Monday, November 25, 2013

Crashing Through by Robert Kurson

Seeing Through Mike May’s World (Courage Week)

Crashing Through by Robert Kurson is a true account of Mike May’s journey from being blind to gaining his sight as an adult in his forties. Blinded at age three when a jar of chemicals exploded in Mike’s face, he remembered little of the sighted world. But that didn’t stop him from living in it.  With encouragement from his mother Mike experienced life more than some sighted people. He grew into a daredevil and tried everything from soccer, to bike riding, and driving his sister’s car. He was even a downhill speed skier!  

Then one day his world was turned upside down when a doctor told Mike that he may be a candidate for stem cell surgery that could restore his vision.  The risks associated with it were enormous, both physical and emotional, both equally as dangerous.  Many things could go wrong. One of the greatest dangers of the operation was the potent immunosuppressive drugs he would have to take afterwards, drugs whose side effects included cancer.

In an impressive act of courage, Mike once more faced his fears and took a chance. And the operation was successful. A touching moment in the book was when he finally got to see his sons and realized one of them had freckles, something that was never mentioned to him, something he didn’t know about his own son. His vision wasn’t perfect though. His new sighted world brought him a whole new set of challenges.

What an amazing man.  What an amazing story. There were times my heart actually skipped a beat when reading about his blind adventures and the struggles with his new vision.  His story and courage are truly inspiring and with Thanksgiving this week, I know one more thing I’ll be thankful for, something I’ve always taken for granted—my vision.   

As for my book club—most liked it but thought it was too in-depth, too lengthy. It was even suggested that it could have been a long magazine article instead of a book.  In this case, I have to disagree.  I found the few technical portions in the book interesting and necessary to grasp Mike’s experience.  We talked about this book longer than we did most, going over Mike’s determination, his positive spirit, as well as his extraordinary mother who encouraged him in all things, even risky choices that would make any other mother cringe. I think it’s a great candidate for a book club selection. It stirred up more conversation and observations than usual—good and bad.  

Find out more about Mike and his company, Sendero, which offers GPS-based systems that provide blind people access to detailed street and business location information.

Happy Reading, Happy Thanksgiving!  


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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Small But Mighty (Notable Novella)

Christmas is a special time of the year. It can be a sweet and memorable delight, but it can also be a stocking full of extra pressures and demands.  Gifts, store bought and homemade, decorations and preparations, food and traditions; they all take time and money.  At times it can become overwhelming.  It can feel like a frantic ride—kind of like a monkey riding a sheepdog at a rodeo.  It can be crazy.

It’s not always easy to squeeze in reading time during this busy season. I was going to review more Christmas books just to get into the spirit, but I find myself short on time and patience.  As Sweet Brown would say, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” It seems the quest to find a good Christmas book has become an extra stress. I did manage to read one more book with a Christmas setting, and it was cute—but maybe too cute.  In the end it seemed geared toward a much younger audience, and I just couldn’t wholeheartedly recommend it.  So for Christmas book recommendations, I am coming up empty-handed.  And instead of adding that unnecessary pressure, I decided to skip Christmas books and just go where the wind blows me.

This week I opted for a quick read in The House on Mango Street by Sandra CisnerosThis book is intriguingly different in an abrupt style on random thoughts in child’s journal. It is narrated by a girl growing up in an impoverished Latino section of Chicago in a sad, red house on Mango Street. My first thought when I saw such a thin and simple book was that it couldn’t have much of an impact. I was wrong; the sparse words in the book convey full meaning.  It seems real, honest, and thought-provoking, like Esperanza’s realization that hips are more than just body parts.  She likens a girl’s hips to being “ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition.”  Her observations and thoughts wander through fields of embarrassment, naivetĂ©, despair, sorrow, and hope with a voice that is almost poetic at times. For example, the first time she wears high heels and notices that men can’t take their eyes off of her friends and her, she declares, “We must be Christmas.” 

This is a book that is assigned reading in many classrooms.  But just as youth is wasted on the young, many books assigned in school are not appreciated as much as when you read them again as adults. Although I believe students may welcome the brevity of the book, adults will value the content. I did.

“You can never have too much sky. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky…”
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street  (New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1984), 33.

“…Diseases have no eyes.  They pick with a dizzy finger anyone, just anyone.”
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street  (New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1984), 59.

“People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget those of us who live too much on earth.”
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street  (New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1984), 86.

“One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from.”
Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street  (New York: Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., 1984), 87.

Happy Reading!


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Monday, November 11, 2013

A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg

Christmas Confection (Happy Holidays)

Christmas is around the corner and just in case you don’t get enough of it in advertisements and store decorations, I thought’ I’d review a book or two to get you more in the mood for the holidays.

