The lucky lives of Judy and Alex Resofsky

Throughout her life Judy Resofsky considered herself lucky.  No doubt, her husband Alex did too.

Judy and Alex arrived in Australia in 1949 when they were in their early twenties, having both survived the horrors or Hungarian ghetto life and the notorious Auschwitz Concentration camp in Poland, to which many Hungarian Jews were deported in 1944.

At her funeral last month in Melbourne, Judy and Alex’s daughter Kathy Janovic told mourners the incredible story of how her mother had escaped the gas chambers.

On the day, she and others were to be murdered, the gas chambers had miraculously malfunctioned and she was spared.

Later, when the concentration camps were being evacuated and demolished, as the Russians advanced across Europe, Judy was one of thousands of emaciated Jews sent on a death march from Praust (Pruszcz Gdański) in North Western Poland.

At one stage during this horrendous ordeal, she and other women were resting in a barn when Russian soldiers entered and started to rape the women. Judy jumped out of a window and landed close to a Jewish Russian soldier, who saved her.

This was just another example of her mother’s good luck, her daughter Kathy said in a loving tribute to her warm, kind and generous parents.

One of eight children, born in Nyirbartor, in Eastern Hungary on July 5, 1926 to Adolph and Berta Winkler, and their first born, Judy was the only of her family to survive the mass extermination of European Jews by the Nazis.

Her husband Alex Resofsky, who also recently passed away, was born in the same Hungarian town of Nyirbator two years before Judy in 1924.

The second child of Mor and Berta Resofksy, Alex and his eldest sister Margaret were the only ones in their family to survive the holocaust.

After the family had been rounded up in the Sirna Pusata Ghetto, they were deported to Auschwitz. Alex’s mother and siblings did not survive the selection process and were murdered by the Nazis.

Alex passed through three more concentration camps – including the notorious Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald camp networks – before being liberated at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

He was part of the Bricha underground movement that helped smuggle Jewish holocaust survivors out of Eastern Europe into what is today Israel.

In 1949 he sailed to Australia with his sister and future wife, Judy.

Here they lived for the next 69 years, making a life for themselves in Melbourne’s flourishing Jewish immigrant garment trade (supplying David jones with mens knitwear) and where they had three children and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

By all accounts – I sadly never met them – Alex and Judy were much-loved and treasured members of Melbourne’s close-knit Jewish community,and were actively involved in the important work of the Jewish Holocaust Centre.

A report from the JHC in September 2017 includes a picture of Judy and Alex along with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are 24 people in the photo.

resofsky family

Alex and Judy with their family, taken in September 2017 (Credit: Jewish Holocaust Centre)

 

The JHC report notes that through the generosity of the Resofsky’s, the centre was able to put its vast and important collection online, and that they did so in loving memory of their parents, Mor and Lenke Resofsky; Jeno and Berta Frisch; Adolf and Berta Winkler and all their siblings.

I only recently came across the incredible survival of the Resofskys while researching a story I was writing for The Australian Financial Review. It was about a shopping mall they owned near Geelong, and which their children recently sold.

It would have been a great privilege to have met Alex and Judy and heard their story of survival against the odds, and about their successful and happy lives in Melbourne.

Deepest sympathies to their family and friends.

 

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Blocked on Twitter: A few thoughts on the “Anonymous host” of Casefile

casey This week I discovered I had been blocked on Twitter from accessing any tweets from @case_file and @casefilehost – the handles for popular crime podcast Casefile.

Fans of this blog may recall I wrote a now deleted post a few months back revealing the identity of the show’s anonymous host.

What followed was frantic messaging via Twitter from the “anonymous host” asking me to remove the post as revealing his identity would comprise the show and could bring about its early end.

This I agreed to do in modest exchange for an interview (anonymously) with “Brad” (He revealed his name in a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone magazine).

I took down my original post as he had asked, emailed him some interesting questions – but no responses were forthcoming.

Instead a rather blunt email followed over a week later suggesting that my follow-up post (which did not reveal his identity) was also not to his liking and when I declined to acquiesce to his demands to change it, our correspondence ended.

email-casefile

A short while later, he blocked me on Twitter, meaning I cannot view any Casefile tweets or interact with him – though I can still download his show.

