Friday, August 12, 2022

Men of North Country - Live!

"Where did you first hear about Men of North Country?" my wife and son asked, before joining me to see the band in a life performance at the Ozen Sub Culture Center on Tel Aviv's King George Street.

I couldn't give them an exact answer but I first listened to their music—described on their Facebook page as "soul music, kinda…"—in 2016 and wrote this review: "Northern Soul Music from Tel Aviv".

At the time, I was so enthralled by their unique sound—catchy English lyrics and a talented vocalist, powerful guitars, strong drum beats, and a horn section that gives the band its signature sound—that I made a special trip to buy their CD "The North".

My connection to the band, also known by their acronym MONC, came full circle when I returned to the music store where I bought that CD—Haozen Hashlishit (The Third Ear)—because the show was in an adjacent hall. With its massive collection of vinyl records, the store is a step back in time to how my wife and I listened to music when we were young.

Speaking of being young, or rather not being young, we were nearly the oldest people in the club. The only person older was the mother-in-law of MONC's lead singer. I had bought tickets in advance and learning that the hall's doors open at 19:30, that's exactly when we arrived, only to be the first ones there. Luckily our early arrival enabled us to find a seat at one of the hall's three tables.

We have never previously visited a small club like this to hear a live performance, so this was a first for us. For our son, it was quite a different experience after having just attended a Coldplay concert in Belgium.

Our seats were a few meters from the stage. The opening act was a funk guitarist who was so incredibly bad, that we couldn't stop laughing. And then MONC took the stage—the lead singer, two guitars, the drummer, two trombone players, and a saxophonist.

MONC's music, according to the group's website, is "basically soul with influences of mod 79 sounds and punk 77 music," whatever that means. The band played several of their new songs and a few I recognized from the CD I purchased six years ago.

We enjoyed the band's performance, although the music blaring from the speakers just above our heads was very, very loud. More than that, we enjoyed the experience—following an indie band's career until seeing them perform live at a 'hip' club.

MONC is about to leave on a mini-tour of clubs in Germany. We were glad we had a chance to hear them in Tel Aviv.

Image taken from MONC's Facebook feed.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Scandinavian Politics, Scandinavian Crime

What do you know about the Danish government? Or about Swedish police procedures? We knew absolutely nothing until we started streaming “Borgen” and binging on “The Bridge”.

We really enjoy both Scandinavian television shows!

Part one of two

The best political show from any country

“Borgen” is a Danish political drama about a prime minister’s rise to power, and how power changes her. In the wake of back-stabbing coalition negotiations, the leader of a small minority party becomes prime minister in a compromise. This scenario is very familiar to an Israeli audience! The show also portrays how the country’s leading television news station covers the political turmoil.

Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg, and she is a very believable character. Not only does she need to deal with her political partners and enemies, but also with family dramas and the eventual break-up of her marriage. We later saw Knudsen in a very unflattering role in the independent film “Limbo”, but here she is excellent, her face very expressive as she deals with one setback after another.

In the first three seasons of the show, which ran between 2010-2013, and was first aired by the BBC in 2012, each episode saw the government handle a specific problem. The fourth season, which dropped on Netflix in 2022 with the subtitle ‘Power & Glory’, is much darker.

A single plot line runs through season four – mining rights in Greenland. Birgitte Nyborg returns, this time as Denmark’s foreign minister. Knudsen continues to shine in the role, even if she no longer smiles and worry lines have appeared on her face. Set against a backdrop of the Danish government’s internal and external battles, “Borgen” is truly an enjoyable series.

Next: "The Bridge"

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

"Night Shift" - short story

Sheldon has been on the night shift in the hotel for over thirty five years. It is after midnight when he passes through the deserted lobby and nears the front desk. Rose is the clerk on duty; she frequently works the 11pm to 7am shift. Whenever she isn’t busy greeting guests arriving for a late check in, Rose stares at her computer screen. She types frantically on her keyboard, as if she’s working to meet a deadline, and doesn’t look up as he continues on his rounds.

