Saturday, October 29, 2011

New meal: Pasta with Shaved Brussels Sprouts and Pancetta

I tried Brussels sprouts for the first time last autumn, and I've been a fan ever since. Proof: I worked them into at least one famously-immutable family holiday menu last holiday season. When I saw this recipe for Pasta with Shaved Brussels Sprouts and Pancetta, I was intrigued and bookmarked it. I finally made it this past week--it's prime Brussels sprouts season, after all--and it was very, very tasty. You might think shaved Brussels sprouts is an odd addition to a pasta dish, but the flavor and crunch add perfectly to the pancetta, garlic, and toasted pine nuts in the dish. Please give it a try! It even reheats well in a skillet with a drizzle of olive oil. I highly recommend the sprinkling of parmesan over the top, too.

The first batch of Mark Twain nominees, or Books #57-60

Here in Missouri, there are a fair number of book awards that cover pretty much every age of young reader. In the children's department of my library, there are three main state awards: Building Block Picture Book Awards (read-alouds for preschoolers and other pre-readers); Show Me Awards (first through third grade); and Mark Twain Awards (fourth through sixth grades). I use the Building Block nominees pretty heavily in my story times because they really are fantastic books. Lately, though, I've been trying to get up to speed on all of this year's Mark Twain Award nominees. There are twelve finalists in all, and students in grades four, five, and six in the state will choose a winner in the spring. I've read four so far, and they all have really fantastic qualities. Here are my short synopses and thoughts; give one a try!

Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur -- It's the summer before sixth grade, and Aubrey finds herself all alone at her house in Virginia. Her father and younger sister have recently been killed in a car accident, and her mother, unable to deal with the new family situation, leaves town after seemingly forgetting about Aubrey. Aubrey's grandmother shows up unexpectedly to check in on "her girls," and she immediately goes about making sure Aubrey can recover from everything she's experienced in the past few months. The pair return to the grandmother's house in Vermont, when Aubrey makes a friend, starts to take control of her life again, and ponders what "family" means. This book can be something of a tear-jerker, but the themes and character development really make it a moving read.

Mudville by Kurtis Scaletta -- Roy loves baseball, and he'd love nothing more than to play it all the time. Unfortunately for him, though, he lives in Moundville, where it hasn't stopped raining in 22 years; rumor has it that the rain is a curse resulting from an old baseball rivalry between Moundville and the Native Americans who had always lived in the area. Shortly after Roy's dad takes in a foster child, the rain suddenly stops. Roy, a catcher, discovers that his new foster brother, Sturgis, is an amazing pitcher, and Moundville decides to make a baseball team to try to break the rivalry curse. This book is very heavy on baseball talk and facts, but the relationship between the two boys and the towns they come from really balances it out.

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. by Kate Messner -- Gianna's favorite part of school is the cross country team, and unfortunately she needs to bring up her science grade if she wants to compete in the next big cross country tournament. That means doing a fantastic job on her leaf project--the project she forgot about until a week before it was due. Try as she might, Gianna just can't seem to make much progress on her project; something is always making it more difficult, be it the school bully, her perfectionist mom, or her beloved grandmother's growing forgetfulness. This book does a great job of showing the various pressures that even grade schoolers face on a daily basis, and it shows Gianna trying to work through family issues while still performing her best at school both on and off the track.

Million-Dollar Throw by Mike Lupica -- Nate "Brady" Brodie has always been like a football god at his school. As quarterback, he's always been unstoppable. Until this season, that is. Suddenly Nate finds himself feeling a whole new slew of pressures: his parents' growing financial strain, his best friend's rapidly-failing eyesight, and his chance to win a million bucks at halftime on Thanksgiving Day by completing a pretty tough throw into a 20-inch hole from 30 yards. As Nate's life as he's always known it starts to lose direction, so do his throws. The central question in this book is whether Nate can decide what is really important and focus on that in order to get things back to normal. This football-centric book does a great job of showing the complex dynamics of a family struggling with money, the emotional aspects of a close friend's illness, and figuring out what one can and cannot control.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

New meal: Braised French Onion Chicken

One of my favorite kitchen smells has got to be caramelizing onions. There's something so alchemical about tossing a ton of sharp, raw onions into a pan with a little bit of butter and ending up with savoury perfection. I'm a huge fan of anything that involves caramelized onions, really: burgers with caramelized onions on top, French onion soup, this delectable tart... Thus it should come as no surprise that, when I saw a recipe for braised French onion chicken, I would bookmark the recipe and plan to test it out once autumn set in.

