Friday, March 31, 2017

Ethical Easter Chocolates

I have an issue with holiday chocolate. Most often, it is cheap--even cheaper than usual. For instance, I may have eaten a Christmas candy this past December that had the KitKat label on it--but it did not taste like a KitKat. It tasted even cheaper than usual, positively run down with extra oil so that I wondered how they could put the usual KitKat label on it at all (and, you know, it isn't as if KitKats are great chocolate to begin with, though I do like them sometimes, anyway). Further, many times these holiday chocolate takeovers in store displays happen at certain holidays that are supposed to encourage the best within humanity, Christmas and Easter. (I'm not counting Halloween because there isn't as much chocolate candy as other kinds, and there it is at least called "candy" rather than "chocolate.")

"Peace on earth and good will toward men" while I fill these stockings with cheap chocolate whose cocoa was grown by slaves? Let's celebrate the resurrection and the absolution of sin by eating a whole chocolate bunny whose production promoted child labor with slave conditions and otherwise entirely unethical processes? Okay.

You'll have to excuse me. I know we like to pretend that cocoa farming isn't an ethical issue because we have to go out of our way to read about it--and we feel like we have to go too much out of our way in order to avoid taking part in the negative aspects of cocoa farming. (Reminder, it isn't just chocolate bars. What else do you eat or use that has cocoa in it? Cereal, maybe? Store-bought cookies? Ice cream? Does the label say anything about that cocoa?) As you know, I have been growing increasingly uncomfortable about this.

So I wanted to offer some options in the face of those big store displays of what I'll simply call cheap chocolate. These are some ways to incorporate the idea of chocolate into your Easter celebration, if you so wish to do so, in contrast to the store displays. They will not only avoid the very cheap quality of Easter chocolate, they will also be, well, the more ethical choice to make.

When you think about it, avoiding questionable chocolate is actually one of the easier of the responsible choices/life changes that are out there (which have to do with so many issues, ranging from saving water to being less wasteful to making sure all of your products, food and clothing and others, are in the spirit of fair trade).


- Don't overlook chocolate bars just because they aren't in the shape of a bunny or don't say Easter on them. Most Easter chocolate is either the same as the non-seasonal kind (just in different packaging) or it's a cheaper version that's been watered down with extra oil (like the afore-mentioned Christmas KitKat). Just buy a good fair trade chocolate bar that you've chosen specifically for the recipient (usually milk chocolate for young children, etc.) and maybe make it festive with a spring-colored ribbon or by adding it to another gift or a card.

- If you're in a big city, there is good chance there is a chocolate maker nearby. Choose one who uses fair trade chocolate to make their confections or truffles. And they will all have some type of seasonal chocolate, whether it's just in seasonal packaging or it's in bunny shapes or maybe even has seasonal flavors. Yes, it'll probably cost more and take more time to get than just picking up bags of candy at Wal-Mart, but there are obviously many benefits to choosing this option instead.

- While many of the fair trade chocolate companies don't really make seasonal chocolate (there must just not be enough of a market for it yet), there are a few out there who do make Easter chocolates. Divine Chocolate makes foil-wrapped dark chocolate eggs and speckled sugar shell milk chocolate eggs. Lake Champlain (who I didn't realize uses fair trade cocoa) makes chocolate bunnies in lots of shapes (in white, milk, and dark chocolate), chocolate eggs in many flavors, and chocolate carrots and flowers. Sjaak's Organic Chocolates (a company I admit I had never heard of before) makes chocolate bunnies and eggs. There are probably more, but these are just a couple to get you started.


- Buy fair trade chocolate bars and melt them into bunny or egg or carrot shaped molds. I recommend Theo's milk chocolate for both children and adults, or you can use your favorite dark chocolate if it's mainly for adults.

- Buy fair trade cocoa powder (and possibly also chocolate bars, depending on what recipe you use) and make brownies. Cut them into small pieces and put them in candy bags to give to children. If you're serving this as dessert rather than giving it as gifts/favors, you can do flourless chocolate cake instead, if you prefer.

- Speaking of dessert. Do you really feel like Easter won't be the same if you don't have a chocolate bunny? Children might because they're still completely subject to marketing, but do adults? Have cookies instead. Chocolate chip, lavender with rose frosting, whatever you like. Make sugar cookies in the shape of bunnies if you really must have bunnies around; you can even use a recipe involving cocoa powder so that they'll be chocolate bunnies. Make them in the shape of eggs and make an activity out of decorating them with icing--you could even hide the icing tubes in place of hiding eggs (and this way you know which colors haven't been found yet) (assuming you don't make your own icing, of course).

And if you're looking to read a little more, you might want to start with this short article from a couple of years ago on Huffington Post Canada.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Before Winter: The Second Volume

Last year, I fell in love with a random book of poetry that I found at a thrift store; it was The Popular Tree by Clara Emily Guion Aguirre. That book spurred me on to seek out more poetry of the Southwest and thereby reignited my interest in poetry. I remembered that I like poetry that deals with the imagery of nature--that's one of the reasons why I enjoyed reading works from John Keats and William Wordsworth and the rest of the Romantics, even if they were writing from such a different time period and setting.

Clara also had a second volume published, Before Winter. Because these are obscure books, the price that they show up at online varies (I say online because there is almost no chance that you will run into them in person). After enjoying The Poplar Tree so much, I was disappointed to find that Before Winter was just too expensive to buy, but I kept an eye on it and eventually it became available for just a couple of dollars. (The message: keep up hope and keep checking back and eventually you should be able to get the obscure books that you want.)

The first book was published in 1988; I believe this one is from 1992, which was just five years before Clara died (she was born in 1906). A little refresher: she was born in New Mexico but moved to Texas after she got married and lived there for the rest of her life. Now, this second volume is larger and contains more poems than the first one, but it seems to me that these are all newer poems. One of the things I found so interesting about the first book was that it spanned her life, from youth and new marriage and motherhood through to old age. The poems of the second volume aren't dated, but they do all seem to be written from later life; that's what their themes and content imply.

That is, you can tell as much even from the title. Before the winter that ends life. Clara knew that her days were coming to a close. While The Poplar Tree also had some sad content, overall this one is more somber. There are many poems in here about the loss of her husband, possibly too many because the theme does become repetitively melancholy, which takes away from Clara's talent as a poet to show her understanding of life as a whole.

