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Read Aloud for Earth Day!

22 Apr

I can hear my Nepenthe chimes singing in the breeze, making harmony with the birds. Lilac wafts through the kitchen screen door (even though it’s really too cold to have it open).  The sun through my dining room window is filtered by the delicate pink petals of our crab apple trees.  It’s Earth Day and our Chicago backyard seems to know it.  Usually, we’d be off for a hike or to pick up trash or in the garden planting flowers. But with my right ankle broken and in a cast, Culture Family will settle for planning the vegetable garden and enjoying the buds and bunnies in the backyard.

Culture Sprout will be 12 soon, but this post from 8 years ago — and updated with one terrific book — still highlights some of the best kids’ Earth Day books we know of. Enjoy! And get outside for mother’s day, Mother Earth, of course.

*And one more Earth Day note. I’ve linked to Indiebound in case you want to buy online. But, why don’t you walk to your independent bookstore instead? You get outside and your Earth Day books won’t require fossil fuel to get to you!*

My update starts with a special call out to my friend Jen Cullerton Johnson‘s book Seeds of Change. Published in 2010, Seeds of Change has become a classic of the environmentalist literature and continues to accumulate accolades. Because I can’t really do it justice, here is the blurb from her site:  “A non-fiction children’s book Seeds of Change demonstrates the connection between people and nature. A frank and inspiring invitation into the life and work of Wangari Maathai, Noble Peace Prize Winner and founder of the Greenbelt Movement.” Jen donates a percent of every sale of her book to an environmentalist cause, so please click here to purchase Seeds of Change.

When Culture Sprout was four years old, I volunteered to bring an Earth Day activity to her classroom.  As with most pre-school things I did, this prompted a trip to the library and the bookstore in search of something to read to the children.  After thumbing through about a dozen books, I settled on one that I thought would appeal to boys and girls, and would ignite discussion and action. I had no idea that I was discovering an author and a character who would change the way my daughter thinks about the world. Nor did I know that we would spend the next three springs eagerly awaiting the release of the next book in what has grown to be a series.


The eponymous character in Michael Recycle is a “green-caped crusader,” a young boy who flies around the world teaching people how to better protect the earth from trash, pollution, and over-production. Patterson’s language makes for a rollicking read-aloud and Michael’s optimism and can-do attitude appeal to pre-school and elementary school children.

In Michael Recycle, Michael teaches a town the three cardinal rules of recycling: reduce, reuse, and recycle. While he at first fights environmental evils solo, in subsequent books he meets other earth-saving heroes and/or convinces little villains to join him. In Michael Recycle Meets Litterbug Doug he tackles the eponymous litterer, forever winning his heart and loyalty. Michael Recycle Saves Christmas introduces Solar Lola and teaches us about solar power, making gifts out of “trash,” and the dangers of materialism. And new this spring, Michael Recycle and the Tree Top Cops shows us how we can all become earth activists, this time in the service of saving the Redwood Forest.

What I love about Patterson’s books is that their lessons and strong environmental views are not hammered into the reader. Rather they are couched within charming rhymes and accompanied by Alexandra Colombo’s lush illustrations.  The first book ends with ten ideas of how the reader can help (or help their parents) protect the earth, inviting each child to become an environmental superhero. We can all be superheroes, Patterson seems to say if we focus on the evils we can help conquer.

Some more Earth Day favorites:

Fancy Nancy: Every Day is Earth Day (Jane O’Connor, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, 2010): Not much needs to be said about Fancy Nancy. She’s a favorite in pre-schools everywhere. O’Connor has followed up the original glittery Frenchified books with a line of I Can Read volumes, of which Fancy Nancy: Every Day is Earth Day is my personal favorite.  I love Fancy Nancy for her vocabulary—O’Connor isn’t afraid to introduce little kids to big words (and French words). I also love her for giving me, in this book, two of my favorite mantras: “Less than a mile, bike in style,” and “Please take note. Always bring a tote.”

Culture Sprout weighs in with this favorite for more autonomous readers:

Ivy & Bean: What’s the Big Idea? (Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 2011). The seventh book in this utterly charming series about best friends who “never meant to like each other,” Ivy & Bean: What’s the Big Idea taught Culture Bean about global warming.  Ivy and Bean’s science assignment is to find a way to combat global warming. After a series of hysterical mishaps, they decide that little girls can’t solve global warming on their own—they need to get grown-ups to care about the earth. At the end of the book, Barrows has included a brief primer to explain global warming and several ideas about how we, including little girls, can help.

