Sweet, stinging look at a swarm of issues


Sara Veal

In this information age, we are all aware of the world’s horrors. Villages razed to the ground, in the name of oil. Starving, swollen-bellied children too frail to brush away the flies that feast on them.

We’ve read these stories in newspapers, watched these images on television. Maybe even seen or experienced them firsthand. Unfortunately this deluge of poignant sights and sounds tends to have a desensitizing effect. It’s hard to think of the sea of sadness as consisting of individuals.

Chris Cleaves’ Little Bee, the follow-up to his best-selling debut Incendiary, turns up the volume of one of the voices among these masses – that of a Nigerian 16-year-old girl who seeks asylum in the UK. He pairs her with her superficially polar opposite – an upper-middle-class Englishwoman – and builds around the two women an affecting, often humorous tale that never sinks under the weight of the heavy matters it addresses.

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Mona Sylviana: Challenging ‘Chick’-Lit


Sara Veal

Think of women writers, and the phrase sastra wangi (fragrant literature or “chick-lit”) is likely to come to mind.

Authors like Mona Sylviana aim to dispel such dismissive and sweeping stereotypes, and their non-chick-lit writings will be showcased in a new short story collection that reflects what editor and publisher John H. McGlynn describes as a post-New Order willingness to confront “societal problems head on”.

“In my opinion, some examples of Indonesian women’s literature are referred to as [chick-lit] out of prejudice. And prejudice comes from discrimination,” Mona says.

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The little war movie that could


Sara Veal

Reviewing a film that has just received the highest cinematic accolade is challenging. Then again, those good folks at the Oscars don’t always get it right, and often reward dreary, self-important “Oscar-bait” that we mere popcorn-munching mortals would secretly consider to be like boiled carrots at dinner-time. Good for you but no fun at all.

But, in this case, The Hurt Locker simultaneously defies expectation and earns its sky-high hype – if you’ve been living under a rock, Kathryn Bigelow’s “little movie” seemingly came out of nowhere to sweep the Oscars, claiming six little gold men and triumphing over the showier Avatar, a David vs. Goliath story made even more memorable as James Cameron is Bigelow’s ex-husband.

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Can you Kindle it?


Sara Veal

In the run-up to last Christmas, messages from Amazon suggesting I buy a Kindle began polluting my inbox.

I deleted every one with gritted teeth, mentally screaming “Don’t want!”, as if the Devil was trying to pester me into exchanging my print-loving soul for a literary iPod.

But, as I began to investigate electronic publishing in Indonesia, I decided it would be good to actually test one of the evil things.

Don’t knock it before you’ve tried it, and all that.

Gramedia were generous enough to lend me one for a week.

Seeing the Kindle in the “flesh” melted away quite a number of my reservations. It did look like a literary iPod… in a good way. White and sleek, with an “electronic ink” screen that was incredibly close to paper. I ran my fingertips over its smooth service, intrigued as Rio Eka Putra, head of Gramedia’s IT & Research department, gave me a demonstration.

At home, I logged onto my Amazon UK account and downloaded Charlaine Harris’ Gone and Dead, which I had been waiting to be released in paperback form in Indonesia – that would have been May this year or even later. The process was effortless, speedy and exciting.

Reading on the Kindle was initially odd, but I soon got used to it, and found “turning” the pages and finding my place intuitive, although I missed knowing what page I was on – instead the percentage read so far was displayed at the bottom of the screen. I especially liked being able to read with one hand. The battery power was impressive. I only had to charge it once in the week I had it.

However, there was definitely room for improvement. As an electronic device, it should be backlit so you can read without an external light, and have a better way of categorizing purchases.

At least the two purchases I made remain mine even after I surrendered the device to Gramedia, and I can send them to any future Kindle-compatible devices I may have in the future.

I also discovered that it wasn’t the presentation of books that mattered so much – at least in the case of image-free texts – it was the words and stories.

