Friday, July 21, 2017

Madecasse: Honey Crystal Dark Chocolate

If I have been going on the trend of milk chocolate and a bit of white chocolate for the lighter days of summer, then the light dark chocolate (at 63% cocoa content) of Madecasse's Honey Crystal bar should be a perfect transition into the end of summer.

Now, it might seem that I've come to yet another in the series of toffee/caramel/honeycomb/sugar crystal chocolates. However, this one is distinct in three ways. First, there is no salt like many of the other bars had. Second, these crystals are smaller. And third, their flavor is of sugar and not at all of caramel. They are composed, by the way, of honey and sugar.

The chocolate that carries these honey crystals looks and smells like dark chocolate, not at all milky or watered down. After all, it is 63% and not 54%, so it isn't super low on the cocoa content, even if it is on the lower side. Looking very closely at the surface, you can see tiny light dots underneath where all of the honey crystals reside.

When the chocolate first touches the mouth, the warm flavor of the cane sugar comes in. Then the reddish tones of the chocolate begin to make themselves known; it's mild dark chocolate, pleasing in its richness while also never becoming bitter or too deep. I recommend a combination of chewing and allowing the chocolate to melt. A little chewing is of course necessary given the crunch of the honey crystals, but too much chewing will mask the flavors of the chocolate and thereby take away half the flavor profile.

These honey crystals, as I mentioned earlier, are small. For reference, I'd put them at about the same size as coffee grounds. So their crunch is light and rather springy. The effect of  this texture almost makes the chocolate feel like it's a rougher grind, like Taza chocolate, even though technically you can tell that this is not that type of chocolate because it still melts normally in between all the little crystals. Still, it's an interesting and unexpected effect.

All the labeling states that this is a honey chocolate, from the name of the bar to the yellow color on the card box. I don't, however, taste honey specifically; I taste sugar. I'm not complaining, though: it is a similar flavor to honey. And when I say sugar, I mean the richer flavor of less refined sugar--even if Madecasse uses regular white sugar, the flavor comes across well. This is sweet in a good context. Basically, it's dark chocolate with sugar mixed in as a separate element. You have the fuller flavor of dark chocolate but also with the sweetness and the flavor of sugar. I would call this a mildly flavored chocolate: it's technically flavored but not so much as a mint chocolate or an almond chocolate.

This chocolate is in between milk and dark, in between snacking chocolate and evening chocolate. Or, as I hoped, exactly the type of chocolate to use to transition into the end of summer.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Living as a Victorian

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman is not a short coffee table book with tidbits about Victorian social etiquette and the language of the fan and things of that sort. Rather, this is a dense four hundred pages that cover as many aspects of daily Victorian life for the three social classes as is possible.

It's organized according to the day: the first chapter is "Getting Up," the second is "Getting Dressed," the ninth is "The Midday Meal," etc. And as each chapter moves into a specific part of a person's day, the focus moves to a particular subject. Clothing, medicine, sanitation, work, leisure activities and games, and on. If, like I have, you've read your share of Victorian novels, then some of the language of it, if you will, will be familiar. For instance, I was just talking about Louisa May Alcott--and Goodman's explanation of how tennis became popular reminded me of the scene in Jo's Boys when Bess and Josie go to play tennis. Or when learning that many women were willing to justify wearing foundation because they thought of it as more of a skincare product than makeup, I thought of a question in An Old-Fashioned Girl that's lingered in my mind--"'Does Trix paint?'" ("Painting" of course in this context meaning "wear makeup.)

So in many ways, reading this book is reliving old stories--or putting new life into fiction. It is also, as I mentioned, as detailed as anyone might want. (Yes, there is always more information to find, but this is as thorough a collection of information as you can probably find put together into a single book.) You don't just learn the what's; you also learn the why's. For instance, in learning what people were most likely to eat for breakfast, you learn the differences in what types of food were available in the northern or southern parts of England. (Here I will point out the one drawback of this book for me personally. Though plenty of the information is applicable to the time period in general, the focus is on British history. I was referencing Alcott, but really I should be thinking of Bronte and Dickens instead. Still all very wonderful to learn--I just wish I had a volume like this for American history, as well, though I wonder if that one might not be even more varied given the huge territory that is the U.S.)

What is perhaps the best thing about this book is that it covers the specific area of history that most interests me. I don't just mean the nineteenth century: I mean the concept of the daily lives of regular people. There was a time when I thought I wanted to major in history in college. Then I took A.P. U.S. History, and decided that I didn't overly love learning about all the wars and politics; what I liked was the historical, not history. That is, the culture that is covered by literature. (I've since realized the flaw in my reasoning. It is necessary to learn the basics of history first and then narrow in on your preferred focus. Even Goodman references politics and a bit of war in her book on daily life--because it's applicable and each element affects the others.) Anyway, this book reminded me of that interest in history that I once had. (It's all because of my early focus on Little House on the Prairie, which truly was a narrative describing daily life.) With this book, she reminded me that history isn't just studying the battle tactics of this or that war. I mean, there is some dark material in here, as well, but mainly I much more enjoy learning about how people spent their regular lives than how nations fell to the ground as they fought.

For anyone interested in the nineteenth century, Goodman's book is a must, a thorough guide that is both entertaining and informative. She draws from studies by other historians, firsthand (written, of course) accounts, and her own experiences in historical reenactment. She doesn't present the Victorians as an oddity or a peculiar species, and she doesn't talk about their methods as bizarre or inferior. Instead, she gives the reasons why things were done as they were and explains attitudes toward such methods. It's all straightforward and real. Whether you're also into reenactment or museum work, of you study either history or literature, or you're simply interested, I would definitely recommend getting this book.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Kylo Ren, Darth Vader, the Dark Side, and the End of the Jedi

All of the hints about Star Wars: The Last Jedi have been implying that there will be a new attitude toward the Force. Luke thinks it's time for the Jedi to end, presumably because he sees flaws in the Jedi perspective. Snoke deliberately keeps Kylo stuck on the line between the dark and light with the idea that having both sides is what makes him more powerful. Then there's Rey in the trailer, seeing a balance between light and dark in a vision. And some of the books and Rebels address other details, as well. Ventress, for instance, uses the dark side without letting it "control her" in Dark Disciple.

With all of this, here is my concern. Star Wars has always been about dark and light and this versus that and repetition and everything of that nature. However, it is central that dark is dark. I worry that the new perspective will go too far into saying that there is no dark. Rather, that the dark is not itself negative. It's a fine line there to say that the dark side isn't negative but can simply be used in a negative way.

Maybe some people would applaud a change like this (and maybe this isn't even the direction the story is going, in which case this whole post whole just be meaningless conjecture), saying that it embraces an open mind. But those were the Emperor's words when he put down the Jedi and tempted Anakin over to the dark side. How can we (or should I say how can Luke) suddenly start backing the Emperor's perspective?

Dark is dark and light is light. If you undo this simple fact, then doesn't everything else unravel? Anakin's fall and Vader's redemption--aka. the true heart of Star Wars?