What are you reading or doing for Earth Day?  Please add a comment and help me build my “Every Day is Earth Day” reading list and activity idea list. Ideas for all ages are encouraged!

  1. When the Earth Moved: What Happened to the Environmental Movement by N. Lehman for The New Yorker
  2. 5 Smart Ways To Celebrate Earth Day (
  3. My interview with Ellie Patterson

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy, A Book Note

30 Apr

Liar Temptress Soldier Spy by Karen Abbot

Recently, I became an accidental student of the Civil War. While standing in the checkout line at the library (yep, I LOVE the library), I noticed a book with an intriguing title–Liar Soldier Temptress Spy. I popped out of line to look at it.    karen-abbott-photoThe topic, the under-sung stories of four women who served the Confederacy and the Union as spies (one as a soldier!) told by a historian, Karen Abbott. The cover blurb by Erik Larson (Devil in the White City), naming Abbot “the John Le Carré of Civil War espionage,” sealed the deal. Larson made my beloved Chicago’s true history of serial murder during the 1893 World’s Fair come alive, like only the best murdery mystery writers can. If he thought Abbott was worth reading, then so did I.


Belle Boyd (Credit: Library of Congress)

I was not disappointed. Liar Temptress Soldier Spy starts a bit slowly as Abbott introduces each of her four characters in turn, providing biographic background that explains how each woman came to care about her cause enough to take huge risks to support her side of the war. Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an ardent rebel hailing from Martinsburg, Virginia, supported her cause using all of her beguiling (and belligerent) traits. Smart and beautiful, she had proven her determination by the age of eleven when, told that she was too young to attend a dinner party, she rode her horse into her parents’ dining room and declared, “Well, my horse is old enough, isn’t he?”  Before her mother could raise a hand or voice, a guest (a politician or Revolutionary war hero, no doubt) intervened to ask Mrs. Boyd to “tell me more about your little rebel. Six years later, on July 4, 1861, when Union soldiers demanded that her mother fly their flag and then physically threatened her, Belle did not hesitate to shoot. She survived her offense by following up with a charm defensive and spent the rest of the war spying for the Confederacy.


Emma Edmondson as Frank Thompson (image credit: Wikipedia)

Emma Edmundson, seeking to escape her father’s disregard and her mother’s sadness over having born daughters, became Frank Thompson, and upon leaving her native Canada, volunteered for the Union Army. Serving from 1850 through most of the war, she remained undetected, cross-dressing, living as a man among men, and amassing a reputation for cunning, bravery, and compassion. In one brilliant moment of spying on the Confederate Army she “masqueraded” as a woman to cross enemy lines. When terribly injured in a battle, she cared for herself, unwilling to be discovered (and dismissed with dishonor or, worse, tried, for her patriotic deception). After the war, Edmonson/Thompson was recognized for her exemplary service and her case paved the way for remuneration and pension for women who had served.


Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Confederate spy, with her daughter, Little Rose (Smithsonian Magazine, The Granger Collection, NYC)

Southern widow Rose Greenhow used her social position in Washington D.C. to penetrate the upper echelons of Union leadership and pass valuable information to the rebel leaders. Like Boyd, it was her deepest desire to be recognized as valuable to the cause, especially by their beloved Stonewall Jackson. Like Boyd, she was eventually found out, jailed, banned from the north, and exiled. Greenhow, however, was sent to Europe to President Jefferson Davis to try to persuade the French and British leaders to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation.


Elizabeth Van Lew (credit: Smithsonian Magazine, (The Granger Collection, NYC))

It may have been Elizabeth Van Lew, however, who won the war for the Union. A wealthy abolitionist in Richmond, Van Lew’s servants were all paid former slaves. Once she acquired a slave, she freed them and kept them on if they wished. This, plus her vast social circle, allowed her to be the center of a spy ring that penetrated as deeply as Davis’s private office, so that she was able to send accurate information, on a daily basis, to General Sherman. Van Lew, despised by Richmond, deserves her place in history as much for what she gave up to support Lincoln and the Union  as for her heroic actions.

Abbot makes these stories come alive, alternating between the women in a seamless way and connecting their stories via in-depth historical accounts of battles and the machinations of war. Her extensive archival research allows her to attribute to the women thoughts and words that they wrote in their letters and journals. She describes the near-misses, the penury brought on by the war (I could smell it!), the shear ingenuity of the codes and techniques they used to pass messages, and their innermost thoughts about the people and issues of the day. More than a women’s history, this is a readable, compelling history of the Civil War that illuminates the issues and concerns that nearly fractured our Union. And more than a history of the Civil War, this book educates us about early spying techniques, the gruesome results of battle, and the deprivations (physical and emotional)  caused by the war and its aftermath.

