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In the late fall, I decided I needed a vacation. Work had been crazy, friends were having rough times, and so on. At first, I thought I would just take a week off from work, but stay in town. With the help of an airfare voucher and an ad for good fares to London, though, my vacation plan got much more grand. I had been to London once before, my senior year of college, but the visit had been cut very short. It was 1997, and I was supposed to fly from Boston to England on April 1st for about four days in London and a long weekend in Chichester, where a friend was getting married. Alas, April fooled us big time with a blizzard that delayed my trip three days. So, I spent less than 48 hours in London that trip, which made me eager to go back.

St. Pancras exterior

So, 15 years later, I got to actually spend my four days in London, in early December, and it was awesome.  I packed a lot into the days, but left knowing there was so much more I could have done.  I arrived in the morning, a little bleary from the long, overnight flight, but eager to get exploring.  After leaving my luggage at the hostel, I headed to King’s Cross/St. Pancras.  This is a transportation hub and shopping area, with two stations right next to each other.  King’s Cross is sleek and modern, while St. Pancras is ornate and Victorian.  Both house rail platforms, restaurants and shops.  St. Pancras is, at least to me, more picturesque, so it bore the brunt of my shutterbugging.

St. Pancras Station

ornate

Everywhere I looked there were lovely decorative elements, inside and out. And on the upper level of the station I stumbled upon the Olympic rings and a huge sculpture that I found charming and perfectly suited to such a busy place of departure and arrival.

Olympic rings at St. Pancras

statue

Honestly, one of my main reasons for visiting King’s Cross/St. Pancras was to check out Eat St., which is a spot where a variety of food trucks and vendors gather at lunchtime a few days a week. There were so many delicious sounding items that it took me a while to decide on my lunch. I finally settled on a pork taco from Buen Provecho and a noodle soup from Yum Bun.

pork taco

soup

After lunch I headed around the corner to the British Library. I think this was the only attraction I visited on both my trips to London, which isn’t really surprising, since I am an avid reader and majored in English. The Library, though, is rather different from what I remembered since it’s current site (created to bring together the parts of the collection that had been scattered around London) opened in 1997, but after my visit. My romantic side kind of prefers the old look, with the glass cases of manuscripts surrounded by two stories of shelves, but I have to admit that the new galleries are better organized and more informative. I found it thrilling to see the original manuscripts of books and authors I love, Austen, Bronte, Shakespeare, along with letters to and from royalty and other historical figures. This time I also really enjoyed the impressive collection of religious texts, many gorgeously illustrated, from all sorts of faiths. One of the temporary exhibits was on Dickens and his historical context, from which I learned a lot. Well, truly I retained only a little, but I have notes. (Yes, I am such a nerd that I take notes on vacation.)

British Library passageway

My final tourist stop of the day, though I was nearly falling down tired, was the Wellcome Collection. This place is a quirky museum that began with the personal collection of Sir Henry Wellcome and has expanded to include art and other exhibits that relate to health and medicine. Seriously, quirky. The main collection ranges from chastity belts and fertility charms to amputation saws and prosthetic limbs. There are rotating exhibits, as well. I was particularly taken with the Mexican votives in the Miracles and Charms exhibit. The votives, or miracle paintings, are painted on tin roof tiles or other small plaques and created in gratitude to God for deliverance from illness, accident, or some other difficulty. There were dozens of these works, and they were somehow both uniform (standard size and some very common compositions and motifs) and diverse (folksy to sophisticated and all sorts of stories from bandits to electrocution.) Fascinating stuff.

By then it was evening and, not having gotten much sleep on the flight the night before, I was exhausted. So after heading back to the hostel, I had no trouble at all going to sleep, even though it was only afternoon back home.

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I kind of took the easy way out with this first foray into “Cooking by the Book”.  These two dishes are not complicated.  But, boy howdy, are they yummy!  The Fettucine with Creamy Gorgonzola Sauce is from my Sundays at Moosewood cookbook, and the WIne-Poached Pears come from New Recipes From Moosewood Restaurant.

I picked the pasta recipe first (from the Italy section of Sundays at Moosewood, which has sections from all sorts of regional and ethnic cuisines), and what goes with bleu cheese? Fruit and wine, of course! So the wine poached pears were a no-brainer. Guess I wanted easy, gourmet comfort food.

Both dishes are simple, but the pears take some time, so I started with them.  I only used 4 pears, because, much as I love leftovers, half a dozen poached pears seemed excessive for one person.  I peeled the pears and put them in a pot with a sliced orange (the recipe doesn’t say whether to peel the orange, so I took the sangria approach and left the peel on), a cinnamon stick, and some whole cloves (I think I grabbed five or six).  I didn’t have any whole allspice, so I just skipped that bit of the recipe.

