Tag Archives: Niall Williams

The Sunday Salon: Yet Another Best Books of 2014 List

The Sunday Salon

All the cool kids have one. By the end of this blog post, I will too.

Unless you’ve been living under a literary rock, suddenly everyone who has read anything during the past year has popped up with their Best Books of 2014 List.

My initial reaction to that was somewhere between “Oooooh book lists!”  and “Bah freakin’ humbug.”

I mean, doesn’t it seem too soon for this? I know, I know … there are only 23 days left in the year (!!) and chances are that you’re I’m not going to read that many more books in that timeframe, even though I have 10 more books to go before reaching my yearly goal of 75 and dammit, I am going to try my damnedest to achieve that.

(It’s doable. Completely doable.)

So, a compromise. I’m still planning to do my annual Best Books I Read in 2014 lists, as I do. Those will include books published in any year. Look for those later in the month. In the spirit of things, however, here are my picks for Best Books I Read That Were Published in 2014.

Hope for a Sea Change

Hope for a Sea Change, by Elizabeth Aquino (SheBooks, 57 pages)
I met Elizabeth through the special needs parent blogger world, and her writing – honest, raw, quietly searing – knocks me out with every single post. Elizabeth is a fierce advocate for her daughter Sophie, who has a rare form of epilepsy.  Hope for a Sea Change is about the early days of diagnosis, the desperate search for answers from misinformed specialists, and the emergence of a mother’s strength.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian (Doubleday, 288 pages)
In my review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I wrote that “it’s possible to view this novel “as sounding an alarm on the many disasters facing this generation: teenage homelessness, prostitution and sex trafficking, drug addiction, environmental and energy crises, school shootings, absentee parents. Like the [fictional] nuclear power plant [disaster in the novel], our world itself can seem in a perpetual state of meltdown.”

Glitter and Glue

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan (Ballantine Books, 240 pages)
I read this memoir in less than two days. (It probably would have been quicker, had I not been recuperating from gall bladder surgery.) Glitter and Glue is a follow up, of sorts to Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place, the story of her having cancer at the same time as her father. Here, Kelly writes about her relationship with her pragmatic mother, her time as a nanny for a grieving family, and the life lessons she had to leave the house – and the country – to learn.

Gabriel

Gabriel: A Poem, by Edward Hirsch (Alfred A. Knopf, 96 pages)
In this book-length poem, Edward Hirsch opens the door into his shattered world after the death of his 22 year old son Gabriel. As a society, we don’t often talk about grief in the way that Edward Hirsch does in these 78 pages – and our grief memoirs are rarely left unresolved. We’re used to some big revelation of acceptance, of peace. That’s not this book. This is anger and sadness and disbelief (“I wish I could believe in the otherworld/ I wish I could believe in a place/ Of reunions outside of memory”) and it is haunting.

Perfect

Perfect, by Rachel Joyce (Random House, 361 pages)
Maybe this doesn’t count as a “published in 2014” book because it was first published last year, but whatever. All that matters is that this novel is a work of art – except for the cover, which is absolutely ridiculous (it’s set in 1972, so that probably has something to do with it). The writing and the plot shines. And the characters … you won’t forget these folks for a second.

Nest. Flight. Sky.

Nest. Flight. Sky. On Love and Loss, One Wing at a Time, by Beth Kephart (SheBooks, 37 pages)
A book by Beth Kephart usually makes it onto my best of lists, and this one is no exception. I would have loved this memoir – which marks the first time in several years that Beth has returned to the form – even if I wasn’t reading it in the middle of the night, wide awake in a hospital bed while recuperating from the gall bladder surgery. This was a book that found me at the right time.

History of the Rain

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury, 358 pages)
Nominated for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, History of the Rain was among my favorite books this year. I still think it should have won the Booker, but I also didn’t read all the selections. Still, this story about an Irish family dealing with so much literal and figurative rain is spectacular.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.

What about you? What books published in 2014 are going to make it onto your best-of list?

For those of you who (like me) can’t get enough of year-end book lists, Penguin Random House is compiling the ultimate collection of best books of 2014 lists on Tumblr.

 

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 is on the longlist 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)

Throughout most of the novel, we’re not sure why Ruth is bedridden, nor what happened to Aeney (until closer to the end), 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.)