Books Are Pretty

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Homeless Channel, Volumes 1 & 2

When I was about thirteen or fourteen, I overheard my tennis coach, Mark, and his assistant, Tim, talking about a girl who had just stopped by the front desk at the tennis center to schedule a lesson.

“Do you think she’s pretty?” asked Mark after she left. “I can’t tell.”

“Mmm, I don’t know,” said Tim. “I think she just missed.”

I have no idea why this little snippet of conversation stuck around in my brain for 23 years, unless it stayed specifically to provide me with an apt analogy for what I feel about Matt Silady’s graphic serial novel The Homeless Channel.

Darcy, an up-and-coming eager young TV producer successfully pitches a television channel that “maintains both profitability and social responsibility,” featuring socially conscious programming in the day, and at night training the cameras on the homeless.

The network executives, seemingly not bounds to the same rules of reality as the rest of us, buy her pitch and put her at the helm of a new cable station, “The Homeless Channel,” to draw attention to the realities of life on the streets. The caveat is that they give her a minder in the form of a hot Suit, whose job is to keep an eye on the talent and make sure they don’t get too carried away. Once the premise has been established in Volume I, Volume II settles in and the plot starts to unfold into a sort of predictable, self-righteous preachiness honed to perfection by college students – the homeless people are a bit smug, seemingly beyond criticism, and most shockingly, seem content to volunteer their camera time rather than ask for a paycheck, Darcy herself seems to be less interested in helping the homeless and more interested in shaming people, (her own sister is homeless, apparently by choice rather than mental illness or lack of a loving family), and the Suit, despite the fact that he Just Doesn’t Get It, actually has a heart.

There’s two ways to review The Homeless Channel based on the storyline. It’s either a sanctimonious finger-wagging at the reader, or it’s a brilliant satire of characters that sanctimoniously finger-wag, and Silady is having a hell of a good time working that angle.

I wrestled similarly with Silady’s method of illustration. The story takes place in my hometown of Chicago, and when reading the first volume I was struck by his too-perfect shot of the Chicago skyline, and his flawless perspective of the high rise buildings hovering in the sky above the heads of the characters. Having spent many years standing on the same downtown streets in the panels, looking at my friends with the buildings behind them, I knew one thing: nobody can draw that well. As it turns out, Silady has an unusual method of illustration for his panels. He photoshops cut out pictures of local actors, who are playing the parts of his characters. Directed to convey specific emotions, Silady snaps the photograph, cuts out the actors, removes the color, and inks over the photograph in a long process he illustrates at his website.

While this is one of the most original ways of illustrating a graphic novel I’ve seen, using Photoshopped pictures gives the panels a certain loss of fluidity and sense of motion that more traditional drawings manage to convey. The result is a rather flat effect, causing the reader to feel somewhat removed from the story.

The first two chapters of The Homeless Channel raise a ton of questions – Why doesn’t Darcy offer her sister a spare bedroom or at least the couch to sleep on? If she’s so concerned with the homeless, why won’t she pay the homeless she puts on TV? Will that one homeless woman ever just lighten the hell up and take a damn shower? Whether these questions are answered in the upcoming volumes remains to be seen, but the one question that I wasn’t able to find an answer to in my brief Google research is also the most mysterious: Why can’t I find an online store to direct readers to for their own copies?

Seriously, that’s just weird.

Update! Matt Silady responds in the Comments Section:

I just wanted to take a moment to address the availability of the comic. The books that you reviewed were mini-comics (copied and stapled at home with lots of love.) I have only a couple left and if anyone is interested in scooping them up - send me an email!

The good news is the third and fourth chapters are almost finished and the entire series is being collected by a San Francisco comic publisher as soon as I get the letters done.

And there you have it - thanks, Matt!

First published at the Journal for the Lincoln Heights Literary Society

The Homeless Channel, Volumes 1 & 2
By Matt Silady
2006 by Sunday Morning Comics
Soft cover, saddle-stitched
37 pp.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports.

