Book Review: History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

History of the RainHistory of the Rain
by Niall Williams
Bloomsbury
2014
355 pages

One of Paul McCartney’s most poignant songs, in my view, is the heartrending “Too Much Rain.” In it, he sings about the difficulties of smiling “when your heart is full of pain.” Sometimes, the unfairness of life’s difficulties is just “too much for anyone.” It’s not right, in one life, too much rain,” McCartney sings.  

The abundance of rain in this small Irish fishing village is both literal and figurative in History of the Rain, Niall Williams’ newest novel, which has been named as a nominee for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

Let me say this: I haven’t read any of the other nominees, but this one gets 5 stars out of 5 in my book. It will be on my Best Books I’ve Read in 2014 list as well as on my list of All Time Favorite books.

I was intrigued from the second paragraph.

“We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.”(pg. 1) 

A few pages further, I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel about the Swains, a poor fishing family living in Ireland. It’s narrated by a bedridden Ruth Swain (she refers to herself as “Plain Ruth Swain”) who is mourning her twin brother Aeney, who, clearly, Something Sad happened to and who is very much beloved.

“Aeney was a magical boy. I knew. We all knew. Some people make you feel better about living. Some people you meet and you feel this little lift in your heart, this Ah, because there’s something in them that’s brighter or lighter, something beautiful or better than you, and here’s the magic: instead of feeling worse, instead of feeling why am I so ordinary? you feel just the opposite, you feel glad. In a weird way you feel better, because before this you hadn’t realised or you’d forgotten human beings could shine so.” (pg. 128)

We’re not sure why Ruth is bedridden, nor what happened to Aeney, or if that’s the reason Ruth is bedridden or what.  What we do know is that it rains constantly in Faha, that there was a grandfather who was a pole-vaulter and a salmon-catcher, and that there was an Impossible Standard that the Swains felt compelled to live up to. We know that Ruth is trying to better understand her father Virgil (yes, Virgil) by reading the 3,958 books – mostly classics – that he owned and that are stacked throughout her attic room. She references these books often in her direct narration to the reader. They’re catalogued, dropped like acorns throughout the narrative. (Someone needs to start a book club of all 3,958 of these books.)

“I love the feel of a book. I love the touch and smell and sound of the pages. I love the handling. A book is a sensual thing. You sit curled in a chair with it or like me you take it to bed and it’s, well, enveloping. Weird I am. I know. What the Hell? as Bobby Bowe says to everything. You either get it or you don’t. When my father first took me to Ennis Library I went down among the shelves and felt company, not only the company of the writers, but the readers too, because they had lifted and opened and read these books. The books were worn in a way they can only get worn by hands and eyes and minds; these were the literal original Facebooks, the books where faces had been, and I just loved it, the whole strange sense of being aboard a readership.” (pg. 62)

I seriously underestimated this book at first because I didn’t quite know where Niall Williams was taking us with this one. (It all comes together at the end.)  In the meantime, here’s what makes Niall Williams so immensely talented as a writer: somehow, you trust him as an author and he makes you, the reader, trust him because the writing in this one is fantastic. Truly, it is some of the best writing I’ve ever read.  The metaphors (“sash windows rattling like denture laughter”) are gems.

Along with the writing, Williams draws you in with unforgettable characters. Ruthie is so smart, so sensitive and insightful  (“Hope, you see, takes a long time to die,”) yet so sad without the ones she loves.

“When I call my father Virgil Swain I think he’s a story. I think I invented him. I think maybe I never had a father and in the gap where he should be I have put a story. I see this figure on the riverbank and I try to match him to the boy I have imagined, but find instead a gristle of truth, that human beings are not seamless smooth creations, they have insoluble parts, and the closer you look the more mysterious they become.” (pg. 169)

“Because, just like his father, our father was not young when we were born, there was an extra-ness to the joy. It’s not that we were unexpected, it’s that until his children were in his arms he hadn’t actually gotten further than the imagining of us. He was a poet, and the least practical man in the world. And a baby is a practical thing.

Two babies, well.”  (pg. 129)

This is probably going to be among my favorite books of 2014. I’d love to see this win The Man Booker Prize so it gets more attention. (‘Course, I haven’t read any of the others, but whatever.)

“We tell stories. We tell stories to pass the time, to leave the world for a while, or go more deeply into it. We tell stories to heal the pain of living.” (pg. 176)

With History of the Rain, Niall Williams has written exactly that kind of story.