I had chosen Dead and Gone because it was “light reading”, but when my friend in the UK recommended via MSN messenger Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point, a collection of short stories, I immediately took her advice. Within moments I had the electronic version on the Kindle, a heady dose of previously unimaginable instant gratification. Du Maurier – a more literary author than Harris – was just as magic on screen as she was on paper.

I imagine owning a Kindle would mean I’d buy less of certain kinds of books (light reading, series) and maybe invest more in limited editions I wanted to have on the shelf.

A Kindle extends the reading experience, allowing for experimentation and less waiting time. And it was great having so much choice at my fingertips. Definitely a winning travel companion.

Even though the pros arguably outweigh the cons, the price is rather steep, at US$259-489, especially with hefty import and shipping costs if you’re having it delivered outside of the US. But for avid bookworms with cash to spare, it might just be worth it.

Note: Kindles aren’t yet compatible in Indonesia, so you will only be able to download books if you have a credit card and Amazon account linked to a Kindle-compatible country. See Amazon.com for further details.


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Screen legends keep it simple


Sara Veal

Meryl Streep can do no wrong. She’s cheated death (Death Becomes Her), reduced Anne Hathaway to a nervous wreck (The Devil Wears Prada) and chosen between her children (Sophie’s Choice) – whatever she does, she always pulls it off, repeatedly proving herself to be one of Hollywood’s finest leading ladies.

Despite hitting 60, Streep’s been enjoying a run of rom-coms, kicked off by her winning turn in smash Mamma Mia and continuing with gastronomic pleasure Julie & Julia. Nancy Meyer’s laugh-out-loud It’s Complicated completes a love trifecta, placing her in the middle of a triangle with fellow Hollywood stalwarts Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin.

Jane (Streep) is a loving mother-of-three and successful bakery owner, who after 10 years of separation, is finally “happily divorced” from attorney Jake (Baldwin), who left her for shinier, newer model Agness (Lake Bell).

In fact Jane and Jake are now on such good terms that they end up rediscovering their old magic, leading to Jane becoming her ex-husband’s “other woman”, a confusing situation the pair need to hide from their kids. And if things weren’t complicated enough, architect Adam (Steve Martin) has also fallen under Jane’s spell…

As the central object of affection, Streep is immensely likeable, and steers clear of the grating, screeching territory fellow romantic leading-lady-of-a-certain-age Diane Keaton often veered into. Jane is warm, self-effacing and oozes modest charisma, and it’s easy to see why Jake and Adam would fall for her.

Baldwin is his patented charming self as Jake, and he and Streep generate a comfortable chemistry that believably reflects a long-standing love. He provides most of the comedy, with his offbeat seduction techniques (stalking, accidental webcam striptease). There’s an element of sadness too as he’s seemingly trapped with a domineering wife and exhausting, disrespectful stepson. Meyers seems to making a point about men who “trade up” only to find it’s not what they wanted at all.

The biggest surprise is Martin, who is downright nuanced, a huge change from the broad comedy of recent outings like the Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther sequels. Adam, also recovering from divorce, is vulnerable, mature and sincere, offering Jane a taste of something new. It isn’t all straight-man for Martin though, a winning scene in the move in which Adam and Jane decide to cut loose allows the funny-man to come out – and the small dose makes it even more effective.

Adam also has palpable sparks with Jane, which makes the ménage-a-trois compelling. You’ll find it hard to decide who you want Jane to end up with – both men make convincing and charming cases for her attention.

Most of the supporting cast fade into scenery next to the three heavyweights, but of particular note is John Krasinski as Harley, Jane and Jake’s eldest daughter’s fiancé who accidentally gets swept up in the couple’s subterfuge. Harley adds a thread of laidback, good-hearted humor and feels like a real person whereas the other youngsters are rather cardboard.

Another element that prevents the film from coming down-to-earth is the hoity-toity backdrop, which seems to be the only world Meyers is familiar with – upper-middle-class, perfectly decorated homes, high-flying careers and premium education – and completely isolated from the global financial crisis.

