Friday, 29 December 2006

Words on the way back

After a two month break from writing, I am almost back in the saddle. Phew! It really pains me to think of the 12,000 words (approx. 2 chapters) that I haven't written recently.

At the moment, I am working on a character backstory, which I've been putting off for ages; but it really is crucial for the whole novel. It would make a good tale in itself actually, so I'm toying with the idea of writing it up as a short story. The opening paragraph came to me last night at about 2am, so I had to find a pen and paper to write it down. (Of course, now that I've just read it through again, it's crap!)

Thursday, 28 December 2006

Chenna has a blog!

Today I helped Chenna set up her own blog. It's called Feline in therapy and I think it will be very good for her. She is far too neurotic for a cat lavished with love and attention. Hopefully it will help me (and my poor, persistant friends) understand her better. She really can be lovely sometimes, and it will be fabulous to share that with everyone else!

Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Cracking cricket trumps jigsaw on boxing day

For the first time I can remember, channel 9 is broadcasting the boxing day cricket test all day, every day, in the Melbourne metropolitan area. My boxing day tradition of trying to finish off the jigsaw puzzle started on Christmas day was therefore complemented by the dulcet tones of the channel 9 cricket commentary team and visions of the MCG greensward speckled with men in white.

And what a terrific day of cricket it was! After all the hype of Shane Warne’s retirement and impending 700th wicket, it remarkably went all to plan. Warne’s first (read 700th) wicket was a ripper and he went on to get 5. England were all out for around 150, then Australia was 2/44 at stumps. Not even some brief rain delays could wash away the fact that 12 wickets fell in one day.

We made some progress on the jigsaw, but we’re a long way from the finish. Maybe the cricket had something to do with that!

Weather gods get fickle in the festive season

The rain dances have finally worked, and about a week after stage 3 water restrictions were announced, we’ve had the coldest, wettest Christmas imaginable. In fact, I heard it was the coldest Christmas in Melbourne’s history, with the temperature reaching just 14.5 degrees. Winter coats and umbrellas were dragged out and dusted off, sandals flung back into the wardrobe to be replaced by stout boots, and for once roast Christmas lunches were truly welcome – not to mention the open fire we had in the living room.

Four days ago we sweltered in 35-degree heat, and used the air-conditioning.

I’m not sure the rain will have done much for our desperate dams, but it should at least have put out the terrible bushfires that have been ravaging the state for the past couple of weeks. I even heard there was hail and snow in the high country. My cousin, a photographer, took some photos up there yesterday and it was quite something to see the charred trees and debris, still smoking and steaming above a carpet of hailstones.

Sunday, 24 December 2006

Eragon

Well, Eragon is certainly hyped up in media at the moment, and I will confess I read the book in anticipation of the movie coming out. My theory was that it would be good aeroplane reading, being targeted at young adults . . . With about 30 pages of the book to go, I saw the movie yesterday, and then finished the book last night. Here are my thoughts. [warning: spoilers]


In principle, the story of Eragon is a relatively simple ‘hero’s journey’: teenager (Eragon) finds mysterious rock which turns out to be a dragon egg; dragon (Saphira) chooses him to be her rider which brings much danger (not to mention aura and magic); mysterious storyteller in village (Brom) seems to know a lot about dragons and helps Eragon escape the forces of the evil ex-dragon rider king who wants Eragon (and his dragon) to serve him; after a series of adventures (including the rescue of a beautiful elf) Eragon and Saphira end up in the mountain stronghold of a group of rebels plotting to overthrow the evil king; battle ensues and they win, but the victory is only a minor one, leaving room for the sequel (called Eldest).


There’s nothing really new in all that, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been a really charming book, filled with great characters and high drama etc. In truth, the author, Christopher Paolini (who was around 17 when he wrote this book), does create some interesting characters --- most notably the mysterious werecat, Solembum, who communicates with Eragon through mind speech, and I also rather liked the renegade, Murtagh, who pops up out of nowhere in the middle of the book and becomes Eragon’s travel companion, and is later revealed as the prodigal son of the king’s former right hand man (now deceased).


The book contains most of the elements of traditional fantasy: young ‘farm boy’ who becomes mighty with both sword and magic, wise companion who is revealed as a former dragon rider (I saw that coming a mile off), elves, dwarves, evil king, a long journey/quest on horseback. But again, that’s not necessarily bad, if done well.


If I had disliked this book, I wouldn’t have finished it, but I have to say it let me down. There were two main problems for me: the structure and pace, and the writing. Both of these can probably be attributed to the author’s age. To me it read like it was written by a 17-year old --- albeit a very talented one. Words aside (and I won’t go on about repetitive sentence structure and too many passive constructions), the ancillary detail of action, thought, dialogue etc seemed young. No doubt this is also authentic, and is part of what makes this novel so appealing to young readers.


Aside from that, the story was paced too slow. To start with, the egg doesn’t hatch for almost 40 pages, and then Eragon manages to hide his growing dragon from everybody for weeks. Many of the villagers and the storylines there are superfluous to the ultimate story. It just takes so long to get going. Once Eragon finally does leave his home village, it is with the intention of pursuing his uncle’s murderers. I can only assume Brom aids him in this as an excuse to spend time training Eragon in the arts of sword and magic. They then spend another 150 pages fluffing about, including a side journey to a coastal town seeking shipping records for some oil the assassins used (such a stupid idea --- although this is where they meet Solembum the werecat, and Angela the herbalist, who play a role later in the story).


Somewhere in the middle of the novel, there’s a flurry of excitement as the assassins start chasing them; Murtagh appears and saves Eragon, but Brom is killed. But then, it all slows down again as they head off in completely the opposite direction to a town in the north in search of someone who can tell them where the rebels are hidden. There, they manage to rescue the elf, Arya, who spends most of the rest of the book unconscious, as they now head south again to find the rebels. (It’s like a tour of all towns on the map in random order.) There’s a big chase as they lead the enemy forces right to the gates of the ‘hidden’ rebel stronghold, followed by a really long lull as Eragon explores the hidden city, visits the library, is tested for his abilities etc. Just as the story is supposed to building towards its climax! The final battle itself has a relatively short build-up and is over in a flash.


(One other little gripe: the author uses Saphira to impart knowledge ‘that Brom told her in secret’ to propel the plot in a few places.)


In all, I do admire Christopher Paolini for this book, though. My knowing his age might have made me more sensitive to many of its faults, but I believe it made me more forgiving as well. I expect that his books will improve rapidly, and I suspect that in time I will also read Eldest. [Although, having just now read some of the reviews on Amazon, I may not!]


Given all this, I was interested to see the movie of Eragon, since I anticipated it would have tightened up the plot considerably. It did, but it was by no means a brilliant adaptation (although I won’t go so far as to slam it to the extent of the reviewers on imdb.com!). Many of the changes were made to increase the tension (since the novel had very little) and weed out the superfluous story threads (applauded by me), but it went OTT on the stereotypical depiction of the evil king (played by John Malkovich) and his chief henchman, the shade, Durza (Robert Carlyle). In addition (and somewhat ironically) the movie seemed to travel too quickly! I think this was because it didn’t impart a good sense of time passing for the traveling scenes (although the scenery was beautiful), and the viewer had little sense of the distances being traveled. It could have spent more time setting up backstory and characters --- particularly Murtagh, who appears near the end with very little explanation and seems in the context of the movie completely superfluous. Solembum was dropped all together L and Angela reduced to a chance encounter (she tells Eragon’s fortune, and this must have been deemed important by the scriptwriter). The major climax lacks the customary ‘calm before the storm’ and therefore lacks the impact it should have had. The whole movie as a result ends up feeling hollow and trite. (Despite my criticisms of the book’s pacing, it certainly doesn’t lack in texture.) I did rather like Jeremy Irons as Brom and Sienna Guillory as Arya. Others have praised Rachel Weisz’s voicing of Saphira, but I found her accent irritating.


One final comment before I end my rant! One of the aspects about Eragon that I like most is the premise of how dragon eggs hatch. The eggs can last for centuries unhatched, the dragon inside waiting for the person it wants to be its rider. In the world of Eragon, the dragon riders and their dragons are all gone, the king having killed them all, and there are only three eggs remaining. Saphira’s egg was stolen many years ago from the king’s possession, and the elves and rebels have been guarding it, waiting for it to hatch. Arya was trying to send it using magic to Brom, when Eragon found it. The last two eggs remain in the king’s possession, leaving the door open very nicely . . .

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Page Turners: Do androids dream of electric sheep?

Friday 8 December---the PT meeting
It was fabulous to finally read this book. I read it while travelling and very much enjoyed it. Inevitably, I compared it with what I remembered of the film Bladerunner. To me, it seemed as though the book contained a whole lot more depth, particularly about the post-apocalyptic society.