Sheldon started in the hotel when he was in college and looking for a way to make ends meet. It was a part-time job, standing at the main entrance to greet guests upon their arrival. The pay wasn’t good, but there were tips. Not enough to pay for tuition — he had a student loan for that — but certainly enough to allow him the occasional poker game with classmates. He would join them at the popular bars near campus, where he quickly discovered he couldn’t hold his alcohol. He enjoyed wearing a doorman’s uniform and didn’t mind the long hours or the weekend shifts. When offered a permanent position after graduation, Sheldon accepted.

At the entrance doors where Sheldon had been stationed decades before, Steve, the recently hired doorman, is smoking a cigarette. Before Sheldon gets close, Steve stamps his cigarette out in the white sand atop a trash can. A trash can that would need to be emptied and cleaned by Housekeeping later in the night. Steve shouldn’t be smoking while on duty — the doorman knows this is an offense which could cost him his job —but at this late hour, with no real duties to perform, he assumes no one is paying attention. Sheldon remembers well the boredom of the after-midnight shift. He approaches Steve, but a noise on the far side of the lobby leads him to the bank of elevators instead.

Read the rest of this story on Across the Margin.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

"Nocturnal Animals" - short story

“They were here last night!”

“After all the work you’ve done. What did they do this time?”

“They dug up the grass! Again!”

I led my wife to the backyard where the damage was plain to see. Mounds of overturned soil, piles of kicked-up earth where a lawn of thick green grass used to be.

“It’s worse than last time,” she noted.

“Much worse.”

What more could I do? I had installed a chain-link fence around the perimeter, but this hadn’t served as a strong enough barrier. I had reinforced the fence, added additional metal stakes at regular intervals. This did not stop them. I weighted down the fencing and secured the stakes with solid bases. This effort had failed as well.

Boars. Wild boars determined to go on a rampage in my garden.

“Strange that they’re only trampling the grass. They never eat the flowers or the bushes.”

“They’re going for water,” I explained. The upturned earth ran in nearly parallel lines above the buried irrigation tubing. Grass destroyed in a surprisingly neat pattern.

“How many are there?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I have never actually seen them.

We were newcomers to the quiet suburban community west of Jerusalem and had invested a lot of money in our garden. Professional gardeners had cleared the backyard, hooked up the watering system, and planted the greenery. The expense was worth it, we told ourselves. We envisioned sitting under a gazebo, watching the children we would raise run and play on an expansive lawn.

Everything had been going well since we made the move. I didn’t mind my daily commute and my wife worked three days a week as a cashier in a minimarket. She was three months pregnant the morning she found me staring out the window, my mouth open, and my eyes wide with terror.

“What is it?” she asked, and I pointed at the garden.

That was the first time. I wasn’t aware that wild boars could cause so much damage. The animals roamed the nearby hills and forests, I had heard, with no natural predators to keep their population in check. In Israel, boars are a protected species. It is illegal to hunt or kill them. Their middle-of-the-night raids on garbage bins and gardens were becoming much more than just a nuisance. It was driving me crazy!

Months later, with my wife at the beginning of her third trimester, I was at wits’ end. Another night of boars, another night of extensive damage. The beasts were circumventing the fence; they were forcing their way through the wire; and they were digging under it. All to get to my well-tended, regularly watered, perfectly green lawn.

“Maybe we should have artificial grass instead,” my wife suggested.

“No! I don’t want my children to grow up on fake grass!” I wasn’t going to let a pack of savage animals take my dream away from me.

That morning, as I worked up a sweat packing the grass into place, setting the ground flat and hoping a few extra hours of watering would be enough to get the lawn back in shape, I made my plan. The municipal council wouldn’t help me, the neighbors didn’t care less, and the fencing didn’t stop the beasts. I would have to do this on my own.

Shortly after midnight, I settled onto my lawn chair near the patio. A light breeze gently swayed the bushes and the night was pleasantly cool. The garden was dark, the wire fence at the end of my property hidden from view. In my hands I held a flashlight, duly tested, and my revered slingshot, the very same slingshot I had used as a young boy to ward off the bullies who ridiculed me in school. The same slingshot I had kept all these years and rediscovered when we unpacked boxes after our move. The slingshot I would use to protect my house, my family, and my green grass.

