WWW Wednesday — Fall Reading Version 1.0

September’s Baccalaureate
A combination is
Of Crickets — Crows — and Retrospects
And a dissembling Breeze

That hints without assuming —
An Innuendo sear
That makes the Heart put up its Fun
And turn Philosopher.

Emily Dickinson

Here’s a little anecdote about this poem, and Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets. I remembered that she had written a  little poem about September — and aging — but I couldn’t find it in my copy of her collected poetry. So I searched the Internet, using the terms “Emily Dickinson September poem”. I found the poem, but I also came upon the following quotation by Suzanne Supplee (an author with whom I am not familiar): “Emily Dickinson, in my opinion, is the perfect (although admittedly slightly cliche) poet for lonely fat girls.” I’d been so happy to find the poem, which was as lovely as I remembered, and then Suzanne Supplee had to go and take the wind right out of my sails. I’m not going to let that quote (which I’m sure was taken out of context) ruin Emily Dickinson for me. I’ll be turning the beautiful line “Of Crickets — Crows — and Retrospects” over in my mind for a long time.

What am I currently reading? What did I just finish reading? And what will I read next?

9781594634475I’m about halfway through Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which I almost put down after the first 30 pages or so. Several reviews (both from professional critics and from readers I trust) convinced me to stick it out, and I’m glad I have — I’m thoroughly absorbed now. I have a love-hate relationship with Groff’s writing style — some sentences amaze me with their originality, while others strike me as pretentious. A review on NPR raves about Groff’s writing:

The book is a master class in best lines; a shining, rare example of that most unforgiving and brutal writer’s advice: All you have to do is write the best sentence you’ve ever written. Then 10,000 more of the best. Then find a way to string them together into the story of something.

Which is what Groff has done here. And if you do want to learn how to be a great writer, you could do worse than skipping out on that M.F.A. program or pricey writer’s retreat, dropping 28 bucks on this book, studying the hell out of it, and then spending all that money you just saved on gin cocktails and hats. It’s that good. That beautiful. Occasionally, that stunning.

I’m warming, just a little, to the characters, now that I’m in the second half of the book (“Furies”), but at first I found them not only unlikable but unrealistic. As one commenter on NPR said,

Amazing writing. Absolutely beautiful. My question for the author: Do you think people like this couple actually exist, and you are delving into their psyches, or are you purposely creating otherworldly main characters? I have met many people from many different walks of life but have never met anyone even remotely like Lancelot and Mathilde. Am I just not meeting the right people? Is it all just metaphorical?

All I can reveal about the plot is that it revolves around a marriage and the two people’s very different perceptions, and that it’s very well constructed. Sounds like Gone Girl, right? Both have their share of melodrama and plot twists. Fates and Furies is rooted in Greek mythology, with plenty of Shakespearean references (one of the main characters is a playwright), making it self-consciously literary while Gone Girl presents itself as a straight page-turner. I’m looking forward to following the discussion on NPR, which has chosen it to discuss on the Morning Edition Book Club.

y648I need something light and funny to counterbalance the darkness in Fates and Furies, so my current audiobook is Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. Yesterday I drove several miles past my exit because I was having so much fun listening to Amy. She jumps from childhood to Second City to motherhood to Saturday Night Live, with several guest readers — including her mother. I know the print book has lots of photos and illustrations, but it can’t be as entertaining as the audio — although I have to be honest and tell you that it’s not as good as Bossypants, by Amy’s good friend Tina Fey.

9780804140164I just finished reading The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Resilience in an American Town, by Ryan D’Agostino. The devastating true story of Dr. William Petit, who lost his wife and two daughters — and was critically injured himself — in a brutal attack in the family’s Connecticut home. Amazingly, Petit has not only survived but managed to rebuild his life. This book, which I read in one day, is a real-life companion to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family.

9780399173004Because every serious book needs to be followed by something light and amusing, I read Shakespeare, Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Dramas, by two English professors — Caroline Bicks, Ph.D. and Michelle Ephraim, Ph.D.

Now some of you may be thinking: Booze? Professors? Isn’t this why we need to get rid of tenure? But hear us out. Shakespeare wasn’t just interested in Fate, Revenge, and Tragic Flaws. His plays are saturated with alcohol-related themes, and it’s our job to know about them.

