A Sudden Light — Book Review


Stories continue in all directions to include even the retelling of the stories themselves, as legend is informed by interpretation, and interpretation is informed by time. And so I tell my story to you, as the Mariner told his: he, standing outside the wedding party, snatching at a passing wrist, paralyzing his victim with his gaze; I, standing with my family at the edge of this immortal forest. I tell this story because telling this story is what I must do.
Garth Stein, A Sudden Light

Yesterday, while he was fitting me for new sneakers, the salesman asked me what my favorite book was. (How did the subject come up, you wonder? Never one to waste a moment of potential reading time, I was reading a book while waiting my turn in the shoe store.) I told him that was an impossible question to answer — I could only give him a list of my favorite books. “No,” he said. “You have to pick one. I’ll start. Mine is Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz.”

OK, I thought. Fair enough. I wanted to get my sneakers and move on with my day. So I said the first book that popped into my mind: The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  When I described the book, he was fascinated — it turns out he is an auto racing fan AND a dog owner. Not that those characteristics are necessary for a person to enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, but that lucky coincidence made it a sure bet. When the salesman told me he “still likes paper books” and that he didn’t think there were any bookstores left in the northern suburbs of Chicago, I gave him directions to Lake Forest Book Store, 10 minutes away from the shoe store. I hope he went.

Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain isn’t my favorite book (as I said, there’s no such thing) 9780061537967but it is a book that I hold close to my heart. I’ve read it, reread it, underlined favorite passages, and listened to it on audio. No critic would call it a literary masterpiece — it’s not multi-layered, it’s sentimental, and the writing, while lovely, is not distinctive. It’s more what I would call a little jewel of a book — not ambitious in its scope, but perfect at what it sets out to do. Enzo, the dog who narrates the book, has a voice that no reader will ever forget. I hate to use the word “uplifting”, but that’s what this book is, even with the inevitable sadness at the end.

Stein published The Art of Racing in the Rain in 2008, so it’s been a six-year wait for his fourth novel, A Sudden Light. (Stein is also the author of two previous novels, which I haven’t yet read.) A Sudden Light has some elements in common with The Art of Racing in the Rain: the Seattle setting, a compelling narrator — in this case, a precocious 14-year-old boy — and an air of mysticism.

Trevor Riddell’s  bankrupt, recently separated father, Jones, brings him to his grandfather’s mansion (Riddell House) in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father and his Aunt Serena from carrying out their plan. Trevor badly wants the plan to succeed, because he thinks that if his father has money in the bank he and his mother will be more likely to reconcile.

A Sudden Light is told from the perspective of Trevor as an adult, telling the story of the fateful summer when he lived at Riddell House with his grandfather (who may or may not have dementia), his Aunt Serena (who may be mentally ill, evil, or perhaps both), and his  father (who is a lost soul, trying to find his way back to his wife and his son, and to come to terms with his dysfunctional family). Trevor’s voice captivated me right away, and I read eagerly for the first third of the book.

Then things became problematic for me. Trevor discovers (too easily) old family diaries and letters that reveal many ugly secrets. He encounters a ghost, who helpfully fills in the missing parts of the sordid Riddell family history. Aunt Serena, Trevor’s father’s sister, who has never married and lives with her father as his caretaker, displays increasingly erratic and sinister behavior. I found it especially creepy that she always addresses Trevor’s father as “Brother Jones”.  She — like some of her Riddell ancestors — was too much of a stock villain to be a believable character.

I should admit I have a problem with ghosts. I think they are usually a silly plot device. Usually, when a ghost appears in a novel, that is the moment when I lose interest. That didn’t happen right away in this book, because I held out hope that the ghost was a figment of Trevor’s imagination. I don’t want to give anything away, but the ghosts do turn out to be other than what they originally seem. Still, not long after the ghost showed up. I began finding the story contrived and unbelievable. I’m not sure why I can easily accept a dog as a narrator, but not a ghost as a character. Maybe it’s because it is a fact, accepted by every sane human being, that dogs do not narrate books, while apparently there are reasonable people who believe in ghosts.

Trevor Riddell is one of those people. He has a difficult time convincing his mother, a brilliant scholar of comparative literature, that the Riddell House ghosts exist: “‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I thought you were making up stories — going a little crazy in this house with your imagination and nothing to keep you occupied. I didn’t know how to believe you. I’m so sorry'”. Trevor’s mother has spent her life as an agnostic, accepting the inexplicable. The connection Trevor feels with the ghosts of his ancestors helps him develop a faith that sustains him:

Perhaps that’s what life is about–the search for such a connection. The search for magic. The search for the inexplicable. Not in order to explain it, or contain it. Simply in order to feel it. Because in that recognition of the sublime, we see for a moment the entire universe in the palm of our hand. And in that moment, we touch the face of God.







