Monday, September 28, 2009

Leonard Cohen - Live in Ramat Gan

On Thursday, September 24, 2009, I went to see Leonard Cohen's live concert at the Ramat Gan Stadium. This concert was one of the most anticipated shows in Israel this year, and the 50,000 tickets sold out on the first day of sales. We sat opposite the stage, but a long way back from it, so while the stage itself seemed small, we had a clear view of the screens. The sound was perfect. The concert started on time and lasted 3 hours, with a 30-minute break.

The song list was very similar to that of the CD "Live in London", with almost all the songs, in much the same order, and the same arrangements. However, hearing them live was a much more vivid experience than listening to any recording. For me, the highlights were my favourite Cohen songs, "Who By Fire" and "Lover Lover", which I have known since childhood. Cohen sung expressively, and seemed to enjoy himself. His musicians and singers were outstanding, and the entire show was professional, moving and impressive. Even the weather was perfect, with a pleasant temperature and slight breeze.

For me, Cohen has always been a singer I appreciated, though not one I often played. I was happy when I heard his songs at other people's homes, or on the radio. In this respect, my attitude to his music is like my appreciation of classical music. I also think my early exposure to his work was formative, and that some of the artists I like today have some similarities to his style. I have always admired his writing, with lyrics expressing the passion, the spirituality and the complexity of relationships, and sometimes including Jewish themes, which always resonate with the Israeli audience.

The practical arrangements for the concert, however, were less perfect. Parking was difficult, even for those who arrived early. There were long queues at the gates, and for the toilets. I think the organizers should have provided additional portable toilets, instead of relying on the insufficient facilities of the stadium. During the concert people smoked, which bothered me, but I know that it would be difficult to enforce a smoking ban in an open-air venue. At the end of the concert there were traffic jams.

It has been reported that Cohen will donate the proceeds from the concert, about $2 million, to a new charity he has set up, the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance, and Peace. Some of the proceeds will be given to existing bodies: the Parents Circle-Families Forum, the Palestinian Center of Research and Information, Radio Kol HaShalom, and Saving the Children - Peres Center for Peace. During the concert he spoke touchingly about the work of the Parents Circle-Families Forum, a group of bereaved Jewish and Palestinian families who have lost loved ones in the conflict and are working together through their mutual understanding of the price they have paid. He has called on other performing artists to donate the proceeds of one of their concerts from each tour to this new fund.

I really enjoyed the concert, and it was worth waiting for.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Impressions of England - part two

I have now returned home from my holiday in England. I found it more difficult to blog from my relatives' computers than I had expected, for various reasons, so now I have a lot of catching up to do. In the next few days, I hope to describe the places I visited and the experiences I had.

I spent much of the holiday observing people, and thinking about the balance between the two truths: "People are all the same" and "People are all different". Arguments can be made to support both claims. The similarity is at a basic level, and the differences can be quite subtle. What is interesting is not just how people are different, but also why they are. In some cases there are individual differences, while other differences seem to be representative of the society the individuals belong to.

The characteristics of English society (yes, I know this is a generalization, but it was reflected in my observations of people in general, however much some individuals may deviate from their societal norm) include: considerateness, respect for privacy, respect for personal space, and general politeness.

Here are some examples to demonstrate these characteristics. On returning to Israel, I was immediately aware of the difference in people's attitude towards each other's personal space. In England, when you move through a public space like a street or a station, people are constantly alert and aware of the space they occupy and the movements of others around them, and plot their movements so they won't block or delay other people. This just doesn't happen in Israel. As I walked through the airport on arrival, people just moved where they wanted, not caring if this intercepted the path of other people (some of them pushing luggage). In such cases, one person has to move aside, and this is usually the less assertive (or more considerate) of the two.

Famously, the English know how to queue (= stand in line), and almost never push in, while this is always a problem for Israelis.

