Friday, May 31, 2013

Book Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Candace's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)
The plot for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is simple: One great magician named Norrell believes it is his role in life to bring magic back to England. In the story, magic has long been part of England's history, but its value and presence has declined. Magic has become theoretical, but not practical. In other words, there are magicians out there, but they study magic instead of practicing magic. Mr Norrell is a true practicing magician, and he takes on a student, Jonathan Strange, who also is talented. At first they are united, but as you might guess, they turn against each other. The story is set during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800's, so it's a bit of fantasy and history-rewritten. 

Amazon suggested this novel because of my interest in Harry Potter. However, it's important to know that this isn't Young Adult literature. It's grown up, even though it's about magic. By grown up, I don't mean it's full of sex and violence, but I do mean it's over 800 dense pages long, so the author takes her time to develop the characters and explain the setting. The magic in the book is darker and less controllable. There are parts in the book that are downright creepy and unsettling, and the final resolution isn't tied up as pretty as Harry Potter.

In addition, there aren't any characters that I fell in love with. Now that statement may be enough to send people running, so let me explain: It's not that the characters weren't interesting or I didn't get involved in what was going to happen to them. It's just that they're not these great, lovable characters. There is no Harry or Frodo here. Mr Norrell is an old man who thinks he is IT concerning magic. He's the worst combination of arrogance and wimpiness. He wants to bring magic back to England, but he does so on his terms, sometimes manipulating situations and people to do so. Jonathan Strange is Norrell's opposite, but although he is younger, smoother, and bolder, he too can be tricky.

So why is this book a good read? 

First, it has an intricate plot. Characters which at first seem insignificant end up coming back into the picture with a key purpose hundreds of pages later. A tiny detail about them (like blue writing on one magician's skin) leaves us wanting to know more. Conflicts feel piled on top of each other, but by the end, we see they were tied together. Although Norrell may think he is the man determining the fate of magic in England, we find that there was a grand plan all along, and he and Strange are just a part of it.

Second, the magic is interesting. At times, it is also unsettling, but I think that's what makes this such a great element to her work. We're not always sure what to think of the magician or the magic. There is talk of "dark magic" in the book, but it isn't as black and white as we want it to be. Fairies can be good or bad, the Raven King--the old great magician-king in England from long ago--is loved and feared. Norrell prides himself on making good magical decisions, and yet his magic brings one of the darker characters (an un-named fairy) into the story. Magic is real and part of their world (Strange moves entire cities and people just accept it as normal), and yet at times, we recognize with the characters that something unnatural is taking place.

Third, the writing is good and solid. From the first page, I knew that I could read the novel because Clarke is a great writer. She's dry and clever, while at the same time able to write really beautiful passages. It's true that some parts were tedious for me to read, but I'll take that over bad writing any day. She cleverly kept me interested, so I worked through (okay, sometimes skimmed) certain passages so I could know what was going to become of England, of magic, of the books, of Norrell, of Strange, of Lady Pole, of John Uskglass...

There are a lot of thoughtful thematic ideas that come up in the novel: the role of books and knowledge, how one choice can bring a multitude of consequences, the strength (and perceived weakness) of women, the tension between reason and madness (hello, King Lear), the clash between classes, the wise fool, the kingly servant, the contrast between appearance and reality, the willingness to trust what you can't see. Mirrors, ravens, the forest, and colors are a few motifs to keep the symbol-lover interested.

Four stars, definitely worth the slightly longer read!

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A New Name

Yesterday Camille changed her name on Facebook. It's a sign of our times that the name-changing on Facebook brings it all home, but it really does! Crazy. Our whole lives we go by the name belonging to our parents, and then one day, we marry a man and take on his name. Maybe I'm thinking just a little too much about it right now, but it really is somewhat of a frightening and beautiful thing all at once. Letting go of the identity we had before and taking on a new one, trusting that the life with this person is going to be worth any sacrifice. (Oh yes, giving up your name is a sacrifice. Especially if your new name goes nicely with "touchy".)

It's very spiritual, isn't it? I can't help but think of the verse in Revelation 2, where Jesus says that to the one who is victorious, He will give a new name. I wonder what my new name will be. (Yes, I'm counting on the fact that I will be victorious in Christ!)

And with that, here's the teaser the photographer posted on Facebook of the new Mr. and Mrs. Schuil. I love it and can't wait to see the rest.
Photo by Peter Amend Photography

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Creamy Vanilla Puddin'

As much as I am a fan of delicious dark chocolate, I have a hard time passing up a creamy vanilla anything - pudding, custard, cake batter :) My husband, on the other hand, finds anything that is plain ol' vanilla simply not worth his time or calories. Just kidding - he could care less about calories. But really, he'd rather go without dessert (!!!) than have a vanilla cupcake or some vanilla pudding.

Usually, I make chocolate desserts for him, and we're both happy. But sometimes I remain completely selfish and make vanilla pudding just for me. I eat it warm, straight off the stove, plain or with whipped cream or with a bit of chocolate shavings.

There is no shortage of vanilla pudding recipes, but I do like this one very much, and it's easy with a little bit of richness added to it with the egg. I also toss in a tablespoon of butter at the end, along with the vanilla extract. (Because, honestly, who has vanilla beans just lying around?) The recipe comes from Smitten Kitchen.

