Friday, April 28, 2017

Vosges: Vanilla Rooibos Tea Dark Milk

Vosges is another of those chocolate brands that I find I have been inexplicably avoiding. If there was a reason for why I've been ignoring Vosges, I have long since forgotten what it was: it's been years since I had any of their chocolate.

Even now that I return my attention to them because their chocolate is fair trade and even as I quickly got excited about a chocolate with vanilla and cherries, I felt myself hesitating. Over what, I don't know. Sometimes Vosges focuses more on flavored chocolate than I like to do, but this was a flavor I wanted to try. Could it be the packaging? I want to say that the card box looks nice, yet there seems to be something that I don't like that I can't quite put my finger on. Are there too many font colors (red, purple, and white)? Is there too much of a contrast between the frilly logo and the more modern approach of a white background paired with photographs of the various ingredients? I don't know.

The silver wrapper features purple frills to match the Vosges logo, and the chocolate bar has four squares with said logo and four with a woman holding a Vosges bag--she makes me think of founder Katrina Markoff. It's a pretty design, reminiscent of shopping malls and preppy resorts. While not necessarily the usual look for chocolate, it works.

As I alluded to, this particular bar is the Vanilla Rooibos Tea, which contains both rooibos and dried tart cherries. The chocolate is 45% dark milk, which sounds great and is exactly the type of chocolate I need lately. Such a chocolate, in theory, would pair well with both the sweeter nature of the vanilla flavor and the tartness of the cherries. While I like cherries in chocolate and I do like tea, I am not overly fond of rooibos. In tea, I usually only like it when there are plenty of other flavors with it. But the thing is, the labeling describes the rooibos as having the vanilla flavor; when I saw the name, I thought it meant vanilla and rooibos. I believe there is vanilla in the chocolate (it's the most likely candidate for what's called "natural flavor"). But apparently any vanilla flavor comes from the rooibos, which I honestly wouldn't have realized on my own.

The vanilla flavor came and went, and I did at first attribute it to vanilla rather than to rooibos. What I had thought of as the taste of rooibos I only noticed in passing once or twice, which I was fine with, I might add. The cherries have more flavor, though. They may be tart but they're not sour, and they taste just right in this level of chocolate. Speaking of chocolate, the chocolate doesn't have the strongest flavor itself. It just gives a basic milk chocolate flavor, not super sweet (so you can tell that it's up there are 45% cocoa) and also not very dark or full of depth (I might have expected just a tad more). It's a base for the flavors, not a star on its own (because it isn't, after all, on its own).

I do find that I enjoy eating this chocolate. Wherever the vanilla flavor comes from, it goes well with the chocolate and the cherries, which already make for a good pairing. So I'm going to categorize this chocolate bas as an alternative to candy bars. Better quality in all senses of the word but still more of a casual type of chocolate. This is one of those bars, as is pretty common for Vosges from what I remember about them, that is more about the flavors than about the chocolate itself, as you'd expect from looking at the labeling. Dessert chocolate, snacking chocolate, gifting chocolate, all that sort of thing. In fact, I think this one would do well packaged into individually-wrapped squares.

As with TCHO, whatever has kept me from this company in the past, I'm quite enjoying this present moment. I guess the thing about flavored chocolate is that usually we all have our preferences. I know now, for instance, that I'm probably not going to like a chile chocolate much because I just don't usually care for chile chocolate. Or bacon, yuck. Salt, maybe. Caramel, yes. And cherries yes. So in the future, rather than going out of my way to try various flavors, I'm going to try and stick more to what flavors I know I can be a fair judge of. That approach has served me well with this Vanilla Rooibos Tea.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Springtime in the Desert

I don't usually share many pictures. Springtime, however, is the time for pictures. Desert blooms only last for a short time, and so every day that they bloom is precious. At the Desert Botanical Garden, during this time of year, the paths are filled with amateur and advanced photographers alike trying to capture these blooms while they can. So I wanted to share some of my pictures (most are from a couple of weeks or so ago).

A yellow flower to start with.

These blossoming pink flowers remind me of bunched up roses. 

The boojum tree, which spends so much time bare, like a statuesque piece of modern art, here stands with all of its little green leaves.

A bright pink flower on a beavertail cactus.

Luminous gold and deep red on cholla.

The yellow-green of these gives them a papery look.

Palos verdes are beautiful green trees most of the year; in springtime, they are green trunks with branches filled with yellow flowers. When the flowers fall, they leave behind yellow carpets, like this one surrounding these little barrels. 

Not the best view, but you can just make out the red flower tips on the ocotillo. If you look closely, you can see that the green leaves were already starting to die when I took this picture. 

The saguaro blossoms aren't out yet, but now is a good time to share my favorite saguaro at the Desert Botanical Garden. He has his arms reaching upward in praise.

A cluster of yellow.

These also remind me of roses.

Flowers on the tree and fruits on the cholla cactus.

Again, no blooms here, but I just love the way these pointy cactus plants grow up and around the trees. It's like a dance or an embrace. 