As I was reading the book, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. on the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln which I marked (with Culture Sprout) by seeing One Destiny at Ford’s Theatre. We also visited the Spy Museum where we spent a lot of time looking at the exhibit on Civil War spies. More on those later….

Related Articles:

I’m Not Fluffy: A Memoir

13 Apr

This story was dictated to me by my beloved Esther Williams Goldman. We all miss her every day.

“I’m Not Fluffy”

by Esther Williams Goldman

         There I was in my cage at the pound.  It wasn’t a bad place—I was warm, well fed and my litter box was pretty clean.  But, I dreamt of a new home. A place to run around, a spot in the sun for naps, a lap for cuddling, and most of all, a nice person whose head I could sleep on at night.

It was Saturday and the people started coming in. The first lady walked up to my cage.  I ran to the window and tried to be really cute, sitting up straight and wrapping my tail around me.  She said, “You’re awfully sweet.  I’ll call you “Fluffy.”  “Harrumph!  I’m not Fluffy,” I hissed and stalked back into the corner.

Another woman came by, this one with a little boy.  I thought that a family sounded good, so I pranced up to the window and pawed at it to get their attention.  “Mommy,” said the little boy, “Look at this tiny tabby. Wouldn’t it be funny if we called her Tiger?”  “I’m not Tiger,” I protested as I slinked away.

Just how would I pick a new owner who would know my name? My name is very important.  I’ve had it for my whole life and I didn’t want to someone to change it.  It suits me.

Two young men walked up to the cage and tapped on the window to get my attention.  I sauntered over and rubbed up against the window, being as sweet as I know how.  “Hey, Bill. How about her?  She’s quite the flirt.  We could name her after Angelina Jolie.”   No, fellows, I don’t think so. I’m not that kind of a girl.

It was getting late.  If I didn’t choose a family today, I’d probably be at the pound for another week. I was getting worried.

Two young women came up to my window.  I rolled over lazily, thinking that they wouldn’t figure me out either.  One of them tapped on the window.  “How cute is this one?”  I made one last effort to tell them my name.  I ran to the window, stopped, dropped down, rolled over, and began doing my best backstroke.  “Check it out!  She’s doing the backstroke.  And she looks like she has a movie star attitude.  You have to call her Esther Williams!!”

“Ohmygod Ohmygod Ohmygod, I thought, Yes!  Esther Williams.  That’s my name!  I’m named after the 1940s Olympic swimmer and MGM movie star. That’s it!  They recognize me.”  I jumped up, and began to head butt the window. “I really, really want to go home with you.”

Next thing I know, I’m in a cardboard box on the back seat of your car.  I tried to talk to you all the way home to tell you how happy I was that you chose me, that you knew my name, that you recognized me.  I was the luckiest kitty in the world.  Well, I AM the luckiest kitty in the world.

Your friend gave me a diamond-studded collar, befitting the movie star that I’m named for.

I’ve learned a lot since then.  I’ve found my favorite sunspots. I’ve dealt with moving twice and getting a little brother cat.  I’ve discovered that I love chicken and tuna fish.  And, I’ve realized that you like to call me lots of different names even though you know I’m Esther.  Some of my favorites:

Tabby Won-Kenobi, when I’m sitting still, staring into space, looking wise and thoughtful.

Queen Esther, for Purim, the Jewish holiday apparently celebrated in my honor.

The Esther Bunny, on Easter, of course.

Esther Nightingale, when I nurse you during a headache or tummy ache.  My secret?  Lie on the painful body part and purr.  It seems to cure all kinds of ailments.

Just plain Bunny.  Not sure if this is short for Esther Bunny or because my little pink nose makes you think of a bunny.

Honey Cat.  Rhymes with Bunny.  What else could it mean?

Thumper.  When I just can’t get my thumping tail under control.

And maybe a dozen other names, based on the purr of the moment.

But even though you tease me a lot, you never, ever call me Fluffy.  That’s why you’re my best friend.

The Ditchdigger’s Daughters (Book Notes)

23 Jul
English: Head photo of Dr. Thornton in Black a...

English: Head photo of Dr. Thornton in Black and White (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Ditchdigger’s Daughters

by Dr. Yvonne S. Thornton and Jo Coudert

The Ditchdigger’s Daughters: A Black Family’s Astonishing Success Story  demonstrates how Donald Thornton raised five daughters to be professional women and did it, in memoir-worthy style, against pretty big odds. In pre-Civil Rights New Jersey, no one expected his five black daughters to do anything but get pregnant and drop out of high school. No one except their mother and father, that is. First published in 1985, the book has never been out of print, has been translated into more than 15 languages, nominated for a Peabody award, and adapted for cable television. Clearly, this is an American story that resonates with many people.

