Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Very Special Episode

We interrupt our regular programming to bring you, er, this:

In the immortal words of Kevin Bacon in Tremors: "What the hell is goin' on? I mean: what the hell is goin' on?"

Friday, August 17, 2007

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Facebook. Everybody's talking about it but you can't see what it is unless you sign up. So I signed up - and I'm still not sure what it is. What are you supposed to do with it? I tried the "stalk your ex schoolmates" search (not its real name) and unearthed several people I don't particularly want to reconnect with. Not that there's anything wrong with them - well not all of them - just that I have nothing to say. One girl - I suppose she's actually a woman, now - apparently went to both high schools I attended yet I can't remember her from either. I found a few other people I know but I'm not sure why we need to become Facebook "friends" as well as actual friends. And what's this "Poke him/her!" business?

Facebook and I are a bad match given it's a social networking site and I have no social network and don't really want one. Sitting on my own listening to music, on the other hand, is something I do understand so I have bitten the unexploded WW2 shell and joined I like the idea of tracking my listening, at least that portion of it that is done on my computer. I also like the "radio stations" that you can stream by entering the name of an artist or genre. Those with a burning desire to see what I've been listening to can click on the link in the "Sterne" section of the sidebar. (Update 13/8: Forget the link - we have sidebar widget!)

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Pleasant Enough Yarns

The Booker longlist has been announced. Ladies and gentlemen, start stifling your yawns.

I won't be reading any of the listed titled for the obvious reason that most of them will turn out to be unmitigated crap. I say that with some confidence given that I read most of the 2005 longlist and fair sample of the 2006 longlist. I have however already trudged through the Peter Ho Davies novel, which I reviewed for the SMH in March. The review doesn't seem to be online anymore, so here it is:
The Welsh Girl

In 2003, Peter Ho Davies was named in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists list, a kind of bookie’s (or possibly Booker’s) form guide to literary colts and fillies. Granta’s list has proven remarkably prescient over the years, but with Davies the editors took their soothsaying to a new level, selecting a writer who was certifiably young and British but who wasn’t actually a published novelist. Four years on and Davies has finally delivered his debut novel; the question is, has he delivered on the hype?

The Welsh Girl begins with intimations of intrigue. It is September 1944 and Rotheram, an escaped German Jew seconded to the British Political Intelligence Division, is sent to Wales to assess the sanity of former Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess, and thus his suitability for trial at war’s end. Rotheram expects to have a role in any postwar legal proceedings, but the Hess assignment turns out to be a ruse to get Rotheram out of the way; the same prejudice that caused him to flee Germany will now prevent him from participating in bringing the Nazi leadership to justice. Instead, Rotheram is to act as liaison to the camps that have been established in Wales to house POWs captured in the European campaign. It is a second exile, a relegation to the periphery.

It is also something of a short circuit of reader expectations. Rotheram, Hess and the spectre of Nuremberg disappear, and The Welsh Girl evolves into a knotty rural drama, packed with moral dilemmas, wuthering weather and the expected array of colourful types down the pub. In alternating chapters we are introduced to Esther, the intelligent but sheltered daughter of a Welsh nationalist grazier, and Karsten, a handsome German NCO who, having surrendered to the British at Normany, ends up in a POW camp near Esther’s village.

Inevitably, Davies draws Karsten and Esther together for one of those unlikely collaborations that mutual longing – although not necessarily for one another – sometimes conjures. In fact, despite the incongruity of their union, the German soldier and the Welsh farm girl share a common status. Karsten may be literally inside but he is a natural outsider, while Esther is so far outside her native community she is practically neck-deep in the Irish Sea. The reader recalls Rotheram: isn’t he also, in many ways, an outsider? And isn’t the village riven with various permutations of the outsider/insider dichotomy? And isn’t Wales itself an outsider nation? And isn’t – well, you get the idea.

The Welsh Girl is full of this kind of thematic interplay, but Davies’ schematic, join-the-dots approach reveals a lack of faith in his potential readership. He might have left us some work to do but he seems determined to ensure that we don’t miss a trick. Reading The Welsh Girl quickly becomes a largely passive experience: open wide for the Big Theme!

