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 Dog Books — That Won’t Make You Cry


Such short little lives our pets have to spend with us, and they spend most of it waiting for us to come home each day. It is amazing how much love and laughter they bring into our lives and even how much closer we become with each other because of them.
John Grogan, Marley and Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog

My daughter and son-in-law are the proud new “parents” of Stanley, the world’s most adorable yellow Labrador puppy. Stanley’s breeder has the following warning to prospective dog owners on her website:

If you have read the book (Marley and Me), you will know that although Marley was a sweet boy, he was NOT a good one . . . he was a NIGHTMARE! Although his owners loved him, they did not enjoy him to the fullest because he was so out-of-control . . . Many, many dogs with this type of personality (not just labs) end up in shelters.

Of course, she is right. I think the same phenomenon happened in the 1960s when the movie 101 Dalmatians (also based on a book) was released. People adopted Dalmatians because of their cute spotted coats, not realizing how much energy those dogs have.

Marley and Me, like so many dog books, ends with the dog’s death. Even children’s books about dogs — Where the Red Fern Grows,  Old Yeller,  Sounder — need to be read with a box of tissues nearby. And anyone who doesn’t get choked up at the end of The Art of Racing in the Rain must have a cold heart.

So here are some terrific books about dogs that probably won’t make you cry:

T9780061374234he Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
Wroblewski’s debut novel (and to date, only novel) is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Edgar Sawtelle, who is mute, helps his family raise and train a fictional breed of very intelligent and intuitive dogs on their farm on Wisconsin. When a family tragedy occurs, Edgar embarks on an odyssey with three loyal dogs. Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy the many parallels to Hamlet.

The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
I’ve never forgotten this quirky novel, which came out about 10 years ago. After his wife dies in a fall from a tree — witnessed only by the family dog, Lorelei — a linguistics professor attempts to teach his dog to talk so he can find out if her death was a suicide.

James Herriot’s Dog Stories: Warm and Wonderful Stories About the Animals Herriot Loves Best by James Herriot
There was no “YA” when I was a teenager. So I read all James Herriot’s books, starting with All Creatures Great and Small. (That’s when I wasn’t reading Flowers in the Attic , The Thorn Birds, or The Flame and the Flower — remember those?)  His very best dog stories are all now compiled in one book.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver9781594204784M
This lovely little book, according to the New York Times, “transcends its dogginess. It’s also about love, impermanence, and the tears in things . . . Her poems, with their charity and lyric clarity, can provide the kind of solace that dogs give”.

Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Caroline Knapp
Knapp’s memoir explores both her relationship with her own rescue dog, who helped her through grief and recovery from addiction, and animal-human relationships in general.

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas
One evening, Thomas’s husband, Richard, took their dog, Harry, out for a walk — and Harry returned alone. Richard had been hit by a car and was permanently brain-damaged. Thomas reinvents her life and her marriage — with the help of Harry and two more dogs.

9781250001795The Good Boy by Theresa Schwegel
The “good boy” of the title refers not only to 11-year-old Joel Murphy (son of Chicago K9 police officer Pete Murphy), but to Butchie, Pete’s police dog. The New York Times says, “For all the dog books currently in vogue, it’s hard to beat this one for canine verisimilitude or talent. Butchie is a fully credible character . . . The dog elevates a fairly conventional detective story into something much more lovable”.

Sweetwater Creek by Anne River Siddons
What a great combination — a “beach book” about dogs!  It’s the coming-of-age story about a young girl whose family breeds Boykin spaniels on their plantation in South Carolina. After reading this novel, I thought (briefly) about adopting a Boykin, the state dog of South Carolina. (Does Illinois have a state dog?)

Mountaintop-CoverThe Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney

Full disclosure: I don’t know if this book will make you cry because I haven’t read it yet. Just published this month, it’s about a young woman, fresh out of a rehab program, who rebuilds her life at a sanctuary for abused dogs. Publishers Weekly says, “Cooney has crafted a feel-good, canine-filled tale of cross-generational friendship, healing, and solidarity.

Good Dog: Stories of Man’s Best Friend and the Writers Who Love Them by David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun 

Before I read this book, I had never heard of Garden & Gun magazine — not surprising, since I’m not much of a gardener and I don’t own a gun. The magazine runs a monthly column called “Good Dog” — beautifully written essays by well-known authors about the kinship between humans and their canine companions. It’s coming out in November, and it’s a real treat — I started out planning to read a story or two, and ended up reading the whole book.


And finally, I don’t want to brag . . . but I can’t help mentioning that my sister’s Brittany Spaniel puppy, Daphne, was just chosen “dog of the week” at the Wellesley Booksmith (in suburban Boston) where she is a “frequent visitor”!STL300_border

Road Trip “Reading” — The Joys of Audiobooks

What we found at the end of our drive!
What we found at the end of our drive!

People are always worried about what’s happening next. They often find it difficult to stand still, to occupy the now without worrying about the future. People are generally not satisfied with what they have; they are very concerned with what they are going to have.
Enzo, the canine narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I’ve been doing a lot of driving this summer, much of it on my own, and I’ve rediscovered the joys of audiobooks. When I take my daily (well, almost daily) walks at home, I listen to music or podcasts. But this summer I drove from Chicago to New Hampshire, round trip, and I needed to alleviate the monotony with full-length books.