As the book’s subtitle announces, all the girls turned out fine and Dr. Yvonne Thornton is proud to tell us how that happened. It should have been a compelling story, the all-American trajectory from rags to riches in one generation. Yet somehow Thornton’s tale lacks the bite of Cupcake Brown’s Piece of Cake or Jeanette Wall’s The Glass Castle. The Ditchdigger’s Daughters works so hard to paint a happy picture that it avoids the hard themes that Brown and Wall tackle. Donald Thornton’s determination to shelter the girls borders on isolation; their mother, Itasker Thornton,  suffers from debilitating depression that the narrative avoids; and the tumult of the Civil Rights movement is glossed over as if it barely affected Thorntons. Nowhere, for instance, does she discuss what it might have meant to this family that the children were guaranteed the right to vote while the parents never had it.

Itasker escaped a hard-scrabble life in West Virginia. She worked hard at school and finagled scholarships for her first couple of years of college, with the intention of becoming a nurse. But when the scholarships ended, she waited for her sister to send promised funds against their father’s wishes. When the money didn’t come, Itasker realized that she had to escape her father’s control and she ran away to New York City.

Donald escaped a home that alternated between abuse and neglect, lying about his age to get a job in New York City. His parents came to retrieve him and force him home. But he kept running and eventually met Itasker, ten years his senior. They fell in love and when she got pregnant, they got married. When Donald joined the Navy, Itasker turns to her in-laws who at first didn’t believe her, then reluctantly took her in until Donald returned and she was able to escape them.

With a start like that, these two certainly did not have great parenting examples. They fought the racial stereotypes that prevented them from fulfilling their dreams, and sometimes even having any. Their daughter’s elegy to her father rings almost as a justification for the methods her father employed to ensure their success. Without question, it is a story of sacrifice and perseverance leading to great achievement–the American dream at its most mythical.

In response to ribbing about how his five girls were bound to end up pregnant and abandoned, his responsibility forever, Donald joked that his daughters would all become doctors. Eventually the joke became a dream and then the dream became a goal. Along the way, the girls, each in turn, developed musical talents and Donald realized that he could use their music to help shape the women they would become—loyal, driven, and educated.

Summed up, this is the American dream writ large—through a musical talent that brought recording deals to their door, these five girls and their parents financed their college educations. Father worked hard to provide for them and to instill values that would help them have a better future. He insured that they stayed focused—life was family, school, practice, performance. There are the requisite rebellions and stumbling blocks, but it all works out..

As the third daughter, Yvonne assumes the responsibility for her father’s dreams. She not only becomes a doctor—getting into a prestigious school from an unknown community college—she marries a doctor and both go on to be leaders in their fields. While I find myself marveling at her father’s doling out of $1.97 when asked for $2, telling the girls to scrape up the last $0.03 themselves (and think this is a great way of sharing the value of money with a child), I frequently found myself questioning if Dr. Thornton ever had any dreams of her own and if she understood how–from our 21st century perspective–she seems burdened by her desire to make her father proud and save him from disappointment.

None of this is “spoiler alert” territory—it is mostly summed up on the book jacket and in online reviews. And what isn’t there could easily be filled in by a habitual memoir reader. And that may be where The Ditchdigger’s Daughters disappoints—after it sets up the history and demonstrates the father’s parenting style, the rest of it is completely predictable. Thornton quotes lengthy conversations that happened in the distant past as if she could remember them verbatim, a narrative approach that quickly grows tiresome. And most concerning, she does not recuperate her mother’s role in her success, relegating Itasker to the passenger seat she occupied on the way to Thornton Sister concerts. Tellingly, Itasker plays in the band as a sixth “sister” for many years.

Granted, Walls and Brown had demons to work out in their memoirs and Thornton seems to have nothing but pride in her upbringing. Further, writing in 1985, Thornton was breaking ground for a post-Civil Rights African American woman, both in her accomplishments and as a memoirist. But she does have a compelling, American story that spans the post-war era to a time when a black man was appointed to the Supreme Court. Beyond demonstrating that through sheer willpower her father (what about her mother?!) ensured that she and her sisters defied societal expectations of black women, she does little of note with their story.

