Tag Archives: Everything Matters!

Baby Driver

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

The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel by Garth Stein (Harper Perennial, $14.99, 321 pages)

There are certain books you look back on, years later, and think, "That was some story!" This is one of those books. It is a touching, emotional story made all the more so because its narrator is a dog facing his approaching death. As the story begins, Enzo the dog is ready to accept his fate; in fact, in a way he welcomes it because he believes – based on what he observed on a public television documentary, that his soul will then be freed to return to life as a human being. Enzo's lifelong study of these creatures with opposable thumbs and the ability to speak clearly has convinced him that he'll do quite well in his next life.

While this story will leave you with a warm and fuzzy heart (and moist eyes) at the conclusion, it is filled with a lot of the negative things that can happen to people in this life… Which is why the tale includes stops at a jail, a criminal courtroom, a hospital, and a cemetery. Even two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through you'll begin to doubt that there can be such a thing as a happy conclusion to this dog-gone tale. But hang in there, reader, because author Garth Stein begins pulling the rabbits out of his writing hat in the very last pages; with this, his writing takes on a certain special quality. Let's call it the ability to fashion a sparkling magical mystery trip.

As with Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., you won’t see the ending coming until it’s upon you. And as with Everything…, there’s a fake ending followed by a reprise (or slight return as per Jimi Hendrix) that ties everything together. Maybe. Or maybe the final ending isn’t what it seems to be. This is something that will keep you thinking for a few days after finishing this novel.

I hope and pray that if this fictional tale is made into a movie they don’t change a thing – The Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone? – including maintaining Enzo as the story’s narrator. Now, let’s see, who would be the ideal voice of Enzo? Me, I hear Nicolas Cage when I think of Enzo, but that’s just me. As Enzo would say (or bark out), “I know a lot about a lot of things, but I don’t know everything about everything.”

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

If you read and enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, you will likely also enjoy reading the fun and marvelous Walking in Circles Before Lying Down: A Novel by Merrill Markoe. It’s another fine feast for dog lovers, available as a trade paperback book (Villard, $13.95, 288 pages).

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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The Best Book of 2009

It really was not close, although Everything Matters!: A Novel by Ron Currie, Jr. is a very, very good runner-up.   Instead we have no choice but to choose Audrey Niffenegger’s follow-up to The Time Traveler’s Wife.   Yes, Her Fearful Symmetry is this site’s choice as the very best book published in 2009.

How good was it?   Well, we felt we needed to post three separate reviews to do the book justice.   Even then we likely fell short.   Our reviews were posted here on September 23, 2009 (6 days before the book’s release); September 28, 2009; and on November 7, 2009.   To revisit these reviews type the following search terms into the Search It! box on the right:  her fearful symmetry; take two…; what comes after.  

We can only hope that Ms. Niffenegger is now working on a third novel for release in 2011.   We will wait, anxiously – helplessly hoping.

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The Twelve

While The Twelve by William Gladstone seemed slightly reminiscent of Ron Currie, Jr’s excellent Everything Matters!, this is not that book.   As with Everything Matters!, this book deals with a man who knows when “the end of time” will arrive.   Max acquires his knowledge at the age of fifteen when he also sees the names of twelve individuals.   Are these persons, all unknown to him, future apostles?

An interesting setup, but the writing from first-time author William Gladstone leaves much to be desired.   At times, it feels like a children’s book with somewhat squirrely language that explains too much of the obvious:  “Max accepted that wherever he was, he was exactly where he was supposed to be…  he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time…  the idea of making an error never occurred to him.   He expected himself to be perfect in everything he did…  and so he was.”  

Enjoying The Twelve will also require acceptance of many implausible events and the over-use of certain words such as “vivacious.”   Maybe there’s a fine tale buried here, something that a quite talented editor might unearth, but it was simply not for this reader.

Vanguard Press, $19.95, 266 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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Baby Driver: The Art of Racing in the Rain

Art of racing 6There are certain books you look back on, years later, and think, “That was some story!”   This is one of those books.   It is a touching, emotional story made all the more so because its narrator is a dog facing his approaching death.   As the story begins, Enzo the dog is ready to accept his fate; in fact, in a way he welcomes it as he believes – based on what he observed on a public television documentary – that his soul will then be freed to return to life as a human being.   Enzo’s  life-long study of these creatures with opposable thumbs and the ability to speak clearly has convinced him that he’ll do quite well in his next life.