The motive of the main character, a bounty hunter (Rick Deckard), is to kill androids in order to make the bounty payment . . . so he can purchase a real live animal. In this society, animals have been driven almost to extinction by (one assumes radioactive) 'dust'. Animals are purchased via 5-year plans, with exorbitant prices listed in a market price catalogue. Rick and his wife have a (secretly) fake electronic sheep, which is shameful. All he wants is a real animal---they are a status symbol in this society, but also seem to be indicative of one's responsibility to 'take care of an animal'. I found this scenario fascinating.

A key theme in this book is empathy. The characters use 'empathy boxes' to have shared religious experiences/hallucinations about a guy called Mercer, who evidently could bring animals back to life. (This is never satisfactorily explained.) An 'empathy test' is used to distinguish androids from human. Rick begins to suspect he has empathy for the androids he's supposed to kill . . . The androids themselves have a profound lack of empathy. In fact, one of them (Rachel) tries to play Rick into falling in love with her, only to reveal that her aim was to prevent him from ever being able to kill androids. It's a tactic she's used before . . .

The basic plot is the same as Bladerunner: androids escape their offworld masters, and are hunted down by Rick Deckard.

It interested me that others in the PT group didn't like it as much as I. Some found it cram packed with too many ideas, too influenced by PK Dick's drug history and five wives, too confusing to have meaning, somewhat puerile and adolescent, full of plot holes that are not believable.

While I agree with some of these comments, my overwhelming impression was positive. I found the ideas and character journeys so very interesting.

I particularly liked one observation that the book is about 'entropy'---it's about the decay of everything to the lowest state of order . . . animals, humans, even stuff (which manifests as 'kipple').

Another observation was that perhaps the androids seemed lacking in empathy because of the way they had been treated. . . However, this doesn't explain Rachel's behaviour, nor the androids' attitudes towards the 'chicken head', John Issidore.

We seemed to agree that the androids are rather too easily killed at the end, but that this is a major point of difference between humans and android: humans keep fighting and have hope, whereas the androids seem to just give up in the end and accept the inevitable.

Thursday 14 December---the movie
Some of us gathered to watch Bladerunner. I was itching to see it again! As remembered, the plot is essentially the same, if a bit simplified. A major difference between them is the depiction of the society. The depiction of LA is a huge contributing element to the movie's success. It's visually stunning. But the main image---that of an over-crowded city that's always dark and gloomy and raining---is totally different from the book. In the novel, the city (of San Fran) is almost deserted by those escaping the dust. It's bleak, but not gloomy. The animal theme is retained in the movie, but it's not really explained. Empathy, however, doesn't rate a mention.

Another major difference is in the main character. In Bladerunner, Deckard is little more than an action hero. His motivations are (IMHO) somewhat unclear. He is a retired cop summoned back because he's the best. In the book, on the other hand, Rick is only really 'second best', granted the opportunity to go after the androids because his senior has been injured. He's insecure, world-weary, and only driven by the bounty reward which will allow him to get an animal and make his wife happy. At one stage he thinks he's going to give it all up, only to be turned by Rachel's actions (which have the reverse effect than she intended).

One aspect of the movie I liked more than the book: the motivation of the androids (or 'replicants' as they are in the movie). They had very motivation little in the book; but in the movie, they are seeking their maker in order to prolong their lives. Much more believable and poignant also.

I think that's enough of a rant about this one. We now have a few months of free reading! I am currently reading Eragon.

Wednesday, 13 December 2006

A food connoisseur’s Chinese experience - part 2

Drinks
Wine was hideously expensive, so the only two bottles opened in my entire stay were from my hosts’ private stash. Otherwise, it was G&T’s for a fortnight, plus an occasionally cocktail thrown in.

In theory, coffee wasn’t too hard to come by, since there are Starbucks on every corner. But Starbucks coffee is crap, so this wasn’t particularly helpful. There were other places here and there where you could get OK coffee. But, bottom line, I drank less coffee, and seemed to survive OK.

Other foods
The other major highlight was ‘cream puffs’. Somewhere there is a French influence in China, because you could get these beautiful cream puff things (choux pastry?) filled with a delicious creamy custard and topped with chocolate icing. We ate a fair few of these! Nearby I also found Chinese style custard tarts. In Beijing, we found a boulangerie called ‘Paris baguette’ which had custard filled puffs and buns and madeleines and and and . . . Pity for my hosts, this doesn’t appear to exist in Shanghai!

Carrefour
We went to Carrefour supermarket, which is evidently a French chain, so it was in the western style, but had some distinctively Chinese features to it. We started off slowly, strolling through the non-food section (a bit like K-mart), moving through the confectionery section, where it was all about presentation and packaging (boxes of chocolate within boxes!). Then we hit the fresh food section . . .

Live crabs, clambering out of their container. Live fish, jumping out of their vessel. Live turtles, frogs, eels . . . OMG. Shanghai crabs are a delicacy available for only four weeks of the year – apparently that includes now. They’re a little hairy, and they were being sold trussed up (alive?). There were open trays of chicken feet, so you could pick out your own. The chickens were sold fresh, plucked and gutted, but with their heads and legs included! It’s enough to turn anyone vegetarian. There was also a pre-packaged meat section, but this included all forms of offal etc, as well as the more prime cuts of meat. Multiple forms of steamed buns. Loose leaf tea. (For a non tea drinker, I’ve purchased quite a lot of tea!) The supermarket was fascinating.

Beijing Night Market
We had dinner along here one night. The options are many: anything you can think of on a kebab (including scorpions, beetles), stir fried noodles, toffee fruit on a stick, fried ice cream, banana fritters, stir fried meat/vegetables in pancake wraps . . . I think between us we tried almost everything! All was yummy, except for my squid on a kebab, which was dreadful, primarily because of the way it was cooked and the sauce/spices on it.

Sunday, 10 December 2006

A food connoisseur’s Chinese experience - part 1

My recent trip to China was definitely very much about eating. In fact, we joked that the fortnight was pretty much focused on dining experiences separated by the odd site or two. Much of what we ate was authentic Chinese, but we also ate Japanese a few times, Thai, Indian, and sometimes ‘western’, although this was most often for breakfast/brunch.

Chinese
This came in many different varieties. My favourite were definitely dumplings, which we had in all sorts of places: food courts, dumpling houses, restaurants, airport restaurant . . . Dumplings are the traditional Chinese ‘snack’ and are much like those we have here for Yum Cha: steamed or fried ‘dim sum’ things with pork, shrimp, vegetables etc inside. All yummy.

I also learned some of the differences between northern Chinese food, and southern foods. In the north, they eat cold dishes of pickled vegetables etc, which look as though they ought to be hot. They are very nice, though. This is then followed by hot stir fried dishes. Bamboo shoots, mushrooms and various other fungi are very popular. Rice is generally served at the end of the meal on its own, or not at all! Better also say that we ate ‘peking duck’ at a Cantonese restaurant in Beijing. We also experienced a ‘Shanghainese’ restaurant and a typical Suzhou meal (which is itself another story!).

I must say that many of my Chinese eating experiences were ‘hit and miss’. This was partially because I didn’t have much say in what we ordered! My hosts generally took control, and although this was good in extending my range of experiences, it meant I had to put up with items I would not usually order. There wasn’t much that I actually detested, but the experience has made me realize that maybe Chinese cuisine as a rule is not really my thing! [The same could be said for Japanese food, which my hosts simply adore. I just don’t get the attraction. The only Japanese food I really get is sushi.]

Non-Chinese food
The funny thing is that all ‘non-Chinese’ food is still a Chinese interpretation of whatever it’s supposed to be. Particularly the so-called ‘western’ foods. For example, I had a ‘tuna melt baguette’, which in a Melbourne café conjures up a certain image that was simply not met in a Chinese café, no matter how western it claimed to be. Literally, it comprised canned tuna smeared thinly on the baguette halves, drizzled with a thin layer of melted cheese. For all that, it was surprisingly tasty!

For western style breakfasts, we went to an American café called Element Fresh a few times. Here the menu was familiar, but different. We went there four times, and this is what I ate:
1) the 'big American' breakfast, which came with FOUR eggs no less, breakfast potatoes (tex mex potato salad, warm - disgusting), sausages, bacon, french toast (with maple syrup on the side), plus some slices of watermelon. Too much, but the coffee was good (latte).
2) blueberry pancakes, declined breakfast potatoes (I mean, really!) with yoghurt on the side.
3) smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel, which was very yummy indeed and came with a MOUNTAIN of smoked salmon.
4) ‘healthy start’ breakfast set, which included an egg white omelette - also yummy.


Chopsticks
No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the hang of chopsticks. Nevertheless I persisted, despite the fact they 1) slowed me down (perhaps a good thing!), 2) made me look like an idiot. So great is my frustration with them that not even the tourist chopsticks with my name on them could tempt me. I have never been able to fathom why many of my friends and family feel the need to eat with chopsticks at home, just because they happen to be eating Chinese (or Asian) food. What’s with that?

