The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin; published 2014 by Algonquin

Genre: Literary Fiction

Opening line: “On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and, while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor’s notes.”

Plot:

A.J. Fikry is the crusty owner of Island Books, the sole bookstore on the small island of Alice. His first meeting with Amelia, the new sales rep at Knightley Press, goes horribly wrong. His wife recently died in a car crash, and he’s slumped in depression. Then a baby is left in his bookstore, and he finds himself caring more than he thought. After a weekend with baby Maya, he decides to adopt her. Soon Amelia sees a big change in A.J.

My reaction:

From my summary, you probably think you know how this story ends. But you don’t. Zevin successfully takes a plot that has been covered before and adds just the right amount of novelty, character, and surprise to it. Really, what I loved about this book was the characters. A.J. is hilarious: sarcastic, curmudgeonly, but ultimately endearing. Amelia is just adorable, and she reminds me of several bookish nerds I know. Maya is the most precocious child; I wanted to adopt her myself.

By far, my favorite scene was the one told from Maya’s point of view. Zevin perfectly captures the childish simplicity:

The wallpaper has a bumpy, swirling pattern, and it is pleasing to rub her face against it. She will read the word damask in a book one day and think, Yes, of course that’s what it’s called. In contrast, the word wainscoting will come as a huge disappointment.

Each chapter begins with a short note from A.J. to Maya about a short story, A.J.’s favorite literary form. These notes are poignant and sweet. I loved that the book is filled with insights into the life of a reader:

As a bookseller, I assure you that prizewinning can be somewhat important for sales but rarely matters much in terms of quality.

Why is any one book different from any other book? They are different, A.J. decides, because they are. We have to look inside many. We have to believe. We agree to be disappointed sometimes so that we can be exhilarated every now and again.

We are not quite novels…

We are not quite short stories…

In the end, we are collected works.

Recommend? Absolutely!

If you’re interested, author Gabrielle Zevin put together a playlist to go along with the book. You can also read Gabrielle’s post about this book.

You might also like:

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

What Books Inspire Your Fire?

“Inspire Your Fire” was the theme of this weekend’s LA Times Festival of Books. Every year the Festival attracts thousands of people for book signings, poetry readings, music, art, and (of course) book shopping! I’ve been wanting to go for years, but in the past it hasn’t worked out. So glad I got to do this!

Here are some of the highlights:

We passed by John Green signing copies of The Fault in Our Stars and heard girls giggling uncontrollably.

John Green

 We almost got a picture with John.

sisters

My sister, Maggie, and I

We added the books that inspire our fire to this big sign:

Jane Eyre for me, “Anything by Rick Riordan” for Maggie

inspire your fire

What books inspire your fire?

book titles

I saw this breathtaking picture of the Colby Fire in Glendora.

Irfan Khan - Colby Fire

View the original photo by Irfan Khan here.

I came home with a few great books.

books

Lord of the Flies

The Penguin Drop Caps Edition of Lord of the Flies

I was a little bummed that I didn’t get to actually meet any authors, but there’s always next year!

If you’ve been to the LA Times Festival of Books, what did you do? What were your highlights?

The Zookeeper’s Wife

the zookeeper's wife

This month we get to discuss The Zookeeper’s Wife as part of our Literary Wives series. Be sure to check out Emily, Cecilia, Carolyn, Kay, and Lynn’s reviews as well!

The Zookeeper’s Wife was a Literary Wives first for us: we branched out from fiction into non-fiction. And it was well worth it. This story is fascinating. In fiction-like prose, Diane Ackerman takes us into the life of Antonina Zabinski, a Polish woman who helped her husband care for the animals in the Warsaw Zoo before World War II. When the German blitz destroyed most of the cages and killed many of the animals, Antonina and Jan turned the old zoo into a stop on the Underground, smuggling Jews out of the Warsaw ghetto and saving hundreds of lives. As hard as it was to read some parts, I was very impressed by the book and highly recommend it.