I have also discovered that ‘Brad’ had removed all photos on social media of himself and other bits of identifiable information scattered on the internet in clear efforts to protect his anonymity.(That said, he can still be easily found if you know where to look).

Clearly, ‘Brad’ is very keen to remain anonymous and – for reasons that no one appears to know, but many are curious about ( I get emails every week) – shuns the quasi celebrity status that other successful podcasters have enjoyed.

It of course begs the question, why? What does he have to hide?

With no responses to my questions from Brad, all I can do for now (until the mystery is inevitably solved) is speculate on plausible explanation for his overt shyness.

Perhaps the host of Casefile is a former or current police or law enforcement officer? Or perhaps he has served in the army or worked for one of those secretive government agencies?

Is it too fanciful to suggest that maybe he has some dark and dastardly secrets of his own?

The other possibility I think is that being anonymous protects him to a degree from being sued or attacked personally.

This I pondered after finding out that one Casefile episode, case 55 – the unsolved 2005 murder of Perth backpacker Simone Strobel – is no longer downloadable anywhere.

strobel

So why has it disappeared? Has someone complained?

In our exchanges the Casefile host said there was nothing “sinister” about his anonymity, but equally his other explanations (told in many online interviews) that he wants to stay out of the way of the story do not ring true.

I also wonder how ‘Brad’ feels at retelling these crimes in all their graphic detail, where the victims (some of whom are still alive) are not afforded the luxury of anonymity…while he so jealously guards his.

If you want to be happier: close your Facebook account

facebook_like_logo_1The global furore created by the data mining of 50 million Facebook users by controversial UK political consultants Cambridge Analytica (reportedly to help Donald Trump win the US election) spawned the Twitter hashtag #DeleteFacebook and a campaign calling for users to abandon the social media giant in droves.

In truth, it just one of a number of reasons for shutting down your Facebook account – if you were looking for one.

Other reasons include the constant stream of fake news flowing down your Facebook feed, the trolls, scumbags and hate speech mongerers who freely ply their trade on Facebook or just the incredible and unfettered power Facebook  and founder Mark Zuckerberg now wields with its 1.2 billion users and rivers of advertising revenue that has crippled the free press.

But there is a far more obvious reason why you should seriously consider doing as the hashtag says and #DeleteFacebook.

Simply put, the latest research shows that frequent use of Facebook is likely to make you a less happier, less well-adjusted and less healthier person.

“Researchers are finding that the curated versions that we post on Facebook and Instagram have real consequences in our actual lives,” said Shankar Vedantam the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain, a popular science and psychology podcast which looks at how people interact with the world.

“As you watch the seemingly idyllic lives of friends on social media, you may find a little voice pointing out that your vacations are dull by contrast, that your kid never scores the winning goal, that your relationships seem to be painted in grey while everyone else’s seem to be in Technicolor,” the eloquent Vedantam went on to say.

Social comparison risk

The podcast episode called “SchadenFacebook” (which you can download here), looked at a 2017 study carried out by academics at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management, which was the first study aimed at separating out correlation (Do lonelier people tend to use Facebook?) from causation (Does Facebook use make you unhappier?) in relation to social media use.

It examined the “natural” experiences of 144 workers at a security firm who initially were not allowed to use Facebook at all and had to delete their accounts. Later, the company allowed some employees to re-open their accounts.

In this unique situation, none of the people got to choose which group they were in, so it couldn’t be that people who were unhappy were choosing to use Facebook, ruling out a correlation bias.

The researchers  collected data from the time no one was allowed to use Facebook to the time some were allowed to have access.

Surprisingly, the study found that users are not generally fooled into accepting that the experiences posted on Facebook by their friends are the true picture.

But did find conclusively that “Facebook usage increases users’ engagement in social comparison and consequently decreases their happiness”.

 

“Using Facebook makes you more comparative. You need to prove yourself to yourself over and over again,”  one of the researchers, Ohad Barzilay, told Hidden Brain.

“You compare yourself to others more often, you judge yourself, am I better or worse than my friends?  Am I happier or are they happier?”

“This [constant] social comparison engagement makes you less happy,” Barzilay said.