Desserts
I must make mention of desserts separately, for they are simply unbelievable (and I don’t mean that in a good way). Two ‘stand-outs’ were the ‘Ice Kechang’ (below), a mountain of shaved ice drizzled in sweetened milk, herbal jelly, mung beans, canned corn (OMG); and ‘Japanese ice cream’, which was chocolate ice cream served on a bed of corn flakes, adorned with glutinous rice balls and red bean sauce. Give me chocolate pudding or tira misu any day!

2 weeks to Christmas!

. . . more or less.

Just wanted to check in and say hi, because the past couple of weeks have seen me in a form slump: no writing, no blogging, but a fair amount of going out to dinner and socialising.

Words: still zero.

Today is excrutiatingly hot (40 deg C at least), so all my grand plans for the weekend (finishing off Chistmas shopping, cleaning, writing etc) have been booted out the window. Energy is minimal. Hence this rambling post!

I perused a book about blogging while I was away, and it had all sorts of things to say about posting: keep the entries regular, interesting, funny, and make sure your subject heads are catchy. It was all about hooking your reader, and keep them coming back to your blog. I will attempt to put some of these things into practice in the coming weeks . . .

Saturday, 2 December 2006

Oriental dragons & mythical beasts

As a fantasy writer, I might reasonably be expected to be interested in dragons and mythical beasts, don’t you think?

Fortunately for me, dragons especially are prevalent in Chinese architecture, folklore, and even urban legend. And, even more fortunately, my hosts in China were exceptionally good at relating history, legend etc about dragons (among other things).

For instance, apparently Shanghai has a dragon living in it, and this has led to a couple of cool stories. First, there’s a building (the stock exchange building, from memory) built with a HUGE square in the middle of it: this is because it was built in the dragon’s flight path, so it’s to allow the dragon to fly through it. Second, as part of a complex multi-level road construction, they once needed to drive a massive (three-metre diameter?) concrete pylon into the ground. But they were having trouble. In the end, it turned out they were trying to drive it through the head of the dragon, so the answer was to carve 9 dragons (9 being the ultimate number for good luck—only slightly better than 8) on the pylon. They did this – 9 beautiful elaborate dragons spiraling around the pylon – and apparently it worked—the pylon was driven into the ground successfully!

There are also dragons everywhere as decoration. Apparently only the emperor was allowed to have a five-clawed dragon (his ultimate symbol), so others have claws corresponding to the rank of the official who commissioned it. In Yu Yuan (gardens) we saw a number of four-clawed dragons as sculptures atop undulating walls. Another impressive dragon site was the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City, Beijing. This is a wall (effectively) decorated with nine dragons, all different and in different colours. The central dragon is gold and face-on to the viewer, which was the traditional symbol of the emperor.

Whereas dragons are associated with the emperor (and the masculine), the empress’s symbol is a phoenix. So you frequently see a dragon and phoenix intertwined, or in some form of synergy.

The lions are interesting as well. At the entrance of almost every official building, there is a pair of lions: a female on the left (as you face the entrance) playing with a cub, and a male on the right playing with a ball. Both may have a pearl in their mouths and often have bells carved around their necks. The image of the lion tends to be not very accurate, as evidently lions were unknown in China, and the carvings came from descriptions only. So they don’t look much like lions.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Blogger blocked in China!


For the past two weeks I have been in China, and to my surprise I was totally unable to log into blogger (or access it in any way). The government has completely blocked it. This means I was thwarted in my plans to post every now and then about my travels.

But now I am back!I will most likely start off slow, but I intend to post periodically over the next few weeks about aspects of China that I found interesting.

The photo above is of one of the courtyards of Yu Yuan in Shanghai. These are preserved traditional gardens dating from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD).

Chinese traditional gardens are quite unlike any gardens I've seen before. They consist of interlocking courtyards, either walled or divided up by pavilions of all shapes and sizes. The courtyards are filled with artificial rock (and cement/mortar) formations built up to resemble 'mountains'. Sometimes there is a pond (with fish and water lillies). Plants and trees are integrated with the rock formations - I can't remember too many of the plant types, but I do recall they included oleander, Japanese maple and poinsettia.

The gardens are usually highly decorative, including stone mosaics of objects such as dragonflies along the paved pathways and dragons in various forms. They also often contain a form of Chinese bonsai. The more ornate the better!

In addition to Yu Yuan, we saw gardens like this in Suzhou, which is renowned for its gardens, and Beijing, within the Forbidden Temple complex. The rock formations themselves are quite ugly, but the gardens as a whole can be very attractive and peaceful. It was lovely just to wander through, soak up the atmosphere, and pay attention to all the detail (which I've described very badly!).

It seems rather a lovely lifestyle, though, with real living areas (buildings/pavilions) broken up by various courtyards. The 'Garden of the Master of the Net' in Suzhou struck me like this in particular - the entire complex (house and garden) is walled like a private residence, but instead of our concept of the garden surrounding the house, it was all broken up like a patchwork of house and garden. I could easily imagine a family in residence, the kids running and yelling out of one pavilion, through the nearest paved courtyard (maybe falling in the pond or feeding the fish) then bounding into the next indoor room.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

words for the week - 312

Hmmmm. These were all written a week ago, last Wednesday! I've definitely been in wind-down mode, preparing for a two-week holiday in China. But I didn't intend to stop completely! I'm guessing my count for the next two weeks will be zero. In fact, probably the next three weeks, if I'm realistic. It's a shame, but I think it will do me good to get away from a computer for a while.

Back with word reports in a month.

More on Brave New World

The following insights come from Masterpieces of Philosophical Literature by Thomas Cooksey, courtesy of one member of Page Turners who delved a little further . . .

It turns out that the reason the societal structure of BNW reminded me so much of the one proposed in Plato’s “The Republic” is because Huxley intentionally used Plato’s structure to explore the paradoxes of a utopian society.

Another snippet I found interesting is that Huxley not only borrowed the title “Brave New World” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, he also borrowed the main constellation of characters (with a few twists).
* John the Savage = Caliban
* Lenina = Miranda
* Mustapha = Prospero the magician (“above the fray, manipulating events”)
* Bernard Marx (stunted by alcohol in his blood-surrogate) = Stephano the drunken butler
* Helmholtz Watson = Trinculo the jester

In “The Tempest” Stephano (Bernard) and Trinculo (Helmholtz) “join forces with Caliban (John) in a plot to overthrow Prospero (Mustapha), their subversive pretensions more comic relief than any real threat to the system”.

Also, whilst many of the characters’ names & personalities are based on composites of real people on the world stage, John the Savage is loosely based on D.H. Lawrence, a close personal friend of Huxley’s. Lawrence, best known for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, left Europe after WW1 to travel the world, living in Mexico for a while (where he spent some time with the natives). According to Thomas Cooksey, “both (John & Lawrence) find themselves at a loss, the Western world sterile and unappealing to them, and the primitive world closed and inaccessible”. Hence "a plague on both your houses".

All very interesting. What a fabulous book for discussion!

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Page Turners - Brave New World

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley proved to be a really good book choice for Page Turners, owing to (a) the number of people who had "always planned to read it" and therefore made the effort to get it finished, and (b) the sheer weight of the novel, which (although short) has so many themes and issues inside that we barely scraped the surface.

I took notes during our meeting, but it was a little difficult to get everything down! This was partly owing to point (b) above, and partly to the fact that there were so many of us (~12?) that everyone had a point to make which often changed the direction of conversation quite abruptly --- often, I felt, before we'd finished the previous point. However, this didn't really matter. I think it was good that so many of us something to say. It is certainly a very thought-provoking novel.

Here's an excerpt from Wikipedia describing the novel:

Brave New World, published in 1932, was first intended as a dystopian novel by Aldous Huxley. Set in London in the 26th century, the novel anticipates developments in reproductive technology, biological engineering, and hypnopædia that combine to change society. The world it describes could also be a utopia, albeit an ironic one: Humanity is carefree, healthy and technologically advanced. Warfare and poverty have been eliminated and everyone is permanently happy. The irony is that all of these things have been achieved by eliminating many things people currently derive happiness from — family, cultural diversity, art, literature, science, religion and philosophy. It is also a hedonistic society, deriving pleasure from promiscuous sex and drug use.

Brave New World is Huxley's most famous novel. The title comes from Miranda's speech in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Act V, Scene I:

"O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How
beautious mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in't!"


Personally, I found the novel very interesting, but I don't think I really liked it much. There weren't many characters I found sympathetic, and those that I did find sympathetic, invariably turned out to be not so. The main characters were Bernard Marx, a highly intelligent misfit in this "utopian" world, who takes a friend (Lenina) to a savage reservation --- a type of Native American reservation that has not been "civilised". There, they meet Linda, a woman from the civilised world who was lost there some 20 years ago, and her son, John. Bernard gets permission to bring Linda and John back to civilised London. And this is where the story really starts.

