I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

Etgar Keret is an author who is a "second generation" Israeli.  His parents survived the Holocaust and eventually settled in Israel.  He lives in Tel Aviv, but travels often going to book fairs and promotions around the globe.  The seven good years in the title refer to the year his son was born until seven years later, when his beloved father dies.  It's a collection of moments and memories from this time  and the past. Some are funny. Some are heartbreaking. Some are angry. Some just are.

His son, Lev came into this world during a terroist attack. Later, he become philosophical and sees him as a complex person with many sides. My son, the enlightened one: "He truly lives in the present: He never bears a grudge, never fears the future.  He's totally ego-free. He never tries to defend his honor or take credit." My son, the junkie: "For him, there are only two possibilities: a breast or hell." Thank goodness they come as a pair. My son, the psychopath: I can't help comparing him in my imagination to Chucky in Child's Play. They're the same height, they have the same temperment, and neither holds anything sacred. That's the truly unnerving thing about my two-week-old son: he doesn't have a drop of morality, not an ounce. Racism, inequality, insensitivity, globalization-he couldn't care less. He has no interest in anything beyond his immediate drives and desires.  My son, the self-hating Jew... At this point his wife points out how ridiculous he is being and that he should do something useful, like change his diaper.

As a kid he always got excited about Hebrew Book Week, which for a long time he thought was a holiday.  It occurs in June, and his family would go to the central square in Ramat Gan where tables were set up with books, of which they could each choose five.  Sometimes the author was there to sign the books and Etgar's sister liked having her books signed, but he hated having his book marred by some ugly scribble that said something stupid. That's when he got the idea of what he would write in his books if he ever became an author and when he finally become one, he actually used them. Here are a sample: "To Feige, Where's that tenner I lent you? You said two days and it's a month already. I'm still waiting."; "To Avram. I don't care what the lab tests show. For me, you'll always be my dad."; "Bosmat, even though you're with another guy now, we both know you'll come back to me in the end."

Etgar's brother is seven years older than he is and his whole life he has wanted to follow in his footsteps.  In school is brother skipped grades and then at the age of twelve went to a religious boarding school where he was the most popular, and youngest, guy there. He was so good-natured and helpful to everyone there.  At fifteen, he left to go to college to study mathematics and computer science, while living with a twenty-four-year-old woman (definitely something he wanted to copy his brother on).  At twenty-one he fought in the Lebanon War, which was a war he didn't believe in.  He spent as much time fighting as he did in military courts.  Eventually he would marry, divorce, and then marry again and take high paying corporate jobs to make enough money so he and his wife could live in Thailand, very simply, and use their money supporting the causes they believe in.  When Etgar and his wife visited them, they went on an elephant walk and when his brother took over as the driver, he didn't yell or kick the elephant, as the other man had, he merely whispered in it's ear.  This is still the person Etgar wants to be, a man who can drive an elephant through a forest without raising his voice.

"Nineteen years ago, in a small wedding hall in Bnei Brak, my older sister died, and she now lives in the most Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem."  After fighting in the Lebanon War, Etgar's sister became religious. Etgar, as he says "has no God".  He became a kind of celebrity after this, with people offering up their condolences.  "If the rabbis had taken someone ugly, they could've handled it, but grabbing someone with her looks--what a waste!"   His friend warned him that she would be brainwashed, start talking Yiddish, have her head shaved, marry some sweaty, flabby, repulsive guy who wouldn't let her see anyone, and have a hoard of kids.  Instead she married a nice yeshiva student who is pleased when the family comes to visit. She does have a hoard of kids and they do speak Yiddish, but they are all adorable, even, if it is hard to remember their double-names.  That she will never read one of his books does bother him, but the fact that he does not observe the Sabbath or keep kosher, bothers her even more.  When he was younger he asked her to pray for him to get a girl that he wanted to be with, but she told him she could not do that because if it happened and the relationship turned out to be bad, she would feel terrible. Instead she prayed for him to find someone to make him happy. It would take ten years, but eventually it would happen.

