Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Alaska Schmalaska

with the Coen brothers' new film Inside Llewyn Davies finally being released next week I'd thought I'd reblog this post about what possibly could be their next film...(or possibly the one after that)
...


The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon In Michael Chabon’s universe Alaska isn’t a frontier bastion for singsongy dimwitted governors and moose-killing survivalists but rather is the transplanted home for two million cosmopolitan Jewish refugees crammed into the sprawling city of Sitka just south of Juneau in the Alaskan panhandle. This is the central conceit of Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION, a murder mystery and alternative history noir, that follows Detective Mayer Landsman’s quest to find the person or persons who killed the quiet chess master who lived in his overcrowded flop house. In what used to be called ‘the Jonbar Hinge’ among us sci-fi geeks, the moment Chabon’s Earth diverged from ours was sometime in the late 1930s, when the US government allowed unlimited Jewish migration from a Hitler dominated Europe to refugee camps in Alaska. The book is a kind of a ghost story, imaging the unlived lives of hundreds of thousands of people who, in the real world, were murdered by the Nazis. Chabon’s fantasy is that instead of this vibrant, rich, literary Yiddish culture becoming extinct in 1945, it crossed the Atlantic and survived in America. That’s the premise but what of the book? In many ways it’s a standard police procedural of the Ed McBain / Mickey Spillane school that Chabon has composed in an affectionate pulp 1940’s style. He writes in the urgent present tense with a great deal of panache and economy. Chabon’s metaphors aren’t quite as rich as Raymond Chandler’s (whose are?) and his steeliness isn’t up there with Hammett, but his jokes are as good and sometimes better. His humour is Yiddish humour. Dry, slightly surreal, dark. There’s a gag or Chandlerism every few pages: ‘She took a compliment the way some people take a can of soda that they suspect you’ve shaken first.’ The plot takes a while to get going but that’s ok, as you want to get to grips with Chabon’s Alaska, the alternate time-line and the offbeat characters. When the murder mystery does start to unfold, Chabon spins the yarn with intelligence, style and tight plotting. Alternative History novels are en vogue and a different outcome for World War II is by far the most popular scenario. Philip Roth’s THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA covered similar terrain only three years ago and we’ve also had FATHERLAND, SS GB among many recent others. Chabon himself is a fan of Philip K Dick’s AH novel THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, which towers above all contenders in the ‘Nazis win the war’ field. So although Chabon isn’t quite off in terra nova, what really stuck with me was the idea that every single person in Sitka – the former capital of Russian America (now there’s an idea for an AH novel) – was speaking Yiddish. There’s Yiddish TV, newspapers, radio, songs. Even the Irish newspaper hack talks a kind of low German. I liked this notion because although now virtually extinct as a literary tongue, Yiddish produced an extraordinary corpus of poems, plays and novels in its brief flowering, and today its influence can be felt in everything from Woody Allen films to Mel Brooks and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Irony is the default stance of Yiddish prose. Irony, embedded with black witticisms and a kind of grim fatalism. I have read a critique that Chabon’s style is ‘not Yiddish enough’ and certainly compared with Nobel Prize winner’s IB Singer’s it seems mannered and even a little forced. But actually Chabon does have a precursor in the lesser known Yiddish master Lamed Shapiro, whose American stories were influenced by the US hard-boiled school and seem strikingly similar to Chabon’s mix of paranoia, violence and defiant logic-inverting humour.

TYPU is a thoughtful, introspective, novel - my only real existential criticism is that I don’t think the AH scenario really adds that much to the narrative and I wonder if the novel might not have worked just as well in our universe. Chabon said that the AH was necessary because ‘the Yiddish world is dead’, and while it is true that the Nazis destroyed Yiddish Europe (and the survivors mostly migrated to Israel where they had to speak Hebrew), Yiddish did not die out completely. My own wedding ceremony was in Yiddish at a Yiddish-Bundist commune in Putnam Valley, New York, and anyone who’s been to Kiryas Joel, NY, will find an entire town of 20,000 Haredi Jews with Yiddish newspapers, Yiddish street signs, Yiddish coffee shops, Yiddish schools, self published Yiddish spy novels. And yes, Kiryas Joel even has Yiddish speaking policemen.

53 comments:

adrian mckinty said...

It somehow slipped my mind that the Champions League Final will be on in a few hours. I'll be getting up for it.

Of course its a classic battle of Good versus Evil.