What ensues is an interesting social experiment. John "the savage" is an instant celebrity by virtue of his uniqueness, and Bernard also, by virtue of his association with John. Bernard reveals himself for the weasel he always was: celebrity completely goes to his head and he becomes completely obnoxious. John struggles to get by in a society about which he's heard a lot from his mother, but which doesn't really make sense to him. He's also a walking Shakespearean encyclopedia (that being his only reading material on the reservation), but Shakespeare is banned. He also has a burning love for Lenina, but doesn't feel himself worthy of her. Lenina herself is close to being in love with John, but can't understand why he seems not to like her. It's total clash of cultures: John detests promiscuity because of the way his mother was treated at the reservation; Lenina has been conditioned to expect it. The outcome is dreadful.

There is so much one could say about Brave New World. These are some of the points we talked about:

The ongoing discussions about "nature versus nurture" in determining character

Modern practices of hypnopaedia with mothers playing music to babies in the womb

Sexism in the novel: Promiscuity was expected, but could women say "no"? We were divided on this point, depending on interpretation.How much was John conditioned by his upbringing?

Use of song-orgies as an outlet for emotion in a word where there was little emotion other than "happiness".

Definitions of happiness: were people in this society in fact happy? Who decides what happiness is? The society seemed to be more about control and stability than happiness.

The ending: Interestingly, it turns out that the end of novel is actually ambiguous, with half the group interpreting it one way, and half the group the other. We wondered whether this was intentional on the part of the author, or whether half of us are simply wrong!

Henry Ford, who is reverently refferred to as "Our Ford" in godlike worship, and how he was the inventor of the production line, which is used widely in this society to make babies.

Soma - we didn't actually talk about it much, but since this seems to be one of the most memorable things about Brave New World for many people, it must be mentioned! (Soma is a multi-purpose drug, used for tripping and sedating.)

The above seems wretchedly inadequate for a discussion about Brave New World! However, I think that's all I'm going to say. It's a novel that is definitely worth reading and I am glad that I have now done so. It's the type of novel that will percolate through the mind for some time to come, I think.

Next book is Do androids dream of electric sheep?, by Philip K. Dick.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

words for the week - 1556

Just scraped in past 1500 this week. It's been a bit tougher. Had more challenging scenes to write. Nevertheless, I got there :-)

Saturday, 28 October 2006

Movie: Children of men

From the moment I saw the preview on At the movies I wanted to see this movie. Starring Clive Owen, Children of men is set in a bleak not-too-distant future where women have been mysteriously sterile for 18 years. It's set in an England where "illegal immigrants" are herded around in metal cages and dumped in illegal immigrant camps. One of these is the entire town of Bexhill on England's southern coast (near Hastings). There's a terrorist group fighting for the rights of these illegal immigrants, and they contact our hero (Clive Owen's character, Theo) to enlist his aid to smuggle one of these (who is miraculously pregnant in a world where no babies have been born in 18 years) out of the country.

As such, the plot is relatively straightforward. It's basically a chase storyline, with a few twists and turns along the way. Julianne Moore plays Theo's ex-wife and leader of the terrorists; Michale Caine plays a hippyish reclusive bloke, close friend of Theo's, who grows and sells weed to the immigration camp officers. It's not always clear what extra significance the baby holds for those chasing after it, but it's a minor criticism.

For me, the most striking thing about this movie was the plausibly bleak outlook of our future. While it's unlikely that women will suddenly become sterile on a global basis, maybe we should be considering the effect our modern lifestyle has on our general health and ability to reproduce. And as for the treatment of immigrants/refugees . . . in Australia we have such a poor history in this area that it must strike us all particularly hard. This film made me wonder what would happen in this country if our government pushed things a little more, ever so slightly more.

It's a pretty violent film. Lots of guns firing, although not much gore. Thousands of bullets whizzing around. And a lot of swearing. There's also a lot of death, and a slightly unsatisfactory ending . . . I would have liked another scene or two, just to complete the resolution. I think it needed a few more rays of hope in what was an incredibly bleak experience.

It's a really GOOD film, without being a terribly uplifting one. Very thought-provoking though.

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

words for the week - 2082

Still going pretty well. Finished chapter 14 and started chapter 15.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Detox - day 12

Still on the limited diet, but I'm starting to cheat a bit. (I am sooo sick of chicken.) Today I ate: a vanilla custard rice snack for breakfast; half a choc-chip scone for morning tea (naughty); a steak sandwich (with onion, lettuce and mustard mayo) for lunch (the mustard probably not ideal), followed by pears and natural yoghurt; a jam tart for afternoon tea (I tried to resist, I really did. In the end I read the packet and there wasn't really any lemon in it, so I relented); risotto with chicken (tick), leek and peas (tick), roasted pumpkin and sweet potoato (tick), balsamic vinegar (probably not so good). Plus loads of coffee of course.

Skin allergies seem to be going down, but not subsiding completely yet. Getting really sick and tired of these stupid eating restrictions. It makes me depressed and cranky. Especially NO WINE! AAAGH!

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

words for the week - 1705

Having a good run at the moment. The words still flowing. Feels good.

Did the above in two sittings which is pretty good for me! What is not good is that I only had two sittings in an entire week.

Having said that, I find that a run of a few days (such as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday) makes the fourth day really difficult. Why is that?

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Books I've read recently . . .

First Truth by Dawn Cook (fantasy)
This was OK. In truth it didn't live up to expectation. I first came across the title when I was browsing 'favourites' lists on Amazon, and someone's list included just about all my other favourites, plus four books by Dawn Cook. I reasoned this was a pretty good bet. I enjoyed it in a mild way. The plot was very simple, there are only four characters of note, plus a couple of logic/plot errors that annoyed me. Not sure if I'll continue -- probably will if I happen to see the next one. It meets my night time demand of 'not too intellectual'.

An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer (audio)
I have read just about all Heyer's books, with the exception of some of the historical novels, and this was one on the borderline -- partly history, part historical romance. The romance part is between the grandaughter of favourite hero/heroine pair from Devil's Cub (Mary Taverner and Dominic Alastair, Marquis of Vidal) and the brother of the hero of Regency Buck. I enjoyed parts of it a lot, but it went a bit too much into the detail about the battle of Waterloo (both the lead up and the battle itself). I ended up 'reading' the last half (as opposed to listening), purely so I could skip through the tedious sections, which were largely narrative and, although educational, not terribly interesting. I am glad to have finally read it though.

Various 'Thursday Next' novels by Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots)
These are really rather strange and defy description. They are set in an alternate 1985, where Shakespeare is almost a god, reverse engineering allows mammoths and neanderthals to live again, international travel is via a tube through the centre of the earth, the Crimean War has only just ended . . . it goes on . . . oh, and some people can go INSIDE the world of books to interact with the characters there. Thursday Next is the main character and she is a literary detective -- one of those who goes inside books. With these books I find the premise and world really interesting, but the books and characters themselves rather lack heart, and I am far more intellectually engaged than emotionally. As a result I can pick them up and put them down again just as easily. (I find my ambivalence rather fascinating in itself.)

Currently reading:
The Silver Road by Grace Dugan -- exciting because I sort of know the author (and various friends know her really well). She is part of the Aus fantasy/sci-fi crowd, which is how I 'know' her. I saw her first novel the other day and picked it up in a show of support and interest. I thought it sounded OK. So far, it hasn't wowed me, but I am enjoying it in a mild way.
Angels & Demons by Dan Brown (audio) -- more 'walking to work' fare. Need I say more?

Supposed to be reading:
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (for Page Turners) -- I really want to read this, but haven't picked up a copy yet. Funny how not many shops keep such a classic in stock! Will have to try harder this weekend, because I'm running out of time.

detox - day 5

The thing to note is that it's not really a detox program. It's more me trying to rid my system of chemicals (amines and sylicates and MSG) that have built up to overflowing point . . . or so I hope. (I'd hate to think this was all for nothing.)

So after hell-Saturday I relaxed the rules to include cooked chicken (no skin) and pancakes with maple syrup. I've also had a little mashed potato with parsley (not thrilling).

I am getting a little sick and tired of chicken now, so plan to progress to rice and steak tomorrow. Perhaps also some green beans and/or peas. (I refuse cabbage, choko and brussel sprouts.) The pancakes are still good (and the life-saver at the moment). Still also progressing with pears and natural yoghurt. In theory I should be able to eat pasta/gnocchi, but I'm not sure what to put with it?

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Detox - day 2

I think I'm going to die.

I don't know how I can possibly do this. I have a fridge full of food that I can't eat. I am absolutely starving, but I couldn't face the thought of another rice cake. It will have to be more pears and natural yoghurt.

What is life without food? I feel lethargic and depressed and I have a headache. I managed to do some gardening (chopping back) today, but I have little energy just now. I cannot write.

I want a toasted bagel with avocado and smoked salmon. I want chocolate. I want a pizza. Hell, even vegemite toast would be welcome right now.

OMG I will die. Tomorrow I can introduce potato and skinless chicken. Just how am I supposed to make that tasy?

Thursday, 12 October 2006

Detox program

For the past month or so, I have been suffering severe skin allergies, mainly on my arms. It started with a rash on my arms; it looked as though I'd touched something that had caused quite a severe reaction.