And here is a quail in a tree, not running on the ground like you usually see them.

A purple wildflower grows right next to a purple prickly pear, whose own flowers aren't quite out yet.

Pink blooms in the tree, green fruit on the cactus.

Here the pink blooms stand above the cactus's yellow and orange blooms.

Such a bright orange red.

While the full flowers are beautiful, I also love the still-shut buds.

A nice little row.

These, once again, remind me of roses, or like a flower crown.

Springtime in the desert is a magical time.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Belief vs. Magical Realism

Magical realism is one thing. Although I do find that magical realism adds an interesting element to a story, today I'm not focusing on magical realism. At least, I don't think that I am. Today I'm focusing on two movies; probably there are more stories that display the same trait I've picked up on, but these are the two I've chosen. The movies are A Little Princess (1995, directed by Alfonso Cuaron) and Secondhand Lions (2003, directed by Tim McCanlies). (You could probably argue that both of these films are magical realism, but I'm taking a different approach.)

And the concept that is "slightly different" from magical realism is the idea that, essentially, belief creates reality. Now, I don't mean this in the sense of Bridge to Terebithia, where the children are playing make believe and because they're choosing to see this magical realm it becomes real to them. There isn't actually any magic in either of the two films I've chosen here. But the characters do have to decide whether or not they'll believe in storytelling, and their decisions to believe or not to believe do directly affect the real world. In other words, your perspective makes a difference.

I'm going to guess that most people have seen A Little Princess but not so many people have seen Secondhand Lions (if you haven't, you should: it's a good movie that only gets better the more times you watch it). This is also a shame because Secondhand Lions is one of those movies that's hard to describe.

Basically you have a boy (Walter) going to live with his great uncles and they tell him stories about when they were younger and went to Africa and had all sorts of adventures--and he has to decide whether or not he believes their stories, stories that don't really sound plausible, stories that a regular person would think that they were just making up. And of course in A Little Princess, Sara tells stories and uses her imagination in order to make other people happy or to lift up her own spirits.

So along the way, the stories that Walter hears begin to actually make sense; that is, there are things that he sees in the real world that could be the results of those stories. Maybe he heard embellished versions of the truth, but he decides that those stories are truth. And because he first decided that they must be true, he is able to hold onto that truth and choose it over alternative versions--and this is what allows him to escape the sort of chain of mistakes that his mother is making and has also been dragging him into, this is what allows him to make into reality his own life. He believes and therefore it is.

Notice this also with Sara. Once Sara loses everything, she and Becky try to rely on make believe to get through the harsh realities of their daily lives. While she used to love storytelling, Sara almost loses her love of it at this time in her life. But her friends help her get back to it, and once again she's the one using imagination to comfort Becky when Miss Minchin sets out their greatest challenge yet. They imagine fancy clothes and a great feast at night--and then wake up to truly find fine furnishings, clothing, and food in their room. It looks like magical realism. But there are all of these hints that it was the neighbor, Ram Dass, who gave it all to them. So it isn't a case that they believed in something so hard (like Peter Pan) that it became true to them. It was that they put forward that positive perspective into the world--and someone noticed and thought that they deserved to have something positive as well as believe in positive. And then, of course, this one instance leads to others until eventually the whole story has a happy ending.

But isn't that interesting? I'm not saying that I dislike stories like Bridge to Terebithia that show the comfort that can be gained from imagination. But isn't it something to see the real world effects of belief in something positive. If you believe in the people around you (like Walter believing in his uncles and Sara believing in her friends and neighbors), they will notice and they will react to that. If you're walking around with something good in your head, you will reap good. And if you're doing good, then some of that will come back to you, one way or another.

Magical realism is a fascinating way for fiction to express something about reality. But when you choose to believe in the right perspective, reality itself gives you a different kind of "magic" that is fully tangible.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Comedy and Drama Meet at Wittenberg

I have come, over time, to love Hamlet's indecision, his crisis over life and death, and simply his overall dramatic conflict. This January I left the theatre entirely captivated after Southwest Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which William Wilson played the title role. How excited was I then to see their latest production, Wittenberg directed by Kent Burnham, in which Hamlet (once again played by Wilson) is a student at Wittenberg before his father dies and his teachers are John Faustus and Martin Luther. Intriguing, no?

Rather than their usual setting at the Mesa Arts Center, Southwest Shakespeare brought Wittenberg to Taliesin West (which is the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture). As this was my first time seeing Taliesin, I must give a nod to the beautiful location and the notable architecture of the place. Simply driving in at sunset was gorgeous.

The theatre itself was smaller than what I'm used to. It was open seating, by the way, so it is advisable to arrive early if you want to be able to choose your seat. I sat in the fourth row because I'm not used to being so close to the actors and because this seemed more at eye level, anyway. As the play began, I found that the small setting worked well for this play: there are only four actors and the content of the play revolves around statements and explorations of their personal viewpoints.