She does show this in other poems, though. Many reflect on youth versus age. The seasons. Nature versus modern (housing, food, stores, etc.). There was a lovely poem about a volcano, "Eruption" on page 129; I've always loved the imagery and symbolic qualities of volcanoes. So, like with her first volume, there is still a lot of focus on nature; it's just less specifically southwestern this time. For instance, she writes often about the sea in here (often being at least a few times). I forget that Texas does have a coast. And that very interesting to me: I am also interested in both the Southwest and the sea, so these poems offered me the chance to look at how someone else united the two.

There are more poems in this volume, and because I found that their quality varied (with some being quite good and others more mediocre), I'm guessing that that means that these were edited down less. Especially if the first volume was selected from almost her entire life, while these were mostly taken from poetry she wrote in her last few years, then that may be a possibility. As I mentioned, some of them were a bit repetitive and would therefore have appeared better if there were less of them. So I may have enjoyed the first book better, in a way.

But that isn't to say that I didn't also enjoy this one. Right away when I started reading, I felt that same connection to Clara's writing that I'd felt before; it's something about her perspective and what she sees and what she chooses to see and the simplicity and beauty with which she describes the world and its truth. There were some stunning pieces in here. "Strange Kinship," for instance, on 204-205, or "My Faith" on 207, just to name a couple. Clara understood the world and she understood life, and so in reading her poetry, I'm reminded of the truths that I know. There is a beauty in the various steps of life and a harmony in knowing how it all works together, and she managed to capture that. Truly, her poetry is some of my favorite. Poetry is like that: it must speak directly to you, otherwise it doesn't matter how famous it is or what literary devices it uses if it doesn't convey to you.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Madecasse: 92% Dark

Last week I looked at Madecasse's 80% Dark chocolate; this week I'm continuing with their 92% bar. While a 92% cocoa content is almost as high as it gets and can sound intimidating, the concept is exciting given how much I enjoyed the 80% bar. When a company's style of extra dark chocolate matches what I like to taste in chocolate, then I am very fond of 80% and 90% cocoa ranges, probably more so than the standard 70% range.

Same standards as before: heirloom cocoa, fair trade, organic. The cocoa is still sourced from Madagascar. That is, I would imagine this is the exact same chocolate, just with more cocoa and less sugar. The packaging is almost exactly the same; the only difference is a slightly darker shade of purple. If you hold the two chocolate bars next to each other and look closely, then you can see the darker shade of brown on the 92% bar.

Naturally, this chocolate has a deeper taste than did the 80% bar. Immediately you get that blue flavor of cocoa nibs with some bitterness. The bitterness builds; it's a little stronger than what I like. After this you start to get a taste that, in contrast to the bitterness, feels like sweetness; really, though, I think it's just the fruity flavor notes of the cocoa. Those flavors coax you along past the halfway point, letting you get past the bitterness. The chocolate then becomes more mellow; the texture is also creamier and softer by this stage. There is an undertone of a bitter tang, something like the bitterness of an orange peel. But the top notes are sweeter, more like berries. A chocolate richness comes through as each layer of chocolate melts. The bitterness comes in frequently, fading away again and then returning. The chocolate finishes gently but not really with any new flavors.

Can you tell that I definitely, in this case, prefer the 80% bar?

Rather than enhancing the flavors of the 80% bar, the higher cocoa content of the 92% bar obscures them. It's harder for me to connect with this chocolate because its flavor isn't just deeper; it's more bitter. I don't mind very dark chocolate and I don't mind a tang of bitterness as a flavor accent, but I do mind strong bitterness that overwhelms the other flavors. For what I would call a very bitter bar of chocolate, this one was certainly more edible than others I've had (looking at you, Bonnat). I can eat it; I just prefer not to, especially when I still have more of the wonderful 80% bar.

That means that my conclusion is this: this isn't bad chocolate. I just don't like it for eating chocolate. I'm going to keep it for using in recipes; I know it'll be great for that (I never buy baking chocolate; I don't really understand why baking chocolate exists to begin with). I was hoping to fall in love with a second bar of chocolate, but I suppose two was just a tad too much to ask for.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Beauty & the Beast?

I chose to see Beauty and the Beast right away, at the 7 PM showing on Thursday night, because I didn't want to see anyone's comments (even general comments) before I saw the movie. And given how divided my own opinions ended up being, I think that was a good decision.

My general comments? It wasn't a bad movie and in many ways it was good, but it was nowhere near as good of an animated to live action adaptation as Cinderella was. The rest of my comments are so scattered and various that I haven't been able to sit down to write them all out until now; I'm going to just go ahead and put them into two lists, the positives and the negatives (all in my opinion as usual rather than as a review, of course).

The Positives

- In general, this was a visually good-looking film. Lots of color and shapes and designs came in along with the greater emphasis on a specific historical setting (18th century) than the animated film had. Though it might sound strange, this film simultaneously had a more historical and fantastical look and feel than the animated original. That made for a very specific and recognizable visual look. I quickly realized why Mrs. Potts and Lumiere and the rest all had new designs: the 1980's animated colors and shapes just wouldn't have made sense in even a semi-historical live action setting.

- As with Cinderella, though taken to a further degree here, I like that because this is a specifically fantasy story in a mostly historical setting, the filmmakers didn't use the historical setting as an excuse not to have some diverse casting in the characters. I was happy to see Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) in 18th century aristocratic clothing again, for instance.

- Most of the songs were carried out well in terms of all of the film elements that have to come together: singing, music, choreography, sets, cinematography. "The Mob Song" was probably my favorite because I've always liked it in the original and it's also a song that lends itself well to live action. And I'll take this moment to appreciate Audra McDonald's vocal skills.

- The new theme of leadership was an interesting addition to the story. This film brought up the question of what you do with the influence over people that you have. Gaston led badly. Belle tried to lead well, even if most people didn't accept her efforts. The Beast led badly, then regretted it. Then, in turn, we also have the question of who you allow to influence you. LeFou followed Gaston for a while, regretting this more and more until he finally decided to go his own way. The inhabitants of the castle were passive (essentially they're described like bystanders) toward the Beast's "downfall" and came to regret this. And so on.

