Monday, October 30, 2017

Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

One of the reasons why Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite of the Disney animated films is Tchaikovsky's music. So while at first I thought I wasn't going to see Ballet Arizona's Swan Lake, the lure of Tchaikovsky and the opportunity to see one of the most famous ballets brought me once more to Symphony Hall.

I had begun to decide that ballet wasn't really my medium, wasn't really the thing I liked most to regularly watch. I found, however, that Swan Lake was my style of ballet. As soon as the curtain came up, I felt like they had put everything together for me. The woodsy, rich-with-details backdrop drew me in to this fantasy, medieval setting. Tchaikovsky's music kept me enthralled and engaged in that personal way that his music has. In fact, I felt like I could have been there just to hear Phoenix Symphony performing this music, even without the rest of the ballet (which I don't say in order to speak against the beautiful sets and costumes and the skill of the performers, just to emphasize my interest in the music).

The choreography also felt very different, to me, from Romeo and Juliet last season. Here there were always multiple pieces. If a pair danced in the center of the stage, there were usually also performers on the sides of the stage. And the style of dancing changed in different scenes or parts of scenes to go along with whatever is happening at the time. All of this meant that there were more things for me to watch, more options for my eyes, more ways to hold my interest. Then of course was the way in which the choreography mimicked the movement of swans to show the cursed identity of Odette and her friends.

What I felt while watching this production was a complete synchronization between visuals and sounds. This was music and dance telling a story in an elegant and emotional composition. I always want to see emotion on stage, don't I? Well, Swan Lake certainly portrays emotion. It's a lovely artistic fantasy, truly a magical piece.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Halloween Truffles Selection

Well, actually, only one of these truffles is a Halloween piece. But I didn't want to say "Halloween and others" or "Halloween and non-Halloween." So here we are: four truffles, one of which is a Halloween truffle.

I do enjoy getting special seasonal or holiday selections. Most of the store chocolate, if anything, just gets a holiday-themed wrapper for a regular flavor. Chocolate shops like Zak's Chocolate, on the other hand, have the chance to throw in fun pieces like this.

- Bloodshot Berry Bonbon - I say fun because even though a bloodshot eyeball sounds like it would fall into the gorey side of Halloween, this eye is actually rather cute. Perhaps I'm just admiring the paint job. A box of these would make a nice little gift (gifts aren't a standard Halloween tradition, but a gift is always in season), or you could put out a small plate of them at home on Halloween night. Perfect for everyone who just stays home for the holiday but still likes to bring in a couple of Halloween touches. Now, as far as taste goes, you get a berry flavor from this truffle's ganache right away, then tangy chocolate, and then more of a semisweet chocolate flavor once the ganache has melted away and left you with just the chocolate shell. I'm not always the biggest on berries, so I can't say specifically what berries I taste; it seems like more of a general berry flavor to me, perhaps with some blackberry in there. It's somewhat tangier than I'd expected. Overall this is a simple, flavored truffle.

- Cinnamon Plum - This one, visually, makes for a great companion to the Bloodshot eye: it also comes in a rounded shape, with some red, purple, and white painted on. And the cinnamon (and even the plum) makes for more of a fall type of flavor. You get that cinnamon flavor right away, followed quickly by the plum; the two together create that spiced fruit tone. The plum I would say is more of a general either spiced fruit or fruit-in-a-dessert flavor, not specifically recognizable as plum. It's the cinnamon that's the star and takes the most attention, in an absolutely warm and delightful way. Cinnamon is a wonderful spice and goes so well with chocolate and yet I don't feel like it gets used very often these days. The cinnamon here is nice and strong (properly, not overly, strong) to really give you that feeling of the holiday season. I taste this and instantly picture fireplaces and pine garlands and The Nutcracker and plum pudding in A Christmas Carol.

- AZ Queen Bee Honey - The biggest of the four, this truffle is a sort of round, thick disc with scalloped edges and a yellow honeycomb pattern on top. The ganache here is a big firmer, almost chewy. While you do taste some chocolate first, it's that rich kind of creamy flavor belonging to honey that quickly takes over. Strongly, recognizably honey. I don't know that I've ever come across the honey flavor in chocolate being this strong--which is a compliment. If a chocolate is labeled as honey, then I want to taste the honey. And of course that would be where the different texture comes in: the ganache seems to be made largely of honey. That's why it has a texture like the thicker, creamed honeys, almost grainy like that; I approve since that type of honey is usually my favorite. This truffle is the perfect example of two flavors working together as one, the chocolate and the honey blending together and enhancing each other. Lovely.

- Peixoto Mocha - A nice square with the coffee bean (shape) on top. Sleek-looking. I cut this one open (I can hardly even remember the last time I just bit into a truffle: I always have to be prepared to take pictures of the inside) to find a strong coffee scent. Naturally, then, this truffle tastes strongly of coffee right away--and yes, mocha specifically. It's like I can taste the coffee, the cream, and well, the chocolate--so I suppose this could be a cafe mocha, too. The strong and fresh coffee flavor will make this one a win for coffee-lovers.