But as part of the series, we’re particularly interested in how Antonina’s role as a wife was instrumental in this story.

In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what was is she defined by “wife”?

When I think of “wives” and “World War II,” I imagine it in my American context: Rosie the Riveter, Bomb Girls, women working in factories, growing in independence and status. It was no small victory for women. But Antonina’s story reminded me that not all wives experienced World War II like that.

Antonina valued “traditional” wifely roles like cooking and cleaning, and embodied traditional wifely virtues: hospitality, peacemaking, humility, sacrifice, and service. Those qualities were part of the reason so many lives were saved and so many people felt that the zoo was a safe haven for them. Over and over, we are told that Antonina didn’t just provide food and shelter. She made the zoo a welcoming home to wounded and weary travelers. Ackerman writes:

One of the most remarkable things about Antonina was her determination to include play, animals, wonder, curiosity, marvel, and a wide blaze of innocence in a household where all dodged the ambient dangers, horrors, and uncertainties.

Antonina embraced the traditional view of being a “wife,” and she was very good at it. Her acceptance had all of the positive effects that are supposed to come when wives act that way. But her acceptance seemed to have negative effects as well:

Jan ruled the villa and the Guests couldn’t disobey him, but the atmosphere began to sour because, as a volatile dictator, Jan apparently made daily life tense by often yelling at Antonina, despite her efforts to please him.

Jan does recognize her bravery after a particularly close call with German soldiers, but it is a rather backhanded compliment. As her son, Rys, gets older during the war, he begins saying things like, “I know better than you do! These things aren’t for women.”

Antonina puts up with this treatment meekly. She holds her husband’s risky behavior in awe, without recognizing that she herself lived through terrifying situations and made split-second decisions that saved lives. “She had had close calls, too, but whereas she ranked Jan’s as heroic, she deemed hers merely lucky.”

She attributes her own moments of bravery to “the ferocity of motherhood,” without realizing that the empathy that leads her to continuously take in wanderers and even stop German soldiers is truly something special. Luckily, everyone else saw it, even her husband Jan.

“Antonina was a housewife… she wasn’t involved in politics or war, and was timid, and yet despite that she played a major role in saving others and never once complained about the danger. …Her confidence could disarm even the most hostile,” [Jan] told an anonymous reporter, adding that her strength stemmed from her love of animals. “It wasn’t just that she identified with them,” he explained, “but from time to time she seemed to shed her human traits and become a panther or a hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind.”

This is not the story of a woman who struggled with being a wife, a conflict so many of our “wife” books seem to discuss. This was the story of a woman who used her talents and belief in traditionally female roles and attitudes to do something truly brave and subversive: to do what was right, disobey authority, and save hundreds of lives. I have to admire her for that.

If you’ve read The Zookeeper’s Wife, what did you think? 

literary wives

Our next book is going to be The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness and I can’t wait to read it! Get it now and read along!

 

The Signature of All Things

the signature of all things

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert; published 2013 by Viking Press

Genre: Historical Fiction

Review in a word: Impressive

Opening line:

“Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.”

Plot:

Gilbert’s nearly 500-page novel tells the story of the life of Alma Whittaker. Her father, Henry, is a botanical and pharmaceutical powerhouse—he commissioned the growing of many exotic medicinal herbs and plants and became fabulously wealthy. Alma’s mother, Beatrix, is an austere Dutchwoman who has the highest expectations for her daughter. Her parents ensure that Alma grows up surrounded by the brightest minds in science, and she is forever encouraged to explore on her own. Alma grows into a brilliant, gregarious botanist, specializing in the study of mosses. Alma has one sorrow: her intellect, buoyant personality, and plain features discourage any man from being interested in marrying her, despite the fact that she will inherit her father’s whole fortune.