That’s my opinion, of course. Oprah Winfrey had an entirely different take and the book is nearing 30 years of continuous publication. For that reason alone, it is worth a read.  My research for this piece also turned up a book by another sister* and the Thornton Sisters Foundation, which provides scholarships for women of color in New Jersey. Whatever I think of Dr. Thornton’s writing style, I cannot fault her continuing efforts to help other young women of color achieve what she has.

*From what I can tell, A Suitcase Full of Dreams (1996) by Jeannette Thornton and Rita Thornton tells the untold story of Itasker Thornton

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl

3 May

Culture Bean seems to be in a bit of a slump these days, but posts like this remind me why I like to read/watch/experience and then think and write about it. In the interest of not letting Culture Bean go to seed (bad pun!), I want to share this insightful, beautiful post about one of my favorite authors and best-remembered childhood treasures. See my comment at the end of the post for my brief perspective on James and the Giant Peach.

James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl.

Happy Birthday A.A. Milne! You Were So Speshul

18 Jan

Is there a bear more beloved than Winnie the Pooh or a boy more disarming than Christopher Robin? Timeless children’s literature, A.A. Milne’s poems and stories about Pooh, Christopher Robin, and their friends endure today because they speak to the child in all of us. The cadence of the rhymes are melodious enough to calm a fussy child and the cheekiness keeps the most skeptical parent engaged. They have inspired popular films and popular music. And they continue to inspire children to read.

Like many fairy tales, Milne’s stories have been adapted for the screen, mostly by Disney. Disney’s versions are likeable, but they change the tone of the characters in order to popularize or commodify Pooh and friends. In turning Pooh, Eeyore, Christopher Robin, Tigger, and the rest into Disney film characters, the studio eliminated a lot of the nuance, the cheekiness, and the cultural complexity. If you haven’t read the original poetry, I’ve linked below to an online, illustrated version of Now We Are Six. Pooh isn’t in this book, except that

“he thought it was a different book; and he hopes you won’t mind, but he walked through it one day, looking for his friend Piglet, and sat down on some of the pages by mistake.”

In honor Milne’s birthday (1882-1956), I’d like to share a favorite poem from Now We Are Six. My mom read “Sneezles” and “King John’s Christmas” to me so often that we could both recite them by heart. The books, my mother’s childhood treasures, are now on Culture Sprout’s shelf and are among my most beloved belongings. She’s a particular fan of “Binker,” a poem about Christopher Robin’s imaginary friend. Binker is a lot like Purple Bubba, who lurks invisibly about our house.

For a famous story about Culture Sprout’s first experience with this poem, scroll down to the caption on the second image.



     Christopher Robin

Had wheezles

And sneezles,

They bundled him


His bed.

They gave him what goes

With a cold in the nose,

And some more for a cold

In the head.

They wondered

If wheezles

Could turn

Into measles,

If sneezles

Would turn

Into mumps;

They examined his chest

For a rash,

and the rest

Of his body for swellings and lumps.

They sent for some doctors

In sneezles

And wheezles

To tell them what ought

To be done.

All sorts of conditions

sneezles 2

When Culture Sprout was about 3, she stopped me in the middle of the poem and asked, “Mommy, who are those men?” I said, “Those are the famous physicians, the doctors, that were called in to help Christopher Robin. Without skipping a beat, she said, “But, mommy, boys can’t be doctors.” You see, up until that time the only male doctors she had were her cardiac-thoracic surgeon (who she didn’t really know) and her dentist.! Learn more about Charlotte’s doctors by clicking on the image.

Of famous physicians

Came hurrying round

At a run.

They all made a note

Of the state of his throat,

They asked if he suffered from thirst;

They asked if the sneezles

Came after the wheezles,

Or if the first sneezle

Came first.

They said, “If you teazle

A sneezle

Or wheezle,

A measle

May easily grow.

But humour or pleazle

The wheezle

Or sneezle,

The measle

Will certainly go.”

They expounded the reazles

For sneezles

And wheezles,

The manner of measles

When new.

They said, “If he freezles

In draughts and in breezles,


May even ensue.”

Christopher Robin

Got up in the morning,

The sneezles had vanished away.

And the look in his eye

Seemed to say to the sky,

“Now, how to amuse them today?”

(From Now We Are Six)

Cupcake and Queen (book notes)

17 Jan

I recently read two non-fiction books, one right after the other, something I don’t often do. One was a memoir and the other a biography of sorts. I was struck by the similarity of the stories–poor girl goes through hardship, finds a way out, struggles, and eventually makes good (or is on her way to do so). On the other hand, the stories were also very different: One takes place in California, the other in Uganda. One involves abandonment, heartbreak, drugs, and a broken foster care system. The other showcases the challenges of abject poverty, and the possibilities of international philanthropy and local involvement. On balance, these books might appeal to very different audiences. My observations of similarities may result from having read the books back to back and not from any real sameness. Who knows? In either case, both are worthwhile, though troubling reads.

