Correcting The Flight Path: Review of We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings is a compelling story of a mother and son who were willing to break the rules to make life better for someone else. Letty Esposito was just 16 when her son Alex was born; Wes, the father, was already gone away to school, and Letty never told him. Instead, she turned over much of the responsibility for Alex and his younger sister over to her mother as Letty tried to eek out a living at service jobs. She is currently a bartender at an airport bar near her definitely wrong side of the tracks home. When her parents return to Mexico, Letty finds herself struggling to take care of her children even as Alex seems to be moving away from her into his teenage love and life. She must also navigate her own emotional landscape as she connects with a new and old friend.

We experience the novel mostly through Letty and Alex: their paths have strong parallels as they act out of love, impulsive, without fully considering the consequences of their actions. They are fighting for justice so it seems as though their mantra is by any means necessary. Their “crimes” seem minor as they are committed to break down barriers keeping them from realizing their potential.

One powerful lesson in the importance of your address. In this story, as in real life, it determines your access to not just a good education but also a safe one. The students in those challenging schools did nothing except be born in a certain zip code and, unless their parents are able to better their lot, they are trapped. Their poverty exacerbates the isolation as transportation is often an issue. Cars are expensive to maintain and public transportation enforces limits of time and space. As Wes drives Alex to Stanford, Alex muses on the fact that he had never been on the campus that was not far from his home in East Palo Alto.

Birds, feathers and wings were a recurring theme in the book. Alex’s grandfather created feather art, a Mexican tradition, and gifts Alex with his lifetime collections. Alex loves birds himself and often names them when he is nervous. But it is this one insight into bird migration that speaks to the human beings in the book who seem to be heading in the wrong direction. They are discovering ways to adjust these seemingly unwavering paths:

Migrating birds reorient themselves at sunset. The exact reason is unknown, but at twilight,
just when the sun drops beyond the horizon line, birds flying in the wrong direction
correct their flight paths all at once.

I enjoyed the book and can recommend for its story and its concern for justice. There were times when it felt like a young adult novel. I don’t think it’s considered as such but Alex’s voice was so strong and it was as much his story as his mother’s.

My Reading Plan for 2017

My book shelves are overflowing. I indulged my book buying habit freely in 2017, both locally and nationally, with a particularly interesting haul from the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver, Colorado.

Now, it’s time to read. I am not making any promises about not buying any more but at least for now, my reading plans revolve around books already on the shelves. In addition, I want to explore some of the diverse genres that I’ve collected including graphic novels, poetry and essays. Poetry and essays especially seem to demand a different kind of reading: more slowly, over time. Time is needed to explore and savor before moving onto the next piece. While some of this reading will come from my library, others will come from other places. I have an oft-neglected subscription to The New Yorker and have committed to at least an hour or so a week attending to it.

For January, I’ve pulled a few volumes off the shelf:

Kramerbooks

The Donald Hall books came from my buying spree at Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC.

I am going to join the book group at my local library. The book for January is We Never Asked for Wings. I have a copy on my Kindle and suspect I will dive in this weekend.

I’ve begun pulling books together for the rest of 2017 but that’s for another blog post…

 

 

A Prose Poem: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

The year is moving right along, and I have finished my first book.

I decided to start with a “challenging” book this year.James Agee and Walker Evans combined stunning words and arresting images to share the lives of cotton tenants in 1936 Alabama.  Let Us Now Praise Famous Men has been on the shelf for awhile. I was not prepared for the flowing prose and was actually considering putting it aside.

I picked this up because it seemed like a good companion to JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy that I read at the end of 2016. It provides some historical context of the culture that Vance describes.

The prose tumbles along, piling up details and impressions, swirling the story into the midst. Sometimes, it made for daunting reading and I would look ahead for the next break. Other times, I found myself in the flow, not worried so much about exact meaning but absorbing impressions as I rode along the natural energy of the words.

The book is, at its core, the story of three families living as cotton tenants in Alabama in 1936. The book has elements of an ethnography with detailed descriptions of homes, clothing, education and work. But Agee weaves in his own musings about his role in the process and his relationships with the families. And then he seems to leave the path altogether and it may take a moment or two or more for the reader to find herself.

For instance, at one point, he took a break from the main narrative to record his angry responses to a survey from The Partisan Review. An odd distraction. Agee is curmudgeonly towards everyone it seems, except Walker Evans and the three families they profile in the book.