After a few days I went to the chemist and got some non-drousy antihystamine, plus some mild lotion. A few days after that, I switched to a cortisone cream that I had in the cupboard. (At this stage, the skin was quite inflamed, hot to touch and very itchy.)

A week after it first appeared, I went to the doctor, who prescribed a cream that's 10X stronger than the first one, plus suggested I take a stronger antihystamine (the kind that makes you drowsy) overnight.

The doctor explained that such a rash is actually caused by your immune system attacking whatever it perceived to be as foreign. Your immune system goes mad, producing hystamines (hence the antihystamine) and the various creams counteract them as well by lowering the immune system.

I should add at this point that I was against putting on these particular creams, simply because they do act to lower your immune system and in the past, this has resulted in skin infections.

Anyway, after at least another week of this treatment (two different antihystamine tablets a day, plus the cream), the rash cleared up but . . . you guessed it, skin infections on my arm.

So for another week I treated these with bathing, betadine and bandaids. (The rash fading away all the time.)

These infections are mostly cleared up now, but I now seem to be allergic to bandaids, and my skin has become inflamed where the adhesive was.

And to CAP IT ALL OFF, I have now eaten something that has caused more rashes to appear on my legs, arms, belly, face and neck (and ear). ENOUGH ALREADY!

As a result of all this, I am about to embark on a detox program. My mother has given me a copy of a little booklet that explains what food elements tend to cause allergies, and which foods have them in low, medium, high and very high doses. The theory is that the dam is overflowing and my system is filled withthings it simply can't cope with in its current state.

For the next month or so, I am going to try to avoid just about everything. Apprently I am supposed to live on a diet of rice cakes and golden syrup for a week or two. No more tomatos or avocados or chocolate . . . it's a very long list . . . It's going to kill me.

Aussie netballers beat NZ

The first of three netball tests was held tonight in Wellington, and Australia won 51 to 47. Fantastic result! The game is being played on TV at 11:40pm tonight and I'm half tempted to stay up to watch. I'll definitely be taping it.

I am still recovering from missing the previous game against NZ (which Australia also won, breaking a long drought against the silver ferns).

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

Monday, 9 October 2006

Page Turners: The sound of one hand clapping


Author: Richard Flanagan
Leader: Astrid
Host: N
Food theme: ‘pickles and bread'
Date: Thursday 5 October

Here's the long-awaited summary of our most recent Page Turners novel and discussion. I took notes this time so I could report more accurately.We had quite a small turn-out to this meeting, but at least four people had finished the book, which still made for a good discussion. (Two of us kept rather quiet: one hadn't started, and I had read up to about p65.)

Here's a synopsis (from Amazon):

From Publishers Weekly
Tasmania--vast, mysterious, like "the unknown country of the heart"--is the setting for this
powerful tale of a father and daughter who struggle to rise above the forces of
history and personal tragedy. Sonja Buloh barely remembers the night 35 years ago
when her mother, Maria, walked out the door of their crude hut in the dismal
construction camp at remote Butlers Gorge, never to return. The mystery and
heartache surrounding that event echo through Sonja's young life all the way to
1989-90, when the pregnant Sonja returns from mainland Australia, longing to see
Tasmania and her estranged father. Bojan Buloh was just another "reffo" from a
Slovenia ravaged by WWII, recruited "to do the wog work of dam-building," when he
found himself the lone parent of three-year-old Sonja. Bojan's poverty and his
memories of his wife and of wartime atrocities made Sonja's childhood difficult;
his brief hopes for another marriage were dashed, and Bojan fell into drinking
and beating his daughter. Sonja's painful memories mix with those of her sober
artie's (the affectionate Slovenian word for father) tenderness and his inspired
woodworking ("his hands knew a restraint which lent him grace"). Though her
father cannot articulate his suffering (one of the themes here is the inadequacy
of words to express the totality of existence), she remains bound to him in deep
understanding of his despair. Only after confrontations, revelations and Bojan's
symbolic and apocalyptic rebirth is the past redeemed and the pair reconciled.
Australian writer Flanagan (Death of a River Guide) brilliantly illuminates the
lives of those who are "forgotten by history, irrelevant to history, yet shaped
entirely by it." His characters here transform tragedy as they discover their
individual worth.


I know that one of the reasons I didn't finish this novel was because it's pretty depressing, and I think most of the others felt the same way. There's nothing uplifting that happens in the novel --- except perhaps for the ending, where apparently all is forgiven when Sonja has a baby; but not many of us thought this was realistic. (I also thought it was a bit gross that the genetic father of the baby was nowhere in sight, and she was effectively having this baby “with her father” as part of their reconciliation. Yuck.) Having said that, one of our number stated that she firmly believed that, despite the violence Bojan committed towards his daughter, there would still have been love present. I think most of us found the idea of beating up a child quite sickening, and that to have a child might just perpetuate the damage, rather than heal it.

Blame
This novel did generate good discussion though. We spent some time discussing how to attribute blame: was Maria (the mother) actually more to blame for abandoning Sonja? By leaving, she created the situation that drove Bojan to drink and violence.

Later, it turns out she committed suicide, and was found hanging from a tree. This led to discussions of whether suicide was a worse betrayal than merely leaving, since there was no room for a lingering hope that one day Maria would reenter their lives. We discussed the difference between abandonment (of the child) and suicide (abandonment of everything). The motives for Maria’s suicide in the book seemed unsatisfying, according to some. I think none of us could possibly understand how a mother could do that --- put her own troubles over the well-being of her child, so-to-speak.

Title
We talked briefly about the title of the book. “The sound of one hand clapping” is evidently a zen koan that means “the soundless sound”. We interpreted it in the context of this book to mean a recognition of incompleteness. Richard Flanagan himself acknowledges that the title was a last minute addition. (Sounds to me like he tried to come up with something that sounded cool, rather than having profound relevance to the story.)

Refugees
This is obviously a hot topic in Australia, and we avoided the obvious rant (although we all agreed) about how bad we felt about this government’s treatment of the many refugees that arrive in Australia. However, we spoke about the experiences of those refugees that arrived in Australia during the 50s (as per the novel), about the two-year contracts and labour camps, about the drinking and gambling culture that occurs when community guidelines are missing. It was sobering to reflect upon how little has changed.

Themes and metaphor
Just finish up we briefly touched on two of these:
China tea set --- This was Sonja’s as a child, but got smashed at some point during the story. When she returns to Tasmania at the beginning of the book (although as a grown woman), Sonja recovers the pieces and commences piecing it together again. I understand that her father ultimately glues it back together --- symbolic of his need to patch up their relationship.
Suitcase --- When she leaves, Maria takes a battered old suitcase, which she stands on to hang herself. It seems that Sonja takes the same battered suitcase when she leaves at 16, and I’m not sure whether it reappears in the “present day”. This seems to represent the passing of baggage from character to character?

Anyway, that’s enough on this book. Next one is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

blog makeover

I've just spent the most delightful hour or so "making over" my blog. See how the template now stretches to the edges of the screen? See how the cacky brown headlines are gone? See how all the posts now have a subject label for easy access of selected categories?

I can also add lists using the new template (instead of html, which I have no idea how to use) so watch out for "my favourite books" coming soon!

words for the week - 1269

A little down from the past couple of weeks, but I'm pretty happy with that, all things considered.

I think I finished another chapter and have almost cracked 60,000 words. HALFWAY!

Sunday, 1 October 2006

Ballet - Raymonda

Last night I went to my first ballet of the year. This is the first year in about 20 (probably more) that I have not subscribed to the season. I first started attending when I was a schoolgirl and my grandmother took all six grandaughters on a Saturday afternoon. Since then, I have had a subscription with friends . . . until this year when we decided we were all just a bit jaded from the experience. When you start to think of attending as a chore, you have to look at what you're doing!

Anyway, two of us decided to attend Raymonda, which neither of us had seen before. I think it was a new production. We went on a Saturday night (instead of Monday at 6:30 after work) and had dinner before and dessert afterwards. We made a night of it. We had fun!

The ballet itself was pretty good. It seemed loosely based on the story of Grace Kelly and Prince Ranier, with Raymonda being a 1950s Hollywood star about to marry (and who in fact does marry) a 'European Prince'. The story was basic, with the tension arising from Raymonda's insecurities that she wasn't good enough for him, and that his family shunned her, all of which manifested in a rather long dream sequence that took up about half the ballet. Moreover, the final act was one of those I detest: no story line at all because it's a wedding reception and you just have to watch them dance and dance and dance . . . and to cap it off the costumes for the final act were weird! The men (including the hero) were wearing outfits that looked like PJs. Terrible!

But the dancing was lovely and the choreography good and most of the costumes were good too. (I don't know what happened in the final act: designer in training?) In all, we both enjoyed it and I was really pleased to have gone.

Cast was Lisa Bolte as Raymonda and Robert Curran as the prince.

