Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Discovery of Witches (and Vampires Who Do Yoga, Fondle Books, and Sniff Wine), by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches: A NovelA Discovery of Witches
by Deborah Harkness
New York: Viking, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-670-02241-0

Guilty confession/secret shame: occasionally I read books for adults in addition to books for kids.  While there are some respectable titles in the mix (a recent brush with The Road comes to mind), more often than not they happen to have less literarily lofty ambitions.  Yes.  Are you ready for this jelly?  I'm coming out of the I-love-epic-time traveling-paranormal-historical-romance-fiction-novels closet.  It is true.   I love Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.  But this is not a post about an awesome book about a WW2 era English nurse who trips and falls through a mini Stonehenge and time and into the arms of a be-kilted ginger Scot that you should read.  It is about another saccharine-y fun book for grownups that I read just the other day!  

When I saw a review for A Discovery of Witches in Booklist that compared it to Outlander, I felt I owed it to my freak flag to read it.  Abandon ye all hope of getting any sort of respectable, scholarly review below.  Pull up a couch and pour yourself a mouthwatering glass of red wine.  Appropriately, anytime I use the word mouthwatering, I have an overwhelming urge to say it like this:
Thanks for nothing, Twilight!  But why, why is this urge to talk like a ridiculous vampire in Twilight so appropriate?  Well, let me tell you all about it.

Ladies and ladies (since I doubt the gents picking this up are few and far between), this book is a mouthwatering mashup of Twilight, Outlander, The Historian, and The Da Vinci Code.  Yes.  Seriously.  Though nowhere near as insane as Outlander, it is epic, it is fun.   Our heroine is one sweet young thang, Diana Bishop, a witch hailing from a long line of other witches, including an infamous one in infamously witch-loving Salem, MA.   Since her parents bit it suspiciously on a trip to Africa when she was a kid, Diana has been denying herself and the world of her magical powerz through a combination of pensive pre-dawn rowing sessions and a historical study of alchemy.  Alchemy being the ye olde science equivalent of magic.  Clearly she's doing a great job!  On sabbatical to Oxford to fondle some dusty old books in Bodlean, Diana finds and promptly returns a freaky enchanted book, and immediately stumbles into the arms of a hot Doctor.  Suspect! Double suspect, he is not just a Doctor!  Oh ho! He is a hot VAMPIRE doctor!  Matthew Clairmont is impossibly fast and strong, his skin is pale white and ice cold, and sometimes he speaks like he's from a different time!  His powers include being hot, being a badass predator, being a doctor, being ascetic, being immortal, having lots of secrets, being part of a vampire gang, and having a penchant for fine wines.  If it weren't for the last, I'm pretty sure the Cullen's would have adopted him by now.  But I digress!  

Turns out a ancient pact of Witches, Vampires, and Ghouls want the book real bad - it may or may not have the secret to magical life tucked away inside and it has been MIA since nigh on forever - and now that everyone knows Diana fondled it, they're all after her.  To boot, said secret society also has a rule on intermagical species dating.  As the Germans say, VERKLEMPT! Oh snap.  But they are not the only secret ancient society out there, and lines are drawn (to steal yet another Stephenie Meyerism) irrevocably.  Our heroes are on the run to places near and far, bourgeois and swank, denying their love, proclaiming their love, doing yoga, and sipping wine throughout.  Will Diana ever embrace her magical powers?  Will Matthew ever not be hot?  Will you be able to avoid craving wine while reading this book?

This book is filled with many things you would expect of anything that has been hit with the romance or paranormal genre sticks:  hot vampires, breaking in to watch people sleep (aka studying at the school of Edward Stalker Cullen), longing looks, pensive walks in the woods, near death fights, surviving near death fights, dudes carrying girls, girls sitting on dudes laps all the time, declarations of true love, opulent vampire lifestyles, hot baths, etc.  But it failed majorly on one count.  I was expecting it to be much more smutty.  I love smutty books!  In fact, there is no. sex. at. all.  I'd have given you a spoiler warning, but consider this your sex disappointment warning.  What up with that Deborah E. Harkness?  No excuses!  What is this, Twilight?