I must have dozed off because I awoke with a start, strange noises coming from the lawn. I bolted from the chair and dropped my flashlight as I would need both hands free to handle my weapon. My eyes were not yet accustomed to the dark but without thinking I approached the beasts and their frightful sounds. Grunting, squealing, clawing at the earth, brushing heavily through the bushes. I heard them to the left of me, and then to my right. I couldn’t see them, only their quickly moving shadows, barely sensed at the edge of my peripheral vision. And then, before I knew what was happening, they had completely surrounded me.

I stood paralyzed in the middle of my lawn amidst a team of snorting boars, adults and piglets, kicking at my legs, thrusting their way past me. Their body heat was intense; their warm, earthy odor was overpowering. Clouds of dust filled my nostrils and my eyes began to water. I raised my slingshot, but there was no visible target at which to aim. One by one, the animals plowed into me as they searched for an escape from the fenced-off garden. I tried to get out of their way but there was nowhere to go. As the boars circled me in their frenzied stampede, I spun round and round until I fell to the ground and passed out.

# # #

Originally published on Across the Margin.

Stuffed boar as seen at the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History.

Friday, July 1, 2022

"Jupiter Aligned With Mars" - short story

Last month, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn aligned in a rare planetary order, the first time this had occurred since 2004. While I didn't manage to see these 5 planets in the sky together, the phenomenon did provide inspiration for my latest story. A very, very short story - exactly 50 words long.

According to the 50-Word Stories website, "A 50-word story is a piece of fiction written in exactly 50 words. That doesn’t mean 'roughly' 50 words; it doesn’t mean 'as close to 50 words as possible'; it doesn’t mean 50 words or fewer. It means exactly 50 words." Title not included.

So, after an introduction that is longer than the story itself, here is my micro fiction:

Jupiter Aligned With Mars

A multitude of stars and their constellations. A fleeting meteorite or two. A moon larger than life. Time stretching to the edge of the visible universe and beyond. Wonders unknown. I fondly recall growing up in the country, and how my walks in the fields after dark enlightened me.

Originally published on 50-Word Stories.

Photo by Alexis Antonio on Unsplash

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Review of 'The Deadly Scrolls' by Ellen Frankel

The Deadly Scrolls by Ellen Frankel (Wicked Son, May 2022) starts out like a police procedural but has many of the elements of an Indiana Jones-like thriller. A murdered Biblical professor with cryptic files on his laptop. Scholars and villains searching for hidden Temple treasures. A corrupt Old City antiquities dealer. A purple-haired American held captive to decipher an ancient scroll. And a solitary Israeli intelligent agent racing to stop a fanatical millennialist bent on destroying the mosques on the Temple Mount.

Maya Rimon must balance her career in Israeli intelligence with being a single mother trapped in a custody battle over her daughter. With a botched operation in her past, Maya sets out single-handedly to solve the professor's murder and its connection with the Copper Scroll, a genuine Dead Sea Scrolls artifact. The scroll could possibly reveal the location of the Temple treasures, or alternatively set in motion the fanatic's plan to bring about the End of Days.

Ignoring protocol and the warnings of the Israel Police and her boss at the agency, Maya travels to unexplored caves at Qumran where additional scrolls may be buried. A race across the desert and through the Western Wall Tunnels leads her to a fateful confrontation deep under the Dome of the Rock.

Like other thrillers set in the Holy City, The Deadly Scrolls occasionally fails a basic course of Jerusalem geography. It doesn't take ten hours to drive from Efrat near Jerusalem to Almog just north of the Dead Sea, for example. Implausible plot twists aside, the novel ties together real and imagined Biblical treasures with modern-day fanatics determined to use those treasures to achieve their nefarious plans.

The Deadly Scrolls is well-written and its pace moves ahead quickly, making it overall a fun read, with promises of a Maya Rimon sequel ahead.

Ellen Frankel served for eighteen years as Editor in Chief and CEO of The Jewish Publication Society. She is the author of ten books, among them The Classic Tales; The Encyclopedia of Jewish Symbols with Betsy Teutsch; The Five Books of Miriam; The Jewish Spirit: A Celebration in Stories and Art, and The Illustrated Hebrew Bible, winner of the National Jewish Book Award. She has also written lyrics for a number of musical works. Frankel and her husband, Herb Levine, divide their time between Sarasota and Maine.

Originally published on The Times of Israel.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

'The Burgas Affair' Added to the National Library of Israel

An unexpected message came to me recently on Messenger.