Then a cup or so of apple juice and about 4 cups of red wine went in.  I brought the contents to a boil and then let them simmer.  According to the recipe the cooking time varies depending on size and variety of pear, but “will probably not take more than half an hour.”  I didn’t time them, but I think it was more like an hour before my pears were “tender and rosy”.

I let the pears cool, while I made the pasta for my entree.  The recipe suggests serving the pears with lightly sweetened whipped cream, but since the pasta dish called for cream, bleu cheese, and cream cheese, I figured I could, and should, skip the cream for dessert.  Honestly, the pears didn’t need any additions, but I will get to the final verdict later.

The Fettucine with Creamy Gorgonzola Sauce is ridiculously easy.  It’s definitely going in my weeknight repetoire, since it barely takes longer to make the whole dish than it does to prepare the pasta.  While the pasta water came to a boil, I cut the bleu cheese and cream cheese into chunks.

I had picked a “gorgonzola dolce” at the store, and it worked fine, but I think a more typical, saltier, more pungent gorgonzola would have been even better.  I also used reduced fat cream cheese, since that’s what I had in the fridge.  Once the pasta was in the boiling water, I melted the butter in a saucepan and added the cream with the heat on low to prevent boiling.

Then the cheeses were added, and I stirred the pot regularly to incorporate the melting cheese.

Don’t forget to also stir the cooking pasta once in a while, so it won’t stick to the bottom of the pot or stick together too much. While the sauce and pasta were cooking, I also chopped and toasted some walnuts to go with the dish, which is one of the variations mentioned in the cookbook.  Finally the sauce was all melted and smooth, and I added a generous amount of coarsely ground black pepper.

Once the pasta was perfectly al dente (which I never seem to manage, so hooray!), I drained it and put it back in the pot with the gorgonzola sauce.

A quick stir, and the pasta was ready to go.  I put some on a plate and topped it with a sprinkling of the toasted nuts.  The recipe calls for adding parmesan at this point, but I forgot.  Oops.  No great loss, though.

I rounded out the meal with a salad of mixed greens, sauteed asparagus, and lemon vinaigrette, which kept me from feeling too guilty about that creamy, cheesy pasta.  The pasta was luscious, and the crunchy walnuts added just the right amount of contrast.  The dish packed a lot of flavor for something so quick and simple.  And the poached pear was a refreshing end to the meal.  Why don’t I make poached pears all the time?  It was sweet, but not too sweet, with the wine and spice flavors adding to, but not hiding the yummy pear taste.  It didn’t need any whipped cream to be delicious.

I call both dishes very successful!  Maybe next time I do a Cooking By the Book post I will tackle something a little more ambitious, but if you make either of these dishes, I don’t think you’ll mind their simplicity one bit.

Fettucine with Creamy Gorgonzola Sauce (from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant), serves 4

1 pound fettucine

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup heavy cream or mikl

4 oz. Gorgonzola cheese, cut into pieces

4 oz. cream cheese, cut into cubes

freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Bring a large covered pot of water to a boil.  Add the fettucine, stir, and cover the pot until the water returns to a boil.  In a saucepan large enough to hold the cooked pasta, melt the butter.  Mix in the cream or milk and heat carefully, never allowing it to boil.  Add the gorgonzola and cream cheese, stirring frequently, until they are melted and the sauce is fairly smooth.  Add freshly ground pepper.  When the pasta is al dente, drain it and mix it into the sauce.  Toss well to coat the pasta and serve immediately topped with chopped walnuts and parmesan.

Wine-Poached Pears (from New Recipes from Moosewood Restaurant), serves 6

6 pears, peeled with stems intact

5 to 6 cups poaching liquid: red wine and fruit juice (pear, apple, apricot, or other) in any proportion

1 orange sliced

1 cinnamon stick

a few whole cloves

several whole allspice

heavy cream, whipped with a little vanilla and maple syrup

Put the pears into a stainless steel pot large enough for an uncrowded single layer.  Add enough poaching liquid to cover the pears so they float and bob around.  Add the sliced orange and the spices.  Simmer on medium heat.  Roll the pears over once or twice so that they poach evenly.  Poaching time will vary depending on the variety, size, and ripeness, but will probably not take more than half an hour.  When the pears are tender and rosy-tinted, carefully remove them from the pot.  Arrange them upright in a bowl.  Add poaching liquid to about 1 inch deep and refrigerate.  Whip the cream with a little vanilla extract and syrup until stiff.  Serve each pear on top of a generous scoop of whipped cream and spoon on a little poaching liquid.

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I love historical fiction and I really like fantasy novels, so Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series is right up my alley. The series is basically a reimagining of the Napoleonic Wars with the various countries having aerial forces consisting of trained dragons with crews of airmen. The dragons are sentient and are pivotal characters.