However, the setting does provide an alluring escapism, best epitomized when Jane uses her luxurious bakery to make delicious treats for a lucky man.

It’s Complicated is actually rather simple – and all the better for it. It’s about second chances and sexiness at any age, and will have you clutching your sides as the trio of talented thespians play off one another perfectly.

Verdict: Three of Hollywood’s finest make this straightforward rom-com a delight for all ages.

It’s Complicated (Universal Pictures, 120 minutes)
Directed by Nancy Meyers
Produced by Nancy Meyers & Scott Rudin
Written by Nancy Meyers
Starring Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, Lake Bell, John Krasinsk

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Return to the rabbit hole


Sara Veal

Adapting books for the screen is tricky, even with big bucks and star power there is no guarantee of getting it right.

Time and time again, audiences excited to see their favourite story brought to life have left the cinema disappointed, cursing the director for failing to match what their minds had conjured up.

Once upon a time, I would have said, without hesitation, that the combination of Tim Burton and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was a match made in adaptation heaven.

In Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, The Corpse Bride and Big Fish, Burton spun magical, edgy worlds where you were never quite sure what would happen next, ideal for the irreverent Victorian fantasy. But Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left a nasty taste in my mouth, which overpowered my appetite for Roald Dahl and the delicious Johnny Depp.

So, I reserved my expectations. And Burton proved me wrong yet again – his latest attempt to adapt a children’s classic is a triumph, remaining true to the spirit of the source material while offering something new.

We first encounter an Alice much like the one in the books, at seven, complete with blue pinafore dress and buckets of curiosity – and suffering a constant dream about a strange land of wonder.

Twelve years on, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is still curious, which puts her at odds with her peers and the starched white environment full of rules she is forced to inhabit.

Alice’s mother and sister hope she will marry a chinless aristocrat whose family now owns her recently deceased father’s company. Before she has to make a decision, she falls down a rabbit hole into Underland, a place she remembers from her dreams.

Or does she? As Alice surrenders to the oddly familiar world she finds, dream or not, she is expected to attempt a heroic feat, the success of which will decide the Underlanders’ fate.

Burton has fashioned a plot out of the book’s series of mad, vaguely connected events, one that well sustains audience interest in the 108-minute running time, without losing the essential whimsy. Absurdity is ever-present, provoking helpless giggles, and blended with plenty of heart that will ensure you care about what happens.

The plot-driven narrative suits Alice’s journey from uncertain girl to empowered heroine, transformations the Australian Wasikowska deftly manages, whether physical or mental. Her Alice is strong without being spunky – she is realistic despite her surreal surroundings.

There’s an unsettling hint of romance between Alice and Depp’s Mad Hatter, but overall the two have winning camaraderie, and you understand their support for one another without need for exposition.

Depp, forever a Burton muse, disappears into the makeup-heavy role, projecting pathos as the post-traumatic-stress-disorder-suffering Hatter. His English accent has come on in leaps and bounds since Sleepy Hollow, however his Scottish one needs more work – the instances in which the Hatter lapses into an angry Braveheart are only the false notes in an otherwise faultless performance.

Wasikowska and Depp take care not to overshadow the galaxy of supporting stars, most of whom are digitally manipulated or animated, mixing seamlessly with each other and the fantastical environment.

Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s wife) as the toddler-like and decapitation-demanding Red Queen, is both villain and comic relief – and somehow sympathetic. The White Queen, the Red Queen’s rival and sister, allows the oft-sweetly neurotic Anne Hathaway to try something new – she is ethereal and a touch psychotic, like most of the Underlanders.

Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts is enjoyably deplorable, while the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) are languidly voiced. The White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) is suitably antsy and the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) is completely bonkers.

The often hangdog Timothy Spall works well as the voice of Bayard, a kindly canine who has to balance helping the Underlanders’ cause and looking out for his family. Little Britain’s Matt Lucas is especially entertaining as bantering twins Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee – or “fat boys” as the Red Queen amusingly refers to them.

