Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna

This creative and unusual work often reads like a fairy tale. Paasilinna is a writer born in Lapland, Finland. He has held various jobs, including woodcutter and agricultural labor. First published in Finland in 1981, the first American translation of the novel appeared in 2007.

Gunnar Huttunen is an odd individual with mood swings who may have blended in just fine in New York City or San Francisco, but in a remote area of Finland his peculiar nature becomes too much for the small village.

After World War II, Huttunen buys a mill on the Suukoski rapids. In the evening he howls like a wolf (at other times he also enjoys doing impressions of various animals). The dogs love the howling and join in, but his fellow residents do not find the situation funny. Huttunen becomes a symbol of the scary nonconformist that must not be tolerated. He is first banished to a mental hospital. After escaping, he lives like a hermit in the wilderness, showing up from time to time in the town to the residents' alarm.

One element that makes the story quite beautiful is Huttunen's love for an agricultural adviser who instructs him on vegetable gardening. Even when he is banished, the adviser finds ways to visit him or have letters secretly delivered that proclaim her love.

A review by Le Monde on the back cover reads, "The purity of this fable gives...[it] the charm and power of a narrative close to myth." There is something magical about this creation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates is a continuous source of wonder for me. How can she write so much, with such detail, and so well?

This is one of Oates' novels I have been wanting to read since it was first published in 2004. The novel begins with the drama surrounding newlywed Ariah the morning after her honeymoon night in Niagra Falls. We discover Ariah's husband of a few hours has committed suicide by throwing himself over the falls. Dirk Burnaby, a lawyer and wealthy member of the community, remains at Ariah's side during a week-long vigil as Ariah waits for her husband's body to appear. After the vigil, she returns home, but Dirk cannot forget Ariah. In fact, he becomes rather obsessed. Within a short period of time, "the Widow Bride of the Falls" marries Dirk.

The most interesting parts of the novel are those concerned with the early marriage of Dirk and Ariah. As the novel develops, they have three children with distinct personalities. The marriage begins to unravel as Dirk devotes his time and energy to what will later be known as the Love Canal case. The introduction of Love Canal was quite a surprise, but Oates masterfully weaves it in with the storyline.

The last fifth of the novel (it spans 481 pages) became difficult for me to wade through. The lives of Ariah and Dirk's children become center stage here. I did not find their stories as interesting as Ariah's. Still, this is an amazing work that I recommend to all who enjoy complex novels.