March is National Reading Month. To that end, I will read so much and post so often you will be sick of me by April 1.
If I’m not there already, I’m quickly becoming a crotchety old man. Or maybe I’m just a discerning old man.
Anyway, I picked up “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” by Gabrielle Zevin because I had seen it everywhere, my wife listened to it on CD, and it was compared to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” which I loved.
I’m glad I listened to it on CD because I wouldn’t have been able to read it and roll my eyes at the same time. Let’s see if I can sum it up for you quickly: Cranky independent bookstore owner (a youngish widower who has decided life is horrible) meets plucky bookseller who changes his life. Add an abandoned kid, a woman’s secret, cancer, a stolen rare book and a love of literature and you’ve got the makings of something that could be fun. Instead, it’s schmaltz of the highest, or lowest, order. You decide.
It’s not the first time I’ve read something where books are a metaphor for life: “The Book Thief,” “The Never-Ending Story” and “The Shadow of the Wind” immediately come to mind. It may, however, be the cheesiest.
Zevin, who apparently is known mostly for her books for teens, has some fun that I appreciate. “If this were a novel” one character says of the turn his life has taken, “I’d stop reading right now.” But she doesn’t know when to stop. Take this, as Fikry ponders the appeal of books: “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. My life is in these books, he wants to tell her. Read these and know my heart.” And this near the end: “We aren’t the things we collect, acquire, read. We are, for as long as we’re here, only love,” followed immediately by this: We are not quite short stories. At this point, his life is seeming closest to that. In the end, we are collected works.”
Any one of those, by itself, is a nice insight. Because it seems she’s still writing for young readers, she has to bludgeon readers with the point. We got it, Gabby, move on.
The book is divided into chapters that take their titles from famous short stories. The novel’s plot somewhat follows what happens in those short stories, as summarized in a note from A.J. at the beginning of each chapter. That takes some creativity and planning, for which I give Zevin credit, but the twists in the plot are telegraphed so poorly that you wonder why the characters didn’t see it coming.
It’s because of this book (and that damned Russian novel I suggested everyone read. Oh, and the novel I’m reading based on the last years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life) that prompted me to choose short stories as the next category in the Classics Challenge.
Here’s the deal: I suggested we read a collection of short stories, but because so many authors who fit our definition of a classic, are now collected in omnibus editions, I’m saying read six short stories by the same author and we’ll call it good.
I don’t know who I’ll choose. Fitzgerald? Flannery O’Connor? Cheever? Chekhov? I’ll let you know in a couple weeks. Until then, enjoy this break after the long cold winter.