The lineup from my high school girls’ tennis team was this: I played the first position, Christy Faustmann played second, and Stacy Phillips played third. That Christy and I took the top two slots wasn’t surprising, since our parents spent thousands of dollars on three-times-weekly private lessons and thousands of hours driving and flying us all across the country to play in regional and national junior tournaments. We were girls gunning for college athletic scholarships, and when we entered high school we fully expected to take the top slots on the team for the next four years.

Except we almost didn’t. Stacy Phillips’ mother didn’t spend any money on lessons for Stacy. Stacy had never played in a USTA-sanctioned tournament, and it didn’t look like she intended to, either. Stacy was self-taught, had weird form on her groundstrokes and an even weirder serve. She wasn’t thin and wiry like most of the tennis girls in the mid-80’s were, and had laidback footwork that gave her the appearance of being slow. In the 9th grade challenge matches, I watched her take out Missy Thompson, Shannon Wyont, and Christy’s sister Laura, all girls who had been playing for years in junior tournaments and had their fair share of private lessons. I assumed all three were off their game that week. When it was my turn to play Stacy, I still felt sure I was going to win easily. I didn’t. Everywhere I hit the ball, Stacy was magically there, as fluid and relaxed as if she’d strolled over to the sidelines for a sip of water or a snack during the rallies and ambled back to the precise spot where I’d hit the ball. She’d chop back everything I hit over the net, putting an odd and difficult-to-return spin on the ball before sliding back to the centerline. I won 6-3, 6-3, but it was a surprising struggle. The fact is, even with my fancy lessons and competitive experience, I simply was not, and would never be, the athlete that Stacy was. She was gifted. She had a mind for the strategy of the game that can’t really be learned, and an ability to overcome the odd form she had taught herself and win. She performed the same way in basketball, where she led the team to the State Championships year after year. She was our secret weapon. We loved introducing her to girls on other teams who competed in tournament play, watch their eyes flick disinterestedly over her as her name, unrecognizable from the junior circuit, was announced. Then we’d watch Stacy stroll onto the court and administer a beating to the overconfident girls in the same way we had once been overconfident ourselves. Stacy was a natural athlete, the most superior athlete on the team by far. We all knew it, and we all accepted it. I certainly knew she was a far better athlete than I would ever be, and I would have drowned myself in the Gatorade if she’d ever beaten me, because my ego and competitive drive would never have allowed it.

I gave my entire adolescence to playing tennis. I played almost every weekday after school, and spent every weekend in tournaments. I probably missed enough Friday afternoons to hold me back a year, having to leave to make the afternoon first round matches in Columbia. I remember my mother once expressing relief that I had gotten good enough to be a seeded player in most of the tournaments and would receive an automatic entry into the second round, skipping the Friday afternoon matches and starting instead on Saturday morning.

I played girls who cheated, who screamed with anger and frustration when they were playing poorly, who would make friendships based on the hierarchy of the seeded players over unseeded. I played girls who would try to hit you in the face with the ball as hard as they could, girls who were so competitive with each other that they hated each other, and pounded each ball at each other as if they were using their fists in a bar brawl. The girls I played, played to win.

So I thought I was going to understand Brooke de Lench’s Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports. I have a sports upbringing. I understand junior athletics. I’ve seen the best and the worst out of parents, coaches, and kids. I empathize with how young competitive athletes feel, and I know that, boy or girl, I can relate to their struggles and glory in their achievements.

But it seems like de Lench and I were on different planets regarding female athletes, despite her having been a young female athlete herself. In between the good advice on how to comfort a child after a loss, what to pack for a road trip, and how to spot an abusive coach, she would devote entire chapters to the “hardwired” differences between boys and girls, and those hardwired girl traits were not recognizable to any experience I’ve ever had either as a parent or an athlete.

De Lench believes that girls are being turned off sports, not only because they are perceived as being unfeminine (which is true) but also because girls are “naturally inclined to play in a process-oriented, collective, inclusive, and supportive way emphasizing relationships and responsibilities.” Girls don’t want to win because they’re afraid of “hurting the other girl’s feelings, because losing makes people feel bad.”