Who would you support? The team sponsored by insurance defrauder and billion dollar bonus giver AIG? Or the team who dont have a corporate sponsor but intead give money to Unicef? The team owned by fans or the team owned by a hedge fund? The team tipped as favourites and will probably win because thats what the Taiwanese gambling syndicates want or . . .Barcelona?

Of course it is also a battle between two great cities: ah yes Barcelona by the sea, city of Picasso and Gaudi and Islington (where all the Man United fans come from).

Dana King said...

I might read Chabon's book; I might not. It sounds interesting, and I like his writing generally. (As a Pittsburgh native, his roots in The Burgh don't hert.) What i really want to comment on is the review. You gave the premise, then talked about the book, and the writing. What you didn't do--unlike many reviewers--was give an outline of the story's events. IF I want to know what happens in a book, I'll read the damn book. Your review told me a lot about whether the book was worth my time; the specifics I can get on my own. Thanks for that.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I share your impatience with plot summaries disguised as reviews. I felt a twinge of panic when I made even a brief attempt to summarize a plot in my blog post yesterday. Too many newspaper reviews are plot summaries, one reason I don't like most newspaper reviews.

Adrian, the Yiddish on that Kiryat Joel bus sigh is awfully wordy: "Kiryat Joel Bus Transportation. That's a lot of syllables, but who's counting?

This book has been at the outer reaches of my to-read universe for some time, but your post may have nudged me toward Lamed Shapiro.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

Peter Rozovsky said...

A cab driver in Barcelona picked me up from Parc Guell and asked -- me in Spanish -- how I liked the park. I replied in what Spanish I could muster: "Un trip sin drogas."

The cabbie was listening to a soccer game on the radio. Boy, those announcers talk fast.

I saw Manchester United and Barcelona play in Philadelphia a few years ago. An ignorant soccer watcher like me can tend to overaestheticize exceptional plays, but Ronaldinho threaded a pass between two defenders at such an seemingly impossible angle that I felt I was witnessing a moment of transcendant beauty.

Of course, Ruud van Nisteloi's willing himself around a defender on the way to scoring a goal wsa pretty exhilarating, too.

Michael Stone said...

I only saw the second half -- Man U were played off the pitch. Not one single shot on target. It was like watching a championship side play a premiership team. Kudos to the Barcelona team. A deserved win.

Declan Burke said...

Nice to see Der Filthenfuhrers get yet another lesson in how to play the Beautiful Game. Crikey, it must be all of two months now since the Mighty Pool tonked them 4-1. And, yes, I'm still going on about it ...

Barca were a class apart tonight. Terrific stuff. Utd didn't get near them. It should have been 5-0.

Cheers, Dec

adrian mckinty said...

Dana

Thanks for that. Yes that very thing drives me to distraction. I think you can recap maybe the first twenty percent at most but then you have to lay off for the sake of the reader.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

At least we still have some newspaper reviewers. I remember before the Rocky Mountain News died they fired all the reviewers and just lifted movie reviews etc from the AP - it was bland and depressing and it didnt shock me when the paper finally went under. It was a great paper too, much livelier than the Denver Post.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I stayed up all night to watch. And now I'm hurting. But good triumphed and thats the main thing.

adrian mckinty said...

Michael

I thought it was a pretty good game, Man U were out played. Its been a very long season for them. I wonder if they'll learn those lessons now.

adrian mckinty said...

Dec

Champions League Final 2005? One of the best matches I ever remember.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'm not sure if you can read Yiddish fluently, but if not there's a nice edition of Shapiro's best stories put together by my own better half, here. Harold Bloom liked it.

Peter Rozovsky said...

I watched the game, too, at least the last few minutes of the first half and all of the second after an emergency trip to the dentist. I found my way to a bar populated mostly by Barcelona fans, so there were good feelings all around.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com

Ian said...

Ian

Dude that was an unnecessary attack on Sarah Palin.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I was pleased (although I'm completely shattered now). Good PR for UNICEF more bad PR for AIG. They'll be weeping in Hampstead, Islington and Notting Hill tonight though.

adrian mckinty said...

Ian

Sorry that I offended you. I make it a policy never to attack first time authors so when her book comes out I'll give it an honest review without any cheap shots - how does that sound?

Except if she writes an atlas.

seanag said...