I think my favorite is the Cinnamon Plum because it transported me and made me feel warm and happy, then the Queen Bee because it's awesome. And the Bloodshot Berry Bonbon is just the thing for Halloween. When I was at the shop earlier in the week, they mentioned that they would also be putting out plain chocolate in Halloween shapes. So for everyone who isn't trick-or-treating, try stopping at a chocolate shop instead; it's just as fun.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Once Upon a Time Starts Again

Back in May, I commented (you can read that post here) that the "soft reboot" of Once Upon a Time would probably be a good move for the show. And though I was past being excited for the new season, the three episodes that have come out so far have reignited my interest.

Exactly the two things that I predicted/hoped for are happening: intentional repetition and learning from the past. Now that they're a few seasons in, the writers have a better idea of the kinds of things that did or didn't work before; coming in with a fresh start, they can gently move away from what didn't work as well. If these first episodes are a taste of what's to come (and if enough people are even still watching the show), then Once Upon a Time has the chance to keep running.

Obviously the main repetition is with Henry and Lucy and a cursed town whose inhabitants have lost their memories. It's the same, but it's different. We also have the chance to see the "believing child" as a girl instead of a boy and the "unbelieving adult" as a man instead of a woman. All of the repetition goes with this idea of stories, stories being things real and tangible and always happening and always beginning again and never really ending.

Right away, though, the main difference in this new version of the show is the approach to fairy tales. Sure, the original show said that it was showing fairy tales like we hadn't seen them before--but they mainly stuck to the basic concepts. Now everything is turned around more. Deliberately, the main traits of a story (whether themes or characters' personalities or plot elements) are flipped, resulting in more unpredictability than we had before. Henry even mentions that there are different versions of each story, so we're getting to see some of these "different" angles play out (Cinderella, for instance, did appear back in season one, but that was a different Cinderella). This gives the writers the chance to play with the stories more; it also lets the audience feel like the plot is, once again, something new for us to discover.

Speaking of new things to discover. I can't pass on at least mentioning Rumplestiltskin. He was so wonderfully mysterious in season one, a trait that mostly vanished by the end of last season. Now he's back to being that weird character on the sidelines, the one who seems to know more than everyone else does, the one whose motives and agenda we can't quite discern. Love it.

This was one of those shows that people tended to say was a little white, wasn't it? It looks like that's one of the things they're changing up this time, mainly with the casting of Cinderella and Lucy. And of course I love that we're finally getting to see Tiana since she's one of my favorites; I look forward to seeing more of her story.

I think that's about it. Mainly I just wanted to say that I'm impressed at how much I enjoyed these first three episodes; I wasn't expecting that. I'll update again later, either at mid-season or at the end of the season, depending on when I have something more to add.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Hercules in the Opera

While at first I thought that Arizona Opera's production of Hercules vs Vampires would be one of the shows that I would skip, I decided that perhaps I should see it for the possibility of seeing something new, different, and innovative. Well, it was different.

They even called us (the audience) "the brave" for being the ones to go see it: none of us knew what to expect. We knew that we would be watching the 1961 film Hercules in the Haunted World with a new score by Patrick Morganelli and that the singers would be singing (adapted) lines to go with the film/score--but how would it all unfold, really? (This film/opera combo composition was first performed in LA in 2015, by the way.)

The basics are just as you would imagine. They had a big screen set up on the front of the stage and a row of chairs in front of the screen where the singers sat (and stood while they were singing). It was definitely a different experience to come in to Symphony Hall knowing that we were all getting ready to watch a movie. Here is where I'm going to once again praise sitting in the balcony: you get a great view of the orchestra, which was particularly important for this production.

The thing is, the night mainly felt like watching a film with the score performed live (like places sometimes do for films like The Lord of the Rings). That part was quite a pleasure; Phoenix Symphony always does a wonderful job, and in this case they seemed to be using some instruments they don't usually use for the operas and ballets that I'm used to seeing them perform. This was, for me, one of the best aspects of the production.

Shouldn't it, though, have been the singing? (Or maybe not necessarily?) I just came from seeing six of these nine singers at the Aria Jukebox event, where I was completely enthralled by their artistry. But I felt like they got a little lost in this production. I've noticed before (I don't remember whether or not I've mentioned it) that the singing can seem a little quiet at Symphony Hall (but I don't know how this compares to most venues as I've ever been to one other opera venue, Santa Fe Opera). That was the case this time, except possibly that it was even quieter. And the encouraged the audience in the beginning to be vocal (to laugh at the funny parts and boo the bad guys, that sort of thing)--which the audience was. That was fun, to be part of a collective group watching and reacting to this campy film. But sometimes the loud audience moments overlapped with a line of vocals and we would completely miss out on hearing that line. And in general, as well, you found that it was better to (mainly) watch the film than the singers--so I started to feel like I wasn't giving them enough attention. In addition, because these are lines in a film, they're short. Usually when you watch an opera (or at what I've been coming to find), the performers build up moments; here, though, they only had short snippets of sung dialogue with which to try and make something. It felt (to me with my non-musical ear) like there wasn't enough content for their talents.