Bruce Jackson in the Winter 1999 edition of Antioch Review wrote:

Some critics write about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as a book out of control, a book that is nearly-great but missed it for this or that reason, a book that suffers from excess. One wrote: “When one first reads Famous Men, many passages may strike one as pretentious, mannered, precious, pompous, pontifical, smug, self-righteous, self-indulgent, willfully obscure, doctrinaire, self-congratulatory, sophomoric, belligerent; even Agee’s self-abnegation, self-loathing, and modesty may offend.”

Yes, but.

And there was definitely a Yes, but, for me. I wanted to wade in this book even as there were times when I thought I would just stop. After all, I wasn’t really reading for a climax or the solution to a mystery. I kept going though and am glad I did.

 

Summer Reading 2016

Cross posted from In One Place at Ivy Run

I really did not plan to blog every day in July, but I got a good start and then discovered the Big Time Blogging Challenge 2016 at the Big Time Literacy blog written by literacy coach Michelle Brezek. I may not always follow her theme for the day but since I just wrote up my reading list, I can follow right along today!

My list is varied: fiction, non-fiction and professional:

I’ll start with what I’ve already read since the beginning of July: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. A classic adventure story with a conflict between good and evil at the heart of the story. The heroine is a 12-year-old girl who discovers her own magic and, with the support of friends and family, saves the day.

I’m a LibraryThing member and am doing a couple challenges. John Steinbeck is the focus of the American Author challenge for July, and I’ll be reading East of Eden and Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, a series of short daily letters the Steinbeck wrote to his editor each day as he wrote the novel. Current events are the focus of the July non-fiction challenge, and I’m doing two books that are part of the One Richmond, One Book initiative at the University of Richmond where I serve as an adjunct professor. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stephenson was last year’s book. This year, it’s Evicted:   Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.

As I prepare for a keynote and workshop about blended learning in early August, I’ll be finishing Go Blended!: A Handbook for Blended Technology in School by Liz Arney and Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools by Michael Horn. The school district I’m working with loaned me a few books they’ve read in past years including The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation by Elena Aguilar.

I’ve been moving VERY slowly through a biography of Marjorie Harris Carr, wife of Archie Carr, the man who started the sea turtle conservation program. Marjorie was an environmentalist in her own right but struggled with the bias against women in science.

Also on the list:

And, I have two boxes of books coming to me that I shipped home from Denver. I can’t list all those titles but I suspect I’ll work a few in.

And…I forgot…I did a digital checkout of The Cracked Spine: A Scottish Bookshop Mystery that is waiting on my Kindle.

Book Spine Poetry

It’s National Poetry Month and I’ve been wandering around my house, stacking books, creating book spine poetry. Maria Popova at Brainpickings has been posting her own poems and credits Nina Katchadourian’s Sorted Books project as her inspiration.

I have several piles but am happy enough with two of them to share them. In each case, the first book is the title.

The first, a story of learning to love:

Untitled

The Awakening

Behind a mask
Love without wings
Onward
Crossing to Safety
Only the River Runs Free

The Books:

The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Love Without Wings by Louis Auchincloss
Onward by Howard Schultz
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
Only the River Runs Free by Bodie and Brock Thoene

And then a more magical piece:

The Dream Merchants

The Dream Merchants

Winter Street
World’s end
Where wizards stay up late
Drawing down the moon
The Dragons of Eden

The Books:

The Dream Merchants by Harold Robbins
World’s End by Neil Gaiman 
Winter Street by Erin Hildebrand
Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon
Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler
The Dragons of Eden by Carl Sagan

Book Bingo Update Plus Some Bookstore Tourism

I wrote about Book Bingo over at In Another Place related to gamifying reading.

I filled out my card and have been using it to drive my reading. It’s fun to explore different genres including fantasy (The Graveyard Book), science fiction (Ender’s Game) and alternative history (The Man in the High Castle). I took advantage of the analog AND digital library to find a couple books (The Graveyard Book and The Absolute True Diary of a Part-time Indian) and retired one that’s been around for awhile (Spartina).

I did take time off the bingo card to read The Emperor’s Tomb by Steve Berry, my first Overdrive checkout. The app connects to my Amazon account to get to my Kindle and lets me choose the length of the check out time. It’s interesting that not all of the books in the Cotton Malone series are available electronically. But the next one is already on the shelf at my local branch so I’ll head down there this week.

KramerbooksA conference in Washington, DC, got me to a new bookstore. Kramerbooks is in Dupont Circle and packs a lot of books in two pretty small rooms. Walk through the store to a bar and a lovely cafe. I might be willing to move to the city if I could live around the corner from a spot like this. I came away with a nice pile of interesting reads including Education: A Very Short Introduction by Gary Thomas, part of Oxford’s series of short introductions to lots of topics. I’m proud of myself that I only walked away with one. I’ve mostly stopped by fiction in analog since I read them so quickly. Instead, I added a few others to the library including A History of the World in Twelve Maps and On Dupont Circle, which tells the story of the Roosevelts and their progressive friends who shaped the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s harder to find time to read this time of year: the garden is calling. There’s weeding and culling and moving and mulching, and I like to do a couple hours a day, in smaller chunks of 45 minutes or so. After five years of working on these garden beds, adding perennials and shaping edges, they are coming together nicely, and I’m looking forward to seeing them move through the seasons. The biggest challenge now is dealing with some of the large chunks of daylilies and irises we have in various places. I have spots for them but the digging and hauling have deterred me so far.

 

When You Want the Book

Sometimes you just want the “real” book and this is one of those times. Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk is a children’s book that explores the large number of phrases and expressions we inherited from the Bard. Writer Jane Sutcliffe explains the phrases while illustrator John Shelley creates wonderfully detailed visions of London in the 16th century. I could buy the Kindle version and have it right now, but there’s something about this book that makes me want the book itself to hold and explore.

But, then it occurs to me that the Kindle version would allow me to better explore as I can expand the illustrations and move around them. I’ve been reading the Lumberjanes comic books using the Kindle app and it’s fun to be able to dive into the illustrations.

So…maybe I’ll just buy both!

 

Friday Finds on Saturday

I am working on a keynote for a group of librarians. The theme of the conference is “Librarians on the Edge” and the focus is how librarians are shaping the future.

I’ve been really enjoying BiblioTECH by John Palfrey. The book is a manifesto for libraries with a multitude of examples of innovative online and face to face libraries. Palfrey has also recommended a variety of books and I am trying to check them out of the library. I put a hold on Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles and got the message this morning that it was in.

I spent some time browsing the shelves as well and came away with some gems:

Sense and Sensiblity, Joanna Trollope’s contribution to The Austen Project

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Sandman Overture Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman

I’m not sure I’ll have time to read them all in the next two weeks but I can always renew them.

 

Friday Finds At A Favorite Bookstore

I had to make a trip to Richmond today so I made sure I arrived early enough to visit one of my favorite Indie bookstores: Fountain Bookstore. It’s small and cozy with an interesting selection of books and other booky merchandise. I never leave without something in my hands and today, despite my resolutions, was no exception.

Having just finished Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson (I’ll blog about that book later), I’m in a Civil War mode so was excited to pick up Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and Ari Kelman.

I’m reading Armada and decided it was time to finally read Ender’s Game. She had a paperback copy.

And two books about our criminal justice system: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stephenson and Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs From Jail, which features writing by prison inmates collected by their writing teacher David Coogan.

Looking forward to reading all of them!

 

Slow Reading Plus Loving My Library

Finished The Accidental Tourist and liked it more than A Spool of Blue Thread: maybe a stronger plot with clearer connections between the characters.

Anne Tyler tells human stories with characters that verge ever so slightly on the stereotype. The Leary siblings in The Accidental Tourist seem almost too quirky, tied as they are to the past and their own routines and needs. It makes personal relationships difficult and marriage almost impossible unless the spouse understands those needs and can make accommodations in the name of love. Macon Leary has gotten out, it seems, until an almost unspeakable tragedy leads to the end of his marriage and his return to the arms of his sister and brothers. It takes Edward, his dog, to help him reconnect to an unlikely “fixer” who helps him really see the world outside the cocoon he has built.

Now I’m working through Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne. A think book but Gwynne knows how to tell a story. He fits in the details and yet balances them with human interest. Even the battle descriptions, usually a turn off for me, are well written. I’m reading it for the nonfiction “challenge” on Library Thing but decided it’s more important to me to read slowly than finish it by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, kudos to my library: when I was in a couple weeks ago, the librarian turned me on to their digital magazines. WOW! I’ve printed a few recipes from Bon Apetit, read a feature about Joy Mangano in Good Housekeeping, and enjoyed browsing the other available subscriptions. It’s a wonderful service, easily accessible from my laptop or iPad.

We got about 10 inches of snow and ice during the big storm. Enough to keep me tucked inside: made beef stew and the most amazing Liege Waffles from King Arthur Flour. They were delicious made in my plain old waffle maker and I’m looking forward to toasting them for breakfast this week.