Welcome to my official website. Here you will find information about me and my books, along with upcoming news.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Writing Adventures: Part 8

Click here for Part 7.

The Book

Some things take longer to complete than you had originally thought--and sometimes also you have less time to work on certain things than you had thought you would. I thought the book would be out by now--but it isn't. And that's just the way of it.

The Manuscript

I have this idea to include, in every book I write, at least a fragment of a short myth/legend that floats around in my head. It's already in the first book, in short and simple form. I'm writing it out in a little more detail for the next one--and then from there I'd like to try and include at least a quick reference to it with each subsequent book, just for the fun of it.

Actually, I wrote out the first "more detailed" version of this little legend while on the drive back from Phoenix one day (obviously I wasn't driving). There is something about flying across the land in the car and watching the landscape glide by that inspires this character in my mind. For this particular book, I want to connect this legend to other imagery that the main character is experiencing--dream imagery, in particular. I'm really developing in my head the idea of some magical realism elements here--I want to try something different. In a way, I want mythology to take over the story, for the real world to slowly fade in favor of the dream world.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 5

This is Part 5 (click here to read Part 4) of a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college. I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions; here are the ninth and tenth pairings and the conclusion.

Just as it is necessary to have a favorite in the candy bar world, so must I also have one in the gourmet world. At the beginning of conversations about chocolate, people always ask me what my favorite kind is or which is the best. I don't like choosing favorites, but I must have an answer prepared for so inevitable a question. I have mentioned E. Guittard and Theo, but my usual default answer has become Amano. Amano is everything a chocolatier ought to be, with the added benefit of being another American company. As with Theo, everyone to whom I have introduced Amano chocolate has shared my interest. Amano is artistic expression and attention to detail. All Amano dark chocolate bars come in glossy, black card boxes with a rectangular space reserved for a piece of artwork. Always, this artwork matches the tone of the bar inside. The Montanya bar features a muddy-colored painting of a tree, like something out of a lost and recently remembered adventure. Turn to the back of the box for a note from chocolatier Art Pollard about the making of the bar and for a description of the Venezuela plantation where he sourced this particular bar's cacao. Not of the least interest are the tasting notes Amano always provides, apricot and marshmallow in Montanya's case. These tasting notes prove helpful in examining the chocolate.

People are usually surprised to learn how many flavor notes chocolate can have, and Amano crafts their chocolate to express these notes so well that one person I gave Amano to thought that it actually was flavored, not plain, chocolate. That fullness of flavor is the beauty of Amano. Further, all of their dark chocolate bars are a standard level of 70% cacao, meaning that there will be no frightening bitterness for the uninitiated. Marshmallow does not sound like a cultured flavor, but marshmallowy sweetness here means something entirely different than in Rocky Mountain's chocolate. It is sweet for a dark chocolate, but with its own kind of sweetness, a sweetness that only helps make the chocolate approachable.

As diverse as chocolate can be, books are probably more so. While Amano has a wide appeal, there is probably no book that matches Amano's appeal and critical acclaim. But that matters little: these are my personal pairings, which will never be the same for any two people, even if there may be some overlaps. My progression to name Charlotte Bronte as a favorite author was similar to my naming of Amano; when people ask this question, they certainly do not want to hear Stephenie Meyer's name and likely not even Tolkien's. But Charlotte Bronte I can talk about: even if a person has never read her, he is likely to have seen one of the many movie versions of Jane EyreJane Eyre I speak of most often because Jane Eyre is all from Charlotte Bronte most people seem to talk about, as if, like her sister Emily, she had no other novels except the one. But that is okay for now: Jane Eyre I like. I read it for the first time in middle school and loved what a happy ending it had. Then, though I have never studied the book in a class, the world started throwing words into the discussion like "feminism," "fantasy," "Gothic," and "religious." At my own pace, I saw which words work and for what reasons; I analyzed something I had previously only enjoyed and thus enjoyed it the more. Now I delight that I will never be able to stop pondering meanings. If Jane Eyre were an Amano bar, it could be the Montanya, but might find a better pairing in the Cuyagua, which has feminine, fruity notes something like banana and also a pepperiness. Both are soft, vivid, and ultimately happy.

