Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain vs To Kill A Mockingbird

SWT-Book-ClubsThere are so many things to love about The Art of Racing in the Rain.  This book is wildly popular for a reason – it’s expert at eliciting emotional response.  I love the racing stuff.  I love the philosophy, though I find it somewhat simplistic (which, since it’s being understood by a dog, actually makes sense).  I love the dog, because you’d have to be completely devoid of heart not to love the dog.  There’s just one thing that sends me into such a rage that I practically froth at the mouth and it’s this:

WTF is going on with the subplot about statutory rape?  Why am I the only person on the entire Internet who finds this entire subplot to be contrived, stereotypical in the worst way, offensive, and wildly improbable?  For the initiated, the subplot goes like this:

Denny, our hero, is falsely accused of statutory rape by his in-law’s teenage relative.  Enzo, the dog, is the only witness and Enzo knows that really that brazen hussy threw herself at Denny, who nobly turned her down and drove her home.  The in-laws want custody of Denny’s daughter and conveniently the teenager presses charges for statutory rape.  During the entire ensuing legal battle the in-laws have the kid.

There are all kinds of problems with this storyline, the biggest of which is that it takes a very real problem and makes it into the old “Teenage hussy” cliché.  That cliché was tired and ugly when it was used in To Kill a Mockingbird and it’s even older and uglier here.  Let’s compare how To Kill a Mockingbird made it work while Art of Racing does not.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Mayella, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of rape, is an ugly character, but she is at least a character.  She has some background and some personality and a motive.  Her accusation has consequences that affect her adversely – it’s understood that this is serious business, even if she didn’t understand what she was getting into at first.  It’s explained why, even though she knows these consequences will befall her (not to mention Tom, of course, the victim of her accusation), it’s still worth it to her to make the accusation.  She’s a horrible, horrible person – but she’s a person, one Atticus even has some sympathy for even as he utterly destroys her on the witness stand.

Everything in To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of the child named Scout, who has an advantage over Enzo in that she can get into the courtroom.  Still, most of what Scout knows about Mayella doesn’t come from the courtroom – it comes from adults explaining things to her or talking in her presence.  Enzo, the narrator of Art of Racing, can’t get into the courtroom, nor is he present when the in-laws talk to Annika.  But he is around the in-laws after the case begins, and of course he’s around Denny often.  So there’s no mechanistic reason why Enzo couldn’t know more about Annika – for instance, the in-laws could discuss how they made her testify, or Denny could speculate about her personality and motives.  Enzo is also around Annika quite a bit before the evening on which Annika attempts to seduce Denny occurs, so Annika could have talked to Enzo then and given the reader a better sense of who she is, even if the topic had nothing to do with Denny.

But alas, Annika has no personality at all except that of a completely one-dimensional seductress.  It’s implied that the in-laws somehow convince her into making the accusation, but we never see how.  And while I’m willing to believe that sometimes people make false accusations, the idea that this is an easy and painless thing to pull off is a lie.  Annike can look forward to being backed up by her family, because they are making her do this in the first place, but in real life often the victim’s family doesn’t believe them or blames them.  Some of Annika’s friends might support her, some might envy her, but many people at school will vilify her as a whore.  She can expect to have her life scrutinized in court right down to the exact length of her skirts and the number of buttons on her shirt.  She’s not in for an easy time.

The author, Garth Stein, has taken a real problem and treated it irresponsibly, and that has two consequences:

1.  It’s a harmful  thing to do to the hundreds of victims who struggle to be believed but are told they must have really wanted it, and probably deserved it, and are probably lying anyway.

2. It’s sloppy writing.  My personal gender politics aside, having a one-dimensional character in a book diminishes the book.  One reason that To Kill a Mockingbird is such a classic that it refuses to take that path.  Not all the characters are nice people, or even remotely decent people, but they are characters.  We might loathe Mayella with every fiber of our beings, but we have some sense of why she is who she is, and some sense of her as a human being.  Annika, in The Art of racing in the Rain, is a caricature.

