The Storied Life of AJ Filkry by Gabrielle Zevin

I have my friend Jimmy to thank for this one…

AJ is aware of how ornery he has grown and still cannot help himself – no, he almost delights in it, even as it might actually be responsible for driving away the few customers who might visit his tiny, fledgling island bookstore.  But when he is outright nasty to the attractive, new publishing company rep, he actually feels a twinge of remorse.  Two discoveries after this, one a loss and one a find, both that occur in the confines of his bookstore, lead to major changes in AJ’s life that open up his heart once again to the possibility of love and connection to others.

While this is a somewhat unlikely story, and requires some bit of blind acceptance, it is a sweet one, nonetheless.  We’d all love to believe that a middle aged man, set in his ways, living alone, would take in a completely strange toddler left on his doorstep.  It is a beautiful image, but I’m not sure how realistic it is.  But this is fiction, so we’ll go with it.

On the other hand, the setting is a bookstore on an island (a mashup of my 2 favorite kinds of places). The characters are utterly endearing, from the awkward Amelia, the publishing rep with the bad taste in clothes and the great taste in books, to the police chief with the expanding taste in books and the predictable taste in party foods.  They are characters we engage with easily and comfortably, as we would an old armchair.  Even the plot winds around our hearts and tugs gently but surely.  It will get you.

This is a sweet novel and perfect for anyone who loves talking about books – and reading about others who love talking about books!

 

How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas

Dory has not skipped multiple grades as have all of his older siblings.  He has not acquired any advanced academic degrees and he has not defended his PhD thesis.  He believes he is barely even noticed by anyone, even when he routinely runs away from home to test his theory.   The only one who does seem to see him is Denise, the only other person in his class with no friends.  Denise, who is known to be chronically depressed, even suicidal at times, and who shuns every other human being’s attention.  As Dory works hard to decipher just who he is in the context of his odd, cynical, intellectual family, he learns that one doesn’t need a PhD to be kind or to find justice.

This is a quirky coming-of-age novel that will no doubt wind up on your local indie foreign film screen one day soon. Simultaneously dark and sardonically comical, the story goes where you least expect it to go.  And the characters are wonderfully unconventional.  Dory himself is so painfully awkward and is so utterly endearing that the reader feels for him from the very first line.    Even his siblings, who are narcissistic and socially objectionable, are still quite funny and entertaining.  Even Denise, who is depressed, isolated, and cynical, offers her own brand of glib commentary on the world which is often sarcastic.

On the other hand, it is also a  quite serious commentary on the emotional crippling of the educational system.  While Dory finds himself surrounded by siblings who excel academically, he finds no one is able to mentor him in the area of emotional intelligence.  This he has to figure out on his own, and this is his greatest challenge.  His siblings are all emotionally suppressed, have no friends and have never learned to express or cope with emotions in any healthy way.   Ironically, it seems they look to the youngest of them all – Dory – as an example.

I actually really liked this book and I believe you will hear more about it and its author.

Sociable by Rebecca Harrington

Elinor knows that she and Mike have been fighting a bit more than usual, but when Mike suddenly breaks things off, she feels blindsided.  Meanwhile, unexpectedly, she finds herself with a new journalism opportunity that just might fill the void she’s been feeling.  As she embarks on her career, she learns that she can achieve success on her own and that she must learn to take bolder steps to succeed.

There’s no other way to put this except to say that this book, in my opinion, is terrible.  The writing is flat and colorless.  The characters are devoid of charm.  It may be realistic in that most characters are constantly on their phones, even when having conversations with each other, and even when at parties, but that, to me, only made the book more dismal.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the story is that it is yet another book about how the girl is once again used by her boyfriend and she doesn’t even see that she is.  When he gets a new job, they all celebrate.  When she gets a new job, he’s too busy with his to even acknowledge it. He is never wrong and is totally self-righteous and never gives her credit for having a brain, and she believes that he is justified in being that way.  Just more stereotypical characters with nothing new to say.

Not sure why I read the whole thing…  I guess so you won’t have to bother!

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ugwu feels quite privileged to have been chosen to work for Master.  Most people in his small village in Nigeria are not given the opportunity to work for someone who provides such fine quarters, good food, and an education as his Master is offering him.  He also has the opportunity to overhear Master’s exuberant  discussions with his regular guests, other professors and intellectuals discussing the political upheaval of their time. And as Ugwu helps Master prepare for the coming of Olanna, Master’s love, Ugwu watches change come not only to their household, but to Nigeria itself.

In some ways this is a monumental saga, portraying one family’s experience of the devastating Nigerian-Biafran war of the late 1960’s. The author is able to illustrate the complexity of the war – the tribalism, the massacres that preceded the war, the sheer indifference with which the world treated those who were starving to death.   In other ways, there is something missing, something somewhat detached in the writing that keeps the reader just this side of being fully invested in the story.  With the exception of Ugwu, who has a sweetness and a naivety to him, most of the characters have a chilliness that seem to keep not only the reader but even each other at bay.

