New Jersey Mythologies, part 1

March 30, 2009

Okay, all of those born and raised in New Jersey, USA, stand up and be counted. 

There is something remarkably defensive about those born in New Jersey.  I remember early on in my first year of college (“university” in the Australian vernacular) when I took some books about New Jersey out of the library to show my roommates and dorm-mates that the state was indeed interesting.  Even if we continue to insist on that, to ourselves, over and over again.

There is the phenomenon of “New Jersey lists”, that is, those things about New Jersey that show how unique, how great, how fascinating and how interesting the place really is (or was, or is and was).  Each year I receive a few of these, and they are worth publishing.  They are obviously created by New Jersey-born who need and want to convince everyone else ….  But imagine someone from California, or New York doing the same thing.  Not likely.  Also note the fascination with (and pride of) shopping malls – a particularly American phenomenon, to be sure.

Anyway, here’s the latest, just as I received it by email yesterday (just a few bits of editing where grammar and punctuation were incorrect):

New Jersey is a peninsula.
Highlands, New Jersey has the highest elevation along the entire eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida. (COMMENT:  I DOUBT THIS IS TRUE.  Mount Batty near Camden Maine is surely higher.)
New Jersey is the only state where all of its counties are classified as metropolitan areas.
New Jersey has more race horses than Kentucky.
New Jersey has more Cubans in Union City (1 sq MI.) than Havana, Cuba.
New Jersey has the densest system of highways and railroads in the US.
New Jersey has the highest cost of living.
New Jersey has the highest cost of auto insurance.
New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation.
New Jersey has the most diners in the world and is sometimes referred to as the “Diner Capital of the World.”
New Jersey is home to the original Mystery Pork Parts Club (no, not Spam): Taylor Ham or Pork Roll.
Home to the less mysterious but the best Italian hot dogs and Italian sausage w/peppers and onions.
North Jersey has the most shopping malls in one area in the world, with seven major shopping malls in a 25 square mile radius.The Passaic River was the site of the first submarine ride by inventor John P. Holland .
New Jersey has 50+ resort cities & towns; some of the nation’s most famous:
Asbury Park , Wildwood, Atlantic City, Seaside Heights, Long Branch, Cape May …
New Jersey has the most stringent testing along its coastline for water quality control than any other seaboard state in the entire
New Jersey is a leading technology & industrial state and is the largest chemical producing state in the nation when you include
Jersey tomatoes are known the world over as being the best you can buy.
New Jersey is the world leader in blueberry and cranberry production. (and here you thought Massachusetts? )
Here’s to New Jersey – the toast of the country! In 1642, the first brewery in America, opened in Hoboken.
New Jersey rocks! The famous Les Paul invented the first solid body electric guitar in Mahwah, in 1940.
New Jersey is a major seaport state with the largest seaport in the US, located in Elizabeth. Nearly 80 percent of what our nation imports comes through Elizabeth Seaport first.
New Jersey is home to one of the nation’s busiest airports (in Newark), Liberty International.
George Washington slept there.
Several important Revolutionary War battles were fought on New Jersey soil, led by General George Washington.

