Books and a Babe: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (review)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin Books

What’s better than a book recommendation from a book-lovin’ friend? Nothing. So as soon as a friend wrote on my Facebook wall that The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was fast and fun and right up my alley, I was on it. Plus I’m a sucker for any book set in a bookstore.

Storied Life of A.J. FikryA.J. Fikry is rudderless. Wife Nic has just died in an auto accident, his bookstore Island Books is barely keeping its nose above water. Life is pretty grim when in walks his new Knightly Publishing rep Amelia Loman with the list of winter books. He’s not welcoming, to put it mildly (grief and social niceties are usually at odds); rebuffed, Amelia leaves assuming she won’t be calling on Island Books again any time soon.

But before things get better, they get worse when A.J.’s prized possession, a first edition of Poe’s Tamerlane, is stolen. Then—a toddler is left on his doorstep with a note from her mother: “I want Maya to grow up to be a reader … I love her very much but I can no longer take care of her … I am desperate …” and quick as you can say “Silas Marner” A.J. is a dad. A bumbling, curmudgeonly, single dad who despises Elmo and has never changed a diaper.

And, yes, readers all—The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a modern day Silas Marner. The references come fast and furious. Maya enters through an unlocked door. Both Marner and A.J. suffer from some sort of seizure disorder that leaves them, well, blank, for a few moments. Maya opens A.J. to the warm embrace of the Alice Island community and the love of a woman. While he lost his earthly treasure, he gained a more precious gift. Any more parallels and I’d need to insert [spoiler alert]—but then if you know Silas Marner, you know how the plot unfolds in A.J. Fikry.

Gabrielle Zevin’s novel is fast and fun and scattered with did-you-catch-‘em literary references. (A.J. goes on a date to a restaurant named Queequeg, for instance) Each chapter begins with a short book review written by the store owner. The trials and tribulations of life in an independent bookstore were spot on from what I remember about my own book selling days. And, yes, friend, it was right up my alley.

Love what you do: Ray Bradbury

I’ve had a quiet love affair with Ray Bradbury for some time now. I actually think I love the man more than his books—or is it that I love his books because I adore the man? What’s odd is the faRay Bradburyct that I don’t really like science fiction. I mean, Star Trek Next Generation is fine, but anything else … not so much. But Dandelion Wine and Martian Chronicles hooked me, and his short story “The Smile” reeled me in. I’m currently reading Zen in the Art of Writing which shines with typical Bradbury enthusiasm about his craft.

A few years ago I stumbled upon a few (surreptitious, I’m sure) cell phone videos of Bradbury on YouTube—he was a frequent speaker at Comic Con and on college campuses even in his last years–and I was over the moon all over again: a spunky, life-loving, sometimes profane old guy who was a champion of the power of the written word.

I show this National Endowment for the Arts video to my high school students every year, hoping against hope that they, too, will fall in love. And they do find him endearing–because who can’t resist a cute old man who says to the film crew, “I want a close up of the cat, now,” (did you also notice the canary yellow cat tie?) and (lover that he is) re-reads Tender is the Night every time he visits Paris?

Bradbury died in 2012; his last appearance at Comic Con was only two years before. By all accounts he was frail and tired—but he was with his people, passionate to the end. So “the things that you do should be things that you love–things that you love should be things that you do.” I’ll try, Mr. Bradbury. I’ll try.

A novel scrapbook: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt (review)

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt
Caroline Preston
Harper Collins

One of my most precious possessions is a “School Friendship Book” I found at a flea market several years ago. It is the real deal. None of this photos cropped, matted, and embellished with stickers stuff that we do today.  No, this is a leather journal-sized wonder with dusty manilla paper pages, warped with age and crammed with mementos. It belonged to one Avis B. from Elkhart, Indiana, Class of 1923. Pages are filled with handwritten notes, poems, and remembrances from teachers and students at Elkhart High School. But the fun starts about halfway where Avis taped and glued the following:
An invitation to Bea’s party (“Oh boy, oh joy, did we have fun!)
cut-out construction paper hearts (“Valentine’s party had a swell time”)
Elkhart High Athletic Association membership tickets
cut-out EHS cheers from the school newspaper (“Hit ’em on the elbow/hit ’em on the jaw/Cemetery, Cemetery/Rah! Rah! Rah!)
newspaper articles about sporting events, Jollies, and plays
curly lock of gorgeous auburn hair
Camel cigarette (“Lavon Holdeman June 1923”)
fabric shamrock (another “swell time–why? Oh that would be telling!”)
lock of her own “golden locks”
Christmas card
Halloween paper cupcake topper/favor
and a dozen or more circa 1921-23 photos of girls, and one photo of a saxaphone-playing young man. See why it’s so precious?