Thursday, 28 September 2006

cuddles

Goodness! Had a situation just now when I had three posts announcing my words of the week! This is because blogger seemed to be having problems yesterday, and I tried twice but thought neither worked. Then posted again just now and . . . three posts saying the same thing! Oops.

Anyway, visited my sister this evening and arrived to find my niece and nephew in delightfully cuddly moods. For about 10, maybe 15 minutes, I had an armful of 3.5 and 1.5 year-old. "Cuggle, cuggle," says Wesley with the most gorgeous grin on his face and little arms outstretched. "It's because we love you," says Hannah, plonked in my lap, arms tight around my neck, cheek next to my cheek.

I think I used up my annual quota of cuddles tonight. It's amazing how these things happen when you least expect it. One can beckon children for cuddles and kisses and they just look at you disdainfully. (You must be joking! they think) But tonight I did nothing but arrive and say hello. They swarmed out of the bedroom predisposed to dispense love. It was overwhelmingly wonderful.

Wednesday, 27 September 2006

words for the week - 1874

Good week this week. Words flowed on Sunday evening as I wrote a 'low pressure' scene. Must learn to let the words flow more often.

Monday, 25 September 2006

Recipe - Triple choc brownies

Occasionally I do get around to baking. Yesterday, the event was my nephew Wesley’s baptism. I was asked to contribute a plate for lunch/morning tea. I didn’t have time in the end to go shopping, so was forced to make do with whatever was available in the pantry. . . and I found . . . three blocks of cooking chocolate (one of them white)! As a result I made ‘triple choc brownies’, substituting the milk chocolate for dark. The result was (as you might imagine) deathly rich. However, I was asked for the recipe. Here it is:

Triple Choc Brownies

125g butter
200g dark chocolate, chopped
½ cup castor sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1¼ cups plain flour, sifted
150-300g milk chocolate, roughly chopped (amount depends on pigginess)
100-250g white or Top Deck chocolate, roughly chopped (ie leave lumpy bits)

Grease brownie pan. Combine butter and dark chocolate in a saucepan and melt over a low heat until smooth. Cool slightly. Stir in sugar, eggs and then sifted flour. Fold in chocolate and spread into pan. Bake in a moderate oven for 35 mins or until firm to touch. Cool in the pan, then turn onto a board and slice into chunks.

GRandMa funks . . .

. . . Richmond, is where I had dinner on Saturday night. Main meal was juicy steak on pea & parsley mash, with caramelized onions, red wine jus and sweet potato chips. Standout was the Tim Tam Cheesecake (OMG).

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

Words for the week - 1782

Had a much more successful week, writing a little bit in five separate sessions. I thought I might have cracked 2000, but got sleepy yesterday evening, went down for a nap and woke up over an hour later! (I guess I should have just gone to bed . . .)

I am still working through the problem patch, but it’s starting to resolve itself. Another week or so and I should be out of it.

Got some nice feedback from Ligia yesterday about Act 1 (chapters 1 to 5). It has helped keep me inspired tonight and hopefully I can maintain momentum for the next few weeks at least.

Highlight author - Lynn Flewelling

I thought I’d start a series on favourite authors, since reading is such an important part of my life. This will be in addition to miscellaneous books read and Page Turners reviews.

So today’s highlight author is Lynn Flewelling.

I first came across Flewelling a few years ago when I encountered her Night Runner books:
Luck in the Shadows
Stalking Darkness
Traitors Moon
[. . . more, oh god I hope so . . .]

These chronicle the adventures of Alec and Seregil, who are alternately minstrels, cat burglars, spies, Royal emissaries, lords, warriors, recluses . . . The books are set in a fairly conventional fantasy world, complete with the ‘elf equivalent’ race of Aurenfai, but for all that, it’s well drawn and vivid, with evidence of a rich history. Moreover, the culture of the Aurenfai, explored in detail within Traitors Moon, is compelling and unique. The central characters are well-drawn and absolutely lovable, making these books fabulous entertainment. There’s never a dull moment. A stand-out feature for me is Flewelling’s handling of the love story between the two male lead characters. It evolves so naturally, with such subtlety, that it’s quite beautiful.

Flewelling has just completed the Tamir Triad, set in the same world but thousands(?) of years before the events in the Night Runner series. The books here are:
The Bone Doll’s Twin
Hidden Warrior
Oracle’s Queen

The rather eerie premise of these books is the use of special magic to conceal the identity of a baby princess, by killing her twin brother at birth and casting her in the male form. Thus does young ‘Prince Tobin’ grow up as a boy, hidden from the eyes of his uncle, the King, who has had all female claimants to the throne murdered. His murdered twin brother is present as a demon ghost. The first book deals with Tobin as a child, oblivious to the truth, growing up as one of his cousin’s ‘Companions’; in the second book Tobin knows that he is actually a girl, but stays concealed in male form; and finally in the third book Tobin sheds male form to become Tamir, 16-year old queen, who has to confront her beloved cousin and win the right to lead her people.

The Tamir Triad is more original that the Night Runner premise, but I don’t find them as compelling. In the first place, the story is a bit light-on, so not as much happens. I also feel that the characters are not nearly as engaging or as multi-dimensional. Perhaps it’s because Tobin/Tamir and her squire, Ki, are still quite young? But the supporting characters are far less convincing than the supporting cast in the earlier books. I enjoyed the read, but can’t see myself bothering to re-read; whereas I have already read the Night Runner books at least twice and am contemplating reading them again!

Despite the slight disappointment of the Tamir Triad, I continue to recommend the Night Runner books to everyone. And I really hope Flewelling returns to those characters and writes them another adventure!

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Words for the week - 464

Oh dear! Will try for a better effort this week. Was hamstrung by various social engagements. It’s time to focus again and become a social hermit.

Sunday, 10 September 2006

Page Turners: Orlando


Author: Virginia Woolf
Leader: N
Host: Astrid
Food theme: ‘Afternoon Tea’
Date: Thursday 7 September

I must start by confessing that I personally put in a poor effort on this one. Orlando is a rich tapestry of images and ideas, woven together using very long sentences, extraordinarily long paragraphs, and . . . well, the entire novel is just 5 chapters. It is undeniably an intellectual book, using intellectual language and themes. In my opinion it is something to be savoured in small morsels, with plenty of time for reflection between. It is not a book to be read at speed, late at night after a really hard ‘intellectual’ day in the office.

I have already said I was extremely tired (and busy) all month. I frittered away three weeks before making a start, and then struggled to concentrate in the evenings as I tried to read it. It doesn’t really have a narrative drive; it’s all ideas and anecdotes. I made it half way through, but even then I was frustrated by my inability to really focus on it properly.

However, others had finished and enjoyed it very much. Here is a brief synopsis (from Wikipedia): It is the story of a young man named Orlando, born in England during the reign of Elizabeth I, who decides not to grow old. He does not, and he passes through the ages as a young man ... until he wakes up one morning to find that he has metamorphosed into a woman — the same person, with the same personality and intellect, but in a woman's body. The remaining centuries up to the time the book was written (1928) are seen through a woman's eyes.

We talked a bit about Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, and about how much of Orlando might have been autobiographical, rather than solely based on Vita’s life. We talked about the passing of time, and speculated on N’s epiphany that perhaps the whole story had gone on in Orlando’s head; that in fact Orlando was a (fictitious) woman of 1928, who was a little mad with a lively imagination.

We also talked a bit about Virginia’s other works, in particular Mrs Dalloway, and the experimental techniques Virginia used in writing — such as stream of consciousness. Her ability to write in a way that presages modern film-making was also discussed (the example was given of a particular ‘great hall’ scene, described in the manner of movies).

The discussion left me wanting to read more of Virginia Woolf’s work, but I will need to find a time when I am relaxed and fresh. I plan also to give Orlando on audiobook a go.

Next book is The Sound of One Hand Clapping, by Richard Flanagan.

[FOOTNOTE] More on N’s epiphany. She says: “I actually think it's a biography of orlando's internal & external life. Her external life spans 1908 to 1928, from the physical age of 16 to 36, while her internal life (that of her imagination) spans from the mid 1500s to 1928.”

Words for the week - 1095

After a three week break, I came back with a solid effort of 1095 words this week (to Wed 6 Sept). The downside is that these were put together in a mere two sessions of writing. A great effort for the individual sessions, but I need to write more regularly!

To write myself back in, I elected to go over some material written over the past few months and rework a few scenes/events that weren’t working.

Unfortunately, this week is not looking good, since I’ve not written anything yet. I’ve had a lot on in the evenings (which is why it’s taken me so long to post on last week’s words). Moreover, today I’m feeling lethargic and lazy. I wonder if I can make myself write something this evening. Maybe target 300 words and see how I go?

Sunday, 3 September 2006

Phoenix: something to be glad about

The mighty Melbourne Phoenix, alas, did not make it into the Commonwealth Bank Trophy netball grand final. They lost in the preliminary final to the Thunderbirds by 7 goals (60-53) and although it was a great game (much better from the Phoenix than past performances this season) they never really looked like winning.

