History of the Rain by Niall Williams 355 pages

Ruth Swain is sick in bed in County Clare Ireland. She does not have the energy to leave her attic bedroom, so she spends most of her time reading books (her favorites are Dickens, Yeats, Faulkner and Garcia Marquez) and writing her family’s history. As the river Shannon flows by her home and rain falls on her roof, Ruth recounts three generations of Swains and McCarrolls.

I read This is Happiness by Niall Williams almost a year ago, and I still smile whenever I think about it. I’m sure I will be remembering History of the Rain with a smile, too. If you want a plot-driven, fast paced read, you will be disappointed, but if you want a novel loaded with charm and unique “Irish” characters, read History of the Rain.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams 355 pages

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion 149 pages

After watching the Joan Didion documentary, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, I was eager to check out her new book of essays. This collection includes a dozen essays that she wrote between 1986 and 2000. Although her subjects are as diverse as Martha Steward, being rejected by a first choice college, and the reason she is a writer, each displays Didion’s clear, concise prose. Actually the title of this book is misleading; Joan Didion never directly tells us what she means. Instead, her examples make her ideas, thoughts, likes and dislikes perfectly clear,

If you have never read Joan Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean would not be the work I’d start with, but if you’re a fan, this group of essays and the documentary are musts.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion 149 pages

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah 477 pages

This is the story of Elsa Wolcott Martinelli, born in Texas in 1896 and died in California in 1936. She was raised by her upper middle class family to believe she was ugly and sickly. When they disowned her, Elsa married Raf and moved in with his parents, helping with the house and farm and raising her two surviving children. When the Dust Bowl ruined farming for the Martinelli’s, she took her children to California hoping for a better life.

Once we are able to travel again, The Four Winds is the perfect book to have with you on a long flight. It has a good main character (although too perfect for me) and a plot full of hardship and love. However, it is not a very complex novel and neither are its characters.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah 477 pages

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee 477 pages

Tiller, the narrator of Lee’s most recent book, is twenty years old and living with Val who is in witness protection along with her eight year old son, Victor Jr. While describing his living situation with them, Tiller often reflects back on his association with Pong Lou, an enterprising Chinese-American who is a successful chemist and businessman. Pong takes an immediate liking to Tiller and asks him to accompany him and his entourage overseas. Both of these events in Tiller’s life have dramatic results.

My Year Abroad was disappointing. Tiller’s descriptions were often unnecessarily wordy, and his “voice” sometimes rubbed me the wrong way. By the time the climactic events occurred, I no longer cared what happened to Tiller and the people he associated with. I have read several other Chang-rae Lee novels and enjoyed them, especially A Gesture Life. Unfortunately, I did not feel the same about My Year Abroad.

My Year Abroad by Chang-rae Lee 477 pages

The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin 335 pages

Ethan Frome, his feminist wife Zenobia and their hyperactive 11 year old daughter, Alex, live in a small town in Massachusetts. Ethan has a job he doesn’t believe in, a wife who is angry and militant, a daughter who is extremely difficult to handle, and a live-in baby sitter he would like to go to bed with. Most of the novel takes place during the Brett Cavanaugh Supreme Court hearing. With the exception of the introduction and the epilogue, The Smash-Up is narrated by Ethan, so his perspective is all the reader is certain of.

The Smash-Up is a good read. It has interesting characters and a timely plot. It is quite obviously a take off on Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, and perhaps I would have gotten more from The Smash-Up if I had read Wharton’s book.

The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin 335 pages

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. 378 pages

There is a plantation in Mississippi named Elizabeth, but the slaves call it Empty. Samuel and Isaiah are slaves and lovers. They are handsome, kind and hard working. Samuel is quiet and and sullen and Isaiah is friendly and open. Amos is an older slave who decides to preach Christianity to the slaves every Sunday in order to get in good with the owner of the plantation, Paul. Amos reports Sam and Isaiah’s behavior to Paul despite the warnings of the slave community. Along with these three characters, Jones introduces his readers to a number of other interesting characters, many bearing Biblical names.

Robert Jones Jr. has said that Toni Morrison had a profound influence on the way he writes. It is evident in The Prophets. The prose is richly poetic, however, at times it inhibited the momentum of the plot.

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. 378 pages

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet 224 pages

Evie, the narrator of A Children’s Bible, her younger brother, Jack, and her parents have rented a large house for the summer on the east coast along with a number of other families. The parents spend their days drinking, using drugs and having sex, so their children look upon them with disdain and learn to spend their time without parental supervision. When a huge storm hits their vacation home as well as much of the eastern United States, the children run away to what they hope is safety.

A Children’s Bible is a small book with a big wallop. It is tense, exciting, frightening, timely, full of symbolism with lots of ideas to discuss. Evie is a great main character-complex, caring and wise beyond her years. This is the first book by Lydia Millet that I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last.

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet 224 pages

Eleanor by David Michaelis 536 pages

Michaelis’s thorough, well-documented biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, follows one of the most lauded women in American history from her birth to her funeral. Although he touches on a few of her regrettable choices, most of Eleanore tells the history of a woman who had her share of sorrows, but still became a forceful, energetic voice for the voiceless. What I found most interesting was how Eleanore Roosevelt evolved from a sheltered upper class WASP into a champion for all minorities.

Eleanor by David Michaelis 536 pages

A Promised Land by Barack Obama 701 pages

Most of this hefty book is about Obama’s first three years as President and his campaign to get there. Approximately the first hundred pages sets the stage for Obama’s decision to run-his childhood, his marriage and his political career up to 2008, but the remainder of the memoir describes in detail how difficult and exhausting it is to run for and then actually be the President of The United States.

I am not a political animal, but I found A Promised Land fascinating. For instance, Obama’s description of what happens to get certain legislation passed-who is helpful, who is a hindrance, and the give and take that is involved helped me understand why certain acts take so long. Also, I admire Obama’s honesty about his flaws as well as many of the people he worked with.

A Promised Land by Barack Obama 701 pages

The Searcher by Tana French 451 pages

Cal Hooper is a retired Chicago policeman divorced with a daughter who lives in Seattle. He is looking forward to some peace and quiet when he buys a run down house in rural Ireland. He is content renovating his new home until a thirteen year old named Trey appears. Knowing that he was a cop, Trey Reddy asks for Cal’s help searching for an older brother who has not been seen for seven months. Searching for Brendan Reddy, Cal’s peaceful life suddenly becomes challenging and dangerous.

Tana French writes mysteries. However, The Searcher, did not feel like a mystery to me. It was a character study of Cal, his relation to Trey and the feel of life in an Irish village. The Searcher is an enjoyable read but not an engrossing page turner.

The Searcher by Tana French 451 pages