Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Phasma & the Dead Planet of Parnassos

I mentioned that I was more excited for the new book on Leia than for Delilah S. Dawson's Phasma.  Phasma, as a character, has never much interested me. She's just seemed to be an over-hyped side character without any particular traits to give her extra interest. She's just a flat villain, right? So how do you make a book out of her? And why, if I have no interest in her, would I want to hear her backstory? And how can her backstory suddenly be important to tell, if it wasn't necessary to the story before?

That's how I walked into this book, but you know what? Phasma ended up being a pretty good read. Phasma is the topic of the book but not exactly its central character; that distinction might only make sense after you've read the book. And most of the text is told in story-within-a-story format. So there is a sense of myth to the backstory that we hear, which does in fact go well with Phasma as an "over-hyped" character and as a figure raised up by the First Order. This format also helps lend to the theme of choice: characters have to choose what to do based on what they see, hear, and otherwise observe. Phasma made her choices, so did Siv, so did Vi, and so does Cardinal.

Naturally, I'm praising the fact that this book isn't about: "let's try and humanize Phasma and show that she isn't just a villain, she's more complicated, and here are what her motives are." As I've mentioned before, I get tired of that sort of thing because I think it lessens our sense of certain things being Wrong and it makes Right seem boring (which in fact isn't the case at all). So the way that this book is framed allows us to see Phasma as a person before she was a member of the First Order (and if you like her as a character, you can cheer for her and all that) without needing to, well, say anything about her other than the obvious: she is Phasma and Phasma has it all under control.

Now that I have that out of the way, I'd also like to point out how much I enjoyed Dawson's writing. There gets to be a certain style to book like this; they're all kind of written in the same voice because they're first Star Wars books and then Chuck Wendig or Timothy Zahn books--and what each author contributes is usually separate from the writing style (their way of writing characters, or action scenes, or political content, etc.). But the writing in this book felt different. The sentences flow in a less blocky pattern and in a more expressive way than the standard form.

The content, also, was a little different. Almost like how Ahsoka gave us a different setting, so did Phasma. So much of the book is spent on Parnassos, trekking across the desert. We see hunter/gatherer/warrior communities, an unforgiving climate, acid rain, desperate medical practices. It all reminded me at times of The 100. The feel, also, was sometimes more like an adventure story; not that the characters were out on an adventure, but they were so stranded from everything that their goal often felt displaced from their current surroundings. I say all of this as compliments: it was exciting territory to cover (well, except for the gladiator-esque bit in the middle--I guess I can never find content like that exciting).

And since this book is part of the Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, are there hints about the upcoming movie? The obvious hint is that Phasma might become a bigger part of the story now, and that's why it was important to learn more about her right now. But they were also teasing us to ridiculously. A child named Frey? Really? That's way too close to Rey's name. And then there was Siv's unborn child, as well. It was impossible to not try and imagine one of these two girls being Rey--even though logic said that neither of them could be. But still, they were teasing us on purpose about Rey's identity. Her identity can't not matter if they keep teasing like this.

There are some references to Snoke and Kylo Ren, as well, and of course Armitage Hux plays a role in here, especially towards the end. But we don't find out anything new about any of them, just about Phasma's possible thoughts/feelings toward the lot of them--which could matter, though I don't know in what way. And then there is the whole frame story of Vi and Cardinal. Did they remind anyone else of Rey and Kylo? Just a tiny bit. That image of them stuck together in a torture chamber, part of him not acting as the usual torturer and her in some way taking over the situation--and of there being a sense that they will, well, be around each other in the future, in one way or another. Anyone? Everything in Star Wars being intentional (and reputation also being a usual plot device), I get the sense that this reflection was indeed on purpose.

Do you like how I turn everything, even a book about Phasma, back to Kylo and Rey? Well, you talk about what interests you most. And I guess Phasma interested me most for the planet on which it took place and for the extra thoughts about which it made me try and theorize.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Nicaragua 70%

How to choose? For my first look at the chocolate bars from Zak's Chocolate, I knew I wanted their Guatemala Lachua since it just won Silver at the International Chocolate Awards this year, but I also wanted to try one more along with that. What's nice is that, when you visit their shop, on the shelf with all the chocolate bars are small bowls with samples of each chocolate. So if you are just stopping in for one bar, you have the chance to choose the one you like best to buy (sometimes when I'm visiting a chocolate shop in another city/state, I have to try and choose which bars I think I'll like best because I can't really buy them all, so it's nice to not have to guess).

I didn't really need to try any samples here, though: I'm close enough to go back and, over time, buy each bar to review on its own. I did, however, try a piece of the Nicaragua; the flavor notes of "brown sugar, vanilla" drew me in. So this is the bar that I'll be focusing on today. It comes in at the standard cocoa content of 70%, and the cocoa is specifically labeled as Nicaraguan Matagalpa cacao. Inside the chocolate is just cocoa, cane sugar, and a some extra cocoa butter--it's all organic and the cocoa is ethically sourced. Zak's Chocolate, if I haven't mentioned before, also presses their own cocoa butter.

The style of the packaging here is handmade and handcrafted in the honest and best sense of the words. Pretty paper with sticker labels on the front and back is folded in a specific way and reveals underneath light blue foil (which the camera couldn't quite pick up). It's a cool contrast to the usual silver or gold foil wrappings.

Fifteen rectangles make up the chocolate bar; they each feature a diamond shape in the middle to add that small touch of visual interest. There is a deep cocoa aroma to the chocolate.

This is also the taste that comes first: simply a deep chocolate flavor. Then it gets what I want to call a toasted vanilla flavor. I use this phrase because the flavor isn't quite what I'd call sweet (like what I would normally think of for vanilla or brown sugar notes) because it does have a certain twang to it, but it still feels in the realm of sweet flavor. Not that I would call this sweet chocolate; it just has a sweet flavor in it (neither is this bitter or extremely dark chocolate). Sometimes after this I get a syrupy flavor that almost tastes alcoholic to me--but in the sense of vanilla extract, not liquor. This flavor goes somewhat along with that twang that I mentioned, a twang that isn't quite bitter or acidic but is simply an edge to the flavor. Depending on the time of day that I eat it, I find that I either get more of the sweeter flavor or more of the twangy flavor; I prefer the sweeter moments.

The chocolate becomes more tender towards the end. As it finishes, I find myself thinking of woods in autumn and pathways through brown and yellow trees. The meeting point between warm and cool.
A wool sweater with a soft gust of wind.

So this is chocolate that takes you on a journey. As I go along and try more from Zak's Chocolate, I'll try and compare and contrast the different bars to give a sense of what each one offers, as far as what types of flavor notes they contain. For now, though, it is sufficient to say that this is not just happy, small batch chocolate; it is quality artisan chocolate.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Disney Boys - Part 1: Pinocchio

Click here to read my Introduction to this series.

If this series will involve some comparison of the Disney girls and boys, then 1940's Pinocchio makes for the perfect companion to 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Both are moral tales with the classic Disney elements of good (light and bright) and evil (pretty dark). The difference is that, while Snow White is a good example of behavior and various virtues, Pinocchio is an example of what happens to us when we inevitably fail in our aims to be good.

Pinocchio is Man, Geppetto is his Creator, Jiminy Cricket is his Conscience/Moral Compass, Honest John and Gideon and Stromboli are Temptation, and Pleasure Island is Sin. It's all so straightforward that I feel like I don't have much to talk about.

Geppetto makes Pinocchio, but he is just wood. The Blue Fairy gives him life, but along with that comes the ability to make choices. Only Pinocchio can make himself "a real boy" because only Pinocchio can choose the correct path. He has the free will to be a good boy and listen to his father and to Jiminy or to follow Honest John down to Pleasure Island, where a false feeling of freedom soon gives way to bondage. Only when he escapes and is willing to follow his father (who has been calling out to him all this time) wherever need be (all the way into the mouth of Monstro) can Pinocchio become "real." In essence, this is when he becomes the "new creation," that is, the boy who is no longer just moving wood.

Talk about this being a story to set an example for children--it's an example for adults, as well. There are right choices and there are wrong choices, and sometimes we don't quite realize that we're on our way into wrong choices--but that's all the more reason to pay attention to where we're placing our focus in our daily lives. And just because we've walked down that wrong path, doesn't mean our Creator won't be still calling out to us, waiting for us to return. Also, when you ask in good conscience for something and you have shown that you're worthy to receive, well, miracles do happen and people do receive what they have so greatly wanted (Geppetto received his boy and Pinocchio became alive and real).

Pinocchio's quest is to become "brave, truthful, and unselfish." These are all positive traits, especially viewed with one another. You want to be brave, but not at the expense of being truthful and unselfish; also, being brave will at times help you to be truthful and unselfish. You don't just wish upon a star; you don't just make a prayer. You do that and you look inward to see what you are or aren't doing in your life. That's all pretty positive.