- Lumiere was a stand-out good performance for me. I forgot that he was voiced by Ewan McGregor until almost the end, which shows that he was able to embody the character completely apart from himself or other roles that he's had. I couldn't picture Luke Evans as Gaston, but immediately I thought he performed the character very well (there were some things about the script of Gaston's character that I didn't like, but I'll get to that later). Similarly, with the Beast, even though I'd had trouble picturing Dan Stevens, he played his character well--as far as what the script allowed this character to be.

- Although I love the original film, I do sometimes have a problem with Belle's negative comments (which remain unresolved at the end of the film) toward small towns: they're general comments that aren't targeted at specific traits (she complains, for instance, that the baker, who's just a man trying to earn a living, makes and sells bread every day--that's kind of petty of her). So I appreciate that the film tried to emphasize not just that Belle wanted a more exciting life but also that the townspeople were negative toward her. Not just that she didn't feel like she fit in but that people were mean toward her. Not that they're just too busy working to talk to someone who seems to do nothing but walk around and read all day but that they don't like her and they want her to know that they don't like her.

- Similarly, this film tried to make more of Belle's reading. I like the new place where she goes to get books; it's much more fitting to the 18th century than the book shop she visits in the original. I also like that there is more emphasis on her friendship with the chaplain (bookseller in the original), with whom she can have conversations. And reading gave her a conversation starting place with the Beast. I wish they hadn't used Romeo and Juliet, but I guess the number of generally recognizable and also appropriate to the story books and such that were around in the 18th century is small. And Lancelot and Guinevere? Okay, it's a love story, but it's also a weird love affair whose mention, for me, added little to the movie. I almost would have preferred Belle and the Beast to just talk about books in general than to mention titles just for the sake of mentioning titles--but the fact that the conversations are there is nice.

The Negatives

- For this being the live action version of an animated film, I hate to mention that there were times when I forgot I was watching a live action movie. In particular, of course, is the "Be Our Guest" sequence. While you could say that it was a visual feast, I didn't connect with watching it and felt like maybe my eyes were overwhelmed. Then I realized that the types of things I was seeing were the types of things I praise in animated films (saying that they're what you have the opportunity to do and to do well in animation), and for that same reason they didn't make sense or fit in with live action. I understand that this film was in an awkward position because half the characters did need to be animated (CG, that is) even if the film was live action. But you still need to have a separate visual look from the animated film. Take The Jungle Book, for instance. All of those CG animals, but they gave them not only different designs but also different ways of moving and speaking and behaving as compared with the animated film. Beauty and the Beast forgot to do that with its CG elements.

- Most everyone sang well. But even though I am not a musical person, Emma Watson's singing voice stood out to me as sounding flat and produced in comparison to everyone else's voices. If everyone's voices had been in the same style, then that would have been fine. But to have one voice (especially the voice of the main character) fall at a different level of quality kind of ruined her songs for me. Her performance was fine when she was just acting. But she didn't blow me away enough to justify the fact that her singing abilities didn't seem quite up to par with the rest of the cast. And a bad casting choice for the main character puts the whole film on shaky ground.

- I also felt like the script left out Belle's sass. She's not just a confident person; she's outspoken and witty. She doesn't politely tell Gaston that she's not going to marry him; she overdoes it by saying pointedly and sarcastically, "You're just too good for me." So okay, if the choice was to make Belle less possibly rude and make her more complacently comfortable in her disagreements, less quick to yell at others, then that would be fine. But she was singing the same songs that were written for quick-tempered Belle. After quietly closing the door on Gaston, the live action Belle still goes out and starts singing about "his little wife" while topping her hair with the cloth--even though she doesn't seem as upset about the event. The characterization is inconsistent.

- I found that this was the case at many other points in the film. For instance, they made some interesting choices with LeFou by having him question his following of Gaston. But then they still had him sing "Gaston" in the tavern, which made absolutely no sense--and actually didn't fit in very well with this Gaston, either. This Gaston is more vain as a side note than as a main point; he's willing to put aside his vanity for other aims, but then he goes along with this song as if he is that intentionally one-dimensional character from the original. It's as if someone wrote a script to rework Beauty and the Beast and then someone came along and said, wait, you have to put these songs in there, and so they just shoved them back in without re-reworking everything else to make them make sense again. As good as these songs are, I think it was a bad idea to include them in this movie. Songs are so specific to character that you have to keep everything the same in order to keep the same songs--and even the small changes that this film made were enough that many of the songs no longer fit.

- While Cinderella and The Jungle Book both walked in with a specific agenda of what they wanted to achieve with their films, the remake of Beauty and the Beast felt disjointed, as if they weren't sure what they were bringing. They tried to add something new with some flashbacks (Beast's mother dying, and the place where Belle's mother died), but both felt too brief and disconnected to present events to add anything to the story except for unanswered questions.

- What happened to the Beast being a beast? He's supposed to have a wild temper, quick to anger and always yelling at Belle (who characteristically yells back and therefore removes the power from his yelling). They made him more gentle, a quiet person who has long ago come to terms with his fate. He's more like the Beast in the original tale--but with all the same events and circumstances of Disney's version. You can make him more gentle if you also change all of the surrounding elements that would make that choice fit in, but the filmmakers didn't do that. They just mellowed him out to make it easier for audiences to see him and Belle falling in love (and avoid people complaining unnecessarily about Stockholm syndrome), but kept in his anger toward Maurice and initially (that is, when she first arrives at the castle) toward Belle. Again, this felt like character inconsistency.

- The main themes in the animated film are redemption and the concept that inner and outside beauty are separate. This film completely botched up both themes--or at least lost them all amid too many disjointed elements. They messed with the Beast's redemption by trying to briefly blame his negative side on his father; the reality is, he needs to have full responsibility for his actions in order to regret them and then move forward without them. Otherwise, the Beast becomes a passive character and the focus moves back to just Belle (as it is in the original tale) and the concept of beauty. But the film downplayed everyone's looks. They only said that Belle was beautiful in passing; they didn't emphasize it. Similar with Gaston. And they don't keep emphasizing that the Beast is in the form of a beast. So everyone already appears at face value. Belle is kind and smart. Gaston is shallow and self-centered. The Beast is regretful. This leaves us with no chance to go on the journey to see the person behind the face. The point is supposed to be that Gaston is good-looking but no good on the inside, the Beast is in a hideous physical form but chooses to be good, and Belle is beautiful on the outside but also has the ability to see who other people are on the inside (she isn't fooled by either Gaston's or the Beast's looks) thereby making her beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. They lost that theme by trying not to talk about people's looks too much.

