Storied Life of J T Fikry is Sentimental, but Charming

By Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin 978-1616203214, 288 pp.
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How do you like your curmudgeons–redeemed or pure? Do books centered on how a child changes someone's life cause you to go "ahhhh!" or "ewwee?" I'm usually in the second camp on both questions, but The Storied Life of J. T. Fikry won me over in the end.

The Storied Life of J. T. Fikry is ironic in that it's the latest in a spate of novels set in bookstores to hit the market at about the time that bookstores are folding like an origami workshop. (The genre includes works such as Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, The Bookshop, and The Shadow of the Wind.) Zevin uses the bookstore's declining appeal as part of her plot. J. T. Fikry is a Southeast Asian man who owns a bookstore on Alice Island–a dead ringer for Martha's Vineyard. He's a recent widower, his shop is struggling, and a prized and quite valuable first edition of Edgar Allen Poe's Tamerlane has just disappeared from his shop. Police Chief Lambiase, who investigates the theft, is like most islanders in that he tolerates Fikry because he's been on Alice Island for a long time and because everyone loved Fikry's late wife, a local gal. But he's also lukewarm about Fikry, who is a crank, misanthrope, and literary snob. The latter is among the reasons his shop is in decline. Heaven help the publishing agent who tries to interest Fikry in anything to do with vampires, zombies, celebrities, magical realism, postmodernism, or middlebrow pap. Mention names such as Stephen King, Danielle Steel, or John Grisham at your own peril!

Luckily the new agent for Knightly Press, Amelia, has been warned of Fikry's temper and tastes. She makes her way to Alice Island with a list of books sure to appeal to Fikry, but she's so charmed by the shop and the local scenery that she can't resist making a few small suggestions. They don't go over well, but to evoke a famed line from the movie Casablanca, it's the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Lord knows J. T. could use a few friends other than the two he has: Daniel Parish, a womanizing, egotistical one-hit island novelist, and his wife Ismay (who is also J. T.'s sister-in-law). Fikry's life is turned upside down when a note and a two-year-old biracial infant named Maya are left in his shop and the Alice Island ferry discovers Maya's suicidal mother floating in the bay. Fikry improbably decides to adopt Maya.

Zevin's novel spans the next sixteen years of Maya's life, J. T.'s odd relationship with Amelie, his even less probable friendship with Lambiase, and J.T.'s transformation from embittered malcontent to reluctant participant in island life. The story is at times touching and charming, but it will also test your credulity and your tolerance for coincidences.

I was won over by the book's good hear and Zevin's ability to develop memorable characters that make readers feel as if they have come to know them. She so lovingly describes the bookstore that one can almost smell the dampness escaping from used tomes. Full disclosure: I read this novel immediately after plowing through Elizabeth Catton's magisterial but challenging The Luminaries, so my enjoyment of J. T. Fikry was enhanced by the fact that it was a zippy, mentally non-taxing read. It's the kind of book that is extremely likely to be made into a saccharine feel-good film starring flavor-of-the-month celebrities. At the risk of sounding like pre-Maya J.T., I recommend you read the book before the inevitable movie comes out. I happen to share his dislike of least-common-denominator fiction.-- Rob Weir  


Sarah Miles Debut Has Identity Crisis

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My biggest advice to young musicians is be yourself, not pieces of everyone else. One, the debut full release from Sarah Miles, has a serious identity crisis. The first of these is what to call it. Promo materials toss around labels such as folk, country, and pop. It's not a mélange–pop is the correct label. Second, there's the matter of her self-chosen comparisons: Mariah Carey, Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, and Carrie Underwood, of which the first is closest. She has a high, girl-like whispery voice like all four, but she has the drama of Bareilles, but not her hipness; the (occasional) quiet demeanor of Michaelson, but not her attention to arrangement; and the sweetness of Underwood, but not the contrasting bottom tones to her voice. One is a "young" album that lacks confidence and tries too hard to impress us with how Miles can hit the high notes. Like Mariah Carey, she offers diva music with the forced drama of dance hall pop. (My personal comparison would be to English club ingénue Robyn.) On one track she actually sings "It's all about me" and, yes, there's too much of that going on.

