Saturday, 31 May 2008

Movie: Indiana Jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull

After a dearth of interesting movies, there are suddenly many to choose from. After Iron Man, I indulged with a viewing of Indiana Jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull. This movie was a lot of fun and, although it has a slightly different feel to the other Indiana Jones movies, a good addition to the series.

The movie is filled with tributes to the earlier three, plus many quips about the age of our hero. But Harrison Ford has still got it. He cracks his whip and leaps from moving vehicles with the same gusto -- if not grace -- as the younger Indie.

I also really liked the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood (from Raiders). I always wondered what happened to her, and it's nice to have that answered.

Briefly, the plot of the movie concerns Indiana's mission to save a former colleague ('Ox') from the KGB. By way of Marion and her son 'Mutt', Ox sends a riddle to IJ which sends him into Peru and the Amazon in search of a crystal skull. The KGB, lead by Cate Blanchett's Irina Spalko, are shadowing him, determined to wrest its supposed power for themselves. There follows many chase scenes through South America and down the river to a lost temple, where all is revealed!

It's not a perfect movie, nor a great one, but I don't think it lets the fans down too much. (A little was probably inevitable.) I would have preferred the story to have stayed clear from the paranormal -- it's just not IJ! But despite that, I enjoyed it a lot!

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Movie: Iron Man


OK, so I haven't been writing of late, and I have a new computer, so hence the frequent blogging this week! Tonight I saw the movie, Iron Man, which was not quite what I expected, but enjoyable for all that. (I simply can't resist Robert Downey Jr.)

I thought it was going to be a comic-book style movie about a superhero. Instead, the first part of the movie was firmly grounded in a rather chilling reality, complete with Afghan warfare and miltary operations.

OK, so perhaps "grounded" in reality is not quite true. (He He)

Tony Stark (RDJ) is a technology genius and the brains behind a powerhouse US weapons manufacturer. He is super rich, and doesn't seem bothered by the fact he's profited from the proceeds of killing. His stance is "protection of Americans". However, his whole world is challenged when he is captured by an Afghan renegade miltary circle and ordered to produce a copy of his latest weapons masterpiece. He sees his own weapons in the hands of "terrorists" and realises that he's been deluded. He resolves to fix the situation. But first he has to escape.

This is where the sci-fi comes in. He builds a suit of iron armour complete with weapons and jet propulsion (using components from all his weapons, which are at his disposal), which he uses to blow up the camp where he's been held hostage, and then flies away. This is the genesis of "Iron Man".

The first act of the movie is chilling and very dramatic, and there's little sense of where it's going. And although the movie takes its foot off the pedal in terms of drama, and reverts to comic-book style, the mood of the opening never quite leaves the viewer. Back in the US, Stark refines his prototype Iron Man costume, and fights a losing battle with his company to stop building weapons. He becomes an armour-clad flying avenger of sorts (not iron -- a gold titanium alloy!), and the whole thing ends in a major showdown between good and evil in the comic-book manner one might have expected after all!

Despite the heavy opening and more predictable ending, I really did enjoy this movie. I thought it was more of a thinking person's superhero movie. It had all the elements of a traditional comic-book style, infused with an alluring gravitas that gave it just enough weight.

Monday, 26 May 2008

From Illiterati to boffin

It's never all smooth sailing with a new computer. The first one kept crashing/freezing -- unacceptable. The second one (a replacement) hasn't yet crashed, but I've been having all sorts of problems with Outlook 2007.

We're using Outlook 2007 at work, and it's excrutiatingly slow. We're all complaining. But the problem seems to be periodic. On the other hand, my problems at home were getting to the point of being ridiculous. The reading pane kept dropping out, and navigation down the list of e-mails took seconds for each one to highlight (and still no reading pane). Sometimes closing Outlook worked. Sometimes it wouldn't reopen!

