Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Kate's Reading Challenge 2011: Books Five and Six

5. "The Howling Miller" by Arto Paasilinna (Canongate, 2007)

“The Howling Miller” is a book that I’ve recommended to many people (based on Nic’s rave reviews) but one which has actually been sat on my “to read” shelf for an embarrassingly long time. So I finally decided to check out what all the fuss was about and I must say I wasn’t disappointed.

Gunnar is a troubled miller, who moves to a small village where he beautifully renovates a dilapidated mill and entertains with his excellent (if slightly bizarre) animal impressions. But at night the miller’s raucous howling proves too distressing for the villagers who diagnose him as a madman and banish him from their precious oasis. What follows is a witch hunt as Gunnar battles with his desire for his mill and the drop dead gorgeous horticulture expert and his longing for a hassle-free life.

I loved the other-worldly, almost fairy-tale feel to this novel; it’s unexpectedly charming and genuinely moving. I can now recommend it myself with absolute confidence that it's just as brilliant as Mr B promised!

6. "Ms Hempel Chronicles" by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (Atlantic, 2011)

With a tagline from Curtis Sittenfeld (author of two of my favourite books “American Wife” and “Prep”) I was pretty excited about this novel following a teacher in her mid-twenties.

Ms. Hempel’s experiences imparting her wisdom upon a class of keen but rebellious teens leads her to reflect on her own coming-of-age story. The narrative flips back and forth between strange and specific recollections of Beatrice’s child self and scenes from the classroom of the grown-up woman.

As a young teacher herself, Ms Hempel’s relationship with her pupils is wonderful combination of endearing and awkward, the girls rarely hesitate to confide in her, and the boys simply adore her. Ms Hempel’s own feelings about her class are slightly muddier and are only confused by her age and occupation, which leave her stranded between the indulgent lack of responsibility enjoyed by the children that she teaches and the adulthood that she knows is beckoning.

I loved the variety of classroom characters depicted, particularly bad boy Jonathan, whom Ms Hempel has a real soft spot for (a rebel without a cause can be so irresistible)! I also think that the teacher herself is a very realistically drawn and interesting character.

However, I found the flippant style of storytelling slightly disorientating, and whilst generally I don’t mind a narrative that jumps around a bit (I loved the abstract style of “The Rehearsal” by Eleanor Catton) in this case I’m not sure that it entirely worked. The main issue for me was that throughout the novel the dynamic was fairly consistent and nicely understated and the violent texture of the plot created a jarring effect, which I don’t really feel complimented the story.

All in all, I wouldn’t say that this book quite lived up to my high expectations but it did have a strong charm aspect, which made me feel very nostalgic for my schooldays…

1 comment:

Emma said...

Great to hear from you again Kate. Both books sound great, and are now firmly on my to read list! Recently read The news where you are and loved it.