The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

The Magicians by Lev Grossman | Book Review | oven & inkThe Magicians by Lev Grossman is an interesting read, to use an ambiguous filler word with very little meaning attached to it. I’m not sure I could say I technically “enjoyed” reading the novel, but I certainly liked the book. It’s complicated to discuss because I found the main character distinctly unlikable.

An overview: At the opening of the book, Quentin is on his way for a pre-college interview with a Yale alum. Through a series of unsettling events, he finds himself walking out of wintery Brooklyn and into a place where it is summertime. Quentin, a die-hard fan of the children’s book series “Fillory and Further,” thinks his dream has come true: he has somehow arrived in the magical land of Fillory. He soon finds out that he is in fact in upstate New York, at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Though he has not found Fillory, Quentin finds that magic is indeed real. The rest of the novel follows Quentin as he makes his way through Brakebills and is sent out into the world, where he is overcome by the ennui that affects many a young, privileged wizard. Finally, the adventure Quentin craves finds him, and he has achieved his heart’s desire. Or has he?

My main issue with this book is Quentin’s supreme unhappiness and obvious self-loathing. Okay, yes, a book about magic can have a character that is not pure, true of heart and full of warm-and-fuzzies all the time. But for goodness sake, Quentin, buck up! You’d think that he would pick up a few shreds of self-esteem along the way. But no, he’s like Debbie Downer’s offspring. Crack a smile once in a while, kid.

At first, to be honest, Quentin’s self-loathing was a refreshing character to read about; he’s unsure, shy and socially awkward. In short, he could be a real 18-year-old. But by the last 100 pages or so, his spectacular unhappiness is stale, especially when his wildest dreams keep coming true. Of course, analytically, we could say that this is a comment on the fact that maybe dreams should stay elusive because their true value comes from the struggle to achieve them, and all that ‘be careful what you wish for’ stuff. In reality, Quentin’s character could stand to be a touch more likable.

All this is not to say that I didn’t like the book. I did like it, very much. I will read the sequel when it comes out. The Magician King comes out this fall. The Magicians is clever and creative, but not a children’s book at all. This is definitely an adult novel. It attempts (mostly successfully) to incorporate magic into otherwise ordinary lives of young adults beset by ordinary problems. It’s definitely worth reading. If you grew up reading the Harry Potter books, as I did, you may be searching for a new, exciting and equally magical book to read now that all of the Potter books and movies are out. This is a worthy book to fill the need. It’s not a replacement, of course, and it doesn’t seek to be one. It is a creative book meant for adults, populated with strong, flawed characters and a magical world that is distinct from Potter’s universe while still nodding to that tradition.


Nutella Chip Cookies

Writing about Chocolat made me want something full of chocolate-y goodness. Naturally, I thought of one of my favorite recipes of all time: Nutella Chip Cookies. I found this recipe on a fabulous blog called Love and Olive Oil, and when I tried it, I fell in love.

First off, if you don’t know what Nutella is, get out. Just kidding. What you should really do is go get some Nutella (it’s usually by the peanut butter at the grocery store) and give it a try. When I talk about Nutella with people who have not tried this wonderful concoction, I usually get the response, “ew, don’t they eat that in Australia?” No, people, that’s Vegemite. Completely different. Nutella is a chocolate-hazelnut spread best enjoyed with a spoon, straight from the jar. Or in Nutella Chip Cookies.

If I had to express these cookies in pseudo-mathematical terms, I would do so like this:

Nutella Chip Cookies > chocolate chip cookies

Or perhaps like this:

chocolate chip cookies + Nutella + some sort of magical transformation that must occur when the Nutella combines with the rest of the batter = Nutella Chip Cookies.

Nutella Chip Cookies

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup Nutella
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degree F. Cream butter with an electric mixer about 1 minute until smooth. Add in both sugars. Beat on high speed until light and fluffy (about 3 minutes), scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. With the mixer on low, add the egg and vanilla. Then add Nutella and mix until well combined. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt. Slowly add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, and mix on low speed until incorporated. Increase the speed to medium and mix just until the dough is smooth. Fold in chocolate chips. Using a small ice cream scoop (or a teaspoon), form the dough into balls and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet.* Bake 6-7 minutes** or until set. Let cookies cool about 5 minutes and transfer to a rack to cool completely.

*I do not use a parchment-lined baking sheet. I might spray some Pam on the baking sheet, if I remember.

**I have found that it usually takes 9-10 minutes to bake fully (and still have a soft chewy center).


Chocolat

Chocolat by Joanne Harris | Book Review | oven & inkOne of my favorite books is Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. I’ve never seen the movie, but I have read the book several times.* I love the way Harris writes, creating a world full of secrets and subtle magic that is timeless and rich.

The story begins on the day before Lent, when Vianne Rocher and her 6-year-old daughter, Anouk, arrive in a small French town ruled strictly by the church. Vianne opens a chocolate shop in town, to the horror of Pere Reynaud, the parish priest. Tensions rise as Lent progresses, gypsies arrive on the shores of the town, and Vianne forms relationships with the townspeople. It culminates in a chocolate festival that Vianne plans for Easter Sunday – directly taking on Pere Reynaud and the church. It is a really lovely book in which love and warmth contrast with cold and austerity. Harris’ descriptions bring Vianne and her chocolates to life, so at times you’ll find your mouth watering and your mind wandering to the piece of chocolate that is in closest proximity to your mouth.

I bought a great used copy at Half-Priced Books years ago and it still lives happily on the shelf of my bookcase, ready to be picked up when I’m craving something sweet and delicious.

*For more on how I feel about books that are made into movies, read this.