Oh well. At least they didn't have the mortification of losing to the Swifts by 29 goals in the grand final (65-36) this Friday night past. I haven't yet seen the game, and I'm not sure whether I'll watch it (assuming the tape worked). The Swifts have been unbeatable this year and fully deserve the win (no matter how galling to admit it). I think I'll instead go watch a replay of the 2005 grand final, in which the mighty Melbourne Phoenix whomped the Swifts (although not, I think, by 29 goals!).

Hopefully next year will be a better one for the Phoenix. This year, they never quite compensated for the loss of Eloise S-H, whose playmaking in the attack end was sorely missed. Click here for all Commonwealth Bank Trophy details. GO PHOENIX!

Update: a little bit of everything

I'm very aware that it's been over a week (about 11 days in fact) since I've posted. It was not my intention to start a blog and then ignore it, so thought I'd check in.

The thing is that I've been incredibly tired for the past two weeks. It's almost as though, with the wedding over, I fell into the proverbial heap. (And it wasn't even my wedding!) I've spent the time reading and watching TV predominantly, with some socialising thrown in. But I've been so tired.

I gave myself almost three weeks' break from writing. Until today, the last time I wrote was Monday 14 August. It was probably evident from my previous post on writing that I had struck a snag and was struggling in a variety of areas. So it seemed logical to take short, guilt-free, break. It has been good, but somewhat predictably it's now a struggle to get back into it. However, I have spent a relatively successful (albeit painstakingly slow) day of inserting myself back into the story. It has taken the form of rewriting a particular scene, but that doesn't matter. It's all words and hopefully it will help solve the dilemma confronted a couple of thousand words downstream.

Last weekend I had a "my weekend" where I indulged in some shopping, visited the Home Show, and met a friend for a spontaneous "I need to get out of the house" lunch. I could do with some more of that, but (to risk rehashing an old theme) my weekends are never long enough! This weekend, aside from today's writing effort, I met a writing friend for dinner on Friday night, where I helped her with some suggestions on the first 3 chapters she's hoping to submit to a publisher (good luck, Ligia!).

Saturday was a gorgeous 24 degrees and so I spent the day in the garden - pulled out a few ugly plants, moved and planted others, plus trimmed the carnivors back in preparation for repotting. These are shooting flowers all over the place - always an exciting time of year! I think I should have repotted a few weeks ago. It was so nice to wander about in the garden in short sleeves, make plans and just sit with a coffee on the deck. I love my garden! Having it "renovated" early this year was the best thing I ever did.

Last night, we had our semi-regular Battlestar Gallactica evening. We are currently watching season 2, about 8 episodes in, and now determined to make it to the end before season 3 starts in the USA. This means we have to go weekly for the next couple of weeks, in order to get three more evenings in before the end of September! Poor N&J will be sick of the sight of us soon (if they're not already). For we are now threatening to appear weekly to watch season 3 as they are downloaded from i-tunes! It is certainly a great series.

I think that'll do for an update. This isn't supposed to be a diary as such, although I rather like documenting my life (the more interesting bits). Even if nobody reads it. Hopefully I'll have some more energy soon and will be able to do some more philosophising on various subjects.

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

The Wedding


After significant build-up, M&M got married on Saturday. I don’t have detailed photos, but the bride looked beautiful (of course) and everyone had a lovely day.

I took Friday off, which felt a bit slack, but turned out to be the best thing. It meant that I had ‘a Saturday’, where I slept-in, did washing, vacuumed, tidied up, and generally relaxed. At 2:30 I went to see how M was doing and we had a manicure (first time for me). The nails looked great for a couple of days, but they’re a disaster now.

I had never been to Xavier before, so was surprised to find when we arrived for the rehearsal how attractive the campus is. Xavier Chapel is set on a hill amid old-style buildings, looking over sweeping ovals with a fabulous view of the city in the distance. A lovely setting for a wedding. The rehearsal was more work than anticipated, with everyone being whisked through the ceremony and me specifically being instructed in the arts of chief dress “fuffer”, at which I failed dismally.

We had dinner with the bridal party plus extras and got home to mum and dad’s at a reasonable time. In the morning, M’s other bridesmaid, Belinda, came around and we headed off to the salon for our coiffure. I ended with something that looked straight out of the sixties - big front and intricate twists created with 22 bobby pins. Everyone said it looked great, but I just thought it looked big.

The three of us transformed surrounded by champagne, sushi and sandwiches, aided by brother J. Mum also transformed, and then dad arrived with Hannah, who also transformed into the ‘red princess flower fairy’(??). The photographer was around by then, so there were many photos of bridesmaids slipping on bride’s shoes, taping dress to bride, fastening necklace etc etc. More photos followed outside, where Hannah behaved beautifully.

The cars arrived, and turned out to be London taxicabs - very fitting for M&M, who spent 18 months living in London a few years ago. Despite the fact that our cab driver bleated the horn all the way to the church (literally) it was rather an entertaining ride, although B and I felt like goldfish in a bowl. The wedding ceremony passed quickly, with M&M’s friend Kate singing beautifully and the bride entering to ‘Here comes the sun’ sung by Nina Simone. I didn’t do much dress-fuffing, but it didn’t seem to matter. The most contentious issue was where we were supposed to stand at various times. How confusing should a wedding ceremony be?

Afterwards, more lenses appeared everywhere I looked. Friends and family standing back with their digital cameras stuck out in front. Formal group photos. Many hellos. Sore cheeks from smiling. We were by this time very cold . . . More photos were taken at the St Kilda Botanical gardens with champagne. Still cold . . .

The reception was at Red Scooter in East St Kilda, where we finally warmed up. The extended canapés played havoc with my tiring feet, but it was nice to see people and relax a bit, official duties completed (or so I thought . . .). The rest of the evening passed quickly, with lovely food (I had the fillet steak), good speeches, dancing with the cousins (although I was surprised by bridal waltz time, because it is of course traditional for the bridal party to join in, which I’d quite forgotten about . . .). The gifts on the table were shot glasses filled with chocolate M&Ms and dessert was a plate of multiple small delicacies: mud cake, cheesecake, apple pie.

As the evening wound to a close, I became suddenly exhausted. Mum and dad dropped me home, but Mum and I had to wait for dad to drop M&M home first (fortunately just around the corner). Unfortunately, however, I had to wrestle with my dress for 20 minutes before I could get it off, then remove the 22 bobby pins, then remove the makeup . . . it was after 1:30 before I got to bed and I truly crashed.

The following day, M&M hosted afternoon tea for family and a few extras, including the bridal party. Everyone took a plate (except for me, being still in recovery mode, not to mention without shoes, since most of my gear had been left at mum and dad’s . . .) and the festivities rolled on. I think many were in ‘recovery mode’ much as I was. Nevertheless, it was a fitting closure to a busy yet happy weekend. I hope M&M have a nice honeymoon. They’ve gone to Broome with a hired 4WD . . .

Wednesday, 16 August 2006

Words for the week - 862

Not very good.

Excuses: overwhelmingly tired just at the moment. I'm finding it so difficult to raise the energy to create. Work is leaving me drained of all but the best intentions. Tonight I want to curl up in front of the TV. Or with a wickedly fast-paced and entertaining book.

This coming weekend is the wedding, so very likely no writing. Perhaps I'll just give in to the inevitable and have a short break.

I've lost my focus. Everything I write seems trite and boring. I think I've written myself into a corner, and all I can think of is accumulating my word tally, when I should probably be assessing where I'm at and where I should go next. But I don't have the head space to find a solution. Perhaps I need someone to read it and offer suggestions. Should I just keep writing for the moment and worry about fixing my problem later? It's not really going to affect the direction of the story, just the element of surprise (or lack thereof) when a certain event takes place.

I'm rambling.

Monday, 14 August 2006

Mars like the moon?



I received information via e-mail recently that advised everyone to watch the planet Mars this month, that it was about to be spectacular! The powerpoint explained that Mars was about to come within 34.5 thousand miles of the Earth. In effect, on 27 August 2006, it was going to look as large as the FULL MOON.

Naturally, I was intrigued and rather excited, but I am afraid I have discovered it is all a hoax. The following article from NASA explains that the moon did indeed come close to the Earth on 27 August 2003 and again in October 2005, but neither of these events even closely resembled the event described above. It figures!

Saturday, 12 August 2006

Page Turners: Across the Nightingale Floor


Author: Lian Hearn
Leader: Me
Host: Ania
Theme: Japanese food (miso soup and green tea cake)

We actually discussed this novel onThursday 3 August, but I've not had time to post about it. I want to try to post a summary of all our meetings (held monthly), even if more than a week late.

