Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Sleeping Beauty at School

I am very late with this post because of Thanksgiving. So we'll just pretend that I'm not a week late (the performances of this post's subject were the weekend/week before Thanksgiving).

Said subject is The School of Ballet Arizona's production of Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty. I've been to a couple of Ballet Arizona's professional productions before, but never to one of the school's shows. I wouldn't have even been curious enough were if not for the fact that this season it was Sleeping Beauty. That music makes Disney's film version of the story unique and colorful and positively endearing to me, and I unfortunately couldn't make it to Ballet Arizona's (professional) production of this ballet a year or two ago--so I jumped at the chance to even see "just" the school's version.

I'm glad I did. For anyone who enjoys the full productions, seeing one by the school at least once is a must. It's a completely different experience. Instead of being at Symphony Hall, it's in a comparatively small space at the School of Ballet AZ itself. A much smaller audience (packed in more closely) and a much smaller stage. And you're right next to the stage, probably closer than if you were sitting in the front row at Symphony Hall. So you can see the dancers' faces and your attention tends to go more towards the technicality of the movements instead of just to the shapes formed by everyone onstage. It's a very different view.

The backdrop, though simpler, was still nice. And the costumes were still elaborate. The dancers were from various different levels, each performing according to their ability. That is, the very young dancers had smaller pieces or little group pieces (where they did all look cute in their costumes). The next levels up were pretty impressive: this is a good school. Even young dancers were so precise. And when some of the younger performers didn't quite hit their marks, I was enjoying watching them, anyway, because I got more of a glimpse into the work that it takes to reach precision. There were also dancers from the Pre-Professional and Professional Programs and the Studio Company; they took the weightier, more challenging roles. So you still get to see excellent dancers as Aurora, Carabosse, etc. What you're seeing is what it took for dancers like these to get to this place.

And Tchaikovsky? Didn't disappoint. Of course, the audio was played over a speaker system instead of being performed live by the Phoenix Symphony (one day I'll get the chance to hear that), but they do put the music nice and loud. In fact, more places should blast Tchaikovsky; that was wonderful. If I were a musician, I would explain why I like his music. I can only say that it's tangible and that it creates images, images connected with emotions.

So yes, this was a ballet worth seeing, and no, the School's productions aren't just for families of the dancers. They're an opportunity to sit up close to the action and get a different view on performance.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Puccini's Tosca

For more of a classic opera, this month Arizona Opera turned to Puccini's Tosca, directed by Tara Faircloth. Given how much I enjoyed Madama Butterfly last season, more Puccini sounded very welcome.

Indeed it was. His music has long and sweeping sounds, where emotions soar up into the notes that the performers sing. And the score, performed by the Phoenix Symphony, had such resonance that it reminded me of early film scores--for some reason, I kept on thinking of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Maybe it's that dramatic quality. This was a very dramatic opera, and it felt like I was simply watching theatre, not specifically "opera." When the characters sang, everything felt a thousand times more natural than the singing in most musicals (most musicals, by nature of their form and genre, have a "false" feeling about them).

That is, the story and the lines are all, as I mentioned, extremely dramatic. Over the edge dramatic, but in a good way. In a way that made everything feel completely immersive. And the way that it is all put together pulls you, the audience, into this heightened level in which you experience art as a fluid and tangible substance.

Hmm. This is why I consider posts on shows and books and movies reactions rather than reviews. I don't feel led to comment on the sets or the costumes or the particular talents of each performer or any of that. To my eye/ear, all of that was wonderful, so I have little to say in terms of regular review content. Instead, I just wanted to share what I came away with. I have nothing to say except that this production was one of the unmissable ones.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Wei of Chocolate: Wei Gratitude

Wei of Chocolate was one of the local companies at the Chiles & Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden last weekend. It's been so long since I had more to choose from in their products than just the little bowl of individual chocolates at Nectar Apothecary in Prescott that I didn't know how to go about choosing (the 30-piece assortment was too big for my purposes). I did get a sample of the lavender chocolate, which was lovely and felt very classic Wei. But I ended up buying the Chai Spice Dark Chocolate because I was curious how their approach would be to this flavor.

Everyone makes chai tea in different ways, depending on what combination of ingredients they use and which flavors they emphasize most. Wei of Chocolate has that hippie vibe and style that is generally most focused on awareness of the moment--which is why the lavender chocolate felt so classic for them. I wondered how they would handle the stronger, highly flavored characteristics of chai. I hadn't ever had something from them with such a strong flavor addition, yet the more natural values of the company probably would mean that the individual flavors in the chai would be fresh and of good quality.

