Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Review - "The Art of Racing in the Rain"

I love dogs.  Dogs have character.  If you have never spent a significant amount of time around a consequential dog I feel sorry for you.  Seriously, I feel for you, since you have missed out on one of the great joys of life.

Ten years ago I started volunteering at an animal shelter in Southern California and then I moved and re-upped my commitment to the shelter world in my new hometown.  I enjoy being around dogs so much that I would rather clean out their stalls than lots of other stupid things most of us get caught up in. Again, I couldn't be more serious.

After I started volunteering at the shelter I started reading "dog books."  I love to read, hence the blog and I enjoy many genres.  In recent years, I became far more embedded in non-fiction books, specifically historical or biographical non-fiction. I still read an occasional fiction book, but usually it's a rereading of a classic, a classic I have never read or a spy thriller.  I have a particular fondness for the brilliant Frederick Forsyth collection.  Does pop fiction get better than "The Day of the Jackal?" 

Dogs books are by and large non-fiction tales, but when I wandered around waxing poetic on how I had found the best dog book ever and several of my friends/acquaintances joyously went out to get their copy of Steve Duno's "The Last Dog on the Hill" I started to hear from folks telling me I must read "The Art of Racing in the Rain."  I hadn't read it, but since I had heard of it I assumed my initial reaction of rejecting it as a read would still hold true. 
I went to the Border's close-out sale (I'm still trying to get over this chain's demise) and bought 22 books.  I read a great deal and I read fast, so that amount won't last that long.  One of those books was "The Art of Racing in the Rain."   The dog pictured on the cover I purchased is definitely not a terrier mix which is what Enzo is, but I didn't know that prior to my purchase, so the fact that they got that wrong is now only a criticism on the back end of the read.

"The Art of Racing in the Rain" features Enzo the dog as the narrator of the story.  He is a philosopher and an intensely good judge of character.  His master, if you will, is a sweet guy named Denny who happens to be a part-time race car driver.  Enzo develops a great love for racing and gives his opinions on some of the racing world's giants and even let's you know that "Le Mans" starring the late Steve McQueen is a superbly crafted film and entertaining too.  Denny gets married, has a child, loses his wife to cancer, works and races, struggles to save his daughter from two deplorable in-laws who want and do take pretty much everything away from Denny.  Denny is such a good guy that you can't help but love him, but it is Enzo that you end up falling in love with.  Have you ever fallen in love with a dog?

I don't want to give spoilers out, but this is a wonderful book.  Garth Stein has written a near classic.  It is quality literature with a superb take on things that matter in life.  I will be honest, there are some moments in the book I didn't agree with.  I certainly don't think Dr. Kevorkian is a hero (he was an angry and bitter man by all accounts) and I don't believe in reincarnation, but I don't agree with everything my mother says, so at times you have to see the greater values of a story rather than focus on every moment of the author's vision.

Stein crafts a beautiful interpretation of the dog as a compassionate and intelligent sage.  Enzo the dog can't speak and he doesn't have opposable thumbs, but he gets life.  He gets people and he understands the concepts of friendship, family, passion and love.  

This is a book that rises to the level of near perfect fiction.  Naipul, Coehlo, Steinbeck.  Dare I say? Well, I don't want to go too far, but this is a superb piece of fiction writing.  

The best dog book ever written is still "The Last Dog on the Hill," although "Rescuing Sprite" still resonates several years after I first read it. "The Art of Racing in the Rain" is a book you must read whether you like dogs or not.  I seriously predict a weeping session near the end of the book.  The last six pages had me wailing and I am not embellishing.  I wailed. 

One of several book covers

To Enzo.  You are indeed a race car driver at heart.   Delight in the endless fields.

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review - "Cycling Home From Siberia"

Needless to say, I love to read.  I've been reading since my early childhood years and ever since the Scholastic Book Club days in elementary school I have enjoyed adventure books.  In recent years, I've had the pleasure of being intensely entertained by "A Walk in the Woods," "The Perfect Storm," "The Cruelest Miles," "Isaac's Storm" and many other wonderful experiences being lived through the words of another human being. The finest adventure book of the last twenty years was the famed Jon Krakauer book about the tragic Everest climb, "Into The Air."  

Let's face it, most of us could never do most of the things being accomplished in these books.  I'm in pretty good shape, but I could never walk the entire Appalachian trail.  I certainly couldn't be the driver of a sled dog team in Alaska and there is absolutely no way I could ever climb Mount Everest. 

I do enjoy cycling and get out when I can to take spins through the various trails in and around the confines of the area I live in. Cycling along the lakefront is a perfect day in any month of any year. Well, not in winter.

Having said that, I couldn't cycle 35,000 miles from Siberia to London - via Japan, China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France.  Rob Lilwall is an adventurer and yes, he cycled over three years through freezing temperatures, steaming deserts, crime-infested cultures, third world countries and war zones.  He managed to get dysentery more than once, sore limbs, malaria and a whole host of other ailments.

The physical, psychological and spiritual traumas are deep and wide ranging.  Imagine the loneliness? Even in safe countries there are crazies. Shockingly, he was robbed only once along the way. God protected Lilwall on this once-in-a-lifetime journey.  

Some of the most interesting aspects of the book are the people Lilwall encounters on his journey.  When Lilwall discusses the Soviet Gulags with a priest named Father Mike there is a great line that concludes one of the the chapters while he's in Siberia. "When a government comes to hate the creator, it is not long before they also start to hate the creatures he created."  This book is more than an adventure.  It makes you think - all along the way. 

Lilwall is a Christian, although this is not a faith-based book. He just happens to be a Christian adventurer, but he shares many moments on the road swapping stories of faith. Lilwall spends time with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and other Christians. There are some profound moments spent in the midst of shared and differing opinions and ideologies.        

I enjoyed every second that it took to read this monumental cycle through life.  If you want to live vicariously through Lilwall's extraordinary cycling map then pick up this book. I couldn't do this journey, but I'm glad there are some strong willed people willing to do the seemingly impossible!

Copyright 2011 Read On Read Now