Not to say that they did perform well. I don't mean to imply that. It was still obvious that they're talented people. Katrina Galka, in particular, really brought extra glitter and liveliness to her performance (or should I say performances since, like most of them, she sang multiple roles).

It was fun to watch this production. The audience's involvement and willingness to react was great (it kind of brought me on an extension from The Three Musketeers on Thursday night: that was also a pretty reactive audience). But was Hercules vs Vampires a cool, new, innovative piece? For me, not really. Sure, I did see a few more people in the audience who looked like they don't usually attend opera; of course it's great to bring in new audiences. But this piece didn't move me or excite me or linger with me in the way that others have. Granted, it was shorter than usual (not even two hours long) and the ticket prices were much lower than usual (except, of course, for the cheap seats, which were the same), so it's reasonable for it to not deliver the same type of experience.

It's just that I still remember Riders of the Purple Sage this past spring; that was innovative and new and throughly enrapturing (and can they please sell me the soundtrack?). It is because I sometimes come on here and write a post about how much I loved a production that I also need to come in for this one and say that I didn't love it. Like I said, it was fun and I had a good time--but that was all and it would have been nice to get more. In order to show that I'm being honest when I say that I loved something, I also need to be honest and say when I didn't.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Three Musketeers Reimagined

What did I say about The Three Musketeers the book? That is was simply fun and entertaining? Well, that's exactly what Southwest Shakespeare's production of The Three Musketeers was. A solid piece of fun entertainment.

I will begin with a couple of comments on the adaptation. This play was written in in 2006 by Ken Ludwig, who wanted to capture the spirit of the book rather than each plot element. He absolutely did so, going off of seeing this particular production. It's a long book that can ramble a bit at times and you have to kind of just go along with the rambling and enjoy each scene on its own because it takes a while for the plot to really even form. The play, while still following the main scene of the book, has more of a plot to keep the audience's attention and to keep the pacing quicker. I mentioned before that there are politics and history to the book, but they're not really the main core of it; the play addressed this wonderfully by having the Musketeers always needing to remind one another of what the political situation is.

What I had more trouble accepting than any subtractions, though, was the addition of Sabine, d'Artagnan's sister. Presumably she's there because the main characters are mostly men--but when there are such good characters in Constance and Milady, I don't know that we really needed another female character. It's true, though, that I think she serves another purpose than just adding in a female element: she's there to help set the tone. When she shows up, one of the Musketeers asks a question to the effect of, "What's going on?" It's the same thing the audience wonders: why does d'Artagnan have a sister? Why? Because it's random and silly and unexpected and doesn't really make sense. Throwing Sabine in there and setting d'Artagnan up as a little goofier than I read him in the book, the audience knows right away that they're here to have fun and be entertained. Sabine almost even feels like an element of parody--except that adding humor into this story isn't making it into parody because The Three Musketeers is already so entertaining and often humorous. So while I'm still not completely on board with the addition of Sabine (or with that goofy angle for d'Artagnan), I do see how she helped set that tone for the play. And honestly, she didn't really detract from anything, either.

Now on to how the cast and the production team brought to life this play, directed by Jesse James Kamps. There were some familiar faces. In particular, I remember Andy Cahoon (d'Artagnan) most as Laertes in Hamlet, Melody Knudson (Constance) as Ophelia in the same production, and Alexis Baigue (Cardinal Richelieu) from The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) last month. From the personal perspective, it's exciting to start to recognize actors and see how they approach different roles; you start to get a sense of their individual talents and what they in particular can bring to a character.

Probably all of the Musketeers (Aaron Blanco as Aramis, Spencer Dooley as Athos, and Keath Hall as Porthos) and Cardinal Richelieu were my favorites in the play. They really brought that sense of vanity, coolness, carelessness, and love of dueling that forms the Musketeers and their enemies (well, the Cardinal isn't always cool--usually he's just "the bad guy," but he was a delight to watch here). In fact, everyone in the play was well cast, and this was a fairly big cast at sixteen people.

They also worked well together, particularly in the big group scenes, whether at the ball or in the many fighting scenes. That fight choreography (also by Aaron Blanco)--it completely captured that sense of fun that's in the book. You would be watching them on stage, switching to this focus to that focus, this angle to that angle, and you'd be thinking, how are they being so silly? Such a particular lighthearted humor that went through the scenes.