As usual for Wei of Chocolate (unless you're just buying pieces individually), the eight chocolates come in a clear cylinder. These cylinders have always baffled me: probably they have a specific reason for using this type of packaging, but I would expect a company like this to use maybe a paper bag or a mini box instead. Again per usual, the chocolates come wrapped in foil, this time in golden yellow to match the cylinder's yellow label; each flavor has a color and golden yellow is the color of the Chai Spice, also known as Wei Gratitude. This is the flavor that's supposed to help you take a break to enjoy the moment.

As soon as I unwrapped the foil to reveal the little chocolate flowers (which are roughly the size of a quarter, though of course much thicker), I caught that warm spiced smell of chai, or cinnamon and cardamom. Now, the label says to let these melt in your mouth without chewing (they are, after all, the perfect bite size), but I don't find that that approach works well for the Chai. For other flavors, maybe (for the lavender, sure), but not for the chai--at least not for me. When I tried that, I just got the peppery, spicy side of all the flavors, like strong ginger (even though there isn't actually any ginger in here).

I find it much nicer, with this particular flavor, to bite off just half of one of the flowers and then slightly chew the chocolate before letting it finish melting. This way, you give the chocolate a head start and let it work in its flavors at the same time as the chai spices. When you drink chai, the milk element keeps everything aligned with creaminess and a sense of sweetness; in this case, the chocolate is in place of the milk, so it serves that same type of purpose in grounding all of the strong spices. The effect, still, is more on the spicer rather than sweeter side of chai (chai always does sit closer to one end or the other--I admit that I usually prefer the sweeter chai rather than the spicier chai). Particularly strong is the cardamom.

In addition to the usual ingredients like cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves, Wei of Chocolate has also added in their own flower blend to help give that calming effect. I can't say that any of that comes across in the flavor that I noticed, but a warm chocolate like this does indeed bring up that cozy fall/winter feeling.

Probably just because I tend to like sweet chai, I would like to see a milk chocolate version of this, as well. I don't picture, however, that Wei of Chocolate would make a milk chocolate, even if they used a milk alternative (like more and more companies now are starting to do). And it isn't that such a product is necessary; this chocolate, though dark, is only at 68% cocoa content, so it's still light and sweet enough to keep the chai spices warm (as opposed to being so dark as to weigh everything down). Just the thing to have now that we're moving deeper into November and then on into December.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Black Mesa Ranch: Dark Chocolate Goat's Milk Fudge

Sometimes I don't even know if I have anymore interest in fudge these days. Fudge, being like candy and a brownie put together, is a rather nice sweet. The problem is just that, because of my chocolate reviewing, I've been coming into contact with so much chocolate over the last decade (much of it very good chocolate) that I have less interest in mediocre chocolate. This is why, when it comes to desserts at restaurants, I'm more likely to get excited over a wine cake than a flourless chocolate cake: I get enough chocolate already. And when sometimes I'm with other people and we pass by a shop with fudge, fudge sounds great but I sometimes end up not wanting to eat much of it after all.

But Black Mesa Ranch's table at the Chiles and Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden caught my interest for three reasons. One, it's a product made in Arizona (Snowflake isn't quite local for me, but still) and not just for a big chain. Two, it's made with goat's milk. Three, this fudge has much simpler ingredients than, um, many other fudge products. That means cane sugar, butter, goat's milk, Belgian cocoa, vanilla, and salt. I don't care about the fact that it's Belgian chocolate. Usually the Belgian chocolate that makes it to the U.S. (I've never been to Belgium myself) is just mass-produced chocolate of not particularly high quality. And quality aside, I would like to see local chocolate used in this fudge because that would really go well with the local goat's milk (now that we have chocolate made in AZ, which, depending on when they started, may not have been the case when Black Mesa started making fudge). That, however, is my one complaint. (Black Mesa Ranch, by the way, also sells award-winning goat cheese and other dessert products like cajeta, fudge sauce, and chocolate candies/confections.)

