Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Nobody really needs me to weigh in on this one--it was a Book Sense pick and then Starbucks picked it as a title for sale throughout their zillion stores and it's become a huge bestseller so you've probably heard of it or read it or thought about doing so. I say, hell yeah, do it. It's wonderful.

Often I'm too much of a snob to even read a blockbuster bestseller but don't let this conceit stop you
. It ain't Tolstoy but I didn't set out to read Tolstoy (actually, I've never read Tolstoy, though I've nothing against him. I just haven't gotten to him yet). Still need an endorsement from ol' Reed Next? I cried in the first eight pages and devoured the book from there. 'Nuff said.

I will say I was reluctant to read a book with a dog as a narrator. A few years back, there seemed to be a mess of 'em--King by John Berger and the efforts of the protagonist of Dogs of Babel to make his dog talk, etc. It just seemed so gimmicky and every publisher was publishing their "talking dog" books. Feh! Sure, sometimes I think it'd be great if my dog could talk but that's part of her appeal, too. She can't speak and yet we can communicate in other ways and that's one of the reasons we're friends. That's probably why
I absolutely loved Enzo and wish he were my friend.

There are times when the book gets a little melodramatic but these instances are forgivable. The relationship Enzo and Denny have is so honest and Enzo's own musings--his love of television, his desire for opposable thumbs, his belief in reincarnation--are just delightful. His perspective is so genuine and funny and though we'll never know what our dogs really think and feel, I want to believe Stein gets it right.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Film Club: A Memoir by David Gilmour

First off, no. It's not that David Gilmour.

This David Gilmour is a Canayjin (say it out loud) novelist who sees his teenage son, Jesse, start to flounder in school, despite being a bright kid. It gets so bad that Jesse begs to be allowed to drop out of grade 10. (Notice that? Grade 10 not tenth grade? I've been to Canada. Twice.) Gilmour, divorced from Jesse's mother but still on good terms, struggles with the decision. Throughout much of the book, he is an out of work film critic and at loose ends himself but finally allows Jesse to drop out with the requirement that they watch three films together per week of Gilmour's choosing. No prep, no previews, no quizzes. No excuses.

Now I'm a sucker for father and son stories. My own father was quite the movie lover and I have the fondest memories of watching movies with him, movies that were sometimes well above my head, but which he patiently, but never patronizingly, explained. Some of this book took me back to that so thank you, Gilmour Boys.

What really worked well was that watching the movies together gave them something to talk about; a shared experience, which led to more talking. Gilmour struggles with his decision to let Jesse drop out and often second guesses himself and Jesse, deep in the maelstrom of teenage existence and young love, is a little melodramatic at times but he pulls it together when he needs to. Still, it leads to trust and love and dialogue and growth for them both and that's where the short, sweet story succeeds.

BONK: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

I hadn't read Mary Roach before but had always heard good things. After reading BONK, I think I'll read both her backlist titles, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. Not only did I find her work wildly informative but she is funny as hell. Many nights, as I lie in bed reading the book (or did I lay in bed? I never remember), trying to hold back the laughs so as not to wake my wife, I'd finally bust out with a proper and satifying guffaw and rouse my wife from slumber. Sorry babe.(So you know, I'm among the last people on the planet who actually guffaw anymore. Guffawing was outlawed in the early days of the Bush administration so let's just keep this entre nous or Dick Cheney might send his flying monkeys to my house and send me to Gitmo)

I also found myself, involuntarily, squeezing my thighs together in revulsion at some of Roach's scientific descriptions, including certain devices like the penis cam, which, you guessed it, was inserted INSIDE someone's hoo-ha, voluntarily and in the name of science. This usually led to a bout of wincing and brow-knitting. As well, I learned entirely too much about the plumbing with which my wife is equipped. Still, Roach makes you want to keep reading despite the often uncomfortable knowledge you gain about the science behind the sex and she keeps you laughing throughout.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey

My eye was caught by what appeared to be African-inspired artwork on the front cover and by the back cover copy of this book, a debut novel from an author I'd never heard of and whose name I don't know how to pronounce. (Can anybody help me out here? It's a marvelous name.) Without looking for them, I then stumbled across a couple of favorable reviews of Blood Kin that convinced me to move it up the pile. Sadly, I was disappointed.

The book begins as the unnamed president of an unnamed country is overthrown in a violent coup d'etat. The beginnings of this new order is narrated, in alternating chapters, by the former presidents' barber, his portraitist and his chef. (Later chapters are narrated by the women in their lives.) Much of the story takes place at the presidential residence as the junta begins their hold as the new governing body, finding the men unsure if they are to be held responsible for the crimes of the old guard or if they will continue on in their same capacities under the new regime.

An intriguing premise, which I found tense but tenuous. In the situations these characters faced, I certainly didn't expect warmth or charm but I had hoped for grace or redemption. Instead, I found
the characters flat and unlikeable, especially the wife of the portraitist (don't get me started on that broad) and the story unlikely. Despite the solid reviews, it just didn't grab me the way I had hoped.

Leif Enger comes to town

I met Leif Enger in January in Louisville at Winter Institute but I was kind of loaded and feel as though I overwhelmed the poor man a bit with my "enthusiasm" for his first novel, Peace Like A River.

Last night, I had the opportunity to see him again at a signing during a multi-city book tour to support his latest novel,
So Brave, Young, and Handsome. (Go to February 2008 for my thoughts on this marvelous book.) Since I wasn't drinking with friends before the signing, I was likely to be less of an ass this time. (I was.) Plus I figured if he didn't run away when he saw me coming, he might have forgotten the whole ordeal. (He had.)

Before a crowd of only 20 or 25 people, Leif spoke a bit, read from the book and fielded questions.

The reading was magnificent. He was able to transport us all to 1915 Minnesota where we were lucky enough to have breakfast with Glendon Hale, Monte Becket, Monte's son, Redstart and his wife, Susannah. Later, we were treated to the spectacle that was Hood Roberts debut at the 101 Ranch in Ponca City, Oklahoma. I always tell my authors "no one knows your book better than you" and it was obvious Leif not only knew his book but assuredly loved his characters.

Several of his comments stayed with me:

On themes of both his novels, he said "Atonement is an important thing for me. Redemption is also an important thing for me."

When asked if he is teaching in between writing novels, he said that he isn't but is intrigued by the idea. However, he felt he might not be the best writing teacher. "I don't know much about what's under the hood of this thing. I just try to write clean sentences."

Someone remarked about how spirituality was a quality in his characters and he said he preferred to think of it as faith, which he then described. "Faith is like your name or the glasses you put on in the morning--it's how you look at things."

He came off as a very genuine fellow and it was a pleasure meeting him again and hearing him read. He said his next book is starting to come together but it'll be a departure for him. It will be set in the present day, written in third person and the main character is likely to be a 15 year old boy growing up on the shores of Lake Superior.

I can't wait.