The light bulb, phonograph (record player), and motion picture projector, were invented by Thomas Edison in his Menlo Park, NJ,
New Jersey also boasts the first town ever lit by incandescent bulbs (Roselle).
The first seaplane was built in Keyport, NJ.
The first airmail (to Chicago) was started from Keyport, NJ.
The first phonograph records were made in Camden, NJ
New Jersey was home to the Miss America Pageant held in Atlantic City….  The game Monopoly, played all over the world, named the streets on its playing board after the actual streets in Atlantic City.  And, Atlantic City has the longest boardwalk in the world, not to mention salt water taffy.
New Jersey has the largest petroleum containment area outside of the Middle East countries.
The first Indian reservation was in New Jersey, in the Watchung Mountains
New Jersey has the tallest water-tower in the world. (Union, NJ!!!)
New Jersey had the first medical center, in Jersey City
The Pulaski SkyWay, from Jersey City to Newark, was the first skyway highway.
New Jersey built the first tunnel under a river, the Hudson (Holland Tunnel).
The first baseball game was played in Hoboken, NJ, which is also the birthplace of Frank Sinatra.
The first intercollegiate football game was played in New Brunswick in 1889 (Rutgers College played Princeton).
The first drive-in movie theater was opened in Camden, NJ, (but they’re all gone now!).
New Jersey is home to both of “NEW YORK’S” pro football teams!
The first radio station and broadcast was in Paterson, NJ.
The first FM radio broadcast was made from Alpine, NJ, by Maj. Thomas Armstrong.
All New Jersey natives:
Sal Martorano, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Jason Alexander, Queen Latifah, Susan Sarandon, Connie Francis, Shaq, Judy Blume, Aaron Burr, Joan Robertson, Ken Kross, Dionne Warwick, Sarah Vaughn, Budd Abbott, Lou Costello, Alan Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Marilyn n McCoo, Flip Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Zack Braff, Whitney Houston, Eddie Money, Linda McElroy, Eileen Donnelly, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, Walt Whitman, Jerry Lewis, Tom Cruise, Joyce Kilmer, Bruce Willis, Caesar Romero, Lauryn Hill, Ice-T, Nick
Adams, Nathan Lane, Sandra Dee, Danny DeVito, Richard Conti, Joe Pesci, Joe Piscopo, Joe DePasquale, Robert Blake, John Forsythe, Meryl Streep, Loretta Swit, Norman Lloyd, Paul Simon, Jerry Herman, Gorden McCrae, Kevin Spacey, John Travolta, Phyllis Newman, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Eva Marie Saint, Elisabeth Shue, Zebulon Pike, James Fennimore Cooper, Admiral Wm. Halsey Jr., Norman Schwarzkopf, Dave Thomas (Wendy’s), William Carlos Williams, Ray Liotta, Robert Wuhl, Bob Reyers, Paul Robeson, Ernie Kovacs, Joseph Macchia, Kelly Ripa, “Uncle Floyd” Vivino, Tom Bottalicoand, of course,
Francis Albert Sinatra

The Great Falls in Paterson, on the Passaic River, is the 2nd highest waterfall on the East Coast of the US.
You know you’re from Jersey when . .
You don’t think of fruit when people mention “The Oranges.”
You know that it’s called Great Adventure, not Six Flags.
A good, quick breakfast is a hard roll with butter.
You’ve known the way to Seaside Heights since you were seven.
You’ve eaten at a diner, when you were stoned or drunk, at 3 A.M.
You know that the state isn’t one big oil refinery.
At least three people in your family still love Bruce Springsteen, and you know the town Jon Bon Jovi is from.
You know what a “jug handle” is.
You know that WaWa is a convenience store.
You know that the state isn’t all farmland.
You know that there are no “beaches” in New Jersey–there’ s the shore–and you don’t go “to the shore,” you go “down the shore.” And
when you are there, you’re not “at the shore”; you are “down the shore.”
You know how to properly negotiate a circle.
You knew that the last sentence had to do with driving.
You know that this is the only “New” state that doesn’t require “New” to identify it, (try . . Mexico . . . York . . .! Hampshire-doesn’t work, does it?).
You know that a “White Castle” is the name of BOTH a fast food chain
AND a fast food sandwich.
You consider putting mayo on a corned beef sandwich a sacrilege.
You don’t think “What exit?” is very funny.
You know that people from the 609 area code are “a little different.”
Yes they are!
You know that no respectable New Jerseyan goes to Princeton–that’ s for out-of-staters.
The Jets-Giants game has started fights at your school or local bar.
You live within 20 minutes of at least three different malls.
You refer to all highways and interstates by their numbers.
Every year you have at least one kid in your class named Tony.
You know the location of every clip shown in the Sopranos opening credits.
You’ve gotten on the wrong highway trying to get out of the mall.
You know that people from North Jersey go to Seaside Heights, and people from Central Jersey go to Belmar, and people from South Jersey
go to Wildwood.
It can be no other way.
You weren’t raised in New Jersey–you were raised in either, North Jersey, Central Jersey or South Jersey.
You don’t consider Newark or Camden to actually be part of the state.