I've been very harsh thus far, so allow me to temporize a bit. Miles has a promising voice that can take her places once she gets control over it and acquires better material. She has a nice catch in her throat and there are hints of husk when she puts the whispery tones on hold. (Please Lord–deliver us from little girl voices and lead us into the land of full-grown women!) One is an optimistic album, the bulk of songs being about being young and in love. Its best moments are generally the buildups to what are supposed to be hooky refrains, though the latter are overly processed, excessive, and generic.  When Miles dials it back several notches and sings to the song, not through it, the results are much stronger. We hear this to best effect on the title track, and again on "Take the Lead," the second of which feels like genuine joy rather than bludgeoned optimism. Duty requires that I dub this a very rocky debut, but I sure would like to hear Ms. Miles do something spare that connects more to an audience than to the Austin music biz.

By the way, her YouTube version of "One" is better than what's on the album.

Rob Weir


Tim's Vermeer: Portrait of Genius, Technology, and Obsession

Directed by Teller
PG-13 Sony Pictures, 80 minutes

Tim Jenison has never painted a picture in his life. What would make such a man think he could re-create a masterpiece such as Johannes Vermeer's The Music Lesson? There have long been rumors that Vermeer (1632-1675) might have used optical aids to capture the minute details for which he has been acclaimed. That possibility, not Vermeer's exalted reputation, is what fascinated Jenison–an inventor/geek who made a fortune in visual imaging and post-production work for Hollywood and television.

Jenison's six-year search to uncover the key to Vermeer's precision is the subject of this fascinating documentary, which is directed by Teller and whose primary interviewer is his partner in magic, Penn Jillette, a friend of Jenison's. As noted above, Jenison wasn't the first to suspect that Vermeer's stunning use of light, color, and minute detail required the use of optical aids. In 2001, British scholar Philip Steadman put forth a compelling case that Vermeer might have used a camera obscura, a thesis shared by famed painter David Hockney. (Both men appear in the film.) Is it possible that one of Western civilization's greatest painters was also among the first to understand the implications of new optical technology? Vermeer lived at a time in which the Dutch were the richest nation in Europe and Dutch scientists pioneered in microscope lenses. In Jenison's mind, if Vermeer was using optics, he was as much a tracer as an artist and someone who had access to the same materials, studio conditions, and optical devices ought to be able to recreate a Vermeer. It was an audacious assertion, especially for one with an untrained hand–Jenison had in mind painting a Vermeer, not a likeness of one.

Vermeer's The Music Lesson
How does one even begin such an undertaking? It helps if you're rich and handy building things. How else could one build a replica of Vermeer's Delft studio in San Antonio, complete with the sort of tapestries, glass, and ceiling beams used in the 17th century? How else can one afford to grind glass as it would have done in the 17th century, or acquire the materials for the expensive pigments Vermeer used? Indeed, how else could one obtain a private viewing of a painting owed by Queen Elizabeth? Teller takes us inside Jenison's quest and makes the best case yet that Vermeer was as skilled with optics as with the brush.  

So did Jenison match the work of an undisputed master? You be the judge. For me, one of the remarkable things about this documentary is that it reveals one mystery and leaves others intact. It's still a near-miracle that so much talent could reside in one man, and the painstaking lengths taken by Jenison to tackle just one painting enhances my understanding of why there are just 34 known Vermeer canvases. Teller's documentary is a testament to genius, obsession, technology and God-given talent. If you think you are a person who does not like documentaries, trust me and rent Tim's Vermeer. I can practically guarantee that you will again never think of documentaries or Vermeer in the same way.  Rob Weir

Photo by me of detail from Young Woman with a Water Pitcher that shows photographic-like reverse imagery.