Monday, August 03, 2009

Libraries, The Art of Racing in the Rain and Runemarks

Louise Brown, a 91-year-old Scottish woman "is believed to be Britain's
most prolific library book reader," according to the Guardian
Brown is on the verge of borrowing her 25,000th book.

Hurrah for Ms. Brown, a woman after my own heart. I should mention that I am attempting to get a position at my local library, in hopes of combining my passion for books with my devotion to the one stable place in my life. Though we moved every couple of years when I was a child, my mother never failed to take me to the local library first, so that I could get my own library card and start digging into the stacks. Because she read to me from the moment she brought me home from Henry County Memorial Hospital, I learned to read by the time I was 4 and, as I was a child with severe asthma who couldn't play outside often, like other kids, I read books and traveled in my mind to exotic locales.

I didn't have to go far for the exotic in "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein, because his book takes place in Seattle and Mercer Island, WA.
Though I am not a fan of anthropomorphizing animals, as I've noted here before, I found Enzo to be a wonderful protagonist, full of simple wisdom and loving compassion. It stretched my credulity and suspension of disbelief to the max, however, considering the realistic setting and the plot and events laid out by Mr Stein. Enzo manages to see his owner, Denny Swift, through the death of his wife (from cancer), the custody battle for his daughter with his in-laws and a disastrous accusation of sexual misconduct with a teenage girl. Through it all, Enzo is the only member of the family who knows exactly what is going on, who to trust, who is evil and wrong (mainly by scent) and who needs him to intervene, as he does when Denny is about to sign away his right to parent his daughter.
Sadly, Enzo is old by the end of the book (the book actually begins with Enzo discussing how much of a relief it will be to die because he has hip displasia and is in pain as well as embarrassed at his inability to stand and go outside to void his bladder) and there are pages of tear-jerking reflection before Enzo actually dies on his own, his owner having been too much of a spineless wimp to have him euthenized, which would have been the merciful thing to do.
Yet despite all the death and sadness in the book, I enjoyed the dog's POV, the wise and insightful aspect he lent to human interactions in the book, and the gentle advice to live an authentic life that was apparent in all of Enzo's monologues. His joy in the simple act of being a passenger in a fast car was exhilarating, and his explanation of why he enjoyed it, wonderful. There were several funny moments, like when Enzo tears Zoeys toys to shreds because he is sure that the stuffed Zebra is "evil," or when he deficates on the in-laws carpet because they treat him like a dumb animal, not realizing that he is as intelligent as any human, and could prove it if he had those wonderful primate opposable thumbs!
Stein's prose was vital and almost poetic at times, reminding me of F Scott Fitzgerald in its rich emotional landscape. His plot, though methodical, would have moved faster had he not indulged in so much racing research that he felt it necessary to explain, in detail, the traditions, track conditions and other aspects of stock car and formula one racing. For those of us who are not into cars, those pages dragged the story down to a near-standstill. Fortunately, Stein doesn't do that often enough to spoil the entire novel, and the book moves briskly in its latter half to a splendid HEA.
I would recommend this novel to dog lovers and those who enjoy unusual philosophers.

"Runemarks" is Joanne Harris' only young adult novel that I know of, and I was fascinated by her Neil Gaimen-esque take on old Norse mythology.
The tale involves a teenager named Maddy who has a magical gift, but has learned to hide it lest she lose her life to the "Order" a group of religious fanatics and scholars who have cornered the market on magic and runes, forbidding its use to anyone but those indoctrinated into their circles.
Maddy is brought up by well-meaning, if somewhat dense and cruel people who allow her to learn from an old one-eyed traveling "outlander" who visits Maddy's hometown once a year and imparts magic lessons to her, as well as teaching her the Norse myths and rune lore. What she doesn't know is that one-eye is actually the all-father, Odin, and that she is his granddaughter by Thor, his son. Soon Loki, god of mischief, lies and trouble makes an appearance, and Maddy becomes embroiled in a war to save the old gods from destruction by the Order, and their leader, the Nameless, who seeks ultimate power over the world.
Having read, and adored all of Joanne Harris' novels (with one exception, I didn't like Gentlemen and Players) I was thrilled to read her foray into the YA world dominated by Tolkien, JK Rowling, Jane Yolen and Neil Gaiman. I was surprised that she chose Norse myths to update, as Harris has shown a predilection for all things French and European in her previous books. But we are treated to the same well-researched mileau and full-bodied characters here that Harris has drawn for us in her adult literature, so I find that I am happy to see her branching out into new territory. Loki gets more sympathy in Runemarks than he's ever gotten in the original myths and legends, and the female gods don't get any sympathy at all, coming off as cold and cruel or stupid and capricious for the most part. Yet I enjoyed this book and its saucy and bright young protagonist, who refuses to give up on Loki even after his death. I would recommend this book to anyone 13 and over who is fascinated by mythology and magic.

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