As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this column books and their champions lead me down a winding path.
Zevin, Gabrielle. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Algonquin. 2014. 272p. ISBN 9781616203214. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616203948. F
This brightly observed book with its spritely nature and easy manner seems straightforward at first. It is a novel about a bitter, short-tempered, and curmudgeonly bookseller named A.J. Fikry, who has become a widow far too soon and in that process lost what seemed to be the best part of his life. A.J. is left with an independent bookstore, Island Books, withering away on Alice Island (a small point on the map of New England) that attracts few readers who pass his muster. When a two-year-old baby, Maya, is abandoned in the dismally stocked children’s section, A.J. surprisingly elects to keep her. He turns out to be a brilliant father, and Maya turns out to be an extraordinary daughter. Their relationship widens A.J.’s world and changes the fortunes of the business and the lives of several other Alice residents. A.J. and Maya also alter the life of Amelia Loman, the book rep for Knightley Press, who is awkwardly romanced into joining their family. As a paean to books and their influence on our lives as well as the way families are forged, Zevin’s novel is easy to love: it is quick reading and sweet, full of wonderful details, literary references, and fun dialog. Yet under the surface the tale is far more oblique and subtle in its construction and heft. Each chapter begins with a note about a short story, and those comments become more resonant as the narrative develops, until, at the end, readers come to realize that they have been caught in the clever snare of the short form themselves, but one, thankfully, that finds a way to continue.
Lipman, Elinor. The Family Man. Houghton Harcourt. 2010. 324p. ISBN 9780547336084. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780547394299. F
Moving and riotously funny in the author’s trademark shark-toothed smart way, Lipman’s novel about a gay father and his estranged stepdaughter makes a lovely extension to Zevin’s, as it, too, is both simultaneously light and substantial, has a plot that unfolds quickly through a series of softly sliding events, and is filled with well-constructed dialog and sharply drawn characters. Henry Archer is a comfortably well-off and recently retired lawyer who has been divorced for decades. When his ex-wife reenters his life, she brings with her the entanglements of her daughter, Thalia, the stepchild Henry loved and lost during the divorce. Determined to reforge a connection with the now grown Thalia, Henry soon becomes embroiled in a much larger life than he expected. Thalia is a wannabe actress, and her stumbling career provokes Henry’s protective feelings, enmeshing him more deeply in her adventures and opening his own life to love, family, and new happiness.
Senate, Melissa. The Love Goddess’ Cooking School. Gallery. 2010. 352p. ISBN 9781439107232. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781439186749. F
Zevin readers might also enjoy Senate’s charming, tender, and romantic novel of Holly Maguire, a somewhat forlorn woman who feels life, and love, has largely passed her over. When Holly inherits her grandmother’s home, shop, and cooking school on Blue Crab Island, ME, she finds they are a means to start anew. Through her efforts to learn to cook and incorporate her grandmother’s gift of mixing wishes and prophecies into her dishes, Holly builds a different life, with new friends and hopes. Through that different focus she steadily makes a place for herself on the island and starts to find what she had been searching for all along. The novel shares much with The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: its gentle and compassionate atmosphere, satisfying pace, focus on forming family and the power of memory, and its promise that what we love can not only sustain us but enrich our lives—and the lives of others—in untold ways.
Smith, Alexis M. Glaciers. Tin House. (A Tin House New Voice). 2012. 112p. ISBN 9781935639206. pap. $10.95; ebk. ISBN 9781935639213. F
For fans of Zevin who enjoyed the story of A.J. for its quiet observations and small moments that are revealed to be much larger than they seem, suggest Smith’s exquisite novel of memory, longing, and the stories we construct of our lives and those of others. Isabel lives in Portland, OR, where she works in a library repairing damaged books. Over the course of one day, readers follow her as she shops for a vintage dress for a party that evening, casts her mind back to her childhood in Alaska, dreams up stories inspired by the postcards she collects, and yearns for Spoke, a veteran of the Iraq War who works in the library’s IT department. Like Zevin, Smith concocts a steady and engrossing pace that seems to step out of real time and suspend the narrative in an otherworldly state. Both authors also clearly treasure their characters. While Smith is crafting a poem rather than incorporating the mechanics of a short story, both writers offer readers the same evocative pleasures of surprise and fulfillment.