Otherwise, I'm very happy with this fudge and just wanted to give it a quick nod. As you can tell by now, I chose the Belgian Dark Chocolate fudge. They did have fudge with chiles (which I suppose I should have at least tried a sample of), but given what I said last week about my hesitancy with chile chocolates, I decided to just stick with the basic fudge. It comes in a simple gold box that has more of a design to it than is generally the case for fudge. So that's nice.

I did wonder if this fudge would have that "goaty" taste that goat milk and goat cheese (and that one goat cheese truffle that I got in Santa Fe) have. It does not, so if that's a concern for you, don't be concerned. What it does taste like is chocolate and cream. I feel like this is a lighter and creamier fudge than the standard fudge, which tends to be more dense and heavy. Though it's labeled as "dark," I wouldn't say that it's very dark. It seems more of a standard chocolate level to me.

This being fudge and fudge simply being fudge, there isn't much more to say--just that this fudge does taste better than other fudge. Whether that is due more to a limited ingredients list or better quality ingredients or even to the use of goat's milk, I can't say for certain. But I can recommend this fudge; simply the fact that I found it worth giving a review means that I am pleased. If I were to walk by this fudge, I don't think I would hesitate to agree that yes, we should get some to share. Fudge is all fudge? Yes--and no. They are not all alike.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Beren & Luthien: The Heart of Tolkien

I am rather late to the party here. While I was extraordinarily excited to learn that a Beren and Luthien book was coming out this (past) summer, here I am not even getting to the book until fall. That, however, is the wonderful thing about fiction: it exists outside of time and the story is always there, replaying itself, ready for whenever you're ready.

The story of Beren and Luthien most Tolkien fans know from The Silmarillion. If you have never braved reading The Silmarillion (it can be intimidating to read for the first time), then the story of Beren and Luthien is a wonderful incentive: it's one of Tolkien's best stories, despite the fact that it doesn't appear in "full" form. That is, we don't have a novel about Beren and Luthien. And no, this new publication is not, like The Children of Hurin from a few years back, the story told in novel form.

As Christopher Tolkien writes, there is no new material in this book and most of it is previously published in things like The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales. What the book is is a look at how Tolkien's handling of this story developed over time and in the various forms. So you get to see how he first wrote it and then later changed it and how he wrote it in verse and so forth. For Tolkien enthusiasts and also people interested in writing, the way that Christopher Tolkien has arranged this book is fascinating. I don't know, however, that this book, being more of a study than just a story, would be a good first introduction to the story for someone who hasn't read The Silmarillion yet. So bear that in mind.

The early version of the story is intriguing: it reads more like a fairy tale than like very specific "Tolkien fantasy" that we would all come to know. Beren becomes almost a Cinderella character, working in the kitchens of Melko (later Melkor, Morgoth). And if you've never read of Tevildo Prince of Cats (who later is, of course, completely removed from the story), that character alone makes this version of the story fun to read. The verse version is also quite nice to have. If it has been previously published, I don't know where that might be; it was new to me. Some of it is quite beautiful, displaying Tolkien's ability to describe images laced with nature and faerie. You could in fact, if you already know the tale of Beren and Luthien from other publications and you're not interested in reading about all of the details of the changes in the story, get this book just to read the verse form of the story.

And of course let's not forget about the beautiful illustrations from Alan Lee, whose work by this point feels so Tolkien to most of us that it feels like he is painting real images, not simply "his take" on the visuals of the text. Sadly, Christopher Tolkien writes that because he is now 93, this will probably be the last of the books of his father's writing that he edits. I had grown so used to new publications like this that this is a strange thought. Beren and Luthien, though, as he mentions, is indeed a fitting way to come to a close: these are the names that mark the graves of Tolkien and his wife, bringing fiction and real life to a meeting place.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Luke as a Legend

You know that story, right? When Lucasfilm was getting ready to make Episode VII, they all sat in a room and asked the question, Who is Luke Skywalker? That of course ended up leading to a film where we didn't see Luke until the very end, where he had "vanished" and various character were trying to find him again, and where we weren't entirely sure who Luke was anymore because he had obviously been through many things (some of which we know and some of which we don't know) since last we saw him. Luke, in our minds, is the legend of who he was--we don't know exactly who he is anymore.

And naturally, of course, Luke is also the audience/viewer. He is the one who sets out on the adventure and goes on the hero's journey. He is the one who is characterized more by what he does than who he is because his character is intentionally kept simple so that we can all picture being in his place.