So that's all I have to say. Pinocchio starts us off very much like Snow White does, with a simple moral tale. Sure, characters later on will introduce more elements, but this character and this film offer enough on their own for a wonderful story with a wonderful message for the audience.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Rapid Shakespeare Comedy

Fall is coming upon us, and you know what that means: Southwest Shakespeare and the rest are starting in on their new seasons. Friday night was the opening of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) directed by Debra K. Stevens. The evening was particularly special as a sign that the company was still able to stay on schedule after the huge setback that was the fire in their warehouse over the summer. You can read more about the fire here and make a donation either there on their website or on their GoFundMe page, if you feel so led to help out the arts.

Whilst watching The Complete Works, I felt like I had the perfect perspective to come in to this show. I don't necessarily like Shakespeare. At one time, I disliked Shakespeare. Then I eventually conceded that I liked a lot of things about Hamlet. Then I realized that I like the tragedies more than the comedies. Then I admitted that there is plenty of literary content to analyze in the plays. And then finally I found that it's the performance that also gives meaning to the text, and a performance can be great to watch even if the text isn't necessarily your favorite to read.

This play is marketed as being for everyone: those who do like Shakespeare, those who don't, and those who hold neither opinion. It's absolutely true, too.

It's a comedy and a parody, performed by three actors (in this case, Breona Conrad, Louis Farber, and Alexis Baigue). They condense the plays down into quickly presentable forms, and they give some "background information" on Shakespeare and his plays. This leads to some discussion here and there about all of the various topics (artistic, literary, historical, and social) that come along with the plays; while it's all comedic, there is true content in there, as well. That's the heart of good parody, after all: good parody gets to the heart of its subject, leaving that part intact while adding fluffy or silly extensions here and there like feathers stuck into a central sphere.

This play isn't just about the actors trying to quickly run through the dialogue of thirty-seven plays at lighting speed. It isn't that kind of show. Instead, they spend a good portion of time on Romeo and Juliet because it's one of the most widely read and viewed. They cover Titus Andronicus and Macbeth a little more quickly--I don't know about everyone else, but I'm familiar with both of those plays. They comedies all get lumped together into one wacky composition, and Hamlet delightfully gets the entire second act because it's also one of Shakespeare's biggest plays.

Parody or not, I found myself wishing that Shakespeare were performed like this more often. I'm not referring to the rap song or the tap dancing bit or the lightsabers. While those worked great for this play, what I want to see more of is this kind of delivery. These three actors all owned the stage, the scenes, and the dialogue. Part of their parody work involved real Shakespeare quotes, and they knew how to deliver the lines like words spoken by characters (as opposed to those performances where you're not even sure if the actors know what the words mean or if they were too busy trying to memorize difficult dialogue to even be able to interpret it). There was life in this performance. Sure, they purposefully overdid the enthusiasm a bit, but I don't think that's entirely un-Shakespeare of an approach. I think productions in general could use a little more of that style.

While I'm on the subject of the actors, let me also mention how quick, on point, and versatile these three actors were. Like with Wittenberg back in April, it was a small group where every person played an important role and played it well. Wittenberg used comedy to make the audience think, but The Complete Works uses comedy as the result after thinking. We've all formed opinions on Shakespeare; the play gives us a time to sit back and smile and laugh over it all. From half smiles all the way to uncontrollable laughter.

This was a tiny theatre, one of the spots in the Mesa Arts Center that I had never been in before (the smallest one they have there, I believe). Wittenberg had a small theatre at Taliesin West, as well--but that was different seating. This seating made you feel more like you were hanging out with the rest of the audience and with the actors. There was more of a physical connection among everyone, which of course worked well given that this play does involve a bit of audience involvement. Maybe all of this is part of the reason why the show built momentum as it moved along: the actors weren't just performing a script; they were feeding off of the audience's enthusiasm (this was such an enthusiastic audience, too, I might add). Sit in the front rows if you want to; don't if you don't. Involvement aside, I prefer the back rows because they're tiered and I'm short, so I get a better view from tiered seats. It's open seating, so if you want to be able to choose the place that suits you best, arrive early.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) is running through the end of the month; click here to see all the performance dates on Southwest Shakespeare's website. Go see it for a compilation of laughs; you'll just walk out happy, still glowing from that delightful treatment of Hamlet at the end.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Truffles

Last week, I covered the intriguing Single Origin Brownie Flight from Zak's Chocolate here in Scottsdale. Now it's time for the truffles. I've been enjoying the truffle scene quite a bit lately because it's still new for me to be able to buy fresh truffles in the state (usually it's something I do when I'm out of state).

Zak's truffles have a sleeker sort of look. The designs, neither quite modern nor rustic, are simple with well-executed details. The style implies that the focus is all about the chocolate. While there are some fine lines that are more difficult to mold, there are no distractingly bright colors, just a hint of gold brushed onto the turtle and the rectangular truffle.

Let's begin with the most exciting piece, the Pecan Caramel Turtle. The other people who were in the shop at the same time as I was were commenting on how wonderful the turtles were (while I was off to the side looking at a display). So I thought, what are these turtles and will I need to get one? Oh, definitely: even if I hadn't heard about them, I think I would have chosen one, anyway. In a glass case of sleek truffles, a single chocolate animal is irresistibly cute.

I did worry about slicing this one open; I thought I might just make a mess. But this isn't free-flowing caramel, so I didn't need to worry. And the open look shows off the little beauty inside that is a whole half piece of pecan. I don't think I've come across that in a chocolate before; it's wonderful how they used that shape to perfectly fit the turtle's body.

You instantly get crunch from this pecan, so that's what you taste first, even though it's located in the middle, surrounded by the caramel and then the chocolate. Sweetness comes from the caramel and even to some degree from the pecan. What's interesting to me is that this is dark chocolate yet also an example of how dark chocolate doesn't need to be limited. This turtle has a sweeter, fun angle that's generally more associated with milk chocolate than dark, so naturally I love that it is made with dark chocolate instead of milk.

The caramel, especially paired with the pecan, comes across with a maple syrup flavor. Even with that big piece of pecan, there is still plenty of caramel; it even fills the turtle's head. This caramel has a delightful, lightly chewy quality, so there is plenty of texture. The chocolate frames both texture and flavor and keeps this turtle more in the truffle zone than the confection zone. I can see why these turtles are so popular: I love absolutely everything about them. If you went in and bought just one thing, it could definitely be this.

Next we have the Blackberry Lychee Passionfruit, which is the one with what I believe is a lychee pictured on top. I had to get a truffle with a strong fruit presence just to see Zak's approach. This truffle starts off tangy, then gets a little sweeter. The blackberry seems to be more present in the beginning, and the passionfruit comes in more around the middle to the end. The lychee is hard for me to recognize because, while I've been coming across lychee often lately, it's always paired with other flavors and never on its own. Mainly I would say that the passionfruit is the dominant flavor of this truffle.The ganache is smooth but solid. As the chocolate melts, the chocolate base rounds off those tangy flavors with its deep richness. This feels like a less tangy chocolate than in the turtle; either it is an earthier chocolate or that's just the role that it plays in this particular composition.

The Simply Chocolate is the square truffle with the cocoa pods design. There is a super smooth ganache here; it tastes of chocolate and cream. Usually I don't taste the cream so much in a ganache, so I'm enjoying this effect. It gives almost more of a milk chocolate feel, even though everything here is dark chocolate. The outer shell is a good thickness, neither too thin nor too thick. This truffle reminds me of what it's like to enjoy a (good) hot chocolate, except that it's cool instead of warm. The flavor notes, though, are warm.

Last is the Mint truffle (the rectangular one), which I have to admit I chose as a kind of follow-up to my recent disappointment over Madecasse's Mint Crunch. I was just curious how this approach to mint would compare. As such, I'm probably just overcomplicating my comments here. At first, I did taste a strong mint leaf flavor, but then I felt like I was still tasting mint oil. Maybe it's just a better quality mint oil? The mint taste, after all, does taste strong and cool, not dull and flat. The chocolate is dark but doesn't feel too dark; I might perhaps have preferred it to be darker to give this truffle more of an edge. As it is, the effect is more like a chocolate dinner mint (reminding me once again, just a bit, of those Andes mints). That is, maybe I'm being unfair because this could be the intended effect: here I am praising the Pecan Caramel Turtle for not being a snobby dark chocolate and yet I'm also asking for this truffle to be less casual. The fact remains that the chocolate elements, the ganache and shell, are good. And the mint works. So this is still a nice piece.