You remember the stores; Korvette’s, Two Guys, Rickel’s, Channel, Bamberger’s and Orbach’s.
You also remember Palisades Amusement Park.
You’ve had a boardwalk cheese steak and vinegar fries.
You start planning for Memorial Day weekend in February.
And finally. . .
EVER, pumped your own gas!

“From the Lower East Side to Hollywood” book review

March 29, 2009

Book review of From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture by Paul Buhle (Verso Books, London & New York, 2004)Jewish film, television and popular culture are endlessly fascinating – at least to we Jews – and every couple of years a new book is published with yet more information.  One recent addition to the genre is Paul Buhle’s From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture.  Buhle is a Lecturer at Brown University in the USA, a columnist for Tikkun magazine and one of the most noted experts on the Hollywood “blacklist”.  He is an acknowledged leftie, and noted commentator on Jewish cultural issues.

But here’s the interesting thing:  Buhle is not Jewish.  This fact certainly puts a whole different perspective on his writing, when you realise that this is not someone who grew up in a Jewish household, seeing the world through a Jewish lens that he later applied (as so many of us do) to his academic pursuits.

Buhle’s book is very up-to-date, and is therefore able to draw upon the extraordinary research of what has become the recent classic in the field of Jewish film and TV, J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler’s collection entitled Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting (Jewish Museum, NY, 2003), which was also an extraordinary exhibition in New York’s Jewish Museum in 2003 (more on both Shandler and Hoberman another time).  Buhle takes a thematic approach to his subject, with chapters entitled “Where Did It Come From?”, “From Jewish Stage to Screen”, “The Printed Word and the Playful Imagination”, “Assimilation” and “Up From the Avant-Garde”.  By his own admission, his categories are not strictly chronological and “drift toward the present”.  The result is a relatively dense and at times rambling read, but not without its many pleasures and insights.

One insight, clearly enunciated and thoroughly supported, is the role of Yiddish in the development of Jewish influence in popular culture. Yiddish was the natural territory for the artistic vernacular, just waiting – some centuries in preparation – “for the moment when a mass, commercial, popular culture could be created”.  And the Jewish propensity to rebel – not only against the non-Jewish world but against Jewish institutions, helped to “forge the keen edge of innovation” that made Jews so successful. Buhle puts it simply: “Jews happened to be in the right place at the right time, and kept on being there ….” Others have covered this territory, most notably Neal Gabler in his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (a great read), and Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot.  But Buhle brings a special style, more akin to Irving Howe (The World of Our Fathers).

There is much that is new in From the Lower East Side to Hollywood, notably numerous capsule biographies which elucidate the subjects. I did not recall Lenny Bruce’s upper middle-class background of a podiatrist father and his joining the navy at age seventeen.  Nor was I aware that Brooklyn-born Jewish singer Cindi Lauper managed a women’s wrestling champion (although do I care?).  And that the rarely-seen film Romance of a Horsethief (1970) was the revolutionary Yiddishist version of Fiddler on the Roof.  And I certainly did not make the direct Jewish connection from Mad Magazine (“certainly the most Jewish and easily among the most influential comics ever”) to Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons.  (More on the Simpsons another time.)

But perhaps Buhle’s greatest contribution to our understanding of Jews and popular culture (one rarely mentioned by most scholars) an extensive analysis of Jewish comics (yes, illustrated stories), dating this back to Morris Winchevsky, and his 1880s column in Arbeter Fraynt (Workers’ Friend) of London, the first widely circulated Yiddish labour paper.  This tradition was followed by Harry Hershfield, whose “Abie the Agent” (about a Jewish salesman) ran from 1914 to 1940 in the New York Journal.  Buhle also traces the careers of Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross, Al Capp, Max Gaines, Art Spiegelman, Bob Kane (the inventor of “Batman”) to R. Crumb (not Jewish, but both of his wives were) and Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame).

