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When simple is simply marvellous

Monday, June 09, 2014
By Robin Shukla

This week we have two excellent books which are already at the top of the bestsellers lists in many countries. They are literary efforts and have been hailed for being very well-written evocative novels. The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin is the story of Ajay and little Maya, and their world, which is a bookstore. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue is about how a feisty friend can become a catalyst and trigger for freedom

Life much more meaningful with a baby   This book is a hearty delight for booklovers, as life here rotates mostly inside and around a bookstore called Island Books, with its owner’s house located above. Among the many memorable characters is a baby, Maya. She has turned up as an 25-month-old in a pink ski jacket, sitting between the rows of shelves with a book in her hand, at closing time. Pinned to a doll the baby has brought along is a note from the mother asking him to care for the baby named Maya. A.J. Fikry, the owner, is a recluse of a man, who barely manages to take care of himself. Down and out with depression after the death of his pretty, young wife who is killed while driving back to their home on Alice Island. She was probably speeding to catch the last automobile ferry. A.J. is very remorseful and feels he should have gone and dropped the author home that fateful night instead of allowing her to do it.

The bookstore was his wife’s idea, and dreams get further shattered when he passes out after polishing off a bottle of wine only to wake up and find that a rare book, Tamerlane, has gone missing from its high security climate controlled glass case.Returning from a run, he stumbles upon Maya sitting in his store and promptly changes her diaper (a twenty minute exercise) before taking her across to Police Chief Lambiase, another adorable character in this book. A.J. presents the baby to the police officer. ‘Someone left this in the store,’ A.J. whispers so as not to wake Maya who has fallen asleep in his arms…’ Do you know anything about child care?’ Lambiase asks.

‘It’s only for the weekend. How hard can it be? I’ll call my sister-in-law. Anything she doesn’t know, I’ll Google.’ By the time they arrive at the apartment, Maya is full-on crying, a sound somewhere between a New Year's Eve party horn and a fire alarm. A.J. deduces that she is hungry, but he has no clue what to feed a twenty-five-month old. He pulls up her lip to see if she has teeth. She does and she uses them to try to bite him.You can read this book for its gentle story and for its language. There is an Indian connection, A.J. is Ajay! Lambiase keeps dropping by at Island Books and to justify these visits, he buys books which he then reads because he doesn't like wasting money. A.J. has met at the most momentous occasions of his life, during the days of his wife's death and when his rare book gets stolen.

They keep discussing writers and A.J. keeps upgrading him to many better authors who he himself favours. He also exchanges pleasantries with Maya, picking her up whenever he can. The two are hopelessly in love with the child. Sister-in-law Ismay is unfortunately having her second miscarriage just on the day when she has become Maya's godmother at a 'non-denominational christening' event, and she has been some help in her own way right from the first day A.J. came upon Maya sitting in a corner between bookshelves. Her hubby Daniel Parish is also a writer, and a known philanderer.  Those of us who nose our books will love this adorable excerpt: The first way Maya approaches a book is to smell it. She strips the book of its jacket, then holds it up to her face and wraps the boards around her ears. Books typically smell like Daddy's soap, grass, the sea, the kitchen table and cheese. She studies the pictures and tries to tease a story out of them. It is tiring work, but even at three years old, she recognises some of the tropes...When children come into their rows, she always makes sure to stick a book into their hands.

This book has been extensively reviewed across the globe, and invariably there have been some who have been restless over a child growing in a bookstore, and the absence of a real plot. But most have seen it as a story of love and have revelled in the author's narrative style. Once, someone had asked A.J. if Maya was his. 'You're both black but not the same kind of black.' Maya remembers this because the remark had made A.J. use a tone of voice she had never heard him use with a customer. 'What is the same kind of black?' A.J. had asked. 'No, I didn't mean to offend you,' the person had said and then the flip-flops had backed their way to the door, leaving without making a purchase.Reading about A.J. taking Maya in a stroller in the evening, reading to her in the night until she falls asleep, tending to her when she joins kindergarten, and contracts chickenpox brings out a whole deal of caring in the heart and mind.

The romance between Amelia Loman, who markets books for Knightley Press, and A.J. is the result of an association sustained by her more than by A.J. She is four inches taller than him: That spring Amelia takes to wearing flats and finds herself making more sales calls to Island Books than the account, strictly speaking requires. If her boss notices, he does not say. Publishing is still a gentleperson's business, and besides, A.J. Fikry is carrying an extraordinary number of Knightley titles, more than nearly and other bookstore in the Northeast corridor. The boss does not care whether the numbers are driven by love or commerce. This good book sees some more heartening romance but that would be telling.

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
Hachette Rs.350

A quilt of fact and fiction
This story is set in 1876. The place Chinatown in San Francisco. The characters: Blanche Beunon, a French prostitute who looks after Arthur Deneve, her pimp who was her co-performer at a circus in Paris, and also his friend, Ernest Girard, who is something of a free-loader and a cad. Jenny Bonnet is a vivacious woman who stumbles into their lives and is everything that Blanche had wanted to be. Jenny is suddenly murdered, felled by a bullet fired through a window.  The people are probably close to some real folk in those times, and the book is a product of intense and painstaking research about an unsolved murder at a time when there was a heatwave compounded by a smallpox epidemic.   Blanche has to 'service' other men and also Arthur and Ernest, to keep them all alive in a world hopelessly skewed against women. Jenny is a rebel, and sells frogs to French and Chinese immigrants – that is how the title to the book. Blanche finally has to try and stand up for herself – she first has to retrieve her little son who she has put into foster care at the behest of Arthur. Is there liberation?     

Frog Music
by Emma Donoghue
Picador (Pan Macmillan)Rs.599

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