Book Review: Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl

I must admit, it’s been a while since I’ve read any of Roald Dahl’s kids books, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed ploughing through this large collection of short stories. (There’s about 5 books crammed into one here.)

After a while, you start to get the hang of Dahl’s formula, but it’s a fun formula with endless variety (like classical music, really), so it doesn’t get boring.

What he tends to do in all of his tales is start with a very close attention to detail, all of it quite believable. This is because within a couple of pages, he’s going to introduce something totally off-the-wall into the story – and you’re going to buy it completely, because he tells the tale in such a matter-of-fact way.

So when a doctor starts explaining that if your brain and a connecting eyeball were removed from a body after death, you could effectively live forever – it sounds like quite a reasonable idea. When the scientist experiments with his sound machine that can hear ultra-high-pitched sounds, it seems quite plausible that he’d hear tiny screaming coming from the roses being cut in the garden next door.

You can also usually guarantee that there will be some sort of satisfying twist at the end as well.

And so it goes through a huge mixed bag of stories. The only time the collection drags a bit is in the book Over To You, which consists of short war stories. Because these don’t have the element of the fantastic which characterises the others – in fact, most of Dahl’s writing – they’re not as memorable.

But, on the whole, this is a highly amusing collection of short stories for grown ups, and anybody who loved Dahl as a young person isn’t going to be disappointed.

4 out of 5.

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DVD Review: Om Shanti Om

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been planning to review this film for about two years, but have only finally gotten around to it. This was the very first Bollywood film I ever saw. I’m not sure why – but one Monday night I got out of work early and found out that a local cinema was showing a Bollywood film called Om Shanti Om. I didn’t know too much about it, but at 2 hrs 50 mins (plus interval), it seemed like I’d get my money’s worth.

Never having seen a Bollywood, I knew roughly that I could expect it to be long and have lots of musical numbers in the middle of it. I’d also heard they were somewhat over the top.

Actually, the correct phrase is: It’s utter cheese from beginning to end.

However, I’m not adverse to cheese on occasions, and let me tell you – this is some of the most sincere, enthusiastic cheese I’ve seen in ages.

When the Americans make a big-budget film with lots of craziness and a paper-thin plot, everyone’s a bit embarrassed and self-conscious that they’re making a dumb movie. (Just watch all the big-name actors when they had to do a special effects blockbuster.)

But not so the Indians. The main lead, Shah Ruhk Khan (the Brad Pitt of Bollywood) chews up the screen in a performance that is so badly over-acted that you can’t help but getting sucked into it.

Meanwhile, his female lead, Deepika Padukone, was actually making her first film, but you wouldn’t really have been able to tell.

The story – such as I can tell you without spoiling the wondrous cheesiness of it all – starts in the 70s, when Om (Shah Rukh Khan), a poverty-stricken “junior artiste” – we’d call him an extra – is working on crowd scenes for big Bollywood films and dreams of becoming a big star, so that he can romance the girl of his dreams – Shantipriya, the actress (played by Padukone).

For the first hour of this film, assuming you hadn’t read the back of the box, any description online or almost any other print media that is put out around this film that shamefacedly gives away everything, you might just be surprised by a twist that occurs that takes the film in very different directions.

By the end of three hours, you’ve had absolutely everything – romance, songs, dancing, action scenes, death, comedy, and fighting with huge stuffed animals and cameos by nearly all the major actors/actresses working in Bollywood today.

And let me tell you – it works – almost. Like a huge over-the-top Broadway musical, it just keeps delivering crowd-pleasing melodrama and comedy all the way through. The cinematography especially is stunning and the colour scheme is beautiful. The only fatal flaw in all of this is that the romance, which was so beautifully built up in the first hour never really pays off in the end. In fact, it’s almost forgotten. This might not be a problem for an Indian audience, but considering that it’s the engine that drives the rest of the film, it’s almost unforgivable for Western audiences. Especially since, with a couple of extra scenes, you could have delivered the payoff that we want.