“And who was Spider-Man anyway?” Buhle asks.  “Peter Parker, his alter-ego, lives in Forest Hills, Queens, a probable next Jewish stop outward from Brooklyn.”  He quotes The Jewish Forward when it complained that “The trouble with Tobey McGuire’s Spidey … is that he isn’t Jewish enough.”

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture is a bit like a rave from a highly intelligent and entertaining friend, free-associating as he goes along, all 280 pages worth.  If, like me, you are endlessly fascinated by Jewish participation in English language popular culture, this is an essential reference.

(Review first published in the Australian Jewish News 2004; not available online. Published on on 29 March 2009)


Adam Sandler, Jewish style

March 29, 2009

Adam Sandler is one of the best-known Jewish comedians and actors today.  To read my article entitled “Jewish Comedy, Adam Sandler Style” in the June 26, 2008 edition of the Australian Jewish News, click here.

“Reign Over Me” film review

March 29, 2009

Written and directed by Mike Binder

Starring Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle, Jada Pinkett Smith, Liv Tyler & Donald Sutherland

Are you interested in a film which captured some essence the late Bush Administration, pre-Barack Obama times?  That pre-recession mixture of despair, grief and half-hearted hope? Released in April 2007, the film Reign Over Me was marketed as an Adam Sandler film, but the real creator and brains behind it was the film’s writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger), the American-Jewish former stand-up comic.  Reign Over Me also places Adam Sandler firmly in a straight dramatic role, and teenage fans of his numerous juvenile (albeit frequently very entertaining) comedies will be disappointed.

Sandler plays Charlie Fineman, a Jewish dentist whose wife and daughters were killed on one of the September 11th hijacked planes.  Since then he has descended into a sort of madness, a paranoid and semi-psychotic state of half-awareness, overwhelmed by his grief and a clear case of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Dishevelled and semi-shaven (looking not unlike Bob Dylan of twenty years ago), he wanders the streets of New York on a small scooter and plays endless video games in his apartment.  He assiduously avoids his former in-laws, the (obviously Jewish) Timplemans, who are desperate for contact with him.

Enter his former university room-mate Alan Johnson (Don Cheadle), a wealthy African American who also became a dentist – and a very successful one.  Alan lives in a beautiful apartment with his gorgeous wife (Jada Pinkett Smith) and two girls, but has progressively cut himself off from his emotions and is slowly drowning in loneliness and mid-life crisis.  When Alan runs into Charlie on the street, he is shocked that Charlie doesn’t even recognise him.  Out of this re-grows an unlikely but frequently hazardous friendship for both men: Charlie is slowly – achingly slowly and painfully – drawn out of his psychotic state, and Alan starts to find the stimulus for feeling and caring again, gradually taking control over his life and emotions, feeling real joy for the first time in longer than he can remember.

As a portrait of fractured lives, numbing pain and unresolved grief, Reign Over Me is one of the best dramatic American films in many years. Binder knows his territory well – and even appears in the film as Charlie’s old friend Bryan Sugarman, a Jewish accountant who looks after Charlie’s finances.  Donald Sutherland has an excellent cameo as a wise judge charged with deciding whether or not to commit Charlie to a mental institution, and Liv Tyler also appears as a psychiatrist.

Binder keeps a (mostly tight) rein on the script, with the exception of introducing one weird dental patient (played by Saffron Burrows), where it goes a bit out of control.  His greatest achievement is in the performances: S andler always needs a good director to do his best work, and in Binder he has found one, bringing out a great performance of occasionally uncontrolled rage.  If Sandler’s range is slightly limited, I forgive him.  But the real star of this film is Cheadle, whose role demands an emotional complexity and who inhabits the character of the wealthy New York dentist with the same aplomb as his star turn in Hotel Rwanda.