Or maybe there's another possibility. Maybe Luke is making a mistake--or maybe he made one in the past. Maybe he thinks or thought that it was possible, after all, to harness the dark side without being consumed by it. I mean, this is arguably what Kylo is trying to do (and he's a great example of why it doesn't work: he's being eaten alive from the inside because of the darkness he surrounds himself with)--maybe he learned the technique from Luke and not just Snoke. That's why Luke feels responsible and had to go seek solitude. Maybe he explains all this to Rey, and it is Rey who, like a a ray of sunshine, turns him back toward looking at the light (actually, that doesn't sound very likely--especially since Rey will probably get her own temptation toward the dark side in this film).

I mean, for Luke to say that it's time for the Jedi to end almost sounds not worth saying--do the Jedi even exist anymore? Obi-Wan and Yoda were the last Jedi, and then Luke tried to take up the remnants. But all he had was the Force, and the Jedi were about more than just the Force (there are, after all, other Force-users in the Star Wars universe). So the Jedi kind of already have ended--and maybe now Luke is just admitting that simple fact that they are moving forward rather than backward. And that's always been the case, hasn't it, even in the EU? I haven't read stories yet where Luke and Mara Jade marry and have children--but the Jedi didn't marry. Simple things like changing the Jedi lifestyle could be what Luke means about ending the Jedi.

Because if he means that the dark side isn't really dark, then either he's wrong, there is some other detail that will help explain things, or I'm going to have a hard time accepting this change of perspective.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Green & Black's: White Chocolate

Green & Black's is the original conscious chocolate brand. They were out there promoting a new attitude toward chocolate before many of today's top companies with the same style even existed. Green & Black's being the type of company that is also content to stick with a good product versus constantly trying out new or trendy flavor combinations, I long ago stopped paying attention to them. In fact, I only buy Green & Black's now if I'm in a pinch and need chocolate for a recipe (usually I have plenty on hand leftover from all my reviewing).

It's been so long that I don't even remember what Green & Black's tastes like--or which of their bars I reviewed online (for Chocablog). I think most of my reviews of Green & Black's were what I call my "practice reviews," reviews that I never published or posted anywhere but simply wrote in the beginning for fun, the short pieces that helped me get the hang of the style.

So I thought I might try and start over and review Green & Black's sometimes. After all, I know that I've never done any reviews on their products on this blog.

I'm also giving a second look at white chocolate. After enjoying the white chocolate truffle from Black Butterfly, I started wondering why I (probably like many people) avoid white chocolate. It's nice when I do eat it--I just never choose it.

Today, then, I'm looking at the Green & Black's White Chocolate, which comes in at a 30% cocoa content. White chocolate, as you know, contains only cocoa butter as its sole cocoa bean derived ingredient. That's why it can look and feel like it's missing something--if you compare it to milk or dark chocolate. And you'll also want to remember that many candies are called white chocolate when they don't even have cocoa butter; there is of course a huge difference between simply sugar and sugar with cocoa butter.

I'm still used to the Green & Black's outside packaging because their bars are for sale everywhere, but I had forgotten how nice their foil is. An almost matte, slightly coppery gold with the G&B name printed in shinier letters. Then the familiar twenty-seven pieces are inside with their little leaf logos. Beneath the creamy white surface, you can see the spots of Madagascan vanilla. I do love to be able to see the vanilla because this proves that there is real vanilla.

The chocolate smells like butter and sugar and vanilla, like a combination confection and ice cream shop. The flavor, too, is butter and vanilla with plenty of sweetness. Remember that while the ingredients may all be organic, the first ingredient is still cane sugar (followed by the cocoa butter and milk powder and vanilla). So you approach a bar like this in the same way that you would approach a dish of vanilla ice cream: with an appetite for the sweeter things.

That said, something sweet can still be cheap or not. Here, of course, you can tell that the ingredients that form the basis for this sweetness are quality. And I would say that this chocolate has less of the slight chalkiness that's usually characteristic of white chocolate (and which I don't really mind); I'm not sure if this is a result of how it was made or if it's just that I'm tasting so much of that vanilla that I can't notice anything else.

The vanilla is the primary flavor, which is why I compare this chocolate to vanilla ice cream. And while I wouldn't want to have only white chocolate and never any milk or dark (are they even the same species that we can try to compare them?), I think I will try and give a little more attention to white chocolate in the future.

You see, this chocolate reminds me of all those weird candy bars, like cookie dough flavor and that sort of thing (not that I've ever had cookie dough candy, but I see it around). So I feel like people who crave that type of sweet and that type of indulgent "chocolate" might be able to use white chocolate as one of their candy bar replacements. This is me advocating for choosing fair trade chocolate. I can understand how you might not want to replace cookie dough chocolate with most of the fair trade bars (even their milk chocolates tend toward the "darker" side and the fair trade candy bar market is still developing). So try white chocolate.

What I'd really like to see is a milk chocolate with a white chocolate center. I feel like I've had this before (maybe from Ritter Sport?), but I want one of the organic/fair trade brands to do it. I can't see Green & Black's trying it because that just wouldn't be their style. Theo, maybe? My point is, by looking back at an old reliable brand like Green & Black's, I'm looking forward to a new zone of possibilities.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Life Creates Legend

Don't ignore legends, call them nothing worthy. Don't cling solely to history books, believing they have the truth.

The truth is in life, and life creates legends.

A historical description of an event will tell you nothing except one or various perspectives on what happened. But a legend will tell you a theme, a truth displayed by an event. History can teach this, too, but only if it is lifted from history to legend.

Sometimes we reject making stories out of history--without realizing that we do this all the time and it's simply the way we process things. Gathering facts is a detective's work. Preserving facts is a recorder's task. But making stories out of history is an artist's work.

Historians can be artists, weaving messages out of past events. So, too, are painters and writers, musicians and directors. They are not trying to duplicate history--because the past is over as soon as it has happened; they are taking the life of the past and the life of the present and blending them together to create something new. Sometimes it's a social message, sometimes it's a universal theme, and sometimes it's a question, maybe a question about the future.

Legends are born out of life and grow to become something more powerful than a list of facts. Legends are expression.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Black Butterfly Truffle Selection

Word on the street was that a new chocolate shop had come in to Prescott. So naturally, being in Prescott this past Sunday, I found myself paying a visit to this new shop. The location is in Firehouse Plaza right off the Square (behind Whiskey Row/Montezuma St.). It's right next to you if you're walking around the Square--just situated in such a way that, unless there's a shop or restaurant that you favor in Firehouse Plaza, you're not as likely to stumble across it without already knowing that it's there. So this is me reminding you exactly where it is so that you will go there.

The name of this chocolate shop is Black Butterfly Artisan Chocolates. A butterfly hangs outside the doors to welcome you over. Inside, the shop is fairly simple and also intentional about details. There are open cocoa pods on display and a photo of a cocoa tree's flower on the wall--little reminders of where this chocolate came from. (It's a difficult shop to photograph because of all the light coming in from the glass wall.) The main event, though, is the glass case that houses the truffles, mendiants, and chocolate coated fruits.

I have, over the years, seen many truffles. This being the case, I am usually quick now at getting a sense of their visual style and whether they appear weak, mediocre, posh, rustic, etc. Black Butterfly truffles have artistic style. Not too modern. Not rustic. Not overly glitzy. Just simple with the right touch of embellishments and enough variety in shapes, colors, and designs from one truffle to the next to keep things interesting.