Given that this is simply a hugely entertaining play to watch, it's a great introduction piece to live performance and also a good play to see if you don't make it out to very many. It's easy to watch and understand and the pace is quick and all of the scenes will set you smiling. I didn't really know what to expect from this one, but I ended up having a wonderful time. The play is running until the 28th, so there is still time to make it over.

Stone Grindz: Almond + Salt

While I've looked at the plain chocolate and even some of the new truffles from Stone Grindz, until now I hadn't yet tried any of their flavored chocolate bars. It was time to remedy that, so I'm starting off with the Almond + Salt bar. Salted almonds is a more standard flavor combination; I thought that would make this flavor a good place to begin.

By this point, I've already showed the Stone Grindz packaging and the shape of their chocolate bars. The only difference here is that you can see some of the almonds peeking out of the surface of the bar; on the back, there are even more almonds, including a couple of big pieces.

For any bar with this amount of crunchy elements, even when it's dark chocolate like this, it's more of the type of chocolate that you bite into and chew--no slow melting in this context. As such, you get the almonds and salt together at once, along with the chocolate that holds them together. The three work as a team in which the chocolate is the sweet element (despite being dark chocolate that doesn't taste particularly "sweet" when you taste it on its own), a warm and red little cushion for the other two elements. The almonds are the earthy element, coming in with their familiar flavor and that singular type of crunch. The salt is the tangy, lively element; it makes everything sparkle. There is just the right amount of it, as well: enough that you can noticeably taste it but not, you know, to the level of tortilla chip saltiness.

Stone Grindz is interesting to me because they have a particular combination of earthiness and sleekness to their style. As I try and place the style of this bar in my head, I come up caught between two places. On the one hand, almonds and salt can make for a casual chocolate bar, something that you might think of as more of a snacking chocolate, something you might even take with you on a hike. But then the chocolate has a taste of elegance. Sometimes with flavored bars, the chocolate has little flavor of its own; but here it's rich and warm even though you're eating through it so quickly.

I suppose then that the fact of it is this: here is a good chocolate bar with the right balance of three flavor elements. Wherever or whenever you want to eat salted almond chocolate, it's ready for you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Titles for the Fall

With fall, I would think that there would be plenty of stories to mention the fall harvest and that sort of angle. Plenty of them do mention the harvest briefly, but it usually doesn't seem to form the center of a story for the simple reason that the fall harvest is a good time and stories need conflict in order to have any sort of plot. So it's more common for stories to have an overall sense of the decay and overall windiness of fall than of the bounty of the harvest. At random, I've chosen three titles to touch on today.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe. I mentioned decay, so naturally I was thinking of this story. It's all about decay: the decay of the house and the decay of the people in it and the decay of the family in general. For a dark look at fall, this is the story. Since it's Poe, it naturally also ties in well with Halloween. More, though, than the "spooky" elements of the story, it's the elements of nature that he describes that make this story fit in so well with the atmosphere of a season of the weather.

Silas Marner by George Eliot. I don't remember if this short book focuses in particular on any one season. But the overall feel of it has always made me think of fall. Silas Marner is, in many ways, at the autumn of his life. He is no longer young and he has nothing to make him look forward to the next day--and when he loses his gold, he loses all his happiness. Yet he finds a new kind of gold in the form of a gold-haired child who falls into his lap and becomes a daughter to him. The color gold, simply, is reminiscent of autumn because it's the color that many green leaves turn. And the sense of the old that will soon be replaced by the young is very much like the changing seasons: the blooms and green grasses and leaves fall and fade away in autumn to make way for fresh ones to come in spring.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Probably this book has more of winter in it than spring, but it feels more like fall. There is so much talk about the wind and the isolation and the moors and the wind, all of these harsher elements of weather. And then there is Heathcliff. He is Nature, this inexplicable and unstoppable force, this harsh element of weather that rushes in and takes over for a season before fading away again. He's too alive to be winter; instead, I think of him as fall (winter is his death). Here is a combination of the previous two titles in the sense of darkness and seasons that will change.

From a daily perspective, no, I don't think of fall itself as dark. It's an exciting time, when the weather cools off enough to start going outside again more often (or at more times of the day). While the wildflowers of spring are beautiful, so can be the dry grasses of autumn. And with the holidays coming up, you start getting a nesting feeling that takes you into the short days of December. So, no, I don't think of fall as dark; it's just that there are some wonderful dark elements to books that focus on the changing of seasons.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Force Doth Awaken

You know, if the William Shakespeare's Star Wars series wasn't so well done, then it would seem ridiculous to continue doing a new book for each movie; Ian Doescher, however, handles it all so that I do in fact remain eager for more.