She touts the U.S. women’s soccer team as being the best of all possible role models for young girls, and again I agree, but didn’t de Lench watch the documentary about the team where the players reminisced about how much they hated the Norwegian team and how badly they wanted to beat them? Doesn’t she remember Brandy Chastain’s infamous shirt removal at the end of the U.S/China China game at the Rosebowl? Does she think Chastain ripped off her shirt out of grievance for hurting China’s feelings?

She brings up star Mia Hamm’s insistence that she would not have her success without her teammates, but is that really, as de Lench suggests, a self-effacing graciousness exclusive to women? I seem to recall watching more than a few men’s sporting events where the stars of men’s games giving credit to their teammates (after giving credit to God and their mothers). Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan also come to mind as being unfailingly supportive and gracious in their remarks about their opponents.

De Lench is so sold on this whole “hardwiring” concept that she routinely overlooks the obvious. In the first of many, many paragraphs in the book that I flagged, de Lench writes, “Girls are hardwired to desire connection, cooperation, and collaboration and to resist overt competition. Unlike boys, who are more willing to sit on the bench because it allows them to connect socially with other boys, girls who go out for a sport expect to play. Many girls quit sports as they enter their teen years because they know the only way to keep playing is to play sports like boys in a hypercompetitive, winner-take-all environment where only the most skilled girls play.”

Yes, I know I get on my feminist high horse from time to time, and in the interest of fairness to de Lench, I read this paragraph to my coworkers in my mostly-female, not especially feminist office space to solicit their opinion. Once the uproarious laughter died down, they agreed that girls are, at least, their daughters and every girl they’ve ever known, were more competitive than boys, and took winning and losing more seriously than any of their sons ever did.

And as one of my coworkers pointed out, the reason girls quit playing sports isn’t because all that yucky winning interferes with all that caring and nurturing they’ve got to do, it’s because athlete women are perceived as less feminine than their non-athletic sisters. Non-feminine, for the straight girls, typically boils down to fewer dates on Friday night. If sitting on the bench of a girls’ tennis team increased a girls’ chances of constantly having her dance card full, like it does for boys, YOU’D SEE GIRLS HAPPILY SITTING ON THE BENCH.

Jesus, Brooke. Duh.

Reading this book was starting to make me feel like a struggle for the soul of de Lench was going on. On one hand, she seems to be an ally of girls competitive sports, and a supporter of Title IX, and she stresses the importance of coaches not raising boys to belittle women’s accomplishments by using comparisons to women as insults thrown at male athletes (“You throw like a girl!” “Where’s your training bra?” etc). Then she turns around and says these completely off-base, crazy things, like:

“…because girls have a harder time than boys competing against one another…they need to be able to support and get along with their teammates in order for the team to function. Girls need to feel that the other girls on the team don’t view themselves as better athletes.”

Remember Stacy Phillips up there in the introduction?

Or this:

“While sports are important for girls and have enormous benefits for them, boys, given the way they are hardwired (me, here: there’s that word again!), need sports and competition:”

And then she gives a laundry list of reasons, “Sports keeps boys active and physically fit. Sports help boys develop self control. Sports help boys develop self-confidence. Sports provide a place in which boys can form friendships with other boys.” All of these reasons are true, of course, but they also all apply to girls as well.

Sometimes, she passionately writes about girls preferring their non-competitive games such as jacks and hopscotch, games which I’d like to point out, end in winners and losers, over playing organized games on the field at recess like the boys do, then on the very next page she admonishes coaches to avoid culturally-based gender stereotypes.

I tell you, it’s enough to make this Girl Reviewer angry, except that de Lench feels that “women who are angry sound tense and whiny.”

Well. That’s not very nice. And, I would submit, rather subjective.