5 stars out of 5

Highly recommended

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flight Behavior Completes the Big Book Summer Challenge

Big Book Summer Reading Challenge

With tomorrow being the first day of school for my kids, this is the unofficial last day of summer in our house. It’s also a good time to give a wrap up report on my progress with the Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by my friend Sue at Book by Book.

I like this challenge because it’s low-key and fairly easy, making it perfect for the summertime. Sue keeps things simple: read one book of 400 pages or more. Even if I only read one book – my average for this challenge – it gives me a nice sense of accomplishment.

(If you think you’ve got what it takes to tackle a chunkster or two this week, you still have time to join the challenge, as it doesn’t end until September 1.)

Flight BehaviorFlight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver was my choice this year. Originally I had selected The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, but I couldn’t get into that one.

At the beginning of this story, Dellarobia Turnbow is a unhappily married wife and mother living in Appalachia – and contemplating cheating on her husband. While en route to meeting her lover, she turns back upon noticing that an entire field of her family’s mountain is aflame. It’s a sign of something bigger, she thinks, and indeed it is: rather than fire, the vision is thousands of monarch butterflies that have migrated north from their native habitat to rural Tennessee because of the effects of climate change.

The butterflies’ flight from the only home they’ve known serves as a symbol for much larger issues and themes in the novel, all of which Ms. Kingsolver handles with the skill of a writer that knows the science behind her facts and knows how to craft a gorgeous sentence to draw her reader into the drama.

I listened to Flight Behavior on audio (it’s 17 hours long) and while I enjoyed the novel, I think I would have liked it more had I read it exclusively in print.  (I also have a copy on my Kindle, and that’s 610 pages.). Barbara Kingsolver’s narration was fine, but one of my pet peeves as an audio book listener is female narrators “doing” male voices, especially those with an accent. That irks me to no end and that’s fairly prevalent throughout the audio version.

Recommended. 3.5 stars out of 5

 

still remembering kristin

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (30)

You are not forgotten today.

http://melissafirman.com/forever-21-remembering-kristin/

Remembering you and thinking of your family with love.

Live While You (and They’re) Young: A Parent’s Guide for Surviving One Direction

 

One Direction - See You in Philadelphia - Aug 13, 2014

The Day has finally, blessedly arrived.

The Girl and I have arrived in Philadelphia for the momentous occasion of this evening’s One Direction concert at Lincoln Financial Field, which we’ll be attending with approximately 80,000 other devotees.

To say that my girl is a One Direction fan is putting it mildly.  Every visible space in her room is covered with some piece of 1D merchandise: posters, magazine articles, even a life-size cardboard cut-out of Harry Styles himself.  She writes a 1D blog. I’ve been informed that Mr. Styles is my future son-in-law, a prospect which The Husband and I heartily approve of because it will accelerate the likelihood that The Husband and I may actually get to retire someday (at least before, say, age 96).

Tonight’s concert extravaganza is not our first time paying homage (and a boatload of money) to the lads of One Direction.  We saw them last summer in Pittsburgh, an experience which qualifies me – in my humble opinion – to offer up some advice to my fellow parental concert-goers this evening on how to properly enjoy the show and their kid’s One Direction obsession.

1. Get familiar with the music. 

Back in the day, our parents knew every line of every song by heart of our favorite bands. Not so much anymore, in the days of iPods and iWhatevers.  Chances are, you know a few of 1D’s most popular songs but you might want to give yourself a crash course in the others. Dare I say, there’s some pretty stuff on those three albums of theirs. Because we’re going to the concert with my BFF from 4th grade and in my hometown of Philadelphia, I’ve already told my daughter that this mom who cries at credit card commercials is likely to break out the tissues for “Don’t Forget Where You Belong,” if it’s included in their repertoire. (“Don’t forget where you belong–home/ Don’t forget where you belong–home/  If you ever feel alone–don’t/  You were never on your own/ And the proof is in this song.”)  Cheesy? Hell, yeah. But cheese is good.  

2. Use the experience as the bonding experience it is. 

That time your best friend camped out overnight for Michael Jackson tickets at Gold Medal Sporting Goods and you weren’t allowed but your mom relented and drove you over there at 4 a.m. anyway? The one about the band who you did PR work for when they came to your college and your then-boss hit on them but got pissed when the musicians flirted with your 20 year old self instead? All true, in my case.) This is a prime opportunity to drag out those stories and show your kid that you, too, know what it’s like to be A Fan of Good Music. And cute musicians.

On second thought, maybe some stories are not quite ready for prime time. Just sayin’. But it’s a hell of lot of fun to dance down memory lane.