That is, Hamlet is troubled (as Hamlet gets), and Faustus is trying to get him to rely on reason and to simply live life as he wants, while Luther is advising him to rely on religion. And all the while, Luther is himself questioning religion and Faustus's way of living that he so loves is not always turning out the way he thinks it should. So Hamlet is caught in the middle, not sure to whose advice to listen.

Probably it goes without saying that you'll want to have at least basic familiarity with these three figures. The play is full of references to their lives and their quotes. There are plenty of references to other material, as well, but those are the types of details that you can go either way with recognizing or not recognizing; you'll still enjoy the play.

And enjoyable it is. It's a comedy because it's full of laughs. And it's a drama because the characters are asking deep questions. I suppose it's also a tragedy because we know what will happen to Hamlet and Faustus afterward.

Especially for including so many literary, historical, and theological references, this play does not feel heavy at all but rather flows smoothly, thanks no doubt to the performances by the actors. All four of them, William Wilson as Hamlet, David Dickinson as Faustus, Marshall Glass as Luther, and Allison Sell as the Eternal Feminine (she played four different female roles throughout the play), gave top tier performances. They instantly showed the tone of each character, they gave all the right comedic timing, and guided our way through all of these philosophical questions.

In one particular scene, Faustus gives Hamlet one word at a time, asking him to say the first word that comes to mind for each one. Talk about comedy and drama tied into one. It's a funny scene and yet it builds up to the darkness of Hamlet's inevitable fixation on death until it becomes something so tangible that no description of what theatre is seems like enough. I was talking about the fourth wall earlier this week, and this play was more like gazing through the fourth wall until all the walls become a bubble and you're focusing on this sphere of quasi-reality that takes precedence, for this moment, over everything in the real world. That's all thanks, once again, to the actors.

I'll finish with a note on the questions that these characters struggled with throughout the play. We all, at times, feel the conflict between opposing viewpoints. Maybe we align more with one side versus the other, or maybe we really have no idea which makes more sense--but we've all experienced being able to see the two sides. Sometimes it's confusing. Sometimes it's discouraging: even if we know which side we've chosen, it isn't always easy to know how we relate to the opposing side. So I loved seeing these three characters caught up in the opposition, tossing and turning until finally something begins to make sense to them.

Questions. Questions go on as long as life does. We don't need all the answers--we just need the right answers to make clear the uncertainty.

Wittenberg is playing until the 29th. As one of my favorite productions that I've seen from Southwest Shakespeare, I would definitely recommend going to see it. It's one of those plays that you won't forget.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Reflections on the Fourth Wall

Lately I have been obsessed with the fourth wall.

The greatest flaw, supposedly, of a book is the last page, specifically the fact that finishing reading the last page pulls the reader away from whatever realness the book created while its pages lasted. Likewise for the dropping of the curtain at the end of a stage production.

But is such really the case? And I'm not just referring to the positive effect that the intentional breaking of the fourth wall (that is, the realm of metafiction) can have on art. I'm talking about what we as the readers or the viewers bring to that wall or ask of that wall or otherwise receive from that wall that enhances our experience.

Let me give some background. Lately (let's say in about the past year) I've been watching a lot of Disneyland videos on YouTube. I stumbled on Fresh Baked and Briberry while looking for Star Wars content. Later I watched the "Confessions of a Retired Disney Princess" video and also found Subway Mouse's channel, Olivia Simone's most recently. I love Disneyland, so naturally I loved hearing behind the scenes stories about how things work/flow or simply who Disney people were and how they came to work there.

(I feel like I should mention here that my intention is not and was not to be creepy or disrespectful. Disney employees and other performers of course have the right to private lives. I don't want to know where they live or where they shop or what they had for breakfast. I just find the voluntarily shared details or the details that you see from observing say one "version" of a character versus another interesting.)

It's fascinating to me to watch these videos and observe that: Wow, that Alice has been there for years, but of course because she's the best one. Yeah, that Hatter was a dancer; he can't hold still, and that was why he brought such great energy to the character. Hmm, so they basically have to be the type of people who always know how to keep a conversation going (or change its course). Oh, is that how they do auditions? Okay, so certain roles like character hosts often go to people who just don't look like any of the characters but still have the personality for it. Look at that, I've never seen any of them break character except for that one time that one boy broke Hatter, Alice, and somewhat Cruella all in one go (Peter Pan didn't break).

Little things here and there. Like seeing how characters recognize certain guests who are there all the time. Or the fact that after watching all of Briberry's videos, you suddenly can tell when the same person is portraying a different character than they usually do--or maybe you even recognize someone out of character. And all of the inside jokes and references to old videos that show how much Disney people love Disney, whether they're in character or out of character.

I have met some characters. Picture from 2013.

The thing is, I never had much interest in the characters at Disneyland. I still don't know that I would be that interested in meeting them, but I have come to appreciate and enjoy their form of live performance entertainment and interaction. It's this extra angle that's gotten me interested. And isn't that often the case? (Though most of this post is about Disneyland, I don't mean to say that my current interest in the fourth wall is only in terms of Disneyland.)