Subtract the slightly hectoring authorial presence and The Welsh Girl is a pleasant enough yarn enlivened by moments of understated perception. Davies made his name with short stories and, despite its page count, The Welsh Girl at times has the intimate feel of a miniature. Small, significant things – the communal life of sheep; the shock of a missed period; the face of a stranger behind barbed wire - are evoked with care and grace. If only Davies had resisted the urge to stitch these elements together with neon thread he might have produced something subtle and telling.
In other words, The Welsh Girl is a Booker novel through and through, its accessible characters and big themes delivered in solid prose - the full "literary novel" experience. Toby Litt was allowed to be considerably harsher than I dared be on this asinine genre in his review of Justin Cartwright's The Song Before It Is Sung (which, oddly enough, I also reviewed for the SMH):

Here is the conventional form of a contemporary literary novel. There is a prologue, occasionally in italics, in which it is suggested that there is some sort of worthwhile mystery - a lost canister of film footage, a dubious inheritance-with-strings. This is meant to get the pulse racing, in a minor way; nothing too extreme. After this, the novel splits. Two stories are followed, often in alternating chapters. There is a contemporary character who, for one reason or another, is inexorably drawn into examining the reasonably distant past. And then there are the characters of that past, going about their fairly historically accurate business (because research must be seen to have been done).

Between the two stories there are, needless to say, poignant parallels and clarifying contrasts. Sooner or later, probably sooner, the contemporary character becomes aware of the worthwhile mystery, and sets out to solve it. And the fairly historically accurate historical characters, with all their past-is-another-country pungency and profundity, bumble about creating and revealing the worthwhile mystery. By the end, the contemporary character will have semi-solved the mystery - while at the same time suffering some emotional damage and achieving a moderate redemption.

Just as it is inevitable that Throngar the Brave’s plucky little band of misfits will defeat Zograx’s hordes to regain the Chalice of Power, or that Nurse Modest will overcome both rivals and misunderstandings to find herself in the tender arms of Doctor Yearn, so it is inevitable that the hero or heroine of literary fiction will gain knowledge, suffer damage and be moderately redeemed.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


The Von Südenfed album was in today's mail. There are three main reasons why people will buy this album: one, because they like Mark E. Smith; two, because they like Mouse On Mars; and three, because they like umlauts. Those who happen to like Smith and Mouse on Mars and umlauts will be especially well served by Tromatic Reflexxions; the rest of humanity will have their usual diverse response, some liking it, others preferring the sound of stubbled surfer types with acoustic guitars, still others not even bothering to listen to it owing to their lack of stereo and/or functioning eardrums. Funny old world, innit.

The reviewer meme for this album is either to mention how strange a collaboration Von Südenfed is or to mention how strange it is that other reviewers keep mentioning how strange a collaboration Von Südenfed is. I'm going to run with the latter because it allows me to mention, as examples of precursors to the Von Südenfed project, such iconic-rocker-meets-electronic-group collaborations as David Byrne and X-Press 2's "Lazy", John Lydon and Leftfield's "Open Up", and that song Iggy Pop did with Death In Vegas. Readers are invited to provide their own examples. I promise to be awed by your erudition.

The album's first four songs seem to be representative of its overall sound. "Fledermaus Can't Get It" sounds not unlike LCD Sound System as fronted by somebody's drunk war veteran uncle. "The Rhinohead" is a surprise, being a pretty straightforward pop-rock tune with Smith actually singing for the first time since I don't know when. "Flooded" is great mid-tempo bleep-and-squelch, while "Family Feud" is a real triumph of ultra-precise programming and general Smith insanity. "I am the great MES" the great MES mutters again and again. Good to see the collaborative environment held his ego in check.

I've only had a cursory listen to the rest of the album but it appears to be of consistently good quality. So, you know, do yourself a favour.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

The Simpsons Movie is funny, or at least it's funny enough. The show is unwatchable these days but the movie tones down the reflexive irony and manages to wring some good material out of a very, very tired set of characters. Still, it's a stale old scene and the film contains zero dramatic tension and lacks any real purpose outside of the expected cavalcade of moderate hilarity. Although it runs to eighty-five minutes, the movie somehow contrives to feel emptier than a single episode from the show's golden years. If you've seen one of the many episodes in which Homer has to overcome his manifold deficiencies and prove himself a good husband and father then you've basically seen the movie and might as well just wait six months and watch the funny bits on youtube.