Reign Over Me shows an enormous maturity (a charge rarely levelled at mainstream American movies nowadays) in its ability to deal with one of the most difficult themes in contemporary American public life: the after-effects of September 11th.  There are no crashing planes here and no Islamic terrorists, just some wealthy upper-middle class New Yorkers in emotional crisis.  Reign Over Me belongs with books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, both of which also attempt to make sense of the events of September 11th in the 21st Century.

Reign Over Me covers the territory of grief and loss well, and hints at a number of significant sub-themes.  Excepting Cheadle’s character and family, most other characters in the film are Jewish:  thus this is a story not just about grief but about Jewish grief and pain.  The decision to create and develop the black-white Johnson-Fineman friendship is also unique in recent film.  Relations between American Jews and African-Americans historically have been fraught with difficulty, and Reign Over Me posits that the black-Jewish relationship can be equal, pure and ultimately uplifting.  Now that’s a message for our times.

(original review, first published on on March 29, 2009)


What Girls Want – Stephenie Meyer, Caitlin Flanagan and the “Twilight” series

March 28, 2009

As I write this, Stephenie Meyer has six of the top ten “bestsellers” in the Sydney Morning Herald list (supplied by Nielsen BookScan) published on Saturday 29th March 2008, in first, second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh places, with the book Twilight appearing twice (the “regular” edition in fourth place and the film tie-in in seventh place).  This may not be unprecedented (the Harry Potter books often monopolised the top places in this list in their time), but this has been going on for quite some time and speaks to a significant cultural phenomenon that I am not certain we all understand.  (Nielsen BookScan USA also lists Meyer’s books in fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth position.  BookScan New Zealand lists them in first, second, third, fourth, fifth and eighth position.)  The New York Times bestseller list, which appears to count things differently – there Meyer has her new The Host book in the hardcover list of fiction, none in the paperback trade fiction list, none in the paperback mass market list, but then grabs first place in the children’s “series” list – with 85 weeks and counting. 

Caitlin Flanagan, a feature writer for The Atlantic, has come closest to explaining the powerful appeal of Meyer’s Twilight saga.  In her article entitled “What Girls Want” (December 2008 issue, pp. 108-120), she provides one of the most interesting, nuanced, and beautifully written analyses of what teenage girls want – and get – from reading fiction, relating it to Judy Blume, Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Prep and Catcher in the Rye.   Flanagan’s extensive review article draws from personal experience, self-knowledge and has a clarity of writing that is almost breath-taking at times.  Some quotes:

The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

And this:

It’s a page-turner that pops out a lurching, frightening ending I never saw coming. It’s also the first book that seemed at long last to rekindle something of the girl-reader in me. In fact, there were times when the novel—no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana—stirred something in me so long forgotten that I felt embarrassed by it. Reading the book, I sometimes experienced … (a) slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life’s fortunes, I thought I had subdued. The Twilight series is not based on a true story, of course, but within it is the true story, the original one. Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

And this:

Years and years ago, when I was a young girl pressing myself into novels and baking my mother pretty birthday cakes, and writing down the 10 reasons I should be allowed to purchase and wear to the eighth-grade dance a pair of L’eggs panty hose, I knew that password. But one night a few years after that dance, I walked into a bedroom at a party and saw something I shouldn’t have, and a couple of months after that I unwisely accepted a ride to the beach from a boy I hardly knew, and then I was a college girl carrying a copy of Hartt’s History of Renaissance Art across campus and wondering whether I should take out a loan and go to graduate school, and somewhere along the way—not precisely on the day I got my first prescription for birth control, and not exactly on the afternoon I realized I had fallen out of love with one boy and had every right to take up with another—somewhere along the way, I lost the code. One day I was an intelligent girl who could pick up almost any bit of mass-market fiction that shed light on the mysteries of love and sex, and the practicalities by which one could merge the two, and read it with a matchless absorption. Valley of the Dolls had been so crucial in my life not because of its word to the wise about the inadvisability of mixing Seconal and Scotch, but for the three sentences that explained how to go about getting undressed before the first time you have sex: go into the bathroom, take your clothes off, and reemerge with a towel wrapped around yourself. One day I was that girl, and one day I was not, and from then on, if you wanted to tempt me to read a bit of trash fiction, I was going to need more compelling information than that.