I haven't read Chabon, though I'm told I'd like him. His wife was just down doing a reading at the store last week, a non-fiction book called 'The Bad Mother'. I think it's called that, on the cover it looks like it's called 'The Good Bad Mother', which of course is a better title--gives all those mothers hope. I didn't read it and don't much care, though she is supposed to be funny. She got a little tempest going awhile back because she apparently said she loves her husband more than her four kids. Turns people agin you to say such a thing. I think what irritates me is not that it overturns mother love in some way, but that it seems kind of cold to make the comparison--especially in public. It's like choosing between your children. It may be true that you have a favorite, but in what circumstances would it ever be right to say so?

Well, I didn't read the actual quote, so I'm probably maligning her. Doesn't seem to be hurting her sales any.

PKL said...

Seana: I like that quote. The mysteries of motherhood are way overblown. Turns out it's just a job like everything else, and can be done miserably or brilliantly. Loving her husband more than her kids probably helps her do a better job.

seanag said...

Well, I suppose honesty counts for something. And of course I'm always glad to hear evidence that childrearing doesn't lead to the decline and fall of marriages, though I've heard plenty of news to the contrary. I really don't care where she stands philosophically on the subject. I just think that when you're talking about your kids, or in front of your kids, it's always good to remember that they have ears, and memories. Long, long memories, usually. Long enough to revisit when they see you in the nursing home. Or, as often happens, don't.

I am fairly sure that on the grand scale of things, I am more cynical about human relationships of all stripes than Ayelet Waldman is. But I'm also fairly sure that I am more politic about them. I expect both things are somewhat influenced by working retail for as long as I have. Here's a shocking confession: sometimes I don't totally love the people I'm waiting on!

But even more shocking: in spite of all the years I've been at this, sometimes, often even, I still do.

Peter Rozovsky said...

"But even more shocking: in spite of all the years I've been at this, sometimes, often even, I still do." Lovely!
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

seanag said...

Thanks, Peter. But don't spread it around, okay? It kind of works against the 'take no prisoners' image I try to cultivate among my co-workers.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Didnt even know that he was married. I've got Kavalier and Clay (sp?) somewhere in my TBR pile in a nice Indian edition - might dig it out next.

adrian mckinty said...

Patrick

Didnt know he had kids either. In fact I dont know anything about him except that he's from Pittsburgh.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I saw a Louis Theroux program last night called Killadelphia about the Philly police - not one of his best, alas but it had its moments.

marco said...

Off topic. Star Trek. No comment

marco said...

For fans of original Star Trek,btw the Tor site has a Star Trek Re-watch , while everyone else could profit from the useful tips contained in How to Lie About Books

adrian mckinty said...

Marco

I'm unable to watch the YouTube because Bigpond says I've used my gig limit for the month which I find hard to believe. However have you see Shatner's video blog? Its quite something.

The new eminem video also has a Star Trek "parody" - I didnt find the video funny in the least but then maybe I just dont get his sense of humor.

The new Lily Allen video however - hilarious.

marco said...

This is not a parody, is from a real episode.
Kirk ouchs.
Spock ask what's wrong.
Kirk complains of a kink in the back.
redshirt woman who will probably be soon killed because I've never seen her afterwards begins to massage his back, while Kirk thinks it's Spock
Kirk:
"That's it
a little a little higher please
(in crescendo)
Push, Push harder
Dig in there Mr.Sp-"
at this point he sees Spock walking by, freezes and abruptly dismisses the redshirt.
I can't believe they let this on air.

seanag said...

It's obvious that Kirk must have then killed red shirt offscreen, the only witness to his repressed desires.

Kavalier and Clay is the one that's been particularly recommended to me.

Waldman also wrote a set of 'Mommy track' mysteries that some people, mainly young mothers, seemed to like. Cozies, obviously. Probably not many takers in this crowd, though I have to admit that I am now a little curious.

How is the campaign going, Marco?

Peter Rozovsky said...

I know that sobriquet Killadelphia, but I don't know that documenary. The Philadelphia cops don't have the world's best reputation.
==============
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Sandra Ruttan said...

Adrian, when you have a minute can you drop me an e-mail at sandraruttan @ gmail dot com? Thanks, Sandra

adrian mckinty said...

Marco

Now we know Bones's real reason for his dislike of Spock and why Spock was so desperate to kill Edith Keeler

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Its sitting on my pile. I should really photograph the cheapie Indian edition its in, I'm sure Chabon's not getting a penny.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

It was ok but nothing too special.

adrian mckinty said...

Sandra

Will do but if its a plot I can already say count me in.

seanag said...

I was going to ask 'what's an Indian edition? thinking it was somehow related to that politically incorrect term, Indian giver, but then realized that, well, sometimes an Indian edition is just an Indian edition. Is there no end to piracy in this world, though?