Let's start with the truffle that isn't in the picture below. That would be the Lavender Apricot Caramel, which was painted in pearly white with a touch of purple. (The sign on the wall, you'll note, refers to all of these as bonbons; I just call them all truffles for the sake of simplicity and out of habit.) I was mistaken with this one: I thought it was a milk chocolate, but it turns out to be white chocolate. I probably wouldn't have chosen white chocolate, but the choice turns out to be rather nice. The chocolate has a pleasant sweet-chalky flavor, and the caramel is smooth and light. You get that kind of peppery, citrusy tang from the lavender in a visible but not overpowering way. A slight fruitiness comes in from the apricot but not too much. The effect reminds me of summer and of light and fruity drinks enjoyed outdoors. It's the white chocolate specifically that keeps everything feeling light and refreshing in a way that milk chocolate probably wouldn't. It isn't overly sweet, either; it was simply fun and enjoyable.

From the lightest we move now to the darkest, the Cognac. In the traditional French style, this one is more rustic in style, coated in cocoa powder (which sadly melted into the chocolate before I could get a photo--sorry about that). Yet there is still an extra visual touch: the truffle is stamped with a cocoa flower on top, making me think of letters sealed in stamped wax.

This truffle is dense yet still smooth in texture, and in flavor it is rich yet with a sense of vanilla sweetness lingering about. I managed not to taste the cognac specifically until halfway through because I was focusing more on the chocolate's flavor and texture. Then I started picking up that tangy richness; it does elevate this truffle. Instead of staying with a standard French truffle flavor, it picks up more richness and individual interest. This is a sophisticated truffle, one that I can slowly savor or set as the finish to a fine dinner. It has a masculine style that goes along with dark wood libraries and leather chairs. I would definitely recommend that the Cognac be one of the truffles you try from Black Butterfly.

Third is the truffle that might just have been my favorite, the Blackberry Sage. This one comes in a cylindrical shape and is painted solid purple with a design of circles on top. A couple of air bubbles show that it's handmade, while the perfectly detailed paint job shows care and attention to detail.

The first flavor to come in is the chocolate, followed by the sage, then a touch of blackberry, and then more sage. From here, the blackberry and sage keep going back and forth until you finish mainly with the chocolate. Now, while the use of herbs can make chocolate exciting or unique, they can easily taste overpowering or simply odd, conjuring up images of roasted chicken instead of truffles. However, the balance of flavors in this particular truffle shows a particular restraint and a knowledge of just how much of each flavor to use. The sage gives the idea of richness to the blend while also maintaining lightness with its almost minty flavor, and the blackberry adds the idea of sweetness. Together, they form a perfect balance.

To finish off, we have the Palet D'Or. This is a plain square with rounded edges and a touch of gold on top. It's a classic, elegant look, as traditional nowadays as the rolled-in-cocoa-powder French truffle style. Compared with the others, this one is much softer when you bite in because there is more ganache. I also want to call this one the sweetest of the four, although technically that title probably goes to the white chocolate. Maybe it's just that gold usually makes me think of extra dark truffles, and this one almost tends toward a milk chocolate side. It does have some rich, flavorful tones that allow for slow savoring (it finishes with a warm, nutty flavor), but overall it's on the lighter side. I'd recommend this one for people who worry that the Cognac might be too dark for their tastes.

(The other chocolate pictured is one of the mendiants, with rose and something else--it wasn't mine, though, which is why I'm not reviewing it individually.)

Black Butterfly's chocolatier and owner is Tracy Taylor, and from these four chocolates, I can say that she absolutely knows what she's doing and for that reason I hope her shop does well. These chocolates felt unique. They weren't exactly like others that I've had before, and yet they weren't so different that they were shocking or weird. Every element was carried out just right, and everything is in the right balance so as to delight without estranging the palate.

If I'm not mistaken, Tracy makes the chocolate that she uses for the bonbons, mendiants, chocolate bark, etc. It's all from Venezuelan cocoa beans--and they're fair trade, which of course I love. She also mentioned that soon she'll be offering chocolate making classes and the chocolate will also be used for wine tastings/pairings (I'm not sure if the wine tasting will be at the Black Butterfly shop or elsewhere). So there is already plenty to look forward to in the future. I am well pleased: I really don't have any negative comments about these truffles. I'm absolutely thrilled to have a good chocolate shop in Prescott. I'm there fairly regularly, and it's a nice area that could use a shop like this--for visitors and locals alike.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy Fourth of July

Land that raised me. 

Land that loved me.

Land that I am here to love.

The United States of America, today is our day to honor you our home.

I have no pictures from this weekend because I haven't really been taking many, but I have been busy with Fourth of July celebrations as usual.

Friday I baked an apple pie (using Martha Stewart's recipe). Saturday I was able to spend a little bit of time hanging out at the park enjoying the shade and the grass and the trees. Sunday I spent in Prescott, visiting the art fair at the Square and a new chocolatier in the area (review coming on Friday). And yesterday, Monday, brought me to Flagstaff and their fireworks celebration, which is always a welcomingly cool weather experience in the middle of summer. I draped myself in stars and stripes and red, white, and blue.

Today is for quiet. The chicken is on the grill (a whole chicken cooked on top of a beer can). The watermelon is cut. I've already watched Sara Romey's coverage of Disneyland's Fourth of July fireworks from Sunday night and might watch it again later tonight.

Today is for contemplation. This year my theme has been to enjoy what we have in our daily lives because of where we live. I enjoy great beauty and I enjoy great possibilities.

Happy Independence Day to the U.S.A.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Alternative Hot Chocolate

Instead of a chocolate review, today I have a story about hot chocolate for you. And yes, I realize that hot chocolate has a specific definition and what I am describing is technically hot cocoa--but that phrase sounds strange to use to me, so I'm sticking to hot chocolate as a broad term.

A while ago I gave my basic method for making hot chocolate. About three quarters of a cup of (almond) milk, a teaspoon of sugar or honey, a teaspoon or two of cocoa powder, and usually a sprinkle of cinnamon. Heat and mix it all together in a saucepan and there you go, simple as can be.

Then I came across the turmeric trend for golden milk. I'm not exactly one to go for healthy food trends (like kale or chia seeds), but turmeric certainly is healthy and I was curious enough to try out golden milk. I followed this recipe from Wellness Mama (I haven't used this website for anything else, by the way), except that I added more cinnamon and ginger than she suggested. I didn't add cayenne because I don't have any at home right now, although it would be interesting to how that tastes. And of course I used honey rather than maple syrup. She's not kidding about the fact that turmeric stains. Rather than bothering to use a blender, I just stirred everything in the saucepan, so the (copper) spoon that I used did end up more yellow in color. I don't really mind, but this is good to know before you stain something important.

I had some mild trepidation after hearing about the unusual earthy taste of turmeric, but I needn't have worried. I found this drink delicious, much like chai tea because of course they both have similar spices. The addition of cloves in the golden milk would probably even further this effect, though I've yet to try that.

What I have tried, however, is adding cocoa powder. Golden milk can be a nice alternative for hot chocolate when you're in the mood for something warm and flavorful but not quite hot chocolate. However, for more of a daily basis, hot chocolate is usually a welcome drink, so why not combine the two in order to get the benefits of the turmeric more often?