 One day he and his wife are asked to appear before their son's teacher, which, as you know, is never good news.  It seems that Lev, who is five, has manipulated the cook at the school into bringing him chocolate, even though  it is prohibited for children to eat sweets on school property.  When he confronts Lev about this, saying that the cook brings him lots of chocolate bars and that he doesn't even share with the other kids, Lev tells him the other kids can't eat sweets at school. Etgar thinks he has him now, and says that if kids can't have sweets at school then why can he? And Lev replies that he is not a kid, he is a cat.  Never try to reason with a child.

One day his wife found him lying on his back, because his body, deprived of regular physical activity, was revolting and he was experiencing muscle cramps.  She had little sympathy, as she had been telling him this for a while now.  He did try yoga a few years ago, but the beginners' teacher told him he wasn't ready for this class and told him he needed a "special" class. He ended up in a yoga class with a bunch of pregnant women, which he really enjoyed.  He was the skinniest guy in the room, the women were slow, sweat and pant doing basic stuff just like him.  Sadly, the class began to shrink as each woman gave birth, until he was the only one left and it ended.  He thought about walking, but his wife suggested Pilates. He quickly found that you work on internal muscles so no one knows what you are (or not) doing.  Most of the classes were made up of injured ballet dancers who were very sympathetic to his pulled muscles and happy to give a compassionate massage.  His muscles are not any better, but twice a week he gets to lay on a mattress for an hour and think about whatever he wants with a view of  ballerinas.

When his parents celebrate their anniversary they always bring out a bottle of whiskey to drink.  Etgar's wife,  tells him that the way couples meet is an indication of how their marriage will be.  His father was twenty-nine and working for an electric company. He would get two weeks off and spend it carousing and drinking and the last two sleeping it off.  On one such time, his last night he went to a Romanian restaurant and persuaded the musicians, some gypsies, to continue playing outside when the restaurant closed.  At one point, his dad had to urinate, so he went against a wall, and that is when the police arrived. It seems that the wall was to the French embassy who believed that some sort of protest was going on, but the urination crossed the line.  His father was put in the back of the police car, too drunk to care, but the gypsies knew they had done nothing wrong and began arguing with the cops.  Things began to get out of control when a monkey bit a cop. His father, curious about the noise, stepped outside to see. When he looked at the crowd gathered, he saw the most beautiful redheaded woman. He grabbed a policeman's notepad and pretended to be one and went over their to ask her what she had witnessed and to get her address to contact her later.  He was dragged away then by the cops.  She turned to her friend and said I've just given all my information to a serial killer.  When he showed up at her door a week later with flowers, she wouldn't let him in. They were married in a year.  When Etgar talks to his wife about their meeting, however, he finds that he has been completely wrong about the whole thing all these years and now wonders what that says about them and him.

While sitting Shiva for his father, a relative tells him a family story about his grandmother's brother, Avraham who one day decided to stop being religious.  The rabbi was rather upset as Avraham was a gifted student and he told him that he would not die until he returned to the ways of the Torah.  During the 1973 attack on Israel on Yom Kippur by the Syrians, Avraham was in a heavily bombarded area, but he called to a woman to come over and be close to him because he knew he was not going to die.  He lived to a very old age enjoying good health and a large family, when illness struck.  He became unconsciousness.  His family was terribly worried about him. Etgar's dad arrived and asked for a prayer book and a yarmulke and prayed all night for him.  He passed at dawn.  "It's not so hard to pray for the soul of a Jew when you're a believer...As a religious man, I can tell you that it's very easy, like a reflex, almost involuntary. But for a secular man like your father to do it--he really has to be a tzaddik." [tzaddik: (seriously oversimplified and hard to define (thank you Randi Bruner)) this is something all Jews hope to achieve, but is not something all can be.  In this case, I believe he means someone wanting to bring joy and ease the burdens of all, to end suffering.].

There are so many good stories in this book like: when he makes the mistake of mentioning Euro-Disney (something he's never heard of) when his wife is trying to get him interested in going to Paris; growing a mustache for his son's birthday and someone telling a harrowing tale of another mustache; a taxi ride he is taking to be by his wife's side after her dangerous miscarriage, a ride that goes horribly wrong; arguing about whether your son will do his service in the military when he is only three; and a man who wants to build him a very narrow house in his mother's hometown in Poland.  He is an amazing writer.  I am curious to read his fiction books now.
Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Seven-Good-Years-Memoir/dp/1594633266/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1459885852&sr=1-1&keywords=seven+good+years+keret

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