I've always loved watching making of videos for movies, long before DVDs with all their menus of special features came out. I'm talking about the thirty seconds of behind the scenes that would play at the end of some of the Wishbone episodes, or the feature that played at the end of the Wizard of Oz VHS or the ones that played before the Special Editions of the Star Wars VHS trilogy.

And sometimes when you finish reading a book, you don't react in shock that you're pulled out of that world and back into reality. Instead, you go seeking more emphasis on the fourth wall. You read the author's afterword, or a scholar's introduction. Maybe you seek out the author's biography.

The awareness of fiction's state as fiction does not detract from the experience; rather, this awareness and interaction with this awareness often enhances the experience. It gives you an extra layer (or many extra layers) through which to view this piece. Though you lose the sense of reality that comes with forgetting that the piece is fiction, you gain the tangible feeling of something that was created in the real world by real people.

They created something and gave it breath; you looked and saw that the breath was fake; but then you looked and saw them breathing their own breath into this fake thing; and then you saw how the real breath made the fake breath alive.

That's creation, isn't it? And art is creation.

Monday, April 17, 2017

First Glimpse at The Last Jedi

Now that we've all had the weekend to absorb the new movie poster and trailer for The Last Jedi, it is time to share my thoughts.

First let me say that this is a well-crafted trailer. Though I was of course excited to see it, a part of me almost didn't want to watch it because I didn't want the secrecy to end. I need not have feared: there are no spoilers in the trailer. Just enough to let us see the movie without seeing anything that we shouldn't yet.

But what did we see and what did I think of it?

Rey, presumably training with Luke. Exciting, but nothing we weren't expecting.

Leia, in a shot that makes her look very much like Vader. Hinting at something? I can't see darkness coming from Leia, but maybe the shot hints at the legacy of darkness that Leia carries. Or possibly we do learn something that Leia did, perhaps in raising Kylo that helped give him an excuse to turn away. This could simply be the fact that, as revealed in Bloodline, Ben was already an adult when he found out that Darth Vader was his grandfather--which must understandably have made him pretty angry at his mother and his uncle, that they wouldn't have told him this before. Anyway.

Speaking of Kylo Ren. What's that we saw? His mask all broken up? What does that mean? Does his mask literally break, or are we seeing it in a vision, perhaps one that Rey has? Either way, for his mask to break has a symbolic meaning that his dark exterior he has cultivated for himself is breaking. Notice, of course, that we mostly saw Rey in this trailer. Presumably this is because showing Rey on the island "gives less away" than showing Kylo in probably most of his scenes. When we do see him, he isn't wearing his mask--and I'm expecting that he probably won't wear it much in this movie, for whatever reasons.

Finn and Poe are back. Cool. Again, nothing we didn't already know.

Luke speaks. It's funny, after leaving him with no words in TFA, he gets to narrate this trailer. His words are intended to sound like words he says to Rey on the island when he is training or considering training her. But they could be from anywhere in the film, or possibly not even be in the film (after all, he had lines in the TFA trailer that weren't in the movie). So bear that in mind.

When he says that it's time for the Jedi to end, I believe that he is primarily speaking out of guilt or regret for the past. He feels like he could have done better. That's all there is to that. As far as the movie title goes, I'm in favor of the threefold meaning: after all, many of the other titles have multiple meanings, as well. The last Jedi as in Luke is literally the last Jedi left, and it is him that Rey goes to meet and possibly train with in this movie. The last Jedi as in the last generation of Jedi, the trio of Luke and the two people he has trained, Ben and Rey. Perhaps we will learn more about Ben's past and Rey's past that will lend to this trio image. The trio image is also displayed in the movie poster, where Rey acts as the light and the agency and Luke and Kylo are the darkness and the power--and she has influence over them because she is the one holding the lightsaber and they are the ones that spring from the image of the saber. (Interestingly, the red/darkness does spring from the saber, implying that power can all too easily lead to darkness.) And the last interpretation of the last Jedi is, of course, that the Jedi Order as it is will officially come to an end. This is easy to see since the flaws of the Jedi are constantly visible, especially if you include the prequel trilogy. It makes sense that Luke, possibly with Rey's help or insistence, decides that making changes to the system is what will help them move forward into a new generation.

Overall prediction? This movie will see a change in characters' resolutions. Rey, Luke, Finn, Leia, and Kylo will all either make a new resolution or further resolve a current one. This is the start of a new day, and it will probably be a rocky start if it's anything like how fiction (and life, too, I guess) usually is.

The Last Jedi. Let's just relish the ominous sound of that phrase for the next eight months.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Stone Grindz: Wild Bolivia 70%

Last week I had my first introduction to Scottsdale-based company Stone Grindz Chocolate with their Ecuador 70% bar (click here to read that review). This week I'm moving forward to their Wild Bolivia 70%, which was a Good Food Awards 2017 Finalist.

