Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mama Bird

First Meals, Annabel Karmel
DK, 2004 updated edition, 187 pages

Oh, the feeding of a little one. A mother's task from the moment a new baby screams her first breath. I was grateful for an easy five months of exclusively breastfeeding my son, and he transitioned easily to baby rice cereal and baby oatmeal around 5 months old. But when it was time to add purees and combinations, I needed help. My library had a copy of First Meals. I checked it out, renewed it, and renewed it again. I had to have a copy.

The first thing I loved about the book was the layout. It's got glossy pages, lots of full-color photos of food and babies, and lists of ingredients in bold along the margin of the page for easy glancing. This is really helpful. In addition to recipes, each chapter contains helpful tips, medically-backed advice, and guidance for parents. Sidebars with bullet-point lists of things to remember or pantry staples or nutritional needs to keep in mind are easy to read and packed with information.

The recipes themselves don't require a degree from cooking school, but describe ingredients and procedures simply enough to be accessible to the amateur chef. Our favorite meal when Henry was just getting started with puree blends was Lentil and Vegetable Puree. I was actually envious of my son when he was chowing down on a lunch of Lentil and Veggie Puree! Pasta options, chicken and fish meals, and vegetable-rich dishes are featured in every chapter. In the chapter for babies between 9 and 12 months, meals include Apple and Date Oatmeal, Cheesy Pasta Stars, Creamy Chicken and Broccoli, and Flaked Cod with Tomatoes and Zucchini. Finger food choices appear in later chapters, and many of the recipes for older babies are tasty enough for the whole family. Weekly menu suggestions in the back of the book provide inspiration and encouragement to keep going when homemade baby foods start to feel like a burden.

For new moms first weaning little ones, nannies and babysitters looking for creative meal options, or veteran moms and grandmoms needing new inspiration, First Meals has friendly recipes and practical ideas that will please little ones from their first tastes until their first lunchboxes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Love Under the Big Top

Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen 
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006, 331 pages

I wanted an easy reread this past week, a quick escape into another world. It’s been a few years since I first read Water for Elephants, but I couldn’t put it down the first time and I was craving that momentum again. The second read was almost as good as the first and since a truly great novel would be even better the second time around, I can’t really give this one the highest possible marks. But it’s a personal favorite for sure and one I’ll recommend – with some caveats – to fiction lovers, especially those who like stories about animals, as I’ve found I do.

It’s depression-era New York. A college student is about to take his final exams at Cornell University when a family tragedy sends him on the open road alone. He hops a train – a circus train, of course – and the summer that follows crams in enough adventure to fill the Big Top several times over. There’s sex and there’s violence, more than my taste would prefer, but there’s love and kindness and beauty too. Picture an eccentric bunch of circus carnies trying to scrape a living out of a dead economy. Picture an upstanding near-graduate from an Ivy League school sharing half a boxcar with a midget clown and his dog. Picture a sequined beauty riding pure white horses and a half-mad animal trainer tricking newbies into feeding the lions by hand. And every night the circus train hurtles down the tracks toward the next town, crawling with the boss's henchmen assigned to toss working men out of cars when there’s not enough pay to go around. All the while, college boy is falling in love with two ladies: the woman riding the horses, and the fifty-three year old elephant.

At the end of the novel Sara Gruen includes an author’s note about some real life elephants whom she read about and who inspired her character, Rosie. It was these anecdotes that tipped the scales for me from liking this book to really loving it.  Though it’s fiction through and through, Gruen picked tidbits from circus history to make her story ring true. Knowing that things like that actually did happen makes the farfetched parts seem believable too.

I’ve become more discerning as I’ve gotten older, and a little more picky about the moral content of a novel. This one disappointed on that front. At the heart of the story is an illicit romance that’s poorly justified. So for that reason, I hesitate to recommend the book wholeheartedly. But Gruen’s thesis is noble: take care of the weak, and the weak will take care of you. Kindness wins. It’s got a happy ending and a likable supporting cast. It’s fun and quick and a bit like hopping a circus train yourself: be prepared to be swept off for a wild ride.