As you can tell since I spent half of this post focusing on it, the Pecan Caramel Turtle was easily my favorite of these four. You will want to note that, while the other truffles come in at the usual price of $2.50 each, the turtles are $3 each; after all, they are a little bigger. Probably my next favorite was the Simply Chocolate. Favorites, aside, though, when it comes to truffles the greater impression tends to be more important than thoughts on a single flavor. My general impression is all personal excitement that there is a chocolate shop nearby where I can buy fresh, good quality truffles. The chocolate base for these truffles is excellent while also not detracting from the fact that truffles have the opportunity to be an ensemble of multiple flavors, not just chocolate. I will certainly be going back for more in the future.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Voyages in Star Trek

I'll repeat again: I grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so that show will always have an extreme familiarity for me. It wasn't until later that I was able to look at it and see the individual things that I did or didn't like. In college, I finally got around to watching the original series, and while I always intended to get to the others at some point, it's taken me a while. While perhaps I should have started next with Deep Space Nine because it was the next one to start airing, I went with Voyager instead because I got the idea that I would like it more.

I could never watch Voyager before because when I watch a show, I have to sit down with it from the beginning--and with the intention of moving through to the end. Clips of Voyager never much held my interest, but watching the show from the start was completely different. In some ways, it's a little more to my taste than The Next Generation.

There are three main things I noticed. First, they took what they'd learned from TNG and built up from that. TNG had a weaker first couple of seasons and didn't start really developing its most memorable aspects (those deep looks at humanity) until the last couple of seasons. So Voyager was able to start off knowing just exactly what kind of sci-fi they were making. They were able to start off with characters that they knew they could develop and well, characterize. At first I thought I was just seeing their version of familiar faces: Janeway for Picard, Tuvok for Data, Paris for Riker, Kes for Troi, etc. But they quickly showed themselves to have their own unique characteristics--and character dynamics as a group, as well. I think also these characters were meant to be less archetypal. Did they start off too archetypal in TNG and then later develop things more? Characters aside, the Star Trek universe was also more developed by this point (that is, post-TNG): we already knew the background on the Federation and their part of the universe, so time didn't need to be spent developing that. Instead, the show was able to move forward with new spaces.

The second main thing I noticed was a greater coherency and smoothness in the overall arc of the series. Instead of the show finding out what it was and seeing, hmm, what should come next, I felt like the creators always knew where it was going. This wasn't just a ship going on various missions. This was a ship with one goal--and all of the little adventures that came along with heading toward that goal. As such, the series has a beginning, middle and end in a way that TNG never could (I'm not saying that that makes it better; I'm just stating the fact). And this time, instead of jumping from episode to episode, there were more plot lines that continued coming in and out of focus over the course of many episodes. Encounters with a certain species, for instances. TNG tended to have two mini plot lines in each episodes: maybe the ship was helping out a planet while Data was exploring some aspect of his humanity on the side, for instance. With Voyager, everything tended to be tied in. The ship has a smaller crew and they're together for a while, so they're a close group. If they're on a mission, that mission is directly tied into whatever character development is going on. If the show is focusing just on character development, that development affects the whole ship. In that way, the format felt less experimental.

The third thing was that this truly is a different group of characters. Janeway is less gruff and curt than Picard. She's still strict and sort of . . . classical in her style, but she's very much about supporting her crew on an emotional level, even more so after they get stranded. It's hard to imagine Picard stranded in another quadrant: the Voyager crew develops a more informal camaraderie that I don't think Picard would have favored. They make jokes on the bridge and tease one another about personal topics. They make group agreements to ignore the rules. And they're always talking about personal things because all they have is one another: they don't have families on board or waiting at a nearby starbase or planet. It makes for what I want to call a more modern approach, something that reminds me more of recent sci-fi shows.

Some of the traits that I disliked about TNG appeared a little less in Voyager and also felt more neutral here because they usually appeared along with humor. For instance. The Enterprise crew were always going off on their vacations to Risa, and at first the Voyager crew were copying them with that holodeck program. But at least they always made fun of the program when they used it--and at least it also stopped being featured in episodes after a while. Seska also turned into the type of character I'd expect from Star Trek (in a negative sense), so I was kind of glad when she stopped appearing.

Most of the other characters, though, I liked, in general. I thought that the relationship between Paris and B'Elanna was handled much better than that of Riker and Troi or Picard and Doctor Crusher. "Lineage" explored some territory both interesting and serious. Actually, there was quite a bit of serious material in here, in addition to this question of passing on to your child what has been hard for you to accept about yourself. Depression and suicidal thoughts (separately) (in a different way than TNG with Worf's attempted ritualistic suicide), the morality of saving your people or someone else's, and of course personal identity in all its multi-faceted forms. While I don't know what I think about Seven of Nine in theory, she did work well in the show. Tuvok never really served Data's role because Data was all about trying to be human and Tuvok was just trying to contain emotions; so it ended up being, instead, the Doctor and Seven who fulfill that role of trying to find humanity in themselves (the Doctor joyfully and Seven regretfully).

While it's hard to mind Seven by the end, I do kind of mind that the Borg don't feel like as much of a threat anymore. When you would see Borg in TNG, that meant, game over, you're dead. But Voyager keeps running into them so often that they don't feel too different from any other enemy anymore, and I kind of regret that loss. It was also a shame that, after so long anticipating Voyager's return to Earth, the finale episode just tried to copy TNG's finale with the whole mixing up timelines thing. It worked by the end, but I would have preferred getting to see the actual homecoming. I wanted to see Naomi Wildman meet her father for the first time, I wanted to find out what Starfleet had to say to Seven and what Icheb had to say to them, and I wanted to see the crew sort of step off the ship and look at one another and smile with all the bittersweetness that comes from finally attaining what you've wanted for so many years (and what will end the new life that you've built during the waiting). And I don't fully understand the Seven/Chakotay thing. It was like they just threw it in there last minute because they wanted to tie up Seven's character arc. But I thought that Chakotay and Janeway had an understanding--and there were no hints of Seven and Chakotay until suddenly we're hearing about them getting married. It felt like a too-hasty and therefore odd way to end the story.

That's just the end of the series, though. Overall (since, in all my ramblings, I still haven't had time to actually say much), Voyager was a good addition to the Star Trek universe and I'm glad I finally got around to watching it. It fit into the franchise while also establishing its own territory (it's helpful that the show literally covers new territory).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Leia: Princess, Senator, Leader

While I got the impression that everyone was more excited for the release of Phasma this past Friday, I was more excited for Leia: Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray. Phasma I really don't have much interest in, but a book focusing on young Leia? It's about time (and this gives me hope that someday there might be books about young Padme). The YA Star Wars books always seem to get less attention, though Claudia Gray's Lost Stars was pretty great--and she already has experience writing adult Leia in Bloodline. So it makes perfect sense that this book also went to her.

Overall, Leia a great book and highly recommended. It focuses on the time before A New Hope, before the Rebellion had fully formed, and before Leia had aligned herself with her parents' focus on defeating the Empire. That's an intriguing time to witness, especially since we'd probably all imagined that Leia was born and raised a rebel--but the truth of it had to be a little more complicated because Bail and Breha were of course working in secret and wouldn't have pulled their daughter as a child into such dangerous doings.

We also get to see quite a bit of Alderaan. We know that it's sad for Alderaan to have been destroyed, but the film shows only the destruction and even only an extremely brief moment of grief on Leia's part. We get the sense that Alderaan was a beautiful and peaceful planet, especially from that glimpse at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But that's it. So it's worth reading this book just to live in Alderaan for a while. Some scenes take place on other planets, but the main base is Alderaan. You could even say the main theme is Alderaan--which often takes on irony because all the readers know what will be the fate of Alderaan, even though Leia and the other characters can't even imagine how bad it will be.

I did have some issues with this book, however. The beginning was a little boring. I couldn't align myself with Leia's perspective because the source of her main conflict was obvious (and explainable) to the reader (though not to Leia herself); that made it all feel petty and like we were wasting time. The book did get better after that, though sometimes it returned to a certain simplicity that bothered me somewhat. I don't mind a concise plot. But at times I felt like it was overly obvious where this one was going--and I never feel that way with books. Like Kier. If Leia's falling for someone in this book, we know that either he's playing her (and he's a spy or something) or he dies in the end because of course the book can't end with them together (then we would be left wondering why he isn't around and she never mentions him a couple of years later). So Kier often felt like an obligatory plot element, as if there is some rule that YA books must involve a love story and therefore he had to be in here. I get that they were probably also trying to show that Han wasn't the first person Leia ever liked--but still.

It was great to see more of Bail and Breha, though. I feel like they are characterized so much in just the brief moments that they appear in the films. Breha, especially, only has one quick moment and then she's gone again, but you still get a sense of who she is. Like Alderaan, I liked seeing more of them and seeing how Leia's involvement with the "special politics" of her parents began.

