Books that made me cry 1

November 14, 2009

It has been years, and I mean many many years since reading a passage in a book made me cry.

But it happened this week.

The book is Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures of Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon (who is author of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, amongst others).

I bought the book in Sydney airport on Thursday November 12 – the 11th anniversary of my father’s death (“Yahrzeit”, in the Jewish tradition).    So it was particularly fitting that I opened the Chabon book to the last chapter to the following passage:

My oldest child became a bat mitzvah in an afternoon Sabbath service. She read from the Torah in flawless Hebrew, taught us something about what she had just read in poignant English, and was blessed by a woman of readily apparent holiness. And then she was on her way: a daughter of Commandments.

Now, everyone knows – sorry, Maimonides – that there really is only one Commandment and that, sooner or later, we all obey it.  Toward the end of every Sabbath service, those in mourning or observing the anniversary of a parent’s death rise for the ancient Kaddish, and as the parent of that day’s bar or bat mitzvah, you can sit there beaming, proud, filled with love and knowing – knowing – that if you have done your job properly, it will not be long before your child will be getting up from a pew somewhere to take note in Aramaic of your own utter absence from the world.

Anyone who has had a child recently bar- or bat-mitzvahed (as I have) and has lost a parent (or two), cannot be moved by this.  I was.

(My full review of the book coming up in the Australian Jewish News soon.)

FlashForward mark1

November 14, 2009

I have rarely been so taken by a new television series as I am by FlashForward, the science fiction-style series which appears on Australia’s Channel 7 each Monday at 8.30pm.  Click here to view the episodes in Australia; click here to view the episodes if you are in the USA.  The USA appears to be running about five or six days ahead of Australia – so last Thursday’s episode in the USA (November 12) will appear in Australia on Monday November 16.

The series appears to unfold in “real time” – that is, what we are watching each week supposedly is taking place during that time (Hallowe’en on that holiday, etc), all leading up to the April 2010 climax – the two-plus minutes of everyone’s future which everyone viewed in the first episode.

The series is wonderfully written, setting up not only some great science fiction questions, but also some important ones about the nature of time:  do we have free will?  (the series appears to be saying “maybe yes”, but the word is not yet in) is the future ordained? (the BIG question, to be sure) are all of those people who did not have “flash forwards” really going to die before April 2010? (we are hoping not, as our Korean-American FBI agent – played by John Cho – will be among them).

The premise, if you have missed this interesting event to date, is that everyone in the whole world lost consciousness at the same moments (causing all sorts of mayhem – planes and cars crashing, millions dead, etc) and glimpsed a vision of their future – all simultaneously.  This in turn drives many people almost crazy, including one of our heroes, FBI agent Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes), who is rather unhappily married and whose wife Olivia has seen a guy in her living room who she calls “darling” (the same guy who is the father of a young autistic boy she is treating).  Fiennes, disappointingly, is not great in this role, and his marital strains are one of the least effective parts of the story (he and his wife’s flash forwards indicate rough times ahead).

In a world where some 20+ million people have died in one moment, I think there would probably be more post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) going on, but my only real complaint about the writing is about their time zones.  These writers – who get so many things absolutely right – have got one thing totally wrong:  The mass consciousness loss took place about 10.00pm in Los Angeles, which would make it about 1.00am in Washington, DC – great, that one is right (showing the President being woken up in the middle of the night), but they got two wrong:  there is a sideline story (episode 2?) in which they discuss and show a baseball stadium in what I am sure they said was Detroit, Michigan where there is one mysterious figure (and it’s a pretty creepy moment, which they show a number of times) moving through the huddled unconscious people – except it’s daytime.  Duh (as they say).  10.00pm in LA makes it 1.00am in Detroit – thus no baseball game, no daylight.  Oh boy.  And then there is a long discussion about how very few Chinese died during the “flash forward” (and maybe they were therefore responsible), but then one character says “but it was the middle of the night there”.  Well, no, it was not:  10.00pm in Los Angeles makes it 2.00pm (not am!) in Beijing – anything but the middle of the night.

Despite these faults (wish they had not made the mistakes), one hell of a great series.

