Sunday, October 2, 2016

Fiction | Behold the Power of Books

Let me tell you how hard it is to find a good book club.

I had a four-year run with the Idlewild Book Club back in New York that was probably one of the most rewarding experiences of my post-college adult life in NYC and definitely one of the things I miss the most. Since moving back to Nashville, I've looked on and off for a new book club and tried a couple. My first experience was at our most prolific indie bookstore and while the meeting was enjoyable, the store is in the MOST annoying part of town, traffic-wise, and, being owned by an author, I'm not totally trusting on the motive behind the book choices. (The month I attended, the book just "happened" to also be released in paperback.) I'd give it another shot, but really, I just hate driving to and from that side of town.

Last month I tried one hosted by my local public library branch. It's close, which is a perk, and I've liked their book selections--less typical "book club" picks, a little more literary. My first meeting was last month for Astronaut Wives' Club, and this month we read Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. I'm still not totally loving the vibe and setting (we sit in a semi-circle around a projector screen, which makes it feel more like a lecture than discussion, and the questions are on a PowerPoint, which totally stilts the casual/natural flow of discussion, though I understand it's to help the harder of hearing), but I guess I'll keep at it for now, as long as the books are good!

Anyway, about the book...

A.J. Fikry owns and runs Alice Island's only independent bookstore, Island Books. He's a total curmudgeon and book snob. He hates bestsellers, genre fiction, and cloying memoirs; he loves literary fiction and short stories. A lot of his attitude comes from the death of his wife. She grew up on the island and they ran the bookstore together. She was the yin to his yang, but since her death, he's been in a downward spiral of negativity where he drinks, judges, and complains too much. He's mostly shut out life, but living on a small island is much like living in a small town; you see the same people every day, and everyone knows your business. It's hard to isolate yourself when people won't leave you alone.

Life is about to change for A.J. Fikry, though, and a series of seemingly unrelated events sets the change in motion. A lovely new sales rep comes to the island, persistently pushing her publisher's most sentimental titles despite the bookstore owner's rude response; A.J.'s most prized possession, a rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe poems, is stolen during one of his drunken black-outs; and then, most significant, an abandoned child appears in the bookstore with a note asking the proprietor to take care of her. Maya is a bright, loving child who quickly falls for A.J. and who quickly warms his heart as well.

So actually, reflecting on this book, it's not all that literary in nature. It's sentimental and a bit emotionally cloying. But it's also very evident that the author is writing this, essentially, as an ode to books. It avoids some of the predictable, trope-y plot twists common in narratives, and it seems pretty self-aware about that intent (meaning, it actually has successful plot twists and not just standard, predictable ones).

At the start of book club, we listened to an NPR interview with the author in which she stated her opinion that someone who says they're not a reader just hasn't found the right book yet. In her story, A.J. is such a book snob, believing certain types of books are superior to others. But the changes in his life, and the people that enter it, inspire a new open-mindedness that not only affects his opinions on books but extends beyond the page into his interactions with and opinions of the world around him. Zevin obviously believes that books have power, and I agree. Connect the right book with the right reader, and lives can be changed.

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