At times the story can drag; there was probably way too much scholarly debate in the first half and not nearly enough action.  It also becomes clear with 200 pages to go that this book is going to be the first in a series.  However, there is a lot to redeem it and judging from the fact that I devoured this book, it's relatively captivating.  If you are anything like me, you will probably be amused by the ridiculous wine sniffing activities (turns out Ms. Harkness has a wine blog), Vampire yoga, convenience of Matthew knowing every historical figure mentioned, inclusion of gay primary characters, occasionally clunky dialogue, and (antiquated) semantics of (vampire) marriage. In short, this post is not short and neither is the book.  But if you at all like reading series or epic paranormal-time traveling-historical fiction books, this is a strong recommendation! 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Recipe 49: Ribolita

This soup is so good it should it come with a warning:  you will want to eat it forever.  And lucky for you, you can!  It makes enough to feed the entire von Trapp family and all their neighbors in the convent.  The hills of your mouth will be alive with delicious.  You may even want to sing about it. It is possibly the best recipe in The Soup Bible (but as I haven't made them all, this is a dubious statement - they are all really good).   As a liquorice h8r, I was dubious about the fennel.  But you know what?  This recipe totally turned my h8r ways bass-ackwards.  Now I love fennel, all thanks to Debra Mayhew & Co.  This is a hearty, delectible, peasant-y soup that freezes well and is great in winter, fall, and even spring!

Question: What is red and green and blue all over? Anser
3 Tbsp Olive Oil
2 onions, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
4 crushed garlic cloves
2 celery stalks
1 fennel bulb, finely sliced (to fit decently on a soup spoon)
2 zucchini, sliced (sub in one yellow squash for color if you feel so inclined)
14 oz can crushed tomato
2 tbsp pesto
3 ¾ cups vegetable stock/broth
14 oz can of white beans of your choice (recommended are haricot or borlotti, which frankly, are about as easy to find as a snowman in July - save yourself the time and get cannellini )
salt & pepper to taste
1 lb fresh young spinach
  • Heat the oil over medium heat in a large soup pot or Dutch oven.
  • Add the onions, carrots, garlic, celery, and fennel and sauté slowly for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Add zucchini and cook 2 minutes more.
  • Add crushed tomatoes, pesto, stock, & beans.
  • Bring to a boil, and then lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 25-30 minutes until vegetables are tender.  Season to your taste.
  • Add spinach to the pot, cover, and wait approximately two minutes until it wilts.  Check seasoning, and serve. Note that the spinach step is a departure; the og recipe calls for you to saute it with olive oil and serve over individual bowls.  I am lazy - this makes more dishes.  It tastes fine with the spinach mixed in. 
  • Best served either over or with a side crusty bread and Parmesan cheese.

Since I am neither a von Trapp nor a convent dwelling nun, what do I do with my massive vat of leftovers? 

I am so glad you asked.  Leftovers from this soup are GREAT for other meals or variations! They can be used for breakfast  (or really any meal) if you put a serving into a frying pan, hollow out a spot, crack an egg on in*, cover and let it poach as the leftovers warm.  YUM.  This variation is also good served with crusty bread and cheese.  

*Disclaimer: I love poached eggs like Lindsay Lohan loves getting arrested.  I especially love them poached in other soupy, flavorful substances, like leftover soupy, flavorful soup.  YUM.  If you don't like poached eggs, I don't like you.  SALTED.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Recipe 50: Chunky Vegetarian Chili

On one hand, this chili is filled vegetables.  As a fan of vegetables, it appealed to me.  Probably this is why I made it.  And it was quick and easy to make!  On the other, I was underwhelmed by the recipe.  It needs more - more of everything - spices, spiciness, liquid, flavor.  But it is not bad.  It's just not the best chili I've ever had.  If I were to make it again, I'd add some broth, more spicy peppers and cayenne, and probably quadruple the chili powder.  That said, as a fairly mild dish, this would probably be good to serve to kids to get them to eat their veggies.  Also, it is very colorful.  It looks nice in Blue, doesn't it?  So there's that.  As per, it makes a boatload (way more than the 8 servings it claims it makes).  Double as per, it is a Cooking Light recipe I found on My Recipes. Serve with or without cheese and cornbread.   Definitely add spices to the basic recipe below. 