If you are interested in some stories that deal more realistically with sexual assault, here’s a short list, feel free to add to it in the comments:

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

She’s Come Undone: by Thomas Lamb

Jailbait:  The Politics of of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States, by Carolyn E. Cocca

Yes Means Yes:  Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valent1

White Oleander, by Janet Fitch

 

 

Friday Book Club: “The Revenant”, by Billy Collins, and The Art of Racing

SWT-Book-ClubsGarth Stein credits several things for giving him the idea to write “The Art of Racing in the Rain”.  Here’s how he describes the process (from his website, garthstein.com):

Q: Where did the idea for the book come from?

The first seed for this book was planted in my mind about ten years ago. I was no longer working in documentary films, but a friend asked me to consult on the U.S. distribution of a film he knew about from Mongolia, called “State of Dogs.” I took a look at the film and the press material they had on it. I didn’t end up getting involved with the film, but the idea really stuck with me. In Mongolia, there is a belief that the next incarnation for a dog is as a man. I thought this was a cool concept and I tucked it away thinking I might some day do something with it.

Then, in 2004, I saw Billy Collins speak at Seattle Arts and Lectures. He’s a great poet and a terrific reader. He read a poem, The Revenant, which is told from the point of view of a recently euthanized dog as he addresses his former master from heaven. The poem begins, “I am the dog you put to sleep…come back to tell you one simple thing: I never liked you–not one bit.” I loved this poem. When Billy Collins finished reading, I knew I had to write a story from the point of view of a dog. And my dog would know the truth: that in his next incarnation, he would return to earth as a man.

So I had the character and the goal, but I still needed the framework of a story. A close friend of mine, who is a semi-professional race car driver but who supplements his racing by working behind the counter at an upscale automotive repair shop, was going through some personal difficulties. His plight wasn’t Denny’s, but it gave me some ideas about what happens to families when one member suddenly passes away. I developed a story that would really put my main character, Denny, through his paces, and then it was all there for me.

Q: What inspired you to tell the story from a dog’s point of view?

Using a dog as a narrator has limitations and it has advantages. The limitations are that a dog cannot speak. A dog has no thumbs. A dog can’t communicate his thoughts except with gestures. Dogs are not allowed certain places. The advantages are that a dog has special access: people will say things in front of dogs because it is assumed that a dog doesn’t understand. Dogs are allowed to witness certain things because they aren’t people and have no judgment.

I was able to work with this idea a lot in terms of giving the reader a unique viewpoint into the action of the book. Enzo goes off with Zoë, and while Denny, her father, doesn’t know what happens, we see through Enzo’s eyes and so we do know. In that sense, it was a lot of fun playing with this “fly on the wall” point of view. Especially since the “fly” in our case, is Enzo, who has very keen powers of observation.

This link takes you to a TED talk of poet Billy Collins reading two of his poems about dogs:  “The Dog on his Master” and “The Revenant”.  You can follow the link (who also leads to print versions of the poems) or watch the reading below.  Enjoy!

If you are in the Sacramento, California Area, don’t forget to visit our in-person book club on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 2PM at the Arden Dimick Library.  In the meantime, comments are welcome below!  What did you think of The Art of Racing in the Rain?

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain

SWT-Book-ClubsWelcome to June’s Book Club!  This club meets here every Friday and in person at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento, California on June 22, 2014.  We meet at 2PM in the Community Room and we welcome comments here as well as in person on June 22!

This month’s selection is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  The book is told from a dog’s point of view.  Enzo (the dog) is an old dog who looks forward to reincarnating as a man after his death.  Meanwhile Enzo supports his beloved owner, Denny, through a death in the family and a horrible custody battle for Denny’s daughter.  Denny is a race car driver, and Enzo formulates a philosophy of life from hearing Denny talk about the art of driving.

