Thursday, November 19, 2015

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY – GABRIELLE ZEVIN

When was the last time you picked up a book and absolutely could not stop reading except to eat or do other necessaries? Thank goodness my sister-in-law came over the other day and handed me this book saying, “You have got to read this and tell me if you like it.” With a big sigh I finished it today after starting right before bed yesterday. Two o'clock this morning I decided to get up and finish. That has happened to me I don't think since I read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry or maybe The Last Stand of Major Pettigrew and to be sure this book evoked those same feelings. Now, if only I can put my finger on what exactly it is that makes me so avid about finishing a book. Is it that the story is so enchanting, is it the unusual relationships portrayed, or perhaps the way the characters touch ones heart? All of those I surmise. In the first chapter it began to feel a little Silas Marner-ish as in - lonely man loses something prized and it its place finds a perfect child. Silas Marner was always a favorite of mine since Senior English in 1969, and the hook was too strong to resist.

A.J. Fikry is a lonely, depressed, middle-aged brown skinned widower running a not-too-prosperous bookstore on Alice island. Since Fikry is a book snob, the store is stocked only with those titles he sees as “literary.” Book lovers often feel a need to educate others about literature (witness this blog) and so it is with Fikry. He buys not what people ask for but what he thinks they should read, and by golly he does get some to read out of their preferred genre. The shingle hanging over the shop door is priceless and reads as follows:

ISLAND BOOKS
Alice Island's Exclusive Provider of Fine Literary Content Since 1999
No Man is an Island Every Book is a World

When Fikry's prized possession, a rare book of Poe poetry, that was supposed to ensure his retirement is stolen and a baby, Maya, is abandoned in his store, his life is transformed. Enter also a new book sales rep and a potential romance. Then there is his persistent sister-in-law who wants to save him from himself, the local policeman who reads crime novels, and a philandering brother-in-law. They all become newly interested in Fikry's life with child. He in turn enters the world of the community from which he has always kept himself apart. Once he adopts Maya the community sets out to help him raise her and so the reader gets to know a whole village of surrogate parents. Underlying the plot are the questions of Maya's parentage and the whereabouts of the Poe.

Fikry's fiction of choice is the short story and each chapter begins with a review by him of one and within a few chapters the reader realizes he is writing these reviews to Maya. Interspersed in the chapters also are references to many notable books and writers. How could I not like a book about books and the power of stories to change lives? But also what a great book for character development.


It is always a must for me to examine a book. Check out the cover, smell it, read the dedications and the notes at the end. It is all good with this one. Come to think of it, it just may be that a book full of people who have so much empathy in this world where we see so little of that anymore, may be why I loved it so much. 

THE WORLD'S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN – JOSH HANAGARNE

Apparently there is a gigantic man working as a librarian at the Salt Lake City Public Library and this is the first of his memoirs. Written humorously with much banter interspersed with seriousness, it was a delight. We read it for Jay County Public Library Book Club but I worked that day and forgot to go! Oh horrors. I really wanted to have that discussion. However, three friends came through for me and showed up the next week for a breakfast discussion at my house. We all enjoyed the read and had a lot to mull over about Mr. Hanagarne's book.

The book is a jaunt between vignettes of library work-life, autobiographical narratives of Mormon childhood, and his excursions into body-building and strength training to combat the effects of Tourette Syndrome on his life. There are so many insightful quotations that my book is full of sticky notes that I keep looking at. My favorites of course are those about being a librarian and working with patrons since that is what I just spent 30+ years doing. Too many to reiterate in a short review I'll just give you one as follows: 
“The purpose of libraries – to organize and provide information – hasn't changed. They're billed as the Poor Man's University. (Many librarians also bill them as the Poor Man's Day Care or the Poor Man's Urinal.) I love working here because the reasons behind libraries are important to me.”

Hanagarne's love of books and libraries began in childhood and served him well. He remembers his first book love as Charlotte's Web and how it affected his first years at school. He remembers also how important books and trips to the library were and how this shaped his psyche. You can tell that Josh enjoys being a generalist librarian knowing a little about a lot of things and being able to assist his patrons well.

His dealings with Tourette's is fascinating and heart-wrenching. While he was on a drug program at times what worked the best for him was working out and keeping on a strenuous regiment of weight training and a bit of mind over matter. His descriptions of his struggles are often hard to read and very poignant. Several programs and some very unusual people help him to find a pathway not to perfect health, but to compromises and acceptance of his condition.

His descriptions of Mormonism is respectful and eye-opening. While his mother was very devout his father just kind of went along with everything but didn't seem to really buy in to the whole doctrine. His father taught Josh that they basically belonged to “the church of Don't be a Dick,” or in other words be respectful, be kind, serve others, and do good deeds. It is clear that Josh subscribes to that today even though he has left his church.

The reader of this book sees an unusual man with a lot to contend with but who loves much. He loves his job, his family, and himself. He has remarkable strength of body and character. His writing style is upbeat, never maudlin, and very clever. He writes lovingly about his wife, marriage, and becoming a father. At discussion we investigated his website and see that he has since divorced which made us sad but we know with his determination he will make it OK. Great book.