So here is what I have been doing. Same amount of milk, same amount of cocoa powder, same amount of honey, a sprinkle of cinnamon, a sprinkle of ginger, a sprinkle of turmeric, and a dash of ground pepper. You can try out small sprinkles of the spices and then increase the amount as much as you like. The drink ends up being a rich, warm brown. The way I make it, it still tastes mainly like hot chocolate, just with more spices. I may be entirely weird for liking it, but I find that it's such an enlivening drink full of plenty of nice flavor. Perfect for after dinner.

And the turmeric? I have noted one curious thing. I'd heard that turmeric could be good for your teeth (which of course sounds funny at first since it stains other surfaces yellow-orange). But whenever I drink either golden milk or even my turmeric hot chocolate, I notice that my teeth feel especially smooth afterward, like I just gave them a good cleaning. Interesting.

Even if you don't try out golden milk, I just want to use this space to encourage the blending of your own beverages. Find out what you like (hot? cold? milk-based? water-based? fruit-based? sweet? spicy? bitter?) and make it at home. It ends up costing less than buying ready-made drinks and gives you control over all the ingredients. And you can easily tweak your basic recipes every now and then for variety.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

John Keats & Writer's Melancholy

I believe that every literature student develops a literary crush on the words of John Keats. I don't know of anyone would could put words together in such a lush, mellifluous way or who combined beauty and tragedy so closely.

There is a quote in Not Another Happy Ending (with Karen Gillan, Stanley Weber, and Henry Ian Cusick) that addresses this special effect that Keats has. In the film, Jane is stuck in writer's block and her publisher decides that, after the success of her first book, she's too happy and therefore he needs to find a way to make her unhappy so that she can write again. Here is the quote:

"The trick is not simply to upset her; you have to get her in the right mood. It's a special kind of misery you want, a melancholy, a dull sense of dissociation and alienation that's the source of every artist's creativity. It's like drain unblocker for novelists." (Not Another Happy Ending 2013)

And then they mention Keats, as one possible way to help get her in this mood of melancholy. He did write "Ode on Melancholy," after all. And "When I have fears that I should cease to be," which is all about contemplating his upcoming demise (he died, as you probably know, at only 25). Then we mustn't forget "Lines supposed to have been written to Fanny Brawne," in which he paints a picture of his living hand that he reaches out to his lover being instead a dead hand in a tomb--that one's fantastic.

Sometimes I do have to read Keats when I'm already in a sadder type of mood--and other times I know that I should not read him because that'll tip me over the edge into too negative of a mood. Often I just have to sit and read "Bright Star" over and over again because it's become a kind of muse for me. "Ode to a Nightingale" is a kind of reminder of what fiction is and can do: it exists in that space between reality and imagination, accompanied with flawlessly beautiful language.

I have been reading The Complete Poems of John Keats for quite a while now. The going is slow because I rarely read more than a few pages at a time: there is so much to absorb. And often I get distracted and turn away from the marked page to go back and read some of my favorites again. They say, in general, that it's best to read poetry aloud--but with Keats, it's like there is a unseen force that simply compels you to read at least some lines out loud. Your mouth just wants to form these clusters of words because they look so ripe. And then that makes all of the tragic beauty settle in more--and you're right in that specific mood that straddles the line between melancholy and exultation. The mood of poetry.

Independence Day Sale

Fourth of July is almost here, and you know what that means (well, besides the fact that I'll be draping myself in red, white, and blue for a week): it's time for another book sale. Get yourself or a friend a little summer reading.

Paperback and hardcover copies of my novel, Black Tree, are 30% off at this link only. Enjoy.

The sale will continue through Tuesday. And though the sale is only at the above link, remember that you can always buy Black Tree from the other major retailers if you prefer.

Monday, June 26, 2017


I have been lonesome lately, without entirely realizing it at first, for my dear old nineteenth century fiction. I took something of a break from it after college because I was finally able to read other neglected categories, including many new publications. Years later now, I've found something missing. I've been feeling like it's time for another reread of Jane Eyre, which I've been reading about every four years for a while now (and I'm getting overdue for the next reread). And reading Ruth Goodman's How to Be a Victorian (which is a wonderful non-fiction book that I'll post about after I've finished it) has made me think anew of all the little nineteenth century cultural things that I learned from growing up on Victorian fiction.

Suddenly I had a strong desire to reread Louisa May Alcott's Little Men (the sequel to Little Women). Little Women with Winona Ryder was a familiar movie when I was in fifth grade, and I read its book in sixth grade, which launched the reading of as many of her books as I could get my hands on (I remember going to the bookstore to inquire after Under the Lilacs and another title and being disappointed that the stock was just Little Women and Little Women and Little Women, so to this day I still have not read Under the Lilacs). Little Women I did reread quite a bit for the simple fact that (along with the Little House on the Prairie series, Anne of Green Gables, and Black Beauty) I owned it. Little Men I read from the school library (one of the many books that I checked out there that had sadly hardly been read by anyone else). Its sequel, Jo's Boys, I ended up reading online. This was a novelty: having a computer at home was a new thing, as was this exciting concept of free books to read online (I don't think I even knew the phrase "public domain" yet, though I think I understood the gist of it since it was plain to see that only the dear old "classics" were available to read in this way).

Fortunately I once picked up a set of vintage Louisa May Alcott books at an antique store, so when the aforementioned desire for a reread came up, I had the books on hand (I don't read online anymore--it just doesn't suit me). As soon as I started, I knew I would have to read both books because my mind was starting to recall all the little scenes more quickly than I could read them all.

Both these books are quite sappy, possibly even more so than Little Women. And yet the fact that they contain generally realistic sappiness makes said sappiness endearing and the images of each scene permanent in the mind. Especially since I read these stories at that age where memory is . . . strong and seems to recall every detail, rereading them transported me back.

Little Men is a good book, I was almost surprised to find. I guess after reading the Eight Cousins duo, my interest in Alcott started to wane (Eight Cousins was generally good, but since its sequel, Rose in Bloom, seemed to consist mainly of Rose proceeding to date all of her cousins one by one, it got to be a bit much for a modern perspective). But she did have a particular power of storytelling. She could paint a picture of a family community and all of the various members therein and she could strike right in at the stories that we would most want to hear, the stories of happiness, sorrow, and humor. And she gives everything a good moral angle, which is very similar to that of the Little House TV series (the books were too straightforward to include this sappily heartwarming and yet also quite stark morality).

By the time you get to Jo's Boys, all thoughts of quality fade because you're simply invested in seeing the last scenes with these characters. Little Women, you'll recall, is in two parts; while they're published together now, it used to be that the second part was separate and titled Good Wives. So the style with Little Men and Jo's Boys is similar to that of Little Women and Good Wives, except that ten years pass in between instead of just four and there are more characters.

I always quite liked Nat: that opening scene where he walks in to find such a welcome at Plumfield won me over right away. This time I was amused to see that Jo really doesn't like Nat that much; I didn't remember that from before. And Dan didn't seem quite as "bad" as I remembered, and in fact I did find him one of the more interesting characters this time. He's almost the heart of the story, the boy that Jo truly did need to rescue--personally. Nat would've just ended up in the street, dead physically, but Dan would have died spiritually if not for Jo's help.