These Shakespeare scholars obviously had a blast putting together this collection of recipes for cocktails and appetizers. Every page contains fun and interesting Shakespeare trivia; reading this short book is a bartending course and Shakespeare seminar combined.

y648-1What’s next? Because I can never get too much of World War II, probably Early One Morning by Virginia Baily, about the decision a young Italian woman makes to save the life of a young Jewish boy — a decision that has repercussions 30 years later. The reviews describe the novel as not just a war story, but as an adoption story. And because I always need a laugh, Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam, the “semi-true” tale of Hickam’s parents’ journey from West Virginia to Florida with their pet alligator in tow. I started reading the ARC a couple of months ago, and misplaced it — I just found it, and can’t wait to pick it up again, because it’s sweet and nostalgic and funny. It’s a rough world, and as I just heard Elizabeth Berg say, there’s nothing wrong with a little sentimentality.


10 New Books I’m Looking Forward to This Fall

That old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air … Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

Stegner eloquently phrased what I’ve always believed — September is the true beginning of the year.  January is just another long, cold month of hibernation and diets. Fall is traditionally when the major publishers come out with their “big books”. According to the Boston Globe, “The fall book publishing season mirrors the movie industry’s Oscar-jockeying season. Publishers typically use the last few weeks running up to the holiday buying season to release their most prestigious, and commercially promising, new titles”.

Some of the books I’m looking forward to reading this fall are “prestigious” and some may be “commercially promising”, but those aren’t qualities that are important to me as a reader, or even as a bookseller. On the other hand, I don’t like to engage in reverse snobbery either —  I don’t avoid a book just because it’s popular.

The 10 books on my list sound like what I’ll want to read this fall while curled up with a blanket on my favorite reading chair.

6f7409195b3da2bf053b771b8d91d7efEarly One Morning by Virginia Baily (due September 29)

Published in the U.K. earlier this year, Baily’s second novel tells the story of Chiara, a young woman who impulsively saves the life of a young Jewish boy, whom she names “Daniele”,  during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Her decision reverberates a generation later, when a teenage girl contacts her, claiming to be Daniele’s daughter. The Guardian calls the book “highly original” noting that “The book works because it gives itself fully to its characters and their relationships, from which its ample plot spirals outwards with a confidently handled complexity and depth.”

9780670025770The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (due October 6)

Brooks, who’s written four previous novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning March, is one of my favorite authors. The Secret Chord imagines the life of the biblical King David. In a Publishers Weekly interview, Brooks explains her fascination with King David, describing his story as “encompassing most of human experience: there’s love and loss, triumph and despair, victory and defeat. ‘Everything happens to him,’ she says, pointing out that the biblical account is the ‘first piece of history writing that we have,’ predating Herodotus by 500 years.”

930cb8822e923066f1cfb42fa388117eThe Three Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway (due October 27)

I know this probably isn’t another Boys in the Boat (what could be?), but I can’t resist an underdog sports story — and this one sounds terrific. The “Three-Year Swim Club” was a group of poor Japanese-American children who started their swimming careers training in irrigation ditches in the 1930s and later became world champions. Checkoway focuses on the team’s innovative and inspirational coach, Soichi Sakomoto, an unsung hero whose accomplishments have gone relatively unnoticed.

9781594634475Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (available now)

This is one of the big “buzz” books of the season, so I think I should have an opinion. The first section of the book, “Fates”, chronicles a marriage from the husband’s point of view of ; the second section, “Furies”, provides the wife’s version. I’m slightly worried that Fates and Furies is going to be too self-consciously literary for my taste, but we’ll see.  Longlisted for the National Book Award.

9780307451064The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher (due October 6)

I love narrative nonfiction about quirky topics! This account of the rivalry between Harry Houdini, crusader against charlatans and the spiritualism movement, and Margery Crandon, self-proclaimed spirit medium, is right up my alley.

9780525429777Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell (due October 27)

Clementine came to me on the recommendation of my friend and coworker Kathy, who always picks terrific nonfiction. Published earlier this year in the U.K. to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister, The Independent says that Sonia Purnell’s “compellingly readable”  biography of Churchill’s wife “brings her out from behind the shadow cast by the Great Man and argues for her historical importance.”

y648Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America by Diane Roberts (due October 27)

I’m not crazy about football, but I am intrigued by the sport as an American cultural phenomenon. (The best book I’ve read on the subject — so far — is Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania, by Warren St. John.) Roberts, an English professor at Florida State, says she’s a “conflicted” football fan:”I’m like those people who aren’t sure they believe in the Virgin Birth and the literal Resurrection but still show up for church because they like the music and take solace in the liturgy.”