A Piece of Cake: A Memoir by Cupcake Brown (Crown Publishers, 2006).

Cover of "A Piece of Cake: A Memoir"

Cover of A Piece of Cake: A Memoir

This book grabbed me in the first pages. Cupcake Brown is a year older than I am. She grew up on the streets of Los Angeles and San Diego. I grew up in the middle class comfort of Livingston, NJ. During my privileged childhood, her experiences were for me the stuff of ABC After School Specials.

Cupcake Brown (her real name, deriving from her mother’s craving for cupcakes during pregnancy) recounts waking up in January 1976 to find her mother dead. Cupcake was twelve. The death of her mother sets off a cycle of unbelievable events, including the discovery that her daddy was not her biological father. The latter comes forward to claim her and her brother in order to get the Social Security benefits. He immediately deposits them with a foster mother who is abusive, negligent, and reprehensible.

In many ways, the story is predictable–we’ve seen it in novels and films for years–the system fails Cupcake horribly. She suffers sexual and physical abuse and starvation in her foster home. She loses touch with the man she knows as her daddy. She runs away and spirals into a life of prostitution, gang involvement, crime, and drug abuse. You know how the story ends. You must. She’s written a book, so things must have turned around for her. But how?

Sheer tenacity, I think, coupled with a memory of the parental love she enjoyed for twelve years. She ran away from her foster home so many times that the foster mother eventually took her time calling the authorities. She found that she could live on the streets using her one resource, her body. So she did. When her gang-banging got her shot and she’s told she’ll never walk again, she determined to leave the gang life and start over. Through all of her false starts, Cupcake demonstrates a stubborn will to survive. Despite the abuse, she seems to never lose her inner strength and self-confidence. It isn’t until a drug-abusing boyfriend challenges her to learn to talk “like whites” and get a job to finance her drug habit that she realizes she is determined, gifted, and worth more than the life she’s been leading.

I was at once compelled and perplexed by this book. Cupcake details a life spent in the haze of alcohol and drugs.  And yet, she can recall exactly what she drank on particular occasions and exactly what inappropriate outfit she wore (while drunk) to a job interview.  These details seem implausible if the story is true. Just as I was about to toss the book because this seemed so unreal, Cupcake decides to clean up her act. While the 12-step program may seem familiar, Brown’s description of her relationship with her sponsor and other recovering addicts paints a powerful picture of how personal relationships fuel the support system. I felt that I was reaping the benefits of the good counsel and tough love she received.

Today, Cupcake Brown is a successful attorney and New York Times-bestselling author. Without denying the power of her story and prose, I believe that much of her success has to do with our human compulsion to read stories of people whose lives make ours look easy. Or, to watch a train crash. This is the story of which television movies are made, writ large and real and with a happy ending.

The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers (Scribner, 2012). KatweTim Crother’s book tells the story of Phiona Mutesi, a girl who lives in abject poverty in Katwe, the poorest slum in Kampala, Uganda.  She is also the reigning Ugandan chess champion. Crother’s traces Mutesi’s family history through two generations, outlining how the cycle of poverty is nearly unbreakable in Kampala.  Her chess mentor is not a well-meaning foreigner, but another child of Uganda, Robert Katende, whose own story of survival through Uganda’s civil war makes up a good chapter of this book (and probably merits its own book).

Katende, like Cupcake Brown, is determined to leave his impoverished past behind. He eventually becomes an employee of Sports Outreach, originally assigned to help slum children through soccer-based missionary work. It is an arduous task. Katende realizes that soccer will only take them so far, but that the skills they might acquire through chess would be important life-skills. Mutesi follows her brother to chess club one day and is discovered to have raw talent.

Katende coaches Mutesi to “play like a girl.” He notices her aggressive, survivalist approach to knocking other player’s pieces of quickly and teaches her slow down, use her wits, and strategize. Working with Sports Outreach and the Ugandan Chess Association, he gets his hardscrabble team to a tournament. They surprise everyone by besting the well-educated upper class children. Mutesi, particularly, wins nearly every match she plays, learning quickly that she doesn’t like losing and absorbing  lessons as she goes. She ends up in Russia playing international chess leaders. And winning. This leads to more tournaments, newspaper articles, international travel. And, perhaps a Disney film.