You see, the thing about reading these stories now versus at eleven years old is that now I'm looking at them with the same sense with which they were written, which is very much a nostalgic style. At eleven years old, you can't have nostalgia for being eleven. But when you go back later, then you see it.

There was a time when I decided that Louisa May Alcott's books sat with a certain simplicity that made them less noteworthy, though casually enjoyable. Now I see so much more in them, and realize that the "simplicity" is entirely intentional. She was an intelligent, thinking woman, and it shows. While we, as modern readers, are apt to point out what we consider "outdated" elements, there are actually quite few of these considering how long ago she was writing--and even some bits, on further reflection, aren't as out of date as they at first seem. (I don't really have enough space in this post to give examples of what I mean.) There is much to learn from the morality of the Little Women/Little Men set, and it's all told in such a straightforward way.

I always believed that it was important to know your own mind and make your own decisions about who you want to be and what standard you want to hold yourself to (this is why some people falter when they go off to college: they haven't learned to stand on their own two feet--if you learn this, then you can stand in absolutely any environment). And I see now that Louisa May Alcott was one of the sources that taught me this. So my nostalgia to see the old crew again led me back up to the present, showing me lessons I could still learn or things I could keep working at, things that never go away.

It's been an interesting reading trip, and now I find myself utterly charmed by this group of characters.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Equal Exchange: Milk Chocolate Caramel

This is a recurring theme of late: I find myself explaining, once again, that I have been avoiding a certain brand of chocolate without remembering why. My eye just passes over Equal Exchange with a vague impression that their chocolate isn't interesting enough to look at. That could be true. What did surprise me, however, was learning, after doing a search of my chocolate review archives both on this blog and on Chocablog, that I have never written a review of Equal Exchange chocolate.

That is strange. I felt certain I had tried their chocolate at some point--but under what circumstances would I have done so in the last nine years without writing up a review?

I am somewhat familiar with Equal Exchange in other contexts, though. I buy their tea sometimes. Normally I prefer to get loose tea, but since that isn't always an option, my favorite bagged tea (for the morning) is their Black Tea (which I do find I prefer to their Breakfast and Earl Grey blends). And lately I've been buying their cocoa powder, not because it's the best I've ever had but because it's the most readily available acceptable quality (and fair trade) cocoa powder I can find right now (Hershey's and Nestle cocoa powder will ruin a good recipe and simply aren't worth buying).

So among the many products that Equal Exchange sells is their chocolate. Milk and dark, plain and flavored. Today I have their Caramel Milk Chocolate, which seems to come with the full description "Caramel Crunch with Sea Salt." So I am also taking part in another recurring theme today: that of crunchy caramel, which I have come across lately from Tony's Chocolonely, TCHO, and Alter Eco (well, TCHO's was more aptly labeled as toffee, but it was the same type of product).

I haven't much to say about Equal Exchange's packaging. It's neither amazing nor terrible, but it is recognizable. Similarly, the chocolate bar comes molded in a standard, plain shape with 18 little rectangles. Instead of being wrapped in foil, it comes in that sort of white film, the name of which I am not certain. The paper wrapper unfolds in the usual way to show some info about the company, explaining that Equal Exchange is a worker-owned co-op and that their cocoa comes from farms in the Dominican Republic, Panama, Ecuador, and Peru. It's more about fair trade than about the chocolate specifically.

Now, as you can see, that chocolate has a 43% cocoa content, but does look paler than that to me. (That's another thing I keep saying lately, isn't it?) The back of the bar is smooth, but on the front you can see some of the caramel pieces showing through the pale chocolate. It smells of cocoa butter and caramel.

And yes, the caramel is the same type of crunchy, toffee-like material I've been coming across lately. This is one of the less salty salted caramels I've come across recently, which I do find I prefer for the milk chocolate context. The bar from Tony's, for instance, had quite a bit of salt in comparison--which made it harder to eat too much of it at a time. This lower amount of salt works better, I find. There is nothing much to say about the caramel; it has more crunch than flavor.

Mostly you just taste the chocolate. Having tasted the plain versions of both Equal Exchange's milk and dark chocolates lately, I can say that I probably prefer their milk chocolate to their dark chocolate. Both have what I think of as a Nesquik flavor--it's difficult to describe it in any other way. The milk chocolate does, I suppose, have a nutty flavor to it. And it is more milky than sweet. There isn't much of a cocoa flavor, just a pale chocolate taste. (It's possible that what I'm tasting is the powdered milk.)

It's a nice enough bar of chocolate. It follows the same type of caramel effect I've been running into lately. The chocolate is casual, still in the confection/candy bar replacement zone. It isn't the best fair trade chocolate on the market, but it also isn't the worst. It's . . . average--and perhaps that's why I kept passing by this brand. It might be nice to have one brand that you can support across different types of products and this chocolate is fine for the occasional sweet, but I would need a little more attention to detail before I could give any higher praise.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Do I Read a Variety?

There was a time when I thought that I didn't read much of a variety of different things. Maybe I didn't. Or maybe I just thought that I didn't because there do tend to be periods, whether or weeks or months or years, when we focus on reading certain types of books. Maybe it's just because I was younger and I was taking in different varieties of books bit by bit.

I still don't feel like I read that much of a variety, but take a look at my shelves. When I compare them to other people's shelves, I do tend to see more of a variety--in general. Or at least not, I think, any less of a variety.

The top shelf, as you see is eclectic: it is made of the books that are small enough to fit in it. Mostly classics, though, along with Orson Scott Card and Laura Wiess. The second shelf is mainly my Southwestern shelf, though it also has some books focused on other areas of America. Both fiction and non-fiction (mainly non-fiction, I think), with plenty of personal accounts, fiction inspired by life, and a bit of poetry. I've been rater doting on this shelf of late. 

Two shelves of classics come next, first the Barnes & Noble editions and then the Penguin, Norton Critical, and Vintage editions. Most of the second shelf I gained from college, but the first shelf are books I've collected and read on my own. 

The bottom two shelves, because of their size, belong to the big books. These are mainly movie books, as I do love a good movie book (I like when they talk about the making of a movie, not just its plot). But there are also some other random types in here: a couple of annotated books, some books on chocolate, some books on Disneyland, some books on Victorian fashion, etc.

Now we move on from the shelves to the stacks. One stack of Barnes & Noble leather bounds, which I love and prize. Two stacks of vintage books, some of which I have only for looks, so these are the two stacks that you can't completely include when considering what books I read.

Three more stacks of mainly classics. That is, the left stack has plenty of anthologies from college, along with some of the older texts, like Greek plays and Beowulf. The middle stack was supposed to be Tolkien and Lewis, but it was too short, so I had to add some general fiction in there, as well, at the bottom: more Laura Wiess, the Primeval books, and a couple of others. The stack on the right is my Bronte stack. Mostly Charlotte, along with plenty of non-fiction that I referenced for my honors thesis. Again, this stack was a little short, so I added some classic fiction written by other women on top (along with Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles).

Now we move into modern times. The left is mainly YA: Stephenie Meyer (along with her adult novels), Veronica Roth, and some others. Then the great Star Wars stack, which outgrew its space and started spilling over to the stack next to it, where I keep the Christian fiction. These are pretty much just historical fiction. 