Schiff_THEWITCHESThe Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff (due October 27)

I’m absolutely fascinated by the Salem Witch Trials, and for good reason — I was born in Salem, along with many of my ancestors. Pulitzer Prize winner Schiff says that we have a “completely skewed idea of what happened” in Salem; “it’s something we all know about, but we actually are relatively misinformed.”

9780804141352The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (due October 6)

First in the new Hogarth Shakespeare series, The Gap of Time is a “cover” version of The Winter’s Tale. The publisher’s website explains that Hogarth has commissioned well-known authors “to write prose ‘retellings’ of Shakespeare’s plays for the modern reader.” These new versions will be true to the spirit of the original dramas and their popular appeal, while giving authors an exciting opportunity to reinvent these seminal works of English literature.” What a great idea!

9780553496642Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon (available now)

Ann Kingman recommended this YA novel on my favorite podcast, Books on the Nightstand: “I don’t want to say too much about it, because you really should go into this book without knowing too much about it. All I’ll say is that the main character is a teenage girl who suffers from debilitating allergies that require her to stay inside of her home.” Ann hasn’t steered me wrong yet, so I’m going to add it to my list.

Happy Fall!

10 Books to Get Your Book Club Talking

What makes a good book club book? I discussed this at length in another post (How to Choose Great Book Club Books) over a year ago, but on rereading that post I realize I didn’t clearly state one of the most important criteria: the best book club books are the ones your club is enthusiastic about reading. Yes, one of the best things about being part of a book club is reading books you wouldn’t ordinarily pick up — but that can be one of the worst things too. I would probably never have read Station Eleven — which is one of my all-time favorites — if it hadn’t been a book club selection, but I also would never have suffered through Interview With a Vampire, and I’m never getting back the hours of my life I wasted on Anne Rice. (In fairness to the long-defunct book club that picked Interview With a Vampire, I should mention that the club also selected Crossing to Safety, which remains one of my top recommendations for book groups.)

So, the first step is choosing books that the group looks forward to reading, rather than books that your members view as homework assignments. Keep in mind that you can’t please everyone, and almost every book club has at least one naysayer. The next challenge is making sure that your selections will inspire the kinds of discussions your book club is interested in having. Groups of friends (“private” clubs) often are more likely to talk about personal issues, while groups that meet in libraries, bookstores, community centers, etc. (“public” clubs) are more likely to concentrate on literary criticism. And although almost any book, in the right hands, can stimulate conversation, some books that are enormously fun to read are clunkers when it comes to discussion. Some books are too polarizing and may provoke arguments rather than civil discourse.

Here are 10 recent books that I think would get your book club talking.

9780062268679Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County by Kristen Green
Veteran journalist Green chronicles the years when Prince Edward County, Virginia closed its public schools rather than obey the federal mandate to desegregate — and tells the story of her family’s part in this shameful chapter of history.
Something to talk about: Green feels ashamed of her family’s actions both before she was born and during her childhood. Why do people feel guilty for past actions of family members?

did-you-ever-have-a-family-9781476798172_lgDid You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
One of four American novels longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, this gorgeously written novel will keep you up late at night and it will break your heart.
Something to talk about: The book was reviewed twice in the New York Times  — in the Sunday book review section and then on Monday, by a different reviewer. The first review was positive and respectful, calling the novel “masterly” and “thoughtful”; the second was not just negative, but unkind and snarky: “Critics have arranged warm reviews around it like tea candles . . .  But the pocket where I generally put the nice things I want to say about a book is, in this instance, pretty empty.” Why do you think two reviews would vary to that degree? And is there ever any reason for a mean-spirited review?

55970100767930LStill Time by Jean Hegland
John Wilson, an English professor with Alzheimer’s disease, finds that his extensive knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare helps him make sense of an increasingly bewildering world. Like Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Still Time is about a professor suffering from dementia — but it’s an entirely different, and I’d argue, a more subtle and thought-provoking novel.
Something to talk about: John named his estranged daughter Miranda, after the heroine of one of his favorite Shakespeare plays. How do the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation in The Tempest connect to John’s efforts to make amends at the end of his life?

