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Friday, September 20, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: The Art of Racing in the Rain

On Monday, the BPL Book Club met to discuss what has become a huge book club favorite, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.  From the publisher:
Enzo knows he is different from other dogs: a philosopher with a nearly human soul (and an obsession with opposable thumbs), he has educated himself by watching television extensively, and by listening very closely to the words of his master, Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver.
Through Denny, Enzo has gained tremendous insight into the human condition, and he sees that life, like racing, isn't simply about going fast. Using the techniques needed on the race track, one can successfully navigate all of life's ordeals.
On the eve of his death, Enzo takes stock of his life, recalling all that he and his family have been through: the sacrifices Denny has made to succeed professionally; the unexpected loss of Eve, Denny's wife; the three-year battle over their daughter, Zoe, whose maternal grandparents pulled every string to gain custody. In the end, despite what he sees as his own limitations, Enzo comes through heroically to preserve the Swift family, holding in his heart the dream that Denny will become a racing champion with Zoe at his side. Having learned what it takes to be a compassionate and successful person, the wise canine can barely wait until his next lifetime, when he is sure he will return as a man.
A heart-wrenching but deeply funny and ultimately uplifting story of family, love, loyalty, and hope, The Art of Racing in the Rain is a beautifully crafted and captivating look at the wonders and absurdities of human life...as only a dog could tell it.
Discussion: Please note that all comments are from multiple people in the group. "I" refers to the anonymous speaker, not me, Becky.  I do note where I means Becky though. 
  • Liked: 13, Disliked: 0, So-So: 1-- The So-So person just couldn't get past the whole dog as narrator thing. Someone else said, I had to force myself to suspend disbelief, which is hard for me, but once I did, I loved it.
  • The "Like" voters all wanted to change their vote to "Love." I encouraged them to share some initial "Love" comments:
    • I love dogs.  But more than dogs, this book had everything: joy, sadness, humor, all aspects of life
    • Denny did not always make the best choices, but he was a very realistic character in that way.
    • This was a very spiritual book. I saw Denny as a modern day version of Job, but since dogs don't follow human religion, Enzo did not refer to religion directly.  I liked that spiritual quality of the book.
    • I read this book for the first time when my dog was dying and I still loved it then,
    • I loved the scenes where Enzo is watching TV. It was very revealing too see what a non-human could put together of human behavior and culture from such a small snapshot of what was seen on TV.  Very thought provoking and enlightening.
  • Question-- How did you feel about the entire book being from the POV of a dog?
    • I enjoyed it.
    • He was so on point with the in-laws.  Calling them the evil twins was great.  To Enzo they were so similar in their hate and ugly actions that he could not tell them apart.
    • It was interesting and at times frustrating to only see Denny's decisions and actions through Enzo's eyes. It was obvious that he cared so much for his daughter, but we were not privy to everything.
    • The POV gave me a greater appreciation of being human.  For example, I don't think about my thumbs hardly ever, but Enzo is obsessed with not having them.
    • Although Enzo wished he could talk, I appreciated what a great listener he was. I wish I could be that good a listener.
    • I loved observing humanity from a removed perspective.
    • It added complexity to the situation where Eve wanted to die at her parents' house with Zoe there but not Denny. It leaves so many questions about Eve's true wishes for Zoe. Since Enzo is not there we can't know what Eve was really thinking.  It was a great example of the author's restraint. He never switches the POV to make telling the story easier. We still have questions, but appreciate how he worked it through to the end.
  • This line of discussion led quickly into a longer one about the "evil twins" and their custody battle for Zoe after Eve dies.
    • They were not very loving
    • But, from a literary standpoint, their inclusion is brilliant. They bring up things about Denny that are valid (if exaggerated). It puts a small doubt about Denny in the story, doubt his loyal dog alone could not muster.
    • We were all impressed with the funeral scenes. The evil twins kicking Denny out, Denny going up the hill with Enzo to watch the funeral from above, with dignity. Going back down after everyone leaves.
    • The in-laws had a lot of anger at Denny. They blamed him for Eve's illness. As a mom, said one person, I know you only want the best for your children.
  • Question-- What about Enzo's world view of racing as a metaphor for life?
    • I liked the idea of the experience of totality he feels with the union of you, the vehicle, and the track.
    • The idea of not wining on the first curve, but making it possible to lose the race there was thought provoking.  It makes sense in the story, explaining how Denny handles his personal fight for his daughter, and in life in general.
    • "That which you manifest is before you." This one confused me
      • another chimed in, I think it means that if we want something, we have to go out and get it.
      • It's interesting that Enzo believes this because Eve does not.  This causes tension between the two of them. Also, they are both loved by Denny, yet are so different.