Alma is hardy and she carries on, becoming rather reknown for her research of mosses. As a spinster, she continues to live with her parents and take care of them in her old age. Finally, when she is about 50, she meets Ambrose Pike, a man over ten years younger than her, with whom she shares a special communion. They talk about being soulmates. He asks her to marry him, and she says yes. But their marriage turns out to be a sham, and she sends him to live in Tahiti, where he dies a few years later. Out of guilt, she goes to Tahiti to find out what happened.

Meanwhile, the scientific world is full of discoveries that continue to keep Alma on her toes. And a man named Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, confirming an idea Alma had been puzzling for many years.

My reaction:

I wasn’t very impressed with Eat, Pray, Love so I didn’t know what to expect from a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. But it was surprisingly well researched and engrossing, with well-developed characters.

It’s very hard to summarize this book, because there is so much going on. Although I’m not big on science, I was absolutely fascinated by Gilbert’s description of what it must have been like to live in such a dynamic time. Darwin’s and others’ discoveries rocked the world, and Gilbert does a good job of looking at the implications of those discoveries on both science and religion. While in Tahiti, Alma meets an old priest who provides some of the most lovely descriptions of faith that I’ve read.

Science was not the only revolution happening in the 19th century. In her father’s vast library, Alma discovers a book about the enjoyments of pleasuring oneself. Alma becomes obsessed with sex and with the male body—not in a morbid, dirty way, but a respectful, awed way. Of course, with 19th century theories of modesty and proper behavior, Alma feels intensely guilty and dirty.

This book is all about discovery: Alma discovering herself, learning about life by studying her seemingly mundane mosses, and ultimately learning to be content with her lot. I loved this book because Alma is the most unlikely heroine: an old, ugly spinster. But you can’t help but root for her.

Quotes:

Without the love of our Lord, I am a wretch. This is the only miracle I can evidence, and sufficient miracle it remains for me. For others, perhaps it is not sufficient. I can scarcely fault them, for they cannot see into my heart. They cannot see the darkness that was once there, nor can they see what has replaced it. But to this day, it is the only miracle I have to offer, you see, and it is a humble one. – Reverend Welles

Under the right circumstances, everything was capable of transmutation. Extinction and transmutation had been occurring since the dawn of life, were still occurring now, and would continue to occur until the end of time—and if that did not constitute “continuous creation,” then Alma did not know what did.

The trick at every turn was to endure the test of living for as long as possible. The odds of survival were punishingly slim, for the world was naught but a school of calamity and an endless burning furnace of tribulation. But those who survived the world shaped it—even as the world, simultaneously, shaped them.

Recommend? Yes!

Burial Rites

Burial Rites

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent; published 2013 by Little, Brown and Company

Genre: Historical Fiction

Review in a word: Human

Opening line: “They said I must die.”

Plot:

Burial Rites is the haunting story of Agnes Madnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. Agnes is accused of murdering her employer, Natan Ketilsson. While she is waiting for her execution, she is placed with the family of Margret, Jon, and their two daughters. They’re not at all pleased to be housing a murderess, and obviously treat her with suspicion. A young and naive assistant reverend, Toti, is charged with hearing Agnes’s confession and helping her prepare for her death. As Agnes slowly reveals the story of her life and the tragic night that sealed her fate, everyone wonders: Is she really guilty?

My reaction:

This story is mesmerizing. I could not put it down. I had to know what happened, and if you read this book you will not be disappointed.

I was a little surprised to find that Agnes isn’t really a likable character—at least not at first. But you come to sympathize with her. She’s tough and ambitious and snarky. She has lived a life in and out of foster families, betrayed by people who are supposed to take care of her, abused, and abandoned. Even before she was named a criminal, people hated her. Through her heartbreaking confession to Toti, you see the fear and suspicion melt away from the family. Her story makes it clear that you cannot judge someone because of one moment in his/her life.

It reminded me of the amazing TED Talk by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) titled “The Danger of a Single Story.” If you haven’t watched this video, watch it now.

Recommend? Yes. I love books that are a lesson in empathy, and this book is certainly that.

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