Oh well – if I were a Broadway producer with a few million under my belt, I think this could be turned into a really good stage production.

If you were going to try Bollywood, this would be the film to try. Leave all your expectations at the door, and expect it to be over-the-top, and you just might find it an enjoyable evening out.

As a little sneak peak, let me show you the scene that (I think) sells the whole thing. Early on in the film, young Om is madly in love with Shantipriya the actress – who of course doesn’t know he exists. His good friend manages to get him tickets to the premiere of her latest film and the two of them show up in outrageously bad clothes to stand beside the red carpet.

For luck, Om’s long-suffering mother gave him a piece of string or a bracelet (it’s been a while so I’ve forgotten) which she wrapped around his string for good luck. At the red carpet, in a scene which is done entirely without dialogue (except for a particularly evocative song called “Ajab Si”), that little red piece of string turns out to be the thing that gives him his first encouter with Shanti…

It’s so unutterably mushy – even a Hollywood romantic comedy wouldn’t include a scene like this – that it works. Either that or you’ll think my movie standards have dropped to an all-time low – in which case, don’t watch this film.

4 1/2 out of 5.

Further on Productivity: How I Let Pomodoros Into My Life and Almost Ruined My Productivity (But Then Got It Back Again)

Continuing on from the last post about productivity and timesheets, as promised, I wanted to talk a bit about the famous Pomodoro Technique.

I got put onto this while hunting around for timers to do my 15-minute timesheet program.

I’d never heard about the Pomodoro Technique – but it’s certainly novel enough, that I think it deserves to become as famous as GTD. You can find all about it for free, just by going to www.pomodorotechnique.com and downloading the free ebook, but I’ll give you the brief version here.

This system was designed by an Italian guy who had trouble focusing when he was in university. So he got himself a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (“pomodoro” is Italian for tomato, thus the name) and used to see if he could concentrate till the timer went off.

Over the years, he eventually perfected it to a system that (in its simplest form) works like this:

1. You write a to-do list.

2. You start a timer for 25 minutes. During that time, you work on the top item on your list to the exclusion of anything else till the timer stops.

3. If you get distracted (either by you thinking of something or someone disturbing you), quickly write down whatever other task you have to do coming out of that down on your to-do list and keep working on your item.

4. When the timer goes, you must take a 3-5 minute break from what you’re doing. This is to clear your head and give you more energy. You’ve then completed one Pomodoro (or unit of time).

5. Every four Pomodoros, you can take a longer break (like 15 minutes).

This is pretty similar to my own system, except it has two advantages:

a) The built-in breaks are actually really good. You might not think so, but once you try it, by 25 minutes (as opposed to 15), you’re well and truly on a roll, and being told to wait 5 minutes actually makes you really keen to jump back into the next block of time. As long as you’re strict about keeping the break to five minutes, you’re not really going to lose much momentum, because that’s really only enough time to check a couple of emails, get a drink of water, go to the bathroom or something like that. If you actually knock over four of these things, you will have worked so solidly, that a 15 minute break will do you good.

b) The other advantage was that I wish I’d thought of the distractions notation. His simple system (which you can read about in the e-book) of noting down your distractions so that you can think about them later is brilliant. By far, the biggest distraction for me is that I’m mid-way through a job and I think of another one. By noting the job down (either urgent to be done that day or on a master job list to be done at some other time), you assure yourself that you are thinking about it, but you’re not going to work on it right now. After a little while of doing this, I discovered that most times I thought of jobs, it was mainly because I was procrastinating on the job I was doing, so now I find I don’t think of so many jobs to do in the middle of the one I’m working on now.

So those two aspects of the Pomodoro technique are great.

However, I decided to give the system a workout for a week instead of my usual timesheet system. I pretty much halved my productivity.

You know why?

I didn’t want to start the timer. I knew, after I’d written out the to-do list, that it’d be a bit of a nasty job, that first one, so I thought I’d just check one more email, or maybe get a cup of tea, or stop to talk to someone, etc. etc.