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

HOMAGE TO A BROKEN MAN – PETER MOMMSEN

To condense this whole book into one thought I would say that it is a story about a humble, spiritual man, who creates a life of love and beauty only to be stalled by men of ambition and manipulation. And yet his vision is carried on over generations and decades. This true story of a devoted Christian man and his family establishing, and trying to maintain, communal life is fascinating and often heart-wrenching. J. Heinrich Arnold is the main focus of the story even thought the dedication to communal living and the original commune was begun by his father Eberhard Arnold in Germany in 1919. The author is the grandson of J. Heinrich, and though he speculates on much of the dialog and of course must rely on the memories and writings of his elders, the story holds together as a spiritual journey and a look into a type of living that deserves respect.

I have always been in wonder about how a commune is established and how so many people can make it work. The Arnold's community was originally, and continued to be, organized around farming and publishing. The founders were college educated theologians and they accepted everyone not just Christians but Hindu, Jews, and atheists as well. No one was turned away who truthfully wanted to live humbly and spiritually if willing to contribute to the community. The society was based on the concept of religious socialism which they patterned after the Quakers. Page 145 probably has the best description of who it was that flocked to the Arnold communities, “communists, socialists, agnostics, atheists, and others who were fed up with the empty promises of the churchianity.”

There are many stories of working faith, but also the trials of fund raising, the complexities of governing a flock, organizing a working village, and of human failings and power struggles. The Commune had to leave Germany out of fear for their members lives and threats of arrest of the leaders in the 1930s. The scenes of the Nazi raids and arrests were frighteningly portrayed. When they fled Germany they eventually had successful communities in England, Paraguay, and New York. Always the goal was to be inclusive, show the love of God, help your neighbor, and instill in the children reverence for nature, honesty, chivalry, bravery, and generosity. The love stories of Eberhard and Heinrich with their wives and families are wonderful also. Never did I imagine that living and and running a commune would be so complicated and I had to wonder if every commune whether political or religious suffers the same problems. My guess would be “yes” or there would be more surviving communes today.


This is a great book to see inside the workings of a such a community but also to feel how groups of like-minded people can be committed to a different way of life. The titles of the chapters are delightfully related to the content such as “On the Road” when the community is moving and “Liberation” when in the 1960s Heiner is in the United States and falls in love with the country's fight for civil rights. He marches with Martin Luther King and yet is alarmed by some things he sees that had been the downfall of Germany such as militarism, economic oppression, and racism. As I thought about that chapter I had to think about how we have come so far since the 60s and yet in some respects things are still the same.  It is apparent that this beloved grandson reveres his family and his book is a true loving portrait of an extended faithful group. I am not sure why Mommsen calls his grandfather "broken" for it seemed he was at times but not most of the time and not by the end of his life. It was a good excursion with the Arnolds over nine decades and several continents.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

LIBRIOMANCER – JIM C. HINES

Libriomancer is one of those books that drops you into the middle of the action without any back story or character setting. Often that can be unsettling and cause for rereading once you catch on. Granted, at about the second chapter and after a series of characters had been introduced, I did go back and reread the first chapter. However, this short (300 page) book was just what I was craving and I didn't mind. Being a librarian myself it is a rare treat to find a book about loving books, and one where the hero is himself a librarian. It actually had a Neil Gaimen (a favorite author of mine) feel to it with a world of magic and sorcery overlapping our reality. I guess that aspect is a little Harry Potter-ish too. Anyway, what librarian doesn't want to read about a librarian who is kind of a “bad-ass” who slays evil creatures to save the world?

A Libriomancer is a rare magical person who can reach inside of a book and bring into this world objects and creatures from the story. Of course they can't stay and must go back into the book, but while in this world they can be most helpful. Haven't you thought on occasion it would be useful to have Alice's elixir to make you small, or Luke Skywalker's light saber to slay your enemy? In this “Magic Ex Libris” book one the world of magic is guarded and kept secret from mortals by those called Porters. Porters monitor and guard the world from supernatural threats. Isaac Vainio is such a Porter and also a Libriomancer. He also is a librarian in a public library in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

When vampires attack Isaac in his library he knows evil is afoot and someone must stop it. He teams up with Lena Greenwood, a Dryad, to find out why the vampires are revolting and where the missing Johannes Gutenberg has gone. As the first Libriomancer, Gutenberg is still alive these hundreds of years and someone is using his knowledge of automatons to destroy the vampire nests, frame the Porters, and turning the magical world against them.

Lena is a creature that grew from a graphic fantasy novel written by a twenty something man so you can guess what she looks like. Right, voluptuous, muscular, glistening skin, intense eyes, very sexy. Every young man's dream. The book is full of both traditional and contemporary vampires from Sanguinarius Stokerus (human blood-drinking vampires as written by Bram Stoker), the Meyerii (glistening creatures who have evolved from the writing of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series), and the Sanguinarius Henricus (those incapable of acting against their masters as written in the books by Charlaine Harris in “Sookie Stackhouse” books). There is magic, adventure, danger, and even romance in this fast paced fantasy book.


On the job, a working porter Libriomancer has to carry his or her books along with them, and each Libriomancer works with a preferred genre. Isaac works with fantasy and science fiction books thus wears a big coat with hidden pockets for his books. Throughout the centuries much has been learned about Libriomancey and the craft has been refined. So many books are mentioned. Many I knew but some I did not so you can imagine how thrilled I was to discover the bibliography in the back listing all the books referred to in the text. Fun fun! I enjoyed Libriomancer very much.