The Force Doth Awaken is the latest. What makes this one a little more, shall we say, precarious, is that we're still in the middle of hearing this story. The other episodes could have references to what was coming next or to what a character might be thinking at a certain moment (but that audiences at the time the movie came out might not have known yet), but The Force Awakens is the only piece of the puzzle we have for the new trilogy. So in many ways that did limit what this book could do. It's almost more in that regards like the first Shakespeare's book. That book was more about translating the movie's dialogue into Shakespearean language. As the books continued, they grew, filling out with soliloquies and other lengthy bits and numerous references to particular passages in Shakespeare. Because the content of this episode is still ambiguous, there couldn't be as much of that type of content, so this book does go somewhat back to the older style of just changing the language (though I think in a much more complete way than that first book did). Example: we don't I think really know everything Kylo Ren was thinking (or the precise reasons behind what he says or does) in moments like the interrogation scene or the final lightsaber duel, so when this book did add to the dialogue it could only add obvious things that we do know for certain (like his surprise at finding out Rey's strength in the Force).

All of this isn't to say that Ian Doescher didn't take advantage of some opportunities to wax poetic. In particular, when Han approaches his son and later when Leia senses Han's loss. Oh, and I do love that the "balcony scene" in the film becomes an actual balcony scene in this book. The balcony scene being Rey standing up above Han and Kylo on Starkiller Base (for anyone interested in that particular Rey/Kylo theory).

You know, a thought occurred to me while reading this book. You know how some people are hoping that Rey isn't in fact related to any of the familiar characters? I realized that if their theory is correct and Rey is just a person (as opposed to Luke's daughter or Leia's daughter or Obi-Wan's daughter or Anakin reincarnated or Phasma's daughter, etc.), then that means two things. One, it shows that everyone is important. Two, when Anakin and Luke's lightsaber flies to her instead of to Kylo, it shows that we all have a personal choice about who we decide to be. Kylo is Luke's nephew and Anakin's grandson, but the lightsaber aligns with the light side and he has chosen the dark side, so it shuns him. Rey is currently on the light side, so it accepted her based on that association despite the blood connection with Kylo. Perhaps Rey will turn out to be related to the Skywalker line (or there will be another connection), but I like this concept that it was the choice of alignment that allowed her to take the saber. And it was the way that the dialogue comes out in this book that made me think of that.

So, yes, I am still having a good time with these books. They're quick reads, too, which is probably also what helps. They're not overdone; they're just right. And like with the other more recent ones, there really isn't much comedy to it anymore. It's fun and it's serious. (Well, there was a bit of comedy with the two stormtroopers talking about the repetitive nature of Star Wars stories--that was lovely.) And you also don't really need to read all of them; you could just jump in and read only this one (or this one first and the rest later).

Friday, October 13, 2017

Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company: Waffle Cone Caramel Milk Chocolate

Back to the shelves of World Market. Currently they're selling some offerings from a company named Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate Company. I'll say it once and then no more: I do think that name is a bit ridiculous. While the Waffle Cone Caramel Milk Chocolate that I chose to try first didn't appeal to me too much in the store, at home it is in fact rather appetizing as a dessert milk chocolate.

The style of the card box has quite a bit going on but tends to look simpler than it is because of all the neutral tones: white, tan, and brown. The food photography is fine. I do like that the Fair Trade logo is there but the packaging otherwise doesn't make a big deal out of it (the company converted to fair trade chocolate in 2014, a decision I'd love to continue see happening with more companies). I don't, however, like the "craft chocolate" label up on top: it should be obvious from a chocolate's traits, not its labels, that it's craft chocolate (and actually I don't know that I would call this bar craft chocolate, so trying to call it something that it isn't hurts my impression of a product rather than improves it).

Inside of the box, the chocolate bar comes in a clear wrapper instead of foil. On one side, you can see a solid surface divided into eight squares. On the other side, there are sprinkles of ice cream cone pieces. The look of the clear wrapper plus the sprinkled cone reminds me of those chocolate bars that you can "design" yourself (you know, the ones where you go online and choose what ingredients you want them to throw on top). Or of chocolate bark. This is neither good nor bad.

The aroma? Vanilla, like the chocolate in a confection shop, all sweet and nostalgic like that scent on Main Street, USA in Disneyland. Ah, I do love Disneyland.

There is a surprise when you bite into this chocolate. No "the caramel flavor comes from the vanilla in the chocolate." No "crunchy caramel" that's more like toffee. No, no. Here there is in fact caramel inside of the bar. The caramel is inside of each square; it doesn't quite reach to the edges of the squares, so think of it as similar to the Caramel Ghirardelli Squares. I don't come across this use of caramel often. It's more of a candy bar approach to a chocolate bar, I guess, and yet it's for that very reason that I like the style.

In fact, I like the entire concept of this bar much more than I thought I would. The caramel gives you some chewy texture and some flavor for those moments when you don't get as much crunch from the pieces of cone (which, as you can see, aren't exactly evenly sprinkled since they sit away from the edges). The solid chocolate edges of the squares give you a little extra vanilla chocolate time for variation to it all. I just wish it all tasted better.