9780804170154The Painter by Peter Heller
If these first lines don’t grab you, I don’t know what will: “I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.”  Jim Stegner is a painter of “outsider art” and fly fisherman with a propensity for violence who gets himself involved with some very bad people. Is it any coincidence that this character and Wallace Stegner (“the dean of Western writers”) share a last name?
Something to talk about: What caused Jim to become a violent man? What causes anyone to become violent?

02dde0b11247a412ef5ab2d18f7ba165Hold Still by Sally Mann
One of the best memoirs I’ve ever read — it doesn’t seem fair that Sally Mann is a talented writer and photographer! This is a book that must be read in print form — the photographs are integral to the story, and an e-book doesn’t do them justice. And if you discuss this book, someone must bring a book of Mann’s photographs to the meeting.
Something to talk about: What is art? (Now there’s a question you can never get tired of!)

9781250012579Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
What a jewel of a book! It’s classified as YA, but the story of two lonely teenagers who become friends and later fall in love will appeal to anyone who has a heart. It’s hard to believe that Rowell’s characters aren’t real people; their voices are original and true. It’s the kind of book you want to buy multiple copies of and give to everyone you know.
Something to talk about: What makes this novel a YA novel? Yes, it’s told from the perspective of two teenagers — but so are many adult books.

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scott
Following a family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin is sent to spend the summer with his wise veterinarian grandfather in Medgar, Kentucky. Pops, whose life has brought him wisdom and an unwavering moral compass, will remind readers of Atticus Finch. Medgar is a depressed coal town facing a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills, backfilling the hollows — and deeply dividing the townspeople. The violent events of that summer will begin Kevin’s transformation from a wounded boy into an adult. Read this one instead of Go Set a Watchman!
Something to talk about: Each of the short chapters has a poetic title that was obviously chosen with care: “The Occasional Shifting of Boot Sole on Pine”; “The Price of Future Memories”; “Under the Protection of Red Cloud”. What does this add to the novel? Why do some authors number their chapters instead of giving them titles?

MSY_paperbackMy Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
A delightful memoir about Rakoff’s stint as an assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent, this book is, according to the Chicago Tribune, “a beautifully written tribute to the way things were at the edge of the digital revolution, and also to the evergreen power of literature to guide us through all of life’s transitions.” The book provides plenty of fodder for discussion on its own, but it would be fun to read in conjunction with a Salinger book or short story. It’s perfect for fans of Marjorie Hart’s Summer at Tiffany.
Something to talk about: What was your first “real” job, and what part did it play in your eventual career?

9780525427209Bettyville by George Hodgman
When George Hodgman lost his editorial job in New York, he returned to his hometown of Paris, Missouri (“population 1,246 and falling”) to care for his 91-year-old mother. Hodgman’s honest and affecting portrait of their relationship moved me both to laughter and tears. This memoir is a terrific companion to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal — which I believe everyone should read, but may be too painful and intense to talk about in a group setting. Ann Patchett has this to say about Being Mortal: “I’m all for people having different tastes, liking different books, but everyone needs to read this book because at some point everyone is going to die, and it’s possible that someone we love is going to die before us.”
Something to talk about: George, of course, does a lot for Betty — he moves in with her and becomes her caretaker. But what does Betty do for George?

0395843677The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike and Katrina Kenison
I absolutely love short stories, and I can’t understand why they aren’t more popular — especially with book groups. They’re perfect for all those people who say they don’t have time to read. (For more on my thoughts on short stories, read 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories.) I recently joined a group that discusses short stories, and we spent a fascinating 90 minutes talking about “Bright and Morning Star”, written by Richard Wright in 1939. The group spends several months discussing stories from a particular decade in the 20th century. A group could choose any anthology of short stories or essays; the Best American Series (“the premier annual showcase for the country’s finest short fiction and nonfiction”)published by Mariner Books, will come out in early October. There are collections of travel writing, science and nature writing, sports writing, and more.

For further reading on choosing “discussable” books, please check out Is Your Book Club in a Rut? Here Are 10 Helpful Hints, by a librarian who’s experienced at working with book groups. “Steer clear of plot driven novels,” she advises, and I couldn’t agree more. The Girl on the Train is a terrific page-turner, but I’m not sure it would lend itself to an in-depth discussion. It would be fun to serve gin and tonics in honor of Rachel, although I don’t think the canned variety is available in the United States.