- This film had an interesting theme of fate. It's right after Belle sings that she wants adventure that we see Maurice diverted toward the castle. He isn't just caught late at night, taking one path over another because he's lost. He knows the way, but fate sent lightning to knock over a tree to block his way, forcing him to go to the castle. It's like fate said to Belle, "You want adventure? Okay, well, here it is. This'll be a tricky one but if you're being honest by saying that, then you just might be up to the task here." So I liked that part. But the other half of it is bothering me. In this film, we learn that the enchantress put a spell so that everyone in the surrounding area would forget about the castle and not be able to get in to it. This provides a practical explanation for why no one knows that there is a castle there or knows the story of what happened there. But it also doesn't seem to go along with the Beast's punishment and his chance to break the spell. If no one can enter the castle, then how can he fall in love and earn love in return? Is he supposed to fall in love with Mrs. Potts or Lumiere? (This spell seems to clearly refer to romantic love, and all of the servants in the castle are ineligible, one way or another--most of them are already in relationships.) It's like the enchantress laughed in his face, saying, "You can only break the spell by falling in love. But I've enchanted the castle so that no one can get in. Good luck, you fool." I called it fate that allowed Belle into the castle. I suppose you could say that it was the enchantress, but then what does that mean? She was looking around waiting to find someone to let in that she thought would fit the bill? And unless Belle wasn't the first person allowed in, then this takes agency away from the Beast. This makes it so that he's just waiting around for someone to break the spell, rather than taking the opportunity of Belle's presence by trying to be nice to her.

I realize now that my list of negatives is longer than my list of positives. I've just been rambling because I had so much to say that it was difficult to put it all in one blog post. I guess my main point is that Disney has in the past made good live action remakes of animated films, but despite their original Beauty and the Beast being such a near perfect film, I walked away from the live action version a little disillusioned with it all. It was nice to watch while it lasted, and I'm sure there will be a generation of people who grow up watching and enjoying this film. But it didn't really offer me anything that stayed with me or anything that I really valued. Despite the title, I had trouble finding Beauty and the Beast in this film.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Madecasse: 80% Dark

If I remember correctly, the only time I've tried/reviewed Madecasse chocolate was after the San Francisco Chocolate Salon back in 2010. Once I write this date down, I don't feel as bad about not remembering details about what I thought of the chocolate since that was six and a half years ago. So I'm basically starting over with Madecasse, then. And what a beautiful new start it is.

That first bar I tried had a neutral, sort of linen-colored paper wrapping, but now Madecasse seems to be going with the more common card box, adding a splash of color. Madecasse was on sale at the store (2 for $6, as compared to $4 each), so I took advantage of the sale (as one does when one buys chocolate regularly) and picked up the 80% and the 92% bars. That meant fingers crossed that I would like Madecasse's interpretation of extra dark chocolate (I like my new use of the word "interpretation." Sometimes that's how it is: I'll really love certain chocolates in this cocoa percentage range, but others I'll find unpalatable. Styles and tastes can vary so much).

Along with the splash of color, a lemur holding a cocoa pod adds to the hint of silliness in the packaging. It is, of course, a lemur because Madecasse uses cocoa beans grown in Madagascar for their chocolate. In fact, they have a goal to also make all of their chocolate in Madagascar, you know, make it at the source where it's grown; they say that this is "the key to global transparency in the chocolate industry." While I have had chocolate (probably not much) that was made where it was grown, I'm not used to seeing this as a goal for a company; so this is interesting. And of course, Madecasse uses direct trade cocoa; they are a company that is all about building relationship with the cocoa farmers. (Strangely, the 92% bar has all of its ingredients listed as organic, but none of them are with this bar. This leads me to expect that they're probably both organic, just for some reason this one isn't "certified." It is labeled as non-GMO, though.) In addition, their cocoa is heirloom. Ah, heirloom. I love that word. I like to buy, for instance, heirloom beans sometimes because they come in so many pretty colors and designs and such an interesting variety of flavors; they just tend to be expensive, too. But in this day of "beans come in two varieties, apples in three varieties, zucchinis in one variety, etc." it's important to encourage all of the varieties out there so that we're not just growing one or two types of each food plant. And so that we're not just growing newer, GMO varieties.

I'm ranting now. So I'll return to the chocolate.

The bar is simple, divided up into my favorite sized pieces. Thirty mouthful-sized rectangles. Though I like the sizes, I admit that this design isn't particularly interesting-looking. Still, it goes with the simpler, almost more rustic (as opposed to elegant and couture) style of Madecasse's packaging.

The chocolate's surface looks great and it has a pleasant aroma. Instantly on tasting, it feels soft in the mouth. The flavors start right away with a velvety, fruity chocolatiness. Then more of a blue flavor of cocoa nibs comes in. There is a very rich mouthfeel to accompany a perfect texture. There is mild darkness in the flavor without any bitterness at all, just depth and some of that usual Madagascar tang. I want to say that there is a hint of banana flavor as you pass the halfway point, but it's probably just a certain smoothness to the taste. It also tastes a little creamy, which is unusual for a chocolate at 80% cocoa. The finish is nice and lightly sweet, sweet being a flavor coming from the chocolate rather than from a sugary feeling. Might I add here that Madecasse has added no vanilla, so all of these sweet and creamy tastes I'm describing are simply from the chocolate itself (yes, there is sugar, but as I mentioned, this isn't a sugary taste and there also isn't enough of a percentage of sugar that it would be that noticeable in the flavor).

This is an absolutely lovely bar of chocolate. This is something that I would recommend to those who are teetering on the edge, still afraid to fall to the dark side. This isn't scary dark chocolate; it will romance you with its sweet tongue until you're completely in love and you forget that it's even on the darker side of cocoa percentages. And for those already familiar with the dark side, it will be a welcome reverie, a quiet dream of softness to encapsulate you in a peaceful moment of rest from all cares.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Quotes from Belle's Library

I have no control when it comes to Beauty and the Beast merchandise--and this is not connected either to the new film (which I haven't seen and can therefore not want merchandise for until I see that I like the film) or to the animated film. It's just in general. Even when Tarte called an eyeshadow palette "Beauty and the Box," I had to get it (I mean, it's also a great little eyeshadow box that I still use regularly). And of course, so far most of the merch that you come across has been associated with that 1991 film. Right now, however, there is a renewal of merch in general because of the new movie--and so I'm using this as an opportunity to, um, buy what I can while it's all around.