In desparation, I googled "Outlook 2007 slow" and came up with a number of links, including this one here, which is gold. There's a whole forum of discussion, spanning over a year, in which everyone voices concerns and tries solutions. For those lucky souls using a Dell computer (me included), removing the application "MediaDirect" seems to work whether you're using Vista or XP. I'm using XP Pro at home and Vista at work. I've removed MediaDirect from this computer (home/XP) and so far, so good. Certainly the computer booted up faster! And I think Outlook is still working at an acceptable speed.

Prior to this fix, I had believed it to be something to do with my importing of an Outlook.pst data file from my other computer. Once I did this, the trouble started. In an attempt to combat it, I created a new pst file and made it the default, closed off ("archived") the other pst file, and all seemed to go OK . . . for a while.

Gee I hope this latest fix works! I have spent almost the entire evening playing around with this problem. For a total computer illiterati, I'm fast become a boffin!

And to think I was so impressed with myself when I managed to set up two e-mail accounts! The next thing to try is typing "netsh interface tcp set global autotuninglevel=disabled" at the administrator command prompt. (Whatever the hell that means!)

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Books: His Dark Materials


A couple of months ago, I posted on Northern Lights and the first part of The Subtle Knife, both by Philip Pullman. Recently I finally finished the third in the His Dark Materials series, The Amber Spyglass, also via audio book.

Broadly, the series follows the adventures of 12-year old Lyra (from a parallel world to our own) and Will (from our world) as they stumble across a canvass spanning multiple worlds and epic events. Lyra has been prophesied to be the next 'Eve' and the religious factions of her world see this as the opportunity to 'get it right' this time -- clearly she must be killed before she can be 'tempted'. Meanwhile, her father Lord Asriel is waging a war against 'The Authority' (God) who is depicted as an angel risen above his station, and her slippery manipulative mother is weaving sinuously through events like a snake. Throughout, Lyra is driven to save her friend, Roger; this takes her first to the Arctic, then into multiple different worlds, including the world of the dead. Will's mission is to find his father (who crossed between the worlds years previously). In the end, their actions help to preserve the mysterous, ailing 'Dust', which is created in all the worlds by intelligent life's (not limited to humans) wisdom and inspiration.

It's been interesting to 'read' the series again, because so many people find them wonderful, and I never did, so I've been wondering if my opinion would change. It hasn't. Once again, I found the first book intriguing, full of amazing ideas and a fairly memorable storyline. But even as the second and third books expand in their scope and ambition, I find them less satisfying.

I have been pondering the reasons for this, and the other day one major reason came to me. There's a fundamental lack of logic in these books. For example, Lyra's father Lord Asriel crosses the border between worlds for the first time -- and within the space of weeks, maybe months(?), he's built an entire fortress and raised forces complete with an entire spy network.

Also, crossing between the worlds is suddenly mere commonplace -- for there are windows everywhere that simply didn't exist in book number 1. And these windows seem to be really easy to find, judging from the amount of world-hopping that happens in books 2 and 3.

Another thing that I don't like much is the lack of balance, particularly in book 3. The author spends the first half of the book dealing with all the other players (i.e. less focus on the two main children, Lyra and Will) at great length, yet towards the latter half their presence falls away. Characters come and go, seemingly at random. It all feels rather chaotic and unsatisfying, as though Pullman is making it up as he goes along -- which I'm sure is not the case at all (I guess this stems back to the 'lack of logic' criticism).

The bottom line is that it seems to me that His Dark Materials sacrifices storytelling for the sake of allegory . . . why bother with the details, so long as the message is conveyed loud and clear? (And the kids won't notice . . .)

Someone said to me today that they were reading Northern Lights and really enjoying Pullman's writing style. They said that whereas JK Rowling/Harry Potter was 'fluffy', Pullman's words were more direct and no-nonsense. There's no doubt that the styles are very different and will doubtless appeal to different readers. And the subjects are very different as well. His Dark Materials is edgy and dark, whereas HP, despite multiple deaths, somehow never really descends into the depths of despair. But one thing HP doesn't suffer from is lack of logic. Every minute detail of that series was by design. I confess I would prefer to read HP any day.

His Dark Materials does have redeeming features, but for me they mainly stem back to an intellectual interest in proceedings -- although I'm not sure how much of this the so-called children as target audience would perceive.