Don't get me wrong; it doesn't taste bad. It just doesn't taste great. The taste is nice as a casual chocolate, something you can eat quickly when it's a confection-type experience you want. But I just wish it were better. The chocolate is very light (there is no listed cocoa percentage), so it tastes more like sugar and vanilla than chocolate; this is, however, typical for confections. The caramel tastes similar to the caramel in Rolos, though certainly better and not nearly as rock hard as those candies tend to be. The ice cream cone pieces are typical ice cream cones: crunchy without much particular flavor. I think I'm fine with how the caramel is, though, and even the cone; it's the chocolate that I need to be better.

With that said, I'll still happily eat the rest of this bar, and if someone gave me another one I'd probably get excited to eat it, as well. Because we all do like to eat sweets sometimes and since I don't buy a lot of other sweets, milk chocolate is one of my sweets. I do think that the concept of this bar works well; if you look at it as a confection, it's good. If the chocolate were a little better, then the concept would be elevated into the gourmet candy bar type of zone.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Three Musketeers

What exactly is The Three Musketeers? There are politics and history to it (while Alexandre Dumas wrote the book in 1844, it takes place in the 1620's) and therefore also some of what you could call social commentary--but mainly it's just an entertaining story about a group of vain men who love duels, wine, and women.

It's almost a shame, then, that this book is a "classic," meaning that it gets grouped in with all sorts of other kinds of books, where the 700 page length of this particular novel likely deters many readers. Have no fear, though, reading 700 of Dumas's pages is nothing like reading 700 of Tolstoy's. I almost want to use the word "swashbuckling" to describe the adventures in this book--not because Musketeers are pirates but because there is that carefree attitude toward, well, as I mentioned, fighting, alcohol, and women. The Musketeers do get excited over a good duel, not at all fearing the possibility of death. They love a good meal and even if they only have enough money for dinner and the best bottle of wine, they will spend all of that money on one meal. And they do love their mistresses, not the less because it's usually these women who give them money to spend on their wine and horses and uniforms. It's all very entertaining to read, and Dumas writes at a quick pace; he isn't long-winded but rather just gets to the point.

That is, sometimes the political situation and all of the names can be a little much to take in, but this is where endnotes do help and are worth reading. They don't just provide extra info in this case: they help you along as you read.

This is one of those books that is either the easiest or the most difficult to summarize. It's so simple that for the first 500 pages it almost doesn't even seem to have a plot at all (in a good way, though). But then if you were to actually try and say everything that happens, it almost seems more complicated than it is to read in the book. I mention this because the reason that I finally got around to reading this book (I've been meaning to for a while) is that Southwest Shakespeare is going to be putting on a play based on it this month. So I am curious to see how they will convert this story into the roughly two hour space of a play. Wishbone, I might add, did a wonderful job of condensing the story into, what, a few minutes? Fifteen, maybe? But how do you do more than condense? What scenes do you allow to play out longer, and which characters do you keep and which do you remove? Like I said, it's a simple story to describe very simply but more difficult to describe somewhat simply.

It also doesn't have very much of a theme or message. The story just runs its course and then ends. You enjoy the fun while it lasts and that's it. I wonder if the play will give it more of a core. (Obviously I know that there are film versions of The Three Musketeers, as well, but I haven't watched any of them.) Hmm. You know, Dumas is an excellent example of the many, many reasons why a book will be remembered and still enjoyed years after it is written. Sometimes we like to talk bad about popular books, books that we ourselves enjoy; I guess it makes us feel smart to say that certain books aren't "very good." But a book isn't a pleasure to read just by accident, and sometimes books are remembered for the simple reason that they're entertaining reads--and that's perfectly fine.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Arizona Opera, First Friday, & Aria Jukebox

We had Ballet Arizona's Ballet Under the Stars a couple of weeks ago, and this past weekend was Arizona Opera's Aria Jukebox--it's a wonderful time to be living in the city.

This was their first time putting on this event, which they did as part of the First Friday collection of things that go on every month in Phoenix. The concept was this: as you walked in, you received tokens that you could then use to vote for a selection of songs for the evening. There were five singers there, along with a pianist to accompany them. The setting, then, was completely different from usual. Instead of a large audience at the grand Symphony Hall, we were a small audience gathered in a fairly regular-sized room at the Arizona Opera Center. This meant that it was more casual and that we were all much, much closer to the singers.

They mixed in some short Q&A with the songs, so this event was also a chance to get a glimpse about what it's like to work in this field. This was, then, one of those times when you were able to see the performer as opposed to the character (when they're singing in an opera up on stage). That is, they still became characters when they sang. I might have expected that since we were just going to hear an assortment of songs (from operas and musicals and even a couple from Elvis and Elton John), all we were going to hear were songs sung. But in fact these people aren't just singers--they are performers, and they brought that entrance into character even into free-standing songs. This style of acting as well as singing was also something that someone asked about during the Q&A, and hearing their discussion on the topic (mentioning that American audiences now expect this style) particularly interested me given that the amount of acting in operas is one of the things that has really drawn me in and amazed me in these my early days as an opera attendee.