So what is going on with de Lench’s contradictory views, where her blind allegiance to “hardwiring” is getting in the way over overwhelming evidence and logic to the contrary? The answer is finally revealed on page 217, when de Lench writes,

“Dr. James Dobson says it best in his book…”

And that’s where I quit reading.

For crying out loud, James Dobson?

Dr. James Dobson, for those of you who do not know, is a far right wing Christian fundamentalist who wrote a book called The Strong-Willed Child where he built his premise of child-rearing around a heart-warming episode where he beats his little dog with a belt to teach it obedience. The dog’s crime? Napping in the bathroom. James Dobson, whose “men and women are completely, totally, utterly different” is little more than a means to his need for domination, manipulation, and control. A man who nobody should ever, ever look to for advice in either child-rearing or for enlightened views on women. The mixed messages in this book make for a perfect example of the knots right wing women often tie themselves into when the reality they see collide with fundamentalist delusion, and despite the practical advice listed in the book for navigating the waters of children’s sports, ultimately the baggage she’s carrying with regard to women, and women in sports, is so wrong-headed and distracting that I can not recommend this book to parents of boys or girls.

Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports
By Brooke de Lench
September, 2006 by Harper Collins
Softcover, 297 pp.
ISBN: 0-06-088163-4

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Dying For It: Tales of Sex and Death.

It wouldn’t be too strong of an overstatement to say I dreaded reading this collection of erotica. I didn’t know for sure what to expect, but I suspected it was either stories about necrophilia, or just as bad, story after story of women murdered during sex. Or that the stories, like most erotica, would be unbearable hackneyed.

This dread didn’t lessen with reading the first story, either, although I was relieved to see neither necrophilia nor misogyny factored into it. The story itself, though, about a Muslim woman and a white man joining the Mile High club on the hijacked September 11th flight from Boston to L.A. left me cold. Maybe I’m just not ready to view the events of that day as acceptable jack off fodder.

The collection, edited by Mitzi Szereto, improved greatly after that first dreadful story, and although it does cover murder stories (Szereto’s own contribution, “It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is a naughtily delightful story about a woman who’s had it up to here with her husband’s mid-life crisis), the stories also deal with grief and love. The tales range from hilarious, from Roberta Beach Jacobson’s “Woman-in-a-Box,” the torrid, yet poignant love between a man and his blowup doll, to spooky, Lauren Henderson’s modern Scottish retelling of Bluebeard, “His Last Duchess.” And of course, there are many, many ghost stories.

This collection does the genre right, focusing on the story line in as great a detail as the graphic sex scene, and refusing to forgo the careful building of well-crafted sentences in favor of the cheap and quick one-handed read, more Anais Nin than the dreadful Herotica series, whose terrible, amateurish prose generally leaves the reader more irritated than titillated.

While the Gothesque theme of sex with a death twist (or death with a sex twist) may not leave too many people hot and bothered, the stories themselves are strong enough to be enjoyed on their own merits on a gloomy rainy day.


Originally published at the Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society

Dying for It: Tales of Sex and Death
Edited by Mitzi Szereto
March, 2006 by Thunder’s Mouth Press
Paperback, 390pp.
ISBN: 1-56025-857-8

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Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Complete Organic Pregnancy

In order to avoid the inevitable questions from strangers regarding my non-existent pregnancy, I loaned this book to one of my coworkers, Sirnollia, who was actually pregnant and asked her if she would share her opinions on it with me. If I played my cards right, I thought, I would let Sirnollia do all the work of reviewing and just write up what she thought about it. At the end of September she gave the book back, and we agreed to meet at lunch to discuss it.

“I’m sorry I took so long to read it,” she said. “After I read it, my husband did, too, and my mother. I really loved it. I’ve been thinking about getting into more organic living.”

Then, before we could meet for lunch, she went into labor, and I was stuck reading the book myself anyway. After the first day, I stuck a Post It note on the cover that read “I AM NOT PREGNANT.” That taken care of, I could settle in for a stress-free examination of it.

