memorable characters, great songs, beautiful animation, and well-crafted sequences and pacing make this film a true classic.

Fantasia (1940) - The film that threatened to ruin Disney animation because its costs ran so ridiculously high, Fantasia became something unique and incredible, a true piece of art--to some of us. I realize that it's one of those movies that not everyone can sit through, but I find it the most fascinating combination of visual and auditory art. The details of how everything is woven together just amaze me.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) - Basically I consider Snow White the best Disney animated film from back when and Beauty and the Beast the best one from today--but that shows my age because Beauty and the Beast is no longer a new film. Still, it's in the top five of most people's lists and I often hear it named as number one, as well. Once again, great pacing, characters and songs. As far as animation goes, the style falls between the muddy look of 1980's animation and the clearer coloration of the 90's (which ended up leading to the weird look of early computer animation). So you sometimes have less defined, more obscured backgrounds with clear and crisp characters--and that creates a recognizable visual style. Like Snow White, this is a love story that isn't really a love story when you think about it (I think I'll do another post later on to describe with I mean with that).

The Lion King (1994) - Ah, here I go showing my age again by including two 90's movies. The thing is, I never knew for sure how much I liked The Lion King until recently. It was just a Disney movie, part of a collective. Lately, though, I've been noticing so much about it. First of all, it's one of the more successful attempts at a leading male character (Aladdin was also successful, I suppose, but Tarzan and Quasimodo and others not so much) in Disney animated films. Second, it shows us something different that still feels familiar. Third, I really appreciate the content and themes referencing nature and respect and respect for nature and the natural order of things. Fourth, that theme is wonderful (I'm not the only one to compare this story to Hamlet): the need to step up to responsibility and to face what you know you need to do, whatever else is going on. And yes, good songs, distinctive animation style, wonderful voice acting, good pacing.

Shouldn't this this be a top five list, rather than only top four? I tried to come up with five films, but the trouble was that these four came quickly and easily to mind, while I had to try and consider what the last one would be. I'm tempted to give it to Sleeping Beauty because I'm rather fond of that movie for the music and the Good vs. Evil theme--but it does have some weak spots. Many people like Peter Pan but that movie was never my favorite. 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp and Bambi are good but are they top five good? I like The Rescuers and The Black Cauldron because they're dark but do I think they're great instead of just good? The Little Mermaid is a good movie but it doesn't reach the high thematic levels that I've come to expect from Disney movies. I would put Mulan on the list except that I don't like all the comedic bits with the ancestors and Mushu. The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen likewise have some good material accompanied by some weak points. So I'm going to stick with my top four as the best overall of Disney animation.