For other articles by Caitlin Flanagan in the The Atlantic, click here.  For her New Yorker articles, click here.

Rural Health Education Foundation reviews

March 28, 2009

To read my articles on the Rural Health Education Foundation website, click here.  I am currently the CEO of the Foundation, and this section includes articles which I have written on “The future of DVD in this digital world”, the film Australia (released in November 2008) and Nicholas Rothwell, a correspondent for The Australian newspaper.

How Australians View America

March 18, 2009

Australians have a complicated relationship with the USA.  On the one hand, most popular culture in Australia looks and feels “American”, but the Australian response to social, political and cultural issues is consistently much closer to how the British respond.  My current PhD research at Macquarie University examines this at some length, particularly how and why the film The Passion of the Christ was received differently in Australia than in the USA.  That year – 2004 – the theatrical cinema box office results in Australia were remarkably similar to the USA:  in other words, films popular in the USA were also popular in Australia, but with some major exceptions.  (More on that in another posting.)

The latest book to examine the Australian view of the USA is Don Watson’s American Journeys.  There is a great book to be written about the USA from an Australian perspective, but this is not that book.   Don Watson is the former chief speechwriter for former Australian Prime Miniser Paul Keating, and an accomplished writer.  This book has been highly acclaimed, with Paul Syvret in the Courier Mail stating that it “reads like a sober version of parts of Hunter S. Thompson’s classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas … minus the pills and booze”.

And that’s the problem with American Journeys:  no pills, no booze, but also not enough American idiom.  He is given to statements (such as those on page one) like “The tenor also sang God Bless America, a song composed by a young Jewish immigrant names Irving Berlin who knew how to make hard men bawl their eyes out” or “Kansas City is, for all practical purposes, segregated.”  Fine as far as they go, but so much more is needed. 

To be most effective, a book like this must take one of four approaches:  it either must tell a great personal story (think Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory : A Voyage Down the Mississippi, or it has to create such interesting characters that we want to keep reading, or it must be hilariously funny (think Bill Bryson’s  American opus The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America **or his Australian travels in In a Sunburned Country or David Dale’s 1988 book An Australian in America: First Impressions and Second Thoughts on the World’s Strangest Nation)(*) or it has to be so complete and fact-filled and insightful that the reader wants to keep reading because the insights are deep, profound and vision-altering.  Watson’s book fits uncomfortably in between all of these categories.  Which is not to say that the book is bad, only to say that I have tried four times to read it and could not get past page 5 each time.  A shame, really.

* Here is the opening of David Dale’s book on the USA: 

The longer you’ve been in a country, the harder it becomes to make generalisations about it.  I have been in American only 11 days now, most of them in New York, so I can cheerfully assert the following propositions:

1.  The Chrysler Building is the most beautiful feat of architecture in the 20th century.

2. All Americans are selling something.

3. All Americans are so polite it’s scary.

4. You can get anything you want in New York (and a lot of things you don’t want), except an early morning wake-up call and a public toilet when you most need it.

I suppose you expect me to produce evidence ….

I, for one, wanted to keep reading this book.

** Here is the opening of Bill Bryson’s book:

I come from Des Moines.  Somebody had to.

When you come from Des Moines you either accept the fact without question and settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there for ever and ever, or you spend your adolescence moaning at length about what a dump it is and how you can’t wait to get out, and then you settle down with a local girl named Bobbi and get a job at the Firestone factory and live there for ever and ever.

Back in graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, I took a creative writing course with the African-American novelist and poet Ishmael Reed.  One thing he taught us – a technique which I continue to use almost weekly, thirty-plus years later – is to read the first page of a book if you are considering purchasing/reading it.  If it engages you, if you like it, if you want to keep reading, go for it.  If it bores you or does not engage you, forget it.  Read David Dale and Bill Bryson above.  If you like their style/s, you will like their books.  To turn the old aphorism on its head, you may not be able to tell a book from its cover, but you almost certainly can from its first page.