What it doesn’t lead to is major life change. Mutesi stays in posh hotels and eats well at tournaments. Then she and her teammates go home to their shacks, devoid of electricity, subject to terrible sewage-laden floods, and help their parents scrounge for food each day. Crother’s book will help Mutesi continue her education (Katende’s students all go to school now and, by all accounts, are good students). But, whether chess will lead her out of Katwe is hard to know.

Crother’s quotes Mutesi at length from the journals she keeps while she travels and her letters to her mom. Her candor, and Katende’s, conveys a restrained enthusiasm. She recognizes that little has changed, but that she continues to have amazing opportunities. (She was in Brooklyn last week.)

Mutesi does not succeed in a vacuum. Like Brown, she is encircled by a support system, from her mother and siblings, to her coach and teammates, to the Ugandan and international chess federations. Sports Outreach International and other philanthropists have made all of this possible.

We don’t know how Mutesi’s story will end. She could end up with a soaring career and break the cycle of poverty. Or she could end up like Fernando Ramos da Silva, a Brazilian street kid whose starring role in the film Pixote (Hector Babenco, Brazil, 1981) made him a symbol of hope, and then may have led to his early demise. I’m hopeful that her support system will embrace her and help her make the transition from chess phenomenon to whatever it is she wants to be.

These books remind us of our relative privilege. Mutesi doesn’t know how to spell her own name until she gets a passport. Brown has her familial stability ripped away from her and is plummeted down a rabbit hole from which the only means of escape is determination. Each struggle to find food to eat and clothes to wear. Certainly, they make it easy to count our own blessings, even the blessing of being able to read. Neither is an easy read. But both women’s stories reward your investment of time.

Art & Culture In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

29 Aug
Civil engineering and infrastructure repair in...

Civil engineering and infrastructure repair in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that Hurricane Isaac has to a tropical storm and, more importantly, I know that my friends and cousin in New Orleans are safe, it seems appropriate to pause for a moment and think about the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. If not for Isaac, I suspect that today–the 7th anniversary of Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans–would have been a day of remembrance. Instead, the federal and state government stood by, ready to demonstrate that lessons had been learned about response and rescue.

I’ve been thinking a lot not about what we lost in Hurricane Katrina–certainly plenty was lost and not yet regained–but what we gained, culturally and artistically. I thought I’d dedicate this post to a brief round-up of Art & Culture in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina. I have not read or seen everything that deals with the hurricane, or life after it, but I do have a few favorites.

Cover of "Zeitoun"

Cover of Zeitoun

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Dave Eggers may be one of the best literary non-fictionwriters of my generation and in this book he tells a story that may illustrate the defining mindset of our post-911 U.S. Zeitoun follows Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born father of 4, owner of a painting and contracting company, and a Muslim, as he attempts to protect his property during the aftermath of the storm. Having sent his wife and children out of the city, Zeitoun not only checks on his own properties and renters, but also aids animals and people stranded by the storm.  Eventually, after being seen praying on the rooftop of his house, Zeitoun is detained by Homeland Security. His wife has no idea where he is. Eggers’s narrative follows Zeitoun from the decision to evacuate his family to his 6-day detention during which time his wife thinks he is dead. Eggers describes, in restrained prose, not only Zeitoun’s impressions of NOLA in the aftermath of the storm by the humiliations through which this man is subjected when he is mistaken for a member of Al Quaeda.

I read this book in 2009 and write all of the above from memory because it is that indelibly printed on my psyche. As a memoir of the hurricane, the book helps us see the lackluster response of FEMA to the storm, the devastation of the city, and the inherent socioeconomic inequalities of evacuation and rescue. Inevitably, it prompts conversations about civil rights. This tale of a compassionate man who is mistaken for a terrorist because he is a devout Muslim drives home the xenophobia that remains one of the ultimate legacies of President Bush’s post-9/11 policies and rhetoric.

As one reviewer wrote (I paraphrase), if we were to create a time-capsule including one book that epitomized the post-9/11 mentality of the U.S., this book should be it.*

Beasts of the Southern Wild: I wrote about this film last week. In some respects it underscores the issues of diversity raised by Eggers’s book. In other respects, it shows the staggering free will and independence of the proud people of the “Bathtub.”  I remember seeing the road to the “Bathtub” washed out and hearing news reports of people who had refused to leave, of a peninsula turned island by the storm. This film shows us all that through the eyes and words of a six-year old, in all its exquisite (in both the sense of beauty and of blinding pain) emotions. As the mother of a seven-year old, I can’t fathom how a child can be as strong and self-reliant as HushPuppy or how an eight -ear old can summon the reserves to portray her on film. Read my notes about Beasts of the Southern Wild here.