If there is a chocolate bar that made so much of an impression on me so long ago that I am wrong not to have tasted it since, it is the 100% Criollo bar from Pralus. It is fast approaching four years since my affair with this bar; four years ago, I had not tasted Amano, Theo, Kallari, and Valrhona, and had only just barely had my first Michel Cluizel chocolate. At this time of beginnings, the 100% offering from Pralus was completely new to me and I responded only with love and fervor. I have reason to believe, from the positive comments about Pralus I have since hears, that the bar truly is as wonderful as my memory of it, but how can I know for certain? All my evidence is in the comments I made four years ago. I know that the chocolate came first to my mouth with bitterness, but much unlike the Bonnet 100%, the bitterness faded into something cooler, sweeter, and even fresher. Instead of stopping at one or two pieces, I had four small squares, identifying their primary taste as chocolate. I wonder now if, today, I would pick up more flavor notes. But I may not have been wrong in this assessment, anyway: the Criollo beans, usually considered the best variety of cacao beans, from which this bar is made are fairly delicate in flavor and do produce the flavor we generally call "chocolate." The difference in the type of cacao beans alone may explain why I hated the one bar and loved the other.

Love. That is the identifier that can supposedly detect whether someone has read Wuthering Heights or just watched the movie: supposedly, they will sigh over the love story only in the latter case. I consider the situation more complicated. There is a love story to find even in the intensity of the Pralus bar, as there is in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's complicated Victorian novel. I certainly found it in both, though both were, respectively, my first 100% bar and a book I first read at the fairly young age of twelve. Love is an easier emotion to latch onto. I did not dwell on the initial bitterness of the chocolate, and I took the dark, Gothic elements and waves of hatred and blackness in the novel simply in stride. I let the story and the characters entertain me until I was capable, when I studied the book in college, to consider such things as symbols and analogies within the pages. This is why I wish for the chance to revisit the chocolate: I know I would bring more to the experience now, and how much better must it then be if it was so wonderful then?

Well, if I see one at a store, I will surely snatch it up instantly--and maybe someday, since I hardly expect this sighting to happen, I will purchase one online. Until then, the memory sustains me. It is the memory of the embodiment of the heart of the passion of the thing we call chocolate. It is chocolate at a full point in consciousness. And it is only through acknowledging all of the things that I love, all of the manifestations, however loose, of chocolate, that I can call even a single experience like this a positive one. Like the first long book I read or the first book I liked in defiance of critical commentary, any chocolate I eat becomes a brick that helps build my house of understanding and any that I enjoy becomes a part of a long chain of lovingly esteemed links.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 4

This is Part 4 (click here to read Part 3) of a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college. I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions; here are the seventh and eight pairings. 

Some things that come from the familiar place of memory take longer to define as special. A not so atypical American, I grew up around Hershey's bars, Kit Kats, Reese's Cups, Snickers bars, and Butterfingers. But it wasn't until I began making friends with the couture chocolate brand that I wanted to have ties to this Old World, too; I have no desire to be a chocolate snob, so I needed to keep friendships in all the categories. Kit Kats may be far from the luxurious and sensual sides of chocolate, and may not even contain the highest quality chocolate or wafers. But those shiny, red packages are hard to ignore. While a solid chocolate can be defined by the quality of the "snap" it makes when broken, Kit Kats have their own version of the sound, which comes accompanied by the primal pleasure of personally shattering the neat row of wafers. The luster of the chocolate coating each one is dull, and the buttery Hershey's aroma, also belonging to many other candies, does not interest me. But I do enjoy wafers. The Kit Kat's crunch is more hollow and less crumbly than some, with the chocolate adding the necessary element of softness to the whole. Contentedly, I ignore imperfections, thinking only about the balance that even Hershey's chocolate, layered just thick enough, adds to the wafer layers. A condescending chocolate connoisseur may overlook things like Kit Kats, but I do not.