  • 1  tablespoon  vegetable oil
  • 2  cups  chopped onion
  • 1/2  cup  chopped yellow bell pepper
  • 1/2  cup  chopped green bell pepper
  • 2  garlic cloves, minced
  • 1  tablespoon  brown sugar
  • 1 1/2  tablespoons  chili powder
  • 1  teaspoon  ground cumin
  • 1  teaspoon  dried oregano
  • 1/2  teaspoon  salt
  • 1/2  teaspoon  black pepper
  • 2  (16-ounce) cans stewed tomatoes, undrained
  • 2  (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1  (15-ounce) can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1  (15-ounce) can pinto beans, rinsed and drained


Heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onion, bell peppers, and garlic; sauté 5 minutes or until tender. Add sugar and remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes.  Serve and eat your boring soup. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Kim Jong has Il taste.

This photoshoped picture (via a fab Forever Young Adult post) delights me to no end. 
Kim Jong Il, let's share YA and ladies sunglasses, and possibly even the codes to those nukes with my other friend, Obama.  Maybe we can start a book club? Think about it.  
But not the polyester.  That's all yours to keep. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Recipe 51 - Lentil Soup w/Balsamic Roasted Winter Vegetables

Let's call this meal what it was: A Dinner Fit For Dames.  
And while we're at it, let's just call this recipe what it is:  the best darn lentil soup I've ever tasted ever.   I'm being entirely earnest.  I know I made it and that this fact makes me completely biased.  But know this:  I am always right.  Especially when Blue and I join forces to host a Downton Abbey finale party for 6 lovely ladies dames with an affinity for British accents (and men), excellent food, and of course, Dame Maggie Smith, who, incidentally, stole the entire show.  I dare you to watch the following video and not laugh. 

It can't be done.  You know you watched it five more times.  
I totally already bought the DVDs.

Anyways, onto the main event.   A few quick thoughts and tips: I was delighted by the pretty factor of the rainbow chard at the grocery store, so I used it.  It was a feast for the mouth AND the eyes!  This recipe makes more than the 6.5 servings it claims.   We had enough for 7 to have seconds and for two leftover meals!    Finally, I was cooking for vegetarians, and consequently left out the pancetta.  I bet it's really good with it, but it was also really really good without it.  Instead of browning the onions in the fat, I added a little olive oil.  

I served this soup w/Pumpkin Cornbread (except I made it with squash it was what I had) and regular cornbread.  This was a decidedly more exciting combination than when I ate the leftovers with a regular dinner roll, but it's really up to you!  For desert I made Blackberry-Lemon Pudding Cake.  It was good warm, but even better cold, and even more better with some extra blueberries (I like them frozen) mixed in.  Photos below!

Steamy hot, like Mr. Kemal Pamuk.


1 2/3  cups  cubed peeled sweet potato, (about 8 ounces)
1 2/3  cups  cubed peeled parsnip (about 8 ounces)
1 2/3  cups  cubed peeled carrot (about 8 ounces)
3  tablespoons  balsamic vinegar, divided
2  tablespoons  olive oil
1/8  teaspoon  kosher salt
1  cup  (4 ounces) chopped pancetta
1  cup  chopped shallots (about 6 large)
1  cup  chopped red onion (about 1 medium)
1  tablespoon  fresh thyme leaves
1  tablespoon  minced garlic
1/2  teaspoon  black pepper
1/4  cup  dry white wine
1 1/4  cups  dried lentils
6  cups  fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth, divided
8  cups  Swiss chard, trimmed and chopped (about 9 ounces)


Preheat oven to 375°.

1) Combine sweet potato, parsnip, carrot, 2 tablespoons vinegar, oil, and salt in a large bowl; toss well.

2) Arrange vegetable mixture in a single layer on a large foil-lined jelly-roll pan; bake at 375° for 30 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Set aside.

3) Cook pancetta in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat 8 minutes or until crisp. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon; set aside.