While this story will leave you with a warm and fuzzy heart (and moist eyes) at the conclusion, it is filled with a lot of the negative things that can happen to people in this life…  which is why the tale includes stops at a jail, a criminal courtroom, a hospital, and a cemetery.   Even two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through you’ll begin to doubt that there can be such a thing as a happy conclusion.   But hang in there, reader, because author Garth Stein begins pulling the rabbits out of his writing hat in the very last pages; with this, his writing takes on a magical mystery.

As with Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr., you won’t see the ending coming until it’s upon you.   And as with Everything… there’s a fake ending followed by a reprise (or slight return as per Jimi Hendrix) that ties everything together.   Maybe…   Or maybe the final ending isn’t what it seems to be.   This is something that will keep you thinking for a few days after finishing this novel.

I just hope and pray that if this fictional tale is made into a movie they don’t change a single thing – The Time Traveler’s Wife, anyone? – including maintaining Enzo as the narrator.   Now, let’s see, who would be the voice of Enzo?   Me, I hear Nicholas Cage when I think of Enzo, but that’s just me.   As Enzo would say (or bark out), I know a lot about a lot of things, but not everything about everything.

Joseph Arellano

Notes: This book was purchased by the reviewer.   Also, if you read and enjoy The Art of Racing in the Rain, you will also likely enjoy reading the fun and marvelous Walking in Circles Before Lying Down: A Novel by Merrill Markoe.   It’s another fine feast for dog-lovers, now available as a trade paperback (Villard, $13.95).

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The Weight: The Story of Forgetting

We slouch under the weight of our memories…   This is just one of the brilliant notions revealed by first-time author Stefan Merrill Block in his unique and monumental novel, The Story of Forgetting.   I’m not going to play hide-the-ball, I’ll come right out and say that this novel (originally released in 2008) is one of the two best – along with Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. – that I’ve read this year.

Forgetting offers two stories melded together…   The basic story concerns the impact on a family of a parent’s early-onset Alzheimer’s; a family which is, shall we say, a bit odd.   “Abel…  is an elderly hunchback who haunts the remnants of his family farm in the encroaching shadow of the Dallas suburbs.”   And Seth may be a teenage near-genius who seeks to rapidly develop a cure for the dreaded disease that leads to forgetting – both mentally and physically – and death.

The other, imbedded, story is of a fantasy land named Isidora where people live near perfect lives in cities of gold.   Amnesia Clubs are formed “to discover a way to forget.”   In this imaginary and parallel universe memories are prison bars and forgetfullness is freedom.Forgetting large As with Everything Matters! it is virtually impossible to say anything more about the storyline without giving too much away…   What is clear is that Block writes laser-focus fiction in the manner one of our very best writers, Joan Didion, writes of real things and real life.   (What a gift.)   

This book may shake-up your way of looking at the past and present in your own life.   It is very much about the power of now:   “To remember nothing.   What more could one possibly ask of eternity?”

Recommended, recommended, recommended.

Review by Joseph Arellano.   Note:  This book was released in trade paperback form on April of 2009 (Random House).

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Everything Matters!

everything matters

Everything Matters!: A Novel by Ron Currie (Penguin Books, $16.00, 320 pages)

Years ago I read a now out-of-print novel about a man who dies but is then given a second chance at life.   I thought of that book while reading this unique and inspirational story from author Ron Currie, Jr.   Everything Matters! begins with an amazing premise:  when John Thibodeau, Jr., known as “Junior,” is born he is informed there is “one thing for certain,” which is that the world will come to an end in 36 years, 186 days, 14 hours and 23 seconds from the time of his birth.

The question is, of course, what will Junior do with this knowledge?   Will he inform others – even if he is thought to be insane – or use his great intellectual skills (he is the fourth most intelligent person on the face of the earth) to fashion a science-based escape for mankind?

Junior must ask himself the key question:  Will anything I do matter?   In the end, he finds his answer:  that in the here and now of life, anything is possible.

This is a work of faith, just not in the usual sense.   It is a tale that validates the saying that even when there is no plan, everything works out according to plan.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

 

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