Ken Liu's The Legends of Luke Skywalker launches from these two concepts. The book has a loose frame story with six legends that characters in this frame story tell one another. They're all stories about Luke. Sometimes we know that they're about him and other times we're not positive if they really are or not (it all goes with the concept of "who is Luke?). The first story, "The Myth Buster," is an over-the-top example of telephone: you know, when a story changes each time someone tells it so that everything is completely different by the time you get to it. I didn't exactly enjoy this story and I worried that they would all be like it, but then I realized that the book starts with this "untrue" story to establish the concept of legends. Legends aren't facts and they're not supposed to be; they're the truths of how people see the world around them. Legends are vehicles for our viewpoints.

The other five stories are good reads. They establish aspects of Luke's character or set up classic Star Wars themes."Fishing in the Deluge" and "Big Inside" hint at Luke's (post-Episode VI and pre-Episode VII) quest to learn more about the Force and the Jedi (this book is, after all, another part of the "Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi" series). And of course the frame story heavily references Canto Bight, which we've all been hearing about as one of the new locations in the film.

This book was made for young readers (I think the store shelved it with 9-12), so it's a quick read. Because it's quick and cool, I really recommend this one. Maybe I'm just partial to all the stories about walking across landscapes, but I thought this book was a lot of fun. It's kind of a shame that it was hiding out there in the children's section (where only people who already know that it's there will go to look for it) instead of out with the rest of the Star Wars things. They also made quite a nice hardcover out of it. The style doesn't completely match the usual, established looks: there is no dust jacket and the spine is red cloth. That makes me wonder if they're planning a companion book to this one (another "legends" book about a different character) or if they just wanted this one to stand out from the others.

Who is Luke Skywalker? He was the hero of the story for the audience of the story to relate to--but now the story doesn't belong to him anymore, so who has he become? He apparently didn't make a smooth transition from hero to mentor--or did he? Was he at fault as a mentor or did his pupil just make his own choice regardless of his teacher's good advice? The question is, on what did Luke base his actions? First he wanted adventure, then to help his friends and then the galaxy and then simply his father. So he is a helper. Now. Can he help Kylo? Can he help Rey? Can he convince them, like he convinced Vader, to choose the best of themselves at whatever cost?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Chile Truffles

Time to jump right in with the first of my findings at the Chiles & Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden (which is still going all weekend long--click here to read my post on the festival itself). Going in, I wasn't sure if the chiles and the chocolate would appear as separate ingredients or as combined elements. Turns out that while there was some mole and some of the vendors did have chile chocolates, most of the chocolate companies were just selling their regular products. Not that I mind: I shouldn't say this too loud perhaps, but I'm not generally a big fan of chile chocolates. I decided a little while ago that I don't like spicy food (mild to medium spice is fine, but I don't like my food to burn me), despite living in the Southwest (anyway, though, Southwestern food isn't all spicy). So the same goes for chocolate, especially given that strong spice can drown out all other flavors.

I did, however, pick up the two chile truffles that Zak's Chocolate had on offer, to get into the spirit of the festival and to see how they handled this flavor combination.

Cayenne Lime - This truffle is a simple square design with some salt on top. I may not love spice, but I do love salt and lime. Right away I tasted a sense of heat along with a taste of lime and a taste of chocolate and also some salt. The effect is quite lovely, a word I wouldn't have expected to use for a truffle with such striking flavors inside. The thing is, though, the cayenne is just a sense of warmth; it isn't really spicy. Obviously, everyone's spice tolerances are different, so what I describe as not being spicy another person might in fact find spicy. Still, I would categorize this spice level as very mild. After what I just mentioned, I'm counting this trait as a good thing. The cayenne doesn't overtake the truffle; instead, all of the flavors work together in a careful balance. The cayenne is the warmth and the lime is the zing and the chocolate is the creamy, cool, gentle element. Cayenne lingers in the aftertaste. I can get behind chile chocolate like this.