4) Add shallots and onion to drippings in pan; cook 15 minutes or until golden brown.

5) Add remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar, thyme, garlic, and pepper; cook 1 minute. Add wine, scraping pan to loosen browned bits.

6) Add pancetta, lentils, and 4 cups broth to pan. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes.

7) Add remaining 2 cups broth and roasted vegetables to pan, and simmer 15 minutes, uncovered.

8) Add chard, and cook 2 minutes or until wilted.

9) I'll try not to look smug now that you've just admitted that it is the best darn lentil soup ever.

Chase this with a picture of some Blackberry-Lemon Pudding Cake

You're welcome for that cleansed palate (and also plate).

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Year of Secret Assignments, by Jacklyn Moriarty: Adventures in Pen Pal-ing around town (Down Under)

The Year Of Secret AssignmentsThe Year of Secret Assignments
by Jaclyn Moriarty
New York: Scholastic, 2005.
ISBN: 0-439-49882-1

      Ashbury school 10th graders Emily, Cass, and Lydia are dismayed to learn that their English class will be required to participate in a Pen Pal project with Brookfield, a school they believe is populated by delinquents. Thus begins this delightful epistolary tale of their unusually funny, imaginative, and supportive friendship over the school year. Emily, an amusingly consistent misuser of words that sound the same but have incredibly different meanings, is assigned to Charlie. Puckish Lydia, who wants nothing but to be a writer, is assigned to soccer-obsessed Seb. Athletic Cassie is recovering from the loss of her father, and becomes fascinated by her pen pal, Matthew Dunlop, who tells her to get lost in some strong language in his reply. Friendships, then romance blossoms, as do challenges, or the titular secret assignments that seem orchestrated to disrupt the school day. But one of the boys is not who he says he is, the rivalry between the schools escalates, and the girls and their new friends seek their revenge on the imposter before the pen pal project is eliminated for good! This fast paced book is recommended for grades 7-10. Book talk hook: read Emily and Charlie's first letters to each other and follow with a very brief summary, ending on a "what will happen now?"

Dear Australia,
Since this is an epistolary letter, I think this is a great time to take advantage of the style and send my thoughts about this book/your awesome YA scene to you via fauxmail. As in, I'm typing them right here. Firstly, seriously, this book is such. a. delight. Maybe I was reading a lot of Debbie Downer type books leading up to reading this (okay, it was King Downer the Incredible: The Road), but man did I enjoy reading this! It is definitely fast-paced, but I couldn't put it down! Jaclyn Moriarity is tres funny. She captures the loyalty, compassion, creativity, and yes, the righteousness and silliness of teenage girls aptly. I loved Emily's sound-alike misspeaks (There is totally a literary term for this. Literary nerds, chime in now or forever hold your peas.), possibly because I have a strong feeling it would be something I may have done... I love how the slow build of the relationships across mail/email allows for a sweet smolder; it totally made me yearn for the bygone days of AIM flirtations and totally tame high school games of less Truth and more Dare. Plus, who doesn't love a good pen pal story?
But back to you, Australia. Seriously. What is up with some super duper awesome YA coming from your vast shores? Melina Marchetta, Jacyln Moriarty, Justine Larbalestier, Marcus Zusak, etc. You keep me entertained, titillated, and occasionally in awe. I haven't actually read any Marcus Zusak yet. BUT I WILL! And you and I both know I'll love it, Australia. So keep up the good work, Australia(n authors).
Truly, Madly, Deeply,