3. Embrace the passion.

If Directioners are anything else, they’re passionate. At least my kid is. And that’s the thing that makes this fun. Our lives can sometimes seem a bit, well, routine.  At least mine is. Concerts and carefree road-trippin’ five hours across the state to see a band are very much a thing of my ancient past. But here’s what I’ve learned through my daughter’s obsession with One Direction:

Remembering what it was like then to love something so deeply (whether it was that boy from down the street or that boy band from an ocean away), somehow makes it possible to rediscover the passion and the fun in your life today. Sure, staying up all night might be defined as 9:00 p.m. now.  But in the midst of this, it’s still possible to find the stuff that memories will be made of.

And live while you – and they – are still young.

 

The Sunday Salon: Currently, 8/10/2014

The Sunday Salon

Time/Place: 8:28 p.m., my family room

Watching: My kids are watching the Teen Choice Awards.  It’s been 29 minutes and I’ve lost count of how many arguments they’ve gotten into already. I may need to separate them. (You’d think they were toddlers. They’re 12.)

Eating/Drinking: I’m wrestling with yet another killer sinus headache this weekend, so I made a pot of gluten-free matzoh ball soup for dinner. Green beans and veggie chicken patties (the latter being for The Husband and kids) rounded out our meal.

Flight BehaviorListening: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is still my audio book in the car, for at least the second week in a row. I have it on my Kindle too and I read some while waiting for The Boy at an appointment this afternoon.

Anticipating: Audio books and my Kindle are going to be my primary reading mainstays for the upcoming week. The kids and I are road-trippin’ it back to my hometown of Philadelphia mid-week. The Boy will be spending a few days with my in-laws, and The Girl and I are heading to the One Direction concert. (My girl is beyond obsessed with One Direction, to put it kindly.) We’re going to the concert with my best friend since 4th grade and her daughter.  I’ll get to spend a rare day hanging out with my BFF along with some time at my mom’s.

The kids will wrap up their summer vacation (school starts in two weeks!) with some time at the grandparents’ while I head back to the ‘Burgh solo – and in addition to finishing up Flight Behavior, I have Rob Lowe’s second memoir, Love Life queued up to listen to.  (I mean, I can certainly think of less desirable people than Rob Lowe to spend six hours in the car with.) Also on deck as an audio book is Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink.

Reading: Because of the bricks sitting on my sinuses, reading has been a bit difficult – a very unfortunate situation because I’m in the middle of History of the Rain by Niall Williams. This is one of the nominees for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and my God, this is so damn good.

I seriously underestimated this book at first. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to make of this novel about the Swains, a fishing family living in Ireland. It’s narrated by a bedridden Ruth Swain (as of page 152, we still don’t know why) who is mourning her twin brother Aeney (we don’t know what happened to him, but Williams has given his reader a sense of the circumstances). Ruth is trying to better understand her father Virgil (yes, Virgil) by reading the 3,958 books – mostly classics – that he owned and that are stacked throughout her room. She references them a lot in her direct narration to the reader. (Someone needs to start a book club of all 3,958 of these books.)

Doesn’t sound like much, right? I know. But the writing in this one is fantastic. And the character of Ruthie! My heart’s breaking for her. This is what The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (which I did not like) could have been.

Anyway. This is probably going to be among my favorite books of 2014. I’d love to see this win The Man Booker Prize so it gets more attention. (‘Course, I haven’t read any of the others, but whatever.)

Poetry June 2014Finally, despite an especially busy workweek, I was able to get outside for lunch several times this week and read for a bit. For whatever reason, poetry has been somewhat of a stress-reliever lately while still continuing to elude me most of the time. (Go figure.) Perhaps I just like a literary challenge – or, perhaps, not too much of one that I can’t move along quickly to the next piece.

I’m really liking the various literary journals that the Library subscribes to, and they’ve been my lunchtime reading. This week I read the June 2014 issue of Poetry Magazine, published by the Poetry Foundation. I was most struck by Anne Frank’s High Heels” by Phillis Levin. Right from the title, we know Anne Frank didn’t wear high heels – she didn’t get a chance to. What those high heels represent – the possibilities, the future, the journeys yet to be taken, the roads to be discovered – give Phillis Levin’s poem even more of a sense of loss, making it even more powerful.

(Go ahead and click on the link to read it – and take special note of the date mentioned in the poem.)

 

The Sunday Salon: ‘bye, July

The Sunday Salon

And just like that, it’s August already.

