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12 March 2011

Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's UnionThe Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I know I've read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I don't really remember reading it.  I remember the feel of the book in my hand and the act of reading it. It still sits on my bookshelf, an accomplishment when one regards the fact that said bookshelf has been through several major purges.  And when I look through the shelf for things to read, I see its spine and I smile.  But I don't remember anything about it except that I liked it; nothing of its style or its prose or even its plot.

So when I was wandering the library shelves in the Mystery section looking at random spines of Agatha Christie books, searching for one I'd not yet read, the name "Michael Chabon" hopped out at me like a kid playing peek-a-boo.  "Ooh!" I thought.  "I like him!"   Though if anyone asked my why I liked him, I would be at a loss.  "Um.  That comic book novel.  That was really good ..."   Brilliant.  Anyway, the cover and title of this book intrigued me, as well as the fact that it was shelved in the Mystery section of the library.  So I picked it up, along with Christie's A Carribbean Mystery.

I read Christie first.  A regular old Miss Marple tale, filled with the regular characters in a rather irregular setting (for Christie).  Entertaining, not thought-provoking.  Standard cozy mystery fare.  Then I started Chabon.

I hated it for the first, oh, thirteen chapters.  It took me a long time to find footholds in this crazy world of Chabon's imagination, based on a trivial what-if in history;  Jews without Jerusalem but with a non-permanent foothold in the wilds of Alaska.  A current world stuck in the 1940s world of noir, hats and cigarettes.  Yiddish thrown in without explanation or definition.  I was buffaloed.

But then the story took me in.  An outrageous story but fitting with its outrageous premise and its outrageous characters.

And, yes, Chabon overwrites.  Sometimes in a major way.  But I love that.  It makes me think and stop to consider.  Describing two propane tanks as a "scrotal pair" brings so much more color and texture to the idea.  And also more grit.   Lines like "The lady has been in and out of the hospital lately, dying in chapters, a cliffhanger at the end of every one" makes those little moments that make up life so much bigger.  He could have just written,  "She was dying."   But he didn't.

At an abandoned big box store;  "Its doors are chained and along its windowless flank where Yiddish and Roman characters once spelled out the name of the store, there is only a cryptic series of holes, domino pips, a braille of failure."  A whole new level and texture to something we see everyday in urban settings.  Something I'll think of from now on, I'm sure.

Then there were lines like "In a gray, wet place, Mendele gave off light and warmth.  You wanted to stand close to him.  To warm your hands, to melt the ice on your beard.  To banish the darkness for a minute or two.  But then when you left Mendele, you stayed warm, and it seemed like there was a little more light, maybe one candle's worth, in the world.  And that was when you realized the fire was inside of you all the time.  And that was the miracle.  Just that."   I had to stop reading and think.

"An awful place, this sea, this gulf between the Intention and the Act, that people call 'the world.'"  Hmmmm.  Yes.

And that is what makes a book worth reading to me.  One that makes you think.  And this book also pleasantly diverted me with not-quite believable or lovable, but still somehow believable and lovable characters, as well as an an entertaining, if over-active, plot.  Bonus.


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