Things that make me sad: Goodbye, Brian Jacques

Today I was extremely saddened by the news that Brian Jacques had passed away over the weekend. I loved his Redwall books as a kid; Redwall, Mattimeo, and Salamandastron still live on my childhood bookshelves. I loved recommending them to kids as a children's librarian, and I love reminiscing about them fondly. In fact, I always take it to be a good sign if someone else had read his books too. It was, is, a defacto signal from our past imaginative, dreamy selves (wearing tapered sweatpants in primary colors) to our present selves (more seasoned, but nostalgic for those imagination filled days and definitely for those sweatpants), that if we both dug talking rodents, we'd probably be cool.
In fact, one of my best friends and post-college roommates and I bonded over our mutual love for Brian Jacques. And three years ago when he visited the library I worked in, she skipped work just to come and see him. We met him very briefly, but even in this brief interaction, I got the feeling he was a lovely individual. He had a kind, but humorously reassuring way of talking to the kids that many tour-weary authors lose, and seemed to relish (glow!) being in front of the sizable crowd. I don't think I'll ever forget his deep laugh or BBC baritone voice (true story!) rumbling throughout the room. He was truly a captivating man and author. Even though his family has had a huge loss, I hope that they can take some measure of comfort in how missed he'll be by his fans, old and young.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Let's make my dreams of dysentery a reality.

On snow day #4.5 of 2011, I woke up, rubbed my eyes in the dewy morning light, fired up the ole laptop and checked the headlines. I gasped. Not because of what is happening in the world, or because the Snowpocalypse was upon us yet again. Oh no. The following headline caught my sluggish morning attention: "Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego to go on Facebook." The article, which is really mostly about the company doing this game making for Facebook, ultimately fails to adequately capture the fervent love of my generation for the Oregon Trail. It states:

"[T]he game migrated to succeeding generations of classroom PCs, where it became a favorite among schoolchildren. Players are cast as 19th-century pioneers trying to survive a journey from Missouri to Oregon, fending off hunger, disease, and accidents."

Um, just a "favorite?" Hello understatement. A search for Oregon Trail on CafePress turns up 155 t-shirts, all spun from the images and vernacular of the original low-tech graphics game. My personal favorites are all dysentery related. Why, oh why would my favorites be those of the dying a violent death due to epic poo-ing? Because in a highlight of my life, 6 summers ago, my all-American co-administrators at an all-girls overnight camp and I convinced our lone British colleague to create a live-action role playing version of this game.

It was...amazing. As you can see above, we made the teenagers be the hunted animals, and had packs of eight year old girls screaming joyfully while pegging them with water balloons. The bison herd had a rough day. The camp director walked around carrying a scythe, impersonating death. There were old prospectors, a build and test a raft station, and oh yes, oh yes, there was Dysentery. And oh yes, oh yes, I played the timeless and classic role of Dysentery. As you would expect, Dysentery wore brown, carried a roll of toilet paper, and hung out by the water fountains and wash-houses. Dysentery, to her great joy and to the chagrin of her unwitting victims, repeatedly used the infamous Oregon Trail line "You have died of dysentary!"

In short, it was pretty fantastic. Also fantastic? Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. I hard-out loved that show. It was one of the very few programs I was allowed to watch, airing on the ever safe PBS. I wanted to go on that show so so bad, and have my chance to run around and put flaring lights on the correct countries, buzz in to best Carmen at her own game, and rock out with Rockapella. I was delighted to discover that one of my C.I.T.'s (at the same camp, clearly a breeding ground for coolness) had actually BEEN ON THE SHOW.

Now, let me just say that video games in general are not my thing, with the exception of Oregon Trail. Facebook games? Reallllly are not for me. Despite my great love of these two fantastic game shows, I probably won't be playing them on the 'book. But I am excited they will be making it back into the public eye. Why? They are pretty much the two exceptions to my No-Reality-TV-Shows rule (along with Amazing Race, someday). I feel that their increase in popularity could, just maybe, might, result in some crazy-awesome Hollywood producer being all "HECK YES, let's turn this into a show!" I mean, PBS (or rather Thirteen/WNET New York and Wall to Wall Television) did Frontier House, Texas Ranch House, and Colonial House. Why not My House is a Chuck Wagon and We're Headed West for Oregon? And why not an adult game-show version of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? I mean...come on. If they can be Facebook games, and if film adaptations of Ouija and Battleship are in the works, why can't they have their spot of honor on my DVR list? Seriously, Hollywood. Get. It. Together.

Come on, people. I can't be the only one.
Join me in my appeal:

Thirteen/WNET New York and Wall to Wall Television, if you are out there, make Oregon Trail the reality show happen!

And call then me. If you need someone to ford some rivers, go hunt buffalo, and NOT die of dysentery, I'm your woman.
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