An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Sunday, August 24, 2008

2 Book reviews - The Good Bones and What Was Lost

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and
What Was Lost by Kathy O'Flynn

A bumper summer "two for one" review today. These two books came to me at different times but I somehow ended up reading them back to back. Both received very good reviews when they first came out and both are debut novels by new female writers.

The Lovely Bones is narrated by a dead young girl, a murdered girl in fact, and is narrated from heaven. Sebold has chosen an interesting narrative viewpoint from which to investigate the effects of death on those left behind by a violent death and she makes the structure work to good effect but by announcing the murder, the murderee, and the murderer at the very outset she seems to eschew any element of mystery.

Kathy O'Flynn on the other hand begins by introducing us to a little girl who fancies herself a detective as she mooches around a shopping centre taking notes, following people and almost willing a crime to happen. In doing so, O'Flynn takes time to make us empathise with this youngster and to understand her and then we begin to imagine and to savour a broad potentiality. O'Flynn paints her protagonist's life, family, friends and motivation sympathetically whilst leaving us wondering about some of the slightly strange figures who people her odd everyday experience and it is this depth and this strangeness that encourages out imagination.

Sebold attempts manfully to imagine a heaven that our murdered girl inhabits and from which she watches over the trauma and disjoint that her death leaves in its wake - and intervenes in on occasion. It is her failure to convince in the matter of this imaginary heaven that is the downfall of the book. Suspending my atheism as best I could did still not allow me to find Sebold's heaven feasible and I fear that many readers will have the same problem.

Rather than an imaginary heaven O'Flynn moves the second part of her novel into the all too real shopping centre (mall) that our girl detective has haunted in the first part where a similar all seeing perspective is drawn from the myriad of CCTV cameras. Where Sebold's narrative conceit becomes more arbitrary, whimsical and sentimental O'Flynn's becomes more realistic, gritty, and believable and whereas Sebold exercises her own imagination O'Flynn gets us to exercise ours.

Thus we have two debut novels by young women about dead young girls both of which use interesting structures to unveil the same scenario - death and its aftermath. Whereas I shall give Sebold another chance should I come across her next novel I shall actively seek out more work by O'Flynn.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Our Northern correspondent checks in with the boss

I know I said the other day (ago) that I'd give you the next or previous installment of the online offline friendship league "tomorrow" and I have therefore to explain a fine point of linguistic usage. In normal English usage the word tomorrow denotes the day following this one and is the dictionary definition of the word but in practice in other languages (Spanish and Greek spring immediately to mind) the word for tomorrow is used in a connotive sense rather than a denotive one. More specifically in the aforementioned languages, at least in demotic usages, the word for tomorrow is frequently used to indicate some unspecified futurity or to indicate a logical not today. Clear? Good. Now - onward and backward.

As I was saying the kidz were confident that the Guerilla Distiller visit would work out because they had had previous experience or mixing their on and offline worlds with incredible and unimagined success. On that very first occasion it was Finn McEskimo, his good wife Alfapet and their youngest child Neero who had come to the farm outwith some previously only ethereal or ethernetreal existence.

Finn was originally recommended to Laz as Northern Correspondent for the PoMo circus by his estimable lady Alfapet who had been a reader of that august publication for some months back in the old Spazmac days (almost pre-Caxton in Circus terms). Alfapet, who you should know coined the word carage, is what Brits would think of as a very special needs teacher whilst Finn himslef is a strange mix of eternal student and long term lecturer in something best approximated by "comparative and experimental literature". Needless to say the 3 of them chewed a lot of academic, cultural and literary fat between Finn's occasional commissions and freelance articles for The Circus and a friendship grew among these unlikely companions. When Laz introduced Gill's photos into the mix (Gill is still steadfastly reticent about a direct online presence) things blossomed and Alfapet and she began to converse via email. Suddenly everyone was involved.

And then this summer Finn and Alfapet announced that they were coming to Crete with Neero and would love to visit the farm. Pulses quickened, consciences were searched, qualms were put to one side and an invitation to come and stay for a weekend was issued in short oreder. Two weeks went by in a mood of trepidation but when the Finn family turned up at Ekkentron in Kavros all misgivings evaporated in moments. The 4 of them got on better in the flesh than they had online - they all knew each other so well (nobody had lied or boasted) and Neero was a brick, putting up with these excited and garrulous adults.

The weekend passed in a blur of visiting sites, harvesting lavender and talking - endlessly talking. Talking into the small hourss. An empathy like that in very good families and friendships was quite simply there before they met up and grew in the harsh reality of the flesh. There will be more of these meetings - of that we are sure. All of us are sure.

It worked.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Taking chances by mixing the on and offline worlds

The kidz have been doing things this summer that Shem and I would not have endorsed - had we been asked. Not that we would necessarily have given counsel of despair but we would, I am sure, have urged considerable caution.

They've done it twice so far and, colour us both stunned, have been remarkably successful. Moving people from one status to another, or from one stratum to another - higher stratum or status is a fraught one. It's one thing to take imaginary characters into your real life - and mostly a harmless one - shit, adopting Eddie was one of the best things they ever did. There are a few obvious no nos here: turning an ex-lover into a lifelong friend; turning your best friend into a lover. Simply put, these sorts of change mostly do not work and are unlikely to. And to be honest we figured that he kidz were opening a similar one way gate with their decision to elevate some of their online contacts to flesh contacts.

