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3.7 out of 5 stars
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Jewish culture has always interested me. All the Jewish characters and actors and writers and comedians on television got to play with language in such intriguing ways when I was a kid, with that surly sense of humour, that I admired them so much: Jackie Mason, Shatner & Nimoy, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Richard Belzer. And I love the sound of Yiddish. Meshugginer is one of my favourite words ever.

So I approached the Yiddish Policemen's Union with much joy, knowing that that wonderful take on life would be written so well here. Especially as Michael Chabon is one of those authors who always turns out something good.

The book is an alternate history peace in which Jewish refugees are not given Israel to live in at the end of the war, but instead move to Alaska. Meyer Landsman investigates the death of a young man with a strange charisma, and discovers that there is a threat to the Jewish nation and to the world, that neatly mirrors certain events in our world. Also, he has to contend with his ex-wife being his superior.

Part of the book is very much a detective story of the kind Dashiell Hammett or Robert Crais might write, but the alternate history and the binding of this with Jewish identity and culture draws the work a little higher. That there is a conspiracy at work is a little too formulaic, I think, but helps draw the novel to its conclusion, with its hope for the future.

The book has a great sense of humour, it's sharply written, with a good sense of location and living, breathing characters. Is it a detective novel with delusions of grandeur? Is it a literary novel that apes the popular style and deconstructs it to bring out the truth? Probably a bit of both, though I suspect that based on the interviews and reading lists in the back of book, that Chabon enjoys writing detective stories.

Either way, it's a fine read and well worth your time.
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51 of 54 people found the following review helpful
The novel supposes that in 1940 the American Congress had passed the Sitka Settlement Act to allow the persecuted Jews of Europe to seek refuge, for an interim period of sixty years, in the newly created autonomous `federal district' of Sitka on Baranof Island, which my atlas tells me is a narrow sliver, about 100 miles long and 25 miles wide, in the south-eastern tail of Alaska. But it was a kind of ghetto: to appease the American public, the Act prohibited the refugees from moving off the island. A trickle of Jews, mainly from Germany and Poland, are supposed to have arrived there soon afterwards, to be joined after the war by a flood of Displaced Persons and other Jews who could not go to Israel, because that state is supposed to have been snuffed out by the Arabs after only three months. After the sixty years were up, Sitka was to `revert' to become part of Alaska and the Jews of Sitka were supposed to find somewhere else to go. By that time Sitka had a population of two million and had acquired a thoroughly Yiddish character, with Yiddish names for shops, districts and public buildings, Yiddish (secular) cops and Yiddish (religious) gangsters - all to the resentment of the original inhabitants of the area, the Tlingit Indian tribe. The book opens as the date of the `Reversion' draws near.

Meyer Landsman is a Yiddish police detective who has not been very effective in the past and now has to solve a murder. That genre is not unfamiliar, nor, especially in American fiction, is the laconic dialogue. But here the text is sprinkled with Yiddish words, whose meaning the non-Yiddish speaker can usually, but not always, work out. Yiddish has many wonderful curses, but sometimes only American four letter words will do. The humour has a Yiddish flavour, and the author's own English is full of wisecracks and of immensely inventive and vivid similes. The setting - especially among the ultra-orthodox `black hats' - is very atmospheric.

Landsman does eventually unravel the murder mystery, though in the process he stumbles into and escapes from some tight corners that cry out to be made into a movie.

It's not always an easy read, partly because of the extreme complexities of the plot, but also because Chabon's narrative technique, for all its humour and raciness, is sometimes more opaque than I think it needs to be. Oh, and there's just one brief and insignificant reference to the Policemen's Union of the title.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 17 January 2011
This is very much Noir-land, as well as being an alternative Jewish homeland where Yiddish is spoken rather than Hebrew. It follows many of the conventions of the detective thriller: the dysfunctional central character has issues with life, authority, stimulants, chess, religion, while his sidekick is less intelligent but stalwart; he is unable to do his job properly because of an interdiction from his boss, who is also his ex-wife; the action of the book takes place in low dives and involves grand conspiracies and human frailty; the detective can sustain a blow to the head and subsequently come to with no permanent damage. And there is even a car chase, of sorts.

