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. I do not like genre mash-ups a 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.
― Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
If you are still pining for Ajax Penumbra, the lovable curmudgeon of a bookstore owner introduced in Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, than The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is the book for you. We meet protagonist Fikry as he seems to be drinking, eating, and grouching himself to death. As the owner of Island Books, his community’s only bookstore, he stocks books strictly to his limited tastes. He lives above the bookstore, and he frequently blacks out over his plate of frozen noodles after an evening of heavy drinking alone.
And then, an unfortunate (or fortunate?) series of events occurs: something is lost, and a little baby is gained. The mom abandons the baby to Fikry, hoping to give the charming tiny girl an opportunity to grow up amidst books and become quite a smart person someday. Yes, this explains the little baby in a basket on the book’s cover. As Fikry finds himself frantically googling how to raise a 2-year-old baby, the community rallies around him and his charming mystery child. Like magic, the irritable old man settles into his place in the world as a book lover who spreads that love to others, the curious baby reminding him that he has knowledge to share.
I knew I had to get this book when I received its (audio version) press release, with a quote from Scott Brick, the book’s narrator and my favorite narrator of all time, singing the novel’s praises:
I was told up front that The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was a beautiful book, but I was still completely unprepared for just how beautiful. I was absolutely stunned by the experience of narrating Gabrielle Zevin’s latest book. It drew me in from the very first page. It was the kind of book that I might ordinarily find myself finishing after only three days in the studio, yet I found myself stretching it to four, then five, simply because I hated the idea of it being over. I wept while recording it, more than once. I’ve been blessed to narrate over 600 audiobooks thus far, and this book instantly pushed its way to the top of my list of absolute favorites. I told someone recently that I wish I could redo the book, and they asked, ‘Why, did you not like the way it turned out?’ I said ‘No, I just wish I could have that experience of reading every word again over and over again.’
Wow, right? If Scott Brick loved it that much, I’m all in. Although I didn’t get the audiobook version, the novel totally drew me in from its first pages, and I drank up the entire book over the course of a few days. The combination of flawed, honest, real characters and constant fiction references made for quite fun reading. Despite all the wit, there is a lot of heartbreak here, and I can usually do without a bit more of the sappy stuff. I appreciated Fikry’s clever banter with those around him much more than the commentary on love and loss. But beware, if you are the teary type–get your tissues ready.
The brilliance of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is in its book talk, as this is a book written for readers to truly appreciate. Fikry knows the town’s sheriff enjoys mysteries, and gradually suggests more complex mysteries until the policeman is reading Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories. Finally the cop leaves genre behind entirely, and runs a book club out of Island Books for his police force. This is what happens to your friends when you are a lover of books, the story seems to be saying–it is impossible for that love not to rub off, even just a little bit, on those around you.
Reading is often isolating, in our world of constant competition for attention, where movies are now in IMAX 3D, video games now read your movements so you don’t even press buttons while you play, and Buzzfeed produces countless lists that spread insidiously through the internet just begging to be read like little itchy viruses. When so many things with bright lights and big noise compete for our spare time, reading for pleasure can sometimes get left behind with its quiet little books snuggled onto shelves or hidden within a flat e-reader. But books like The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry are a secret duck call to all the readers out there in the world, reminding us how powerful our pastime is, and how much stories matter. Human connections are made, vibrant discussions develop, and babies who read books blossom into book-loving writers themselves. Reading is, perhaps more than any other pastime, a study of human nature and human experience, and this is something The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry celebrates on every witty, heartbreaking page.
If you live in my home state of California, this is a great book to pick up at a local bookstore on May 3rd, CA Bookstore Day. What better way to celebrate the power of bookstores than with the story of Island Books and its owner.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin on Amazon.com/Indiebound.org