Also wonderful? The little hints about Leia's parentage. In some ways, this is a companion book to Bloodline. Bloodline is when the galaxy finds out who Leia is, and in this book Leia's adoptive parents almost pass out from the fear that comes with realizing how close they just came to the secret getting out (and not to the galaxy but to Palpatine, which is even worse--danger rather than just disdain). The echoes of Padme in Leia were a welcome connection between the two movie trilogies.

I had almost forgotten until I'd finished the book that it's part of the Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi bunch. So that would imply that it contains hints about plot points in that movie. All that I can really see is Leia's identity. I think everyone has already revealed that Leia will have a much larger role in the upcoming film, so it isn't really something new to learn that there will be focus on Leia's leadership skills, her past, and her connection to the Force (which may not manifest itself in the whirling, twirling, levitating form but still helps her to get things done). But I guess seeing how Leia was raised and how, as a teenager, she brought herself into her parents' work might help us to start picturing Kylo in similar circumstances. Ben Solo was older than sixteen when he found out that his parents and his uncle/mentor had been keeping secrets from him. Leia, having been young and in the dark, should probably have realized that it would be better to put the truth out in the open than to try and shelter her son. By trying to protect him, she lost him--and maybe he'll never even have that chance to return to her and ask forgiveness.

Apparently today is 100 days until Episode VIII. 100 days until we see this last Jedi mess start to unfold. 100 days until we find out just what Leia's next move is. We've all been focusing on Rey and Luke out on their island. But the reality is, we know what they're doing (training); this was the only thing the trailer really showed because it's the only thing that's obvious already. The question perhaps should be, what is Leia doing? What is she planning? She's a person of action. She wouldn't have just sent Rey off with a "good luck" and then sat back watching holos. I'm predicting that she initiates much of the action of this next film.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Single Origin Brownie Flight

At long last, I have finally made my way to Zak's Chocolate. Don't ask me why it's taken me so long when this is exactly the type of shop I should've been thrilled to pounce on; I may have kept putting it off so that I could continue looking forward to going there. Maybe I secretly didn't want the excitement to end.

Well, I've been to the shop, and the excitement hasn't ended. Zak's Chocolate is located in Scottsdale, just off of Shea. Another local chocolate company; wow, Scottsdale, you're spoiling me. (I guess it paid off when I bemoaned the lack of chocolate shops in Arizona a few years ago.) They do have more limited hours than some places, so just make sure to check the hours beforehand. This shop is aimed at a chocolate cafe angle; there is seating available, both tables and a bar by the register. So you can order a coffee or hot chocolate to go with your chocolates and enjoy them there if you like. Zak's uses ethically sourced cocoa and makes all of their products from the bean; you can even buy their cocoa powder (which I'll probably do once I finish what I currently have).

I have at least a total of three posts on Zak's coming up. I'm starting with the brownies. If you were going to eat something at the shop, this might be the most likely candidate (though I brought mine home). You can either get just one brownie or you can choose to get the whole Single Origin Brownie Flight. I think we all know what choice I made.

You can also choose to get the brownies either frozen or heated up. (Here I'll give a note that I don't mind frozen products: freezing things keeps them fresh for when they're wanted. I prefer using freezing for preservation versus adding preservatives.) Since I wasn't planning on eating them right away, I went with the frozen option. They suggested heating them up in the microwave to melt the pieces of chocolate that are inside the brownies, but given that I don't use microwaves I heated them just fine in the oven instead.

The brownies are about "brownie bite" size or a little bigger and shaped round instead of square. This lends more of an elegant touch and makes each one look more complete: there are no raw, cut edges implying that you're missing out on the rest of the brownie. And, of course, you get a different texture if each brownie is baked on its own versus as one part of a large sheet. The brownies come in a brown box sealed with a sticker; you also receive the little tasting paper to remind you which brownie is which.

Moving left to right, you begin with the Belize, which comes with the description "Deep Chocolate." With the brownies fresh out of the oven, the little pieces of chocolate inside were completely melted and the rest of the inside was soft and almost gooey from the heat. The outside was more crisp. I can never decide what I think of adding chocolate pieces to brownies (versus mixing melted chocolate in with the other ingredients); I don't use this method when I make brownies myself. But Zak's uses them in order to show the differences in the flavor of the brownies based on cocoa origin. So for them, this method works well. The Belize brownie is indeed the more straightforward-tasting of the three. It delivers a a sold, rich chocolate flavor; I didn't really find other flavor notes in there, except what I refer to as a reddish tone to the taste. It's a lovely brownie.

Next is the Madagascar, with "Cherry-like Tartness." The moment I tasted this one, I wanted to say that it was a little sweeter or maybe milkier; I think, though, it's just simply not quite as dark as the Belize. It is, however, nicer to taste after the Belize instead of before because it does have more flavor notes. Perhaps they put words into my mouth, but I do find a definite cherry flavor to this brownie. From a certain point of view, it is so much like an ice cream sundae (or like the non-physical concept of a sundae). Just a touch of a hint of creamy milkiness to represent the ice cream, the chocolate to represent fudge, and those cherry notes in place of a cherry topping. While I certainly do agree with the cherry part of the description, I don't find this brownie tart; the cherry flavor note is more of a fun flavor twist than a touch of tartness. It's all light and upbeat and cheery. Cheery cherry. There is, however, a different depth to the Madagascar than to the Belize; there's a little hint of flavor that reminds me of cocoa nibs. It's an extra push of flavor that really does build off of the experience of the first brownie.

The final brownie is the Guatemala Lachua, with "Dried Fruit Notes." This one instantly tastes deeper, like what I refer to as blue flavor notes (as compared to red). They say dried fruit, but these flavors remind me more of what I consider the floral notes. I admit, I usually less prefer this "blue" side of chocolate, but it is interesting to find in a brownie. I'm not used to finding these particular flavors in this context. So this brownie truly brings the concept of single origin brownies into full force; this is brownies like I've never had them before. I would put this brownie closer to nibs and cocoa powder than the other two because it is closer to having a bitter flavor. In fact, I'm going to guess that while most people will love the first two, this one might be a tad too dark for some palates. So just keep that in mind if you're only choosing one brownie and not the whole flight.

This would be a great set to order if you bring a friend or two to the shop and you're planning to eat there. Or you can get them boxed up and have the same wine-tasting-like experience at home, maybe after dinner. For me, half of each brownie was enough. I had to restrain myself on the first two because I really wanted to eat more of those, but by the time I got to the last one I was glad I'd kept to just half. Eating just half of the three brownies was all I could eat at one time, so you can probably share a set with another person. It isn't that the amount is too much (and there's certainly no sugar rush because there isn't enough sugar for that); it's just that the richness of the chocolate becomes . . . enough.

At first I did consider getting just one brownie, but now I'm absolutely glad I got the set (it's just under nine dollars for all three, by the way). They're designed as a set, and you get a whole experience out of tasting all three together. After that, you can see if you had a favorite that you want to get by itself later on. My favorite was probably the Madagascar.

So, yes, my excitement over visiting this shop has not diminished. Instead, I'm pleased to find not just good brownies but brownies that offered me something completely new and different to what I've had before. Next up: truffles.

Friday, September 1, 2017

September Book Sale & Signed Copies

(Looking for this week's chocolate review? I'm running a couple of days late this week, so it'll be up tomorrow.)

September is my time to celebrate, so all this month I'm offering paperback and hardcover copies of my novel, Black Tree, for 40% off at this link (you can still buy it from the other major booksellers, as well, but the sale is only from here).

And if you live in the state, I'd also like to point out where you can go to buy signed copies. About an hour and a half north of the Phoenix area and forty minutes south of Sedona, there is a wonderful antique store by the name of Sweet Pea Antiques. It's right on 260 in Camp Verde, just a couple minutes off of the 17--and right in the exact center of the state. So if you're traveling north or south, to state parks or museums or camping spots or anywhere else, the shop is likely not far out of the way. I have both hardcover and paperbacks there, and they're all signed; you can even pick up a free bookmark to go along with your book. I'm also selling handmade greeting cards: birthday cards, thank you cards, congratulations cards (and maybe some Halloween cards coming up).

Need some extra persuasion? Click here to read the first chapter and get a sample of my writing style.

Have a great Labor Day weekend.

Monday, August 28, 2017

I've Walked the Earth

I've walked the earth.
It takes so long.
Here one corner, and there another.
The more I walk, the more corners I find. 
I want to look through them all, to get to know them all,
but the more I look, the more I realize I don't have enough eyes for everything.
For every corner I explore, I have to leave another untouched.
With every turn I take, I am farther from where I began.
At first this doesn't bother me--but then I wonder where I am going in such a hurry.
When can I stop looking?
If I will never be able to reach every corner, then how many corners do I seek before I can go home?
When can my eyes, so eager to explore, finally explore home?
I have seen all the secret places far from where I live.
But I left home in such a hurry that I forget to seek its secrets first.
I've walked the earth.
Then my feet led me back, to walk my own land.