So that's how I came to get this little yellow book. Strictly speaking, it is merchandise specific to the new movie (which I said I wasn't getting, or at least not for now). You can see the new designs for Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth there on the cover. But it isn't really a movie book, so I allowed it.

Belle's Library by Brittany Rubiano with art by Jenna Huerta is what you'd call a coffee table book or a gift book. On the left side of an open pair of pages is a quote from literature and on the right side is Belle's brief commentary on the quote. So if you just flip through it, it's very simple--it almost might not even seem worth it, or at least not worth buying except for a pretty cover.

But once I started reading through, I was impressed. First of all, these aren't just a random collection of quotes. They are all taken from a select number of books and these are all books that Belle could have read because the most recent one is from 1726. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve published her version (also the oldest version) of Beauty and the Beast in 1740. So, it's nice that they took care of this small but significant detail of historical timing rather than include books post 1740 that perhaps more people are familiar with.

You have to be a literary person to be familiar with all of the works that are alluded to in this book. We've all heard of the basics in here, like The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, and Aesop's Fables. But there are also some more obscure works in there, like The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish and Oroonko by Aphra Behn. Or simply things like The Canterbury Tales that literature students have probably been forced to read at least in part but that most people probably haven't read or read through (I really don't care for it enough to want to read it all). So from that sense, you'll come across a couple of famous quotes or passages, but you're also getting a lot of new (that is, less used in modern times) material from some rather dense sources. So that makes this an interesting volume.

Now, the quotes are always small, as are Belle's comments. So this isn't something where you have to have a doctorate in middle English in order to read it. Someone as young as ten years old can enjoy this book (yes, some younger, but ten sounds like the general age). Belle isn't really providing analysis of the quotes; she's just commenting on what they're saying or what they mean to her. So she is more acting as the narrator, guiding the reader toward what we're supposed to be thinking. And what we're supposed to be thinking is, of course, the plot of events of Beauty and the Beast.

Quotes, then, aren't randomly placed. There will be a couple of them in a row that refer to a certain subject, like hospitality or love. Each subject builds off of the next so that the quotes are telling you, through ideas and themes, the story that we all know. It's a nice effect, and it was surprising to me that this book does read through from beginning to end rather than simply being a loose collection of unconnected quotes.

It's also a very pretty book. I mentioned that the cover is nice. The pages are just a fairly standard white paper, but along with the quotes are little pictures or borders. They're supposed to be Belle's scribblings and sketches. So it looks like they've been watercolored in; there are even small watermarks of color from when the paint is meant to have splashed or bled. A simple style reminiscent of Beatrix Potter. Very nice.

So it may be a coffee table book or a gift book, but it's the best of that category. It sounds like a possibly random concept, but everyone carried it out nicely enough that this book works. And it would definitely make a nice gift for that Beauty and the Beast fan in your life. (Oh, yes, and it has a great little foreword by Linda Woolverton, who wrote the script for 1991's Beauty and the Beast.)

Monday, March 13, 2017

The End of the Aftermath Trilogy

My one word reaction to Empire's End, the last book in Chuck Wendig's Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy: WHAT?!

I've mostly been reading these Star Wars books in isolation because I don't think that anyone I know really reads them and usually the online comments I come across are fairly brief--but this time I think I might have to go look up the more detailed things that people online are saying about this book. It may have given us more questions than answers, or maybe it just left us at the same place as we were before--but it gave left one stunning little scene of apparent insignificance that could have potentially plot-changing significance (I'll talk more about this below).

As I mentioned before, I didn't overly love the first book in this trilogy, but the second one was pretty good. So was this one. This book is basically the lead up to and then the Battle of Jakku. So that in itself is fascinating to read, after we've seen the, well, aftermath of that battle in The Force Awakens. And not only were the scenes with Han and Leia nice (and the coming of baby Ben!), but by this point I found myself invested in the Aftermath team of Norra, Temmin, Bones, Jas, Sinjir, etc. They're an interesting set of characters in an equally interesting setting, and that makes the Aftermath trilogy worth a read.

Now for some spoilers into the plot of this book and into speculation on the upcoming films.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Alter Eco: Dark Blackout

It's been a while since I reviewed anything from Alter Eco, and since World Market had all of Alter Eco's chocolate on sale a couple of weeks ago, I snagged this blue bar of 85% cocoa content chocolate, the Blackout bar. It's labeled to be "bittersweet cocoa" with "deep fruity intensity." I do tend to love chocolate in the 80% range, maybe especially after all of the mid-range chocolate I've been looking at lately.

Alter Eco is, of course, organic and fair trade. They have some info on the back about the cocoa, which is grown in Ecuador and then shipped to Switzerland for roasting and conching. That last bit is interesting; if I knew that Alter Eco (which is based out of San Francisco) made their chocolate (or at least this chocolate) in Switzerland, I had long since forgotten the fact. Start folding open the card box and you'll find some more info, specific to the co-ops that grow Alter Eco's cocoa and the trees that they plant in order to reinvigorate and support the rain forest. All very good; now let's move on.

This chocolate has a nice and dark smell, almost with those marshmallow notes to it. The taste is slightly red and almost bitter on first touch, then it develops a little more of a tang that melts outward into more bitterness that is soon replaced by a gentle deepness. Here the chocolate becomes cool and soft in taste and texture. It's fairly mild without lots of flavor notes of this or that; I would say they're kind of earthy notes, maybe like leather, just nice and simple. Mainly I find a deep chocolate taste with that accent of bitterness. It finishes with a taste of cocoa nibs, that deep blue flavor that you know is a little bitter but almost feels like it's sweet.

Sure, I probably wouldn't recommend this bar to milk chocolate lovers. It veers a little too close to the bitter edges of the dark side for that. Not all chocolate at 85% has the notes of bitterness that this chocolate has. But with that said, this also isn't a dries-your-mouth-out-with-stinging-bitterness type of bar. Not like a bitter Bonnat bar, for instance. If I recall correctly, these notes of bitterness still don't have the elegance of Patric Chocolate (it's been some years since I had their chocolate). This is more of a standard, deep, dark chocolate. Alter Eco is one of the brands that you see at many stores (World Market and Whole Foods among them). So this is a bar that you can count on: you can count on finding it and you can count on it delivering a certain type of taste.