Most recently - yesterday in fact - D invited a guy he had met online -well not met but had come across and whose exploits he had been following for about a year and a haf into their real life - to the farm for goodness sake. The guy in question runs under the nom-de-blog of the guerilla distiller but his real name is Robert Seidel. D came across him some time back when he was looking at the idea of having his own still (before cost constraints made it all look pretty unlikely). Robert - who looks surprisingly like an older Pablo Picasso - is a master distiller who runs a company that sells essential oils, cultivates genetically diverse lavender, and sells stills that he designs himself. Robert is an American. His partner, Dorene, who is a Kiwi, runs a U.S.based university for aromatherapists.

Robert and Dorene sailed into Crete at the weekend (in a 63 footer) and drove for 5 hours on chaotic roads choked to melting point by holidaying Greeks and maddening weather to meet up with the kidz on Tuesday after a single email inviting them over. And, contrary to our expectations, everything went swimmingly - R&D were generous, positive and, extremely knowledgeable. They - D&G and R&D - spent time in the lavender circles, time in the cellar and time breaking bread together - talking constantly. It was a great meet up and when R&D left they promised to return.

... and tomorrow I shall tell you why D&G were so confident that the meet would work ....

Monday, August 11, 2008

Kafka breaks me up

My review the other day of The Howling Miller raised a few eyebrows by referring to Kafka with respect to comic writing. I have always laughed long and hard at Kafka and have know a couple of other readers of like mind but it was nice to see this opinion reflected in a worthy piece about Kafka over at 3quarksdaily today. I quote below:

"Hawes spent ten years writing a Ph.D. on Kafka. Now he is on a mission
to deconstruct the “hagiographic myth” surrounding the Prague author in
order to expose the real Kafka. His works are “wonderful black comedies
written by a man soaked in the writings of his predecessors and of his
own day”. Indeed, Max Brod provides some evidence of this comedic
dimension to Kafka’s works. He recalled Kafka reading aloud from The Trial.
At times, he said, Kafka “laughed so much that there were moments when
he couldn't read any further”. This Kafka has been somewhat obscured,
but he’s certainly there, struggling to free himself from the
chitinous, beetle-like skin into which fate and literary fame has
sealed him."

Friday, August 08, 2008

The Howling Miller

The Howling Miller by Arto Paasilinna (Author), Will Hobson (Translator)

Modern literature has its fair share of novels about outsiders and this is another. Paasilinna is a Finn however and his take on the nature of otherness is, if not unique, unusual. Not for him (I assume Arto is a male name) the existential angst of the Russians and the French. Nor the grimy realism of kitchen-sink 60's Britain.

Paasilinna instead gives us a side-splittingly funny story of the other more in the tenor of Magnus Mills or Kafka (no, really Kafka is hugly funny, go back and read him again if you doubt me). His eponymous hero - a miller who howls - is a rational and intelligent man surrounded by a massive nuber of irrational and stupid people who happen to determine his fate by dint of their numbers.

The village that he moves to somewhat mysteriously needs a miller and he is without question a very good miller. He is also a gifted mimic who keeps the local children amused as he woks restoring the rotting mill but trouble looms when the locals find his howling a problem. Paasilinna sketches a developing scenario that plays out the analyses of Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault regarding madness in modern times and, in an inexorably depressing couple of chapters we see the howling miller committed to an asylum and deprived of both his liberty and his posessions.

All is not lost though. for there are other outsiders - other others if you will - and in their faltering, poignant, heart lifting, efforts they transform our hero's life and future. Confounding expectations, this wonderful tale moves toward an almost magical realist finale that leaves one breathless. The other others are almost as well realised as the miller himself and their respective aberrancies add a light and shade to the "other" side of this story so clearly lacking in the mainstream.

This is a very good novel. It is well written - very well written - it is elegantly crafted, and the translation is so clean and precise as to be worth a mention all of its own. A minor classic I think.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Putting my money where my mouth is

A few months back my iMac G5 (of blessed memory) blew up, or fritzed, or fell over, or went to meet its maker, or any other euphemism you want to choose. OK - situation completely fucked - no main machine and not a pot to piss in! Replacement motherboard about 700 euros plus VAT plus fitting - no way! Can't be done. Can't be afforded. So. what to do?

For years I''ve been telling people that their machines or their aspirations computer-wise were way above what they really needed or used. Time to take some of my own medicine? I thought long and hard. I considered all the options and finally deccided not to swap to Linux (a serious option) - not to go with bargain basement new stuff (Asus eeepC was an option) but decided instead to drop bacck a full generation or two - well a generation from that then curent kit but 3 from the then state of play.

I copped off on eBay with an early generation mac mini G4 from the US and waited. It was a low spec machine and I had serious misgivings but heck it was cheap - really cheap until the Greek customs guys notched it up a bit - would I manage? It had the advantage of being able to use all my old peripherals - and I had an old CRT haning around that had cost me 10 euros so I thought 'we shall see'.

Well. the kit turned up last week - I paid the customs' surcharge unwillingly - and I brought it home on Frday. So far - very good. All my peripherals work. I've decided against upgrading to 10.5 and the set up is working well. A few things don't run quite as quickly as they used but what the hell it's hardly noticeable.

Result! My own advice was good.