I like to travel. I can't say I don't. But I don't travel much and most of my travels have been to relatively nearby locations--and I'm okay with that. Sure, I'd like to branch out some more in the future, but I'm not in any hurry. There are so many more nearby places that I either haven't visited at all or haven't gotten to know very well yet. If there are places nearby to me that I would go to if I were traveling and yet I haven't been to them yet, where is the sense in that?

I want to cultivate the here and now first. When you do that, you can flow more naturally outward to see your place in the greater whole. The city in the county in the state in the country in the continent in the hemisphere in the world in the universe. When I say that I want to focus in on here before there, I don't mean to say that I want to ignore other places; I just mean that you need to have a place that you are directly interacting with on a daily basis. How can you have a good influence on other places if you don't start with your own place?

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Chocolate Categories

I was never into the star system for rating things. It doesn't explain nearly enough and it implies that you should be directly comparing things that may in fact be very different even though they are in the same broad category (books, movies, chocolate, etc.). So when I am writing a chocolate review, you've probably noticed my difficulty in simply saying: it was bad, it was weak, it was okay, it was good, or it was excellent. The truth is much more complicated than a simple statement.

Over the years, I've begun to develop my own vocabulary for describing what a chocolate offers. So I'm going to take today's post to briefly describe (along with some examples) what I mean by the chocolate categories I tend to reference in my reviews.

Candy - This one should be self-explanatory. This means Hershey's, Mars, and Nestle products and their kin. Reese's Cups, Three Musketeers, M&M's, that sort of thing. The chocolate itself is the smallest factor in products like this. If a chocolate's packaging doesn't look like a candy wrapper and yet that's the category I put it in, well, that's criticism. I don't generally think too highly of this category because most of it is cheaply made with bad ingredients, but I don't dislike candy, so I am completely in support of other brands trying to make better quality chocolate candy (in particular there are quite a few alternative Reese's Cups for sale these days). "Candy" shouldn't mean "low quality," but unfortunately it usually does.

Confections - Although very similar to candy, when I refer to confections I think more of brands like Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. They do make all of their sweets by hand (they don't make the chocolate themselves, just the truffles or candied apples or whatever else they sell), and that gives them a different feel to off-the-shelf candy. Usually the quality of confections is a little better than that of candy--but that isn't a general rule of my category. Instead of just tasting sugar, vanilla also plays a strong role. Confections aren't gourmet, but they can be just as satisfying in their own way because they come with an element of nostalgia. Milk chocolate usually; if there's dark chocolate, it's the light kind.

Mass-Produced Chocolate - Think of Godiva. Some of their chocolate is good, but none of it is as good as they claim that it is. They claim that it's a gourmet indulgence, the diamonds of the chocolate world. Yes, it can be nice to pick up one of their truffles after a day at the mall in the same way that you might buy a cookie. But Godiva doesn't make diamonds. Mass-produced chocolate is the chocolate that you can instantly distinguish from fresh, handmade truffles (you know, the kind that only have a shelf-life of two weeks).

Casual Chocolate - This is such a vague phrase, and yet I find myself using it often. This is chocolate that isn't trying to be gourmet or high end. It's just trying to use quality ingredients to make a product that tastes good. I usually put brands like Theo into this category. Theo is one of my favorite brands to share with people because it's readily available to buy and because the look and flavors are straightforward. You don't have to tell people to sit quietly and smell the chocolate and snap the chocolate and taste it in five steps in order to describe the flavor notes (I mean, you can, but you don't have to). You don't have to read a novel about the kind of cocoa or the conching method used. You just eat this chocolate and come away pleased (well, if it's carried out correctly).

Gourmet Chocolate - Some people call this craft chocolate; I don't like that name because it just reminds me of wine and beer. I prefer calling it gourmet because that's the word that, for me, truly implies the care and devotion that goes into chocolate like this. Amano, Michel Cluizel, Domori, Pralus. Fine chocolate made by people who take care to visit the cocoa plantations and choose the specific cocoa beans they want to use--and then use that same attention to detail along every step of the process. Quality ingredients is just the beginning for chocolate like this. This is the chocolate that you can talk about for hours if you want to because it's a topic in itself. This is the chocolate that can be most exciting to write about or publicly praise because of its high standard.

But do you see what I mean now? As wonderful as gourmet chocolate is, I don't want to eat that all the time. Sometimes I just want a chocolate candy or confection. So it would feel unfair to rate a gourmet chocolate higher than a confection if they are both doing their job and achieving their specific and separate goals. That's why I describe what a chocolate offers rather than just sticking to a star-like system of rating. And yes, there is crossover in my vague categories. Some products fit into more than one place, and probably some don't fit well into any of them. But this is just a quick look at some of the vocabulary I use; each review is of course going to describe the specific case that is each individual chocolate.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Disney Boys: Introduction

Over a course of some months, I had a series of posts in which I analyzed the Disney princesses. Mostly I was defending them by pointing out the ways in which they are positive role models; I also looked at the ways in which specific characters offered more or less of the various things we might want from role model types. Given that those posts were popular (and I do enjoy talking Disney), now it's time to turn from the girls to the boys. I think that it's important for both girls and boys (and for women and men, for that matter) to see both girls and boys (and women and men) in fiction.

So while it was easy to just do a dozen posts on the twelve official Disney princesses, what am I planning for the Disney menfolk? I've made up my own set of rules. All Disney feature length animated films--no Pixar. Mainly only human characters, but a couple of animal characters made it in, too (The Lion King transcends animal/human and in Robin Hood they're basically just animals playing people, so that works). I've chosen twelve of them to match the twelve Disney princesses and make them both even numbers. No princes from Disney princess movies (though I could easily talk about Philip from Sleeping Beauty, the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, Shang from Mulan, and Flynn Ryder from Tangled), mostly because I don't want to repeat things that I might have already touched on in the other set of posts. The one exception is Aladdin because that movie both is and isn't a princess movie and since it's named after Aladdin instead of Jasmine, it's the perfect subject for this series. (Moana isn't an exception because Moana isn't even considered an official Disney princess, anyway.) And I'm choosing only characters who are the main part of their story and who represent something positive (either their identity or their personal journey).

Here are the films I've chosen: Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan, and Moana. I confess that I haven't watched Wreck-It Ralph yet (I kind of thought it was Pixar, and I don't keep up as much with Pixar because I don't usually like Pixar much); I think it will be part of this series, but if I watch it and decide that it doesn't, I'll go with Peter Pan instead (though honestly that wouldn't work perfectly because the film is more about the Darling family than about Peter himself--he's just a symbol, really).

I don't know to what degree I'll be comparing the male characters to the princesses. Going in, I'll have so many different sub-topics that I don't know what will be the main focuses by the time I've finished the series. I'm going to aim to do at least a couple of these a month, possibly more depending on how it goes. So this series could run anywhere from three to six months long.

While you wait for the first post, you can start over again with my Disney Princess Analysis. Click here to read what I had to say about Snow White.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Half-Broke Horses

For starters, Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls is quite different from her first book, The Glass Castle. The latter is her memoir of her childhood and the former is the story of her grandmother's life. So you do, especially towards the last third of the book, get some hints of things to come (both events and themes)--but overall it's a separate story.

The tone is different and the beats of the story are all different, as well. Part of this is the fact that Lily's childhood goes by fairly quickly, so we're not seeing the story of children struggling to get by with their parents--we're seeing the story of a woman taking charge of her life, again and again. She's quite the inspiration.

Stepping away from her family's home to be out on her own, getting herself ready and able to teach, moving here and there, riding her horse alone for a month through the Southwest to get to a teaching post, cleanly putting an end to a bad situation, learning to fly a plane, and working harder than hard every single day because that was what she asked of herself. She worked hard because she knew she could do it and she knew that the results she would get from working hard would be so much better than the results from just going with the flow. She saw how things could be depending on if she acted one way or another, did one thing or another--and she decided what to do based on what she wanted to happen.

Texas, New Mexico, and mainly Arizona make up these pages. And that makes me wonder why it took me so long to read this book, given that stories like this of people who lived in the Southwest are exactly what I love. Given that Jeannette Walls was writing her grandmother's story, she had to call this book a real-life novel. It's technically fiction--but it's based on truth. The ranch, the teaching--the person; that's all true. So in a way, this book is like an oral history. It's this family's story, the story of a woman who lived and prospered in the last days of the West.