We were invited to a wedding celebration yesterday at the home of some new friends of ours here in Pittsburgh. She’s a writer and a recovering academic, and their new home is filled with books. Each room is a library unto itself. My Girl promptly settled into an oversized chair and picked up where she’d left off in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Turns out, she only had a few pages – so when she was finished, she simply replaced #4 on the massive shelves and picked up Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

She’s such a mini-me. I can probably count on one hand the number of parties I went to at my parents’ friends’ homes, but I remember doing the same exact thing.

History of the RainI’m starting August with one of The Man Booker Prize longlist books for 2014, History of the Rain by Niall Williams. I had this out from the library before the longlist was announced, so I was pleasantly surprised about that.

This is one of those books that I nearly abandoned. Mind you, I’m only on page 78 … but for me, this didn’t start picking up steam until about a dozen pages or so. I just didn’t see where this was going. Now, I’m intrigued. And the references to all the books … to me, History of the Rain is what The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (which I really didn’t like) could have been.

I’m still listening to Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. This is a long audio book at 17 hours. I’m guessing it will probably take most of this week for me to finish this one.

I ended July with having read 8 books, making it one of my better months for reading. Links take you to my reviews.

French Lessons, by Ellen Sussman (audio)
Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, by Paul Monette
Woolgathering, by Patti Smith
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain (audio)
Devotion: A Memoir, by Dani Shapiro
Slow Motion: A True Story, by Dani Shapiro 
A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath (audio)

As of July 31, I’ve read 41 books this year, with 14 of those being audiobooks. My goal is 75 books total by the end of the year, so I’m pleased with where I’m at.  I’ve read more female authors (29) than male (11), which is typical for me.

Of the books I’ve read, 14 were memoirs; 11 were fiction; seven were nonfiction; three were short story collections and three were poetry. The other two were historical fiction.

How about you? How’s your August so far, reading or otherwise?

 

The Estella Project, and Thoughts on The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Estella Project Season 2

There are few things I love more (and can’t resist) than summer reading lists. The more books, the more lists, the better. I love reading the lists, I want to read all the books … just bring ‘em all.

As reading challenges go, The #EstellaProject  Season 2 incarnation is also the Summer 2014 one, making it irresistible to me.  It’s rather simple: read one, two, or three books from this list between June 1 and September 1 and write a review in order to be eligible for a great prize. Easy, right?

Several of these happen to be books on my personal TBR shelves, so my choices include:

  • Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn, because it is my friend Amy’s favorite book and she told me long ago I need to read this;
  • The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, because I’ve never read any Sylvia Plath, if you can believe that;
  • The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, because my friend Florinda from The 3 R’s Blog raves about this and I’ve been saying I will read it.

Bonus/substitute book: Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, because I’ve never read it and it just seems to be a book that one should read (from what I hear).

The Bell JarI finished The Bell Jar last night and … wow. I can’t believe I put off reading this for so long. (There’s no reason for this, by the way.)  Largely considered an autobiographical work, it’s hard not to look at The Bell Jar as practically a memoir. It’s not, of course, but there are so many similarities to Plath’s own life. Still, the novel left me with such an appreciation for Sylvia Plath as well as such profound sadness for what we as readers lost upon her death in 1963.

The Bell Jar is the story of Esther Greenwood, a college student who, like Sylvia Plath herself, wins a summer scholarship to be a guest editor of a magazine based in New York. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and it would seem that her future is limitless for someone with her abundance of talent.

Until a series of disappointments – a rejection from a writing program, a two-timing boyfriend (in Esther’s view) – lead to emotionally paralyzing and life-altering indecision about her next steps regarding marriage or career.

The writing in The Bell Jar reflects what a tremendous talent Plath was; it’s incredibly well-written throughout, with sentences that imply more than they initially seem to mean ([t]he more hopeless you were, the further away they hid you.”)  Yes, it occasionally jumps around a bit in time and as a first person unreliable narrator, Esther has a tendency to ramble, making it difficult for the reader to get one’s bearings. The Bell Jar is that rare book where this doesn’t seem sloppy but rather adds so much to the story – especially on audio. I listened to most of this on audio, in fact, and Maggie Gyllenhall’s narration is fabulous. With this narration, she has the perfect cynical and snarkily self-assured voice to draw the listener completely into the character of Esther, one of literature’s most memorable women.

We’re so jaded and cynical in 2014, completely incapable of being shocked by anything, it seems. But in The Bell Jar, there were several instances that caught me completely off-guard and by surprise. It’s the perfect mix of social commentary (how different things might have been for Esther and Sylvia in a few years’ time with the advent of modern pharmacology and mental health treatment ) spiced with horror within the realm of fiction.

This is likely going to be one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.

What should I read next on my Estella Project list – Geek Love, The Sparrow, or Bastard Out of Carolina?