That leads in to two stacks of children's books. A Series of Unfortunate Events, American Girl books, Dear America books, Little House on the Prairie, and then some more general fiction that didn't fit in elsewhere. The final stack is the most random. I started it mainly as the non-fiction stack, with reference books and autobiographies and biographies and other things. But then I still had to add in a few classics on top, these the ones written by men. 

They don't look like very many books in seven pictures, perhaps, but they take up a whole wall of space. I have not read them all, no, but I have read most of them. There are only about a hundred that I haven't read, which is only about a fifth or a sixth of the whole. (I realize that a hundred books is a great many to own and not have read, especially since I keep buying more--but part of the joy of owning books is being able to choose, at any given time, which one I would like to read next.) 

Classics all the way from the Greek plays to Medieval writings to early novels to the great nineteenth century (my favored time period) to modernist writings of the twentieth century all the way up through to "present day classics." Books written for adults but also books written for children, today and in the past. Sci-fi, fantasy, historical fiction. Books about the Southwest, its land and its people. Books about writing. Books about movies. Books about art. 

I don't try to read a variety. I only to read things that interest me, for one reason or another. And because life brings about so many things to be interested in, I keep bringing in more types of books. I don't need a marketing campaign to tell me what to read next: I choose on my own, and I always have so many more things to read that it doesn't matter who designed a book cover or who gave a book a good review. I want to read a book because I feel a connection towards it. 

These books are the connections I have made.

Monday, June 19, 2017

I Am Elsewhere

I never thought of myself as a daydreamer. Maybe because the word is so often associated with movie or book images of characters imagining that they're sword fighting in Medieval England or out on safari in the nineteenth century and then getting abruptly interrupted by someone calling out their name in reality. That's never what I did.

It was always more that my mind had the capability of filling in all of the empty spaces in a day. During a long car ride, I might stare out the window to memorize the landscape and then start picturing the fellowship from The Lord of the Rings trekking across the hills. If the trip was to Flagstaff, I would instead picture the characters of Little House on the Prairie building log cabins in the woods. I would use whatever was physically in front of me to connect with these fictional people (yes, Laura and her family were real, but in this context they're fictional characters).

In between moments are wonderful times to think. While sweeping or washing dishes or taking out the trash or preparing food. Sometimes the mind is so busy with the work of the day that it needs these moments to rest and think of nothing--and sometimes it needs these moments to run around and play its own game. When you don't need to be thinking about a particular something, where does your mind go?

I remember I used to sometimes sit in my closet (yes, I had a stool in my closet where I would often go to read, and no, it wasn't a walk-in closet) and put on my headphones (the kind that came with the CD player--iPods were just barely coming out or about to come out at this time) and listen to the Space Mountain soundtrack and close my eyes and imagine every turn and every drop of the ride. In this way, I would imagine I was right there at Disneyland again. I don't really need to do this anymore: I'm more likely now to listen to "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" if I'm nostalgic for Disneyland (even though it's a vintage song that doesn't even play in today's park) and I now know Space Mountain well enough that I can picture it and its music for a moment without the need for closed eyes and turning on the music. It's already in my head.

I do that often, I suppose.

Not pretend that I'm riding Space Mountain, that is--what I meant is that I often play back moments, fictional or real, in my head. No moment is ever dead if it still exists in memory. Is that what daydreaming means? That you can vividly picture Frodo and Sam's meeting with Faramir in Ithilien or a ride on Thunder Mountain or looking out at the Painted Desert, whichever image is calling to you?

I am here. But my mind also knows when there is space for it to be elsewhere at the same time.

Friday, June 16, 2017

TCHO: Hazelnut Chunk

This is that one week of the year where I would normally be saying, "Wow, it is going to be hot--it's going to be 110. It'll be 120 down in Phoenix." (The regular high over there for summer is more around 104, and Phoenix more around 114.) And now I'm in said Phoenix area, and it is weird to have the temperatures but none (or certainly less) of the views of the pretty land that creates such high temperatures. So I'm trying to settle into a different view of summer.

Summer means food, in many ways. Lots of fruit and summery beverages. Tortilla chips and brownies. Casual food. So even though milk chocolate is perhaps more susceptible to heat than dark chocolate, milk chocolate feels more like summer to me in general. So let's launch the summer season with the Hazelnut Chunk bar from TCHO.

If it's casual chocolate you want, you'll get exactly that right here. Although this is labeled as having 53% cocoa content, the color looks much lighter, more like 42% at the darkest. I would guess that this is because they added hazelnut butter (whatever that is) to the chocolate, so the 53% content is lightened in that way. There are also small chopped hazelnuts in there, along with just a touch of sea salt to bring out their flavor. The nuts are pretty visible on the back of the bar, but not at all on the front.

I'm going to repeat what I always say: I love chocolate and hazelnuts together, but I don't like most chocolate hazelnut spreads (especially Nutella) because they're just made of oil and that comes across in the flavor. So coming from the idea of hazelnut spreads, it makes sense to combine the hazelnut with the chocolate into one smooth element--but then this bar also has those crunchy hazelnuts. At first I found them disruptive and unnecessary. Maybe they're there to give the feeling of "real" ingredients--but that should be evident in the flavor, anyway.

I think, though, I have settled on the reason for their inclusion. While the hazelnut-infused chocolate makes me think of hazelnut spread and hazelnut truffles, the addition of chopped hazelnuts intentionally distinguishes this chocolate and sets it in its own space. After all, if people eat hazelnut spread out of the jar with a spoon, then why do they need to buy a chocolate bar that replicates that same experience?

And it isn't as if they're large hazelnut pieces. They add only a small crunch. Similarly, the sea salt appears in only some bites, as a light accent to the crunch. Nothing extraordinarily innovative or in your face. Just a couple of elements to add interest to the smooth, vanilla-flavored, hazelnut chocolate.

It is, let me add, most decidedly a milk chocolate, just like the label says, despite the supposed 53% cocoa content. Maybe a little more flavorful and rich and less sweet than some (probably mainly because they added a lot of vanilla), but not at all like a dark milk chocolate.

It's a nice bar of chocolate, a potential replacement for candy bars, cheap chocolate hazelnut spreads, and certain cookies. A simple flavored chocolate that is organic and fair trade. And it's also one of those bars that's difficult to stop eating: I've pretty much eaten the whole bar in two sittings and I never do that.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Question of Retelling

Yesterday I finished Netflix's first season of Anne with an "E." I considered doing a post on why I disagree with certain of the choices made with the show, but then I decided that I don't really care enough to do so, nor do I necessarily want to be focusing on the topics that would come up if I were to do so. Instead I'll be talking about the idea of retelling familiar stories.

The thing about this show is that, after the pilot episode, it's extremely different from Anne of Green Gables. So if you've read the book, you have to realize that the show is not the book, view it as something completely separate, and then go from there. It's loosely inspired by the book, and that's all. Watching it in this way, I was able to somewhat enjoy it--but I did find that certain things that the creators did to modernize the story in fact pushed it further back. The original story is in fact more inspiring and more modern in many ways than this "modernized" version.