Harvard Business Review study

On top of that study,  I tracked down another recent and more comprehensive study on the impact of Facebook use on wellbeing, that was published in the esteemed Harvard Business Review.

Conducted by Holly B. Shakya an assistant professor of global public health at UC San Diego and Nicholas A. Christakis, director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale University, it tracked the wellbeing of 5208 regular Facebook users over a two-year period.

It measured life satisfaction, self-reported mental health, self-reported physical health, and body-mass index.

The findings were: “Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being.

The report went on to say: “These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.”

Neither of these findings really surprised me – nor do I suspect would they many other people.

Unfortunately, we often accept at face value what we read and see on Facebook and as the academic studies show use this as a disingenuous point of self-comparison: “There’s so and so having a better holiday then me…or with a nicer house or car…or with a better job…or with happy kids…or a nicer figure….”

But if we weren’t on Facebook voyeuristically trawling through the lives of others, and instead spent time on building our relationship in the real world, the latest research strongly suggests we’d be a lot less envious, a lot less depressed and a lot less self-judging.

Quitting is hard

The problem is thought that quitting Facebook – like any other addiction (and it is an addition!) is not easy.

The world’s most famous online brand (alongside Google) is completely entangled in our lives. It’s on our phones, our iPads and computers and it crops up in everything we see and do: from food packaging, to newspaper articles to everyday conversations.

The brilliance or insidiousness of Facebook, and other social network platforms like Instagram is that it takes advantage of natural human curiosity. Quite simply put: we want to know.

But if you’re feeling depressed or dispirited about your life and feel others are having more fun then you (when in fact their lives are not so shit hot) maybe its time to take the plunge and press the delete button.

“What, you’re not on Facebook?” your friends might ask in shock and horror.

To which you can simply smile and say: “Yes”.

Good, bad or just bizarre: some thoughts on social media

1217linkedinSocial media can be a force for good – think the #metoo campaign by women who have been victims of sexual harassment and abuse in the entertainment industry and how that has exposed decades of predatory behaviour by actors, directors, writers and entertainers.

Think too of someone like Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian journalist trapped on Manus Island who has been able to tell the real story of what has gone on in that Australian-made hell hole using Twitter and his smart phone.

Social media can also make us laugh, inform us, warn us and of course foster connections with people from all around the world.

But think also of its insidousness, how false information can be spread through Twitter and Facebook (the Russian influence on the 2016 US presidential election campaign is but one recent example) and other platforms, how people can be bullied, trolled and harassed. Social shaming can ruin lives, (read Jon Ronson’s excellent book, ‘So you have been publicly shamed’) and lead to suicide or violence towards others. A Tweet or Facebook post can be deleted but everything lives on in the archives of the internet – just ask Justine Sacco.

And think of all that Donald Trump tweeting! That surely can’t be a good thing for the progress of mankind.

 

Social media can also be…well just bizarre.

Take my birthday for example. I turned 44 just over a week ago. I didn’t make a fuss about it as that is my preference and expected only a small, but intimate celebration with my wife and kids (accompanied by pizza, beer and cake!) and a few phone calls from family and close friends. I didn’t tell people at work and nobody said anything. I was perfectly happy with that arrangement

But of course, we enter our birth dates into our social media profiles and so the almost 2000 people I am connected with on business social media platform LinkedIn (I used it a lot) got an alert to say it was my birthday.

And the greetings came flooding in from people I have never met or interacted with except to accept their connection request (I have trouble saying no), and from all corners of the globe.

Mostly it was just a generic “Happy Birthday” greeting, occasionally it was personalised with “Have a great day!” but it made me wonder why these people, who basically did not know me, felt they needed to wish me a happy birthday. I certainly don’t wish strangers on happy birthday, even when they pop up on my LinkedIn page.

But it got even more bizarre, because I felt this irrational obligation to thank every single person who had wished me a Happy Birthday, regardless of who they were (of course among the greetings were people I do know and interact with), where they lived or what they did.

And so I spent a good part of my day constantly replying to Happy Birthday messages on LinkedIn as they came in thanking Surya in Delhi, India, Siergiej in London, Orit on the NSW Far North Coast and Rui in Southport, Queensland. By the end of the day I’d received 40 or more birthday greetings. I’d never been more “popular”.

