Archive for July, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Posted in Books on July 31, 2008 by Johnnie
Thundering journey into the mind of man and dog       

Sunday Business Post,13 July 2008

Debut novelist David Wroblewski spent ten years crafting The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle and it was worth every minute of his time. It is a giant and captivating work of old-fashioned storytelling, a family saga based around a child’s deep love and understanding of man’s trusty canine friend.

The story takes place in a small Wisconsin town where Gar Sawtelle and his wife Trudy train their own unusually intelligent breed of dogs, Sawtelles.

After a string of miscarriages, Trudy eventually gives birth to Edgar, an otherwise healthy child who cannot make any sounds, but who develops an immediate and almost telepathic relationship with Almondine, one of the female Sawtelles.

In an especially moving early scene, the dog awakes in the night, knowing instinctively that the baby is in distress, and wakes the oblivious Trudy from her sleep.

From this point forward, boy and dog become almost inseparable soulmates. Wroblewski imbues the novel with a rare and beautiful insight into the lives of dogs and the unspoken love between animal and owner; page after page of beautiful prose leads us through their training techniques, the dogs’ innermost thoughts, feelings and even Almondine’s dreams.

Like the humans in this tale, the dogs are fully realised, multi-dimensional characters, and far more than mere devices to carry along the emotional development of the plot.

The peaceful countryside farm setting changes dramatically with the return of Gar’s brother, Claude, who had left the family seat in mysterious circumstances some years earlier. With echoes of Cain and Abel and Hamlet, Gar soon meets an untimely end in the midst of an argument.

In an intensely emotional and terrifying scene, his ghost appears to Edgar during a terrible storm, after which the boy is convinced his father was murdered by his uncle.

As Claude takes control of the family business and wins Trudy’s heart, the distraught Edgar retreats from everything he knows and loves, including Almondine, to plot his revenge.

After a disastrous attempt to exact justice, Edgar flees into the Wisconsin wilderness with three young dogs, beginning an incredible adventure which is, by turns, harrowing, thrilling and shrouded in mysticism.

Yet even the most far-fetched supernatural elements of the young gang’s plight are brought vividly into the realms of credibility by Wroblewski’s stunning descriptive prose and his realisation of Edgar’s formidable, heroic heart and spirit. But Disney this is not.

When it becomes clear that Edgar must go back home (having learned the hard lesson that, “life was a swarm of accidents waiting in the treetops, descending upon any living thing that passed, ready to eat them alive”), the reader should brace themselves for a furious, shocking and stormy finale.

It unfolds, at a thundering speed, to a conclusion that is best read through gaps in interlocked fingers.

At over 500 pages, The Story Of Edgar Sawtelle is a lengthy but incredible journey that seems to have everything going for it; the beauty and flair of a great literary novel, the scale and pacing of a fantasy epic, and the absorbing thrill-ride of any glorious rites-of-passage adventure from our collective childhoods.

Wroblewski’s love for his subjects – in particular dogs and the bewitching Wisconsin swamps and forests – shines through in every sentence, rendering each new page more thrilling than the last.

For a debut novelist, he has hit the literary jackpot; for the reader, this is a sumptuous and rewarding experience. 

Killing Joke

Posted in Music on July 30, 2008 by Johnnie

There’s an almighty hoo ha (do hoo has come in any other size?) in the media over the Killers’ “afterthought” gig at the Academy on August 20th – a whole night before they play Mawwrleee Pawwrrk.  Apart from the happy fact that it’s way cheaper to see them indoors, in comfort, with a proper bar and everything, The Killers can, to sound a warning, be monumentally appalling live.  Like with many bands (but most especially Arcade Fire), audiences turn up, in droves, to see The Killers entirely expecting to be entertained and, as a result, don’t force the band to entertain them – and are almost never disappointed.  Make them entertain you, people! I appreciate that shelling out €70 is a big deal, so by all means get excited about the prospect of seeing The Killers – just don’t cheer them for no reason and drown out Brandon’s squawk purely because you can, let him prove he does actually have a note in his head.

During a large bout of recycling, I happened across the following review of their Olympia gig in 2004, the year Hot Fuss was released, written by me for SoundsXP.  I am every bit the infuriated, knee-jerk punter, particularly about some of the audience’s behaviour – which is something I still feel very strongly about, as anyone who accompanies me to gigs on a regular basis will confirm.  As for the band – suffice it to say, I have never been able to listen to Hot Fuss with the same enjoyment since:

THE KILLERS, Olympia Theatre, Dublin, 11th November 2004

I will admit to having been in a state of squealing girly excitement at the prospect of seeing The Killers. With thrilling, energetic chart pop music in terminal decline, the Las Vegas quartet have effortlessly become the sophisticated indie darlings du jour. With their infectious pop choruses, sharp attire, all-round, cool, pin-up boy posturing, and even Saint Morrissey’s patronage, this couldn’t fail to be the coolest, classiest night out of the year.