Garth Stein has an extensive website which include a bio, facts, and merchandise, among other things.  There’s even a music video of “Enzo’s Song”, by Martin Odstrcil:

This book has hit a nerve in audiences and it inspires passionate engagement.  A look at fan comments tells us that this book speaks to people in very personal ways.  I may be the only person on earth who didn’t like it – and even my reaction was one of raw emotional response instead of intellectual detachment, so clearly it did affect me powerfully (more on my problems with the book in later weeks).  If you’ve read it, did you like it?  Did you feel a sense of emotional connection to the story?  What does this book mean to you?

Friday Book Club: The Art of Racing in the Rain

the-art-of-racing-in-the-rainHi everyone!  It’s time to start reading the book club selection for June:  The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Grant Stein.

Several people recommended this book to me.  It was a big hit when it came out and was an Oprah’s Book Club selection.  So I was pretty excited to read this book.  I presented it as an option to the Arden Dimick Book Club, they picked it, I started reading it and…

I hated it.

But, that’s OK.  Because sometimes the most interesting books are those we dislike.  It took me a while to figure out why I disliked the book so much and that process helped me figure out some pretty intense things about how women are presented in male narratives.  It also made me hug my daughter and my dog, both of whom seemed confused but pleased, so that was good.  There were passages that I loved and whole subplots that made me furious.  So I am very much looking forward to discussing this book with you all over the next few weeks.

A bit of background:  Most of what I review on Geek Girl In Love is science fiction or fantasy, but I also read quite a bit of contemporary fiction and non-fiction.  As facilitator of the Arden Dimick Book Club, I get a chance to stretch my reading a bit and try different genres and styles.  We work with one theme for three months.  In May, June, and July our theme is “Animals Among Us”.  If you live in the Sacramento area, come join us on June 22, 2014 at 2PM  for our in-person book club at Arden Dimick Library in Sacramento!

Friday Book Club: Get Ready For Summer!

SWT-Book-ClubsWe’ve just concluded our series on humor, and we have a break in April.   But we’ll be back in May!  Here’s the summer schedule for Book Club.  You can follow Book Club online or join us in person at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA!

Our theme for summer is Animals Among Us.  We’ll be reading a classic, a contemporary work of fiction, and a nonfiction book.  If you are in the Sacramento area, you’ll notice that this ties into the Sacramento Public Library Summer Reading Program, whose theme this year is “Pets”!

May:  The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

The Call of the Wild, first published in 1903, tells the story of Buck, a St-Bernard-Scotch Collie, who is stolen from his home with a family in California and transported to the Alaskan Gold rush to work as a sled dog.  Buck works for several different owners before being taken in by John Thorton, with whom he shares a powerful bond.  But even as his attachment to Thorton grows, he feels connected to the wilderness that surrounds him and is torn between freedom and domesticity.

Original Cover

Original Cover

Meet us in person at Arden Dimick Library on May 18, at 2PM!

June:  The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

The Art of Racing in the Rain was published in 2008 and is told from the point of view of a dog named Enzo.  Enzo belongs to a race car driver (loosely based on the author and on one of the author’s friends).  Enzo hopes that if he lives his life properly, he will reincarnate as a human being, and he carefully studies the humans around him to prepare for what he hopes will be his future life.

the-art-of-racing-in-the-rain

Meet us in person at Arden Dimick Library on June 22, at 2PM!

July:  Animals Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior, by Temple Grandin

In this nonfiction book, published in 2005, author Temple Grandin talks about how her autism helps her see the world the way animals might see it.  Temple Grandin works with the beef and poultry industries to improve the lives and deaths of animals who are raised for human consumption.  She also works with zoos and other organizations to improve conditions for animals.  Additionally, she’s a world-renowned activist for people with autism.

Animals-in-Translation

Meet us in person at Arden Dimick Library on July 13, at 2PM!