Brief synopsis: Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn is a fantasy novel set in an imaginary world that is unashamedly based on feudal Japan. Takeo is the central character, a boy of 16 raised in a remote mountain village, whose world falls apart when the village is attacked by Lord Iida Sadamu. From the beginning, when he escapes Iida's sword, it is clear that Takeo has unique abilities. He is rescued (apparently coincidentally) by the passing Lord Otori Shigeru, who happens to have a personal vendetta against Iida himself. Shigeru adopts Takeo into the Otori clan and proceeds to have him educated as both a young man of the warrior class, and also a member of the 'Tribe', a mysterious group of assassins with supernatural abilities like Takeo's. There follows a plot involving feuding clans, political scheming, secret love and plans for revenge. Interwoven with Takeo's story is that of Kaede, a girl of the warrior class who is used as a hostage to ensure the 'good behaviour' of her father. She is treated like a pawn and bundled off to be married to Shigeru - only to fall in love with Takeo. The climax takes place in Lord Iida's city, where everything unravels with tragic consequences.

An interesting point of difference among reviewers of this book - and also the members of Page Turners - was the writing style. It is written very simply. Some interpret this to mean it's written for children, or by an inexperienced author. Others (including me) considered the writing elegant in its simplicity. The author herself stated "I am fascinated by the use of silence and assymetry. I like the concept of ma: the space between that enables perception occur. I wanted to see if I could use silence in writing. So the style is spare, elliptal and suggestive. What is not said is as important as what is stated."

I responded to this style, but many did not, finding it too simplistic, lacking in detail and a barrier to empathising with characters. Some in the group said they didn't care whether Takeo lived or died.

We probably didn't have the best discussion of this book, and that was my fault. In leading the discussion, I had a tendency to analysis its effectiveness as a piece of fiction, such as looking at how well the characters were defined, whether a reader believed in the character relationships, and whether certain scenes were dramatic enough. This was probably not the best angle to take, because most readers don't analyse a book in quite the same way as I do as a writer. In general they enjoyed reading it, but didn't much like pulling it to pieces. I feel a bit bad about that. It's a lesson for me on how not to lead a book discussion.

But perhaps I'm not being entirely fair to myself. As a story it is really very simple, and its uniqueness and interest come for the most part directly from the writing style and the setting. It deals with the common themes of revenge, loyalty and betrayal - plus the subjegation of women! We didn't end up talking about any of these much.

I personally found this book really powerful, and posted on it 17 July, just after I finished reading it (see Books that make you cry). I always find it interesting when others have such different opinions to mine - it always take me by surprise!

We are now reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf, and I will try to post on that sooner after the discussion . . .

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

words for the week - 1533

1533 for this past week and 1081 for the week before that. Not too bad given the madness that is my life at the moment.

I have been stuck for a couple of days wondering how to implement some flashback scenes. I wrote some scenes in January 2005 that were meant as character explorations as a means of getting me back into the novel and writing generally. They deal with key episodes in the childhood of my main protagonist. I actually rather like them as they stand and am speculating introducing them into the novel as flashbacks (in reduced form). This then set me wondering where to insert them and how much I've revealed to the reader already and how to deliver the information in the most strategic way . . .

I'm also trying to figure out the most effective way of delivering a particular scene that I'm currently building up to (a set piece?). Everything I introduce to raise the tension now will, I fear, end up reducing the impact of the event itself. This has me in a dilemma!

Not sure how much writing I'll get done this week, since there's a lot of wedding stuff on, not to mention other events . . .

Monday, 7 August 2006

A REALLY busy week

Had a lot on this past week, starting from last weekend:
Saturday - spent the day with a friend who spontaneously visited Melbourne from Shanghai on business, and elected to spend an extra day in Melbourne to say hello. Spent the evening at a 40th birthday party.
Sunday - went to the netball (mildly hungover) to witness a depressing loss by the mighty Melbourne Phoenix.
Monday - Uni reunion (see earlier post)
Wednesday - Out to dinner with friends; a lovely evening but ate far too much
Thursday - Reading group/page turners on Across the Nightingale Floor. Hope to post on this separately soon.
Friday - squeezed in a bridemaid's dress fitting before again attending the netball, this time for a much better result: a win for the Phoenix
Saturday - the hens event (see previous post)

Throw in work and there wasn't much time for anything else! Today (Sunday) has been a little more relaxing: a bit of home maintenance with my parents visiting and some fridge shopping. I plan to get a new one very soon! Hopefully this week will be a bit more in control . . .

Sunday, 6 August 2006

The Hens Event


I haven't said much about this to-date, but yesterday was M's hens event. As one of the bridesmaids, it was my self-appointed task to arrange this, and so I am glad it is now over! We had two events: High Tea at the Windsor Hotel, followed by drinks and tapas/antipasto etc (for those who could still eat) at the Longroom bar in Melbourne.

A picture of a half-eaten High Tea dish is to the right. We had around six of these for a table of 23 people, plus a side table with lemon merangue pie, creme caramel, chocolate mousse pie thing, chocolate cake, cookies . . . The food was fabulous, but TOO MUCH! I now think back to all that we left and feel like weeping, because of course today is another day and I would really enjoy another creme caramel, a piece of the chocolate cake, plus scones with jam and double cream . . .

We had a private room - "The Winston Room" - and were all seated on a single board table. The classic Windsor decor and personal waiter made it a special afternoon spent with special people.

We kicked on at the Longroom for drinks from about 6pm. This bar is a massive room with wrought iron grids separating it into 'rooms' that make it feel private while providing plenty of atmosphere. I am pleased to announce this was my choice of venue (after a bar crawl a few weeks ago) and it seemed to find favour with all. So much so that even the 'oldies' - our mother and two aunts - stayed about three hours longer than we thought they would! The music was not too loud, it wasn't too smoky, and we had a fabulous bay of comfortable couches arranged in a square. A good time was had by all, with the bride and her chief cronies kicking on at the Lounge dancing until 3:30 am. (I bowed out considerably before this!)

Friday, 4 August 2006

Book Review - "Temple" by Matthew Reilly

Finished this as an audiobook recently. Broad plot outline: US professor of ancient languages (William Race) is seconded by US army for a secret mission, which turns out to be the retrieval of an Incan idol that has been carved from a meteorite made of some element called 'Thyrium'. Race is brought in because he can translate an anicent manuscript written by Spanish monk (Alberto Santiago) that tells where the idol is. There turns out to be many parties fighting over this idol, which is greatly desired to fuel a new mega-bomb, called a Supernova, which can destroy the planet. Interwoven with the modern tale, is the tale of Alberto and his Incan prince friend, Renko, who escape from the Spanish invaders with the idol back in Incan times.

It's both a thriller and a classic hero's journey tale. Race starts off as an academic, good at sports, but not terribly adventurous. By the end of it, he has defused two supernovas (by correctly guessing the de-arming codes); witnessed the brutal murders of his brother, his brother's wife (Race's ex-girlfriend), his bodyguard/friend plus others; wrestled crocodiles; leaped from one plane to another in mid-air; survived a plummet to earth inside an army tank. . . and it goes on. There are many plot twists, both plausible and implausible, and in general it's quite entertaining. (There is a 'however' coming up in a moment . . .)

I have heard much of MR over the past few years - many people I know have read Ice Station (which I actually gave to my brother for Christmas one year). I saw him at a Melbourne Writers' Festival once - a self-professed movie buff, who tries to write like it's a film. This doesn't mean he writes like it's a screenplay; he writes as though the reader is watching a film. In an interview at the end of the novel, he said he wanted to write really long action scenes, longer than you'd get in a film . . . (well, I don't know about that!).

It is true he writes very LONG action scenes, and one particular scene in Temple went on and on - at least three walks to work and back! This was a river race - six 'good guys' take on a flotilla of 'bad guys' to retrieve the stolen Incan idol in the rainforests of Peru. Every minute action of around four main characters was described in excrutiating detail. It went on for EVER. And since I was listening to it as an audiobook, I couldn't even skim through it.

But the main issue I have with MR/Temple is the writing. I can accept that such a novel doesn't necessarily need complex character development (although Reilly does his best - and who am I to talk anyway?), and aside from some overly long action scenes, the tension, twists in the tale and pacing were pretty good. BUT the writing really annoyed me. Excessive use of adjectives/adverbs and excessive use of words like "astounding" to describe events - ie telling rather than showing. Also, rather than letting the reader put the pieces together for themselves, he tells you once, twice, three times - just in case you didn't get it!

But the thing which annoyed me most I think were phrases like "square-shaped hole" or "pole-like trees". I would be interested to do a word count of the number of times he used "shaped" and "like" in his adjectival constructions. What's wrong with "square hole"? Next thing he'll be saying "round-shaped sphere". I don't know if I noticed this more because I was listening to it as an audiobook, or whether I would have thrown the book across the room regardless. I suspect the latter.

Anyway, it was entertaining enough for my walk to work, although I did contemplate once or twice stopping in the middle. I don't think I'll be rushing out for any other MR books anytime soon though!

The 7am meeting that wasn't

Do I need to say any more?

Dragged myself out of bed at 6am (after setting two alarms) and into work, only to find said meeting had been postponed. So now I sit, staring at the screen, bleary eyed, contemplating starting work at least 1.5 hours earlier than normal.

It's not pretty.

As could be deduced from the eloquence of my post . . .