Review: Garth Stein
Garth Stein is one of my heroes. I can say this without having ever met the man and feel quite confident that my worship is justified, because a bad person could never write about love, family and dogs the way he does. Pretty naive, you might say, but I'm going with it. I never met Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, Carl Sagan or Shakespeare either, but I'm pretty sure I've got their personality attributes correct too. Garth's written more than a few things, but the two I am most attached to are The Art of Racing in the Rain and Raven Stole the Moon, both of which I want to heartily recommend to you, gentle readers.
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"That which you manifest is before you"
The Art of Racing in the Rain is a story told to us by Enzo, a dog who lives with the Swift family - Denny and his daughter Zoe, all of them devastated by the death of Eve, Denny's young wife. On top of this tragedy, Denny has invested nearly everything he has in his dream of becoming a professional race car driver. Enzo, who has learned much about the world from watching TV, supports this dream and Denny, watching his beloved owner's racing videos and becoming quite an expert on racing himself, and a very Zen-like philosopher as well. Enzo is quite convinced he will be reincarnated as a human in his next life, as he ruminates at the beginning of the book:
"I'm old. And while I'm very capable of getting older, that's not the way I want to go out. Shot full of pain medication and steroids to reduce the swelling of my joints. Vision fogged with cataracts. Puffy, plasticky packages of Doggie Depends stocked in the pantry. I'm sure Denny would get me one of those little wagons I've seen on the streets, the ones that cradle the hindquarters so a dog can drag his ass behind him when things start to fail. That's humiliating and degrading. I'm not sure if it's worse than dressing up a dog for Halloween, but it's close. He would do it out of love, of course. I'm sure he would keep me alive as long as he possibly could, my body deteriorating, disintegrating around me, dissolving until there's nothing left but my brain floating in a glass jar filled with clear liquid, my eyeballs drifting at the surface and all sorts of cables and tubes feeding what remains. But I don't want to be kept alive. Because I know what's next. I've seen it on TV."
While so far this sounds fairly depressing, trust me when I say this story is not that at all, mostly because of Stein's brilliant writing and Enzo's commentary on not just his life but everyone he sees. It's funny, whimsical and will make you laugh out loud, many more times than it will make you tear up, but yes, it will make you tear up...and hide your car keys to stop yourself from going out to buy a dog as close to Enzo as you can find.
You won't be alone. There's quite an Enzo cult out there, and you can buy anything from hats to T-shirts to umbrellas to join in. Or not. But reading the book will bring you joy without having to do that, so please do.
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Raven Stole the Moon is Stein's first book, and very different from the saga of Enzo. He first published it in 1998, but it's back in print now, slightly revised. It's an emotional tale of Jenna Rosen and her husband Robert, an upscale Seattle couple whose five-year-old son drowned when they were on vacation in Alaska two years before. As with most couples who lose a child, all is not well with the relationship, and on the anniversary of his death, Jenna simply leaves a cocktail party and Robert, driving away and ending up in Bellingham at dawn. She feels compelled to return to Wrangell, Alaska, where Bobby died, and where her grandmother lived all her life, and boards the Skagway ferry.
Compulsively readable, the story careens into Alaskan Tlingit tradition with the legend of the kushtaka, a spirit of the land otters who rescue anyone who drowns and steal their souls. After her first day in Wrangell, Jenna has experiences that lead her to believe this is what happened to her son and as the book progresses, it seems she may be right.
A story of love, redemption and loss more than tinged with the supernatural, Raven Stole the Moon stole me away for two days and I couldn't put it down. Stein knows his traditions and Alaskan history. His mother was born in Wrangell and his great-grandmother was a full-blood Tlingit, and he himself is registered with the Tlingit and Haida tribes. Stein says, "My objective...was to tell a compelling story, like those I heard when I was a kid at the campfire with my family. Those stories sent chills down my spine, raised the hair on my neck and yet made me crave the next camping trip...". Well, Mr. Stein, with Raven Stole the Moon, you met your objective and then some.