It's strange. She (Lily) talks about the new people that were able to come in to the Phoenix area once air conditioning made the real temperatures tolerable to them. She says it, you know, a little disdainfully--but rightly enough so because she lived and worked outdoors for enough years that she proved she could easily tough out something so small as the weather. So you want to take her side when she says things like this--but I'm probably one of those people. I'm part of that wave of people who moved to Arizona out of California (not to Phoenix, but still to Arizona) in this modern age of air conditioned houses and cars, grocery stores with fresh supplies, and paved roads. I don't have to live like Lily did, and I know that there are so many things that the modern age has lost, so many connections with this land that we no longer have. But I am grateful to people like her who were here before--and to those who were before her.

The more I think about it, the more I realize another strange thing. Lily loved respecting the land (taking care, for instance, not to let the cattle overgraze and things like that), but she also loved new things. She loved airplanes--and then lamented when the air become so controlled with the same flight paths and such that cars needed to follow. But she wasn't the only one who loved planes, and when you have so many people using something, well, you have to put down some rules and organization just to keep everyone safe. There are losses as time moves forward--but that's just the way it is.

I'm almost ending on a somber note there. So I'll finish by saying that I enjoyed this book as a source of people's stories, a source filled with what it was that made their lives theirs.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Madecasse: Mint Crunch Dark Chocolate

Time to make our way through more Madecasse chocolate. This time the familiar lemur sits against a green background--because this is the Mint Crunch Dark Chocolate bar. The cocoa content is 63%.

As soon as I broke the seal on the foil wrapper, out came the scent of Andes Mints. This was, for the first moment, a welcome and inviting scent--Andes Mints, after all, can be rather nice. But then I began to wonder if that was really the scent association that I wanted to find--Andes Mints, after all, are also rather cheap.

The same mint scent carries through to the taste, so the mint aspect of this chocolate bar is the same as in Andes Mints. Andes Mints are labeled as containing "peppermint oil" and this bar lists "organic mint oil." Pretty much that's the same ingredient, at least as far as taste goes. While this particular mint taste is often the flavor that we get in products, it just . . . doesn't taste all that much like a mint leaf.

Here's my problem. Andes Mints, while they're marked as something to add sophistication to get-togethers (like Ferrero Rocher), they're in the same category as Hershey's Kisses--that is, the mass-produced candy category. So that's the scene with which I associate this particular mint flavor. But the other elements of this Madecasse bar suggest a different scene.

I have spoken favorably in the past about most of Madecasse's dark chocolate, and the same goes for this case. In addition to the chocolate (which is already a different species from candy chocolate), there are nibs in this bar. This is where the Mint Crunch part comes in. The use of cocoa nibs to give that crunch is a smart idea. Nibs do have that pleasant and particular crunch that's hard to describe but impossible to not recognize. So I like the idea of just adding this basic chocolate product instead of adding cookie pieces or something like that, in which case you'd also be adding in at least another five ingredients. The thing is, though, nibs elevate the chocolate and draw more emphasis to the richer, more flavorful notes.

This would be great--except that then there are two opposites in this chocolate. Fresh and flavorful cocoa and watered down mint oil.

It's kind of a shame.

And it isn't that this chocolate is bad. It tastes fine and maybe majority of people wouldn't be pausing over it as long as I am. I just think that it could be (and was so close to being) better. I'm only being hard on Madecasse because I expected more from them. You know when you unwrap certain chocolates and get a fresh mint scent, like there's a mint plant right next to you? That's what I wanted here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Star Wars & the Inferno Squad

I wasn't exactly excited about another Star Wars: Battlefront book. Then I saw that Inferno Squad would be written by Christie Golden, who also wrote Dark Disciple, and I thought that perhaps the book would hold some interest for me, after all.

As I'm beginning to realize and talk about, certain of the Star Wars books interest me more or less depending on where they place the focus. Books about characters and places and emotional themes are best. Books about politics and battles not so much. The first Battlefront book was very much just a wartime, army book focusing on a team making it through the fighting. This book starts off as if it's going to be similar. There are some skirmishes. Then the setting changes.

Inferno Squad takes place directly after the destruction of the first Death Star. Inferno Squad is a small Imperial group that goes undercover in a rebel group based around Saw Gerrera's ideals. Basically they've living in a cave trying to act like people they aren't--and sometimes feeling gray areas develop. Perfect. The cave living almost reminded me of The Host at times (though it's nowhere near as rustic as that), especially given that you have a close-up look at a confined group of people trying to get along with one another. And all of these questions about identity and loyalty are exactly the types of things I like to get from Star Wars--and the type of character-based content that I expected from Christie Golden.

Sometimes I don't like when stories explore the gray areas, when they try to portray villains as not being wholly evil or show that neither side is perfect. I get it, and it does usually make for interesting storytelling. But Star Wars is great because of its themes of good and evil, so you do have to be careful in what ways you explore those gray areas. Somehow, even though Inferno Squad is all about showing the perspective of Imperials who are just trying to do their duty to restore peace and order to the galaxy, it works. The reason that it works is that it's straightforward: the characters don't really waver much in their ultimate loyalty because they believe in their cause. And it works because the rebels that they're seeing up close aren't the Rebel Alliance--they're like Saw's rebels.

Here, of course, we have the welcome tie-in to Rogue One. There are plenty of references to that storyline. And we have further exploration of the rebel groups who are quicker to action (and quicker to violence) than the Alliance. You can't argue with Iden choosing to stay loyal to the Empire versus joining this group.

So, yes, there's action in here, but it's all character-based, making this one of the Star Wars books I've enjoyed more rather than less.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Glass Castle on Film

Click here to read last week's post focusing on the book.

While there were certain greatly noticeable changes made in the book to movie adaptation of The Glass Castle, I find that I can understand why the filmmakers made these changes--and such coherency isn't always the case in adaptations.

Part of it is timing. Jeannette and her siblings start off a little older in the movie and we see more time from when they are older children and even adults than in the book, where more is shown of them as very young children. This is practical: there are already three (three, right?) actors playing each of the children at different ages. It would be too much to have even more actors. And it's easier to play through crucial scenes with slightly older actors than very young actors.

There was also a mixed timeline. The book starts with a loosely-defined "present" and then moves into the past (childhood/youth) before finishing off with the present/adulthood again. The movie moves back and forth between the two, which I at first found a little strange. This change meant that certain notes fall at different times or places in the movie than in the book.

Most of the movie takes place in Welch, instead of showing the family's time in the Southwest. I particularly missed getting to see early Phoenix on film. I also didn't like this change because I felt that the move to Welch represented the loss of hope. Before Welch, the family was doing okay (well, sometimes and in some ways) and the children still had some degree of faith in their parents. In Welch, the children lost that faith as their parents just let everything physical fall downhill--and the children, in light of that, grew up and took it on themselves to try and take care of one another. So from that sense I don't like this change in the movie. However, in another sense this change just meant that, once more, notes just fell in different places/times.

One more change. While the book maintains that direct telling-of-truth tone (it's easy to picture Jeannette with a background in journalism) and lets the readers put everything together themselves, the movie gathers all the little threads and knits them together into a central theme. I glanced at one review that condemned the film for this, basically stating that it made the story shallow. I can kind of understand: the focus went more onto maintaining love for the parents than on understanding to get out of a bad situation. So part of the power may have been lost: we all know that we're supposed to try and keep love for our parents but it can be harder for people who have been raised in bad situations to be able to say that those situations were negative and that they deserve and can have better (while also understanding that to say this isn't to say that you hate or disrespect your parents).

Ultimately, though, I'm going to go with what I've said twice already: the notes just fell in different places. I still felt the same things watching this film as I did in reading the book--and that's the main point. What this film did was take what readers got out of the book and make that into the film. It's almost like when Andrew Adams tried to make The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into an action film because that's what he remembered getting from the book as a child (although the problem there was that he missed out on what was important about the story--it wasn't the "exciting" parts). Fortunately, in this case the filmmakers better understood what mattered in The Glass Castle. So while, yes, adaptations can be difficult to approach, I find that this was one of the better ones I've seen.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Chocolat Suisse: Chocolat au Lait

Probably this is more the type of chocolate I would have reviewed a few years ago than what I tend to select nowadays. It's a Swiss milk chocolate that came to me by way of the friend-of-a-friend type situation--and I believe it did make its way all the way from Switzerland. Since I have it and since foreign chocolate is an interesting sub-topic of chocolate to cover (since we all get used to the styles of chocolate that are sold in our home countries), I'll go ahead with a review.

The packaging implies that this is a pretty standard chocolate in Switzerland. No "fine chocolate" style but also not really the candy bar look. I'm not sure if I should be referring to the brand as Confi Swiss or Chocolat Suisse, so we'll go with the latter. As you can see, this particular bar is simply labeled as Lait: Chocolat au Lait, or Milk Chocolate. The ingredients list tells me that the cocoa content is 25%, which is, once again, a pretty standard lower end of the cocoa content spectrum for casual milk chocolate.