Imperfections do not have to ruin a personal experience, and outside criticism does not have to affect my personal opinion. Driven by curiosity, I picked up Twilight a couple of weeks before the first movie was released; completely alone in my reading experience and not discussing anything until after I was done, I finished the series quickly and I connected with it. I connected with its peculiar tone, the things of affection toward nature, and the general optimism of the pages. Some people like to look for "literary elements" in Twilight; others love to condemn it--indeed, they seem to talk about it as much as the people who actually like it. But I care to do neither. I just like to pretend I am the only person who knows about this book and read it in the same bubble I started in. It's my Kit Kat; it's one of the handful of modern books I very much like, and it's the one I will continue to like even if everyone else stops. If a trend began to dip Kit Kats in Nutella before eating them, I would probably try it along with the crowd. But when the trend ended and most people abandoned their Kit Kats, still I would remain with mine. If something truly does act as a simple pleasure, it will remain such.

What may be easy to forget is that not everything that is exactly opposite to candy bars and popular novels is going to be enjoyable for most people. While the first 100% cacao bar, which I will address in more detail later, I tasted was rather nice, the second was not. It was shocking. It was frightening. It was bitter. It was Bonnat's 100% bar. Just previously, I had had their 75% Trinite, which was on the bitter side, but did not cross over into the inedible. The 100% did. A note of spiciness began as it melted and continued to build more and more intensity. Though I Googled the bar to read comments about it and found that there are indeed some human species who enjoy it, I was not one of these. My stung mouth only wanted to cover up the flavor with something else. An expensive bar this certainly had been, but I either gave it away or put it in a recipe.

That experience taught me of diversity and personal preference, which are two things that, as an English Literature major, I cannot forget. There are many things I read for classes that I do not personally like, like The Canterbury Tales. Although I only read three sections of it, I have no desire to read more. The language tends to be too distant and the setting is far away from my professed favorite, the nineteenth century. Add that I also had to read "The Wife of Bath" in untranslated Middle English; while this was admittedly less painful than eating two pieces of the Bonnet bar, still I do not plan to read the entire book this way. I will leave that adventure to others.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 3

This is Part 3 (click here to read Part 2) of a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college. I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions; here are the fifth and sixth pairings. 

Uniting the two [pleasure and criticism] is ideal. Something that can exist in both a casual atmosphere and a critical one, depending on the approach you use at the moment, is always satisfying. One of my favorite bars to share is Theo's Creamy Milk Chocolate, which is a 45% cacao. This percentage, at the upper end for a milk chocolate, adds depth to the chocolate, yet does not detract from the creaminess the title promises. Therefore, the chocolate lingers in the mouth like a dark chocolate tends to do, but still evokes the same sweet approachability of milk chocolates. If intimidation keeps some people away from the gourmet kinds of chocolate bars, Theo advantageously does not contain this evocation. Unlike a brand like Michel Cluizel, Theo is easy to find at your local Whole Foods--perhaps because it is one of the small group of U.S. bean to bar companies. These companies are involved with chocolate making straight from cacao beans themselves to the final product, as opposed to other companies who begin their work with someone else's chocolate and mold it, blend it, etc. With a classic, light blue packaging, Theo's Creamy Milk Chocolate, instead of daunting you, invites you to partake. This particular bar has a firmer texture and is more full-bodied than most milk chocolates, and its creamy sweetness is somehow also rich; it tastes like honey and cream seen through a semi-dark lens. Because of its middle-of-the-range traits, I have presented it to milk and dark chocolate lovers alike, and each time, their enthusiasm allows me to experience the joy of my first time eating it, too.

Although arguably still too new to be categorized as a classic, like Theo is still a relatively new company, there are some of us who undoubtedly place J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings in that category. I did, after all, take a college class in which this epic and Beowulf were our main texts. Before that, though, I spent many hours pouring over the thousand pages of adventure. The ability to translate into both a critical circle and a group setting means that I can analyze, as I did for the college class, the Anglo-Saxon influence on Tolkien's story, but I can also chat with a group of friends about why Galadriel and Faramir are two of my favorite Tolkien characters. It all comes under the scope of what I love about Tolkien's piece.