"I discovered 'The Burgas Affair' on the Internet. I work for the National Library of Israel. We are obligated to collect every book published in Israel on behalf of future generations, and to safeguard Israeli culture."

The sender promised to send me additional details by mail and two weeks later an email arrived.

Congratulations on the publication of your book! We are honored to invite you to add it to the National Library's book collection. For the past 125 years, we have been collecting every book, newspaper, and other printed matter published in Israel. This is done so that these materials will document written work and save it for future generations. We invite you to add your book to the millions of items already in our collection.

A nice invitation? Actually, I am required by Israeli law to send my book to the National Library.

As mentioned this week in The Times of Israel, "In accordance with the 2000 'book law,' any book published with more than 50 copies in the State of Israel must send two copies to the National Library. This applies to books written in any language, including translations."

One copy of the book is made available to the general public, while the other is stored in special conditions, preserving its availability to future generations.

According to that law, published books must be sent to the National Library within 30 days of their publication date. I just learned of the law's existence now and will be sending two copies of The Burgas Affair to the library. Readers in the future will thank me. 

Photo by Hanan Cohen for the National Library of Israel.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

"Heterochromia" - short story

'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.'

But name-calling could.

The names they called my grade school classmates hurt them terribly. They called Brandon 'Fatso' because of his weight; Pete was nicknamed 'Dumbo' because of his big ears. 'Geek' was the name they gave to Max, while 'Psycho' was reserved for Jason. Insults painful to bear when you are young. As for me, I had a physical feature that had so far escaped attention. I was safe from verbal abuse, at least for now. But I was worried, especially when I stared at my reflection in the mirror.

"It's in your genes," my father explained, but I didn't understand at all. What were genes, and how did my eyes get in there?

My right eye is brown and my left eye is light blue. Different colored irises. As a kid, I believed I had a birth defect, a medical syndrome that would one day require surgery.

"Your eyes didn't decide what color they wanted to be," my father reassured me. Still, I feared being ridiculed in school and avoided making eye contact as much as possible.

Some kids are born with superpowers; others get them while growing up and use them to ward off the name-calling. Max claimed he could see through girls' clothing; Pete said he could fly if he wanted to, but only when no one was looking. Jason was capable of lifting heavy objects, even a piano. He was still waiting for the police to call on him to fight crime. And Brandon had many superpowers. He could become invisible, walk through buildings, run faster than a horse, and shape-shift. I wasn't exactly sure what shape-shifting was, but Brandon boasted he could do it.

"What about you?" Max taunted me. "You can't lift anything," teased Jason. "You'll never outrun me," sneered Brandon.

I didn't have a superpower, but I had my eyes. My secret feature. But what good were they?

Many years later, I was on a date with Jenny who lived down the street; we occasionally did our physics homework together. It wasn't actually a date, per se, but rather a spur-of-the-moment outing to the mall to see 'Star Wars'.

"May the Force be with us," Jenny giggled when we sat down for burgers and fries after the film. She slurped her cola and at that moment, I thought I was the luckiest guy in our class. Then, before I could avert my gaze, she stared at me.

"Your eyes!"

I looked down at the table, at my half-eaten fast food, embarrassed. She had laughed at me and we'd never see a movie together again.

"They're special!" she said next, and I took a deep breath of relief.

Actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Kate Bosworth; dancer Michael Flatley, Canadian hockey star Shawn Horcoff; and Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer all had different colored eyes, I learned. And I heard that when Julia Roberts accepted her Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress award in 1990 for her role in the film 'Steel Magnolias', she thanked her “beautiful blue-eyed, green-eyed friend,” reportedly referring to Kiefer Sutherland. Most impressive to me in those years of my science fiction fascination was the fact that Henry Cavill, the Superman of the 2013 film 'Man of Steel', had eyes of different colors.

Heterochromia, the variation in coloration in my eyes, was something I could be proud of. They're special, as Jenny told me on that date long ago. Take that, Max, Pete, Jason, and Brandon! I had my superpower at last, and I wasn't afraid to flaunt it!

 # # #

Originally published in the anthology Otherwise Engaged A Literature and Arts Journal Volume 9. Summer 2022 (May 2022).

Image by asdf, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.