The shiny surface of the chocolate contains an interesting design. While the simple rectangles are nothing new, they do have a curved rectangle pattern inside them that is less usual. For some reason the look reminds me of Willy Wonka. The chocolate gives off a creamy, caramel, lightly nutty scent with a sweet richness.

Texture-wise, this chocolate is very smooth in the mouth, possibly too smooth. The texture is thick and sticky, almost like peanut butter. While interesting simply as a novelty, I don't ultimately care for this kind of texture. The flavor quickly works up to a nutty caramel and finishes off with a warm cocoa aftertaste. I was expecting it to taste milkier than average, but I don't find it to be so after all.

Basically, it's just a milk chocolate, sweet and greasy. But it is rather different from most milk chocolates I come across. (There was another chocolate that had this same type of plasticy texture and possibly a similar flavor, but I can't quite remember what it was.) It's okay--and maybe some people will enjoy that thick texture because it gives the chocolate more of a munching quality. I said that the outside didn't look like candy bar style, but in fact the effect of the texture and flavors isn't entirely unlike a chocolate candy made with caramel and nougat.

So I am going to categorize this chocolate in the candy category, not my loosely-defined "casual" category. I could see it for sale in the U.S. and doing just as well as Hershey's and Mars and Nestle (Nestle is, of course, also a Swiss brand, though I think most Americans don't realize that). But would I seek out this brand again? Probably not.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

John Keats & the Art of Beauty

Last month I wrote about the emotional quality of John Keats's poetry. I also mentioned that I had been moving slowly (quite slowly) through his complete poems. Actually mentioning this fact of my slow reading made me feel like I really had better just finish the volume instead of dragging it out any longer. Add to that the fact that I have a specific reason right now for wanting to get my voice used to speaking for a long period of time, and I decided to read Keats for an hour out loud every day. Here's to hoping my neighbors couldn't hear me reading out all of his love poems.

Reading in this daily way, like how you would read a novel, proved quite different from reading in order to provide literary analysis. I had no pressure to think of any particular topic or to think with any admiration toward any particular piece. So I easily settled in to enjoying a particular poem or passage--or disliking a particular poem or passage. I didn't care much, for instance, for his experiments (is it bad that I'm calling them experiments?) with plays; while Otho the Great did have its moments, these moments were the times when the lines reminded me most of the regular poems. And I can see why even Keats wrote in his preface for Endymion that certain sections were weaker or better than others; I tended to agree with him that there were some wonderful sections and also some that didn't quite keep my interest.

The greatest power that Keats had, as a writer, was his ability to put together beautiful language. This is why we love his descriptions of nature and of love--they're simple concepts that can fold out into an endless array of images and emotions. So even when he is writing his longer poems that have multiple characters and bigger plot lines, these moments of description are still the best. (I'm not even going to try and give examples because this is just a short blog post; I don't have space to go into more detail.)

But what I also found in this daily reading was the hollow quality of beauty for beauty's sake. Keats intentionally focused on beauty--and the results are indeed beautiful. But when you are focusing only on beauty in, shall we say, a more shallow sense of the word, then the impact can only go so far. You admire how a rose looks and you smell its aroma and then you're done; that's it--it can give you no more. That's how Keats can be. Don't get me wrong; I much prefer Keats to Oscar Wilde. Wilde was also about aesthetics above all else--but in a different way. I think Keats more respected the world around him--and he loved the natural world, which Wilde I think couldn't stand (that quote where he says that manmade chairs are so much better than anywhere you can sit in nature--that just describes every way in which Wilde and I disagree).

Back to Keats. His poetry is oftentimes, as we know, tragic. That's part of what makes it beautiful; we all love a good tragedy. But it's also part of what keeps his work from having deeper meaning. He remarks on beauty but he gives no hope--beauty in itself (this definition of beauty, that is) is not enough to give hope, especially for all of the tragedy that he describes.

I'm not saying that this is a bad thing, artistically speaking. A single poem (or any single piece of whatever kind of art) can only do so much. That's where the reader (or viewer) comes in. We absorb each piece individually for what it offers and then we put them together in our minds. This artist shows us this and that artist taught us that and so on--until we have our heads filled with art in all its contexts. We look at pretty things and we feel different emotions and we ponder different themes--and then we draw conclusions and live our lives, with all of this art sitting somewhere in the background.

"'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' -- that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" ("Ode on a Grecian Urn") That is what beautiful art tells us, but it is not what we know when we are done admiring said beautiful art.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Glass Castle

Normally I don't get into the whole "read the book before the movie comes out" thing. Either it's a book I've read or it isn't; either it's a movie I want to see or it isn't. This case, however, was different. I've been hearing of Jeannette Walls for a while, so when I saw a secondhand copy of The Glass Castle a while back, I picked it up. Then I was talking to someone recently who said she was looking forward to the movie because she had really enjoyed the book--and I thought I'd better finally get around to reading it myself. I do that: some books I read as soon as I get them and others wait for years for my attention.

Sometimes that just makes for the right timing.

Now must have been good timing because I found that there is something in The Glass Castle that's absolutely brilliant. The quote on the front cover from People draws a comparison to Frank McCourt--but I mostly disliked Angela's Ashes so I don't know how much I agree. I think there is a more subtle sparkle within this book. Not the sparkle of goodness or the sparkle of happy memories. It's the sparkle of decision.

This book is a memoir, describing Jeannette Walls's childhood and leading up to her first adult years. There are sad things and there are happy things. There are things that a child wouldn't have seen as bad but an adult would. While the tone in which she describes events is matter of fact and therefore often neutral (you get the sense that she is mainly just trying to tell the truth of what happened and not imprint later thoughts on the past), there is a subtle change that takes place about halfway through, when Jeannette is changing from a child into a young woman.

There comes a point when she sees past the adventure and resilience that her parents speak of and sees their failings. As she realizes her parents' faults, she still holds into the resilience that they taught her. She decides that she doesn't want to live like they do--and that's a powerful decision.

Some people will relate to elements of this book. While I can't say that I do personally, I have heard stories from other people that made some of this sound familiar. So what I really found powerful was this decision that Jeannette and her siblings made to lift themselves out of the rut that their parents set up for them. It's one thing to be raised to have a positive sense of self and your self within society, but to be able to stand up above the various ways in which parents can be holding you down must really be something, something difficult and also powerful.

And it isn't from a lack of respect for or love for parents, either. This is why the matter of fact tone of this book works so well. It isn't about hatred. And it isn't even about a childlike choice to hold onto magical illusions. It's just about the truth. Jeannette's parents raised her to be smart, and for that reason she couldn't wait to make for herself a better life than they had ultimately made for her.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Green & Black's: Toffee Milk Chocolate

I did it again. I bought another sugar crystal/toffee chocolate. This time it's part of my "second look" at Green & Black's. As I mentioned before, I've probably reviewed all of the bars from Green & Black's at some point--but it's been years, so I've mostly forgotten what their chocolate is like. This is me starting over with Green & Black's, today with their Toffee Milk Chocolate.

I have nothing more to say about the familiar packaging for now; let's move on to the chocolate. I was surprised to find the chocolate's aroma generic. It has that typical sweet, caramel milk chocolate aroma, which is nice enough but not singular. The implication is also more of confection-style chocolate.

Though the toffee isn't visible from either the front or back of the car, the fairly big little bits of toffee are visible once you break off a piece from the whole. (Forgive the melty look in the picture; it's summer.) The first taste of this chocolate is simply sweet; the caramel and vanilla notes come in next, then a touch of earthy richness along with more vanilla. After having all of these chocolates lately with sugar crystals and crunchy caramel pieces, it's pleasant to come back to actual toffee. There is a difference: toffee has a more specific crunch and more of a glassy flavor. The proportion of toffee in the chocolate is balanced.

I do like toffee, so this chocolate bar is nice. I'm enjoying eating it. But it's probably easy to see that I'm somewhat disappointed. The chocolate is pretty standard--above the candy bar level, certainly, but I had expected more. This is indeed what I would categorize as confectionery, and not simply because there is toffee involved. The only problem with that, if it is a problem, is that I didn't think of Green & Black's as making confectionery chocolate. This is indeed a casual, sweet bar of organic, fair trade chocolate that's great for when you're craving sweet chocolate, not fancy artisan dark chocolate full of flavor notes. But the simple packaging implies that this is sleek and refined chocolate.

Or does it?

Maybe Green & Black's lets you fill in the style. Maybe they have such a generic packaging because they don't want to imply anything about their product. Their main selling point has always been their organic, fair trade status. Before there were so many fair trade chocolates to choose from, Green & Black's was there to provide that option. So they let the consumer decide if this is fancy chocolate or casual chocolate--and all they tell you is that it's a good product. I'm labeling it as a confection, but to you it might be something different. And I suppose that works. As I keep stressing, while artisan chocolate is absolutely wonderful, we don't need all fair trade chocolate to be in that style. So if Green & Black's is one of the companies that offers some of the more casual options, then I am supportive of that.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Food Guidelines: What I Eat

This two-part post is different from even my usual randomness. So feel free to ignore it if you think it's odd. And yes, we all know that I'm not a nutritionist.

