Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

If you’re a lifelong reader like me, chances are you dream of owning a bookstore. Since I was seventeen, I’ve imagined running a boutique bookstore. I would name my store Bookish. Situated on a picturesque street in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington, my bookstore would have quirky cashiers, cozy sitting areas with ferns, and, of course, author events. Never mind that Friday Harbor already has a lovely independent bookstore or that Bookish is the name of a bookseller in Berkeley and a .com book site. And forget that independent booksellers struggle in the e-commerce age. Owning a bookstore was (and still is) my aspiration.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Reading Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry rushed me back to my bookseller dream. A passionate love letter to books and indie bookstores, the novel centers on A.J. Fikry, a bitter bookseller in an isolated island town. As a recent widower, Fikry copes with books and cheap merlot until (and I won’t spoil a significant plot twist) unexpected joy enters his life.

Is this a good book club pick? I give a qualified but resounding yes. AJF has universal themes of love, hope, and loss that I think will resonate with most readers. It’s an engaging story and every element is about books—the power of stories and prose, the feel of a paperback, the smell of a stack of books, and authors with the ability to create entire new worlds. My only reservation for an absolute recommendation is based on some reviewers labeling the novel as chick lit. While I can see why—even the morose parts bounce along on optimism and the book never goes too deep—I think the plot twists and approachable writing style make this an everyone-lit book. More serious book clubs accustomed to reading and dissecting literature might consider the novel to be too light.

But for many readers, the book will likely promise a rich discussion on the likeable characters and the books (don’t forget the short story collections) mentioned. Not only do each of the thirteen chapters begin with a book synopsis, but Zevin name drops countless books and authors throughout the pages. If you didn’t already have a to-be-read list, the books mentioned in AJF are a fantastic place to start.

At 258 pages, it’s reasonable to expect most readers (even busy parents) will be able to finish the book in a four- to six-week window. I finished the book quickly—it’s a page turner and the ending satisfied me. From start to finish, AJF is a good read. If I had to criticize any element, it would be a lack of any mention of my favorite author, Margaret Atwood. Just so we’re clear, if I ever write a novel, I’ll find a way to reference The Handmaid’s Tale or The Edible Woman in some way.

One of my favorite passages involves a discussion on the timing of books. A.J. argues that some books need to be read at the right time to strike a chord. “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.” I agree. A Wrinkle in Time is a great example. I read that book in the third grade and it never stuck with me. Then just this week, I started reading the book to my first grader. She fell asleep in chapter two and I kept on reading. I finished the book in one big gulp and now I can’t wait to discover more Madeleine L’Engle books that I should have enjoyed more as a child.

I recommend this book as a good break between heavy or dark subjects. Did your book club just finish a book on WWII or slavery? Perfect! Read AJF next and it will cleanse your palette for the next emotional roller coaster book. To make your book club evening a theme night, consider a garden party theme (like A.J.’s doomed author event for The Late Bloomer) and ask everyone to share their top three books. If you like this novel, you might also want to read Lorna Landvik’s 2003 novel, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, another plot centered on a love of books.

Would it make a good gift?

Absolutely. I think teens to adults will enjoy the book. In fact, round out your gift with books A.J. Fikry recommends, like Bel Canto or The Book Thief.

Will I recommend it to my husband?

No. He gravitates toward non-fiction and history—Seabiscuit and Devil in the White City are more his speed. While I think many men would enjoy the novel, I imagine more women will be fans of AJF.

Book club questions:

1. What do you think of the author’s skill with character development? Were the characters layered or did some appear to be sketches? If so, which ones?

2. If A.J. Fikry were a writer, and not an opinionated bookseller, what genre would he have attempted? Do you think he would have succeeded as an author?

3. A.J. Fikry summarizes thirteen books. Do you think these picks are his top books, or are they perhaps more significant to the story arc?

4. What are your three favorite books of all time, and why?

5. What was the first book you remember reading that hooked you?

6. In the book, Moby Dick is skewered for being the required high school book that many students loathed. Which required or assigned book would have soured you on reading if it had been your first book?

 

Thank you for reading my review and please let me know what you think of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

 

Five reasons why I’m killing my blog

If blog neglect were a crime, I’d be guilty. I confess it’s been almost a year since my last post. In three years I published over 100 posts and today I trashed many of them.

