Collections of short stories can complicate the reader’s fiction experience. In particular, when the pieces are drawn from a range of the writer’s oeuvre — even when especially selected because they share a theme — they may vary in tone, in pace, in quality and in length, and may thus lack the uniformity of style and purpose that a single novel usually supplies. And this may only be the start of possible difficulties for the reader.
One way to bypass such anxieties could be to only consider the stories on a one by one basis. Thus it is that I am spreading out my appreciation of two writers by only reading single pieces interspersed with longer work by other writers. Angela Carter’s Black Venus tales (also published as Saints and Strangers) and a collection of H P Lovecraft’s horror stories entitled The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (edited by S T Joshi) are being enjoyed singly in between my tackling other longer works. And two of these pieces I’ve selected as being the last of my 2016 Reading New England choices. (This, you may remember, is one of Lory Hess’ challenges on her Emerald City Book Review blog, due to end on the 31st December.)
I’m afraid this is just going to be one of those rambling posts, a blog entry in which some kind of theme, argument or conclusion may possibly suggest itself. Or not. So here goes.
Book reviews have stalled a bit. It’s not from want of reading — au contraire, I’m ploughing on with several books at once. It’s just that I’ve got to that stage of dawdling, not committing, one which no doubt we all hit from time to time. Exploring the world of ideas? I’m either wading through a mass of ideas — where they float like bubbles or balloons, insubstantial or ungraspable — or there’s a distinct vacuity inside my skull, where I feel I’ve nothing of worth to add. I’ve started drafting three reviews and then thought in each case, Have I got anything new to say about this? Do I want to post about the same old ‘same old’?
We’re nearly halfway through November, and the end of the year is within touching distance. It’s nearly time to start taking stock of how my 2016 goals are progressing (as I’ve already done, back in July). Taking my author alphabet challenge I find I’m just five short of completion, with O, Q, U, X and Y yet to come. The good news is that I’ve lined up some books to cover three of these — Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition and some short stories edited by Jessica Yates — though I’ve yet to decide on who to choose for U or Q.
Authors read in 2016 (L: library copy and ⇒ indicates recycled)
Well, we’re way past the halfway mark of 2016, a year that so far has appeared more an annus horribilis than an annus mirabilis. But thank goodness we have the benefit of books and the leisure to peruse them: the consolation of reading helps mitigate some of the universal depression over world events that hangs over many of us like a pall of smoke.
This is a good point at which to pause and see how I’m getting on with my various Reading Wishlists. Hmm, not brilliantly. So far with re-reads I’ve only begun Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, though I’ve managed the odd other reread (three in fact, listed below). With my Reading New England challenge I’ve managed … one book. Where non-fiction and classics and standalone fiction are concerned I’m making a little more progress. And I’m steadily filling up my alphabetical list of authors whose last names begin with each of the letters of the alphabet.
I’ve only just come across Goodwill Librarian‘s 2016 Reading Challenge on Facebook. It’s nowhere near as long as the 50-odd challenges from last year that I attempted, but I reckon I’ve a good chance to cover this with what I’ve already read and what I hope to read in the coming months without making any extra effort. So I’m not, as far as I can see, making myself a rod for my own back; though looking at the actual options I suspect that they may be angled towards less voracious and less omnivorous readers.
Gabrielle Zevin The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry Abacus 2015 (2014)
A book about books, the love of books, booklovers, selling books, writing books, quoting books, reviewing books, talking about books — what’s not to like? Add to that memorable characters whom you can get to love and care for, a few who either achieve a kind of redemption or get their just deserts, who live and breathe and die and live on; and what you glimpse is a little world, a kind of microcosm of the greater world we all inhabit — or would like to inhabit.
A. J. Fikry is the owner of Island Books, a bookstore on the fictional Alice Island off the coast of Massachusetts, only reachable by ferry from Hyannis. He is a curmudgeon, true, but a curmudgeon with good reason — personal tragedy has touched his life and coloured his world view. After his loved one dies book sales flatline; a valued book of his — an edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s early poem Tamerlane — is then stolen, an irritatingly pushy new agent from Knightley Press appears and, to cap it all, a two-year-old orphan is left in his care. Not only is he out of his comfort zone but there is little prospect of him finding his way back again. What’s a man to do?
I shan’t be spoiling matters by suggesting that he finds a kind of redemption and a new sense of purpose when he decides to adopt Maya, the bright young toddler who enchants him with her love of books. Through her he reconnects with family, makes new friends, cleans up his life, revitalises his business, even learns to love again. But there is unfinished business still awaiting him at the end of a dozen or so years, one that adds more than a touch of poignancy to this tale.
I found The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry absolutely delightful. Each chapter is headed by a book title and a short discussion by A.J. addressed to a teenage Maya; the title itself or an aspect of the book usually relates to what happens in that chapter, but I found I didn’t need to know much about any of the books to appreciate the thoughts and ideas that A.J. expounds, reflections that clearly indicate his belief that books are not an escape from life but a vital spark that makes life worth living. There is too a metafictional parallel: the stolen Poe edition dealt with the regret Tamerlane felt at the end of his life after forsaking true love for worldly power and success. As one of the strong themes in this novel, it is a message perhaps for us all; and it is echoed by the Rumi quote prefacing all: come on, sweetheart | let’s adore one another | before there is no more | of you and me.
There is a fascinating cast to discover peopling this book, which helps to underscore the message on the faded “sign over the porch of the purple Victorian cottage” declaring No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World. Reminding us of our interconnectedness with others it also emphasises that through books we may experience a wider life; and through writing we can speak as if by magic to future generations, even allowing them to love us when we are no longer in this world.
This is my Massachusetts entry for Lory’s Reading New England Challenge at Emerald City Book Review, which may be a bit of a cheat as Alice Island doesn’t exist, but one or two scenes actually take place on the mainland — even straying to Rhode Island — so I hope it just squeezes in!
I’m only a few books off completing my 2015 Reading Challenge, though I’m still a little behind with the reviews. As we rush headlong towards 2016 I think it’s only fitting to consider what I aim to read in the coming year after finishing the current challenge.
Actually, “challenge” is rather a pretentious term to use as I intend to make my goals a little more open-ended than this year’s rigid categories with their set number of books targeted. So for the time being I’m calling this a wishlist, a way of flagging up general areas which I hope to explore over the course of twelve months. I don’t expect to be alone in planning for next year — are you contemplating the same? — but do bear with me as I waft a wishing wand over my own vision for the New Year.