Saturday, July 26, 2014

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

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
Viking Canada, 2014
258 pages

This is a book best read by people who love words and stories. It's not a heavy story (surprising, given some of the subject matter) but it's heavy on the literary references and book world in-jokes. This is an easy, fast read, gently funny and somewhat predictable, which makes it a very comfortable summer read, even for someone like me, who generally doesn't read a lot of contemporary fiction because I like to keep reality out of my reading space.

A.J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, a small literary bookstore on Alice Island. It's a quiet place in the winter, and a very busy place with tourists - the summer people - in the few sunny months. Things are not going the way A.J. planned; his wife, and business partner, was killed in an accident, and business is slowing, and A.J. is not the sort of person who can attract business the way his vibrant, socially adept wife could. But things are about to change for A.J. and his small circle of friends and acquaintances, with the introduction of a small, abandoned girl into his bookstore and his life.

I think if anything I'd maybe describe this story as a bit of a love letter to short stories, a mild statement on the value of sharing books, and a bit of a fairytale. It struck me that it managed to be neither maudlin nor manipulative, both very easy traps to slide into with a book like this, which I appreciate hugely. It wasn't terribly deeply examined either, so while some very difficult things happen to some of the characters, I'm not sure how much staying power this book has with me in the grand scheme of things. Weeks after I've actually finished reading the thing, I'm still enjoying the afterglow but maybe not as loudly enthusiastic as I was.

One thing that did strike me as I was reading was the way Zevin used multiple narrators. I am not usually a fan of this technique in the way Zevin was using it. Many times certain narrators have very important bits of information that other narrators don't, and because we care about what happens to these people and the relationships they have with each other, it becomes very tense, wondering who will find out what when and exactly what the fallout will be, and suspecting it will be very unpleasant for everyone involved. However, I think because of the way Zevin handles her characters, which is gently, I trusted her. The tension was there, but not overwhelming, and left space for enjoying the other aspects the story. Namely the literary references and the book world in-jokes.

Also, her foreshadowing is pretty clear. The ending, though not its specifics, is telegraphed, and I saw it coming. I was supposed to. I appreciated this as it meant nothing was a huge surprise (or not much) and it occurs to me that I'm not wild about being surprised in books, at least not about some things. At least not in the usual course of things.

It's not a remarkable book, but it's lovely and charming and - I've used this word already a couple times, but it fits - gentle. It's funny and if it treads lightly, that's okay by me. A recommended speedy, very readable summer book. Book clubs will likely get some mileage out of it, though hard to know how much. It might be fun to pair a couple of the short stories that form the backbone with the book; the Flannery O'Connor alone packs a more visceral punch than the whole book, if you like that sort of thing.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly

Apologize, Apologize!
by Elizabeth Kelly
Knopf Canada, 2009
320 pages

This is a book that, like the family it chronicles, is a little dysfunctional. It has a severely split personality and I felt quite strongly that it got away from the author around the 3/4 mark, but she did bring it back, in the end. It's possible I was so thrown by those sections because this is not a usual kind of read for me, but despite the fact that I was a little blindsided it felt a little formulaic, too, which is a very odd juxtaposition. I saw it coming but couldn't quite believe it when it happened.

See, the thing is, a book tends to have a certain tone. And as much as explicit foreshadowing can, the tone can set the stage for what comes; the reader knows that there will be something of a certain magnitude and a certain temperament down the road. Part of an author's job is managing these expectations, I think. What happened to me as I was reading this book was that I did hit the crisis of a certain magnitude, as I expected - it was heavily (but not heavy-handedly) foreshadowed, the tone and early plot very nearly demanded it - but then rather than maintaining the level, several other events of enormous magnitude and very different temperament happened, and they felt out of place, though I understood where Kelly was trying to go with them. We veer crazily from madcap family tragicomedy to a war zone to medical malpractice before we finally come back to our senses, rather than unfolding in a way that feels both logical and emotionally true. I ended up with whiplash.

Which is not to say that this book doesn't have it's excellent moments, and I read it very quickly, almost compulsively, and I liked it, in the end.

So, the summary: Collie (yes, named after the dog) is a first-person narrator, detachedly telling us about his early life and his loudly dysfunctional, incredibly wealthy, strangely endearing (most of them) family. He sees himself as the sane one, the normal one, but he loves all of them, even his emotionally and sometimes physically abusive mother (I didn't see anything likeable about her at all; she had no redeeming qualities whatsoever, which makes her the odd one out in the book) and he spends a lot of his time wanting to crawl into a hole to die of embarrassment, attempting to contain the damage, or trying to coax some sort of order out of the chaos. He's a very sympathetic narrator, and he doesn't spare himself. Dysfunction has made him who he is and he's benefited hugely from the wealth and profile of his family, but he's also very aware (and the reader more so) of just how destructive the dysfunction he grows up around is to everyone touched by it. It's not harmless, even if it is really funny a lot of the time.

One of the blurbs compares this to a Wes Anderson film, and while I try to take those with a grain of salt, I think that one is quite apt. The madcap antics of the eccentric characters that appear harmless on the surface, the underlying melancholy, the peaceful moments, the black humour, the slow unfolding of a tragedy that seems inevitable. That's the first part of the book and it holds up as a comparison. The rest of it not so much.

Collie is the most relatable character in the book, perhaps excluding the verbose, blustering but quietly tender Uncle Tom (acting as the family's live-in maid and servant, pigeon racer, alcoholic.) But getting back to my point that the dysfuction, while amusing, is not harmless: Collie is also incredibly dysfunctional in his own way. Because of the way he has grown up and the personality he has, he is a person whom things happen to; he is at the mercy of everyone around him. He is not forceful - almost religiously not forceful - and he doesn't hold convictions, and he doesn't have any follow-through either. He's a limp fish and while he doesn't ever ask for exoneration, it is not hard to imagine him saying "really, it all had to turn out like this."  And yet somehow I still liked him.

Tonally the book is uneven, but I did enjoy it for what it was, and I'm glad I read it. Mildly recommended to fans of contemporary dysfunctional family narratives (it's a whole genre!); you won't find it a difficult read, and it's got some lovely moments.