Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Two from Algonquin - The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by G. Zevin and Acts of God by E. Gilchrist

This has been a slow reading week and I haven't felt much like writing so today I'm going to pair the reviews of two books, both sent to me by Algonquin Books.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin has been one of the most talked-about, highly recommended books amongst my blogging, book-crazy friends, this year, so I asked if it would be possible to get a review copy when I was contacted by an Algonquin rep. She graciously sent me a copy, along with a couple other books I requested.  And, boy, does The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry deserve the buzz.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is about a widower who owns a bookstore on a remote island. He's considering giving up the bookstore when two things happen: a rare book that he hoped to make a great deal of money selling to finance his retirement is stolen and then a baby is dropped off at the store with a note pinned to her jacket. The mother wants her brought up around books, the father is unnamed. Fikry is taken by little Maya but is deeply depressed and accustomed to drinking heavily at night. Can the precocious little girl change a sad middle-aged man? Meanwhile, Fikry slowly develops a friendship with a quirky publicist, other plotty things happen.  I don't want to give away too much. Interspersed between the chapters are Fikry's thoughts about a variety of books and short stories (primarily classics), some with the tone of essays, some in letter form and more personal.

I heard that The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a book that is enjoyable for its bookishness.  The bookstore setting, Fikry's thoughts about books, his relationship with a publicist, the book groups that eventually become a part of the store's draw to island residents . . .  all those elements definitely add up to a pleasant yet challenging comfort read for bibliophiles. I also enjoyed the gradual changes in Fikry, the development of various relationships and even the sad, tender ending. I'm dying to reread the book specifically for the purpose of taking notes on the stories Fikry recommends and comparing thoughts with him. A couple other bloggers I've talked to have mentioned that same urge. I think it would be terribly fun to do as a group.

The only thing I disliked about The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is something that, upon reflection, might be a big of a spoiler, although I personally like to be forewarned about such things.  Still, I'm going to turn the text white and you can highlight it if you dare:

I disliked he fact that the protagonist eventually battles cancer. It was handled with grace, though, and not so detailed that it reminded me of my own horrible experience watching my mother die. At any rate, I loved the book so much that by the time the character became ill, I was already far too much in love with the reading to give up on it.

Highly recommended - I absolutely loved this bookish little gem. Definitely one of my favorites of the year. Although the book is fairly short at around 260 pages, I felt like the characters were well developed, the writing by turns sharp, humorous and touching, the story generally uplifting in spite of various tragedies. I will definitely reread The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry.

Acts of God (stories) by Ellen Gilchrist was sent to me unsolicited. I love short stories and often like to keep one volume of short stories going while I read a novel or two. Usually, I drag the reading out for quite some time but I did the reading of the stories in Acts of God over a couple days after a gap between the first few stories and those remaining.  I'll just tell you about a couple stories I loved:

"Acts of God", the title story, is about an elderly couple who are normally watched by a sitter. But, because of a hurricane, a disastrous chain of events occurs. The sitter is unable to show up for work and the elderly couple, Amelie and Will, become bored. They decide to go for a drive to the grocery store (which they normally would be prevented from doing) then take a detour to see some new homes being built.  I thought "Acts of God" was sad, a little sweetly humorous and beautiful.

"Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas" tells the story of a group of teenagers who drive to the site of a tornado to help with the recovery effort. What they discover is both heartbreaking and miraculous, leaving one of the teenagers convinced that she must focus on remembering every important moment: "I don't want all my memories lost in some fog like most people's are.  I am capturing mine every chance I get," she says at the end of the story. "Miracle in Adkins, Arkansas" is lovely, thoughtful and uplifting.

Unfortunately, those first two stories were my favorites and after that it was a mixed bag. Some I liked, some I didn't. In most cases, if I disliked them it was for reasons that are more personal than critical. I've only read one other book by Ellen Gilchrist, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (also a collection of short stories). It's an older title that I found secondhand and read in 2008. I'd completely forgotten about it till a few days ago when I was unloading boxes (yes, we're still occasionally unpacking, nearly 2 years post-move) and came across my copy, still loaded with Post-its.  I never did manage to review In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, although I loved it and I did at least write a post about the older cover of In the Land of Dreamy Dreams compared to a newer version. Hopefully, that bizarre newer cover has been updated, by now.

Recommended but not a favorite - I loved some of the stories in Acts of God, liked some, hated a few (but not because of the writing style; it was the characters or settings I disliked).  Definitely worth the time, even though it's not a personal favorite.

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  1. A.J. Fikry did have a lot of wonderful character development for such a short book. Gabrielle Zevin is one of my faves.

    1. I've only read 2 books by her and I wasn't overly thrilled with the first but A. J. Fikry is wonderful. So glad I listened to the raves.


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