There are some aspects of my journeys that I do not forsake. Because books and chocolate are both atmospheric, they can transport you backwards in time. Arizona is not the location for chocolate shops, which is why I generally name World Market and Whole Foods as my favorite places to find chocolate. Godiva and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory are the main shops to find in this area, although both of them focus most on confections. Yet Rocky Mountain is fun. Just walking inside the shop, the confectionery chocolate aroma breathes on you with accents of vanilla and nostalgia. Even though Rocky Mountain is a chain, there is a small establishment feel to the company that sets me at ease. Even though I am often too busy trying new chocolates to keep buying new ones I have tasted before, I have an inexplicable affection for Rocky Mountain's milk chocolate. Unwrapping a bar of it brings out the same sweet scent of the shops. Its taste is light on chocolate and high on caramel; melting slower than many milk chocolates, it is not as greasy as, say, a Hershey's bar. Its creaminess has a depth that almost reminds me of the Theo bar. Although I generally eat small amounts of chocolate, I have a hard time making this milk chocolate last too long.

It's out of affection that I eat it. I find it tasteful because I have been eating it for years. It's comfortable, like the stories in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. Before I read this book, my family rented the movie to watch, then rented it again, and then again. Sometimes I'm not even sure why we liked the movie so much, or why I ended up rereading the book a few times, too. I suppose part of it was the sense of family and home. The four March sisters go through their times of poverty and frustration with each other, but then return to warmth and love. Although I now firmly consider the book part of the vague "children's classics" category, at the time, I responded to the hints of something more. It was very likely the longest book I had read, and its main character was also a reader and writer--an intellectual person. Occasionally, I will take this book up again to slowly ponder its gentleness and sweetness. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 2

This is Part 2 (click here to read Part 1) of a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college. I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions; here are the third and fourth pairings. 

It was desire for that which is not familiar that led me to the gold-bedecked Godiva store at Scottsdale Fashion Square. As I began considering chocolate as an entire field, I thought that high prices and gold packaging meant quality. Godiva was sitting right next to a jewelry store, after all, and the treatment of its products was not so different from that of the jewelry. Polish and poise decorated the gold boxes of chocolate, and the individual truffles sat like jewels underneath the glass by the register. I could spend several minutes savoring just one truffle. But I savored it because I knew it had a two or three dollar price tag and because, honestly, I had not tasted many other truffles at all. By the time I had tasted several other high-end brands, Godiva began to fail me. Their dark chocolate struck me as more sweet than dark, and the still-beautiful truffles and chocolates looked too perfect in their molds, mass-produced instead of artisan. Tasty to eat, but not worth the high prices. A chocolate can be beautiful to look at and yet not as beautiful to taste.

Disappointments like this hurt. At the same time that I exalted over Godiva, I was also reading historical novels from Liz Curtis Higgs. It was by randomness that I read the first one, Thorn in My Heart, but suspense, a good amount of historical setting, and a love story brought me quickly through the series that book started. I praised Liz's name above similar authors: she wrote very well, I said. Perhaps she does write well enough. I think she does: she manages to blend the historical facts into the story in a way that isn't showing off, and satisfies readers' desires for highly emotional stories. But with time, I grew a little bored. While she only had two historical novels when I began reading her, now there are six. I begin to sense the pattern of them, like Godiva's manufactured side. Suspense only means so much when you know it's coming. Probably I will read what Liz next publishes, just as I still wander into Godiva, but these experiences have become more transient than special.

Development is what keeps my attention from fading. My first bar by E. Guittard was their 91% Nocturne. I in fact approached it much like I did Godiva, not knowing very much about cacao percentages but, having never seen one so high as this, deciding that it must belong to an amazing chocolate. Fortunately, my naive assessment in this case turned out to be correct. I took the bar home and examined it: if it did prove to be special, I couldn't rush the experience. Unlike Godiva's heavy gold coloring, this bar was wrapped in black with a faded image of a cacao plantation in the background. Only the border had a gold sheen to it. The grown-up elegance suddenly intimidated me, and I feared that I had indeed acted naively by thinking this chocolate would be the most delicious I had ever tasted. I feared it would be more than I could handle, bitter and unwieldy. The first piece I placed in my mouth did hit with a red, as of fruit or earth, and bitter taste, but that quickly dissipated into a divine smoothness, letting me experience for the first time what it was like for a chocolate to envelope your mouth and your entire mind. Every second brought the flavor to a new intensity; the chocolate was thick and rich and melted so smoothly and slowly, leaving a pleasant warmth in my mouth. I only needed the one piece, saving the rest for later. I was converted.