Put like this, it makes it sound like I didn't like this book. Nothing could be further from the truth. The plot is definitely genre-fiction and the political stance will undoubtedly anger some people. But the man writes incredible, wonderful, beautiful prose. I don't think I have ever read a book where I stopped so often to re-read and admire a line which had me gasping with admiration or chuckling in amusement. And reading these lines, it struck me that many other writers could have come up with images of similar beauty but they would have overstated them, given them too heavy a treatment. There is a line somewhere where the snow is falling and he says something like "The footprints in the snow outside were as shallow as an angel's". A lesser writer would have spelled it out -the snow is falling so the footprints have been filled with fresh snow, making them look as if a figure with no weight or substance has left its imprint. Chabon suggests this but leaves the reader to fill in the gaps.

There are a lot of Yiddish words in it, but then much of that will be familiar to anyone who has read Leo Rosten, and it is all easily available on Google. As for other aspects of the cultural background, maybe it does make it hard going for goyim like myself but this is why I read books - to find out about things I don't know about!

So, perhaps not the greatest book I've ever read, but certainly a strong candidate for the best written and very entertaining.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Kavalier & Clay is one of my all time favourite books, and when this came out I pounced on it in eager anticipation of a fabulous read. I have to say I was slightly disappointed. Chabon's story telling style is still epic and at times very funny, even in a fairly bleak book like this and there were moments of great beauty and insight that made me light up inside and go 'oooh', but on the whole it was incredibly hard work.

The story revolves around the idea that part of Alaska has been ceded to the dispossessed Jews after WWII on the proviso that they only have it for sixty years and when that time is up they have to find somewhere else to go. The story starts just as the lease is about to expire. Meyer Landsman, a Jewish cop, has made a mess of his life and is living on vodka and cigarettes in a flophouse. A body in the same hostel turns his life around as he races to discover the murderer against the political clock ticking loudly in the background.

The basic cop story is traditional but done with this Jewish Noir twist that makes it extraordinary. It was however, extremely hard work if you are not Jewish or don't know much about Jewish life and lore, which I don't. There were quite a few things I didn't understand and which rather than break the flow and keep looking up every five minutes I decided to hope would become explicable as the book moved on. Some do, some don't, but it was quite frustrating, at times like reading a book in another language altogether.

Because of this it took me a long time to get into the story and I didn't really pick up the pace until nearly half way through. It's testament to Chabon's ability that I stuck with it that long, as with other books I would have been tempted to give up. As it is, the plot pulls you along nicely to the end and things become a lot more understandable as the book goes on.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 9 May 2009
A wonderful imagined world: Chabon creates a dense and convincing piece of alternative history, transplanting the now almost lost world of Yiddish-speaking culture to the Pacific North-West, where chess cafés and Zionist refugees meet Tlingit Native Americans and a cold, unforgiving climate. The fictional Sitka created is satisfyingly multi-layered: it convinces not merely in the present tense but also has the requisite allusions to a different past (part of the fun is picking out clues as to how political history differed from that in reality - the war ended in 1946 with an atom bomb on Berlin, for instance - but there are also little cultural allusions that sound right, everyone in Sitka having shared childhood memories of a cartoon character called Shnapish the Dog). In recreating this Yiddish-speaking world, of course, Chabon is also lamenting its loss - loss due first and foremost to the Holocaust, but then to the creation of Israel as a Hebrew-speaking state that, consciously or not, drowned out Yiddish diaspora culture. The undertone of loss suits the detective genre perfectly: the shrugged shoulders and outstretched hands that are so characteristic a Yiddish gesture fit perfectly with the tropes of the hard-boiled detective novel, the battered shamus trying to retain some sort of decency in the face of overwhelming evidence about human greed and fallibility. Like the best of Chandler, it's a completely consistent parallel universe, created through style and stylisation; like the best of Chandler, you may not always follow what's going on, but you won't care. Great fun, with an undertone of lament: the bittersweet note of so much Yiddish culture.