It's an artistic choice, though. And isn't that exactly what creators do when they adapt a book story to film or TV?

Sometimes people try to replicate a book. This rarely works, however. The book needs to be short (in the case of a movie, at least) and paced accordingly and focused on, well, movie-like elements in order to lend itself to direct replication. So sometimes this approach can work--but usually attempting it will instead botch chances at success.

Instead the creators must decide what specific elements they are trying to reproduce--and which they are going to change and in what way. Take, for instance, my preferred version of Jane Eyre (the 2006 version starring Ruth Wilson). Plenty of things are different from how they happen in the book. But there was a conscious attempt to keep the tone of what draws readers into the book intact. That fantastical, sometimes spiritual, sometimes brooding, fierce tone. That's what, to me, made this movie succeed.

Consider one infamous TV series loosely based on a set of books, Little House on the Prairie. When you watch this show, you absolutely know that it isn't trying to replicate the books, especially after the first season. Everything is different, both the events and the characters. But that's because it was a long-standing TV show and so it had to have its own framework in order to last so long. A permanent location. The right flow of changing and permanent characters. Etc. What made the show successful, even though it was very different from the books on which it was based, was that it maintained the same sense of family, community, and perseverance and faith through hardship that the books offer.

We don't necessarily need stories, especially TV shows, to exactly replicate the books on which they're based. Sometimes it's better when they're different: you can enjoy both without being constantly shackled by the need to analyze the changes. However, there does need to be a reason why the show or movie is aligning itself with a certain book instead of just creating an entirely new story that is still inspired by said book.

Anne with an "E" reminded me most of 1998's Little Men. This was a TV series with just two seasons that was loosely based on the sequel to Little Women. Very loosely. At first I was annoyed at how loosely, but then I started to enjoy the show for itself--I think I even watched it a couple of times. Once again, the main thing about Little Men was the sense of community and family, and this at least stayed intact in the show.

But the thing about Anne is that the focus changed. Here I have to mention that while I did enjoy reading Anne of Green Gables in sixth grade, I never loved it as much as other books; so the story is not so near and dear to me that I can't think straight. Sometimes I found Anne's imagination a bit much, and I lost interest as the books went on and never finished all of them (compare this with my assiduity in reading Little House books and Louisa May Alcott books).

Let me get back to what I was saying about the show. Anne is the vibrant heroine of this story, the girl who randomly shows up on the scene and quickly inspires the other girls. She makes herself at home. And then they all, boys and girls alike, go off to college as buddies. She marries (well, not in the first book) her school time rival, Gilbert Blythe, because they were children then and they're adults now and things are different because that's how life is--it changes. It's a straightforward story. But the show introduces too much. It tries to set up a feminist story. It talks too much about marriage (Anne was just living her life, not concerned about how feminism and marriage fit together--don't we already have enough marriage plot stories without unnecessarily making up new ones?). There's more about education, which kind of works because it goes hand in hand with imagination. But overall, I don't get the incessant focus on socio-political elements.

Anne gets lost in all of this, and her imagination becomes something strange, the byproduct of a troubled mind. It's no longer something to look up to. Anne herself is no longer someone to look up to because she is not the focus of the story anymore. The story is socio-political instead of imaginative. So you can't enjoy characters as people; you can only view them for what they say about society. And that's a huge change. That's why I have trouble with this retelling. I'm all for retellings that completely change a story while keeping the central theme intact (like SyFy's Alice), but if you want to change the focus, then why don't you just make a new story?

Monday, June 12, 2017

World Market Favorites

Back when I decided to stop doing monthly favorites posts, I did mention that I might still do some kind of favorites from time to time. So today I have a short list of products that are specifically from World Market. You can get some of them from other stores, yes, but I like shopping at World Market and I like stocking up on points (they do have a good rewards program, which helps further motivate me to buy as much as I can from them versus from elsewhere). And while some people might think of World Market more as a decor store, they have a decent selection of grocery products--and not just the novelty items.

Foco Coconut Water - World Market sells a box of twelve of these for about eighteen dollars. Three plain, three with lychee juice, three with pineapple juice, and three with mango puree. The only other ingredient they add (to the flavored ones only) is Vitamin C--and the juice is not from concentrate. I don't always like coconut water much, but I do like these, even the plain ones. They have a rich, sweet taste. The lychee one is probably my favorite; it tastes almost like strawberry.

Zhena's Teas - I've brought these up on here quite a bit in the past. They're organic and fair trade and loose teas, which are the three main things I ask for in a tea. And they come in these nice little glass containers that you can reuse when buying in bulk. There are quite a few flavors, from plain black and green teas to flavored teas and herbal/floral teas, but lately World Market has mainly only been carrying the flavored and herbal types. Probably these are the leftover stock that aren't selling as quickly. Still, most of them are good. They're about ten dollars each.

Vermont Maple Syrup - Though it is Grade A, this might not be the absolute best maple syrup I've ever had (though of course it all beats the faux maple syrups that dominate the market). It's still nice, though, and again, it's nice to buy a ten dollar item at World Market instead of elsewhere in order to get points.

Los Cantores Tortilla Chips - These are a new product. I saw tortilla chips and focused my attention in excitement. Then I saw that they're non-GMO and decided they were worth trying. The lime flavor called my attention, and I am very impressed. They genuinely taste like someone just squirted plain chips with lime juice, sprinkled on some salt, and handed them over for me to eat. I don't think I've ever come across such a genuine lime flavor in a packaged product. The chips are on the thicker side, but not too thick. At four dollars for a bag, they're more Whole Foods non-GMO prices than Trader Joe's organic prices, but then again Trader Joe's tortilla chips are starting to taste a little cheap to me. If the plain chips from Los Cantores also win me over, this may turn out to be my usual brand of tortilla chips (said chips are, after all, a staple in my house).

Cucina & Amore Pasta - I have had this brand of pasta before and if I'm not mistaken World Market has carried their products for a while--just not in this particular size/style. At two dollars for a bag of organic pasta, it's at an average price. And it's good pasta. So another nice staple to buy here.

Mrs. Meyer's Dish Soap - The thing about this one is that, as far as I know, World Market has just recently started carrying the lavender scent. The lavender is my preference, but I used to have to either get it elsewhere or get a different scent. Mrs. Meyer's is a great brand if you're looking for a simple, more natural dish soap (and it's certainly more gentle on hands than other brands). I also highly recommend their laundry soap, by the way.

TCHO and Alter Eco Chocolates - Let's finish on a sweet note. I've been reviewing a lot of chocolate bars from TCHO and Alter Eco lately. You can also get Alter Eco from Whole Foods, but I don't think I know if anywhere else (where I live, that is) to find TCHO. They each have a nice line of chocolate bars to please different moods and cravings, and they're both organic and fair trade. Lately I've felt like World Market's selection has been getting weaker. They sell plenty of British candy bars and plenty of Ghirardelli and Lindt and now they have their own label with a wide selection--but chocolate like what I've been getting from TCHO and Alter Eco is more what I want. So if they see that that's what we're buying, perhaps they'll continue to carry more of it.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Eowyn & Jyn: Haunted Warriors

Eowyn of The Lord of the Rings and Jyn of Rogue One both come from similar circumstances and share many character traits and a similar character arc. Both characters live in a time of war and both are essentially orphans. Jyn is raised from a young age without her parents, and Eowyn's parents are both dead.

