Booked Up

The Life of a Book Seller

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a funny sad novel about books, a book shop owner, and the baby he raises.

By - May 15th, 2014 02:40 pm
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin was recently chosen by the Boswell Book Company as the volume to commemorate their Fifth Anniversary. It is easy to imagine why. This emotional and witty novel gains much of its power and depth from the world of books, writers, and book shops.

The sardonic title character is a young widower who lives above the bookstore he started with his beloved late wife. A. J.’s ironic look at life and its hardships keeps this little gem from becoming cloying or sentimental. And that’s not easy to pull off, as the early part of the novel centers on a beautiful and precocious baby left among the bookshelves.

Zevin is expert at mixing a bouillabaisse of characters and incidents all centered around the precious foundling, Maya. Her story is set on the remote Massachusetts island of Alice and she captures the quirky charm of its inhabitants adroitly. Maya grows up, nurtured by books and the people who love them (a fate many of us may have shared).

Just when the story threatens to get maudlin, Ms. Zevin provides gritty descriptions that cut the sweetness with a harsh realism. A. J. is surrounded by a motley crew that provides comic relief and moments of true tragedy. But at the heart of this book lies the redemption of a man who has almost stopped living.

Sprinkled throughout the plot are dozens of reading recommendations, quotations, vignettes of the book selling life, and writer’s tips. You may find yourself starting a list of “To Be Read” recommendations and copying out some of the delightful excerpts from classic stories. Throughout, A. J. writes little notes to Maya that serve as a record of the thawing of his heart and the maturing of the little girl.

There is the title of a short story, play, or novel peppered on almost every page, and you may want to keep tally of how many you’ve finished and how your opinion stacks up against A.J.‘s take on each work. An added treat is a running commentary on crime novels given as A. J. prepares for a police book group. Ms. Zevin knows her mysteries and has very acute opinions about them!

Gabrielle Zevin. Photo by Hans Canosa

Gabrielle Zevin. Photo by Hans Canosa

It is apropos, then, that mystery is also a part of this strong brew. A rare copy of Poe’s Tamerlane goes missing, Maya’s parentage is in question, and strangers come and go. Ms. Zevin does a beautiful job of weaving the clues and unraveling the web. This intrigue gives added interest and comes back to haunt you at unexpected moments.

Ms. Zevin is also adept at creating comic set-pieces that may make you laugh out loud. A failed book reading party and a botched proposal, among others, provide comic relief from some of the difficult subjects that make up the drama of the plot.

Ultimately, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is as varied and engrossing as any given shelf of books in your favorite book shop. I think you will enjoy the ride — and hope that it won’t end.

Upcoming area Book Events:

Friday, May 16 (7:00 PM): David Downing, author of Jack of Spies at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181

Saturday, May 17 (7:00 PM): Alan Weisman, author of Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for Future on Earth? at Boswell Book Company. Co-sponsored by The Urban Ecology Center and Wisconsin Public Radio.

Saturday, May 17 (7:00 PM): “Milwaukee Poets Laureate Reading Series” – Antler and guest poet, Howard Nelson at Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 East Locust Street, Milwaukee. $5-$8         (414) 263-5001

Monday, May 19 (6:00 PM): “Milwaukee Public Library Event” in the Rare Books Room with Thomas Mickey, author of America’s Romance with the English Garden. The Milwaukee Public Library is located at 807 W. Wisconsin Avenue in Milwaukee. Co-sponsored by Boswell Book Company.

Monday, May 19 (7:00 PM): Joshua Ferris, author of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour at Boswell Book Company.

Wednesday, May 21 (7:00 PM): Local Author Bobby Tanzilo, author of Hidden History of Milwaukee at Boswell Book Company.

Thursday, May 22 (7:00 PM): Wisconsin Author Michael Mair, author of Kaiten: Japan’s Secret Manned Suicide Submarine and the First Ship It Sank in WWIIat Boswell Book Company.

Friday, May 23 (7:00 PM): Reading by Nicholas Grider and Paul Druecke at Woodland Pattern Book Center. Free Admission.

Send your book club picks and author event information to me at or on Facebook at And good reading!

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