With the same type of packaging and design as the Ecuador bar, the Wild Bolivia is made with cocoa that apparently grows wild along the Amazon River Basin in Bolivia, according to the notes on the back. I would have thought that including "wild" in the name was just descriptive of the style of the flavor. Now, I know I've had chocolate sourced from Bolivia before but it isn't one of the more common sources, so I wasn't quite sure what type of flavor notes to expect.

The deep aroma of the chocolate is reminiscent of Ghirardelli. As with the Ecuador bar, the texture is quite smooth. The flavor, while decidedly different, does come closer to the Ecuador than I might have expected. It's the Stone Grindz style of smooth and mellow chocolate flavor.

Of course, don't get me wrong, this chocolate has its own flavor profile. It begins with what I call the blue flavor of cocoa nibs; when the richness developed, it's more akin to cocoa powder than to brownies. The back of the bar tells me that the flavor notes are malt and cashew, and I do indeed taste a slight nuttiness as the flavor begins to develop. I also want to call it a slight woodsiness that I detect. Same as with the Ecuador, there is sweetness to this chocolate (in an appropriate way) and zero hint of bitterness. Likewise, the chocolate melts without introducing any new flavors.

I can see why, if one of these two bars were to win an award in place of the other, it would be this one. The Ecuador chocolate has a simpler flavor profile, and the Wild Bolivia has more flavor notes to pick up on. While I did give plenty of positive comments on the Ecuador, perhaps my taste buds are finding the Wild Bolivia more interesting, in a certain sense. Its flavor also, I suppose, comes across richer.

Not, of course, that I need to be setting the two up against each other. I don't mean to be doing that; I only want to explain what each bar offers and what each one does well so that you can better decide which you might prefer (that is, if you're choosing between them, but why not just choose both?).

My main point, once again, is simply that this is great chocolate for eating and gift-giving. It's approachable, it's quality, and it's actually made in the city I live currently live in. I am having trouble, I admit, in thinking of what brand or company Stone Grindz most reminds me of (simply in order to describe the type of brand that they are and the type of product they make, not in order to put different companies against one another). That is to say, I am possibly distracted by the fact that this is local chocolate and therefore can't quite put my finger on what I would normally say if this were just random chocolate I came across in a store. For now, though, I don't think my hesitation matters to anyone except me: my "main point" still stands. This is chocolate to please a range of palates.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Thrawn Trilogy Concludes

Click here to read my thoughts on the first book in this trilogy.

I must explain that I felt about about leaving off (for months) in the middle of the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn while also admitting that I do feel like it was the best thing for me to just take a break. You see, it was very awkward to try reading this trilogy at this precise moment in time. As anyone who's going to be reading this whole post probably knows, the Thrawn Trilogy is part of the non-canon legends, as compared with the post-2013 canon books. And given that this trilogy takes place at some point after the events of Return of the Jedi, it was actually confusing at times to be reading the newer books (like Bloodline and the later Aftermath books) at the same time as I was trying to read the older books. There are similar events in each, just with different details. So I had to set aside the Thrawn Trilogy halfway through the second book, Dark Force Rising, in order to allow myself to read the new publications (and some non-Star Wars books, of course), awaiting the time in which I would be able to refocus on non-canon.

And then along came news that Thrawn was going to have his own book, which of course just came out yesterday. That gave me a reason to thrown myself back into this trilogy in a desperate attempt to finish the older, non-canon version of this character's story before this newer, canon version came out. Whew.

I must also admit that, whether or not it was because of my rush to finally finish this trilogy after such a long delay, my interest began to dwindle. I really enjoyed Heir to the Empire. But by the time I got to the second two books, I really only wanted to read the scenes with Leia, Luke, and/or Mara. I came to care less about the political situation (after all, if it isn't canon, then the politics seem like something to pay little attention to--it's the characters that remain interesting whether or not they're "real" anymore) or about characters like Karrde or even C'baoth or Thrawn himself. I was interested in how Luke and Mara would interact with them, but not in them themselves. So the last book, The Last Command, in particular felt like a lot of bulk with only certain storylines that I wanted to follow.

Basically I just wanted to see more of Mara Jade, I guess. As I mentioned before, she quickly won me over, living up to her reputation. So it was fascinating to watch the direction that she moves in throughout this trilogy, especially in this last installment. Her "problem" resolves well, setting up a rather nice theme that complements the Luke/Vader/Emperor confrontation at the end of Return of the Jedi quite well.

I am only disappointed to see that Luke and Mara's story only just started here. I don't even know which books to read next in order to hear the rest of it; thankfully, there are plenty of online sources to help me out when I'm ready for more. That is, I would be quite ready right now if I didn't have other (once again, non-Star Wars) books (well, plus the new Thrawn, of course) to read. It's funny because I was excited to read this trilogy to find out more about Thrawn, but I lost much of my interest in his character along the way and now the only one I can think about is Mara. I kind of miss her already, and I really feel for the people who had to experience her becoming non-canon after they had gotten to know her simply as a character.

