A.J. Fikry has decided to drink himself to death. His beautiful wife has died, his bookstore on isolated Alice Island (think Nantucket) is languishing and he has only one friend, a rare and valuable edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tamerlane. So begins The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin’s love letter to books, book sellers and the corner bookstore.
It took me less than 48 hours to read this book and I enjoyed every moment of it. I enjoyed the main plot, the subplots and even the introductory pages, written in A.J.’s own hand about the short stories he particularly enjoys. These notes are meant for his adopted daughter, Maya, who arrives very shortly after the book opens by being left in the bookstore. Her mother leaves a note.
This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl. I want her to grow up to be a reader. I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those kinds of things. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate.
With Maya’s arrival, A.J.’s life and life view expand, as does his business. Friends come to A.J., a new wife, opportunities and we these expansions and changes not only through the narrative but also through A.J.’s notes to his daughter. He is a character we come to know by his thoughts on what he reads as much as by his own actions. Gabrielle Zevin says that was an intentional component of her writing The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry:
“I thought as a strategy it would be really interesting to describe people in terms of what they read and how they read,” she says. “I think you can do a lot, like describing people with their physical characteristics, things like that, but to me I’ve always found it to be a much more informative question to ask somebody what they read.” http://www.npr.org/2014/03/28/294393870/in-storied-life-characters-come-with-a-reading-list
In one of my favorite scenes, A.J.’s mother delivers a Christmas gift of three e-readers to the Fikry family. Teenager Maya is secretly delighted, A.J.’s wife is neutral but A.J. himself is appalled. He believes e-readers will spell the death of book stores such as his own and more than that, predicts dire consequences for the whole of literature. “Everyone thinks they have good taste, but most people do not have good taste. In fact, I’d argue that most people have terrible taste. When left to their own devices — literally their own devices — they read crap and they don’t know the difference.”
I, personally am in agreement with A.J.’s wife that there is room for both. When I travel, I can take as many books as I want on an e-reader. But at home, I much prefer a book. Cover, paper, pages. The smell and feel and experience of a book. Thanks to my friends at the Morris Book Shop and many other book sellers, Sue Ann Allen, for one, I often find something I would never have found on my own. Like Tana French. Or Zadie Smith.
In the end, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a story about stories and the people who read them. “We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.” And what could be better than that?
I would replicate the meal Amelia serves to A.J. when he comes to visit: lasagna and garlic bread with red wine.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 chopped yellow onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds ground turkey breast, browned
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes in tomato puree
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, divided
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound whole wheat lasagna noodles
15 ounces ricotta cheese
3 to 4 ounces creamy goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup grated Parmesan, plus 1/4 cup for sprinkling
1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
Preheat oven to 400 degrees
Heat the olive oil in a large (10 to 12-inch) skillet. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes over medium-low heat, until translucent. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the turkey and cook over medium-low heat, breaking it up with a fork, for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, the basil, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Simmer, uncovered, over medium-low heat, for 15 to 20 minutes, until thickened.
Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with the hottest tap water. Add the noodles and allow them to sit in the water for 20 minutes. Drain.
In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, goat cheese, 1 cup of Parmesan, the egg, the remaining 2 tablespoons of parsley, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Set aside.
Ladle 1/3 of the sauce into a 9 by 12 by 2-inch rectangular baking dish, spreading the sauce over the bottom of the dish. Then add the layers as follows: half the pasta, half the mozzarella, half the ricotta, and one 1/3 of the sauce. Add the rest of the pasta, mozzarella, ricotta, and finally, sauce. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of Parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling.
Since we are in the right place and time, I would play Carole King and James Taylor.
A.J. — Adil Hussain (Life of Pi)
Amelia — Lisa Kudrow
Maya — ?
Police Chief Lambiase — Woody Harrelson
Ismay — Holly Hunter-ish, but not quite right