 A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg is a short, feel-good novel that’s as sweet as a candy cane. In this story we meet Oswald T. Campbell, a man who has just been given a year or two to live. As per his doctor’s advice, Oswald leaves cold and dreary Chicago and moves to Lost River, Alabama where the sun is shining even on a winter's day. There he encounters the nicest set of people you’re likely to meet.  The strangers of this small community open their arms and hearts with a great big Southern hug.  In this peaceful and friendly setting Oswald tries to recover his health while making new friends like the neighborly widow Mrs. Celverdon; her colorful-haired sister Mildred; Claude, the master fisherman and mailman who delivers letters by boat; Roy, the grocery store owner; and Jack, his pet redbird who lives at the store. Finally, there’s little Patsy, the girl who limps into their world and stirs it up a bit. After reading this book, the next time you see a redbird (cardinal), you will probably think of this charming story.

At the end of the book there are also a bunch of recipes from the Lost River townspeople. Frances's Macaroni and Cheese looks mighty tempting. I'll have to try it. 

I love it when books throw in recipes.  Making the dishes brings back memories of the books.  For example, every time I make leek potato soup, I think of William Alexander and Superchuck in The $64 Tomato. (By the way, the soup is delicious!)

Fannie Flagg
If you’re looking at the author’s picture and thinking she looks familiar, it’s because she is not only a writer but an actress, too. She’s been on The Love Boat, Harper Valley PTA, and more.  She’s also the author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CafĂ© which was adapted into the popular movie released in 1991. As if that isn't ambitious enough, she wrote the screenplay for the movie
and it was nominated for an Oscar for best screenplay adaptation. Unfortunately, the adapted screenplay for Silence of the Lambs beat her in that category. If it was up to me, I would have voted for Fried Green Tomatoes any day. I'd much rather have fried green tomatoes than fava beans with a nice chianti, if you know what I mean (though I think I'll pass on the ribs and liver).

Happy reading,  


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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Short Stories by O. Henry

Candy for the Mind (O. Henry Week)

O. Henry is pen name of William Sydney Porter, who wrote over 600 short stories in his lifetime. Often funny, sometimes touching, always witty and imaginative, each story ended with a surprising twist.

One of his most famous stories is The Gift of the Magi, where a young, penniless couple sacrifices something dear to their hearts in order to buy the perfect Christmas present for each other. The ending has a sweet twist to it, kind of like an Oh, Henry! candy bar, which supposedly pays tribute to the beloved author. (Read it here:

There is almost an endless selection of books containing his short stories. While there are too many stories to list, below are some of my favorites.

Lost on Dress Parade is about a young man who saves his money for ten weeks so he can go out and pretend to be a rich man for one evening.  Outside the restaurant he meets a girl wearing a cheap hat and dress, obviously a shop-girl.  She twists her ankle, and he helps her up and invites her for dinner.  They have a great time, but of course, there’s a twist to the ending.  (Read it here:

Then there’s The Enchanted Kiss, where Sam walks down a street at night that turns out to be haunted.  He wanders to a Mexican food hut. The proprietor is a handsome man, about 30 years old. He sits at the table with Sam and asks him how he would like to live forever. The proprietor reveals that he is actually 400+ years old and offers him his magic youth potion—for a price.

The Lady Higher Up, is about the famous “Diana” gilded weathervane on top of a New York City’s Madison Square Garden indoor arena.  One night Diana starts a conversation with Statue of Liberty.

Memoirs of a Yellow Dog, is written from a dog’s point of view. The dog hates his mistress. In a calculated move he leads his master into a bar one night while on a walk. To the delight of the dog, the master makes it a daily event, giving the dog time away from his mistress.   (Read it here:

“He was a little man, with sandy hair and whiskers a good deal like mine. Henpecked?—well, toucans and flamingos and pelicans all had their bills in him.”  (Describing his master)
O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, “Memoirs of a Yellow Dog” (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1987), 103.

In the Cop and the Anthem, a bum name Soapy tries everything he can think of to get arrested so he can spend the night in a warm cell. Finally he hears music coming from a church and decides to turn his life around.

“A dead leaf fell on the Soapy’s lap. That was Jack Frost’s card.”
O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, “The Cop and the Anthem” (Pleasantville, NY: Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1987), 82.

William Sydney Porter’s life had almost as many twists and turns as his stories.  As a young man he worked various jobs from a pharmacist, to a ranch hand, to draftsman, to a bank teller and bookkeeper, all while his passion for writing simmered slowly in the background. It turns out that the banking business was not a good career move. Whether he was disorganized or intentionally fraudulent is open for debate, but he was accused of embezzlement and fired.  A year later, while he was forging forward with his true love, his writing career, the bank was audited and Porter was arrested. He was sentenced to five years in the big house, the Ohio State Penitentiary. 

That wasn’t the ending he was hoping for. So after his father-in-law bailed him out, he bailed on his wife and daughter.  He settled in Honduras and prepared to have his family join him.  Unfortunately, his wife, who had tuberculosis, took a turn for the worse prompting Porter to return to say his goodbyes to her and face the authorities. In prison, he worked in the hospital as a pharmacist and continued to write in his spare time publishing his stories under the pen name O. Henry.  Three years later he was released for good behavior and that’s when he really started his writing career. He moved to New York and cranked out a short story a week.  He was on fire. People loved him, loved his witty writing style, loved his characters, and loved the surprise ending each story offered.  He was a great success.  He was also a severe alcoholic.  In a sad twist of fate, O. Henry died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 47 in 1910.

Happy reading,  


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