Imagine, then, my not unnatural surprise when it turns out to be anything but. Tonight the band, together with the sound and lighting engineers, seem to have decided not to bother trying. Opening with the normally pyrotechnic Jenny Was A Friend of Mine seems like a good move, but someone has gone and drenched the squib.  It seems too slow for starters, Brandon Flowers displays little or no enthusiasm as he skulks around the stage, and then the song ends with a puerile, Animal-from-the Muppets, rock thrash.  Come on guys, that’s for sweaty encores and even sweatier pub rock bands, not the “new Duran Duran”.  The Hot Fuss album is trotted out in a clinical, rambling fashion, with neither dancing nor witticism from the front man. Whatever fashionable cool the band has achieved in their photo shoots, there’s little evidence of it in the flesh; in my stupefaction, I realise that they’re is actually made up of Neil Sedaka (drums), Generic Scruffy Student (bass), Uncle Peter from Reeves & Mortimer (guitar) and Craig Doyle (vocals). A motley assembly at best, and certainly not the stuff of pin-ups.

When the band’s indifference to me finally becomes mutual, my irritation turns to the frighteningly energetic and youthful audience. Of course, they’re absolutely lapping it up, they’ve never seen anything so exciting; after all, the last live show they attended was probably Barney On Ice. The girlies squeal their hormonal hearts out in the way that they do, while the lads… OK, answer me this, please. Is it nature or nurture that makes young men at gigs bounce on one foot and repeatedly point at the singer? What’s the point of the point, boys? Is it a case of, “that’s where the singing’s coming from, everyone! There it is – look!”?

It’s just possible this was merely an off night for The Killers. I do hope so, I’ve loved the album since I first heard it; but if I hadn’t been familiar with it first, then, based on this performance, I would seriously wonder what all the Hot Fuss was about.

Bloke From “Out In” Tallaght Wearing Liverpooel Shirt Shocker

Posted in Grave News on July 29, 2008 by Johnnie

In what will be seen as great news in the twin tracksuit capitals of the world, Robbie Keane from “out in” Tallaght, Dublin, has signed for Liverpooel in a €24m deal.  In spite of Spurs’ valiant efforts to stop the Republic of Ireland striker making a cultural stereotype out of himself, Keane will return to his childhood and run around wearing the shirt of his chosen English heroes. Expect several things to come out of this: Adidas to vastly increase its share in the Irish market; Spurs to suddenly lose a few of its “die-hard” Irish fans; a general upsurge in local punters who claim they have “always supported” Liverpooel; “out in” Tallaght to be twinned with Toxteth at long last; Keane to be referred to as ‘the new Kenny Dalglish’ – particularly by those who have to subtitle his TV interviews; Dominos Pizza to consider proposing a sponsorship deal; and, a little further down the line, Keane to start making louder noises about how he would like to “end his career” at Celtic.

Pointless Nostalgia: Puffa Puffa Rice

Posted in Pointless Nostalgia on July 23, 2008 by Johnnie

Generally speaking, I’m not one for nostalgia.   Get a bunch of people of a certain vintage together in a living room or a bar and a strange mist descends over their eyes – before you know where you are, they’re dredging up half-memories of Spangles, Captain Pugwash, school medicals (including “the cold spoon”), Creamola Foam and Thalidomide.

Still, sometimes, a fleeting recollection of a certain product will conjure up tastes, smells and emotions of a bygone, never-to-return era; not a demand for an immediate return (because most comebacks don’t work), just remembrance of youth and a gentler time of your life.

And so to Kellogg’s Puffa Puffa Rice.  This was a 1960s/70s staple which seemed to disappear all of a sudden, much to my sound and fury, in 1975.  There were several box designs before my time but the last one I remember featured useless, mute glove puppet Sooty brandishing a magic wand.  Coincidentally, his side-kick, the squeaking “dog” Sweep, featured on the box of “chocolate-flavoured” version, KoKo Crispies which, shortly after, became CoCo Pops.

Puffa Puffa Rice were light, sugar-coated pellets that went typically soggy and slimy in milk but provided morning after morning of pleasure for the fledgling me – even if they weren’t doing me any nutritional good whatsoever.  All the same, one look at that old box can still bring a tear to my eye.

Also from this era were Golden Nuggets, an even more sugary cereal which became the subject of a long ‘bring-it-back’ campaign by old people with foggy hindsight faculties, even ending up in the lyrics of The All Seeing I‘s 1st Man In Space in 1999.  It appears that Nestlé were listening, as Golden Nuggets were relaunched shortly afterwards.  And, of course, they turned out to be utterly revolting after all these years.

Of Golfers, Skiers and Festival Goers…

Posted in Grave News on July 21, 2008 by Johnnie

Two of my pet hates in life are skiing and golf.  If I need to give my reasons, you must be a skier or a golfer.  I’m not either, and my experience of both made me wonder how anyone could try them twice.  But beyond even participation in these sports (or, worse, watching them with on television), there’s the aggravatingly incessant enthusiasm of habitual partakers to contend with, and their utter incredulity that people wouldn’t want to try their chosen pastimes out: “But you have to try it!  You haven’t lived until you’ve sampled the piste in Pistoia.  You’re dead from the neck down if you haven’t paraded your plus-fours around Pumpherston.”