I’d love to know what your book club is reading this fall — and if you discussed any terrific books over the summer. I’m planning on compiling reading lists for different kinds of book clubs, and welcome your suggestions.

The Hummingbird — Book Review


a small bird
with a terrible hunger,
with a thin beak probing and dipping
and a heart that races so fast

it is only a heartbeat ahead of breaking

Mary Oliver, “Summer Story”

Sometimes the books I enjoy the most are the most difficult to review. Books that I fall in love with seem to blur my critical eye. It can be hard to determine just why a book hit my sweet spot. Was it the subject matter, the underlying theme, the characters, the setting, the structure, the writing style — or, as in the case of Stephen P. Kiernan’s The Hummingbird, all of these? Obscure World War II history — check. End of life issues — check. Multiple story lines (including a book within a book) — check. Admirable (if imperfect) characters — check. It’s a real joy to read a novel about people whose lives are rooted in integrity.

When Deborah Birch arrives home from an emotionally and physically draining day as a hospice nurse, she has a second job waiting for her: caring for Michael, her emotionally damaged husband. After his third tour of duty in Iraq, Michael “returned home in a permanent mood of nitroglycerine, always just one bump away from exploding”.

Deborah’s current patient, retired history professor Barclay Reed, is a “crusty coot” whose sharp tongue and temper have sent several other hospice nurses packing. Deborah is able to see the fear and emotional pain that are buried beneath his disagreeable exterior, and she is fascinated by his brilliant mind. Gradually, Barclay (“‘Professor Reed, ideally'”) and Deborah (“‘I shall call you Nurse Birch'”) form a bond, as he helps her understand her husband’s warrior mentality and she helps him make the most of his final days.

Deborah says she is “known for sticking. For staying. For never giving up. It wasn’t true only of patients but reflected my whole life”. She stays with her patients, literally until they take their last breaths, and she stays with Michael, even though “he wasn’t a husband; he was a hand grenade”.  Deborah’s job is to help patients surrender to death, but she is having a much more difficult time helping her tormented husband find peace: “Iraqi insurgents were not the only adversaries Michael needed a truce with. It was me, too.”

The Hummingbird inspires the reader to consider the meaning of peace. When do we fight and when do we surrender? Can it take greater courage to surrender than to keep fighting? How do we let go of fear and develop trust?  The Professor’s unpublished book, The Sword, examines these questions through the story of Japanese pilot Ichiro Soga and his journey to reconciliation. Kiernan deftly weaves chapters from Barclay’s manuscript throughout The Hummingbird, illuminating Deborah and Michael’s path toward healing. As Kiernan mentions in his Author’s Note, the essential details of Soga’s story are historically accurate.

Kiernan knows his material when it comes to hospice; a career journalist, he is the author of a nonfiction book called Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life from the Hospital System and frequently speaks and consults on how to expand use of hospice, palliative care and advance directives. Deborah’s scenes with Barclay, as well as flashbacks to her experiences with other dying patients and their families, are vivid and authentic  — due not only to Kiernan’s clear writing but to his familiarity with hospice. Sue Boucher (The Cottage Book Shop) texted me as she was reading The Hummingbird to say: “I’m fascinated by Deborah’s experiences with patients at the end of their lives. She has such insight into the process.”

Curious readers may be wondering why the title of the book is The Hummingbird. A patient of Deborah’s carved her a hummingbird, a talisman she touches every day as “a solid reminder that every patient, no matter how sick or impoverished, gives lasting gifts to the person entrusted with his care.” Sometimes, Deborah discovers, these are “unexpected gifts” from the unlikeliest of sources.

For more reviews, please visit TLC Book Tours.

We Never Asked for Wings — Author Interview


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.

Four years ago, Vanessa Diffenbaugh published her first novel, The Language of Flowers, which became a surprise bestseller — and a staff and customer favorite at Lake Forest Book Store. It’s rare that a new author builds an audience so quickly. Kathryn Stockett  comes to mind — but it’s been more than six years since The Help was published and there’s no new book on the horizon.

Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s much-anticipated second novel, We Never Asked for Wings, has just arrived in stores. Her whirlwind publicity tour included two events in the Chicago suburbs: an evening reading and discussion at Highland Park Public Library and a Lake Forest Book Store luncheon. Quite a few of the attendees had met Vanessa when she visited Lake Forest for a luncheon in September 2011, just a couple of weeks after The Language of Flowers was published. That event — one of Vanessa’s very first —  was a benefit for the Allendale Association, a local organization serving troubled children and adolescents.