FrankieSo imagine my incredible delight when I found Caroline Preston’s The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt recently at my local bookstore–used, in great Frankie3condition, and only nine dollars! (It was also curiously mis-filed because it was in the Book Club section, not in the used books, which in my mind, means it was meant to be mine.) I’m often late to the party, so this is my first encounter with Frankie which was published in 2011. Oh. My-lanta. I might have even gasped aloud softly when I saw it. I bought it for the novelty, assuming I’d just look at the pretty pictures and layouts one afternoon and be done with it. Except it’s a novel. Really–the scrapbook actually reads like one. And of course I can’t help but connect Frankie Pratt to my Avis.

It’s not high literature. There’s no complex plot twists or turns. But if you’re looking for something to read just for sheer fun of it?  You’ll love Frankie Pratt, I’m sure.

Taking the Joy Dare with Jane Austen

I adore Jane Austen. I mean, I am so there. The countryside, all hedgerows and lanes; the homes—Northanger Abbey, Norland Park–gracious with their breakfast dishes and card rooms. And those Georgian manners, “high spirits and good humor” all around at a carriage ride after breakfast; or, letters hastily set aside with colourless faces.  Where new ribbons can make any bonnet both stylish and flattering. Oh, to spend my leisure time with the piano forte or my petit point and drawing (well, maybe not so much).

joy dareSo I was thrilled when I visited my local independent bookstore to choose a new journal and found this little gem: Jane Austen Novel Journal by Chronicle Books. Oh my goodness. (If you can’t find it locally, the journal is available at Gone Reading, a site with bookish gifts to die for—but more on that in another post!) The pages are sprinkled with quotes from her books; the layouts varied–some ruled, some pin-wheeled, some divided.

Now–me, a journal? Quite uncharacteristic. But I’m using Ann Voss’s Joy Dare this year to count up to one thousand gifts and graces. (You can print your own list of dares from her blog A Holy Experience.)  Because I’m stuck. I’ve had countless experiences of grace recently, worked through some incredibly difficult situations last year, and still I find myself restless. Heart-weary. How can that be in the face of so much that is good in my life? I’ve managed to successfully avoid that whole gratitude journal idea—too often (at least in the posts I read) I find it a kind of maudlin here’s-my-life-I’m-pretty-holy exhibition. Harsh, I know, but that’s how I read ’em. But I know I have to do something to rock myself out of this rut.

Enter the Joy Dare which I found via A Holy Experience via Mundane Faithfulness, evangelical Christian bloggers both. Now that’s not my spiritual bent, but I can sure appreciate that the list offers some guidelines without being proscriptive. It’s fresh. So Sunday I wrote down three “yellow gifts of fresh mercy”. Yesterday was “something above, below, beside” and today, “three startling graces of God”. Now this is something I can do (joyfully, I might add!), right along with Jane, because I think she just might understand: “It is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible” (Northanger Abbey).

Which I intend to do.

A favorite at Christmas: Christmas from the Heart of the Home (review)

The stockings are hung (although sadly, there’s no chimney), the candles lit, and creche arranged–it’s the most wonderful time of the year! And every year for the past twenty-something, I’ve added Susan Branch’s Christmas From the Heart of the Home to the stack of holiday books on my coffee table. Branch inks and watercolors every inch of every page so that reading her Heart of the Home books is like reading her journal.

The book is everything I want at Christmas: a little whimsy, a lotta charm, family and friends, and homey goodness. And it’s my favorite book  Christmas book for the home. This little gem has some great recipes, from appetizers (chicken pate and Christmas oysters, anyone?) to a traditionalfavorite Christmas book Christmas turkey (or goose if you’re brave enough!), along with delicious sweet goodies and holiday beverages (spiked and not).

One of my family Christmas cookie favorites is something we call butter nut balls. Branch’s Mary’s Mother’s Snowballs are similar–except that the dough is wrapped around a Hershey’s kiss. My daughter insisted we include these little treasures in our cookie baking next week. Eaten still slightly warm they are to die for. Seriously.

But Christmas From the Heart of the Home is much more than a recipe book. I find myself turning the pages of this favorite for ideas to Deck the Halls—lots of candles, garlands of pine, and Christmas trees everywhere (even the kitchen!). Or how about taping Christmas cards around a doorway (I do!). The pages dedicated to the Magic of Snow are probably best understood by those of us who live in northern climes (Branch on Martha’s Vineyard, me in the Great Lakes)—the greatest love-hate story of them all. And throughout, those family memories and traditions, all delightfully illustrated and painted to size.

Need a Christmas treat for yourself? Check out Susan Branch’s blog, store, and news about anything from the Heart of the Home. I, of course, especially love her books. I usually get myself a little somethin’ somethin’ after the holidays, and I think this year it will be Autumn From the Heart of the Home, because, let’s face it–after Christmas, northern Falls are the best. (Sadly, Christmas From the Heart of the Home is out-of-print, but I found plenty of copies on ebay)

So whether my Christmas is lean or lush (and it’s been both over the years, believe me) I can depend on Christmas From the Heart of the Home to reassure me that heart and home are truly what matter most.