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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry


November 11, 2014

“And you’d thank everyone for coming. We all raise a glass to Maya.
Everyone goes home happy.”
“So it’s basically a book party.”
“Yeah, sure.” 
Lambiase has never been to a book party.
“I hate book parties,” A.J. says. 
“But you run a bookstore,” Lambiase says.
“It’s a problem,” A.J. admits.

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

Book parties aren’t the only thing A.J. Fikry hates. He is not fond of book blurbs, summer people, ghostwriters, children’s books (or children, for that matter), celebrity picturebooks, “…’postmodernisms, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism … and… this goes without saying, vampires’”. He does not like how much he drinks (that is, too much), or the frozen Vindaloo entrees and the loneliness that accompany them. And since his wife died, he has hated the work of being what he is, a bookseller on a small New England island.

Despite his closely held list of professed dislikes, Gabrielle Zevin’s A.J. Fikry may be one of the most likable characters published in 2014. Because, as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry unfolds, A.J. discovers that his ever-growing list of likes and loves is a much better one to live by. Vampires, he learns, can be watched in large doses on television without any ill effects and children are not so bad after all—nor are the books that go with them.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Mr. Fox" by Helen Oyeyemi



"Solitary people, these book lovers. 
I think it's swell that there are people you don't have to worry about 
when you don't see them for a long time, 
you don't have to wonder what they do, how they're getting along with themselves. 
You just know that they're all right, and probably doing something they like." 
-- from Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Writer St. John Fox has a penchant for killing his heroines and the women in his life don't like it, not one bit. Nor are they terribly keen on each other. So it is that Mr. Fox's wife, Daphne, and his muse, Mary, each vie for his attention and affections while trying to avoid the inevitable losses that come with love. To Oyeyemi's great credit, their insightful discoveries touch upon habits, idiosyncrasies and dilemnas of all who seek love and understanding from those we care for the most.

"The girl tried, several times, to give her love away, but her love would not stay with the person she gave it to and snuck back to her heart without a sound."

Helen Oyeyemi's fascination with fairy tales is in fine form here, but Mr. Fox is no Grimm retelling.  For all its swift slayings, bodily severings, decapitations and such, Mr. Fox never loses the lightness of a game for three players where the scenes change and the characters dance in different directions, uncertain of each others' affections but always in each others' sights.

Note, a little guidance getting started with Oyeyemi is a good thing, for she is a writer and observer unlike any other. Eleanor Wachtel's 2014 interview with Helen Oyeyemi is just the ticket here

Monday, August 04, 2014

"The Lifeboat" by Charlotte Rogan



"But wouldn't you want to live anyway?" 
I asked, astonished by his vehemence. 
"Don't you want to live for yourself?" 

So asks 22-year-old Grace Winter of Mr. Preston, who sits beside her in an overcrowded lifeboat after the Princess Alexandra sinks in the Atlantic Ocean. It is 1914 and Grace finds herself, suddenly, both newlywed and widow, adrift and waiting for rescue in Charlotte Rogan's The Lifeboat.

But when the hardtack is gone and the drinking water run dry, the days wear on with neither land nor salvation in sight. A strange and mysterious separation emerges between passengers with the will to live and lead, at any price, and those made weak--or noble--by their circumstances. This  menacing rift swells and dangerously divides the passengers from "the only person among us who knew anything about boats and currents and the boiling sea." 

A tension of opposing forces builds to one of the few decisive acts that Grace will take in her young life. To preserve her chances in The Lifeboat any choice will be a terrible one, leaving many questions unanswered that no doctor's analysis or judgment day could ever resolve. 

A dark and masterful meditation on power, guilt, sacrifice and survival.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"The Chief Factor's Daughter" by Vanessa Winn


June 22, 2014


Think of it, Margaret… Dark skin, a country upbringing--
you would be a curiosity on a visit, but beyond that, 
you would never be accepted.
-- from The Chief Factor's Daughter 
by Vanessa Winn, Touchwood Editions, c. 2009

As Margaret Work fears herself rapidly approaching spinsterhood, her hopes for marriage and full acceptance into society begin to fade. Her Irish-Metis heritage is a source of insecurity she cannot overcome, despite a respectable social standing established by John Work, the family patriarch, as Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company outpost in Fort Victoria. 