If you’ve ever listened to audiobooks, you know the narrator makes all the difference. Once, I was browsing through the bargain bin at a college bookstore and found The Portrait of a Lady on CD for only $2.99. I thought it would be fun to “reread” classic literature on my upcoming 18-hour drive. After an hour or so of the narrator’s sleep-inducing drone, I dropped The Portrait of a Lady in a trash can at an Indiana rest stop. Sorry, Henry James.

David Sedaris reads his own books (not possible for Henry James, I know), and they are absolutely delightful. Whenever I read something by Sedaris, I can hear his distinctive voice in my head. His books are collections of short comic pieces, best suited for short trips.  (I have the audio version of Me Talk Pretty One Day stashed in my glove compartment, along with NPR’s Driveway Moments, just in case I’m stuck in traffic and there’s nothing on the radio.)

I chose four audiobooks for my road trip earlier this month, and amazingly, they were all winners. I know that because I never once got drowsy while listening, and because I was tempted to buy the print versions.  (In the case of The Art of Racing in the Rain, I succumbed.) I didn’t throw any of them in a trash can, which is good because two of them came from the public library.

9780061950728Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline, is a book club favorite that’s been on the bestseller list for months. So of course I didn’t want to read it. I read a nonfiction book, Orphan Trains: Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed, by Stephen O’Connor, so I thought I’d read enough on that topic. I was wrong, of course.  Orphan Train is a dual narrative, with one story taking place in the Midwest during the Depression and the other taking place in present-day Maine. Niamh is an Irish immigrant who was orphaned and sent west on a train to be “adopted”; Molly is a Penobscot Indian who has spent her childhood in foster care. Eventually, their lives intersect.

My 10-year-old niece, Lily, was with me for the drive to New Hampshire, and she listened to part of Orphan Train, with great interest. I had to fill her in on some background because she was busy reading her own book in the back seat when I started listening. (Lily is a child after my own heart; she can read in the car without getting sick!) Orphan Train, with its focus on young girls coming of age in difficult circumstances, is a terrific book to share with younger readers. The audiobook reader was wonderful, especially with Niamh’s Irish brogue.

9780061537967The Art of Racing in the Rain is narrated by a dog, whose owner is a racecar driver. I was very dubious about the idea of a dog as storyteller, and I’ve never had the slightest interest in auto racing. I will try never to be so narrow-minded again, because I loved this book — so much that I raced out and bought a copy. The Art of Racing in the Rain is a truly lovely book about the love between friends, parents and children, husbands and wives — and dogs and their owners. It’s a meditation on how to live an honorable and courageous life. I do have to warn you that it’s a little dangerous to listen to while driving, because you will undoubtedly cry. Garth Stein has a new book coming out in September, A Sudden Light, and I can’t wait to read it. It’s about a 14-year-old boy who discovers family secrets while trying to save his parents’ marriage.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen, has been on my to-read list for months. I loved Quindlen’s most recent essay collection, Lots of Candles, www.randomhousePlenty of Cake, but wasn’t crazy about her last couple of novels. So I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed Still Life with Bread Crumbs as much as I did. It’s about Anna Winter, a 60-year-old photographer whose career is in decline. To save money and revitalize herself, she decides to rent out her beloved New York apartment and move to the country for the year. I wasn’t sure if there would be enough narrative force in this novel to make it a good audiobook, but Quindlen is so skilled at portraying characters that I was completely absorbed. I feel almost as if I’d recognize Anna if I bumped into her on the street. I knew from the beginning, when she and a local roofer (who becomes a key character in the book) discuss possible strategies for removing the raccoon that’s trapped in her attic, that I would be “reading” about interesting, tangible characters.

41EnRJM+hjLCode Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is a YA novel, and I’m not sure why. Queenie, or “Verity,” is a young, female British intelligence officer who’s been captured by the Gestapo when her plane crashed in occupied France. Her best friend, Maddie, is the pilot who flew the plane. The first section of the book is a confession that Verity has written to her captors, followed by Maddie’s version of the story. It’s important to keep in mind that Verity is a spy, so she’s by definition an unreliable narrator. It’s a difficult book to describe without giving away key plot points. What I enjoyed most were the voices of the two narrators. Of all the audiobooks I listened to on my trip, this stood out for the high-quality narration. Here’s a review from Audiofile magazine:

To reveal almost anything about the way events in Code Name Verity unfold would spoil the book’s many twists and turns and revelations . . . The audiobook is its own revelation—narrators Morven Christie and Lucy Gaskell bring Queenie and Maddie to vibrant life, and listeners will fall in love with them from the start. Gaskell and especially Christie perform (and even sing in) a variety of English and Scottish accents as well as flawless French and German. More than that, they so fully inhabit the characters that the most harrowing moments, so intimate and immediate on audio, are nearly unbearable. It’s an extraordinary book, made even more extraordinary by their truly spellbinding narration.

I’m trying to decide what my next audiobook will be. Even though I don’t have any more road trips planned, I have plenty of 45-90 minute drives on the horizon. Suggestions are welcome!