I'm not sure it's my favorite. There are other brands that I prefer, and maybe that bitter twinge here is just a little too much for me. But I don't find that a complaint. This is a good bar of chocolate if you're looking for something truly dark. And it would also work well in recipes (I feel like I've been buying so many flavored chocolate bars lately that whenever I have a bar of plain chocolate I get excited at the idea that I can use it in case I have need to make flourless chocolate cake or brownies sometime in the near future). I perhaps haven't developed as much affection for the flavors of Alter Eco (though they do make wonderful truffles) as I have for another standard brand like Theo, but I equally support Alter Eco's approach and even if sometimes their flavors aren't as much my style, whatever products I've tried so far have been good and that isn't always the case with the "ethical" chocolate brands. Some of them I just avoid because I don't think they taste very good or are very good quality and therefore I don't see the point. So even if this sounded like a lukewarm review because I said this bar wasn't my favorite, I'm still counting my comments as positive.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 11: Merida

Click to read Part 1 (Snow White)Part 2 (Cinderella)Part 3 (Aurora)Part 4 (Ariel)Part 5 (Belle)Part 6 (Jasmine)Part 7 (Pocahontas)Part 8 (Mulan)Part 9 (Tiana), and Part 10 (Rapunzel).

I don't really know why Merida is part of this list; I really don't. Nor do I particularly want to include her in it. But I said I was going over the twelve official Disney princesses, and Disney gave Merida the whole initiation ceremony at Disneyland (or Disney World? or both?) after Brave came out in 2012, so here we have it. The first Disney princess who came not out of Disney Animation but out of Pixar. This fact alone baffles me because what then does prevent a character like Leia (who does appear animated in Star Wars: Rebels) from becoming a Disney princess? Because Merida is from Pixar, I would prefer not to include her in this list--because along with her different animated heritage, if that's what we can call it, come many different characteristics that separate her from the rest of the group even more so than a character like Moana (who is from Disney Animation but is not considered an official Disney princess).

Merida's story? Proving that she doesn't have to get married just to get married--once again, the same irrelevant to modern times (in this country, that is) theme that we really don't need to focus so much on anymore. And in Merida specifically saying that she doesn't have to marry right now (because there isn't anyone that she wants to marry right now), she's also just saying that she's still a child. (She's sixteen.) Okay. Good for Merida in saying that. But I need more of a theme or plot than that in order to make me praise what Merida brings to the table.

What's that? There is more to the story? Yes, this is true. Merida's character is also all about proving that a female character doesn't have to be all about the soft and traditionally feminine traits. Snow White and Cinderella were good at cleaning. Aurora and Ariel were good at singing. Tiana and Rapunzel liked to cook/bake. And Merida likes to ride her horse and practice archery. I do appreciate that about Merida's character--not because I mind female characters who can clean, sing, or bake. Just because it's good to have other skills/interests in there, as well. And I remember what a big deal people were making about the fact that Merida's toy bow and arrow set was in stores marketed toward girls. Usually the tea sets and play food are marketed toward girls and the toy guns and bows are marketed toward boys (don't get me wrong, I love tea sets, but archery is also pretty awesome). Of course, you don't need to listen to marketing: girls and boys and their parents can choose whatever toys they want. But it was good to see that nice bow and arrow for girls. 

The other thing about Merida's story is of course her relationship with her mother. Merida is, of course, one of the few Disney princesses to have both of her parents (she's the fourth one, I believe, though only the second to actually grow up with them). Throughout the movie, Merida shows her mother that just because she doesn't always act like the genteel lady that her mother wants her to be, she still cares about her culture, her people, and her family. It's a similar theme to Mulan's: she brought honor to her family in a completely different way than what everyone had expected. 

Now that I've spent all of this time on story, let me go back to just Merida's characteristics. Merida is designed to act natural, not to act like royalty. At Disneyland, she walks with just as specific a gait as Jack Sparrow does (and I slightly resent the fact that Merida is allowed to act like she does in the movie, while other princesses like Belle just all act like the same generic "Disney princess"). She's the second redheaded princess, and her wild mess of hair is its own personification of who she is. If I might add: this is what computer animation allows the artists to do. They could show each curl of hair (Merida is the first princess with curly hair, is she not?) because they didn't have to hand paint it all for every frame. 

We have evidence of Merida's kindness mainly through her relationship with her brothers. And while she does have some rebellion to her, it isn't general teenage rebellion like with Ariel: Merida is specifically rebelling to the fact that her mother wants to make her into someone that she isn't and doesn't feel like she can ever (or even should ever) be. Merida's rebellion has purpose--and she achieves that purpose when she gets her mother to see a different angle. 

So even though I think that Merida (like they say with Moana) is a different type of character who doesn't necessarily go with the Disney princess group, she does bring some good traits with her. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Riders of the Purple Sage: Arizona's Opera

I don't know if any of us knew what to expect from Arizona Opera's first world premiere, Riders of the Purple Sage. But it is a safe statement to say that we all enjoyed what we found.

Riders of the Purple Sage is in fact a Zane Grey novel; he's the author of all the Westerns that you see covering shelves and shelves of antique stores and other relevant locations. The idea, then, of using a Zane Grey story was to embrace the Southwest with this production, a production made in Arizona and taking place around Arizona (technically, it took place in Utah) and celebrating the cultural heritage of Arizonans. And all of you know that I love that aspect alone.

Was I, though, somewhat hesitant about an opera being a Western? Yes, I was. The two operas that I've seen were classics sung in Italian; this is both a new piece and an opera in English. And yet composer Craig Bohmler and librettist Steven Mark Kohn made something that felt cohesive and natural. (Here I will remind you that I am not a musical person, nor do I know all the musical terms with which to talk about an opera. Which is fine because I'm sure other people have already offered their learned, musical analyses of this opera.) The performers are singing music that is written for these words, so it never felt odd for them to be singing these lines just because they're lines in a Western. And there is something very grand about Westerns that in fact lent itself to opera style, if that's what I can call it.