Ah, well, I guess this all just goes to show that, even if you're new to Star Wars books and even if most of them are now non-canon, it's still worth delving into the legends/expanded universe.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Rossini's Cinderella

I had come to expect a certain style or a certain effect from the opera. But Arizona Opera's production of Cinderella (conducted by Dean Williamson and directed by Crystal Manich) this past weekend offered something a little different from what I had experienced before.

The music was noticeably different to the three other operas I have seen. The board chair, Robert S. Tancer, in his message for the program helpfully points out the musical term of coloratura, which I suppose must be the difference I noted. (Here is the oddity of a non-musical person trying to describe a musical experience.) In this opera, at least, it was what I would call "the sheep effect" (I don't mean to use this description rudely) of quickly changing notes layered together versus long sweeping notes--and this effect is probably what most people think of when they think of opera. But, to me, it feels less natural. Tancer also helpfully describes how coloratura went out of style before coming back in in the 1960's. 

Now, I have given the reason why I connected less with the music of this opera and why it didn't quite captivate me in the same way as the others. So let me move on to the rest of my commentary.

While I may not always have liked the style of the music, there was no doubt that the performers were all stellar. They not only brought the execution of the music but they also performed wholeheartedly. I once may have thought that opera was just singing; I have, of course, quickly found that it is also acting in the same sense that is any stage production (a play or a musical, for instance). These performers sing with emotion and also compose themselves and move around the stage fully as their characters. Interestingly, the page in the program that gives further info and analysis of Rossini's music explains that he "wrote abstract music"  that "carries beauty, but not emotion" and whose "meaning is not found in the notes on the page" but rather in the experience and through "performers endowing the melody with pathos." I wasn't musical enough to realize on my own that this is what was happening and this is what was intentional, but I did feel that difference between the music and the emotion of a scene and I did look with amazement on the performers. 

To continue with my earlier thought, the physical aspect of performance came in particular into Cinderella, since this is a comedy. Katrina Galka and Mariya Kaganskaya as Clorinda and Tisbe, Angelina's (Cinderella's) stepsisters, as well as Stefano de Peppo as their father, Don Magnifico, dove wholeheartedly into the comedy of their characters. This opera had many, many laughs.

And yet, for all the comedy and for the happy ending, this opera has a quite serious theme to it. It is slightly different a retelling of the Cinderella story, though of course it keeps the main elements. Most notably, of course, is the lack of magic, which serves to emphasize the real effects of acting based on Good thoughts. Angelina (Daniela Mack) is still the beautiful and long-suffering young woman who has been downtrodden by her stepparent (father instead of mother in this case). But here there is more made of class, and of the fact that both Angelina and her prince, Don Ramiro (Alek Shrader), must accept each other while believing that he/she is lower class. They both must pass a test, that is, a test where only goodness and virtue can win. There is nothing about the innate "royalness" that disguised upper class people display, which is so often the case in stories; rather, the emphasis remains on the acceptance of an individual for who an individual is through his/her actions.

That's quite a theme, and perhaps, in storytelling, one of the better versions of Cinderella that I have seen. I said that I didn't connect to this opera's music that much--but I did connect to the opera on a literary level.

Here I do have to add in that I'm not sure what was going on with the subtitles. They didn't seem to not be working. But they didn't translate enough. Granted, a couple of times it seemed that new translations stopped going up for the sake of simplicity when the lines were basically repeating the same concept. But there were whole sections with no translation at all, sections where it couldn't be a case of just avoiding repetition. Sometimes, yes, multiple characters are singing different lines at the same time, which is impossible to translate well on a thin screen. But there were also multiple characters singing or quick dialogue at Santa Fe Opera's Don Giovanni last year, and they did their best to keep the translations going; after all, sometimes you don't need to have the time to read every word, you just have to be able to glance at the translation to get the gist of it. After what I said about loving the story of Cinderella, you'll understand why it irked me to not have translations. I need to know what characters are saying. So if this was a stylistic choice, I did not like it.

Let me finish with one more positive comment. As usual, this production was visually beautiful. Costumes and sets always gave somewhere for my eyes to dwell. Since I mentioned Santa Fe Opera, I might as well throw in here that while I absolutely loved going there and they do have a beautiful outdoor stage and I would definitely go there again given the opportunity, I probably would miss the elaborate visual elements of Arizona Opera. It's quite something to have the curtain peel back and to peer into the window, to peer through at the stage and see a complete world right there before your eyes, all details in place and all action unfolding. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Stone Grindz: Ecuador 70%

Having finally made it to the Old Town Scottsdale Farmer's Market this past weekend, I was quite pleased with everything that was on offer. Many vendors with pastries and desserts, plenty of produce, eggs and bread and meat, the usual sauces and honey and that sort of thing, and a couple of chocolate companies. Now, there are one or two chocolate shops in the area that I've been meaning to visit, but these two I had never heard of. To begin with, I picked out the Ecuador 70% bar from Stone Grindz Chocolate.

