Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Books We Love: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin


As a reader and bookseller I've long been leery of what we in the business call "buzz books". Don't get me wrong--I don't believe that because something is popular doesn't mean it's no good. Far from it! But book buzz--like any other kind of hype--is generated as often as it's genuine, and I have very little interest in reading anything because a corporation tells me I should. On the other hand, if my fellow booksellers are to a person loving something I take notice.

By the time I received my advance reading copy of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, my interest had already been piqued. Yes, it seemed there was a degree of generated buzz; after all, the publisher's reps were pushing it pretty hard. But when it reached my hands, it seemed, a generated-to-genuine transition had occurred, so I decided to give it a try.

That The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a book about an independent bookstore owner certainly didn't hurt its case with me.


A.J. Fikry is in his late thirties. He owns Island Books, a small independent bookstore ("No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World" reads the faded sign over the porch) located in a Martha's Vineyard-esque island community. A.J. seems a bitter loner, and in our first encounter with him, in which he does his best to alienate a new publisher's rep making her first seasonal visit to his store, he also comes across as a bit of an ass.

Soon after this visit, in rapid succession, A.J. loses a very valuable book (a first edition of Poe's Tamerlane, published in a run of only fifty copies) to theft and finds an abandoned baby, two events that, along with the death of his wife, which happens before the action of the book begins, will define, nay, transform the rest of his life.

A.J. Fikry enters our acquaintance as a book snob and a pedant, even in his most emotionally draining moments ("If this were Raymond Carver," he says to the cop who's taking his statement at the hospital after the death of his wife in a car accident, "you'd offer me some meager comfort and darkness would set in and all this would be over. But this...is feeling more like a novel to me after all. Emotionally, I mean. It will take me a while to get through it. Do you know?"). He has little patience for books that he's not interested in, but he has perfect memory for people's reading tastes, and, despite the snobbishness can make appropriate recommendations. And A.J. can--and does!--change and grow as a bookseller and as a reader. As a new father he finds himself becoming more a part of the community than he ever has been before, adding to his bookstore's inventory--he brings in books that local moms are interested in for their book clubs, he adds a kids section--and even reading books he never would have looked at before.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a book about love and loss and what we read. It's about community and family, and how the family we cobble together is just as important as the one we're biologically tied to. 

And, finally, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is about bookstores. You know how important bookstores are, so I'll just leave you with A.J.'s thoughts after his mother gives everyone in the family an e-reader for Christmas (the emphasis is mine).


A.J. has often reflected that, bit by bit, all the best things in the world are being carved away like fat from meat. First, it had been the record stores, and then the video stores, and then newspapers and magazines, and now even the big chain bookstores were disappearing everywhere you looked. From his point of view, the only thing worse than a world with big chain bookstores was a world with NO big chain bookstores. At least the big stores sell books and not pharmaceuticals or lumber! At least some of the people who work at those stores have degrees in English literature and know how to read and curate books for people! At least the big stores can sell ten thousand units of publisher's dreck so that Island gets to sell one hundred units of literary fiction!





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