What was such a pleasure was to see so much talent and devotion encapsulated in one song at a time and directly in front of you. Arizona Opera puts on a wonderful production at Symphony Hall with all of the sets and costumes, but it was an entirely different experience just getting to see these performers singing up close. They are truly devoted to their craft, and with that kind of delivery they have complete control over their audience's emotions. I love it when performers bring me into that magical bubble of art.

And as a First Friday event, Aria Jukebox was free. What a gift to the community. So it does pay to stay in the know about what events are coming up where you live; when there are so many wonderful things going on and you start to get a taste for attending them, you hate to miss out on things. In fact, I thought I would skip Arizona Opera's first production of the season (coming up this month), but after Friday night I'm craving more from them, so I might just make it to that show, after all.

Friday, October 6, 2017

MilkBoy: Swiss White Chocolate with Bourbon Vanilla

After enjoying the White Chocolate I had from Green & Black's a couple of months ago, I now find myself reaching for more white chocolate. World Market is currently selling a couple of bars from the Swiss brand MilkBoy. It's nice to see this brand there simply because World Market lately sometimes seems to be selling less foods from "around the world" than I think they should, given the store's name (this is one of the reasons why I don't review their store brand: that isn't the type of product I want to buy from them).

I've never seen MilkBoy before. I was also fairly unfamiliar with the UTZ Certified label on the back; it apparently denotes "sustainable cocoa farming." But what does that mean? After reading briefly on this type of certification, I found that not only does it require certain standards as far as the environment goes but also as to the living conditions of workers. Sure, it looks like it has its problems (what certification doesn't?), but it had me at "no forced labor or child labor." That's what I ask from cocoa products.

When I brought out the gold foil-wrapped bar, I was pleasantly surprised at how pretty it is. Eight squares come complete with decorative edges and a cocoa pod in the middle, half of them shut and half of them opened up to show the seeds/beans inside. And yet, I shouldn't have been surprised because the design of the card box on the outside is nice, as well. The silhouette artwork comes in simple black and white, celebrating traditional images of Switzerland; the space is filled without feeling cluttered.

The surface of the chocolate looks standard for a vanilla white chocolate (specifically, this is Bourbon vanilla): dark specks scatter across creamy white. The aroma is pretty buttery. If I'm comparing to Green & Black's, then it's important to note that their white chocolate has 30% cocoa while this one only has 26%. As far as taste, though, I can't say much: I would have to have the two side by side in order to really compare them. The thing about white chocolate is that its flavor is simple enough that, unless it's bad, there isn't much to remember in particular once it's gone. This isn't a criticism; it's just a fact. There is less to taste.

What I can tell you is that I seem to have talked a lot about the vanilla flavor of the Green & Black's chocolate, but I don't feel like the vanilla here is particularly strong. Yes, it's there, but I'm describing this one as tasting primarily buttery and milky. Interestingly, though, I also find it more buttery and milky than sweet--and I did call the Green & Black's white chocolate very sweet. So perhaps the two white chocolates are rather different, after all.

I still have that feeling of vanilla ice cream without the ice. And I still don't find this chocolate chalky. That makes me wonder if white chocolate isn't really chalky, after all. Maybe I had memories of cheap white chocolate that was chalky that made me think it was all that way? Or maybe white chocolate is so scarce that in my earliest memories of it, I was so unused to white chocolate that I found it chalky just compared to whatever other chocolate I was used to eating at the time?

Hmm. My first memories of white chocolate. I remember eating white chocolate alligators that we got at the white alligator exhibit at the zoo. Later, there was the Cookies & Cream bar from a set of Ghirardelli bars that came in a blue velvet bag (a bag that I still have, twenty years later). Those two instances are all I can think of: any other "white chocolate" I came across was probably that "candy coating" that sometimes gets called white chocolate when it really isn't chocolate at all.

Setting aside my white chocolate memories and returning to the chocolate, I find myself wondering again why white chocolate isn't more popular. It's incredibly easy to eat, being sweet and creamy and lightly rich, while also straightforward and simple in flavor. I am also curious how MilkBoy's milk chocolate tastes. It would be interesting to see what I think of the milk chocolate after first tasting the white chocolate, or if that particular order of introduction to a company's products affects my perception of the company's style.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Disney Boys - Part 2: Arthur

Click to read my introduction to this series and Part 1.