The politeness of the English is well-known. I am not used to being called "madam" (while my husband was called "sir"), and service staff were constantly saying things like "thank you for waiting". In some cases, this can feel rather artificial, but it depends on how both parties perceive the exchange. If you accept that this is part of their job, but they can still mean it, then it becomes easy to smile (genuinely) and elicit an authentic interaction on a personal level. Some service people engage in friendly chat, in contrast with the stereotype of the English as cold and unfriendly. It would be interesting to visit the USA and compare the English and American forms of politeness.

Another thing I found, somewhat to my surprise, was that the English don't like using large denomination banknotes. We had changed up some currency in preparation for our trip, and received it in GBP 50 notes. Here's an exchange I had when buying items amounting to GBP 23:
Sales assistant: "Do you have our loyalty card?"
Me: "No, I don't live here".
[Gave him the GBP 50 note].
Sales assistant: "Oh, you really don't live here, do you?" [smile].
Travelling is a break from everyday life, and in this case it gave me the opportunity to be someone slightly different for a while. I was able to see what it could have been like if I'd stayed in England (I immigrated to Israel when I was 9 years old), or perhaps if I moved back now. Since I have a good English accent and was accompanied by relatives, I felt at home and accepted. All the stress and frustration of living in Israel fell away. On the other hand, I was aware that I was in England as a visitor and didn't have the experience of normal life there. I haven't worked in England, or owned a house, or dealt with the authorities. If I ever relocate to England, I will have a lot of adjusting to do. At the moment it doesn't seem likely.

It was good to have this long holiday, and also good to return to my home on Mount Carmel, with the view of the Mediterranean from the window, and to my cats.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

John Scalzi - Zoe's Tale

John Scalzi, Zoe's Tale, Tor, 2008.

Spoiler warning!

Mea culpa! I did something I don't normally do and read a book from a series without having read the previous books. Zoe's tale is supposed to be a stand-alone novel, but since it is in the same universe as Scalzi's previous books, and tells the story of the same events as The Last Colony from a different character's point of view, this wasn't the best choice to introduce myself to a new author. I will try to treat this book as a stand-alone novel, and if some of my remarks show that I would have understood it differently had I read it after the previous books, feel free to let me know in the comments section.

This is the story of Zoe Boutin-Perry, an adolescent girl with a complicated background, who moves to a new colony. As such, it was a story that resonated with me, both as a person with experience of immigration to a new country, and because I started reading it on the plane at the beginning of my first overseas holiday in years.

The story is set during a time of expansion and colonization, when the human race and hundreds of alien races are competing and fighting for new planets to colonize. Zoe is the adopted daughter of the couple chosen to lead the new colony of Roanoak, the first planet to be settled by humans from other colonies rather than humans from earth itself. It seems that the first wave of colonies chose people from one cultural or ethnic background for each, while in this case settlers were chosen from ten different colony planets, and one of the aims was to create a new, shared culture as part of the settlement process.

The moment the ship arrives at the planet, the new settlers discover that they are under threat of alien invasion, and so must cut all contacts with the rest of human society and not use any electronics which might be detected and bring the aliens to attack the planet. They spend the first year settling the planet using traditional, pre-electronic methods. Then things get complicated as the colony is used as a pawn in a larger inter-species political war.

We follow the first-person narrator character, Zoe, in her adjustment to her new life and her adventures with her close friends and parents. She is sensitive, witty and stubborn, and has wisdom beyond her years due to her special circumstances. I enjoyed hearing the story through her voice and found her easy to identify with.

Zoe's background story is what drives the narrative. As a young child, she lived with her father, a scientist who worked on consciousness. He created consciousness machines for the Obin, a species of aliens who had previously been given intelligence but not consciousness through genetic engineering. Zoe has since been revered by the Obin, and after her father's death two Obin accompanied Zoe everywhere, serving as her bodyguards and learning about human consciousness by recording her experiences and then sharing them with the entire Obin species.