Chile Stout - Another square, this truffle comes with a bright chile design on top, which is very festive for Chiles & Chocolate. The stout is Arizona Wilderness Brewing Company's American Presidential Stout and the chiles are from Rhiba Farms. The flavors here are quite different from those in the Cayenne Lime. Rich chocolate comes in first, then a strong hit of the stout, then a sense of warmth from the chile, and then a rich fudge flavor to finish; once again, the aftertaste has chile warmth, this time with a tad of the stout, as well. The chile is by far (except perhaps for that first hit of stout) stronger than the stout; in fact, if you eat this truffle quickly, the stout will come in almost at the very end before quickly fading in favor of the chile. Not being a stout drinker (I think the only stout I've had was a chocolate stout that I bought for obvious reasons and then poured out without reviewing because I thought it was disgusting--sorry, stout lovers), I can't quite comment on how well this stout comes across and blends with the other flavors. The chile I will describe as being somewhat spicier than the cayenne was, though I still wouldn't necessarily call it spicy. Because it is stronger, however, if you're looking for more of just a chile chocolate, you might perhaps prefer the Chile Stout to the Cayenne Lime.

Myself, though? I prefer the Cayenne Lime for the simple reason that I like lime more than I like stout. The two truffles are nice to try together, whichever one you end up preferring. One is lighter, tangier, and creamier; the other is warmer, deeper, and richer.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Chiles & Chocolate Festival @ DBG

Somehow I have managed over the years to never attend the Chiles & Chocolate Festival at the Desert Botanical Garden. This year, however, it was so easy to stop by on the first day of the event, which is running today, tomorrow, and Sunday from ten to five (the garden itself is open for its usual, longer hours, of course).

Everything is set up around Boppart Courtyard. Fabulous Fine Food Catering (who provides the food for the garden's Patio Cafe) had some special foods available; given that they always do a great job with the Patio Cafe foods, I would expect that these are a perfect option if you want to stop for lunch. Outside you will also find a few of the less heat-sensitive booths. Salsa, tea, and mole. Organic cotton candy (that looked absolutely beautiful), which came in a few flavors including chocolate and some sort of a chile chocolate combination. The majority of the booths, however, are inside the hall. All that chocolate has to stay out of the sun, you know. (And you'll have to forgive my lack of good pictures. I'm not very good at taking pictures in busy, packed-full-of-people events like this.)

On the chile side, there were some more salsas and spices and things like that, including some tempting-looking tamales (why did I get chocolate? I should have just bought tamales--I'm kidding, I don't regret the chocolate). There were all also pickled foods, honey, peanut butter (from PB Americano, a company I've reviewed before), and gelato. What's nice is that because the even it small enough to allow for it, your little info flyer has all of the companies listed on the back. So if you didn't feel like buying tea or spices at the festival but you want to remember the name of a company for the future, it's all right there.

Nothing against chiles, but I went for the chocolate and I feel like I wasn't the only one. The local companies showed up with some great booths. Zak's Chocolate was there with both bars and truffles and some displays about how they make their chocolate. Stone Grindz had a beautiful table set up with their bars and lots of cocoa pods. Wei of Chocolate had quite a few flavor options out. XO Confections had a big case full of chocolates (I didn't end up buying from them, though, because I was trying to limit myself and what I need to do is make it over to their shop sometime). And The Chocolate Smith was there from New Mexico; I had hoped to get some of their wax-covered ganache chocolate (they called them chocolate pate), but they just had bark, truffles, nuts, etc. Still, there was plenty to choose from. Now, I may have tried products from all of these companies before, but not everyone has. So an event like this is a great opportunity to get everyone all at once and just get familiar with what chocolate is around, particularly with the local companies.

There were also some companies new to me. While I've heard of Nutwhats, I've never tried their products before (I also thought they only made candy/confections, so the bean to bar chocolates caught my eye). And Black Mesa Ranch had some great goat milk fudge (they also had nuts and dessert sauces) for sale. I say that it was good because I have tried it already. Another nice thing about this event. You only have to pay admission to the garden (so it's free if, like me, you already have garden membership). Usually it's only paid ticket events that have plenty of samples available (which is completely understandable). Here you do have a chance to try before you buy, whether that's to see if the style of a company is what you're looking for or just to choose which flavor you want.

The current weather is a bit warmer than it was a week or so ago, so while the chocolate is for sale indoors, do remember that you're still going to need to walk outside with it (unless you're only buying chocolate to eat right, right away). So if you want to walk around the garden, too, or sit outside having lunch, do so before you buy your chocolate. Still worried? Zak's Chocolate has you covered. They had some of the small, brown, insulated bags that they sell at their shop at their booth (the price is $5, by the way); that should help protect your chocolate from the sun.