2 2/3 c milk (divide it into two)
1/2 c sugar
1/4 c cornstarch
1/4 t salt
2 t of vanilla (or 1/2 vanilla bean)
1 large egg

Bring 2 cups of the milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a bowl. Whisk in the remaining 2/3 cup milk, then the egg, into the sugar/cornstarch/salt mixture. Once the milk is boiling, add it to the mixture slowly, whisking the whole time.  Return it back to the saucepan, stirring constantly with a spatula, for one minute. Take it off the heat and stir in the vanilla and butter. Pour into dishes and refrigerate. Or just dig in.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Potato & Leek Soup

It's been a long weekend. Well, let's be honest: it's been a long couple of months, perhaps even a long year. After all the busyness, a bowl of soup sounded nice to me. Creamy soup with potatoes, not too thick and not too thin, perhaps light on the cheese and heavy on the flavor.

I happened to have a lovely leek and a few potatoes that needed to be used. Besides that, the recipe didn't call for too much else: some butter, a few slices of chopped bacon, some cream, and a bit of thyme, pepper, and salt. I added a little cayenne, garlic, and cheese.

It was delicious and all that I hoped it would be :) Make it, and enjoy!
Potato & Leek Soup from Emeril

1 large leek - set aside green leaves, and slice the white part
2 large russet potatoes cubed (skin on)
4 slices of turkey bacon (you can also do 2 slices of regular bacon), chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed well
handful of black peppercorn
2-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
4 cups chicken stock (2 cans)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup cream
handful of parmesan or other favorite white cheese (an Italian blend would work, too)
2 tablespoons snipped chives to sprinkle on top

1. In a soup pot or Dutch oven, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the chopped bacon and cook until soft and flavorful. In the meantime, take 2 large leek leaves (rinse well), make them into a cross, and put a handful of black peppercorn, your sprigs of fresh thyme, and a bay leaf or two in the center. Fold it up like a package and tie with twine. Set this aside. (This is a bouquet garni.)
2. Add the sliced leeks (white park only - rinse well). Cook for about five minutes until soft and wilted.
3. Add 1/2 cup dry white wine. Bring to a boil.
4. Add 4 cups chicken stock, diced potatoes (about two large russets), 1 teaspoon of salt, and bouquet garni.
5. Add salt, white pepper (if you have it), and a teaspoon of cayenne if you like the spice. Throw in two very smashed garlic cloves.
6. Simmer for half an hour or until the potatoes are soft.
7. Once soft, use an immersion blender and blend to the consistency you like. Add in a 1/2 cup of cream and a handful of cheese. (You can also blend in a processor or blender.)
8. Serve, then top each bowl with a few snips of chives.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Camille+Scott (Part 2)

For the rest of the wedding story, see the following posts: The Rehearsal, The Pre-Show, and Part 1.

Once we arrived at the venue, we took pictures, set up final items, did a sound check, then headed to the tent where we excitedly awaited the ceremony. We had a great time hanging out, as you can see!
We all had a good laugh over the giant mic headset Robby was given. Lauren and Chels did some great poses with it, and we are sure they both have careers in some type of sports-casting.
Probably the loveliest sight was the dessert bar. We had been working on draping white doors with beautiful cream and blush fabric, and it served as the prettiest backdrop!
Bikes were a sweet theme woven throughout the decor!
The toasts were all pretty fantastic! As you can see, Camille and Scott had a grand time listening to all the crazy stories.
Cake in the face? Not this couple. 
So many friends came out to celebrate...
The rest of the night was spent on the dance floor!
 Are we excited for our little sister???
Yes we are!!!

Congratulations, Scott and Camille! We love you!

Camille+Scott: The Pre-Show

Camille's wedding day began bright and early at my parents' home where a team of highly-trained staff worked their wedding day magic. A hair stylist and make-up artist were on call for all of us women, while the photographer snapped shots throughout the morning. With each hour, Camille looked more and more stunning. We knew Scott was going to be knocked flat with the beauty of his bride! Here's a bit of our morning:

Camille's hair stylist Christine puts the final touches on her look, pinning the hand-made veil:
A quick lip touch-up!
Check out those fabulous shoes!
And the final rush begins! Grab the flats and purse and get going! We're an hour late! (Seriously.)
Love her!
Don't let the train drag!
Almost there...
I included this for purely selfish reasons since I'm actually smiling. Camille looks a bit concerned, on the other hand. I'm sure she's wondering how she and her giant dress will fit in the car. (They did, by the way.)
Made it! (Who's that guy?, you may be's the photographer who kindly offered to take Camille to the venue. Good thing because none of us was ready!)
Once the bride was safely away, the rest of us finished up. Now my clothes actually matched my hair and make-up!

Camille+Scott: Rehearsal

We're going to start from the beginning. Well...not the very beginning, as in not when Camille threw away all the rules of dating and shamelessly pursued Scott until he finally became aware that she was his future-wife. We're going to start with the rehearsal on Friday.

Friday was a fun day, simple as that. It was busy, of course, as most day-before-the-wedding-day's go. But it was fun. Carly and I met up for manicures and pedicures, and then we headed to a spa to get spray-tanned. (First time! FYI - it is nothing like the Friends episode.) There we got to see and chat with Camille who was having her nails done. After being beautifully bronzed, I ran to my hair stylist who gave me a quick fringe trim, got my car washed, quickly primped and then headed to Victorian Garden for the rehearsal.

Camille and Scott were adorable, fairly at ease, and looked so lovely that it could have easily been a casual wedding. Our wedding coordinator that night was extremely helpful, so between her and Robby (who was marrying them), our night went quite smoothly.

After the run-through, we went to Bravo Farms for the dinner, thanks to the Schuil family, and had a fabulous time celebrating, sharing, and digging in to the amazing food!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Camille+Scott (Part 1)

So many wonderful pictures and moments to share, but for now, here is just a little taste of the lovely wedding last night: