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.

Book Review: Gilead

Pulitzer Prize winner Gilead has a quiet strength that arises from the character of its narrator, John Ames, a minister in a small Iowa town who is writing a letter to his young son.  Ames, whose only son was born in his old age, wishes to speak of his life, both temporal and spiritual, to a boy who will have little memory of his father.  It is a rambling narrative that goes back at least two generations to Ames’ grandfather, a radical abolitionist minister who worked with John Brown, and then his father, a pacifist minister, who struggled with his own faith, eventually leaving the church and the town.  Ames also discusses his relationship with his best friend’s son, a young ne’er do well who returns to Gilead seemingly to make his peace with Ames and his own father.

All these complicated father and son relationships are seen through the lens of Ames’ spiritual reflections.  It is not a novel to be read quickly and I found myself going back to immerse myself in his lessons about why and how to believe.  His ideas are fresh and new even as they grow from his long life as a small town minister.   He is a man comfortable with his own doubt and that of those around him and he offers pragmatic advice for how to live a religious life in a complex world:

So my advice is this–don’t look for proofs. Don’t bother with them at all.  They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent, I think, because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp. And they will likely sound wrong to you even if you convince someone else with them. That is very unsettling over the long term. “Let your works so shine before men,” etc. It was Coleridge who said Christianity is a life, not a doctrine, words to the effect.  I’m not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are not your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.

The natural world plays a role in this novel as well from a moment of epiphany with his own father from his moments in the dark sanctuary of the old church as he prays and dozes and wakes to the light of dawn streaming through the windows.

This is a novel to put on the shelf until you find yourself in a spiritual mood, ready for contemplative prose and a story of struggle, love and forgiveness.


Reading Around

Another two months have past…I haven’t been writing but I have been reading.  With six weeks left in the year, I only have nine books to go to complete the 75 book challenge, which won’t be a problem since almost everything that has been keeping me busy for the past three months will be over.  Who knows…maybe I’ll dive into John Adams or the History of London.

So, what have I been reading?  Oh, all sorts of stuff and I’ll do the speed dating version of reviews.  For tonight, we’ll do the fiction:

Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver: Took awhile to get going but was fascinating with its portraits of Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo

Dune Road, Jane Green: Older chick lit, only a little bit predictable

Winter Garden, Kristin Hannah: Older chick lit as well but the backdrop of the Seige of Leningrad raised it up a notch and the ending was a pleasant surprise

Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch: Funny, a little heartbreaking, maybe a little cliche, but a good read

Guardian of the Horizon, Elizabeth Peters:  I almost never read these.  Barbara Rosenblatt does the audio versions and she’s terrific.  But I’ve listened to enough of them that I could imagine Rosenblatt’s voice while I read the words.  I love it; a mystery series that has yet to get stale for me.

Serena, Ron Rash: I just don’t know what to think: a powerful novel, great writing, but the violence overwhelmed me.  I was interested in the historical aspects of the founding of the Great Smokies National Park and was fascinated by the story, but the female protagonist seemed somewhat flat in her single minded devotion.  I know, not a ringing recommendation, but I think I would recommend it.

Elements of Style, Wendy Wasserstein:  I wrote a short review on LibraryThing but after a few days, I realize I mostly just couldn’t sympathize with these selfish people.  Is this really what New York was like circa 9/11 even with the expected exaggeration?

Self-Storage: A Novel, Gayle Brandeis: The main character was disarming in her honesty and full on approach to life.