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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

December 29, 2014

Last June when Ron and I went to St. Francisville, Louisiana for Walker Percy Weekend, we met Walker’s daughter Mary Pratt and her friends Robert and Alice, and Alice gave me a book recommendation. She told me to read The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, and I now understand why—it’s a book about readers, for readers.

A.J. Fikry is a bookstore owner whose wife has just died. His friends include his former sister-in-law and the chief of police, and he lives on an island somewhere off the coast of New England. He adopts a two-year-old named Maya who is left in his bookstore and falls in love with a publisher’s representative named Amelia. Each chapter is preceded by a long quotation from a novel or story that relates to what happens in the chapter, and most of them are familiar. There was only one I didn’t know, as I’ve never read Aimee Bender’s story “Ironhead” (soon I am going to read it and the whole collection it’s from—this is that kind of book; I assume that the one I haven’t read will be as good as the others mentioned.)

Amelia’s description of the first book she tries to get A.J. to stock sounds a bit like the book you’re reading, as it is “a small book and … the description sounds more than a little cliché, but she feels sure other people will love it if they give it a chance.” From the description of the books she likes best and the way she uses language (“cliché” rather than “clichéd”), Amelia is not a literary snob, while A.J. says his own tastes are very well-defined:
“I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices….I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful…I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy…I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult.”
A.J.’s use of the word “magic” (rather than “magical”) puts readers on the alert that his tastes may have been taught, rather than learned, and they can guess that his tastes will widen as his circle of friends widens.

There are lots of references to currently popular books, like when an old woman returns a book she bought from A.J.’s shop, saying she does “not find it one bit pleasurable to read a five-hundred-fifty-two-page tome narrated by Death” and it’s at the end of the third paragraph later that A.J. mentions the title, giving readers that long to savor the pleasure of knowing that she’s talking about The Book Thief.

Because this is fiction, A.J. is able to recommend books for his friend the police chief so that the chief’s taste in literature becomes more sophisticated. I’ve tried this in real life, but haven’t made anywhere near the kind of progress A.J. makes with a man who, at first, doesn’t read much but will try a paperback by Jeffery Deaver or James Patterson and who then progresses to reading a Kate Atkinson mystery about which he says that it “moves kind of slow and most things go unsolved. But then I thought, That’s how life is. That’s how the job really is.” That seems to me to be living the reader’s dream—to get someone to not only tolerate ambiguity in literature, but to identify with it!

Also because this is fiction, raising his adopted daughter Maya as a reader pays off for A.J. in that she sees the world the way he so often sees it, referring to a small fixer-upper of a house they can afford as a place that “looks as if a hobbit might live here.” This has happened in my real life, too, and I’m as delighted as A.J. is “to have produced such a fantastic nerd” as a daughter who is considering graduate school at UC Irvine because she’s read that they have hobbit-themed housing for first-year undergraduates.

Because A.J.’s police chief friend has gotten less judgmental about right and wrong as he has learned how to empathize with different kinds of characters in the books he reads, he is able to give a person who has committed a crime enough time to make it right, tying up a nice little mystery for the reader while leaving the rest of the characters in the dark. There’s also a little debate about e-readers and the detailed depiction of a character who “was a beautiful writer and a terrible person.”

The book ends with new owners for the bookstore and a new publisher’s representative, a man who “has always loved books. He believes that they saved his life. He even has that famous C.S. Lewis quote tattooed on his wrist.” The particular quotation is not revealed in the text, but the bet at my house is that it is from the epigraph to the first Narnia book: “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” I think it could also be “You can make anything by writing.”

You can certainly make new friends by reading the books people recommend to you. I hope to get back to Louisiana one of these years and talk about more books with other people who love reading Walker Percy, and I haven’t entirely given up on getting more of my friends to tolerate more ambiguity in what they read.

How about you? Aside from when the other person is in love with you or you’re acting as a parent, how do you manage to make book recommendations sound less didactic and more like you’re offering an until-now-overlooked pleasure?

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    December 29, 2014 4:59 pm

    Need to find this book – sounds really fun!

    • December 30, 2014 9:51 am

      It is, and it’s easy fun–most readers will be familiar with the books featured (and hinted at).

  2. December 29, 2014 6:41 pm

    This sounds intriguing … I am adding The Storied Life … to my to=read list as we speak.

    • December 30, 2014 9:52 am

      …the bad thing about that is that it might add another to your to-read list, if you don’t know all the chapter title excerpts…

  3. aartichapati permalink
    December 29, 2014 9:04 pm

    I don’t know how to make book recommendations well to people that I don’t know well. Even people I do know well. I get very nervous because I feel like people make a lot of assumptions on you based on what you read, and if you recommend a book to someone that doesn’t like that book, then I feel like that person often will never look to you for suggestions again. I probably stress out about it more than I need to, but now I often just ask what the person has read and enjoyed recently and then try to think if I know of any books similar to that.

    • December 30, 2014 9:56 am

      Hmm. I think I worry about this less because I assume people read widely. If I recommend a book, I don’t think of it as having that much influence in their reading life. If the person you recommend a book to reads only 12 books a year, though, I can see that it would be stressful telling them to devote that much of their reading time to one book.

  4. December 30, 2014 9:23 am

    You probably remember how very hesitant I was to recommend Wasp Factory. Come to think of it, I am pretty sure I told you I wasn’t recommending it but that I had loved it. So yes, recommendations are tricky territory.

    • December 30, 2014 9:58 am

      I guess they are, but you read a lot of a particular kind of fiction and I read a lot, so the impact of your recommendation was pleasant for me, like you were curating a certain collection and I got to read the best of it.

  5. December 31, 2014 12:36 pm

    This book is on my TBR list, I’ve heard really good things about it. I hope I manage to get to in in the coming year. As for making book recommendations, I just start gushing with an oh my gosh I read this book that I think you will totally love and then go from there 🙂

  6. January 2, 2015 2:14 pm

    I read and loved this one as well. It was sweet and like you said, it is a book for readers!

    • January 3, 2015 4:47 pm

      It was sweet with just the right touch of ascerbic.

  7. Jenny permalink
    January 3, 2015 1:15 am

    I feel like, if I didn’t already have a job I really love, I could have a niche market making recommendations (to anyone except Other Jenny, who mystifies me.) When someone asks me “what should I read next?” or even “what should my sister-in-law get for Christmas?” I ask a few questions about what they read now, what their lifestyle is like, what they like to do, and so forth, and make two or three recommendations. It’s rare I don’t make a hit. And I make it sound like THE BEST BOOK YOU’RE EVER GOING TO READ. I love doing this. Maybe when I retire?

    • January 3, 2015 4:49 pm

      I think blogging about books is making recommendations, of course. The problem–as with all jobs–is how to make it pay. Booksellers who “hand sell” books do this–that’s a big feature of this book.
      As you know, however, I sometimes veer into the scary “I loved this book so you should too” territory, especially problematic between generations.

  8. January 5, 2015 4:15 pm

    I’ve never thought about it in these terms before but this: “Aside from when the other person is in love with you or you’re acting as a parent, how do you manage to make book recommendations sound less didactic and more like you’re offering an until-now-overlooked pleasure?” OMG YOU’RE RIGHT. I rarely ever recommend books–except to my dad and I usually just shove the book into his hand and tell him he must read it and don’t he dare unfold my dogears.

    Glad you enjoyed this one. I found it to be a perfectly cozy read for booklovers.

    • January 5, 2015 4:33 pm

      I think people should be less defensive and recommend books more. Somehow a lot of us have gotten the idea that we’re judged on what we read, and the more widely we read, the less sense that makes.

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