Stone Grindz has a recognizable look, both clean and artsy. Local artist Joe Mehl provided the artwork. If you take a look at the flyer I got from their table, you can see that the image on the chocolate bar is one section (right around the bottom middle) of a larger piece that shows the land and the farmers from the areas where the cocoa is grown. You can see the cocoa pods there in the center.

While the artwork proves that artsy vibe, a clean white square label balances everything out and locks in elegance. The card box folds open like an envelope to reveal a clear-wrapped bar. Here we find simple elegance once again with a plain design, just 18 defined squares. This company knows where to use complex shapes and designs and where to hold back.

There is a fragrant, fruity smell to the chocolate. The surface looks good.

As I mentioned, this is a 70% cocoa content chocolate; the beans are sourced from Ecuador. Stone Grindz uses heritage cocoa beans for this bar, and on their website they say that they are fair trade. Given the verbiage about sourcing the cocoa and the traditional practices of the farmers, I did expect that might be the case. The cane sugar and added cocoa butter, by the way, are both officially labeled as organic. Oh, and there are only the three ingredients, so there is no vanilla in here.

The flavor of the chocolate begins tender and red, nice and warm. The texture is very smooth, though not overly so. A deeper, rich chocolate flavor comes in, accented by sweetness. Here the flavors are the richness of fudge and flourless chocolate cake. There is note of cream, almost like how it tastes in milk chocolate--except that here it is surrounded by dark chocolate; I don't think I had ever come across a flavor note like that before. You could say that there is a vanilla flavor note at this point, as well. This is one of those situations where I say that there is sweetness in the good sense of the word, a flavor that is always accompanied by chocolate. It doesn't really melt away with any new flavors, just that wonderfully rich and appropriately sweet chocolate flavor. The aftertaste is nice and warm.

Plainly put, it tasted wonderful. For anyone looking for good chocolate flavor and not necessarily wanting all the flavor notes of tobacco and apricot and marshmallow and whatnot, this will be a great find. And because the chocolate has that sense of sweetness and zero bitterness while still maintaining that rich chocolate flavor, I would definitely recommend it for the average person. Whether it's someone whose idea of dark chocolate is still Hershey's or someone who's used to craft chocolate, this is a good bar to try and also a great bar for gift-giving. It's simultaneously a safe and quality choice.

The Ecuador bar also comes in an 84% cocoa content, which sounds quite appealing. Interesting to note, as well, is that it's their Wild Bolivia (which is also a 70% bar) that's award-winning. So I might have to have a look at that one next.

Though Stone Grindz makes their chocolate (from the bean) in Scottsdale, they don't have their own shop. You can find them at various farmer's markets around Phoenix, or at a few shops both in Arizona and out of state--you can go to their website to see the full list. I'll finish by saying that I'm thrilled not only to have come across them but to find that they do make quality chocolate that I am genuinely enjoying. Arizona, my dear, you're doing well.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Disney Princess Analysis - Part 12: Elena

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)Part 10 (Rapunzel), and Part 11 (Merida).

Elena is a first in many ways. She is the first Disney official Disney princess who comes not from a movie but from a TV show, Elena of Avalor, which began in 2016. (Note: I've only watched all the episodes up to December's "Navidad.") As I understand it, the idea for Elena came from the team behind Sofia the First. My head would, on its own, think that Elena was assigned to TV instead of to a movie, but as they describe it, they just wanted to create this show with this character and it wasn't that it was a decision to throw Elena just to TV or something. So I have to keep that in mind because, in many ways, it seems unfair that Elena is a TV show character instead of a movie character.

Elena is the first Hispanic Disney princess; though her land is inspired by Central America in general, to me she's from Mexico. I remember a few years back thinking that it was about time that Disney had a Hispanic princess. They were going for plenty of racial diversity with the princesses and yet they still hadn't covered this one angle--despite the fact that Disney has put plenty of effort into the Hispanic market (I remember that one year that MiceAge's April Fool's Day post said that California Adventure was turning into "Pixarlandia" both to target this market and because of the greater success at the time of Pixar films in comparison to Disney films). So I think Elena was a long time coming. And do you know what? Even though I'd been anticipating her, I didn't realize how much she would mean to me personally.

I'm three quarters Mexican but the thing is, I'm the type of person who creates my own culture and I think my parents are, too, in many ways; so I don't necessarily associate with all of the culture that other Mexican Americans do (as you can even tell by the type of "labels" I feel more natural using). Some of it, but not all of it. So I never felt like I needed Elena. I never thought that I needed the cultural representation. And I always thought that Belle was my look-alike princess because we both have brown hair, brown eyes, and light skin. 

And then along came Elena. Her skin tone is a little warmer than mine (though I almost think they chickened out and could have gone a little darker), but did you see her eyes? They're not brown like Belle's; they're brown like mine, deep brown. And her brown hair is full, with lots of body to it even though she keeps it in a ponytail. I didn't realize that such small things made such a difference. But for the first time, I found myself happy, personally happy, at this next step in racial diversity. I guess now I know what people mean when they clamor for representation. It doesn't mean that you can't associate with a character whose race is different from your own; it just means that you want some of the characters you see to be like you.