For us non-participants, these activities are made all the more tedious by the bores who extol their alleged virtues.  I would love to shove all those sozzled après-skiers into a log cabin, fill it up to their Alpine rear-entries in muesli, and threaten to torch the place until they get the message: “We do NOT want to go f***ing skiing!”  As for golfers, they can just t*** off.

Still, I’ve realised, this past week or so, that these relentless middle-class sports advocates are now in serious danger of being eclipsed in the tedium stakes by music festival goers.  Now, I’m in no doubt whatsoever that Oxegen 2008 was the greatest show on earth for those who made the trek, even those people who paid eight Euro for a beer – and then still have the neck to whinge about the price of petrol.  There were also, apparently, those couldn’t bring themselves to leave the campsite to actually watch some music and they still had a ball; and, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for all of you and accept your enthusiasm in good heart.

But, for heaven’s sake, Oxegen veterans, please don’t look me up and down as if I’m the bloke who ate crisps and farted in church when I say that I didn’t go to Oxegen, and that I wasn’t absolutely gutted about the fact.  For your information (and this is where you automatically lose interest and reminisce about MGMT), I had a wonderful weekend while you were all camping, necking Buckfast, getting sunburned and dreaming up superlatives to adequately describe Battles or Band Of Horses For Courses.  It just isn’t newsworthy and doesn’t earn me cool points.

So, thanks to you people waving your photos and souvenir t-shirts in my face, I’m thinking of compiling a book entitled (something like), 101 Social Pariah Things To Do Before You Become Interesting, Or Die – Whichever Happens Soonest.  No doubt, it’ll sell like hot cakes – three in a paper bag for a Euro.

Now, I must return to my colleagues, and the praise they’re heaping on Open Golf champion Padraig Harrington – for one week only, he’s the new Munster.

Book Review: Disquiet by Julia Leigh

Posted in Books on July 19, 2008 by Johnnie

Sunday Business Post, 1 June 2008

Australian author Julia Leigh’s rich novella centres upon the unsettling reunion of a fragmented family in the surroundings of a rambling French chateau.

After a 12-year estrangement from her family, Olivia unexpectedly returns to the family seat with her two young children, Andrew and Lucy. The otherwise statuesque woman’s appearance – ‘‘the straggled hair, the torn stockings, the broken arm’’ – hint at her flight from a violent marriage in Australia, and the long, treacherous journey back to a place once so familiar to her, but now partially closed, overgrown and forbidding.

Once inside, Olivia faces an awkward reunion with her mother, before introducing her to the grandchildren she’s never met. But the entrance hall of the chateau is festooned in balloons, as the household awaits another arrival, that of Olivia’s brother Marcus and his wife Sophie, returning from hospital after the birth of their first child.

However, as they emerge from their car, it is clear from their demeanour that something is very wrong; tragically, the baby has been stillborn. With the characters thus assembled, Disquiet unfolds in a series of subtle, harrowing and frightening events, right to its nail-biting climax.

While there are references to domestic violence, infidelity and alcoholism throughout, ultimately, the theme of the book is motherhood: Olivia’s struggle to love her children, whose crass behaviour and foul-mouthed utterances infer the disproportionate influence of their father; the grandmother’s stoic sense of loss at the dissolution of and irreparable damage to her relationship with Olivia; and, most tragic of all, Sophie’s inability to let go of and bury her baby, Alice.

The reader is guided on this disturbing journey by Leigh’s masterful narration, and its skilful balancing of the chateau’s surface opulence and grandeur, with a grim underbelly of neglect and gothic horror. At 121 pages, it is done with minimum description and beautiful understatement. Olivia and her children are named only through dialogue; otherwise, they are ‘‘the woman’’, ‘‘the boy’’ and ‘‘the girl’’.

Similarly, the baby is described as ‘‘the bundle’’, a lovingly swaddled object which only leaves its mother’s bosom when it is placed on a silk-lined shelf in the kitchen’s freezer.

Moreover, we are confronted with the strength and fragility of blood ties: the children’s determination to re-establish contact with the father they left behind; Olivia’s hazy willingness to offload her offspring to more deserving parents; and her climactic, selfless act of motherly love when faced with their mortality.

A multitude of underlying plotlines, personal dramas and secret histories bubble just beneath the surface, and Disquiet could easily have evolved into a weighty family saga; yet the things we don’t discover carry the same weight as those we do.

The novella form disciplines Leigh, in choosing which fragments of drama to show and which to imply, her prose purposefully sparse, to the point of barren; yet she evokes so much through simple, short sentences (‘‘Vile baptism’’; ‘‘Ghostly, milky with light’’) that the effect is beautiful, startling and entirely absorbing.

Disquiet is a triumph of poetic subtlety and control, a one-sitting delight from a wonderful storyteller.

TV Highlight of the Week…

Posted in TV on July 17, 2008 by Johnnie

The 137th Open Golf championship starts today at Royal Birkdale.  This is great news for people who enjoy watching the Big Brother housemates sleeping, live, all through the night; they now have something equally pulsating to watch during the day.