"A courtship with her, she was painfully aware, would be a one-way passage for Mr. _____.  To marry her would also mean marrying the colony. She was born to the country, and to take her back to the Old World would be nearly unthinkable."

Even in her admirers, Margaret detects a disconcerting tendency to scrutinize her features and suspects they are trying to trace her bloodline in her face. It would be enough to make any chin-held-high heroine shy away from society, but Margaret surprises her company time and again with speech and manners that "endeavour to be worthy of the society she seeks."

Whether that society is worthy of her, author Vanessa Winn does not judge, but gives her characters plenty to keep them busy while they sort out the friendships, betrothals and marriages that will shape their lives to come. Along with riding parties, picnics and politics, there are moccasins to mend, fish to trade, taxidermy skills to practice...even a Pig War to settle.

Winn's is a convincing voice from a bygone era. In bringing colour and life to the very real families of colonial Victoria, she stays closely on the side of history. It takes all kinds to build a city, and Winn's research reveals the frivolous, the wanderers, the politicians and profligates, the sickly, the adventurous, the practical and persevering that built the Fort into what was to become a provincial capital of world renown.

Deftly done.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Strings Attached: One tough teacher and the gift of great expectations



May 26, 2014

If they could have seen their futures from childhood, Melanie Kupchinsky and Joanne Lipman might well have wondered how they might bear the worst of what fate had in store.

Melanie, the daughter of two musical parents, would know tragedy from an early age. Her mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis before Melanie, the eldest of two girls, was five. Virtually housebound, Jean Kupchynsky was unable to attend her daughters’ music recitals and performances, and was often hospitalized for long periods of time. Years later, the mysterious disappearance of Melanie’s sister, Stephanie, at the age of 27, left a void in the small and already splintered family. It would be seven long years of not knowing before Stephanie’s fate was resolved, confirming a tragic end to a talented young life.

Joanne would one day flee the basement of the World Trade Centre and watch the towers collapse from a few blocks away. Later, as a working mother, treatment for breast cancer would sap her strength and steal forever a period when life demanded the most of her.

But as girls with their whole lives ahead of them, Melanie and Joanne were two parts of a gifted and hard-working student string quartet. They developed a common bond in music and performing and, without realizing it, uncommon resilience. Their source was a man with deep reserves of his own—Jerry Kupchynsky had survived the Nazis and life in refugee camps to build a new life in America. He was the talented son of a mother impossible to please, the husband of an invalid wife with an incurable disease, the father of daughters Melanie and Stephanie and the manager of a small mountain of medical bills that no conductor’s baton could wave away.

“Mr. K” was also a remarkable public school music teacher. The toughest taskmaster in East Brunswick, New Jersey during the 60s and 70s (Joanne’s five-year-old self remembered him as “the meanest man I ever met”), Ukrainian-born “Mr. K.” was known for jabbing students with batons; scowling, angry outbursts (“Who eez deaf in first violins?”) and the generally not-so-benign dictatorship that was, for decades, his award-winning student orchestra.

As adults, Mr. K’s students would come to realize that his ferocity was an expression of just how good he knew they could be. Put it another way, they were worth all the yelling. Even if they didn’t know it themselves at the time.

Joanne would eventually pack away her viola and become an acclaimed journalist, writer and editor; Melanie is a violinist with the internationally renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  “Whether we stuck to the music or not,” observed one of Mr. K’s students years later, “it stuck with us.”

More than anything else, Jerry Kupchynsky wanted his students to know “the happiness that comes from hard work”. Learning music, and playing well, was the means to that end. Though there is loss and sadness, Strings Attached: One tough teacher and the gift of great expectations resonates with reassurance—that full and happy lives are not given, they are earned.

Thursday, May 01, 2014


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Stormy Weather



April 12, 2014

"..during a time of Depression, and drought and dust storms" Jeanine Stoddard takes her chances. On a horse named Smoky Joe that runs like a rocket, on an abandoned family farm in Texas and on a widowed man who may be her saving grace if she can only bring herself to say yes.

Paulette Jiles' Stormy Weather tests her heroine's grit, determination and loyalties to the limits. A wise woman makes her own luck in hard times and Jeanine's instincts for what will be and what is worth having above all proves wise indeed.