Once the Pomodoros were started, they were fine. But I could sometimes delay on starting the timer for a good couple of hours.

After trying to work out what went wrong, I have now adapted the system as follows:

 

1. Instead of my 15 minute intervals that I talked about in my last post, I now like to use Pomodoros (if I can) as a measure of time. If you count a Pomodoro as 25 mins work and 5 mins break, that gives you 30 minute blocks.

2. I now divide the day up into 30 minute breaks, plus a couple of 15 minute “tea breaks”. So a typical day might look something like this:

9am – 11am [Pomodoros 1-4]

11am – 11.15am [15 minute break]

11.15am – 12.45pm [Pomodoros 5-7]

12.45pm – 1.45pm [Lunch]

1.45pm – 3.45pm [Pomodoros 8-11]

3.45pm – 4.00pm [15 minute break]

4.00pm – 5.30pm [Pomodoros 12-14]

Now I’m not saying the day runs as smoothly as this – it rarely does. And obviously if you’re in a meeting, you just have to count how many Pomodoros roughly you’re spending during that time.

But the important thing with the above plan is it gives me a time when I need to start the timer. So at 9am, I start the first timer – while it’s ticking, I find the guilt of knowing that it’s running and I’m not doing anything inevitably makes me starting using that first one to work out my to-do list for the day and what’s most important. By the time I hit the end of the first one, take 5 minutes, it’s 9.30 and I straight away start the next one and jump in.

As long as I’m reasonably awake when I come into the office – and even often when I’m feeling tired – it really does work to get the day off to a good start.

So, yeah, I love the Pomodoros – I like the rhythm it gets you into – but I’d highly recommend starting your first Pomodoro at a set time on the clock, so you avoid pre-Pomodoro procrastination.

This is not quite the official system, because the guy who created the system believes that you start the timer when you start working. I believe start the timer, and you’ll more than likely start working.

After all, if the timer is running and you know that you can mark off that you did a solid half hour of work – and I think 25 mins of solid work plus 5 mins downtime is easily worth 30 mins of distractable work time where you’re checking emails, replying to everyone who talks to you, etc. – then you tend to not want to put down that you spent the entire time shuffling papers and doing nothing much. So you start working.

I also agree with what the Pomodoro guy (sorry, he does have a name – Francesco Cirillo) says at the end of his book – that if you stop using the timers, you lose your productivity. It’s a funny little quirk of nature, but unless you’re particularly driven to start with – in which case stopping every 25 minutes will probably irritate you no end – if you take away the timers, your productivity drops. The timers aren’t a tool to train you how to work productively – they’re what makes you work productively.

Maybe it looks a bit goofy to have numbers ticking down in the top right-hand corner of your screen when you’re working. Could be. But it’s a lot better going home knowing you did a solid day’s work. And could any worker ask for more satisfaction? I don’t think so.

Final link for the day is this timer which I found as a nice alternative to the AleJanJes Timer, albeit that it only works for the Pomodoro Technique. Called Focus Booster, this is another timer, that can be downsized to a small block that sits in your top right-hand corner (where I like to put my timers) and it’s set to count down 25 minutes, followed by 5 minutes. The only catch is that you have to remember to start it again as soon as the 5 minutes are up, but that’s not the worst thing in the world, and helpful for the longer breaks.

I have tried a couple of the Pomodoro apps on the iPhone, my favourite being Pomodoro Time Management (by rapidrabbit), which for some reason is no longer available in the Australian iTunes store. However, they don’t let you play music while you listen to them, and the problem with an iPhone app of course is that it doesn’t run if you use another application on the phone, making it annoying if you need to use something else on the phone while you’re using it (and it won’t even let you listen to music on the iPod while it’s running, which is particularly cruel . . .)

Anyway, whatever you use (and I’m aware not everybody is going to be as Draconian to themselves as I am), I hope you all manage to get to the stage where you can feel proud of how much work you do, and know that you’re being productive.