Friday, March 28, 2014

A Life with Books is Worth Living

I spend my summers on an island with a bookstore. I love books that are about the lives of people who are passionate about books, storytelling and writing.

Is it any wonder that I was anxious to get my hands on Gabrielle Zevin's new novel, The Storied Live of A.J. Fikry?

As this slender book opens, A.J. is in mourning for his wife, the island native who had been the impetus behind the bookstore. Unlike her, A.J. is a prickly sort, a customer service nightmare, a man who won't sell books he doesn't like. Since losing her in an accident 18 months earlier, he's been spiraling downwards, withdrawing further into drinking too much and dreaming of early retirement.

With the state of book selling in the 21st century, it's clearly not his outrageous profits that are going to fund his life of curmudgeonly isolation. No, A.J. has had one piece of outrageous fortune; he stumbled across one of the very few original printings of E.A. Poe's Tamerlane, in a box of miscellany at a garage sale that he bought for next to nothing. In pristine condition, this one item might fetch close to a half a million dollars at auction. One night after a bottle of red wine, A.J. takes the copy of Tamerlane out of its glass case to indulge in his dreams, but perhaps as a comeuppance for his ill treatment of a new and enthusiastic publisher's rep that had called earlier in the day, when he awakes the next morning, the little book is gone.

From this slender thread Zevin starts to weave the story of A.J.'s steps towards building a community, and ultimately, a new family. In ensuing chapters we get to know A.J.'s unhappy sister-in-law with her philandering author husband, the divorced local police chief, the charming publishing representative, and an abandoned baby. All unfolds as most readers will expect, with some small though ultimately not all that shocking twists, but it is not what happens that make this novel such a charmer, it's the style and the ever-present touchstone of books.

This is a fairy tale that reflects and burnishes real life -- people die, not all endings are happy -- but events are satisfyingly right. Zevin adopts a brisk tone and pace, which while they make you feel as if you are watching the action through a frame, it is a style that suits the material. You feel for each of these characters, most of whom have a moment or two where the story is told from his or her perspective, but they exist as impressionistic images, the idea of whole people formed out of a few crucial brushstrokes that up close dissolve into mere words, but at a distance reform into recognizable types that have particular roles to play.

Throughout books are discussed and also serve to be the lens through which we learn more about the characters as they learn more about themselves. Being set in a bookstore, it is natural that books appear as a part of the action – I will not be surprised if a number of folks forge reading lists based on the titles listed here. In addition, each chapter opens with a note by A.J. about a particular short story that is important to him and that story informs the action within chapter. If you aren’t familiar with the stories he discusses, I promise that you will want to find them after reading his take on them.

I have to say, like the residents of the fictional Alice Island, I think a bookstore makes a community and I hope this book helps more people to realize it.

If you want to visit my favorite island bookstore you can either trek up to mid-coast Maine or check out the website:

Artisan Books and Bindery

Of course, my life enriched the rest of the year by these mainland stores as well:

Main Point Books
Children's Book World

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