But why were these people sending me birthday greetings? Do you they send them to everyone they are connected with on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook? Or was I considered special in some way?

(Ironically, some friends and family who I expected to hear from never contacted me, not even through social media.)

It makes me wonder just how much of our lives we spend on social media thumbing through our Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, checking up on people on Facebook or Instagram? Surely it can now be measured – like sleep – in years lost from our lives.

But while sleep is necessary to function properly – we would literally go crazy and die if we did not sleep for a long period of time, I doubt whether endlessly checking our myriad social media accounts really adds much to the human experience, one that is becoming increasingly disconnected from the real world.

Podcasts for train journeys: 10 to get you started

Vlocity_train_at_little_river_victoriaA new, hour–long, daily commute by train into work (Gisborne to Southern Cross) has suprisingly quelled my reading habits and instead created a new obsession: Podcasts.

Where I thought I would have my head buried in a book as the rugged Victorian countryside rolled by,  I have instead been listening to a variety of audio tales spanning  true crime, politics, everyday life, pyschology and science, celebrity lives, music and comedy.

I’ve been using the Stitcher app which is great because its very user-friendly and you can download podcast espisodes onto your phone to listen offline so I don’t have to use any of my data or rely on mobile connections (this is particurlarly handy for country train rides where mobile signal disappear into black holes).

Much has been written about how Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime and others have changed television forever with all their brilliantly original shows and on-demand binge viewing, I reckon Podcasts are changing radio broadcasting in the same way.

In fact I hardly listen to live radio any more and haven’t watched live television in months.

I have listened to Podcasts before – namely the groundbreaking Guardian Unlimited Ricky Gervais Show and the first brilliant season of crime investigation Serial – but this is the first time I have truly binged on the podcast medium.

Given there are literally thousands of podcasts (and many are downright mediocre or terrible), here are 10 I reckon are worth giving a try, mostly based on recommendations from my podcast-addicted friend Jonny L.

Casefile

My first introduction to the Australian true crime podcast ‘Casefile was the story,  told in three parts, of the notorious ‘Jonestown’ massacre involving the narcissistic Reverend Jim Jones. I followed this up with the infamous ‘bodies in the barrels serial murders in Snowtown, South Australia in the late 1990s which revealed human behaviour at its most depraved.

Each grizzly story is told in graphic detail by an unnamed (and yet to be identified) Australian narrator with a chilling, deadpan voice. Each episode is brilliantly researched, taking you right inside the criminal mind. The podcast, which according to a Vice interview came about when the anonymous creator was stuck in hospital and bored, has become an international sensation with something like 200,000+ downloads per episode.

Sword and Scale

I followed up a couple of Casefile stories with another true crime American podcast ‘Sword and Scale’ with a disturbing episode about childhood sexual abuse and then an episode about Donna Scrivo who killed and dismembered her own son, Ramsay.

Narrated by the disquieting Mike Boudet, Sword and Scale has more of an investigative feel blending a retelling of events with exclusive interviews, courtroom recording and radio and television broadcasts. The podcasts keep listeners guessing, only revealing certains bits of crucial information towards the end.

Desert Island Discs

In need of some light relief, I tuned into the BBC’s famous music series Desert Island Discs (Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, John McEnroe, Hugh Bonneville and Mark Rylance to date) where celebrities talk to Kirsty Young about their lives and the eight songs they would take with them if they were stranded on a desert island. This is actually a radio show that has been condensed into podcast format. Each are about 40 minutes long.

Here’s The Thing

Next on the menu was Alec Baldwin’s New York podcast “Here’s The Thing'” where the 30 Rock star interviews actors, musicians, politicians and other people he admires (Edie Falco, John Turturro, Dustin Hoffma, William Friedkin, Bernie Sanders, Sandra Bernhardt, Anthony Weiner and Mickey Rourke) about what inspires them, the turning points in their lives and the people and events that shaped them. It’s great because Baldwin loves and admires his interview subjects and is genuinely interested in their lives. Plus he has the perfect voice for radio: smooth and mellow, and he doesn’t take himself to seriously. (My personal favourite so far, the director William Friedkin who made The Exorcist and The French Connection).

