Excerpt from Asta in the Wings by Jan Elizabeth Watson, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Asta in the Wings

by Jan Elizabeth Watson

Asta in the Wings
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    Feb 2009, 314 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Vy Armour

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Print Excerpt

Something resembling EARWIG.

I lay my finger before it and hoped that this creature would take to me, as I’d once seen a caterpillar take to a stalk—on TV.

“Wiggy!” I hissed between my teeth.

“What’s that?” My mother’s head surged over the edge of the tub; within a split second she spotted my visitor, dipped her fingers into the suds, and sprayed him in one efficient wrist flick. He twitched once, twice, before scuttling back into the tile.

“Foolish things crawl in your ears and eat the insides of your head,” Mother said. “You don’t want to be courting those.”

I considered her words. “They eat heads?” I asked.

“They’re not as bad as termites, but still pretty darned pesky,” she went on meditatively, as if I hadn’t spoken. “What use are earwigs to anyone? It’d be more useful to be a—a fly. Not to court flies, mind you, but actually be a fly! A fly on the cellular wall of somebody’s brain! The pest, and not the one to whom the pestilence comes! Now wouldn’t that be a switch?”

She placed the book flat on the tray, raised both tremulous hands above the water, and clasped them enthusiastically at her bosom. “It is exactly the thing I wish for you to understand about the movies. This is something my own mother used to tell me. Of course, the world’s concerns are different than they were during her time—the Silent Era—but our overriding choices remain the same. And there are only two—there have never been more than two.

“Are you listening, Asta? You can conduct yourself as if you are watching a movie—with darkness closing in on all sides—or, choice number two, you can conduct yourself as if you are acting in a movie, with your inner light guiding you all the way. Given those two choices, and knowing that these are the only two you will ever, ever have, which would you deem the better one?”

“Acting in a movie?”

“Yes! The better one. We can’t afford to reduce ourselves to being mere witnesses. There are times when we must take actions that are entirely of our own making.” My mother’s eyes fixed on the overhead light above the bathtub. The light wasn’t on, but she seemed pleased by whatever she saw up there—as if that dull glass circle had nodded its assent.

“Time flies, but I cannot,” my mother murmured, staring at the light. She let both arms slump below the fading bubbles, and the tea tray toppled dangerously to one side. I steadied it, and that seemed to revive her a bit.

The wall-eyed look that sometimes overtook her was replaced by a penetrating one.

“Take that away, would you? And hand me my towel, yes, there’s a good girl,” she said. “Remind me to take a look at you this morning. Your face is almost as peaked as your brother’s. I don’t like seeing my children looking so pinched.” She pressed the drain lever with her foot, and the pipes gave a great belch as the water hurtled toward the eye of the drain. I leaned forward to watch it disappear.

“For heaven’s sake, don’t let that water touch you,” Mother scolded, prodding at my chest with a dripping toe.


Once Mother had toweled off and slipped into her robe, she took me downstairs to the kitchen, and the daily business commenced.

“Really, Asta,” my mother said, giving my skirt a yank. “Your dress. Would it kill you to pull it up?”

Though I didn’t protest, I always disliked the way her fingers went from the lymph nodes under my jaw and armpits to the even more tender ones around my pelvic bones. I’d developed the practice of avoiding her gaze during such probes; I usually stared at the windows, studying the black drapes that were parted to reveal the tar paper on the opposite side of the glass.

Excerpted from Asta in the Wings by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Copyright © 2006 by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Excerpted by permission of Tin House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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