Who raises them instead? A father figure, Saw Gerrera in Jyn's case and her uncle King Theoden in Eowyn's case. Interestingly, both of these father figures deteriorate in some way before the eyes of their "daughters." Saw becomes increasingly paranoid and questionable in his rebellion tactics, all of which makes Jyn uncomfortable to watch or take part in. Theoden basically falls into an uncaring lethargy that makes him unable to care for his land and his people--and this would presumably hurt Eowyn especially because she is someone who wants to be able to do more to fight for her people than she is allowed to do.

This brings us to the wartime traits of both women. Saw trained Jyn because he knew that she would need to be able to take care of herself in order to survive. So Jyn in skilled both in various types of combat and in battle tactics. I don't see that Jyn likes battle, but she does like being successful and skilled at combat; especially when she is young, she gets excited to see what she is capable of. Eowyn is also skilled--but she loves war. At least, she thinks she does (before she actually takes part in it). Eowyn loves the idea that she comes from a people who are skilled in battle, and she relishes the idea that she shares that skill. She believes that this makes her mightier.

Jyn is the rebel, but in fact Eowyn is much more rebellious than Jyn. Eowyn disguises herself behind a cloak to go with the men of Rohan to aid Gondor. She doesn't ask anyone's permission (because she knows she won't get it); she just goes. But Eowyn, contrary to how she is sometimes pictured, goes with a taste for death (which I'll get to later). Basically Eowyn leaves saying, I don't care how things are supposed to be done, this is what I want to do, so I'll do it. Jyn, on the other hand, is more forced by circumstances to take part in war. Jyn hates war because she sees what it does to people and how it ruins lives. You could say she's more mature than Eowyn in that regard. However, Jyn does still have a streak of defiance to her. Simply consider her defiance of war. She doesn't want to be part of the Empire or the Rebellion after seeing all of the questionable things that Saw was doing and causing. So she tries to just escape it all and stay under the radar (which, of course, she unable to do for long). Like Eowyn, Jyn isn't the type of person to let anyone tell her what to do.

Now we come to the broken part of these two characters. They're both, at a certain point, unable to care about anything anymore. Not in the nonchalant sense of, oh, you can't hurt me with your words, all of that bounces off of me. Not like that. I mean that they literally can't bring themselves to care about anything. They're broken. You could probably say that they're both depressed, specifically by circumstances. Jyn basically feels like she has nothing left to live for. She's lost both her parents, she believes that her father has betrayed her, Saw Gerrera failed her, and she's constantly on the run. To her, the Rebellion causes more pain than it fixes. And so her own life hardly seems worth it anymore. Eowyn, as well, goes riding toward Gondor with too much of a fixation on death. She wanted to be with Aragorn because she wanted to be high and mighty, and now she sees nothing of worth left in her life, so she thinks that losing herself in battle is her only option now. Both characters are done with the mess that is life.

For two characters who are praised for being inspirational, they're in very dark places. I think people tend to gloss over this darkness in favor of bland statements about "strong women."

However. Both Jyn and Eowyn find peace, and therein lies the inspiration.

When Eowyn takes part in battle, she discovers something she didn't go seeking. That is, she begins to discover it. Truly, her journey toward peace happens in the Houses of Healing, specifically during her time spent with Faramir. In battle, Eowyn sees death in reality--and sees that it is not poetic and grand. It is sad. She's still restless at first in the Houses of Healing, but with time she's able to let go of that restless spirit, that sense of discontent, and that desire for war. She tells Faramir that she will no longer be a shield maiden; instead, she will delight in all things that grow and are alive. She trades death for life. Now, Eowyn's happy ending can make Jyn's look rather bleak. However, Jyn's is just as happy, in a certain sense of the word. Jyn has been haunted since she was a child. When she leads the Rogue One mission, she has finally found something she is willing to fight for and a team that she is willing to stand with. She is able to die knowing that she has made the right choice, a choice that will make a positive difference, and that she has found a home. Jyn has been homeless for a long time by this point, so finding a home and family means everything to her.

I also want to note that Cassian and Faramir are quite similar: they're both gentle-natured people who are born into a wartime setting and are very good at making their way in war. Because they're skilled warriors Eowyn and Jyn respect them, and because their personalities are not traditional warrior types (you can imagine them both being very content during peacetime) they're able to help bring these two haunted characters towards peace.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Tony's Chocolonely: Milk Chocolate Caramel Sea Salt

During my first encounter with Tony's Chocolonely last month, I declared their dark chocolate similar in taste to Ghirardelli. I deemed this a favorable view. Now, I had planned to review their milk chocolate next, This time, however, World Market was out of the plain milk chocolate, so I chose the Milk Chocolate Caramel Sea Salt bar instead. Perhaps this was just as well: I may be enjoying the flavored chocolate more than I would have the plain and in this way I can comment on both the flavor and the chocolate in one go.

The same style of wrapper this time is orange instead of blue. And the same bar design looks different in the much lighter 32% milk chocolate than it did in the dark chocolate. This bar smells nice and sweet and milky and caramely, like a confection shop.

Breaking off pieces of the chocolate, I saw right way that the caramel is neither free-flowing nor stiff and sticky; instead, it is in little pieces like peanut bits. Given that this same type of thing just happened to me with Alter Eco a couple weeks ago, it would seem that the world has turned upside down on me and what I thought caramel meant is no longer so. This type of effect reminds me more of light toffee, but I suppose the distinction doesn't much matter.

As I've implied, the tiny caramel pieces are crunchy. The salt accompanies them, so where there is more caramel, there is also more salt. Some bites have more caramel and some have less. Those that have more are almost too salty, but given that these are only some of the bites out of the whole bar that reach this level of saltiness, I'd say that overall the salt level is fine.

Because this is quick-melting milk chocolate and the caramel is crunchy, you do tend to taste the sweetness of the chocolate first and foremost and then begin crunching on and tasting the caramel (with its salt) more around the halfway point of each bite. The chocolate is a pretty standard milk chocolate; it's better than the average candy bar milk chocolate, certainly, but still what I would consider more in the confection range as far as taste goes. It's sweet and creamy and doesn't try to have extra depth. It's a straightforward milk chocolate, and take that as you will.

My theme of late has been my craving for milk chocolate, so this big six ounce bar will certainly be welcome for those moments when sweet chocolate is simply all I want. While in general I tend to give more favorable comments to the darker and perhaps more luxurious milk chocolates, I do think that this bar serves a good purpose. For those who don't want a darker milk chocolate or for those moments when we all want something that's more candy-like, here is fair trade chocolate that will satisfy. I used to like to buy Rocky Mountain's plain milk chocolate bars every so often, and last time I passed by one of their stores, I looked in mournfully because I'm trying (in general) not to buy chocolate that isn't fair trade. So here is a chocolate that delivers that same sweetness and that same milky confection flavor while also reaching a more acceptable standard.

After all my initial comments last time about disliking the Tony's packaging (I still don't really like it, but I'm used to it now), I now find that I wouldn't mind seeing their chocolate for sale in more places. This chocolate serves a purpose.