I walked out with three bars, two truffles, some fudge, a cylinder from Wei of Chocolate, and some Oaxacan hot chocolate. I don't even know if that's a lot or not. It will dominate my reviews for a while: at my usual pace, all of that would take seven weeks to get through. Given that Christmas is coming up and I might also be reviewing some holiday findings (I wouldn't mind some Thanksgiving offerings, too, if I can find any), I will likely have to double up on the reviews in the coming weeks. So we have that to look forward to. For anyone who's local, I do recommend stopping by the Chiles & Chocolate Festival this weekend. It's a great chance to see all of these companies and stock up your chocolate stash. There are also some food presentations (including one by the chef of Elote Cafe in Sedona) and dance performances scheduled throughout the weekend, so there is plenty to do if you want to stick around.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Disney Boys - Part 3: Mowgli

Click to read my introduction to this series, Part 1, and Part 2.

From 1963's The Sword in the Stone, we are moving on just a couple of years or so to 1967's The Jungle Book. This film is a bit like 1951's Alice in Wonderland in the sense that Mowgli, like Alice, is essentially just wandering around a land and meeting different types of characters--but Mowgli does have more characterization than Alice does, so we have at least enough of a sense of who he is for this post. 

The obvious trait to bring up, though, doesn't have to do with Mowgli's character but rather with his physical self. The story takes place in India, meaning that Mowgli's the first non-white character in this series, even though we're still in the sixties. It took until the nineties for the Disney princesses to start gaining some racial diversity. So that's cool that the boys got a head start in this area (interestingly, I count both five non-white characters in this series and in the princess series). 

Like Pinocchio and Arthur, Mowgli is just a boy, not a teenager like the princesses are. Like Aurora, though, he grew up outside of "his" homeland and within Nature. Instead of being raised by fairies, though, he's raised by wolves. The thing is, though, The Jungle Book turns everything around: instead of Mowgli's upbringing being evidence of wildness, it is evidence of innocence. He is raised to respect Nature and the animals within it, rather than loving hunting and guns like Man (when raised among his own kind) does. 

Mowgli, then, is a completely positive character. Just look at him interacting with the other animals, for instance. He observes them and sees how they do things and then joins in. He's friendly and interested in learning others' ways. He talks to the young elephant before joining in the elephant march. He quickly starts up a mentor/apprentice relationship with Baloo. Near the end of the film, when he is feeling sad and betrayed, the vultures, by acting friendly to him, remind Mowgli of who he is: a friend to everyone who accepts him. 

The reason Mowgli is so friendly with so many different types of animals is that he sees what they all have to offer. When Bagheera comments on Mowgli's ineptitude at climbing a large tree, Mowgli explains that it's because he doesn't have claws like Bagheera does. He's smart, and he's able to recognize individual strengths--and to try and imitate any strengths that he sees. 

Mowgli is brave, too. Because the jungle is the only home he's ever known, he stands up to Bagheera and says that he wants to stay and isn't afraid of Shere Khan. This isn't just words, either. When he does finally face Shere Khan, Mowgli doesn't run: he prepares to fight instead. And when the vultures try and get him away to safety, he protests, "Let go--Baloo needs help." He won't flee just to save himself when he knows his friend is in danger. 

Not that Mowgli is entirely without fault. He does fall for King Louie's offer. But he also learns from misjudgments. The second time Kaa tries to get him, Mowgli knows what's happening and knows not to trust Kaa. And Mowgli is, after all, just a child, so it's natural (well, it would be at any age, too, honestly) for him to misjudge some situations. 

It's the princesses who are known for making friends with animals, but Mowgli quite literally talks to and befriends animals--and not in the casual way of Snow White or Aurora. He talks with them and shares in their stories and gets to know them, so much so that they are willing to risk their lives to save him. That makes Mowgli, first and foremost, a friend, which is not a bad trait at all. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

The "Unmentionable" Side of Victorian Living

Usually it isn't useful to directly compare two very different pieces of fiction. Such a comparison, however, can sometimes be helpful for non-fiction. After having recently read Ruth Goodman's How to Be a Victorian, I was curious to see how Therese Oneill's Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners would compare. Obviously Goodman's book covered more ground, but I was interested to see how the two writers approached the same topics.

Now, both the title and physical copy (with its cover photo and bright pink spine) of Oneill's book let readers know right away what style and tone she's going for: sensational. If, then, either the title or look of the book turn you off, you easily know that this isn't the book for you. She chooses to focus not on providing an overview of Victorian living but on the scattered, scandalous details that might make for entertaining or shocking reading. She tries to shock her readers.