[A note regarding the need or not for background knowledge, which comes up in some other reviews. You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy it (I'm not); you also don't need massive knowledge of Judaism in advance. Important doctrinal issues, such as what's meant to happen when the awaited Messiah finally arrives, or the nature of the "eruv", the ritual enclosure within which Sabbath rules are different, are all spelled out for you. You also don't need knowledge of Yiddish or Hebrew. The more you know, the more jokes you get - for instance, the way that "shamus" for "detective" is rendered as "shammes" puns on "shabbes", Sabbath; and the fact that everyone's mobile phone is a make called Shoyfer alludes to the shofar, the horn blown in synagogue on certain occasions - but there are plenty that need no special background information. If you've ever seen "Fiddler on the Roof" you've got more than enough advance knowledge; and if you haven't, don't let that stop you.]
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
The central character in this book is a drink dependant, divorced cop, who has problems with authority. So far so hackneyed; but Meyer Landsman's beat is in Sitka, Alaska; a Jewish homeland set up in 1948. Israel as we know it does not exist.

Interested? Well you should be.

Firstly, this is an excellent piece of detective fiction; the plot is intricate and the characters are well rounded and believable. In addition to an excellent story, the action takes in a beautifully realised alternate reality. Landsman's Alaskan homeland feels as though it exists somewhere more solid than in the Michael Chabon's imagination. This is counter-factual story telling at its best.

Chabon's writing style is heavy with metaphor, which I take as a positive but I imagine for some may become wearisome. I did find the novel a little difficult to feel my way into. The author often uses twenty words to describe something when fewer would have sufficed. The novel also contains many Jewish terms. Since I'm not Jewish, I found this broke up the narrative flow as I had to decipher what was meant by a particular word or phrase. As I become used to the style, I found that, like reading the subtitles to a good foreign film, it soon ceased to matter.

Perhaps the book's most remarkable feature is that despite being set in an entirely fictitious world, it deals sensitively with issues facing the Jewish diaspora in this world and the divisions within the holy land. Chabon really seems to have a handle on the strengths and frailties of the Jewish psyche. All of this makes the Yiddish Policemen's Union a memorable piece of crime fiction and a truly exceptional novel.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 1 May 2010
OK, first of all, it's a great story.
An alt- reality,cop thriller/mystery with added yiddish and first nation interest, how many of those are falling off the shelf at your local book barn?
Secondly, the reviews here reflect my experience of the book. I loved it and tried to share it with other people but a few of them found the yiddish references too much and stopped reading which is a shame, as those who persevered enjoyed it.
It's true a knowledge of Judaism and Yiddish will enhance your reading of this tale but I don't think that's really the point.
Chabon is telling the story of a displaced people who are unable to assimilate with the rest of their continent.Seperated from America by the settlement treaty,their language and culture has become a barrier between them and the US and in turn their isolation has empowered the radical, orthodox members of Sitka.
So am I being too generous to Chabon when I suggest that the untranslated words and references help to create the feeling of being an outsider on familiar territory? Almost the same way that Yiddish speaking Americans would feel outside of Sitka.
Whether you buy that or not you should really try this book.
Also if anyone is a fan of Jerome Charyn's Isaac Sidel series you'll like this one, in fact I think the title of this book is taken from the Sidel series as a nod to Charyn.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 30 October 2008
Chabon apparently never met a metaphor he didn't like. He piles them one atop another to the point that they obscure rather than clarify the action. Indeed, I had to go to Wikipedia after finishing the book to make sense of the ending. What's more, the showy language never lets us forget that we're reading a book, that Landsman and Bina and the others aren't people but merely characters who are the invention of an inventive but infuriating writer.
All of which is especially frustrating because the concept and conceit of the book--an alternative history in which Jews were settled in a part of Alaska rather than settled in Israel--is brilliant, as are all the details. I wanted to be swept away by Chabon's vision, but his language kept getting in the way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 January 2014
It is clear that Michael Chabon had a great deal of fun writing this novel, partly because it allowed him to create the Sitka District of Alaska, a make-believe alternative to the state of Israel that assumes that the Jews lost its 1948 War of Independence and have been assimilated into an Alaskan temporary homeland until a long term solution can be found. After 60 years this temporary solution is coming to an end with Reversion, the date when the territory being handed back to the Native American Tlingits, just around the corner.

Its central character, Meyer Landsman, an alcoholic police detective with a particular liking for slivivitz, apologises to his ex-wife for spoiling her Saturday night, her retort is that her Saturday night is like a microwave burrito, `It's hardly possible to ruin something that was so bad to begin with'.

