History of the Rain

By Niall Williams. (Bloomsbury, 358 pages, $28.)

True to its title, "History of the Rain," is indeed about rain, "not hard or driving, but a kind you can't see falling but is there all the same."

It's also about hope worn away, redemption offered by reading — and it's about the best book I've read in years. Ruth Swain, the lead character and narrator of this riverlike book, reads widely, voraciously and with purpose. In fact, all she does is read.

After a brief stint at college, bright, bookish Ruth finds herself bedridden in her home in rural Ireland. Although the doctors aren't sure what's wrong with her ("Something in the Blood" is the diagnosis), Ruth is clearly sliding toward death. What's keeping her alive is her mission: to discover her late father by reading the 3,958 books he left behind, and to write his story.

While it may sound depressing, this lyrical, almost poetic novel is anything but. On the long list for this year's Man Booker prize, it entrances and entertains as it traces the generations of the doomed, larger-than-life Swain family, filtered through the lens of the wickedly funny Ruth.

Like the River Shannon just outside her window, the story flows back and forth between eras and characters, between Yeats and Dickens, between heartbreak and budding joy. It is a story about rain, but mostly, it's a story about story.

"We are our stories," writes Ruth. "We tell them to stay alive or keep 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."

Connie Nelson,

Senior editor for lifestyles

Flirting With French

By William Alexander. (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 288 pages, $15.95 paperback)

The guy who brought us "The $64 Tomato" and "52 Loaves" is back in full funny force in "Flirting With French." William Alexander — "Guy" when he gets carried away — is on another quest. This time, instead of growing the perfect garden or baking the perfect loaf of bread, he's trying to learn French at the age of 57. Pourquoi? Because it is not enough for him to visit France repeatedly. "I want to be French," he says.

So begins a yearlong journey through computer language programs, a French immersion school in Provence and cardiac episodes that explain the subtitle, "How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me & Nearly Broke My Heart." It's a fun ride with some laugh-out-loud moments, some life lessons and even some research that says it might not be pointless to try to learn a language in middle age.

While language learners are a natural audience for this book, there is no prerequisite. Anybody who liked Alexander's previous books or just likes to see an underdog try to beat the odds will enjoy this voyageur's latest adventure.

Maureen McCarthy,

Team leader