Random thoughts (positive):

- After years of desperate storylines in which the Simpsons must help/shelter/adopt supporting character x, the filmmaker's decision to relegate the vast secondary cast to a handful of cameos was a smart one. Flanders gets a (naff) sub-plot with Bart, but otherwise the residents of Springfield do their thing where they do it best: in the background.
- Casting regular guest star Albert Brooks as the bad guy was a good move, reviving memories of his classic turn as the megalomaniac Scorpio ("He'll sting you with his dreams of power and wealth!")
- Celebrity appearances are kept at a minimum. Tom Hanks has a funny spot, but otherwise that's about it. I bet Ron Howard's pissed off he wasn't asked to appear.
- Spiderpig is brilliant.

Random thoughts (negative):

- Considering how many great episodes focus on Lisa, it's a shame she's given little more to do in the movie than make eyes at yet another sensitive Springfield newcomer.
- Also, Marge tends to work best when she is allowed to function as something other than Homer's foil. Unfortunately here she is reduced to nagging-wife mode.
- Bart has a very funny bit (literally) but otherwise comes across like the early-nineties throwback that he is.
- The attempts at satire are deadly dull. Considering the state of the world atm you'd think the writers could have come up with something sharper than a few half-arsed digs at the environmental movement and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
- The various jokes at the audience's expense are gratuitous and unfunny, the film's equivalent of the show's now-standard device of openly referring to the cynicism of a storyline or character as if that not only excuses it but makes it funny when in fact it does neither.
- &c

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Old Prats (Say So Much Crap)

Elton John yesterday:
Sir Elton said the internet had "stopped people from going out and being with each other, creating stuff", and it compelled them to "sit at home and make their own records, which is sometimes OK but it doesn't bode well for long-term artistic vision".
Elton John in 2005:
Elton: Your album [Mylo's Destroy Rock & Roll] and the Killers' album are my favourite albums of the year... Where did you record it?

Mylo: I made it in my bedroom on a Mac G4. I didn't have any money to make it. The computer cost me £1200. I got an educational discount because I got my brother to buy it. I didn't have any old analog synthesisers, I had illegal downloads of software. A few bits of additional equipment would probably bring the total cost up to £1500, then there were the records I bought to sample from. That was probably another £100. They cost about 50 pence each ($A1.20).

Elton: Amazing. I am the biggest technophobe of all time. I don't have a mobile phone or an iPod or anything. But if I was young, these are the records I would have made instead of being a singer-songwriter.

Saturday Salon

A closed thread where, at your weekend leisure, you can remain taciturn about anything you like.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Mean Cuisine

A new feature here at Sterne in which we review items from the popular sixth food group: the processed. First up:

Campbell's Velish

Canned soup is notoriously foul. Queen Victoria herself is said to have dropped the f-word when presented with a bowl of what appeared to be bloody saliva that her kitchen staff alleged was a decanted tin of tomato and basil soup. Luckily the good folk at Campbell's have put on their thinking socks and pondered the problem of how to make canned soup taste better. Their solution? Put it in a carton!

The weird thing is that it seems to have worked. Velish is not too bad at all. Pour it into a bowl, microwave it for a couple of minutes, prepare some buttered toast for dipping, crumbling and general mopping duties and you've got yourself a pretty good lunch. Having tried Velish you'll be throwing your old tinned soups in the bin, and possibly spitting on them in disgust, which will at least make a change from spitting them out in disgust.

So far I have tried two flavours: Roasted Vegetable With Garlic is like a good lover - smooth with the slightest hint of garlic; Provincial Vegetable is chunky but it's still soup, not a wannabe-stew concoction like some chunky soups. I also have a carton of Butternut Pumpkin in the pantry but I'm hesitant to try it. Some soups can be faked but Butternut Pumpkin isn't one of them.