Friday, September 26, 2014

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

I read a good book this month! What a relief. I was beginning to suspect I'd permanently lost my ability to really enjoy novels. How horrible that would be, considering the amount of reading I do. The good book was The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, a sweet little novel about a cranky bookstore owner, recently widowed, who is only in his 30s but is already a grumpy old man. He doesn't like modernity: the computers, the e-books, the humans. Then someone dumps a baby on his doorstep and thus begins the process of resurrecting his joie de vivre. (Hey, don't laugh at me: it's a phrase Fikry would use.) The storyline moves along tidily and contains some good twists, and all the plot threads are so neatly tied up in the end you could put a bow on them. The characters are quirky, three-dimensional (mostly), and believable, and the writing is solid and literary. You can tell the author is a seasoned writer, though I'd never heard of her before. The complaints I've heard about the book are a little odd: mostly that it's too good. Too tidy, too sunny, too well-crafted. Well, after the raft of crap I've been plowing through, I wasn't complaining. A pleasurable, smart story, one that leaves you smiling and satisfied, is a lovely thing.


The other books I read in September were pretty solidly in the three-star category. That third star, sitting in the middle between "it was really good" and "I hated it" should be bigger. It covers so much territory. I feel so differently about each book I mark three stars: some I admired overall but just had a few too many flaws to make it to four stars. Some were quite problematic but had some shining moments that bumped them up past two stars. I feel like a decimal system is needed just for that "meh" middle grading.

Anyway: The first was The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. I'd promised the blogosphere last month I was going to read this, and I did. I didn't love it as much as I thought, perhaps because my expectations were very high. So many people have praised this book to the sky. James McBride's mother's story is indeed remarkable, almost unbelievable—she was a Polish Jewish immigrant who was raised in the deep South by a horribly abusive father and a loving but weak, physically disabled mother. She went on to marry two black men (her first husband died of cancer) and raise a total of twelve biracial children, mostly by herself, in very rough circumstances in New York City. They never even knew she was a Jew till McBride forced the story out of her—before he was born, she converted to Christianity and founded a Baptist church with his father, her first husband. And that storytelling is great, it speaks for itself ... what bothered me was how much I felt McBride left out, probably because he was protecting her and his siblings. The book was an homage to his mother, almost a eulogy, though she was alive when he wrote it—and really, she "wrote" nearly half of it by granting him recorded interviews. But on the whole, the memoir is not very reflective, and McBride's own voice felt hidden, or flattened. I recently read his award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird, a book written in a wry, humorous, spunky voice. That voice was totally missing from this memoir, which felt more journalistic. Still an interesting read, but not quite what I expected.

Next I read The Painter, by Peter Heller. What I liked best about this novel is the setting: it's all in the Rocky Mountains, and about half of it is set in Santa Fe, a place I called home for 12 years. Heller really knows the area. He even made a reference to the "stick teepees" found in the mountains there, big structures fashioned of aspen poles; nobody seems to know who made them. The novel itself is a mashup of Cormac McCarthy and Ernest Hemingway, or at least it tries to be. It's got the murder-in-the-southwest aspect of the former, and the aggressive, unapologetic masculinity of the latter. But the women of the novel are a real problem. On page 2, we get this description: “She is twenty-eight. An age of drama. She reminds me of a chicken in the way she is top-heavy, looks like she should topple over. I mean her trim body is small enough to support breasts the size of tangerines and she is grapefruit.” That is just ... terrible. He compares her to poultry, and her boobs to citrus fruits. She is a tiny-but-bodacious babe throwing herself at the beardy burly protagonist who is decades her senior. Because that's likely. Gak. This sort of thing happens a lot, and every time I considered throwing the book across the room. But it was a library book, and one mustn't damage federal property, right? I could have just politely returned it unfinished but I loved Heller's first novel, The Dog Stars, very much. So I persisted till the end, and some good bits almost made up for the fruit-boobs.

Not boobs
The third book I read in September was Bark, Lorrie Moore's latest short-story collection. It's been sixteen years since her last one! Not that I'm one to talk, but Moore is kind of the opposite of prolific. What's curious about these stories is that, as many critics have noted, you kind of get the feeling they were languishing on her hard drive for, oh, about sixteen years. Perhaps she didn't like them very much but got tired of reworking them, and her editor was bugging her, so she just sent them along. (She also made sure the word "bark" was in every story. Is that clever or schticky?) A few of these stories are amazing, and I'd already read those: they appeared in The New Yorker. If you do pick up this collection (say, at the library), read Paper Losses, Referential, and Debarking. They are excellent, some of the best writing you might read all year. If you've never read Lorrie Moore, however, you should probably stick with Birds of America or Self Help. And you'd better like your humor on the mordant side!


That's my Coffeehouse Contribution for September. I look forward to hopping over to all the other reviews, links to which can be found here at our host The Armchair Squid's site.

Here's to a bookish October: may all your next reads be wonderful.

14 comments:

  1. I liked your review of AJ FIKRY and can wholly relate to the joy of finding a captivating book.

    Fruit boobs? That's a man there. And, kinda a slacker in the descriptive sense. I mean, it's juvenile. And not in the playful way that might be humorous.

    Thanks for sharing!
    Veronica

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    1. Right? It's like Heller doesn't know any actual women. I don't recall the love interest in the Dog Stars being described like that at all, so it's very odd.

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  2. Looks like your fave book of these four would also be mine. I'm going to add it to my list of reads. Would you recommend it for a book club? I mean, would it lend itself to discussion? Some books are better for this than others.

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    1. Well, I didn't feel I had a lot to say about it myself, which is why I kept the review relatively short (for me). There aren't many issues raised in the book, and it's a pretty simple, straightforward, uplifting story, so I'm not really sure it would be a good pick for a discussion group. Funnily enough, though, book clubs themselves are part of the story. :)

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  3. I wanna read it, Steph. :) (Firky.)

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  4. See what happened there? I got an error read the first time. Anyway, I'm glad I came back after reading your response to my response to your comment over at my place because this gives me a chance to say something else. I hadn't heard about Firky until I read your post. I want to read the book as a result of your words and following the link you provided and doin' a little nosin' around there. So, thanks!

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    1. Fixed it! I wonder why Blogger is being uncooperative today. Anyway, it certainly is a sweet li'l book.

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    1. It is, it is. My favorite kind of joie. :)

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  6. I love your idea of a bigger third star. That's precisely how I feel about my 3-star movie reviews on Netflix.

    A book can be too good? That's crazy. I love the idea of a cranky old man in his '30s. I'm a bit like that, though I can't claim to be in my '30s anymore...

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    1. I have my get-off-my-damn-lawn days, and my kids-these-days days, so I could relate as well! We all have at least a corner of misanthropy in us somewhere, I think.

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  7. The Storied Life of AJ Fikry sounds very interesting, and I may check it out. Like you, I've gone through times in my life where I wonder if I will EVER find another book that makes me want to turn the page. Then I go through times when I find one good one after another. I'm glad you found some good ones this month!

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    1. And I've finished two good novels just since I published this review! So hey, things are definitely looking up.

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  8. Your well-written reviews make me want to read these.
    I'm currently re-reading Stegner's "Angle of Repose", if you've not read it, I recommend it.

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