There were two standout moments for me, musically. The first was Jane's (Karin Wolverton) song in Act 2, in which she speaks about God's love and thinks about her father. Karin has a wonderful voice, kind and feminine and strong and powerful. The second moment was the duet between Bern Venters (Joshua Dennis) and Bess (Amanda Opuszynski) in the same act; it's basically a falling in love and seeing that all is right in the world through that love type of song. Their duo and their place in the story reminded me a bit of Cosette and Marius in Les Miserables.

Now I come to one of my favorite aspects to talk about, the stage. At the end of the production, when everyone was clapping for the performers, they started to bring out the crew, as well--and when scenic designer Ed Mell came on, everyone started cheering. Many Arizonans probably know Ed Mell's name, and even most of those who don't would at least recognize the style of his work. He does paintings the Southwest that, through simplicity of shape and exact use of color, really capture the feel of the land. So in this opera, there were the sort of traditional cutouts (in this case, of orange cliffs) that were sometimes on the edges of the stage. But there was also a huge screen that covered the entire back of the stage; because his paintings were on that screen, it was like having a painted backdrop there. My eye couldn't tell that it was a screen. And sometimes there were mountains with clouds above them, and the colors of the mountains would change as with the changing light of evening and the clouds above would shift as in a real sky. Painted clouds shifting while the mountains stay still. It was a flawless use of technology and truly beautiful. It was like being inside an Ed Mell painting, and as I said, his paintings capture the feel of the land--therefore as you were watching the stage, you felt as though you were watching the land. Oh, and there was lightning, too, stunningly real lightning. I don't think I'll ever see a stage like this one was again.

I'll finish with a couple of notes on story and theme. Jane is the main character of this piece because she is the one reacting, she is the one trying to choose the path, and she is the one that holds it all together. She's a Mormon woman whose father left her his ranch. Tull wants her to marry him, and the townspeople want her to marry him so that he can have her ranch. But she doesn't believe that she's supposed to marry him. There is also conflict because one of her workers, Venters, is not Mormon; the others resent the fact that Jane is kind to him. And of course along comes Lassiter seeking vengeance against someone in the town (he doesn't yet know who); Jane has to try and reconcile her liking of Lassiter with her need to protect her people. So there is a wonderful theme in there of Jane's faith, which remains steadfast even when other people try and pressure her to do things contrary to what she believes. Any person of any religion can relate to that situation, and that pressure can come from both inside and outside the faith--it just goes to show that people are always people and people always find things to disagree about and we just have to hold true. And there were a couple of pretty lines in there about knowing that God is there because of this beautiful land, something like that; I enjoyed those.

And going back to the themes, there were messages about treating everyone with kindness. Jane, who is very devout in her Mormon faith, is kind to both Venters and Lassiter even though they're outside of her faith and the rest of the town sees that as reason enough to keep them away. And because of that hatred (promoted mainly by Tull and the Bishop), the town that's supposed to be upholding a positive faith is trying to use it not just against Venters and Lassiter but also against their own, against Jane. So there is a relevant message in there about how destructive we can be when we forget how to relate to other people with kindness.

So all around, going through all of the aspects that make up an opera, this was a quality, memorable, and significant production. I didn't know what to expect, and therefore I walked away mesmerized by all of the artistry of this opera to represent the Southwest. It was a big endeavor, so it was a pleasure to be able to watch it and to see that all of that work came together so successfully.

Friday, March 3, 2017

TCHO: Mint Chip Gelato

Now that I've stopped ignoring TCHO for inexplicable reasons, it's time to approach a bar I've been seeing at the store for a while. This would be their Mint Chip Gelato. You'll note that the cocoa content of this chocolate is 64%, somewhat higher than the past couple of bars I've reviewed though still around the middle range. It makes sense in this case to stick to a low cocoa content because of the sweet and casual, dessert style of gelato and ice cream; I am glad, though, that the content isn't so low as the 50's. Now, as I was picking up the bar to photograph, I couldn't resist glancing back at the ingredients list, and what did I there find? Freeze dried gelato. That's right, the name Mint Chip Gelato is quite literal, and that's possibly very weird; I had expected there would be some sort of creaminess to this chocolate that would mimic gelato, not actually gelato inside.

I mean, the wrapper does feature a big scoop of gelato, so maybe I should have taken them literally. It's a fun wrapper that, what with the ice cream and deep blue-green and gold dots and multiple labels, still manages to look clean and simple. I like how the labelling is all honest on the front, saying that it's "made with organic chocolate." This is because, of course, while the chocolate is organic and fair trade and the sugar and vanilla beans in the chocolate are organic, none of the ingredients in the freeze dried gelato are organic or anything. (In case you were wondering, the gelato contains milk, sugar, carob four, and mint oil, which sounds slightly random to me.) I'm being silly in calling this "their honesty" but I'm also serious: it's good for a company to admit straightaway what type of ingredients they're using.

On the back of the bar, you can see all of the gelato bits like crisped rice, and when you break apart the pieces of chocolate, you can see them inside as little white pieces, like specks of slivered almonds. You can feel the mint as soon as the chocolate touches your mouth. I don't know that, afterward, the mint tastes particularly strong; it just shows up early on. And honestly, it isn't my favorite mint taste. It reminds me more of cheap mint chocolate candies than fresh mint. (They "mint oil" here is vague, as such a phrase can mean many things.)

As far as the whole freeze drying thing, I don't think it was worth it. Those chips of gelato have that air bubble light crunch that you'd expect from something that's freeze dried. This means that they give no creaminess to the texture: the chocolate is creamier. As far as flavor, there are a lot of these pieces of gelato but not enough in order to give the taste of cream and milk. So it's gelato chocolate with neither the texture nor the flavor of creamy gelato.

Sure, if you let the chocolate melt more rather than chewing it more, you will get more of an ice cream feel. But generally with flavored chocolate and especially with chocolate with pieces of crunchiness in it, people tend to chew the chocolate more than let it melt. So that probably doesn't help much, anyway.

The 64% chocolate is fine. It serves its purpose well. This isn't a particularly sweet bar of chocolate (that is, it is of the sweeter sort, but not like candy sweet or milk chocolate sweet), neither does it introduce darkness or bitterness of any kind. The chocolate adds more of a stable, general chocolate flavor. Whenever mint is involved, after all, all of the other flavors tend to take the backseat.

