Thursday, June 21, 2012

What's a Pulitzer-winning novel worth to you?

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union," by Michael Chabon, (HarperCollins, 414 pp., 2007) 

Long a fan of author Michael Chabon ("Wonder Boys," "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh"), I decided to rent, for $1 from the local library, the audiobook version of his 2007 novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union" for a long car trip. Little did I know those seventeen audio CDs would take much longer than an 8-hour jaunt to get through.

Earlier this week I forked over $10 in fines to the Pottstown Regional Public Library - a dollar for each day I was late returning the audiobook (The library recently changed its policy, unbeknownst to me and possibly during the two legal weeks I had this audio book out, to charge a dollar a day late fees instead of the previous $1/two weeks ... big difference! But, as the kindly librarian told me as she smiled wryly and placed my $10 bill in the cash register: "Think of it as a donation to your library.")

I'm still trying to get over parting with that $10, obviously, but back to the novel. Had I not enjoyed it and Chabon's sheer genius with words, I might be ... more bitter.

In "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," Chabon created an alternate history on the fictional island city of Sitka, Alaska, a Jewish settlement created during World War II. A similar settlement was actually proposed in a real document, the Slattery Report, back then, but was never acted on.

Per Wikipedia, "The report, which dealt with Alaskan development through immigration, included a proposal to move European refugees, especially Jews from Nazi German and Austria, to four locations in Alaska."

In the book, the fictional yet very realistically described Sitka is a temporary home given by the American government to Jewish refugees who were being persecuted by Nazis. Its existence preserves the lives of millions, as instead of 6 million being killed in the Holocaust, 2 million were in this novel. Yiddish is the language of Sitka, which is set to revert to American rule after 60 years.

Chabon said that the idea for the novel came when he found a English-to-Yiddish dictionary at an old book shop. He began to wonder what situation might require the book, as Yiddish is not spoken much anymore. Chabon wrote an essay on the topic, "Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts," published in Harper's in October 1997. After that, he got some backlash from pro-Yiddish speakers of the world. Chabon said he was inspired to further develop the settlement idea to egg them on.

But this novel is also a straightforward - and intriguing - detective story. A man is shot execution-style in the apartment building Meyer Landsman, a run-down, recently divorced homicide detective with the Sitka police.

The man was someone who hustled chess for money to buy heroin. But the brutality of the murder is shocking. And it's soon discovered that the man was a holy man - maybe the holiest of all men in Sitka. Meyer and his half-Indian/half-Jew partner Berko Shemets launch and investigation, despite pressure NOT to do so from everyone they come across.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the reversion of Sitka to American rule. Meyer's running out of time to find the murderer while all of Sitka is preparing for an exodus.

Unlike most straight detective stories, however, this one has its own Yiddish flavor imported through the biting, sarcastic and often hilarious prose of Chabon.

Here's an example:
“It never takes longer than a few minutes, when they get together, for everyone to revert to the state of nature, like a party marooned by a shipwreck. That's what a family is. Also the storm at sea, the ship, and the unknown shore. And the hats and the whiskey stills that you make out of bamboo and coconuts. And the fire that you light to keep away the beasts.”

I'm not saying the library fine was worth it, but this was a great "read" (listen?). The prose is so intelligent and the story so intricate and imaginative - It's a pretty amazing tale. My only problem with consuming this in audio form (other than the obvious $10 loss) is that I didn't get to see the spellings of all the Jewish and Indian places. I'm a freak for that sort of detail - I want to know what the word looks like, how it's spelled.

Here's an April 2007 excerpt published in USA Today of Chapter One of the novel.

Here's a later excerpt, originally published in Details magazine.

About the author (borrowed heavily from Wikipedia):

Michael Chabon, 49, is "one of the most celebrated writers of his generation," according to The Virginia Quarterly Review. His first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" (1988), was published when he was 25; His second novel, "Wonder Boys" (1995), and two short-story collections followed. In 2000, Chabon published "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," a critically acclaimed novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001.

His novel "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," published in 2007, won the Hugo, Sidewise, Nebula and Ignotus awards.
Chabon, whose name now that I listened to the audio book I know is pronounced "Shea" like the stadium and "Bon" like Bon Jovi, is notably one of the writers of the new movie "John Carter" (2012) and also wrote "Spider-Man 2" (2004) in addition to the screenplays for his own novels "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" (2008) and "Wonder Boys" (2000).

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