Underland is gorgeously rendered, a shadowy rainbow place that sharply contrasts with the prim and proper Victorian world above. Within Underland are rich environs that reflect characters, such as the Red Queen’s psychedelic palace, the Hatter’s decrepit Tea Party and the White Queen’s austere castle, adding to the texture and expansiveness of the imaginary world.

The 3D is not integral, but there were moments when I tried to dodge “flying” objects. The CGI is a tad video-gamey at times, especially at the Red Queen’s palace, where Carter’s digitally oversized head bobs along unconvincingly against a painfully color-schemed backdrop. At other times, it’s eerily tangible, as when Alice steps on corpse faces in the moat surrounding the same palace.

More consistently impressive than the CGI is the makeup and costuming, particularly with Alice’s outfits as she shrinks and expands, and enters new places, nonchalantly donning couture outfits that fashionistas would give their eyeteeth for, and add to her development and the wonder of Underland.

Perhaps the best thing about the film is that it achieves closure – a rarity in this sequel-driven age. Burton may take two hours to tell Alice’s story, but he wraps it up, and treats the audience to many ingredients while he’s at it – a coming of age, an epic battle, hilarity, thrills and enough visual eye-candy to land you in a sugar coma. It satisfies while leaving you wanting more.

Future novel-to-film adaptors would do well to take a page out of Burton’s book – he’s created something existing fans will likely love, balancing admirably between faithfulness and originality.

Verdict: Maintains the magic of the book while offering surprises, adding up to a weird and wonderful ride you’ll want to return to.

Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney Pictures, 109 minutes)
Directed by Tim Burton
Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd
Written by Linda Woolverton (screenplay), Lewis Carroll (book)
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry


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The end of books?


Sara Veal

Electronic books, or “e-books” have been around for 40 years, without posing much of a threat to printed books.

But with the growing popularity of dedicated e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle, and the buzz surrounding Apple’s enigmatic iPad, one wonders if that will ensure e-books’ appeal amid Blackberry-hungry Indonesians, and thus the tragic death of traditional publishing.

While all kinds of e-books are freely available via the Internet, official e-book content in Indonesia remains limited. That could change dramatically within the next two years, as Kompas-Gramedia, the country’s largest media conglomerate, is formulating its digital content strategy.

“We are developing Kompas Gramedia Digital. We are focusing on developing e-book content, not a gadget,” says Rio Eka Putra, head of IT & Research at Gramedia, adding they were open to creating content for both the Amazon Kindle and Apple iPad.

Rio describes Gramedia’s approach as a “wait-and-see” one, as the technology is “so new”, and there remain many questions associated with widespread digital content, especially preventing piracy and getting authors on board.

“We are trying to explain to the writers about e-publishing, some still don’t understand what it is, what their rights are,” says Anastasia Mustika, fiction editor at PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama.

Young adult author Andrei Aksana, who agrees to his content being digitized, says “e-books are the future of reading” due to convenience and environmental benefits.

“There are now around 30 million Internet users in Indonesia if I’m not mistaken … and the numbers are growing very quickly, after India and China. So, e-books have enormous potential. E-books mean we can read any time, anywhere [with internet-ready devices] such as Blackberry, iPhone, although it’s a pity these [devices] are mostly only enjoyed by the middle class.”

Clara Ng, author of the MetroPop series and children’s story books, also accepts digitisation, as it would allow more to access her books.

“As a reader, I am happy with e-books because they are cheaper [than conventional books].”

Writer Sitta Karina, however, remains sceptical about e-books, preferring “holding the physical form of the book, savoring the paper smell of each page”. While she appreciates the potential environmental benefits, she has not yet agreed to content digitization.

“Not in this short period. I’m still worried about book piracy. Even most internet hackers now could break through ‘m-book’ coding,” she says referring to Gramedia’s collaboration with Telkomsel to offer m-books, fiction through mobile phones.