(Postscript:  a good academic “fan” discussion by Julia Lesage, University of Oregon, and entitled “FlashForward: Pacing and Script” has just been published on “FlowTV”, a media analysis site which comes from the University of Texas at Austin.)

The Folks Down Under Get the Word at Last

November 6, 2009

(This article – entitled “The Folks Down Under Get the Word at Last” – was originally published in The New York Times on Sunday October 20, 1985, in the New Jersey section, page N.J. 23.  Some 25 years later, it is a bit of an historical artefact, but captures a nice bit of New Jersey impressions.  Bruce Springsteen, at least, continues to make a pretty significant cultural impact.)

Bruce Springsteen and John Sayles have made me p[round to be a New Jerseyan again.  It was not always thus.

In 1970, I lived with 15 other freshmen in a dormitory at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  I was the only one from New Jersey, and I will never forget the taunts, gibes and New Jersey jokes.

Some years later, in common with many of my high school classmates, I moved to California.  I remember with pride my first California driver’s license.  It even carried a color photograph, something New Jersey didn’t have in those days.

And I remember how I even changed my speech:  “ahrange” (orange) became “awrange” and “Ahregone” (Oregon) became “Awregen.”

As an American living in Australia for the last five years, I am bedevilled by the perpetual inquiry, “Where ya from in the States?”

I used to answer “California.”  Australians understand California.  Most of this country’s television is produced in and around Los Angeles, and many people here have been to Fisherman’s Wharf or Disneyland.

The first time I answered “New Jersey,”, I received a blank stare and a muffled “Oh.”

Australia is a country with some 22 million cows and 17 million people.  England is “home” and that island in the English Channel is the only “Jersey” they know.  For many others, Jersey is a cow.

No longer.

Bruce Springsteen’s tour of major Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne was sold out within hours.  His “Born in the U.S.A.” was already the top-selling album there, and $20 concert tickets were scalped for more than $200.  His was declared the most successful rock tour since the one by the Beatles.

All of this for a boy from New Jersey.

Australia is different now because of Bruce Springsteen.  In the small university town where I live, I hear teenagers singing “Johnny 99” (about the closing of a plant in the Bergen County community of Mahwah) and “fixing your hair up pretty” from the song “Atlantic City.”

John Sayles, the film director, grew up in Schenectady, N.Y.  At age 33, he is making films for his generation (those of us who went to high school or college in the 1960s or early 1970s).

Australians enjoyed Sayles’ first two films (“Return of the Secaucus Seven” and “Lianna”).  “Baby, It’s You” closed in Sydney after good reviews and an extended run and went on to play throughout the country.

The film, set in Trenton, was shot in Bayonne.  Jill (Rosanna Arquette) and “The Sheik” (Vince Spano), unlikely sweethearts, meet in high school in 1966.  Jill goes to Sarah Lawrence and “The Sheik” to Florida, both to escape and to “make” it.

Neither really does.  Sayles does not infuse Trenton (Bayonne) with a romance it does not have.  He treats it as it is, or rather, was.  He reminds us of the setting where we tried to become adults.

I knew, sitting in the Sydney cinema, that the nuances of “Baby, It’s You” were lost on the Australians.  But for the first time, I began to understand what it was like to grow up in middle-class ethnic New Jersey in the 1960s.

Now I answer “New Jersey” to the question and wait for the slow dawning of recognition.  If not, I tell them about Bruce Springsteen and John Sayles.

Digital books in Australia

November 1, 2009

Do you live in Australia and are confused about the nature of digital book downloads here?  You should be.  Despite the increased sophistication of the Australian publishing world and the strong market for purchasing books in this country, we are still at the mercy of American and British publishers.  As Rosemary Sorensen writes in the October 31 edition of The Weekend Australian Review (“Overflow”, page 21):

As we wait for the Brits and the Americans to decide just what format Australian e-books will be sold in … we’re totally dependent on decisions made in the offices of gigantic corporations far away.  It’s like the bad old days ….

Except it is now.

Made more pressing by the recent (October 14, 2009) announcement that Amazon’s Kindle is now available (from October 19) in most countries around to the world – including Australia.

For more discussion on this, go to an excellent summary on Book Thingo, and the news item on Australian Bookseller and Publisher Online.