I have to come right out and say it: I loved this book. In the pregnancy book market, it seems like the tone is split between two camps: books like Vicki Iovine’s Girlfriends’ Guides, which are light on up to date medical information, heavy on witty anecdotes, and treat the reader like an adult, and the What To Expect books, which portend to traffic in factual information, the anecdotes are few and far between, and the reader is treated less like a human being and more like an untrustworthy vessel for one.

I do not like the What to Expect series. I realize it’s one of the sacred cows of the pregnancy industry, but I think the writers are, how shall I say this tactfully? Condescending liars. Mothers, do you remember the “Best Odds” diet? Where you have to eat a truckload of food 6 times a day? Who can eat all that food? Nobody. Not even me, and I can really put it away even when I’m not pregnant. And I tried to do that Best Odds diet; I bet a lot of us did. And I failed. I didn’t even come close. I called my doctor, Dr. Pamela Goodwin, the World’s Greatest Gynecologist, in tears, feeling like a failure.

“Leave that diet,” she said. “Just eat healthy foods, eat until you’re not hungry, take a prenatal, and don’t worry about it. That’s all you need to do. Nobody can eat all the food in that diet.”

Then, years later, guess what I found out? That the authors of the What to Expect books knew that diet was impossible to follow, but created it so women would try it and fail, but in trying would be tricked into trying harder and eating enough.

Bitches! First time pregnancy is stressful enough. To deliberately stress out a pregnant woman and trick her into thinking she’s failing at taking adequate care of her baby before it’s even born? And if they’re lying about the food you put in your body, what else are they lying to us about “for the baby’s own good?” Because of course, total strangers know more and care more about your unborn baby than you do, because obviously a pregnant woman can’t be trusted to weigh the facts and make an intelligent decision with regard to her eagerly-anticipated first child. Gah! I want to throw rotten tomatoes at the lot of them, who’s with me?

But enough about that crappy book and those lying liars. The Complete Organic Pregnancy does pregnant women the tremendous service of providing a myriad facts that guide the organic-leaning woman to making healthier, chemical free choices, but it manages to do it without being condescending, judgmental, or relying on fear-mongering. Plus the book is filled with wide-ranging anecdotes from Barbara Kingsolver’s tale of eating organic while traveling internationally, to a very friendly and charming essay by Moon Unit Zappa regarding her daughter’s switch from breast milk to solids.

The philosophy of the book is to present the full range of organic choices from the food you eat to the stuffing in your sofa, but there’s also a very reasonable acknowledgement that pulling up all the floorboards and replacing all your furniture may not be the most practical choice. The information is there if you need it, but the authors trust the reader to make the best decisions with the resources available to her. How refreshing!

The book is broken up into three parts: Planning for pregnancy, the pregnancy itself, and post pregnancy/breastfeeding. Each chapter within the parts is devoted to a different area of organic living to tackle, and provides both medical evidence and anecdotal examples, as well as countless websites where one can purchase organic makeup or eco-friendly flooring.

In the end, while the authors hope to inspire new parents to live as chemical-free as possible, they’ll claim a win if they can get people to stop storing food in and drinking out of plastic, and this is an approach I can get behind 100% percent.

The Complete Organic Pregnancy
By Deirdre Dolan and Alexandra Zissu
September 2006 by Harper Collins
Paperback, 272 pp
ISBN: 0-06-088745-2

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

This Is Chick Lit.

Gee, I guess there's a big literary catfight going on between the pretty, popular, boy-crazy girls who have a passion for fashion and the serious, bespeckled, hairy-legged angry girls who are just jealous.

See, the angry, hairy-legged girls wrote a book called This is Not Chick Lit where they think they're so great cause they write serious stuff that NOBODY reads, and this book that I got, This Is Chick Lit, is a reaction to that book, because those angry hairy-legged girls, who act just like FEMINISTS, look down on the pretty girls for just writing books "by women, for women," but really, it's the Chick Lit girls who are the real feminists, because feminism is about choices, and supporting each other, and all books are equal, and who is to say chick lit books are literary lightweights, and even if they are, so what? There's nothing wrong with that! And ha-ha on the hairy-legged - Chick Lit books make MONEY, and that proves the popular girls are right! So ha-ha on you, angry hairy-leggers!