Service Learning at Tulane University: One of the most wonderful outcomes, in my viewpoint, of the storm was the reaction of the institutions of higher learning and their collaborations with the city in rebuilding. A requirement added across the Tulane curriculum in 2006, “Academic Service Learning,” in the words of the university’s website, “is an educational experience based upon a collaborative partnership between the university and the community. Through reflection and assessment, students gain deeper understanding of course content and the importance of civic engagement.” I’ve heard anecdotally that high school seniors are considering Tulane not just for its fine academic reputation and choice location in New Orleans, but also because they want to be part of the service learning program and give back to the community.

Treme: Entering its third season on HBO. It follows the residents of the Treme neighborhood–musicians, Mardi Gras Indians, business owners, regular people–as they try to rebuild their lives and neighborhood. American television at its best by the master, David Simon. What more need I say?

Of course, there is more. There’s the Spike Lee’s Emmy-winning When the Levees Broke and Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s Academy Award-nominated Trouble the Water. More I’ve seen and can’t call to mind right now. More I haven’t seen or read. More civic and religious rebuilding programs and legacies. But, these are my highlights, the unforgettable watermarks of a storm that changed the way I think about storms. Please feel free to suggest your own favorites.

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*In a sad post-script, I note that the hero of Zeitoun has recently been arrested for allegedly assaulting his now ex-wife and plotting to injure or kill several other people.

Sunday Share: A Round Up of Some of Culture Bean’s Favorite Culture Bits from the Past Week

5 Aug

During the past week I’ve heard, read, or seen a few things that I wanted to share briefly, so I thought I’d do a round up and share them:

NPR Poetry Games on Morning Edition: As homage to “the days when poetry and sports went hand in hand” at the ancient Greek Olympics, National Public Radio invited poets to compose original poems celebrating athletes and athletics.  Written by poets from around the globe, they were all strong and meaningful in their own way. One poem, however, stopped me in my tracks and commanded my attention,, “Swim Your Own Race,” written by Mbali Vilakazi in honor of South African swimmer, Helene du Toit, the first amputee to qualify for the Olympics. A teaser:

Swim Your Own Race

There is life here

Beneath the surface tension

of shattered

bones, dreams and splintered muscles

things broken

and those that may never be replaced

Pulling the weight of it

You do not tread the water wounded

Hear Vilakazi read the poem here.

“The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” by Juno Díaz,  The New Yorker (July 23, 2012, p. 60) and the accompanying online interview with Díaz. Díaz seems to have had a story in three out of every five New Yorkers this spring.  To be honest, while I’ve read them all, most have left me deeply dissatisfied with the main characters’ flaws, disregard for others, and/or (my perception of) his lack of understanding of his flaws. What I have liked is that each of them has at its core something lacking, an absence, either of a person or a necessity. This story is set across six years in the life of Yunior, a character we met in Díaz’s Pulitzer-Prize winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This episode–Yunior’s descent into depression after his fiancee leaves him–is heart-wrenching and real. We feel how his absence destroys him and how he learns to live again. The tensions between here and there–whehter NYC/Boston, USA/Dominican Republic, life with/life without a lover–are palpable.  Díaz has a collection of stories coming out this fall and after reading this, I’m excited to get my hand on it.

Gone Girlby Gillian Flynn: Okay, I may be the last blogger writing about this one. I found it compelling, unexpected, and artfully written. The ending, however, bothered me to no end. And, yet, I get that there is no other way to end this book. It can’t end happily, or easily. That it has to end with an untenable and awful compromise that, let’s face it, puts a child at risk, was painful to me.  Truly, I couldn’t put the book down for two days. Then I got to the last few pages and had to say, “What just happened.”  So unnerving and difficult. Perhaps that’s part of what is making this book so hot this summer.

Color Jam, A New Installation on State Street by Jessica Stockholder. Chicago has some of the most wonderful public art around. From the Agam and Picasso which still astound me when I walk by them, to Cloudgate and Crown Fountains. I love the changing exhibitions in Millennium Park, and the way art is built into the landscaping on Michigan Avenue. I’m open to conceptual art, have written about installation art, and appreciate experimental art. But, the truth is, I just don’t get Color Jam. So, go down to State and Adams, experience it for yourself and let me know what you think.

A Recycling Superhero: Interview with Ellie Patterson

28 Jul


What does Culture Bean do when she’s not typing on WordPress? Lots of things. But, one of my favorite things is having the chance to talk to authors whose books inspire me.  Please follow this link to read my interview with Ellie Patterson, the author of the BRILLIANT Michael Recycle.

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