To me, this aspect of the story was the most disappointing. I couldn't understand what was meant by intelligence without consciousness. It seems to me that any intelligent being is conscious to some degree, whether as an individual or as a hive mind. Consciousness is an emergent property of intelligence, and is on a scale rather than a binary characteristic that either exists or doesn't. It was implied that without the consciousness machines the Obin felt no emotions, but that didn't seem right to me either, since some emotions are primal and exist in animals we would not consider particularly intelligent or conscious. Later on there is an explanation of why the Obin were given intelligence without consciousness. This explanation was also unconvincing to me, though it may have been intended to reflect a very alien perspective on life. In any case, Zoe's life story is an example of a very conscious human existence.

Zoe grows and takes her place in the story, sometimes rather reluctantly. She has to use her power without abusing it and make choices that would be difficult for anyone, let alone someone young, inexperienced and conflicted about her identity. She emerges as courageous and moral in her dealings with the forces that would shape the colony's future. I hope she will serve as a role model to readers young and old.

I enjoyed this book, particularly the first-person narrative and the story of Zoe's personal life and development. In this case, it seems that a male author managed to portray a female character in a realistic and believable way. The larger picture of inter-species politics and wars was insufficiently explained for my taste, but may have been better portrayed in the other books. I also found it very frustrating that Scalzi doesn't seem to be a very visual writer, and mentioned many alien species without giving me enough visual clues to imagine them (with the result that I saw them as human in my mind's eye, which felt wrong). I look forward to reading the rest of Scalzi's work, and will report on it here in due course.

Note: The name Zoe should have an umlaut on the e, but I didn't know how to do that in the web browser. Sorry!

Impressions of England - part one

I am on holiday at the moment, mainly visiting my relatives in England. This is the first time I've been abroad for 4 years, and it takes time to get used to being away from home. Visits to England always raise questions about my identity - how English and how Israeli am I? In what ways would I have been a different person if I hadn't immigrated to Israel at the age of 9? Could I live in England now?

The differences between England and Israel are obvious. First, the constant background tension in Israel is completely lacking here. I think people may have some tension regarding their jobs, but that's not an aspect I encounter, and they seem to keep it under control, unlike the stress that permeates every aspect of life in Israel. In general, people here seem to aspire to, and achieve, a tranquil life. They care about home, garden and family, enjoy the green English landscape (note: I have been mainly in the countryside so far), and talk about the weather.

Coming to England always gives me a vivid demonstration of the sort of considerate behaviour I was brought up on, which I feel is right, but which sometimes seems inappropriate in Israel. In their public interactions, English people go out of their way to show consideration to others, sometimes to the point of being self-effacing. If you accidentally bump into someone, they apologize to you. I have seen drivers signing to each other, "you first" / "no, you first", until one was willing to lose face by actually going first. It seems to me that this sort of considerateness shows a generosity of spirit. Even in Israeli slang, generous people are referred to as "large", meaning that they are confident enough of their own status to be able to give to others without feeling threatened. This comes naturally to the English.

At the same time, there is an insularity about England that I find uncomfortable. This works on two levels. First, English people seem to be naturally anti-intellectual to some extent. There is a lot of pride in expertise acquired as amateurs, and most people have hobbies. But the population as a whole doesn't seem to have the thirst for knowledge or the sense of shame when their ignorance is revealed that would encourage a culture of life-long learning. In Israel, most people are expected to stay in school until 18 (and then join the army, but that's another issue), while here it seems that many leave school at 16, and it is generally accepted that the standard of school qualifications (even for those who continue school until 18) has dropped significantly over the past 20 years or so. The bad spelling and misuse of apostrophes I see everywhere testifies to some combination of ignorance and apathy.

The second aspect of this narrow-minded approach is the way most people seem uninterested in, or even hostile to, world events or even anything beyond their own personal existence. The newspapers are full of what seems to me sensational gossip, and it's hard to find out what is happening around the world. This is a stark contrast to the Israeli media, where every major world event is reported, and its relevance to Israel discussed.

So, as in previous holidays, I am finding things I like and things I dislike about England. I must qualify these impressions. I am aware that being on holiday here is not the same as living here, and that in particular, I have never lived here as an adult and worked here. The people I meet here are mainly relatives and some of their friends, and they do not constitute a representative sample. I am sure that if I moved here and started doing the normal things like working and making friends, my perspective would change.