Monday, November 5, 2012

Y is for The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel written by Michael Chabon. It crosses genres, being both an alternate history and a mystery, with elements of a conspiracy thriller. This book came to my attention via my husband, who read it first. And liked it well enough to keep it and recommend it to me.

The premise of this book, as described on the flyleaf of the book:
For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

The story centers around a police detective, Meyer Landsman, and his partner, Berko. Meyer is Jewish, Berko is half Tlingit (and they are cousins). They are trying to resolve their open cases before they turn over their jobs to whatever agency takes over after the "Reversion." Complicating this scenario is their boss, Bina, who is Meyer's ex-wife. Bina is a "by the book" detective, Meyer is the opposite. And Meyer and Berko are told to drop their work on the case that this book revolves around. Of course, they do not.

I am featuring this novel as my selection for the letter Y in the Crime Fiction Alphabet meme, sponsored by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for this letter. 

Critiquing a book by a renowned writer like Michael Chabon is hard. The novel won a number of science fiction awards, including the Hugo Award for Best Novel. In looking at reviews, I noticed that opinions were all over the place and the things I liked bothered other readers, and vice versa. As I read this book I had some nits to pick, but overall this was a good reading experience for me.


The book resembles a noir novel with a flawed detective and a crime that seems to be one thing but turns out to be much more. I got involved in the mystery and Meyer Landsman's story immediately. Some readers found the story slow; my husband commented on this when reading the first half, then found it improved from that point on. The plot was convoluted and it took a long time to uncover the immensity of the crime, but I imagine that is what real police work is like. I did find the mystery to be resolved to my satisfaction.

Chabon builds an alternate world in this book, with its own vocabulary, that I found at times distracting. There were invented words that were similar to Yiddish terms (I think). However, I adapted early on. I would find fault with the writing, then gradually adjust to things that were bothering me. My only complaint about the way he presents this world is that he ekes out the knowledge to the reader. Up until about halfway through the novel, I was very irritated at this.

Chabon writes beautiful descriptions, and at times these pop up just out of the blue, seemingly. But it was possible to the enjoy his descriptions and not get pulled out of the story. This example combines his skill at description and an invented word, the "shtekeleh":
The Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh, is the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world. In its present form, it cannot be found in the Philippines. No Chinese trencherman would recognize it as the fruit of his native fry kettles. Like the storm god Yahweh of Sumeria, the shtekeleh was not invented by the Jews, but the world would sport neither God nor the shtekeleh without Jews and their desires. A panatela of fried dough not quite sweet, not quite salty, rolled in sugar, crisp-skinned, tender inside, and honeycombed with air pockets. You sink it in your paper cup of milky tea and close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.
One thing I had a hard time adapting to was the use of present tense narrative. However, like all of the other complaints I had as I began reading... I eventually got used to it.

I found the overall story of the Reversion and the unknown fate of the Jews in Sitka depressing, and Meyer's view on life was depressing. There was no possibility for a real happy ending, but the book did not end on a negative note. Thus, the book was dark, but not ultimately a downer.

This book is not an easy read. I did not find it to be so, and I don't think that I am alone. The story is heavily built around Jewish culture, which makes sense given the plot. But as I don't have in-depth knowledge of Jewish culture, I don't know how much I missed. Chess was also central to the plot, and I have no background in chess. Nevertheless, I think I got the points he was making in the use of chess in the story. And I found it interesting. This book was definitely worth the effort.

Michael Chabon is not known as a mystery writer. This excerpt from his Wikipedia page describes his works and the themes he uses, most of which do show up in this novel:
His work is characterized by complex language, the frequent use of metaphor along with recurring themes, including nostalgia, divorce, abandonment, fatherhood, and most notably issues of Jewish identity. He often includes gay, bisexual, and Jewish characters in his work. Since the late 1990s, Chabon has written in an increasingly diverse series of styles for varied outlets; he is a notable defender of the merits of genre fiction and plot-driven fiction, and, along with novels, he has published screenplays, children's books, comics, and newspaper serials.

12 comments:

  1. Tracy - I really am drawn in by the setting and the context. It's a really interesting premise, too. And I always respect an author who can write well in more than one genre.

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  2. Nice concept. I read one series that featured a Jewish protagonist.

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  3. Very nice, thoughtful review Tracy. I'm not sure I would like this one but maybe someday.

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  4. Nicely reviewed, Tracy. I have heard a lot about Michael Chabon and his fiction but haven't read anything so far. A time was when "present-tense narrative" used to put me off too but now I try and adapt myself to it. Indeed, not many books are written in that form which is probably more challenging for a writer than past-tense narrative that one is comfortable with.

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    1. Thanks, Prashant. I am trying to open my mind to different styles and different genres. I notice on your blog that you enjoy a wide variety of both fiction and movies.

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    2. Thanks, Tracy, and that might well be the undoing of a blog!

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  5. This was the book I picked for Y as well. As I read your review I kept going "yeah, me too" especially about the stuff that irritated me at first but then I adjusted. Excellent review!

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  6. I read this one a couple of years ago on my husband's recommendation too. I remember that I really wished Chabon had added a glossary for all the Jewish/Yiddish words involved. I used to know a lot of them when I went through a Jewish fiction phase but I'm a bit rusty now. Very good review.

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    1. Somewhere I saw a comment that one edition of the book had a glossary. Mine certainly did not. This reminds me to get back to trying more mysteries with a Jewish theme or character. I had a list years ago.

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  7. TracyK: I have thought about reading Chabon but have usually chosen to avoid alternate histories though I think about them often when reading history.

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    1. I also avoid alternate histories, and I don't know why. I have enjoyed the ones I read. I still want to read SS-GB and Fatherland, and keep procrastinatng.

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  8. Really enjoyed the review TracyK, thanks. Chabon's best book is probably THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY and I would eccommend that one unreservedly - beyond that it's all a bit specialised. His Shelrock Holmes pastiche, THE FINAL SOLUTION, as you might suspect, says a lot more about the Second World War than Conan doyle's creation but is the only other book that engages directly with the crime genre.

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