Not everything critics acclaim is necessarily difficult to approach. Many companies, like Cerreta Candy in Glendale, use Guittard chocolate either in baking or chocolate making. And while one or two novels by Wilkie Collins come under literary study, these can have appeal to modern audiences simply as fun mystery stories. It was from seeing clips from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based, loosely, on The Woman in White that I read the original Collins novel one summer. Its six hundred pages looked a bit much for a summer read, but I began it, anyway, since I knew I would probably never see the musical. Like any proper mystery, excitement of the moment made me forget the number of pages, and even long after I had finished the book, I thought about how kind a person Walter Hartwright was and about what social schemes the novel may have been exposing. Like the Nocturne bar, The Woman in White and, later, The Moonstone united pleasure and criticism into the same sphere. 

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Books & Chocolate: Part 1

This is a piece that I wrote for my Food Writing class in college (yes, I took a food writing class; it was wonderful and a lot of work). I brought together two of my interests, books and chocolate of course, in pairings that explained the different types of things I enjoy out of each--distinct from statements of "better" or "worse." I've decided to post it in portions, starting with the introduction and the first pairing. Other than breaking it up into pieces, I'm not planning on editing anything further from how I left it four years ago.

Is dark chocolate better than milk chocolate? "Is Virginia Woolf a better writer than George Eliot?" "What's the best chocolate?" "Who's your favorite author?"

Because of the interests I profess, I get questions of this nature often, responding to simply say that there is no answer. As long as I enjoy a book or chocolate, that is enough for me. Yet critics, myself included, constantly analyze and categorize. What I object to is making generalizations based on a single trait of deeming one product better than another even if both are enjoyable. For I find that all experiences, whether a single and isolated moment or one filled with vast depth, come together to make a balanced whole. Not all my chocolates need to be poetic, nor all my books immortally literary. For when, practicing my own criticism, I sub-divide both books and chocolate according to my enjoyment of them, I find that the categories overlap. There are some authors and chocolatiers who helped me better understand their fields; others I may look on simply with nostalgia, while still others I regard as exceedingly well balanced and well formed. Through the exploration of pairings like this, based on a common element that I receive from both the book and the chocolate, discoveries emerge and I begin to realize what exactly pleases me and my particular perspective.

Not everyone responds to the same elements of an object because no one has had exactly the same experiences. When I whisk by the shelves of Ghirardelli chocolate at World Market, I remember when the name of the company conjured not an image of card boxes, but of the bulk chunks of chocolate from Trader Joe's my family would buy when I was in elementary school. Ghirardelli was probably the most high-end chocolate I knew. The bulk pieces, much thicker than regular bars, we would break apart with a knife, sharing the slices while sitting at our tiny dining table. Years later, my mom and I discovered Ghirardelli anew, as it were, through the individually wrapped squares of Twilight Delight. I brought one to high school during my junior year almost every day, letting it sit in my bag waiting for me to tear open the packaging. Its mere name taught me to search for atmosphere: the twilight is cool and dark, like the chocolate, yet also not as intimidating as the full blackness of night. So, too, this chocolate was easy to eat, still retaining enough sweetness that it did not cross over into the realm of bitter. The reason for this mildness was its rather standard, for dark chocolate, 72% cacao content; percentages like this are, of course, the amount of product in the chocolate that actually comes from cacao beans. Naturally, percentages can say something about what a chocolate will be like, but mean nothing about its quality.

Somehow, despite my history with Ghirardelli, I constantly call into question my feelings toward the company. As the recognizable face that it is, I want to condemn it as less than artisan quality. But I can never denounce Ghirardelli: I still enjoy their plain bars. When I consider the books of Charles Dickens, I come to a similar controversy. There are parts of his writing that feel sometimes transparent: in Great Expectations, for instance, Pip suddenly spends a long time going to the theatre for no more apparent reason than that Dickens thought it might be an entertaining scene. When I look back on that book, it is the beginning and the ending that seem most important, though the middle is filled with words piled onto more words. Yet I probably need not complain: the beginning and ending, after all, are such that they never fade from memory. Miss Havisham, the abandoned bride and bitter old woman introduced early in the story, is alone worth the reading. The presence of Estella, who Miss Havisham helped to break Pip's heart, at the novel's conclusion creates a pleasant and lasting image. Dickens may be as familiar as Ghirardelli, but both can still deliver something.