Few authors are lucky enough to be sent on publisher-sponsored publicity tours. As author Justin Taylor points out in an article entitled “On the Total Weirdness of the Book Tour”, both reading and writing (“these two vast solitudes”) are fundamentally private activities, yet book tours attempt to transform them into social events:

Every art form has its peculiarities but the strangest thing about writing . . . is that its fundamental attribute is solitude. Plays, concerts, operas, movies take dozens if not hundreds to make, and are seen by thousands (or millions) in their turn. Even the painter, who might work alone or with assistants, eventually sees his work on a wall in a room in the company of that of his colleagues.

I’m sure authors get tired of answering the same questions at event after event, but in my experience they are all unfailingly gracious, even with inane queries — “Do you write in longhand or on a computer?” “How can I get my book published?”. Most attendees ask more insightful questions, often about the story behind the book. I’m always interested in what the author is currently reading; the “what’s on your nightstand?” question always asked in the New York Times Book Review “By the Book” column. When I interview authors, I try my best to ask them a few questions they haven’t been asked multiple times.  Last week, Vanessa was kind enough to take some time from her busy schedule to chat with me.

I asked Vanessa what readers ask her most frequently. She said, without any hesitation, that readers are most curious about how her personal life ties in with her fiction. Vanessa has spent her adult life working with disadvantaged youth, as a mentor, teacher, and foster parent. Her experiences have inspired her characters — Victoria, the young woman aging out of foster care and facing life alone in The Language of Flowers and Alex, the bright and precocious teenager trying to get to know his parents, and himself in We Never Asked for Wings  and her motifs: flowers, birds, and feathers.

Vanessa mentioned that the natural world plays an important role in how her characters make sense of their lives. Alex’s knowledge of bird migration, for example, draws him closer to his grandparents and helps him understand why they returned to Mexico. Vanessa’s brother-in-law is a climate scientist at Stanford whose help was invaluable as Vanessa planned Alex’s science project inspired by his grandfather’s feather collection. In the Q and A session after Vanessa’s reading, she mentioned that she’s always been a nature lover, having grown up in a small farming community.

When Vanessa began writing We Never Asked for Wings (a long and difficult process that took more than three years and involved a complete rewrite) she intended the book to focus on the dichotomy between educational opportunities for wealthy and poor children, not on illegal immigration. In an interview on MomAdvice/Sundays with Writers, she says:

For me, it is especially interesting that I wrote a book about immigration because I had no intention of doing so! I was thinking about economic and educational inequality, and themes of motherhood and family. But as I got deeper and deeper into this novel, it struck me that I had created a community of characters in which immigration status would be an issue. It would be disingenuous to write about a low-income community in California and pretend that every citizen in the book would be documented. That simply isn’t the case, and it has profound implications for the people who live in these communities.

I was particularly curious about the abandoned housing project by the ocean where Alex and his family live. I could visualize the muddy expanses and decrepit buildings of Eden’s Landing, but I couldn’t find any information about the Landing on the Internet. Actually, Vanessa told me, the setting of We Never Asked for Wings was based on Columbia Point, a housing project on a peninsula in Boston that was razed in the 1980s. She initially planned on setting the novel in Boston, but as a native Californian, her heart was in the area she knows best.

The other question I was especially interested in was why she decided to write We Never Asked for Wings as a purely realistic novel, with none of the magical realism that characterized The Language of Flowers. Her answer, which surprised me, was that she thought the book was entirely realistic. What I, and other readers, saw as fantastical events were not, according to Vanessa — they were caused by the power of suggestion.

Vanessa pointed out that her book contains two coming of age stories — Alex’s, of course, but also his mother’s, as Letty learns to become an adult and a parent. The flashbacks to Letty’s troubled teenage years and Alex’s first experience with love will appeal to teenage readers who are ready for adult books. One of my colleagues mentioned that her son, a high school student, was enjoying We Never Asked for Wings, finding himself interested not only in Alex’s story but the immigration issues raised in the novel.

And guess what? Vanessa was called to the podium before I got a chance to ask her what’s on her nightstand. I recommend, though, that you add We Never Asked for Wings to the stack on your nightstand.