I'm (mostly) killing my blog

I’m killing my blog—most of it. Here’s why:

  1. Posts were all over the place. When I started blogging four years ago, I didn’t know what I was doing and, worse, I didn’t have a goal in mind. An avid cook, a new parent, a bookworm, and a crafter, I blogged about any subject I knew well. Within weeks, I was regularly posting recipes, sharing baby pictures, and writing about crafts and baby products. My blog didn’t have a clear focus. Eventually, I found a niche as a food blogger. Then I’d ruin my flow by inserting a DIY tutu-dress tutorial post between recipes. It was a mish-mash, like the junk drawer in my kitchen.
  2. The photography sucked. In the beginning, I didn’t understand the importance of illustrating posts and recipes with images. I learned quickly that adding a photo would boost clicks and comments. Plus, in the early days I discovered the magic of easy Wordless Wednesday photo posts. But not all photographs are created equal and my pictures varied between mediocre to dreadful. A picture doesn’t say 1,000 words if it’s overexposed or blurry. It didn’t take me long to realize that words are my forte, not pictures.
  3. Blogging is hard. Keeping a blog updated, focused, and relevant to followers is a major commitment. Hats off to the bloggers who can maintain a steady stream of topics, find time to post, write compelling content, take decent pictures, watermark the pictures, troubleshoot any glitches, and promote the content on social channels. If you add contests, giveaways, and chats on top of that you’re talking serious effort and a significant chunk of time.
  4. Food blogging is harder. So take a typical blog and then add in time, talent, and energy to chef up original recipes. I discovered early on that food blogging isn’t merely recipe sharing—it’s critically important to give proper credit to recipes adapted from or inspired by other published authors. Content scraping in general isn’t cool, and that’s true in food blogging too. The Food Blog Alliance summarizes the landmines of recipe attribution well. So, at a basic level, keeping a food blog on the up and up is challenging. Then you have to invent, test, cook, photograph, and write up your creations. Great food bloggers take time to photograph the ingredients, each major step, and the finished dish—extra points for adding flair, like an artfully arranged napkin and a distressed table as a backdrop. Don’t forget to add time for cleanup and photo editing. So many food bloggers make it look easy. I think it’s hard as hell. Be sure to give your favorite food bloggers high praise for repeatedly serving up killer content.
  5. My blog clashed with my family. When I blog, there’s literally a very long laundry list of things I’m not getting done. For starters, there’s the dirty laundry. And, the house doesn’t clean itself. But most importantly, my favorite people were getting a raw deal. I felt personal pride in publishing a cool post, but it meant nothing when I realized I was missing moments I could have been cherishing. Occasionally sitting on a couch and blogging while my kids play—fine. Regularly paying more attention to my laptop than my daughters was not acceptable. I calculated that the time it would take me to take my mediocre blog to a much better level would be time I wouldn’t get back with my family.

There you have it—five excellent reasons to kill my blog. Except, I’m not ready to pull the plug. Over the last year, it occurred to me that I could delete the pathetic posts, refocus the content, and keep Amy On The Prairie going. Essentially, I’m giving my blog makeover. For all the reasons why my blog sucked, I can think of four reasons why I need to keep the blog going.

  1. It’s mine. Blogging is my time to myself. Of all the demands on my time as a wife, mother, copywriter, daughter, friend, and even Sunday school teacher, blogging is just for me.
  2. I owe my blog a lot. Blogging helped me build a writing portfolio that ultimately helped me prove my ability to write for a living as a copywriter. And, my fledgling blog taught me how to find my voice and the importance of building a blogging network. The bloggers I met on Twitter and in real life at blogger events turned into friends and a richer professional network.
  3. There’s still more to learn. From headline writing, to social media promotion and engagement, to learning WordPress and SEO, blogging was an excellent practical teacher. I write benefit-driven copy every day for work, but unfettered writing is a rich source of creativity and sometimes loosens up any writer’s block when the muse forgets to visit my keyboard.
  4. I finally have a clear focus. Over the past year of not blogging at all, I had time to think about my strengths and a good reason to keep the blog alive. It occurred to me that my passions of reading books and cookbooks (yes, I read cookbooks and sometimes I cook from them) will be a tidy, purposeful niche for my blog. Soon, you should see posts from me on how to pick books for your book club, must-have cookbooks, and so on.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll be hearing more from me—of cooks and books—very soon.