Available since last year, the 100 or so m-books are mainly young adult fiction and cookbooks, which Telkomsel customers can purchase chapter by chapter.

Anastasia says the m-books scheme was profitable and would continue, although Rio felt reading on handphones was not the way forward, due to the small screens.

“It’s not comfortable to read on [handphones and Blackberrys]. We must go to the gadgets.”

While Gramedia is adopting a cautious attitude to the novel technology, Lontar, a publisher specialising in Indonesian literature-in-translation, is leaping head-first into digital publishing, finding it a solution to existing challenges.

“Until print-on-demand technology came in Lontar has always been hobbled by the fact that the cost of shipping is so exorbitant that it’s impossible to make any money on the sale of books,” says John McGlynn, Lontar’s co-founder and director.

With print-on-demand, digital content can be uploaded to servers and then printed in response to orders, anywhere in the world through the associated printer, circumventing shipping costs.

“It’ll be a year before we actually find the results. But starting this year we’ll be putting 28 books in print-on-demand format,” says McGlynn, adding that previously Lontar had only been able to annually release a handful of books.

As well as widening Lontar’s titles, and hopefully profit margins, McGlynn says print-on-demand could facilitate the distribution of textbooks around the archipelago, a flow of information that could indirectly enhance national literacy.

“You look at education in Indonesia… and especially in Eastern Indonesia and elsewhere, where publishers do not send books there. Gramedia is one of the few that has bookstores in the country. But even there and in Papua… they are only two or three in the whole province. If, for example, there was a print-on-demand operation in Papua, and Indonesian books were already digitized, they could print them immediately.”

Matthew Schafer, media specialist at Jakarta International School (JIS), also saw the educational potential in electronic content, specifically through the Kindle, if they were fully compatible in Indonesia and adapted for schools.

“I’d love to have 30 of these and start checking them out. Whenever the next Twilight comes out, I don’t have to ship them, and have them ready on the day… click and buy until there’s a nice rotation… or when a kid wants to order something unusual. It would be a great service to provide,” says Schafer, who has been using a Kindle since last year.

“The amount we spend on shipping to get books here is through the roof… in a perfect digital world, we’ve save a lot of money.”

Schafer adds e-book readers would also be a convenient way of giving students all their books for the year, and that the Kindle’s functions, like text-to-speech, inbuilt dictionary and translation would be useful for those who did not speak English as their native tongue.

“That part’s awesome from a teaching standpoint.”

Librarian and author Sylvia L’Namira agrees that e-books could encourage and facilitate literacy in youth.

“But that of course depends on the librarian who runs the library – and the board who give the library budget – whether they think it’s important to collect e-books or not. I have noticed that readers are starting to look for e-books rather than buying books. Maybe because e-books can be downloaded for free from the internet, while you have to spend some money to get the book.”

Aspiring novelist and part-time translator Melissa Chandra vouches for the educational benefits of e-books.

Melissa, who has been completely blind since adolescence, first encountered e-books in her final year of high school, which, with the aid of a screen-reader, expanded her literary world.

“Before, the only way for me to read was through my mother to reading me, or the audio library in one of the blind communities I have been active in since the start of senior high school. I prefer e-books, as I do not get sleepy – as opposed to listening to audio books – and it was much more practical too.”

However, Amang Suramang from Good Reads Indonesia, reserves short-term expectations for both e-books and print-on-demand technology, noting that most Indonesians still do not comprehend the concept, although he expects that eventually e-books will prevail, without completely displacing printed books.

“I see e-books and books like a horse and a car. When you’re on a horse, you enjoy the emotional journey… but you’ll be challenged to find people using a horse to go to the office, they use a car. E-books are a car. But we need time,” he says adding the price point of the Kindle and other such e-book readers (US$259 and upwards) was still too expensive to be accessible for Indonesians.

Considering the multitude of possibilities and already proven benefits, it’s safe to say that the reign of digital publishing is nigh. But it also appears printed books aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Like Gramedia, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.

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