It may surprise some to learn that, as a general rule, I do not read animal books. I always worry they will make me cry. So when “The Art of Racing in the Rain” hit the bookshelves in 2008, I just said no. Then came the note last week from my friend Patti Littlehales, chairwoman for Newport Reads 2017, who wanted me to know that not only was “The Art of Racing in the Rain” the pick for this year’s read, but that author Garth Stein was coming to town to take part in the event. So of course I had to read it. I was reassured by the blurbs on the back cover with words like “uplifting,” “love” and “hope,” that it probably wouldn’t make me cry. But having unexpectedly lost my pup, Mugsy, aka Mugs, just five months ago, I also knew it wouldn’t take much.
A lifetime avid reader, I am a huge fan of the library and of Newport Reads. I was the chairwoman of the committee to select a book for the first event. I picked “The Kite Runner,” newly released at the time and recommended by my friend who was the book editor for the Rocky Mountain News. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for discovering this gem — well ahead of far bigger city reading events. Alas, it wasn’t too be. After I warned committee members of a graphic scene and a particularly offensive use of language (one word, mind you), the selection was voted down (twice), and we moved on to another book. Since then, Newport Reads has selected “Ender’s Game,” “Stubborn Twig,” “The Highest Tide,” “Mink River” and a number of other notable books. But this is the first time a New York Times bestselling author (of three and a half years by Stein’s count) is actually coming to town to take part in the community event.
“Newport Reads is one of the main pieces that the Foundation does as a gift to the community,” says Littlehales. “It promotes and enhances literacy through the library and its very supportive staff. I call the library the great equalizer. It’s open to everybody.”
In case that’s not clear, yes, the event is free. The Newport Public Library Foundation, the independent, non-profit tasked with promoting private donations to enrich the library’s resources and services, picks up the tab. And make no mistake, scoring a night with Stein is a major coup.
“The book has always resonated and been on our radar,” says Littlehales. “The problem with authors and bestsellers, the expense exceeded our budget. We were really fortunate this year that we were able to connect with Garth Stein at a library fee … the cost of getting Garth is reduced because he was in the area.”
So about “The Art of Racing in the Rain.” At its heart is Enzo, a sage, TV-watching dog in the final stages of his life who believes, having watched a documentary, that he is about to be reincarnated as a human. It is Enzo’s job to narrate the story of guardian Denny Swift, an up-and-coming race car driver who uses the techniques learned on the track to navigate his way through life. Here’s a blurb from Stein’s website.
“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, Zoë, 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 Zoë at his side.”
It’s a charming read, engaging, funny, wise, poignant. And yes, I did cry. Twice. First at the end, and then again, when I noticed it was dedicated to “Muggs.” I have to say that seeing that name in black and white, in a book I had previously avoided because I feared it would make me cry, felt both uncanny and fated. And so, I let the tears fall. Because really, what’s the point of a book about a much-loved dog, if it doesn’t break your heart just a little.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.
What: Garth Stein
When: 7 pm, Wednesday, April 19
Where: Newport Performing Arts Center, 777 W Olive Street