As a continuation from Monday's post, today I'll give you some examples of the types of everyday foods that I eat. First, a note on eating out.

Restaurants - I don't eat our on a daily basis (so when I do I'm not as concerned about what I get), but I realize that it isn't so simple for many people to limit eating out. You might go out to eat for work or with friends, or maybe you really are too busy to prepare all of your own food. So the simple guideline is to try and eat out in places that stick to the guidelines you would want to keep to at home. Things that are freshly made will have less undesirable ingredients. While salads are recommended as healthy choices, I don't necessarily recommend them. Sometimes they're terrible, sometimes they have even more food than other menu items, and sometimes they're simply not what you feel like eating and therefore you won't feel satisfied from eating them. (Not that it's bad to order a salad--I'm not trying to discourage that at all. I'm just saying that it isn't always your only option.) Instead, just try and keep a balance in what you're eating throughout the day or week and stick to the guideline of eating the amount that you need to satisfy instead of under or overeating.

Breakfast - I never skip a meal. I don't understand how most people don't eat breakfast. I also don't understand why many people would rather wait at a drive through window to get coffee and a pastry instead of spending five more minutes at home to eat a better version of the same thing at home. So here's what I do. I have a big mug of black tea in the morning. Remember, you've been asleep for hours; you need to hydrate, whatever it is you're drinking. Limit the sugar in the morning; you'll feel better for it. Everything has its place, and the place for sugar is not the morning. As long as you don't specifically have a gluten allergy, don't fear bread. Just look for a local bakery; if it's too much to buy directly from them, Whole Foods probably carries their bread, too. Limited ingredients means a better product that you don't have to feel guilty about. Butter? I use it pretty much every morning--that is, whenever I have toast, which is most mornings. Organic, unsalted, sweet cream butter is what I like to get. I also have one or two eggs most mornings. Again, don't fear eggs; they're a great food. I buy the organic, pasture-raised eggs (which, yes, might seem expensive at first, but how much does that coffee from the drive through cost again?). Sometimes I'll put the egg on the toast with some cheese. Sometimes I make a soft-boiled egg. Sometimes I sauté some potatoes or zucchini on the side. Or I add avocado to the toast and egg. Sometimes I'll mash some beans. If you have leftover rice, you can crack an egg into it while you're reheating it in a pan. And of course let's not forget about oatmeal. When I have oatmeal, I let it cook while I'm getting ready in the morning, then add a spoonful of honey to it.

Lunch - Lunch is kind of odd, I know. Usually lunch you can't eat at home, so that can make it more difficult. Leftovers can make a good lunch, but if you're like me and you don't use microwaves, then anything that needs to be reheated isn't an option when you're not at home. Some leftovers you can eat cold, over a bed of greens, but I really don't usually do that. And even if I'm home, I'm more likely to use leftovers for dinner than for lunch. Tuna is a good lunch food, either in a sandwich or over greens or with tortilla chips or crackers--but again, depending on where you eat lunch, you may or may not want to be bringing in fish. I stick to a sandwich most days. Peanut butter and jelly really is a nice combo--just use organic peanut butter with no more than two ingredients and use all-fruit jelly (sometimes they'll add a little extra fruit juice to sweeten it) or at least one with reduced sugar. I usually, illogically, scoff at "reduced sugar" labels because I don't think that sugar itself is the problem, but I do think that nearly all jellies contain way too much more sugar than they need. I want to eat my sugar in chocolate and cookies, not in jelly. Jelly seems like one of those products, like bread and honey, that you can easily buy local--but I'm just not happy with the amount of sugar in the jelly that's made around here. Anyway. Sandwiches. Remember that instead of buying cold cuts, you can also just cook a little extra meat for the week. Slice that up and use it in sandwiches. I also make pasta salad sometimes for lunch; it's also easy thing to take with you. All I add usually is salad dressing. Not a very balanced meal in itself, but remember that each meal doesn't necessarily have to be balanced as long as the total of what you eat in a day is. Fruits make good accompaniments for lunch, or even just a little bit of greens.

Dinner - When I'm by myself, I don't eat meat every day. I would never become a vegetarian (obviously never vegan, either), but I also think of meat as more of an accessory than a main dish. Sometimes it's the main part of a meal, but it's a small percentage of what I eat overall. Usually it's salmon (which is easy to cook and just needs a touch of seasoning) or chicken (which I season more). Instead of eating meat all the time, I make a pot of beans nearly every week. Pinto are nice, but I also like to get other kinds. It can be months before I buy the same kind again: there are just so many varieties and they all taste different. I make rice often. I've been most fond of brown rice lately, though I didn't much favor it in the past; now I find it rich and meaty. With white rice, usually I've been adding tomato sauce to make it into orange rice. Steaming vegetables (make sure not to leave them in too long) is great; you just add some salt to them and there you have a simple start. You can just put steamed vegetables over rice for an easy dinner. I also make potatoes pretty often. Sometimes I'll boil several of them to keep in the refrigerator for when I want them, whether for breakfast or dinner. I make what I call mock fries sometimes by slicing up these potatoes, then cutting them into thin pieces, and sautéing them in a pan with plenty of salt and a touch of pepper. Sliced potatoes can also cook in the oven with olive oil and rosemary. Mashed potatoes are good with butter and sometimes cheese. Tortillas make a nice accompaniment to most foods. And remember that a salad can be as simple as greens with cucumber slices set on the side of whatever else you're eating. Oh, yes, and pasta is a good, quick dinner when you haven't planned out anything else. Pasta sauce is one of the "processed" foods that I do buy, though I do keep an eye on the ingredients list.

Extras/Desserts - Nuts and dried fruit make for good snacking items that are easy to carry around with you. But I do also favor tortilla chips, sometimes with salsa, for when I'm at home. I frequently eat tortilla chips late at night. I always forget to make popcorn (yes, I'm one of the people who still pops popcorn in a pot on the stove--why would you want to make it any other way when half of the fun is getting to watch it pop?), which I season just with salt, but I always think I should make it more often when I do. Fruit is a good in-between food. And as I keep mentioning, if I'm craving something sweet, I'll either have it right away or plan when I'm going to have it. If I want brownies, I'll make brownies (I recommend Martha Steward's Double Chocolate Brownies recipes). Or cookies, or some cake, or just chocolate. I used to not like pancakes until I realized that they taste kind of nice when they don't come from a mix; very occasionally, I'll have them for lunch or dinner (remember, I don't eat sweet things in the mornings)--I use maple syrup, not the faux syrups that dominate the shelves. (Actually, I do make scones for breakfast sometimes--and I top them with honey or jelly, so that would be the exception to my morning rule.) My point is: if I make these things myself, then I know what's in them. And since I have to go through the extra trouble of making them, I'm less likely to make them every day and more likely to spread them out over multiple days (as long as each item can last before it goes bad, which is less time for scones and more time for cookies).

Obviously I'm not listing menu items, nor am I listing every single food that I eat. I'm only trying to give an idea of my attitude toward food. On a daily basis, I don't go all out. I don't make dishes or follow recipes. I just make food, usually simple and sometimes plain. I think this is why some people get overwhelmed at the idea of cooking at home: they think they have to be making elaborate meals all the time. You don't. And you also don't have to shy away from basic ingredients (unless, of course, you have a specific allergy or extreme health concern). Use butter, use cheese, use sugar, use potatoes--just buy specific types of these and other ingredients. You know, buy a whole piece of parmesan and grate it at home so that you know you're not eating wood pulp. Buy organic potatoes so that you're not eating all the pesticides from the dirt the potatoes were sitting in. Buy the peanut butter that isn't full of oil and sugar. That sort of thing.

And don't feel like you have to follow the current "healthy food" trends. I don't understand why there is such a big section full of kale chips when they're something I can't even imagine wanting to try, much less each regularly. I'll eat salad as salad and chips as chips; don't try and combine them. Recipes with black beans in the brownies? Maybe it works out great, but what's really the point? Beans taste good on their own, and brownies can have their place as dessert. Sure, I don't drink milk, but I stopped long before it was popular to. And like I said, though I see so much vegan food nowadays, I would never go vegan. If that's a choice that you want to make, go for it. Just make sure that you're not just jumping on food bandwagons that you don't really want to stick to. See what works best for your tastes, your lifestyle and habits, and your intentions. You vote with your dollar, and we all buy food. What kind of food do you want to support?

And what kind of food do you want to nourish yourself with? If you care about the body that you're living in, then don't you want to treat it well?