This is not an easy book to read but I’m so glad I did.  I think you will be too.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

“My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist.”  So begins Dana’s story of how she became the “secret”, bearing the burden of being the offspring of her father’s infidelity.  At first her mother, Gwendolyn, has consoled her with the knowledge that Dana and Gwendolyn know about the other wife and daughter (Laverne and Chaurisse) but Laverne and Chaurisse do not know about them.  They even take little outings to surveil Laverne and Chaurisse, just to see how they live.  But as Dana grows older, she seeks love in other places just to fill the void that her father has created.  And as the novel progresses, we also learn that Chaurisse has not gone unscathed by the crime committed by her father.  The question is, how long can James maintain his lie?  How long until his two worlds collide?

This is a powerful novel, written in the voices of both daughters of a man who believes he can maintain a lie at their expense.  It exposes their raw emotions, mostly anger and frustration,  in their struggle to form their identities while they are given only a partial picture of who they are.  And the author portrays this so naturally it feels organic and authentic.

An interesting character in this story is Dana’s “uncle” Raleigh.  Raleigh was raised side by side with James, became like a brother to him, ultimately went into business with him and is almost like a shadow to him during the story.  He has some distinguishing features, but he seems to represent something like the conscience of James.  We yearn, in a way, for him to marry Gwen just to balance out the situation, but deep down we know that this will not truly fill the void or dull everyone’s pain.

While this story is painful, it is also full of passion and yearning and adolescent thirst for truth, which keeps it hopeful and fresh.  Tayari Jones is a true talent.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

For anyone who has ever loved rock music, in all its crazy glory, I give you Daisy Jones and the Six. Written, cleverly, like a Rolling Stone interview, the story chronicles the accidental marriage of Daisy Jones, a gorgeous, lonely, and gifted child of LA in the 60’s with the band, The Six, originally from the East Coast and starting to hit it big.  The personalities, the alliances, the drugs, the romance, the challenges and the drama – it’s all there in an exquisitely crafted story of their rise to fame, fortune and ultimately the realization of some painful truths.

This is just an incredibly fun book to read.  The characters are wonderfully portrayed, with such vulnerability and warmth that you fall in love with them every bit as much as they are falling in love with each other.  The band feels so real.  You almost remember the songs they sing, as if they are hidden somewhere in your brain and not something you’re reading for the first time.  And the ego clashes are reminiscent of every band that Rolling Stone has probably ever interviewed, but are still somehow interesting because we are meeting them behind stage, unplugged, often unmoored and raw.

The idea of writing this story as an interview is brilliant.  My first inclination toward it was, honestly, reluctant.  I thought it might actually get old quick.  But it works!  it actually feels so honest and somehow more powerful, with the narrative coming from each of the characters themselves.  It is quite an unusual technique.

You will laugh, you might cry – but you will absolutely love Daisy Jones and the Six!

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

Jo and Bethie are so excited to move into their new home on Alhambra Street in Detroit in 1950.  It is a very big day for the family.  And once again,  Jo is unable to perform in a “ladylike” way and disappoints her mother.  Why can’t she be more like her sister, who seems to just know how to be the perfect little girl?  From Bethie’s point of view, however, being the pretty little girl may hold some power, but it also comes at some formidable peril.  As the two sisters grow and navigate the decades of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and so on, we have the privilege of following along with them on their turbulent, sometimes traumatic, and occasionally victorious journeys.

This is an epic novel for Jennifer Weiner, who has traced these decades of history with warmth and insight, from the perspective of these two sisters who struggle over these decades to find themselves.  Jo and Bethie, and the other characters woven around them, are so real that when they lose themselves, we feel lost as well, and when they hurt, we hurt.  They are flawed and vulnerable and often become collateral damage in each others’ sisterly wake.  But we find ourselves also moving on when they do and rejoicing at their successes as our own.

Herein Weiner is also giving voice to women, who have evolved over these decades and yet not evolved, whose roles have expanded and yet not expanded.  Weiner addresses the many ways in which women are expected to fulfill all roles – mother, homemaker, breadwinner, and wife, and yet find time for themselves, to feel fulfilled and to fall in line with society’s expectations.  She loops in race and prejudice,  primarily from the perspective of the Jewish experience of a people who have been targeted but who also have their own stereotypical racial biases.  In addition, she also gives voice to the women who have experienced sexual violence and sexual harassment over these decades and how it impacts and informs their entire life experience.  It is quite symbolic that Jell-O, the quintessential 1950’s, traditional Thanksgiving side dish associated with Jo’s worst adolescent evening is later in the novel thrown all over an emblem of her daughter’s supposed progress.  Jell-O becomes a symbolic fuck-you to all of the supposed progress, calling out the hypocrisy in the idea that things have changed enough.

At first glance, this novel might be written off as a simple story of two sisters, but it is in fact an articulate commentary on the struggle of women for power vs being overpowered and for status vs the status quo.  It also directs us to be hopeful for future generations, especially if we stick together and have each others’ backs.