I found the recipe for Braised French Onion Chicken with Gruyere on the kitchn, a blog that always has good ideas as far as cooking is concerned. While the recipe did take some time to make--it takes time to get the perfect coloring on your onions, you know--the end result was incredibly worth it. I like the combination of tasty chicken thighs with a hearty, savoury onion glaze and some broth in the bottom of the bowl. I used Emmental cheese instead of Gruyere, and the bit of nuttiness it added to the dish was perfection. I highly recommend taking advantage of autumn temperatures and warming up an afternoon or evening with this dish on your stove. I can't wait for the leftovers at lunch tomorrow.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book #56: Maisie Dobbs

I'm that librarian who will go back to the library for a book club meeting that a) I'm not in charge of and b) takes place on my night off--especially if the book up for discussion is a good one. Enter Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, an historical mystery that even folks who don't generally like mysteries (me!) can enjoy.

Maisie Dobbs is the first book in a series about the titular heroine and her experiences as a private investigator. Set post WWI, Maisie, her associates, and her clients all seem to have some aspect of their lives that ties them permanently and painfully to that conflict. These books take place in England, so the perspective of the Great War is a bit different from what most American readers have likely encountered in much of their reading. I was so captivated and moved by the descriptions of what Maisie's experiences as a Red Cross nurse were like. The author based these passages on the experiences of her own family members, and the truth behind the fiction peeks out in a most compelling way.

This first book in the series begins in 1929 with Maisie setting up her business and getting her first client. Then, a third of the way through the book, we're taken back to Maisie's childhood and the rest of her formative years in a series of chapters that paints a beautiful, if not conventionally cheery, backstory. For the last third of the book, the reader is again in Maisie's present-day 1929 as she wraps up her first case--and in the processes discovers just how affected she and many of her countrymen continue to be since the war.

Maisie Dobbs has rich historical detail, compelling and well-developed characters, moments for considering ideas of class, bravery, and friendship, and enough mystery to keep the reader intrigued and questioning what we know has happened in the story. I'd suggest it for book clubs looking for something historical and/or mystery, or for readers who enjoy books set in WWI, mysteries with female protagonists, and quiet yet powerful mysteries.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Books #44-#55, or, The Rest of A Series of Unfortunate Events

I read the first volume of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events back in library school during my semester of reading all children's and YA things (for credit! being a librarian is awesome!). It was a quick read, and I enjoyed it, but I was so involved in reading a wide variety for that class that I did not continue the rest of the series.

Until last month, that is, when at the bequest of a friend I checked out the rest of the series from the library. This particular friend is something of a Lemony Snicket devotee, a word which here means he will enthusiastically, unabashedly, and charmingly talk about nothing else if you'll let him. He's actually had a phone conversation with Daniel Handler, the only person known to have personally interacted with Mr. Snicket in recent years. Anyway, after I grew weary of not understanding this friend's Lemony Snicket references, I read the rest of the books.

I will say just a few things about the books, as I really don't know that I can characterize them well enough to adequately convey just how intricate and interesting they are. The very basic premise is that the three Baudelaire children, orphaned after their parents' deaths in a fire, are perpetually trying to evade the schemes and clutches of one Count Olaf, a man who desperately wants to get his hands on the Baudelaire fortune. The first few books in the series focus almost entirely on the escape of the Baudelaires from Count Olaf, but as the books become higher in number, the plot develops most compellingly. Suddenly there is conspiracy, a secret organization, strange and intricate interconnectedness of characters and events, and a great many other things that keep the reader both interested and baffled, including parsley sodas.

If you've read these books, I would love to chat with you about the redeeming qualities of adult characters, the physical setting of this series of events, and the possible backstories of most, if not all, of the characters.

If you haven't read these books, you might consider doing so if you tend to also like books with extremely intricate plots, irreverent narrators, and/or a bit of macabre whimsy. Let me know what you think.