So I don't entirely know what to say in conclusion. This chocolate bar tastes good. It just isn't what I expected. When you put a big scoop of ice cream on the front, I want more of an ice cream effect. Even the more candy-like offerings of ice cream chocolates from Klondike and Godiva gave that, though of course they did it through a creamy filling. And a creamy filling is, in any case, something you can do in a bar, just ask Ritter Sport. Basically, that was the type of effect I thought I was going to get after seeing that big scoop of ice cream. So I guess what I'm asking for is slightly different package marketing--or just forget the whole freeze-dried gelato thing in favor of another, more effective approach. You don't always literally use that whose effect you're trying to replicate.

I mean, I'm enjoying this bar. It makes for a great dessert chocolate, it really does, since it has both that sense of sweetness and the mild dark chocolate. So I'm not sorry I tried it and I can recommend it; just know that it won't have the creamy gelato effect.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 10: Rapunzel

Click to read Part 1 (Snow White)Part 2 (Cinderella)Part 3 (Aurora)Part 4 (Ariel)Part 5 (Belle)Part 6 (Jasmine)Part 7 (Pocahontas)Part 8 (Mulan), and Part 9 (Tiana).

We're down to the last three entries into this series. We've also come to one of the most popular modern Disney princesses, Rapunzel from 2010's Tangled. It is at this point that I realize that it's been seven years since that movie came out, so there are children in second grade who weren't born yet at that time--and that is odd to realize since I feel like this is still a new movie.

Because they came out just a year apart, Tangled and The Princess and the Frog gave us the opportunity to analyze some things about what audiences liked. Of course, I was still preferring traditional animation at the time, so I preferred it to the computer animation of Tangled--but most people were latching onto computer animation at this time. There seemed to be a preference for the generic Medieval fantasy setting, as compared with TPATF's fairly modern New Orleans setting. Then, even with its less modern setting, Tangled had a more modern style, even in its one-word title. And while I thought that Tiana was a wonderful character and role model, it was Rapunzel that everyone instantly loved and wanted to go meet at Disneyland (they built a whole tower in Fantasyland for her) and it's Rapunzel that I still see people in their twenties dressing up as.

I'm in danger here about making this a post simply about my inability to see why people love Rapunzel so much in particular--when I'm supposed to be analyzing what she does or doesn't offer as a character in the Disney princess lineup. There is, though, some crossover between the two concepts. 

For instance, I know one thing that people like about Rapunzel. They like that she sticks up for herself. She hits Flynn with a pan when he climbs into the tower, then ties him up and questions him. She finds a way to reach the ruffians at the pub instead of being intimidated by them. Etc. But let me return to that frying pan--it kind of bothers me. In the past, fiction has shown women using pans as self-defense because it's the only thing they have access to or are able to wield. So I'm not exactly sure I want to praise a modern character's self-defense that is so heavily reliant on the traditional frying pan. Then again, part of the point of Rapunzel's character is that she is repressed by Mother Gothel. If her "mother" keeps her locked in this tower, then doesn't it make sense that she also encouraged Rapunzel to cultivate such gentle hobbies as cooking and painting instead of anything that might border more on independence and self-defense? So the reliance on the frying pan and the continued shock Rapunzel has about her own bold actions make sense within the story--but I find myself wondering why we're running through these same old themes while supposedly using a modern approach.

The fairy tale of Rapunzel is basically a coming of age, loss of innocence, and facts of life story. It's basically all about pregnancy and birth and ah, marriage. So how do you translate that into a "modern story?" By switching the birth bit to motherhood (through both Rapunzel's mother and Mother Gothel) and continuing to emphasize the relationship that forms between Rapunzel and Flynn. 

We end up, then, with a character who has this growing sense that she is missing something. The lanterns call to her because they represent the parents who are looking for her--and the lies that Mother Gothel is telling her, in particular that she is her mother. That's a very weak place for Rapunzel to begin, as a person, so I suppose it is telling on her decision to be strong that she manages to overcome the obstacles keeping her from the truth. Against her "mother's" word, she leaves the tower. She finds the lanterns. She finds her parents. She falls in love with Flynn, and he helps her overcome the bondage that Gothel has placed her in. Interesting to note there: when Rapunzel's ready to vow to stay with Gothel just to save Flynn, he's the one who cuts off her hair and thereby forever saves her from Gothel or anyone who would try and use her again in that way. So even though Rapunzel took it into her own hands to discover the truth, she needs help to get out of the situation she's in. I don't mind characters getting help from each other; I just see this as what people generally complain about concerning Disney princesses, even though it's coming from one of the most popular of the group. So that I don't really get.

I also don't get Rapunzel's style. She has a very pop voice, both in speaking and singing. It makes her sound too pre-teen to me, even though she's supposed to be turning eighteen and not twelve. 

Now, the previous princesses had all been introducing a new race or hair color, so Rapunzel was the first since the fifties to have a look that had been done before. That is, Cinderella was a blonde back in 1950, as was Aurora in 1959. While Rapunzel is technically a brunette, we see her blonde for almost the entire movie and she's always portrayed with her signature blonde hair in marketing because the long, golden hair is quintessential to the story of Rapunzel (even though Once Upon a Time did give Rapunzel black hair and it worked just fine, so sometimes things that we think are irremovable from a story actually aren't). I'm not saying that this is a bad thing because it isn't; I'm just making note of it. 

Rapunzel is intended to share her story with Flynn Rider, and they do so in a similar way to Aurora and Philip in Sleeping Beauty--except that Rapunzel and Flynn have conversations and Aurora and Philip just sing and dance in the woods. Let me note here that the "Once Upon a Dream" sequence makes sense because it's at the beginning and shows them falling in love. But "I See the Light," while a very nice song and a beautiful scene, makes less sense because it takes places towards the end. Yes, they see the light because they realize they've fallen in love, but the song is arranged in the movie as if it's when the plot begins to resolve. So is the movie saying that their stories resolve because they fall in love, rather than simply showing the falling in love as part of the story? These are just questions that I ask.

Have I come to no conclusions at all this time? Don't misunderstand me, I like Tangled (after "When Will My Life Begin?" ends, that is). And I don't really mind Rapunzel's character; it's just certain things that bother me when I begin to overanalyze. That is, she was never my favorite Disney princess and I don't like her more as time goes on (possibly I like her less), so I don't find her the most interesting addition to the mix. She's more of a neutral, super-animated CG character who doesn't need my praise to be herself and to be loved by the masses.