Primarily, then, this book goes in the humor category more than the history category. In the beginning of the book, Oneill herself admits that she's going to jump around from topic to topic instead of following a straight path (like Goodman, for instance, did). And boy does she jump around. She says that she'll be focusing on the upper class but then she keeps on bringing up situations that would not apply to upper class women at all--but only readers who already know this will always pick up on this fact. That became a bit annoying: she focused on the social side of the upper class while also acting like those women needed to do all of the hard work that women of lower classes did (when in reality they didn't and the lower class women didn't have the same social standards to have to adhere to). Not that this book directly gives false information; it just sometimes implies false images. This, of course, leads up to the final chapter, in which Oneill admits that she has been exaggerating. ??? Then what's the point? Disrespecting dead women so we can all have a good laugh at them?

That's just how humor is, though. Either it's your style or it isn't. As you can tell, this book wasn't really my style (as I knew going in that it probably wouldn't be). But I did want to hear what she had to say. 

The thing is, this book makes for easy reading. While Goodman's book was slow reading because it was so dense and so full of information, this book is 400 pages of not-densely-packed-words with plenty of headings and pictures that take up space on the pages. And because of Oneill's humorous style, the pacing moves quickly. She mixes facts in with her commentary so that this book is a quick read. And it does have some good factual information mixed in. Of course, with a book like this, whether or not it's all new to you or it's mostly things you've heard before is just going to depend on your own previous reading experiences. I don't think I came across much that I hadn't heard before, except in certain of the details (she does go into further detail than some places do). When giving sources, she tends to favor showing quotes from people of the time because those sound more shocking to modern ears than simply explaining how something was done. So while you'll certainly learn something from reading this book, there are other books out there that will give you the same types of information without the humorous-at-the-expense-of-the-Victorians style, if that's what you'd prefer.

Mostly I objected to the concept of trying to put down an era and also say that our is so much better. She's the first person I've heard say that corsets (not tightened or barely tightened, of course) were less comfortable than modern bras (I've never heard anyone else say that modern bras are comfortable). And in the end she praises modern ibuprofen, tampons, and shampoo--okay, maybe we don't put arsenic in face cream anymore but we put plenty of other harmful ingredients in things like tampons and shampoo and makeup (and food) and even ibuprofen isn't exactly the type of thing you want to be using regularly. We fill the ocean with plastic straws and bags and sprinkle wood pulp on our pasta and use cookware and dinnerware with lead in it (think twice about those great dollar store prices) and put parabens and Red 40 on our lips and drink high fructose corn syrup (and Red 40, too) and eat chocolate and wear clothing resulting from slave-like conditions (if not actually slavery). And plenty of us don't even have the excuse of ignorance. Why are we or our lives so much better than the Victorians? (Obviously there are plenty of ways in which we have things "better," but my point is that every era has its positives and negatives.)

And the thing is, why does the mere fact that you're talking about chamber pots, periods, and attitudes towards sex need to be scandalous? Ruth Goodman covered the same topics in her book and maintained the same matter-of-fact style throughout. She calmly described, for instance, her experience trying out the delicate process of making condoms out of animal intestines; Oneill, on the other hand, expects you to be shocked just because she's talking about subjects that novels don't cover (I for one don't think that fiction needs to show characters in the restroom or taking care of periods, unless perhaps the plot has to do with health and so this is a detail the story needs to show). What's shocking about being alive, or about realizing that people in the past were alive, too? 

Sigh. I've ranted too long, haven't I? I guess you can always read this book as a conversation starter. It's the type of book that you can neither recommend nor not recommend (unless you already know someone's tastes): you just have to decide for yourself if it sounds like your style. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Zak's Chocolate: Haiti 70%

There I was, ready to choose the Madagascar bar, when suddenly I realized that the Madagascar could wait. I've had plenty of Madagascar origin chocolates; not that they're all the same, but I have had plenty of them (because cocoa from Madagascar has all of those wonderful fruity flavor notes). Chocolate sourced from Haiti, though, I see much less often. So today we're looking at the Haiti 70% bar from Zak's Chocolate (I'll get to the Madagascar bar at a later point).

Cheery gold flower shapes blossom out of the red paper that wraps up this bar. The bar itself also has a touch of that redness in it. Though I don't taste any floral notes in the chocolate, the aroma does seem to me to have a floral tone.