Those Who Save Us

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum | Book Review | oven & inkThose Who Save Us by Jenna Blum is a gripping story about the real-life effects of WWII on Germans, and how the past effects us in the present. The novel switches between narration by Anna, a young woman in Weimar during Hitler’s regime, and her daughter, Trudy, a professor of history in the 1990s. The characters, especially Anna, hold her secrets close to the chest.

Those Who Save Us can be disturbing at times as it takes a look at the details of life as a German living near a concentration camp. Anna is forced to become the mistress of a Nazi officer to save her life and Trudy’s, but the emphasis on the details of the affair became heavy-handed after awhile. Yes, it is a vital part of the book, but the repetition of graphic and nauseating scenes started feeling almost like the author was driving home the point a little to forcefully (that’s probably significant, whispers the part of my brain labeled English Major). I also found the ending a little abrupt, as the whole story seems to be driving toward one pivotal revelation, and in the end it is never quite made.

In any case, I found Those Who Save Us a worthy read. I won’t say “enjoyable,” because that’s simply the wrong word; plus, it’s insensitive to the tragic historical material of the novel. Overall, it is a well-told story about how we reconcile ourselves with the past, and what we need to do to live with it.


Blueberry Oatmeal Scones

Don’t be fooled by the presence of the word “scone” in this recipe. These are not dry biscuits that require a 10-second dunking in coffee to prevent them from sucking all the moisture from your mouth as you chew. No, these scones – for lack of a better term – are moist, and full of blueberry goodness. They should be called Disappearing Blueberry Scones, because practically as soon as they come out of the oven, they’re gone. Plus, they’re hearty enough to offer a filling and lasting breakfast on their own.

Blueberry Oatmeal Scones

1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup white sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons butter, cubed
3/4 cup milk
1 cup fresh blueberries, or frozen blueberries, thawed
2 tablespoons flax seed meal
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional*)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease a baking sheet. Stir the oatmeal, flours, sugar, baking soda, and baking powder together in a mixing bowl. Use a pastry cutter or two forks and cut in the butter with the flour mixture until crumbly and well blended. Stir the milk into the flour mixture until just combined. Mix in flax seed and cinnamon, if desired. Add a splash of milk if necessary to maintain wet dough consistency. Lightly stir in the pecans and blueberries. Divide the dough into 6 to 8 balls, and place them on the greased cookie sheet. Bake about 20 to 25 minutes, until lightly browned.

*The cinnamon is a killer addition, seriously. One day I decided that cinnamon sounded like it might be good in the scones, so I tried it. Totally worth it. Plus – bonus! – it makes the kitchen smell even better while these beauties are baking.

The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett | Book Review | oven & inkI recently read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I admit, I first heard about the book because of a preview for the movie coming out this summer (though I’m slightly ashamed to say so). I got my hands on a copy and it was much longer than I expected, based on the movie trailer. The book is also much darker than the trailer seems to be, getting into the nitty-gritty details – good and bad – of the complex relationships among the characters.

The book follows Skeeter, a young woman navigating 1962 Southern society as she returns from college determined to become a writer. The story of Skeeter’s unlikely friendships with the black maids of Jacksonville is a perfect way to examine the complexities of race relations in the south during the civil rights movement. But the book is more that an exploration of race relations: it contains a host of wonderfully vivid characters, both likable and distinctly unlikable. What is truly amazing is Stockett’s writing; it manages to feel like the truth, showing the good alongside the bad, the funny with the fear, the anger and the love.

So, will I see the movie? Um, yes. Duh. But I’ll keep the book separate from the movie in my head; they’ll be two very (very, very) different mediums for telling a beautiful, uplifting story. I hope to appreciate them both for what they are individually, rather than comparing them to one another.* How do you feel about books that become movies? Do you try to read the book before seeing the movie?

*Side note: I feel this way about Harry Potter, too. Love the books, love the movies…separately. I made a point of not reading the books in the two or so months leading up to a new movie release so I wouldn’t be stuck on the things that the movies changed. Instead, I could just enjoy the movies as movies and the books as (totally awesome) books.


White Peach Sorbet

There was a time in my life when I was known by my family members as The Ice Cream Vacuum. What can I say? I like ice cream. But I’d never made my own, purely because I’ve never had an ice cream maker. This week, I got my hands on one. I also got ahold of some slightly bruised white peaches. I decided not to make ice cream, because I wanted to avoid the heavy whipping cream, especially in this intense heat wave we’re having. So I found a simple recipe for white peach sorbet on userealbutter.com, and went to town, adjusting the recipe slightly. I chopped and cooked the peaches last night, then put them in the fridge until this evening after work. I blended them up and put my mixture in the ice cream maker. Voila: white peach sorbet! And it is so good. Like, this-is-so-delicious-I-must-make-a-pained-expression-of-delight good. I think it’s time to invest in my own ice cream maker, just so I can continue making this sorbet.

White Peach Sorbet

7 ripe peaches, pitted and peeled*
2/3 cup water
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon kirsch or 1/4 teaspoon lemon juice**

Dice the pieces into medium chunks. Place in a medium saucepan with water and cover. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until they are soft. I let the peaches cook for quite awhile, until they were starting to fall apart and tons of juice had come out of them. Remove the saucepan from heat and stir in sugar. Let cool to room temperature. Add kirsch or lemon juice (I did not do this). Refrigerate mixture until chilled. Blend until mixture is smooth. Churn in your ice cream maker.

*I left the skins on by accident. It turned out wonderfully, anyway. Why make it more work than it needs to be? Plus, I think that’s what gave the sorbet its pretty pale pink color.

**I left out the lemon juice because I was all out. I didn’t use kirsch because I don’t know what it is, and therefore it is not in my kitchen. The sorbet is still delicious, and the peaches didn’t turn brown after cooking. If you make this sorbet and either kirsch or lemon juice, let me know how it turns out!