About eighteen of the popular girls got together, and they each had something to say in a little italicized prologue about how important and worthwhile chick lit is, and even the very first story is about the Chick Lit/Not Chick Lit war! And they both learned a Valuable Lesson about each other and themselves (except the Chick Lit girl was successful and had just tons of Juicy Couture clothes! And a big apartment! And high heeled shoes and stuff! And the Not Chick Lit girl got splashed with water by a city bus, ha ha! And nobody would publish her manuscript!)

And I guess those girls will go on and on fighting each other, and guess who's left out of the equation entirely?

Men. Men, whose contribution to literature is never questioned. Men, who can cover the gamut from writing about serial killing to cross dressing and nobody ever comments that's all their gender is capable of writing about. Nobody ever says, because one popular book got published by a man about codes in Catholicism that men are all religious conspiracy nuts. But that's the exact label all women got slapped with as soon as Bridget Jones' Diary (which I loved, btw) went nuclear. It's men that got catty and jealous, and tarred all women writers with the Chick Lit brush.

But sure, let's attack each other and write books where we battle back and forth over whether we're worthy to be taken seriously. That's not even remotely obnoxious or sadly misguided.

You know, I don't hate Chick Lit. I loved Bridget Jones, and I was thrilled that Meryl Streep got cast as the Anna Wintour character in The Devil Wears Prada. I loved The Nanny Diaries. I've got all three sitting side by side on my bookshelf and I've read them all a dozen times, for the same reason that all Chick Lit readers love it - the characters seemed like real women, and their challenges and foibles remind me of my own. And there's a strong vein of feminist independence running through it and it glorifies the benefit of female friendship. I support all of that. What I despise is the reactionary concept of this book. It makes me angry. It makes me feel a sense of futility that women are so easy to divide and turn on each other with the slightest criticism. And I strongly disagree with the line of thinking, as a reviewer, that disliking the literary equivalent of bubblegum pop means you hate other women.

But what of the stories themselves? I finished the book yesterday, and of all the stories, the only one I can even remember is the third one about the woman who grew a third eye right in the middle of her neck. I've been musing for a week about how freaky that story was, and what exactly that eye represented.

And that's why the angry, serious women writers don't want pink book covers and drawings of spiked heels at the start of every chapter. They're aiming for longevity, not disposable, unmemorable fiction that all blends together. They don't want to have to write under the name Currer Bell get serious acclaim from a world that is all-too-eager to marginalize women's talents.

There's a place for both Chick Lit and Not Chick Lit, of course there is. But elbowing each other in the ribs isn't the way to go about ensuring an invitation to the dinner table, unless it's as the half-time nude Jell-O wrestling entertainment for the literary boys.


This Is Chick Lit
edited by Lauren Baratz-Logsted
2006 by BenBella Books
Softcover, 268 pp.
ISBN: 978-1-933771-01-4

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Lunch Lessons.

I’ve always been interested in cooking, nutrition, and food in general. I love cookbooks, and have always felt that what a community eats and the way they eat it speaks volumes about the culture. Which is why one of the reasons I also strongly believe that our culture is in big trouble. As society becomes increasingly anti-intellectual and more disposable, and the men who hold the power mock and belittle those who warn us of the hazards of permanently polluting the food chain (and financially reward the most successful polluters), our collective health and well-being takes a nosedive.

Lunch Lessons, a Clarion call to change the way we feed our children, addresses several of these issues and tackles the often-odious school lunches that our children are fed, often provided by fast food companies and/or the lowest bidder.

The book starts off strong, providing the reader with a rundown on basic childhood nutrition and the correct portion size for each age group. Several helpful tips are also given to get your child to enjoy healthy foods and have a good relationship with eating. One of the best ways to make a connection to healthy eating and the importance of a healthy earth is according to the book, getting children involved in gardening when they are young.