Instead of tasting floral, this chocolate tastes, in a way, earthy. In the beginning stages, there is a flavor of either wood or smoke; it seems to be not so biting as smoke, though. That flavor may develop into a slight floral taste for a moment before becoming slightly sweet--specifically that particular type of sweetness that stems from the flavor notes of the cocoa rather than added sugar. Everything grows more tender then, reminding me of grasses somehow; the flavors richen while also staying quite light. The finish is a light, tender hint of tang, and the aftertaste is of warm chocolate.

This is why I call this chocolate earthy: it reminds me of a place in nature. It doesn't taste bitter or too tangy or deep. It's more like water in a quiet pond, cool and clear and welcoming, a mirror or window for you to sit and stare into.

The lightness of this chocolate makes it quite different from other chocolates, and it's that difference from the usual that is drawing me in. Yes, this most definitely is dark chocolate and not milk chocolate but that lightness almost puts in mind more the concept of milk chocolate. The bar's tasting notes, by the way, explain that it "exhibits mild chocolate and light roasted nut flavors." Usually when a chocolate tastes primarily of cocoa, the general feeling is of richness, which has more of a deep than a light tone. So the fact that the cocoa here is so featherlight keeps fascinating me.

This is a chocolate that transports me and makes me think and makes me happy, and it's a chocolate that's easy to keep eating. Maybe I'm just excited to find a chocolate that feels so different from others, or I may have just stumbled on the chocolate that best matches me. Either way, this is another great installment from the Zak's Chocolate line.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Forty Years of Star Wars

The full title of this book is Star Wars from a Certain Point of View; it contains "40 stories celebrating 40 years of Star Wars." That being said, even though the 460 pages don't have very high word counts, this is a hefty book to get through. Forty individual stories by forty writers with forty different perspectives and almost as many different settings meant that at times I felt like I should be taking forty whole days to read this book. Though a few stories are either longer or shorter, most of them come in at around ten pages--which is quick to read, but that quickness also means that as soon as you start in with one story, you're on your way into the next, where you have to readjust to the new tone and narrator. This being that type of book and also being a special celebratory book release, you may want to allow extra time to let this one sink in instead of trying to rush through it.

When this book was first announced, I was a bit confused about the content. At first I thought it was going to be non-fiction. What it is is quite literally Star Wars (what those of us who weren't alive in the 70's know as Episode IV or A New Hope) from 40 different points of view--chronologically. So we start with Captain Antilles on the Tantine IV while the ship receives the Death Star plans, then move on to a stormtrooper who boards the ship, and then to an Imperial logistics liaison. We're seeing the same scenes that are in the film or we're hearing about the events in those scenes, but we're getting to hear about it from the perspective or side characters or other people who would have been involved even if they never appeared onscreen. The concept makes for a great way of celebrating Star Wars and revisiting familiar things in new ways.

The stories are quite varied. They all feature very different narrators. Some we know already by name (like Lando). Some we know by face (like the stormtrooper who told let Obi-Wan and Luke "move along"). Some we know from other Star Wars stories (like Aphra). Some are random. We usually get to hear backstories for the characters, which can be intriguing and very Once Upon a Time style. Some of the stories have more action, some have more drama, some have more philosophy. Some are better than others. And naturally different readers are going to have different favorites depending on what types of things we all respond to most.

I was so excited that Beru has her own story--but I have to admit that it slightly disappointed me. I had made up my own idea of Beru and this story didn't completely match mine. Beru was the soft and kind young woman (well, and later older woman) to whom hard work was like breathing, the woman (in my mind) who gave up having her own children to raise this little child who came into her arms. So I guess sometimes it's almost better to fill in the blanks on your own.

With that said, we did, however, cover plenty of fascinating ground. While I didn't love the tone in which Obi-Wan's story was written, I did enjoy the thoughts and scenes that we got to see there. And Yoda's story was great, particularly because we learned that he had hoped to train Leia and not Luke (it almost feels like a slight teasing for events in the sequel trilogy, where we now see Luke as troubled and possibly having failed and Leia as the strong, active leader).

Because these are just short stories, this book would be perfect for someone who doesn't usually read Star Wars book. You can read a little at a time or get more of an overview look versus having to focus on just one longer story. And of course it's a must-read for anyone who does normally the novels: it truly is a celebration of the types of things that we love.