I'm not sure what kids see in these books actually. Perhaps on a certain level the children are charismatic and they're certainly strong and take decisive action. I didn't feel strongly attached to either though. And as for these 12-year olds being 'in love' and having day-long making out sessions . . . did that make anyone else want to vomit? I know they are supposed to represent Adam and Eve, but for the authority's sake, they're only TWELVE!

I did enjoy these books, truly I did. But I really don't see what all the fuss is about.

Friday, 23 May 2008

New computer

Hello -- I have my new computer this evening, and so far, so good . . . I sit here in front of the TV for Friday night bludge, wine in hand, central heating flowing around me . . . lovely! It's been a busy week and I deserve some sloth time.

I have successfully configured my two e-mail addresses and I'm away!

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Pondering about ideas

Where do ideas come from? This is something writers are asked regularly. And every writer will have a different answer. We talked about this at our Novel meeting/brunch on Saturday. But the source of an idea is only half of it. The other half of the discussion is what one does with those ideas.

Some people have hundreds -- thousands -- of ideas. They see potential in everything from stray comments to episodes witnessed or experienced -- or even described. Take my high-school reunion, for example. My experience of not being easily recognised sparked at least three different story ideas (one for each of us present at the time). (And then there's the etiquette of using ideas sparked from another writer's experience . . . but that's something else again!)

Most writers carry around notebooks to write these ideas down. One of my novel-writing friends has multiple exercise books filled with first paragraphs, some of which extend to multiple pages of a story opening, or a character description etc.

I used to carry such a notebook, but long ago gave it up. I simply don't have that many ideas. When I do have one, I bounce it around in my head for a while until I have a chance to write it down.

A plethora of ideas is probably what drives a short story writer. With so many things to write about, how can you take a mere one (or maybe a few that mesh together well) and devote all that time to a novel? What about all the ideas you'll never have time to follow through?

Some of those ideas will doubtlessly be bad and so it's a good thing they'll never see the light of day. But to lose truly great ideas would be a tragedy.

So the alternative is to do what I do -- which is to take just about every single small idea I have and try to weave it into my current work in progress. Obviously there are some ideas that will simply not fit into my setting/story, but for every character quirk, behavioural anomaly, life-shaping event that smacks me, I invariably end up weaving it into My Great Work. I don't know whether this will make MGW brilliantly complex and layered or a total tangle! But I can't help it. For so many years now I've been living with my story and my characters, and they get everything of me. All of it.

It will be very interesting to see how I deal with subsequent stories/novels, assuming I write them. I can only hope that I have some great ideas saved up for 'the next chapter'.

Friday, 16 May 2008

20 years on and still evolving

I can't believe it's been 20 years since I finished high school. But it's true. Tonight was our 20-year reunion.

Back in 1988, I would have imagined a 20-year reunion to be filled with middle-aged has-beens. 20 years is such an impossibly long time. But of course we're not has-beens, nor middle-aged. We are young and vibrant and in the peak of our lives. A number of the 'girls' were pregnant, and just about all had young kids of varying ages under 5. Most of those (male and female) who attended were easily recognisable. Some had hardly changed at all.

Evidently, however, I have changed a lot! Just about everybody I spoke to said they wouldn't have recognised me. Most seemed to mean this in a good way, which was nice. I put it down to a change in hairstyle and glasses. They all commented on the "long straight blond" hair I used to have. Alas, that has disappeared. Plus I certainly never used to wear glasses.

It was all rather amusing really, and I rather enjoyed being unrecognisable. It provided a talking point, if nothing else. And it made me feel as though I had evolved.

Such an event is a strange experience though. Stuck in a fleuro-lit room with a bunch of people you've barely thought about in 20 years. It was fun to chat with many of them. It was fabulous to catch up with a few people in particular -- people I had been very good friends with at one point or other during school.

If I'm honest, it certainly helped that I felt good about myself -- right down to the new "baroque coat" I bought at lunchtime. It's rather amusing to think that I looked better at the 20-year reunion than I ever did in did in year 12!