Hanff, Helene. 84, Charing Cross Road. Penguin. 1990. 112p. ISBN 9780140143508. pap. $13. LIT
Fans of Zevin are likely going to want to spend more time mired in the world of books when they finish her novel. Suggest Hanff’s classic epistolary memoir of books, bookstores, and reading presented in the letters the author wrote to Marks & Co., an antiquarian bookshop in London. Hanff, a poor New York City script reader/writer and struggling playwright, was in search of a number of titles when she found an advertisement in the Saturday Review of Literature for Marks & Co. and in 1949 inquired if any could be found. That request launched a deep connection between the bookstore staff, particularly Frank Dole, who answered her letters, and Hanff, who sent the store packages of food to ease the effects of post–World War II rationing and who sought books for close to 20 years. Their letters, full of books and opinions and small snippets of personal life, are collected in this tiny treasure, an ode to literary exploration, book acquisition, and friendship.
My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places To Browse, Read, and Shop. Black Dog & Leventhal. 2012. 384p. ed. by Ronald Rice. ISBN 9781579129101. $23.95. LIT
Island Books is the center of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a space that offers answers, solace, and connections. The 84 writers gathered in this collection introduce readers to the independent bookstores that play a similar role in their own lives: spaces that have led to marriage, friendship, success, and discovery. The essays are declarations of the importance of such spaces—to the individual author and to all writers, to readers, to titles beyond the best sellers lists, and to volumes that one can hold. Wendell Berry writes about Carmichael’s in Louisville, KY; Ivan Doig about the University Bookstore in Seattle; Jill McCorkle about Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC; and Louise Erdrich about Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis. Collectively, the appreciations and accountings serve as a guide to reading, a road trip for visiting, and a love letter to the spots where sought-after treasures and serendipitous pleasures are waiting.
Conroy, Pat. My Reading Life. 7 CDs. retail ed. unabridged. 8 hrs. Random Audio. 2010. ISBN 9780307749208. $30; digital download. LIT
In a voice that evokes honey poured over raw sugar, gravelly and drawling, Conroy (The Death of Santini) narrates his own reading biography. The author ruminates upon the books that shaped his development as a man and a writer, their weights and merits, and the people who introduced him to them. Central is his mother, who mined the library to encourage his various prospects and dreams and to expand her own education. There is also a teacher who led the way, a book rep who brought him up short, and a host of authors he loves (and a few he does not). Conroy rhapsodizes about Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, pulls apart the glories of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and talks about bookstores, too. In short, he creates a 3-D model of the reading that has designed his life and shares with listeners its blueprint. Conroy’s intimate and delightful style is a pure pleasure to experience, as its cadences and stresses weave a seductive spell of hot bright days, damp muggy nights, and a pile of books that have all become dear comrades in a life richly lived.
Mead. Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. 8 CDs. library ed. unabridged. 9½ hrs. Blackstone Audio. 2014. ISBN 9781482973532. $76; 1 MP3-CD. library ed.; digital download. LIT
Kate Reading narrates Mead’s mix of memoir, literary biography, and criticism with a deeply resonant voice, one that is particular, measured, and precise and accented in the best manner of British stories featured on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. The tale Reading is giving voice to centers upon Mead’s own life story as it intersects with that of George Eliot’s and the characters in her classic Middlemarch. Having first met the novel when she was 17, Mead found that the book spoke to her and helped carry her to Oxford University; she is the first of her family to attend college. Again, in Mead’s 20s and 30s, the novel seemed to track her own experience, offering its lessons and solace as needed. Finally, Mead decided to put those connections on the page, and her affecting, fascinating, and winning story of Eliot, herself, and the characters of the story offers a rewarding account of a life mired in a particular novel and the power all books hold in our lives.