10 Books to Read This Fall

I can’t believe it’s already the last day of September. It’s been a glorious month here in Chicago, and I’m savoring every minute of the warmth and sunshine. For what it’s worth, the Farmers’ Almanac is predicting another frigid and snowy winter in the Midwest. All the more reason to have a pile of good books waiting to be read! Here are 10 books either just published or due to be published this fall to add to your list.

9780062306814The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton)
In 17th century Amsterdam, a young woman marries a wealthy businessman, who gives her a replica of their canal house — opening the door to many strange happenings. The book was inspired by an actual cabinet house owned by Petronella Oortman — which I was lucky enough to see recently in the Rijksmuseum.  The Guardian says it is “a fabulously gripping read” that will “appeal to fans of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch“, which think describes it perfectly. (Although I dislike the word “read” used as a noun . . .)9780062336019

Gutenberg’s Apprentice (Alix Christie)
Author Christie, a letterpress printer, contends that Gutenberg’s success was due to his gifted young apprentice, Peter Schoeffer. According to the New York Times, “Christie spotlights intriguing parallels between 15th-century Europe and the digital media of the 21st-century world.” As a lover of the printed page, I can’t wait to read this one.

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Jeff Hobbs)
Robert Peace escaped the slums of Newark, New Jersey to attend Yale University — where he was author Hobbs’s roommate. He died at age 30, the victim of a gang-related drug assassination. The book has been receiving a lot of acclaim; the Los Angeles Times says: “In the end, The Short Tragic Life of Robert Peace is a book that is as much about class as it is race. Peace traveled across America’s widening social divide, and Hobbs’s book is an honest, insightful and empathetic account of his sometimes painful, always strange journey.” (Two other excellent books on this topic are The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore and A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind.)

9780062284068A Deadly Wandering (Matt Richtel)
A groundbreaking legal case and the latest scientific research on the brain and attention combine in this compulsively readable page-turner about a devastating accident affecting several families and the perils of multitasking in today’s digital world. There are no villains in Pulitzer-Prize winning author Richtel’s moving story of heartbreak and healing. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

What the Lady Wants (Renee Rosen)
Rosen’s first historical novel, Dollface, is an entertaining and enlightening excursion back to Prohibition-era Chicago.  I’m anxious to read her next book, set in the Gilded Age, about department store tycoon Marshall Field and his love affair with Delia Canton. There will be opportunities in Chicago to meet Renee Rosen, hear her read from the book, and ask questions; details to come.  (Due November 4)

9780307700315Some Luck (Jane Smiley)
Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for A Thousand Acres, a modern-day retelling of King Lear.  She returns to Iowa farm country with her new novel about 33 years in the lives of Walter and Rosanna Langdon and their five very different children. Each chapter covers a single year, beginning in 1920 soon after Walter’s return from World War I. The book is the first installment in a trilogy about the Langdons, and about the transformation of American culture and society in the 20th and 21st centuries. According to Publishers Weekly, “Smiley conjures a world—time, place, people—and an engaging story that makes readers eager to know what happens next.”

A Sudden Light (Garth Stein)
The Art of Racing in the Rain is one of my favorite books, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting Stein’s new novel. This one is not narrated by a dog — instead, by a 14-year-old boy, Trevor Riddell. Trevor’s bankrupt, recently separated father brings him and his sister Serena to their grandfather’s mansion in order to move the old man to a nursing home and sell the property for much-needed cash. However, Trevor discovers that there may be a ghost in the house, and secrets in his family’s history, that will prevent his father from carrying out his plan. I’m in the middle of the book now, and loving it . . . and that is surprising, because I hate ghosts.

we-are-not-ourselves-9781476756660_lgWe Are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas)
I think this debut novel, the story of more than 50 years in the life of Eileen Tumulty Leary and her family, is a masterpiece. I read the book months ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. As I was reading it, I was reminded of Alice McDermott. The New York Times reviewer remarked on the connection between the two authors: “Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.)”

Five Days Left (Julie Lawson Timmer)
If you’re in the mood for a good cry, this is the book for you. Two people have five days left with the people they love most. I can’t really tell you more than that, except that if you read it on public transportation, make sure you have some Kleenex handy. It will definitely get your book club talking, although if you are the one who recommends it, you may be accused of suggesting “depressing” reading material.

Nora Webster (Colm Tóibín)9781439138335
I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Irish author Tóibín, especially Brooklyn and The Master, and have been hearing wonderful things about his new novel. Set in his hometown in Wexford County, Nora Webster is the story of a widow raising four children in Ireland during the 1960s and early 1970s.  The Chicago Tribune says: “There is no flash and dazzle in Tóibín’s writing, just unobtrusive control, profound intelligence and peerless empathy that is almost shocking in its penetration.” I’m looking forward to hearing Tóibín speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 9. (Due October 7)