  • Question-- How is Denny like a traditional flawed hero?
    • Denny is so good hearted that he is not always critical enough of others.
    • He was more naive and guileless than flawed.
    • He was almost too good to believe, said someone. But as the leader, I countered, that we have to remember that we are seeing Denny through the eyes of his dog, who is probably seeing him as better than he is too.
    • We liked the way Enzo described the entire episode with Annika that almost led to Denny's downfall.  Very well done.
    • Racing is the all consuming thing in Denny's life.  He missed the birth of his daughter because of it. That is a flaw too.
    • But, Enzo is also showing us that when you have a passion for something that can make you a better person.
    • Denny did have a deep goodness and an intense love for his family.
    • The way he solved the Annika problem was brilliant. He did it without anger or violence. He appealed to her sense of justice.
    • Throughout the custody and criminal proceedings, we see Denny's transformation in how he deals with people.
  • Question-- What's with the zebra?
    • Someone jumped right in and said-- it symbolizes jail! The stripes are the bars. More specifically imprisonment, something menacing.
    • Dogs are color blind, so can only see things in black and white-- literally and figuratively.
    • Each time Enzo sees the zebra, something bad is going to happen.
    • The zebra is a symbol of evil.
    • It is our fears, our destructive nature, the worst part of us.
    • But each time Enzo sees the zebra he grows and changes:
      • First time, when Eve leaves Enzo alone for 3 days when she is first so sick and Denny is away. Enzo destroys all of Zoe's stuffed animals
      • Second time, when Enzo is allowed to visit Zoe without Denny. Enzo barely contains himself from attacking the zebra.
      • Third time, when Denny is about to sign papers giving up custody of Zoe.  Enzo sees a zebra on the pen.  This time, he knows it is evil. Whatever Denny is doing must be wrong because the zebra is there.  He grabs the papers and pees on them!
    • With each zebra sighting, Enzo changes and matures. He also comes closer to be human with each time. 
  • Question-- Do you look at your dog differently after the book?
    • surprisingly there was not much conversation here.  Just a lot of yeses, and a few stories about specific dogs.
  • Ending-- Part 1: The Death of Enzo
    • Since the entire book is Enzo's death bed confession of sorts, it is nice closure to the book that he dies peacefully knowing that Denny and Zoe will be together.
    • I really liked Denny giving Enzo permission to die.
    • We talked a little about prolonging life unnecessarily and who it is for. One lady shared a story about a family who prolonged the life of a dog and it prompted the mother to talk to her daughter about not doing that to her when the mother's time came.
    • We liked that he died at home.  It was appropriate to the theme and philosophy of the book. He died on his own terms.
  • Ending--Part 2: Flash forward 8-10 years
    • Denny lives in Italy with Zoe (now a young woman) and is a successful race car driver. Is the young boy (his biggest fan) really Enzo reincarnated as a human (as he always thought he would be)?
      • 13 yes it is Enzo
      • 1 no it is not [Interestingly it is not the 1 who voted so-so above]
      • As the leader, I reminded them, we are not voting if the boy is REALLY Enzo because none of the books is REAL.  I love discussions where I have to remind the group that it is all fiction. When we get wrapped up in the characters and think of them as real, you know the book is written well.
    • Other things people said about the ending overall:
      • spiritual
      • perfect ending
      • the problems between Denny and Enzo the boy communicating in Italian and English mirrored their dog-human communication problems.
      • It was happy
      • I felt a connection
    • Words or phrases to describe the book
      • "Art"- that word was great in the title. It denotes the complexity here. I also felt like I experienced a work of art.
      • spiritual
      • hopeful
      • perfect
      • eyes and sight
      • to be able to truly see
      • love
      • humane
      • control
      • sentimental
      • poignant
      • extraordinary
      • listening
Readalikes: I want to start by making a personal statement. Although most people who like this book are huge dog people (see this list of similar reads from fans), I am not, but I still enjoyed this book.  What I liked about it was watching the family drama as it unfolded from a unique perspective.  In many ways it reminded me more of a book like The Language of Flowers or Silver Sparrow [two other recent book club reads] than it did a book like Marley and Me. But that being said, I will not forget about the dog people. [Those people should click here.]

Click here for a reading map which contains a wide range of read alike options from novels, books for dog lovers, to racing titles.

We also talked about how this novel is an intense family drama like one would expect from Jodi Picoult, but since we get everything from the dog's point of view, the melodrama is more in check.

The Art of Racing in the Rain does have bit of a bittersweet, sappy edge to it, but in a good way.  It's is kind of like the crowd pleasers of Nicholas Sparks in that way. 

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski and the Spencer Quinn Chet and Bernie mysteries are both examples of great stories narrated by dogs.

The Alex Barnaby romances by Janet Evanovich feature race car drivers.

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