There are many characters, almost exclusively male, in the story that begins on the first page. A body is discovered in a dingy hotel, its signs in Esperanto, where Landsman, who has `the brains of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker', has lived since his wife left him.

The corpse, Emmanuel Lasker, had just injected drugs and was playing chess. The single shot killing suggests a professional killing. The interrupted chess game reminds Landsman of his father, a Holocaust survivor, who forced his son the play the game with the result that he now hates it. However, the pieces are set out in a puzzling way as if it holds a clue. Chess is, of course, the only game allowed on the Sabbath in Sitka.

For a non-Jew, this book is hard going as almost every character is Jewish, the dialogue is supposedly in Yiddish and, whilst some of the words are not to difficult to work out, many are not and no explanations are given. Swearing is in `American'.

When the author is on song he is masterly, Sitka at night is `an orange smear, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapour lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat'. References to the food, sounds and smells of Sitka abound, `The Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh, is the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world'. A motorbike revs up like "the flatulence of a burst balloon streaking across the living room and knocking over a lamp." Jewish girls "sing Negro spirituals with Yiddish lyrics that paraphrase Lincoln and Marx." The Jews in Sitka are referred to as `the Frozen Chosen'.

Landsman's police partner is his cousin, Berko Shemets, Tlingit Indian and Jew in equal amounts, brought up in the tribe but now regarding himself as Jewish. Before long the dead man is found to be the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the man born into every generation who is able to become the Messiah, if that generation is worthy. Stories are told of miracles wrought by the victim who ended up an addict, making a living from chess. How and why is revealed in this story. Bit by bit, Landsman and Berko find their families drawn into the investigation.

I found that Chabon was too carried away by his metaphor-enriched language, piling one on top of one another so often that I began to feel a need for oxygen. The best writers know how to write, but also when to stop.

What is very well done is the ways in which the postwar world has changed, Berlin was attacked by nuclear missiles in in 1946, there has been war in Cuba and Orson Welles's film adaptation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness are all obliquely referenced.

As neither a Jew nor a chessplayer, although I understood the reference in the corpse's name, there was much in this book that passed me by and I suspect that I will not be alone in this. By the final page, I felt rather like the guest at a party, knowing no one else, who stands listening to the never-ending jokes and reminiscences of the other guests.

This is a clever novel but not one that will remain in this reader's head.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Chabon's novel brilliantly combines two staple modes of genre fiction (Chandleresque detective fiction and the alternative history) to produce an original and gripping narrative with vivid characters and real, complex, emotional resonance. It also couples Chandler's focus on maintaining one's integrity and the alternative history's emphasis on our helplessness in the face of global events with Chabon's abiding interest in characters who fight to define themselves in the face of familial and cultural pressures. The scenario is completely original, the plot is effectively worked-through and the prose is rich and rewarding. On the downside, the pace is sluggish in the earlier chapters, and it lacks the immediate warmth and charm of "Kavalier and Clay", but overall it's an ambitious, rewarding and gripping read that fizzes with food for thought.

However, it's marketed in a misleading manner. Several of the reviews plastered all over the paperback edition, and quoted in the Amazon product description, suggest it's a fun, laugh-out-loud, hilarious romp. It isn't. It's wry and witty, and there are some great gags, but the overall tone ranges from dark to bittersweet, and the ending is, at best, cautiously optimistic rather than "happy". A number of the more negative reviews on Amazon suggest those readers bought it on the understandable expectation they'd be getting something rather different than what the book actually delivers. It's a shame some of them didn't give it more of a chance, but their disappointment isn't unreasonable. So let's be clear: this is not a light-hearted casual read. It's a serious literary novel, albeit one with rather more plot and readability, and less pretentiousness and middle-class navel-gazing, than that often suggests.

Some reviewers have noted on the "difficulty" of the prose style. Nonsense. The style is very idiosyncratic - it's an English approximation of of conversational Yiddish, laced with the occasional Yiddish term or neologism - but its rhythms are familiar from decades of American movies and TV shows, and the phrasing and vocabulary will be an absolute doddle for anyone who's read A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting or, for that matter, a few decent genre SF novels.
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