The Moth Radio Hour

I confess I have only listened to one episode so far, but it was brilliant. The format of the show, which has been around for years, is to have a theme and then to feature real stories told live in front of an audience. The theme I listened to was Me, Myself, and I: Stories of Questioned Identity which included a great story by the writer and journalist Jon Ronson about a Twitter spambot that stole his identity. The three other stories in the podcast, including the dating adventures of a Manhattan Mormon comic, were all wonderfully engaging, funny, charming and thought-provoking.

On Point

On Point is podcast by the always reliably good National Public Radio (NPR) syndication network examining major issues dominating the American news cycle. Hosted by Tom Ashbrook, the former foreign editor of the Boston Globe, the show invites top journalists and bloggers who are experts on the chosen topic – be it the Harvey Weinstein scandal or the #Takeaknee NFL protest – to present their view-point and debate among each other. Generally panelists include people across the political spectrum which adds to its appeal.

Phoebe’s Fall (On iTunes not Stitcher)

Phoebe’s Fall is a special investigation by The Age newspaper into the bizarre, tragic and unexplained death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjunk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage shoot in one of Melbourne’s most exclusive apartment towers.  Presented over six episodes by investigative journalists Michael Bachalard and Richard Baker, it looks at all the key aspects of the baffling case, which seems to defy the ruling of the Coronial Inquest; that Phoebe died by misadventure. It includes interviews with Phoebe’s family, retired detectives and legal experts pulled together with an enjoyable discussion and debate between the two journalists about the key aspects of the case. It’s unmissable for podcast addicts.

This American Life

Presented by one of American radio’s most distinctive voices, Ira Glass, This American Life is one of the most listened to radio shows and podcasts in America. Each weekly episode (broadcast across 500 radio stations) exploring a different theme or topic with great nuance and insight whether it be “The Perils of Intimacy” (about relationships), or “Expect Delays” (about the banal perils of travel and journeys) or more serious topics like the rise of the Alt-Right and White Nationalism. The show is legendary and deserves its status.

Hidden Brain

Also an NPR broadcast, Hidden Brain is a science-based podcast about how we experience the world. Episodes that I have listen to look at the phenomenon of Nostalgia and Regret. The latest episode is on unpredictable behaviour. It’s presented by the highly articulate Shankar Vedantam, a former Washington Post reporter and columnist.

These are just a few suggestions from a novice Podcast listener. If you have any suggestions of your own, send me an email (freshlyworded@gmail.com).

In particular I am keen on finding a good comedy podcast. I’ve not had much luck so far.

The sad path tread by the anti-Muslim brigade

riding a camel

Me, riding a camel in the Sahara (Morocco, 2010)

Here’s a random scene from the life of Larry, a 43-year-old liberal-minded agnostic, Jewish South African/Australian:

A little while ago, upon alighting the train at Southern Cross Station, in the centre of Melbourne one busy weekday morning, I was asked by a young, traditionally dressed Muslim woman if I knew where the place was where you registered births. As I had been to the exact building before, I happily pointed out where she needed to go and walked with her part of the way through the busy station. She was shy, but sweet and thanked me as she headed out of the station and across the busy intersection of Collins and Spencer Streets towards her destination.

Here’s another in my illustrious life…

A few weeks ago, needing a haircut before a wedding,  I drove to our local shopping strip, parked my car, withdrew money from the ATM and went in search of someone who could cut my hair. Soon I found a funky-looking barbershop that had opened recently (it used to be a frozen yoghurt shop) and took a seat. A little while later, a young Middle Eastern-looking man with an accent like Turkish Delight showed me to a seat, asked me what kind of haircut I wanted, and then proceeded to cut my hair. We had one of those rambling, but friendly conversions you have when someone cuts your hair – I asked him how long the shop had been open and how it was doing and he asked me what my plans were for the weekend and about my family. 15 minutes later my head was neatly trimmed. I thanked him, paid and left.

And here’s one more…

A month ago my infant son was sick and we were in the Royal Children’s Hospital. A young trainee doctor with a Muslim name came in to check on us. He was a bit nervous, but politely asked a few questions about why we were in the hospital, what had happened and how things were now. He listened to my son’s chest, asked a few more questions, and then said goodbye and moved on.