We also had a tour of the school, which is an odd mix of old (recognisable) and new (disorienting!). The school kids of today certainly have a much more privileged existence than we ever did.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Technology in transition

I'm in the process of changing computers and it's not going smoothly -- hence the week-long silence. The new computer will be supremely fast with a hard disk about four times the size of my legacy beast, but it's been misbehaving (operating system crashes). So, after much meddling and fiddling, the new lap top is now headed back to the manufacturer.

It's going to be lovely though. My current soon-to-be-retired computer will no longer stay hooked on to a WLAN . . . and I do rather enjoy the notion of connectivity in front of the TV. It's amazing how quickly you get used to it! Plus the new wireless modem is a lot faster than my antiquated USB 'speedtouch'. This morning (before I gave up the new one) I checked my e-mail over breakfast. It's so quick to boot up!

Ironically, however, today my VPN issues were sorted for my 'old' computer! Its inability to access our work server was the main driver for replacement, but suddenly the cause has been found and I have VPN!

Ssshhh . . . I am still holding out for the faster, larger, sleeker, groovier, newer computer. There comes a time when you have to move on to bigger and better. Now is that time. Although it's always a pain to reconfigure everything and get it back "just the way you like it" the rewards will be worth it :-)

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

microcosm

In reading through old blog posts just now, I've observed an interesting pattern. It's a pattern I seem to live through. It starts with me being in an incredible writing zone, achieving milestones by the minute. It then transitions to an abrupt halt for a specific reason (ie I finish the first draft, or I don't make it into a workshop). Then it moves into a period of decluttering or purging. I kid you not. Compare the following posts: 8 April 2008 and 15 July 2007. Eery! After the decluttering/purging phase, I move into a period of TV-DVD watching. Last time it was Babylon 5, this time it's Sex and the City (having just been lent the entire season). And the completion of the cycle is me getting back into the writing phase. (Unfortunately, last week proved to be a false start.) I find this fascinating. It's like the circle of life in microcosm.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The linen party

Once upon a time there was the Tupperware party. Millions of women all around the world have succumbed to its wonders. Plastic never looked so good.

But party-plan selling has started something. Now it seems as though there is nothing you cannot purchase through a party-plan scheme. In the past decade I have attended (and in many cases hosted) not only numerous Tupperware parties, but also direct-selling parties for clothes (Vivienne's -- excellent range and fabulous hostess incentives), jewellery (two different kinds), cosmetics (the famous Nutrimetics) and now, the latest, linen.

Linen. This was tonight. Lorraine Lea linen parties, offering reasonably-priced bedding, bathroom, table linen and Manchester.

I have a theory about party plan selling. It works because you have a captive audience with undivided attention. When in Myer, you might think, "maybe one day I'll buy those towels". When sitting in a friend's living room, you think, "today is just the day to buy those towels -- I've always wanted something like them!".

What changes between Myer and the living room? Do you suddenly have more money? (No!) Do you suddenly have a glaring void in your linen cupboard? (No!) The striped bathmat that was attractive yet completely unnecessary in the department store is suddenly an essential item that you cannot live without. Ditto the doona cover. If one doesn't tend to 'go shopping' for new bedding, why does one suddenly find it necessary to purchase without restraint at a linen party?

I don't have the answers to these questions, other than reiterate what I've already said: captive audience. That, and some element of expectation that one spends money at these things. Is it socially acceptable to not buy anything? (Yes, of course!) Maybe another factor -- which in my case is very valid -- is that party-plan products have the advantage of not being too widely available. Having said that, I remember a certain clothing party at which at least three of us all bought exactly the same coat.

I don't know what it is, but I always spend up big at these party plan events. Tonight I bought a new pillow, pillow protector, bathmat and doona cover set. Could I have lived without all that stuff? Definitely!

I suppose one could always look at it the other way: it's apparently advisable to change pillows every few years, so I'm in fact probably well overdue. And presumably doona covers start wearing out eventually. So this is actually providential. I've been spurred on to buy stuff just in the nick of time!