Our first jump in between movies is big. From 1940's Pinocchio we're moving all the way to 1963's The Sword in the Stone, which is a much bigger jump than when I went from 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 1950's Cinderella. I wished at first that I had a movie to represent the 50's, but it turns out that The Sword in the Stone was close enough to that era to capture some of its essence, after all. In fact, there are definitely some similarities between Arthur and Cinderella--and between Arthur and 1959's Aurora/Sleeping Beauty. 

Like Pinocchio, Arthur is primarily just a boy. Interesting to note that while the Disney princesses are mostly teenagers (that is, young women who could easily be anywhere in the range of fifteen to twenty-five), the male side of films starts off with younger children. Pinocchio was about, what, eight or nine at the most? Arthur is around twelve, and physically he's on the young side, still thin and coming into his own. A child, not quite a young man yet. 

When I said that he's primarily just a boy, I meant his personality, too. Not entirely unlike Cinderella, he's defined more by certain things that he says or does than by a general sense of who he is or what he would choose to spend his time doing. That is, his personality is just that he's good. He takes to Merlin's guidance right away because he is perfectly willing to submit to a higher, positive authority. And when Merlin uses his magic to do the kitchen duties, Arthur begins to protest by telling him, "I'm supposed to do it." So he's honest--and even though Sir Ector and Kay don't treat him well, he spends absolutely no time complaining that this isn't fair. He just does his duties and looks forward to possibilities (becoming a squire). 

In this way, he is completely like Cinderella, except perhaps more practical and less dramatic. He even sings while he's cleaning (a pot in the kitchen instead of the foyer floor). I guess, while Cinderella has lived a different life, this life is all Arthur knows. All he knows is being a servant, so to him there is nothing shameful or negative about looking forward to being a squire (true that Cinderella doesn't even have a higher level of servitude to look forward to). He doesn't need to dream about far off castles because, like he tells Merlin, he doesn't "have any problems." 

Not to say that Arthur is completely subservient. Because he is honest and good, he recognizes Merlin as good right away and is even willing to stand up to Ector on Merlin's behalf. He doesn't ever attempt to stand up for himself (I don't think the thought even occurs to him), but he is quick to defend Merlin. 

I made the comparison between Arthur and Aurora because both of their stories contain this concept of royalty that cannot be hidden. Aurora is regal despite being raised as a peasant girl in the middle of the woods. And Arthur is the king in the guise of a servant. Both of them have a hidden identity, a secret that can't be contained by mere physical traits/surroundings.

The biggest difference between Arthur and any of the princesses is surprisingly (for me, at least) hard to admit, though it's so big. The Sword in the Stone is all about education, something that isn't really emphasized for any of the princesses, though possibly in part because education doesn't always make for the most interesting story. Think about it--whose favorite Disney movie is The Sword in the Stone? I'm sure a couple of people would name it, but in general it isn't one of the top films. (And I'm not counting Belle's story as being about education. Yes, Belle liked to read and her conversation with Gaston, who was disgusted by the idea of a woman getting ideas and thinking based on her reading, did veer toward the concept of education. But in general Belle's reading is more her passion and her escape than a quest for knowledge and "bettering herself.") 

Right away, Merlin comes in and looks at what Arthur has been studying (the "sporty" side, with jousting and swordsmanship and the like) and says that what he needs is an education. So Merlin, through these various trips turning into animals, teaches Arthur about different perspectives and about how all of the pieces can come together in a situation. He's constantly emphasizing that "knowledge and wisdom is the real power." Whereas for the princesses, goodness is most important, Merlin believes that Arthur will act out goodness if he has a foundation in knowledge. 

So while Arthur might not have the most exciting film of them all (if you're watching the two of them turn into fish and birds and wondering when you finally get to the sword in the stone bit), his story does emphasize positive traits, including that theme of education that none of the others really stress. Honesty, diligence, and the ability to listen and learn make up Arthur's character. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Contemplating Glory

Two nights ago I dreamed that this world was coming to its end, but I was okay with that because I was touching Heaven.

"I had a dream that we were dead but we pretended that we still lived, with no regrets, we never bled, and we took everything life could give, and came up broken, empty-handed in the end. . . . I had a dream that fire fell from an opening in the sky, and someone warned me of this hell, and I spit in his naive eye and left him crying for my soul, he said we're dying. In the hearts of the blind something you'll never find is a vision of the light." - "This Close" from Memento Mori by Flyleaf

The "light" is not generic, it's specific, and sometimes maybe we don't see it because we're looking for it in the wrong places.

"We're not going to fall and forget how far you went to pick us up. If one part's hurt, the whole body's sick. If one part mourns, we all mourn with it. Rejoice, and we'll sing with you, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Beautiful bride, body of Christ, one flesh abiding, strong and unifying, fighting ends in forgiveness, unite and fight all division. Beautiful bride." - "Beautiful Bride" from Memento Mori by Flyleaf

Life and light spring from one source, and if on that source you turn your eyes, then you'll feel the light, too.