DISCLOSURE: I received an advance reading copy of this book from NetGalley and Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest review.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
258 pages (ARC e-book)
About twenty years ago, big-box bookstores started popping up all over. Barnes & Noble and Borders were as ubiquitous (and as large) as Whole Foods or Target. They were places to meet up for blind dates (Starbucks in a wide-open, brightly lit public place? Yep, that will work.), to read magazines for hours on end (without purchasing them, of course), to browse cookbooks and travel books, and to buy all of your hardcover bestsellers for 20% off the list price.
Independent booksellers shook with fright . . . and for good reason. Surely you remember the (mediocre) movie about the evil, corporate, big-box bookstore taking over the little guys:
These days, even the big-box bookstores aren’t safe. E-books and online retailers are taking over the market, and bookstores, large and small, are, tragically, shutting their doors. Sad.
For book lovers who still enjoy whiling away the hours in honest-to-goodness, bricks-and-mortar book shops, it’s refreshing and nostalgia-inducing to read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, a book about an independent bookseller. The titular A.J. Fikry is a short, crotchety, opinionated curmudgeon who owns a small bookstore, Island Books, on the remote Alice Island. A.J. is a book snob of the highest order, and he doesn’t stock his bookstore to please the masses. His store reflects his personal tastes:
“Like,” he repeats with distaste. “How about I tell you what I don’t like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translations. I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of my pocketbook require me to.”
A.J. spends his days at the bookstore (which, not surprisingly, is not very successful) and his nights eating frozen dinners and drinking until he passes out in his small apartment above the shop.
You’re probably picturing a grumpy old man. He’s a crouching, white-haired guy in his seventies, perhaps? But, no, A.J. Fikry is only thirty-nine at the start of the book. A year and a half ago, his beloved (and pregnant) wife died in a car crash, and, understandably, he has been in a funk ever since. But, lucky for A.J. (and for us!), he is about to encounter a quirky cast of characters (like Amelia, the “dirty-blond giantess” book rep from Knightley Press), hell-bent on bringing him back to the land of the living!
This book is pure fluff (cute writing, funny, light, and sweet) in the vein of Where’d You Go, Bernadette. It’s not particularly deep, it’s very predictable, and it’s a little too simple (and, yes, the ending is schmaltzy, rushed, and trite. But this is fluff. What do you expect?). Nevertheless, it gets a 4/5, because it’s highly enjoyable, super fast-paced, well-written, and a perfect summer book.
Plus, this is a straight-up book-lovers’ book. The characters are more apt to judge others by their favorite books than by any other opinion they could profess (“People tell boring lies about politics, God, and love. You know everything you need to know about a person from the answer to the question: What is your favorite book?”):
Re: their date. For a time, the novelty of the circus had distracted from the fact that they had nothing in common. By the end of dinner, the greater truth of their incompatibility had been revealed. Perhaps it should have been obvious from their inability to reach consensus on an appetizer or from his main course admission that he disliked “old things”—antiques, houses, dogs, people. Still, Amelia had not allowed herself to be certain until dessert, when she’d asked him about the book that had had the greatest influence on his life, and he’d replied Principles of Accounting, Part II.
And, even more my speed, it’s a short-story lovers’ book! Each chapter begins with a blurb by A.J. about one of his favorite stories (like Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter” and Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”). The stories he discusses are fabulous (you should read those two if you haven’t previously!). His comments are great intros to the chapters and, occasionally, poignant thoughts about the stories themselves. Here’s an excerpt of his blurb about “The Luck of Roaring Camp”:
I read it for the first time at Princeton in a seminar called the Literature of the American West and was not moved in the least. In my response paper (dated November 14, 1992), the only thing I found to recommend it were the colorful character names: Stumpy, Kentuck, French Pete, Cherokee Sal, etc. I chanced upon ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp” again a couple of years ago and I cried so much you’ll find that my Dover Thrift Edition is waterlogged. Methinks I have grown soft in my middle age. But me-also-thinks my latter-day reaction speaks to the necessity of encountering stories precisely at the right time in our lives. . . . [T]he things we respond to at twenty are not necessarily the same things we will respond to at forty and vice versa. This is true in books and also in life.
Preach, A.J., preach!! This blurb reminded me of a discussion I had with my brother about The Great Gatsby. He recommended I re-read it in my thirties and said he could not understand why that book is taught to high schoolers. Too true.
Who should read it: It’s almost summer, and this is a perfect beach or plane-ride book. If you’re heading on vacation, this would be a good book to pick up. It would also be good for those of you who like light, easy reading for their metro rides to work (Shana, I’m looking at you).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Last Days of California by Mary Miller (from the New York Times review: “The Last Days of California” joins a number of other recent novels written from the perspective of children or teenagers — Karen Thompson Walker’s “The Age of Miracles,” Lauren Groff’s “Arcadia.” It’s hard to figure out why some are published as “young adult” while others aren’t, but why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.)
- Frog Music by Emma Donoghue (Donoghue is the author of the hugely popular Room; an Indie Next Pick for April 2014)