The concept may sound gimmicky, but Novik is incredibly adept at working the dragons in in an entirely believable way. She doesn’t just throw in her clever idea; she really explores and develops it. Some fantasy novels seem like a superficial mashup of imaginary things, magic and underground cities or fairies and giant octopi, but the Temeraire series really delves into the question, “If there were sentient dragons contributing to the Napoleonic Wars, what would that be like?” The books are full of action and battles, but they also explore the cultural, relational, and even political impact of humans and dragons living and working together. The result is a series that is often gripping and always intriguing.

Beyond her expertise in crafting a fascinating, fantastical take on an eventful period in history, Novik’s characters are varied, interesting, and well-rounded. That goes for human and draconic characters alike. With a separate race (dragons) and a group of enemies (Napoleon and his forces), Novik could easily have fallen into the trap of making those characters all of a type. Instead, the major characters, whether human or reptilian, English or French, have fleshed out motivations and personalities.

You may have noticed that all that commentary is about the series, not about Victory of Eagles.  All those things that I adore about the series are in this book, but I wasn’t quite thrilled with this particular volume.  There is a lot of internal struggle and questions of ethics in this book, and it was just a little too philosophical for me.  To be sure, there are great plot moments and a dose of the witty dialogue that I loved in the preceding books, but Victory of Eagles just didn’t captivate me the way the other books have.  Since there is already another book beyond this one published in the series, I am optimistic that the pace picks up again, but it is possible that Naomi Novik lost some steam five books into the series.  Victory of Eagles was still a fun read, but it wasn’t the engaging, laughter and tear inducing, page-turner I have come to expect from this series.

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I don’t know where to begin, other than to say that I loved this book.  I started it on the Friday evening before my vacation, and finished it on the plane early that Monday morning.  Clearly, it was a page turner.  The most notable element of the book is that it is told from the perspective of a five year-old.  I am a tough critic when it comes to how kids are portrayed, since my job is based on knowing how kids think, and Donoghue does an excellent job of showing the ways in which a preschooler’s thinking is both literal and magical.  Yet she also manages to give the reader a thorough view of the little boy’s mother, the book’s other main character, even though we only see her through his eyes.  Sometimes when an author uses such an unusual point of view, it can be gimmicky, but in this case it really works and even enhances the plot.

The subject matter of this book is not cheerful, so if you don’t like novels with sad or disturbing elements, it is not for you.  Room as a whole is not depressing, though.  I tend to like books that involve characters struggling with but ultimately triumphing over difficult circumstances, and Donoghue’s story does just that.  The characters are imperfect and there is no fairytale ending, but the book is positive in a realistic way.  There’s some fascinating character and relationship development, as well.  (You know, it is really hard to write a review that captures why I love this book without any spoilers!)

I’d love to discuss Room with anyone who has read it, so please comment with your thoughts.  If any spoilers are involved, I will edit this post to include a warning.

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A couple of weeks ago I picked up a few books at my local thrift store, including Peak, by Roland Smith.  I am an avid reader, so yard sales and thrift stores help me feed my book habit without breaking the bank.  I actually really need to gather up the piles of books I have read but don’t want to keep and send them back into the secondhand world.  They are adding to the immense amount of clutter in my bedroom…

Anyway, back to Peak.  I didn’t realize this was a young adult book, until I actually picked it up to read it, and I also thought it was non-fiction.  Shows how much attention I was paying!  But the synopsis on the back cover, which described the story of a teen who tries to climb Mt. Everest with his father had me intrigued.  I enjoy reading young adult lit every once in a while, too.  There are some really good YA books, and a quick, easy read can be a nice change.

Peak was quick and easy, for sure, but it was also really enjoyable.  The plot captured my interest, and the details Smith gives about mountain climbing are fascinating.  The eponymous narrator/main character is a 14 year-old, and I am not sure how well Smith captures the mentality of a boy that age.  Peak just seems a bit too rational and well-adjusted, but I’ve never been a 14 year-old boy, so what do I know?  That said, he’s an interesting character who goes through some good character development in the book.  I think Smith did a great job overall with the characters.  They seem real and dimensional, not the caricatures often found in YA lit.  There’s a good dose of action in the book, too, as you’d expect with the Everest setting.  So whether you enjoy books that focus on character psychology or on exciting plot, there’s something here for you.

I will say that I didn’t love the climax of the book.  Without spoiling it, about the most I can say is that it was dramatic and unexpected, but didn’t quite ring true.  Still, it was a fun, engaging book.  I’d recommend it for an adult who wants a light novel (well, light in the sense of time and concentration, not mood) or for a younger reader, especially those interested in the outdoors or extreme sports.  I’d also recommend it to those of you who, like me, are getting sick of winter already.  Reading about teams of climbers sleeping in tents and climbing ice walls in brutal weather conditions puts things in perspective a bit, at least temporarily.

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