These three random and unremarkable moments keep popping into my head like flashing lightbulbs whenever I encounter the opinions of Australia’s vocal Anti-Muslim brigade led by Pauline Hanson, the leader of far right political party One Nation, who believes all Australian Muslims should be treated with suspicion “You can’t tell a good one from a bad one” she said recently.

Others like cartoonist Larry Pickering told a dinner hosted by the Anti-Islam Q Society: “I can’t stand Muslims” while conspiracy theorist and aspiring politician Kirralie Smith from the paradoxically named Australian Liberty Alliance believes Halal-certified food is funding Islamic terrorism and should be banned.

I keep wondering how these three people live there daily lives in one of the world’s most multicultural societies, where you only have to step onto a train, bus or tram to encounter 10 different nationalities, three or four ethnicities and half a dozen different languages

How do they react when a Middle Eastern man dispenses their medicine in the pharmacy, swipes their items in the supermarket, delivers their new television or asks them directions to the shopping mall? Do they yell abuse, ignore them or cross to the other side of the street?

Do they avoid the local grocery store because its own by Lebanese people, or move to new seats in the cinema if they find themselves seated next to a Muslim family? Do they carefully read every food label before purchasing in case it happens to have Halal certification?

And what about when they travel overseas for work or holidays? Do they deliberately avoid flying Arabic carriers like Etihad or Emirates Airlines even if they happen to have the cheapest fares or the best reputation for food and service? What do they do if their flight to Paris or London refuels in Dubai or Kuala Lumpur?

in Putrajaya

Me, in Putrajaya, Malaysia, 2010

What about sport, that great Australian tradition? How do they feel when Australia plays cricket against Pakistan or Bangladesh or a soccer match against Iran, Iraq or the United Arab Emirates? Will they watch Australia at the next FIFA World Cup in Kuwait? How do they feel when cricketer Usman Khawaja, the first Muslim cricketer to play for Australia, scores a brilliant test hundred or when Richmond midfielder Bachar Houli, a devout Muslim, scores a goal at the MCG and the stadium erupts?

How do those people who worship at the altar of anti-Islam navigate their daily lives? Do they constantly have to remind themselves to hate and despise fellow citizens based on their ideological position or does the mask slip from time to time?

Do they ever question any of their beliefs? Are their views malleable or fused into some solid form of rage that is impenetrable? Do they doubt anything they believe? Is there any chink in their armoury?

egypt

Me, in Cairo, 2010

Thankfully, I don’t have to navigate any of those daily challenges. I take everyone at face value and like to think I make no pre-judgements of anyone.

Also, I have been lucky enough to have travelled to many Muslim countries in my life – Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia to name a few.

Most of my experiences in these countries have been extremely positive – nowhere is perfect – and enlightening. I have learnt about fascinating and ancient cultures, seen beautiful architecture and art, sampled new delectable cuisines and shared stories with  warm and charming people.

I say this not to boast of my travel exploits, but to make the point that I think you can only be anti-Muslim from a position of ignorance.

Indeed, a recent poll by Pew Research asking people to estimate the proportion of their country’s population that is Muslim shows just how uninformed we are.

In France the estimate among respondents was that 31 per cent of the population was Muslim when the real figure was 7.5 per cent, in the US the perception was that one in six Americans were Muslim, whereas the actual figure is one in 100.

Australians thought Muslims made up 12.5 per cent of the population when the true figure was only 2.4 per cent.

None of this should detract from the heinous actions of Islamic extremists, who make up a tiny proportion of the 1.6 billion Muslims whom we share the planet with.

Indeed Muslims themselves are the targets of many of these brutal acts, as the recent horrific chemical attacks orchestrated by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad against his own people have shown to the world.

And let’s not forget the role the anti-Muslim movement plays in creating the next generation of extremists.

“…trying to demonise all Muslims is only confirming the lying, dangerous message of the terrorists,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull in a recent rebuttal to the bigotry of Pauline Hanson.

The end of reading: Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson

zoo-time-coverZoo Time is another very funny, novel by Howard Jacobson, the writer of the Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question (read my review here) and The Making of Henry (reviewed here)

It’s the story of Guy Abelman, a once successful satirical writer, whose last book, Who Gives a Monkey? was loosely based on his relationship with a chimpanzee-masturbating zoologist at Chester Zoo.