Yeah, OK.

I should mention that my very own linen party is in two weeks.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Beyond Cuisine

On Friday night I went to Beyond Cuisine, the opening event of the Williamstown Literary Festival. Held in the Williamstown Sailing Club (exquisite views of the city), Beyond Cuisine was a "theatrical dining experience", or in other words, a dinner complemented by readings of selected works of fiction. There were six readings in all:

1. Miss Brill, a 1920 short story by Katherine Mansfield, read by Helen Morse
2. Cannery Row (Chapter 4) by John Steinbeck (1945), read by Reg Evans
3. The dog of the marriage, a contemporary short story by New York writer Amy Hempel, read by Suzanne Shubart
4. Francis Silver, a short story by Australian writer Hal Porter, read by Paul English
5. The lady's maid, another short story by Katherine Mansfield, read again by Helen Morse
6. The secret life of Walter Mitty, a short story by James Thurber, read by Reg Evans

In all, it was a lovely evening, and the readings were fabulous. Having stories read by actors, who essentially interpret the story for you, is the next step on from audio books. It's even more of a performance. Ideally, though, I would have liked there to be a break between the readings, perhaps even between each reading, in order to allow for discussion -- plus a breather from concentrating so hard.

Nevetherless, it was good to get out and do something cultural. Most of the stories were amusing, or at least partially so, so it was all very easy to take!

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Page Turners: Darkly Dreaming Dexter

OK, so for once I'm posting on the actual day that we have the discussion! Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay is a crime novel where the protagonist is a sociopathic serial killer. Except he only kills seriously bad guys (child molesters, murderers etc).

This premise led me to believe that the character of Dexter might have an essence of nobility. I had images of the caped crusader, the dark avenger. I was wrong. Dexter is a sociopath -- totally without emotion or feeling, except for sometimes. Sometimes he gets really excited about blood, or cutup chunks of body parts. You sometimes get the feeling that he feels some affection for his foster sister, Deborah, a cop who has enlisted Dexter's aid to solve a serial murder case. But ultimately everything Dexter feels is intellectualised. He has been groomed/trained to value his sister, therefore he does.

Dexter's life has been shaped by a traumatic event in his childhood, and his now deceased foster father, who identified Dexter's predilection for murder when he was still quite young and taught him to save it for the bad guys. This could be looked at in two ways: channelling irreppressible instincts so that they created least harm; or fostering and accepting an unforgivable predisposition. Either way, Dexter is a killer who loves killing. He calls it his "hobby". And it's not a simple gunshot wound, or slit thoat, or strangulation. Dexter's preferred method is to cut up his victims while they are alive.

I confess I found it hard to understand why so many of our group found Dexter a likable character! Many of them have been swayed by the associated tv series, but not all. It is true that his snappy first-person narrative contains a lot of humour and self-mockery; but he also has a girlfriend he doesn't care about, essentially just for show, an almost-loved sister whom he actually almost starts cutting up!, and a deep admiration and passion for the unknown serial killer who leaves decapitated barbies swinging on Dexter's own fridge.

Having said all that, it was a fast read and I didn't dislike it, but I did find it disturbing. Most of the group didn't though, claiming that the humour dispelled all the darker stuff. I didn't actually find it funny -- entertaining for sure, but not funny.

At its heart, the book is a crime novel, with Dexter and Deborah racing against the clock to identify the serial killer so that Deb can get promoted -- only there's some doubt as to whether Dexter actually wants to find the killer. In the end it gets predictably gory and the secrets of Dexter's past are revealed . . .

As I've said, the general mood in our reading group was positive, with many embarking on subsequent books and the TV series. I don't feel much compelled to do either, although I might watch the TV show out of interest if it came on free-to-air. (Currently it's on either cable or DVD.)

Hmm. Some more nitpicking by the group: just about every character is not very bright -- except for Dexter of course, who is super-intelligent and every bit as arrogant; the end is very contrived and poorly explained -- there are so many loose ends; there's an assumption that horrific event in childhood = serial killer when grown up.