Because Elena is in a TV show, there is more time to describe her land her culture. With Mulan, we saw some Chinese writing and we certainly got different clothing and also some beliefs. With Jasmine, we got architecture. With Pocahontas, we got a little bit of her language, or at least the idea of it, and some of her beliefs. Elena's "diversity," though, is carried out more fully. Spanish phrases sprinkled in here and there give the idea of language, we see architecture and clothing and also something about the artistic design of the show in general, and we see many of her cultural traditions (here's what I meant about "I create my own culture:" I don't share many of Elena's traditions). So this was all valuable to see.

Elena's positives as a character? She's an optimistic person who is always willing to take the time to do a task right, to work at it with patience and perseverance until she's achieved what's needed. She values her people and her friends and her family. She sees the good in every person and helps them to see it in themselves and others to see it, as well. The true traits of a good leader. And Elena was designed not to have a love interest, so the show is all about other types of relationships and mainly shows Elena figuring out how to rule her kingdom. Which means we don't even have to spend any time analyzing whether or not she keeps her independency in her romantic relationship since that's just not part of her story--which I suppose is a good thing. I don't mind the Disney princesses having love stories but not every character needs a love story.

The negatives? I know I said that there were some positives to Elena being in a TV show versus a movie. But there are also some downsides. Namely, the way I described her as such a perfect person. Since this isn't just a TV show but a Disney TV show designed for a young audience (what is the age group? eight and under? or lower?), the characters can be intentionally flat in some ways. Elena goes through her struggles, yes, so she isn't perfect. But she's still a little overdone in her perfection, even in terms of her imperfections--on purpose. She is intentionally designed as a role model for children, more so than any of the other princesses except perhaps Merida. So in order to believe in her positive traits, you just have to ignore that flatness. This is kind of annoying. I would have liked such a character, the ruler of the magical kingdom of Avalor inspired by Central America, to be more real, to be less a Disney Channel character and more simply Disney. 

Still, Elena is designed with a lot of thought, and therefore for what she is, she is a good character and a good (final--for now, at least) addition to the Disney princess mix. 

This also means that we've made it through twelve posts on this subject. I may have started wandering somewhat away from my original style simply because there were so many posts on the same subject. But it's been an interesting journey, hasn't it? And because these have proved to be popular posts, I'm probably going to do another series (not right away, though) focusing on the main male characters in Disney animation. Not necessarily the princes, just the ones that I decide are the main characters of their stories. So you can look for that series in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

April Book Sale

Just a quick note today to let you know that for this month, you can get paperback and hardcover editions of my book, Black Tree, for 40% off at this link

This is the biggest discount I've done so far, so you'll want to take this opportunity if you've been considering getting my book. The sale will continue through the end of the month. Sorry, it doesn't apply to the digital edition.

Happy reading, everyone.

Monday, April 3, 2017

To Carve the Mark

There is something in Veronica Roth's writing that I connect to. I love seeing the way her characters wrestle with questions of morality, ethics, and habits--and where the three intersect. I love seeing the ways in which they find strength and the ways in which they still feel weak. Such was the case with the Divergent trilogy, and such was also the case with her latest book (which starts a new, separate series), Carve the Mark.

That is, the types of things that I enjoyed in her writing I also found in this new book, but it was not simply a repeat of Divergent. These characters, for one, are in a completely different setting. This type we're in a galaxy of planets, each with their own culture and way of doing things. Everything is set up well, and I immediacy had a sense of a unique, lived-in environment. I liked the environment of Divergent; I like this one just as much, if not more, and it has even more detail to it because it does involve more cultures and planets.

I also love the two main characters, Akos and Cyra. They're just fascinating to watch, and their personal struggles highlight so many of the questions that we all come across as we go about our lives. Questions of weakness, of strength, of duty, of honor, of loyalty, of tradition, of home, of loss, of right and wrong, of revenge versus justice. This way of analyzing morality (if that's the best word to use here) that Veronica Roth has just draws in my attention and doesn't let go.

She is also good at portraying groups of people, while at the same time giving the very personal perspectives of just a couple of characters. We have the closest look at the two main characters and we really get to know how their minds work, but we also have a good look at the people who surround them. Friends, foes, casual acquaintances, family, etc. There is always a sense that these people are all pieces that come together to make a whole.

And that talent of portraying groups, of course, goes well with one the main themes of this book: the importance of every individual. That's why you carve the mark. But I won't explain what that means: if you've read the book, you already know. And I don't want to talk about plot details in this post.

I suppose that means that this is all, then. For me, Carve the Mark was just a very good read. Exciting and suspenseful at times, but more than that, its lasting value was in its characters and the questions that they ask of themselves and the conclusions that they arrive at. I am much looking forward to the sequel, but in the meantime I'm just enjoying what this book offered.