Since then, he hasn’t written a bestseller in years. His books are out of print (available as ‘print on demand’ his new publisher tells him) and worst of all, making their way into the second-hand section of charity book stores.

Indeed this is where we first meet the middle-aged Jewish satirist: outside an Oxfam bookstore in the Cotswolds where he has just stolen a copy of his novel and been apprehended by the police.

Asked why he stole it, Abelman replies that he did not steal it but “released it”.

“The book as prestigious object and source of wisdom is dying,” he tells the constable.

Resuscitation is probably futile, but the last rites can at least be given with dignity. It matters where and with whom we end our days. Officer

In the Cotswolds to speak – or rather be heckled – at another writer’s festival (“The only character I identified with in your book is the one who died,” retorts one reader) Abelman believes the book is all but, dead, because no one reads books anymore, certainly not the clever literary stuff which once won him minor awards.

To confirm this depressing state of affairs, his old publisher, the terminally depressed Merton has just committed suicide, his final words being “Mmm” while his agent, Francis, does not even bother to restock his office bookcase with his old novels when Guy comes to visit.

The party’s over [Francis] wanted me to know. The age of sparing a writer’s feelings was past

To top it all off, Abelman desires to bed his sixty-something mother-in-law, Poppy while his frustrated wife, Vanessa wants him out the house so she can finally finish her own novel.

So badly has Guy run out of ideas, that the best he can do is tell Francis about his idea for a new novel: a plot based around his unrequited passion for Poppy.

If he’s sounding a bit like a neurotic, over-sexed Jewish character dreamt up by Woody Allen or Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David – albeit a very British one – that’s probably a fair assessment.  And if you delight in that type of Freudian black humour and cynicism you will enjoy reading Zoo Time.

If not, I would suggest giving it a wide berth.

Indeed we spend the entire novel inside the head of the sentimental, lamenting and self-important  Guy, who when he is not railing against the loss of his own cherished self-worth (even the Soho hobos are writing novels), is indulging in fantasies about where, when and how to seduce his mother-in-law.

For Australian fans of Howard Jacobson, who spent three years lecturing at the University of Sydney, there is the added pleasure of numerous trips Down Under,  as Guy interrogates the collapse of his literary career.

Reminiscing about a trip to a writer’s festival in Adelaide (where a fat Nobel prize-winning Dutch author who wrote “slim novellas’ got a standing ovation despite not uttering a word on stage) Guy remembers his brief affair with Philippa,  a young Kiwi lecturer and teacher of ‘Unglush Lut” who performed oral sex on him among the vines of the Barossa Valley.

“You novelists tell the story of the human heart,” Philippa said. You see what no one else can see.” She was holding my pruck as she was saying this.

He also recalls a West Australian outback road trip, where he travelled with his wife and mother-in-law from Perth to the tourist town of Broome, stopping on the way for them to swim with the dolphins at Monkey Mia and where he thinks about an alternative career as a stand-up comedian, he’s opening line being: “Take my mother-in-law – I just have.”

It’s a darkly funny book. Guy is a pompous, snobbish, egotistical ass, but I liked him a lot, not just because of his cynical, very Jewish view of the world, but because of his lament against the decline of book reading in the age of smartphones, ipads, Facebook and Twitter.

You only have to sit on a train and see how many people have their heads buried in their mobile phones compared with the few who are actually reading a book to understand the truth behind the black comedy.

Interviewed about the book, Jacobson said it was primarily a book about reading, not literary failure.

“We don’t read well anymore. It’s a bit risky, because you’re insulting your own readers. But you hope they will feel they are exempted from that general charge,” he said.

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Howard Jacobson

This charge is best personified in the character of Sandy Ferber, the new head of Guy’s publisher who tells him at their first meeting that there is a “historic opportunity to “rescue reading from the word” by creating ” a thousand story apps for the mobile phone market”

Bus-stop reading he called it. Unbooks that could be started and finished while phone users were waiting to call them back, or for the traffic lights to change, or for the waiter to arrive with the bill. In short, to plug those small social hiatuses of life on the run.