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.

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.

 

 

Button Man by Andrew Gross

After tragedy hits the poor, struggling, immigrant Rabishevsky family, the 3 remaining sons struggle to find a way back to normalcy.  Each copes in his own way, but it seems that Morris, the baby, is the one with the most strength.  When challenged, it is Morris who doesn’t back down.   But when all his competition in the garment business is being ensnared by the Jewish mobsters’ union scam, will Morris and Raab Brothers be able to continue to resist? How brave is he really?  And whom will he put at risk if he does?

This novel is not only compelling, but, to my surprise, is based on a true story.  It is beautifully told, building the plot’s suspense as we come to know each of the characters more intimately and then twisting it into knots.  It is full of the unexpected, starting with Jewish strong-armed bodyguards to crazy  action-packed crime scenes. But there are many tender scenes as well.  And my favorite lines during one of these is this:  “When you’re scared, you’re nothing but a prisoner…but the moment you decide to stand up, become brave, you’re free.  Free of everything that holds you back…  You don’t have to think about it anymore.”  This is a brilliant line.  Hard to live by, but I guess something to strive for.

There are a. number of themes that wrap around the main character, Morris, and weigh him down throughout his life., but most dramatically it is the idea of not being able to forgive.  In Morris’s case, it becomes somewhat blinding, and later, when he realizes his error, he is crippled with guilt.  It is a powerful message, that is probably universal.  So many of us – myself included — carry grudges against those who have wronged us or who have wronged someone close to us.  It is extremely hard to let go.  Maybe impossible.  But whom are we harming when we don’t?  This story gives us pause to challenge our own difficult relationships.

I’d love to hear other themes or  that you’ve found in this book.  Please comment and add to this entry!

Thanks for reading!

 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

 

Every time I tell myself that I cannot read another Holocaust story because they are just too painful, another one comes along and lures me into its grasp. This one was another such story…

Lale, from Slovakia, volunteered in 1942 to work for the Germans in order to save his family from being deported (or so he was told). He, along with a cavalry of other young, fit men, were loaded onto cattle cars, given no food or water for days, and then unloaded onto the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau. On that very first day, he vowed to himself that he would survive, so that he could bear witness to the unimaginable cruelty that he and his fellow Jews (and others) were experiencing at the hands of the Germans. Lucky for him, he was picked out by the tattooist to be an apprentice and he became the main tattooist in the camp, making himself useful to the Germans. And in this hellhole of hate, Lale manages to not only inspire hope in others, but he manages to find love as well. His story is nothing short of miraculous.

I believe that the important message to take away from these stories of history is two-fold. I do believe that it reminds us to keep our eyes open – this can, indeed happen again. Not only has anti-semitism risen, but hatred for anyone who is “other” is so obviously rising (just look at the daily tweets from our so-called president). So we have to be vigilant, speak out, and vote for those who will be inclusive and bring people together.

But the other message I think this story highlights is that kindness wins. Lale shared the food he managed to procure with so many — and he was loved – and actually rewarded, in turn, for his thoughtfulness. He risked his life for others and when he could, he saved lives. He befriended everyone, no matter who they were. He became particularly friendly with the Romany – the Gypsies – who lived next to him for a time. Because he was curious and not judgmental, he became close to them and benefitted from their friendship as well. Through so many close calls and suspenseful moments, it was acts of kindness that enabled him to survive – his kindness and kindness from others. Kindness wins.

This is a remarkable story. Worth the read!