I believe this to be true just watching how much my children enjoy gardening and growing watching their food grow from tiny seedlings to the plump tomatoes in their salad.

The book begins to overwhelm, however, when it begins the endless list of toxic products and recommends that the reader buy mostly organic food and clean with organic products. Although I of course agree with this theory in principle, in reality most people, especially poorer families who are in greater need, can not afford to buy organic, which is much more expensive than the family-sized box of processed macaroni and cheese at Costco. And gardening takes both time and space, a luxury that many families can not afford.

Which leads neatly into the segue of a large part of the book’s focus: overhauling the lunch programs in the public school system. Authors Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes give several examples of communities where it was done, and unsurprisingly, it’s places like Malibu and Berkeley, Appleton, Wisconsin (a community with a large organic bakery that sells its products nationally), and New York City. In almost all of these cases, the overhaul was sparked by a well-connected chef (the legendary Alice Waters) or an executive in the food industry. I would love to change the way food is served and taught in the Chicago public school system, so a step-by-step plan of action for a stay-at-home mom or a mom who works as an accountant would have worked much better alongside all those inspirational examples.

Overall, the text of the book left me more overwhelmed than inspired, but the main draw, for me, was the recipes. I chose to make four of the suggested meals, using ingredients I already had in the home and grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s, a more reasonably-priced source for natural foods. I made 2 breakfasts, banana bread and low-fat scones, and two lunches, pasta with spinach and feta and a Spinach burrito (now that it’s apparently okay to eat spinach again.)

The grocery bill for at Trader Joe's for the four recipes came to $47. Admittedly, the pantry was pretty bare at home to begin with. I had eggs and flour, but I was missing expensive items like pure vanilla extract and the berries for the scones, both five bucks. Illinois families who are relying on government aid get, at the most, $386 a month for a family of four. If my math is correct, that's about $1.15 a meal per person. These four meals (per person) total about $3.96. Much better than eating in a restaurant, but still more than a poor family can afford. This lends a lot of strength to the argument for figuring out a way for the public school systems to provide organic breakfasts and lunches.

That being said, if you're in the bracket where you can afford to buy fresh, natural produce on a regular basis, you should seriously consider buying Lunch Lessons for the recipes alone, because they were a huge hit with the whole family.

My family fell on the banana bread and tore it apart like a pack of wild dogs. This was by far the biggest hit, and the only fault was that the recipe should have been quadrupled to keep up with demand.

Also somewhat popular was the Penne pasta with spinach and feta. Pasta is a staple of lower income families, and Trader Joe's offers a pound of organic penne for 69 cents. I used frozen spinach (99 cents) and feta (2.19 a pound). Everything else I had in the house, so this meal came to about 97 cents per person - doable for just about any level of income, flavorful, delicious, and only took about 30 minutes to prepare. Even my picky eater forced down half a plateful.

The scones were not as popular, but I think that was partly my fault, as the raspberries I selected were too sour, and the dough was too sticky to cook in the ten minutes the recipe recommended.

The biggest dinner hit was the spinach and black bean burrito, and I went so far off the recipe here, I had reservations about even mentioning it. I made guacamole, which the recipe didn't ask me to do, and I scrapped the salsa recipe in the book for the one in Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen, used canned beans instead of dried, used granulated garlic instead of fresh, fresh tomatoes instead of canned, frozen spinach instead of fresh, and threw in some leftover chopped chicken from last night's dinner and the sour cream I'd bought for the banana bread.

My conclusion? It's really hard to screw up a burrito. My family gorged on it, and my seven-year-old fell in love with me, saying, and I quote, "Of all the mommies in the world, you are the best burrito maker ever."

And that's the reason why we signed up for this motherhood gig, right? That compliment is worth the price of the book right there.

Lunch Lessons
by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes
September 2006 by Harper Collins
Hardcover, 272 pp
ISBN: 0-06-078369-9

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