There's a new book just out or coming out called Free: the Future of a Radical Price. It's by Chris Anderson, the author of The Long Tail. Haven't read either, but have read about both. I don't know if he includes the phenomenon of piracy in his book, though I'd bet he does, but according to an interview I read of his, he is talking about how things that were long driven by the old market model need to adapt to competing with the free. It's pretty interesting, and not so radical as all that. I'm realizing that the publishing system that gives away the book to booksellers and columnists, etc. before actually selling the item are already practicing some version of his idea. But he also explores the premise that offering something free with a limited window not only acts as publicity, but also drives interest in the object, whatever it is, upward.

Basically, if people are stealing something from you, that does prove that you have something valuable to offer. (Me, I've left my door unlocked the last few days and had not a care in the world about it.) It's when you say, come get it and no one comes that you need to reevaluate your approach...

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

The Chabon knock off I've got is very charming. It's got a nice red cover and appears to been photocopied and then reduced from an original. The price on the back says 4 rupees, which cant really be beat can it? I dont worry about Mike being in the poor house though. I think at least 3 of his books have become films and thats bound to have left him pretty comfortable... Coincindentally my next post is about writers and Hollywood. Bet you cant contain your excitement.

BTW I emailed Sandra. Alas it wasnt any kind of a plot.

seanag said...

Darn it, Sandra--I feel you could have thrown in a small plot if you'd just half-tried. I'd have been in too.

Actually, I'm quite interested in what you'll have to say about writers and Hollywood, Adrian. As you know, I co-authored a trivia book about Southern California and I did have to research that aspect of 'the arts' a bit. Not that I remember all that much, but I do have a few copies of the book still lying around so that I can refresh my memory.

Picked up a copy of J.G. Ballard's The Crash today. That's going to be an interesting read. Liked the opening very much, wavering a bit as I get a few pages in. We shall see.

marco said...

Some pervert episode titles from Star Trek first season:
The Man Trap - Where no Man has Gone Before - The Naked Time - Mud(d)'s Women - What Are Little Girls Made Of.

Campaign's going well - we are more than bit tired - yesterday for example we had a full day from 6 in the morning to 3 in the night (because an internationally famous dance/techno/whatever DJ a girl in our list knows wanted to dedicate us a special exhibition - so I had to go in a horribly trendy place I wouldn't be normally seen around and ended up sipping ron + pear juice).
We do attract a lot of sympathies, but it is really difficult to understand if they will translate in votes.
We have a 5,000 euro self-restricted budget for the whole campaign - single council candidates in the other lists far outspend us. And of course the problem is that many votes are already assigned - interests, influence, bartering of votes in change of favors, those who vote for the candidates expressed by their pa and so on.

We'd be happy with 1 to 3 councillors- a win seems unrealistic. But we're relaxed and having fun, while many, especially in the list of the former mayor, are very scared, not least because they don't really care for the win of their coalition but rather much more need to secure a seat for themselves in order to best serve their affairs.

The annoying thing is that they try to paint us as a kind of "protest" list, made of young people with little experience, but the truth is that if you look at the range of expertises we bring together we are probably the most qualified, and they refused our proposal of a public confrontation between the four mayoral candidates.

marco said...

expressed by their party, not their pa

seanag said...

Funny--I read some statistic about American voting that the greatest predictor of who you will vote for, or at least what party you will vote for is still who your parents vote for. Which kind of surprised me. Anyway, I read that 'pa' as correct, not a typo.

Sounds like you are all being energized by the campaign, which bodes well for the future, no matter what the outcome of this particular campaign is.

As you know, being too young was one of the things they tried to throw at Obama too. Didn't stick.

marco said...

It was halfway between typo and Freudian slip.
Ron means Rum, as I'm sure you all know.
By the way, the article I've linked before on how to lie about books may have escaped your notice in all this but it's very funny, albeit leaning towards the sci-fi/fantasy fandom.

Alan said...

Adrian, Read the book and felt it was less of an AH crime tale than a eulogy to a once vibrant and very humanistic culture.I read Dominion by C.J.Sansom and it is a chilling tale of opportunism, bureaucracy and collaboration that occurs in a "Petain" run Briton after a NAZI victory.I think humor and wit redeem Chambon's book more than plot and mystery. It is horrific to think this scenario (German Victory) might have occurred if events in 1940 had shifted a bit more with a true American "Isolationism".Best Alan

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Its an evocation of a lost world.

I wonder too what might have happened if Hitler had delayed the invasion of Russia for a year and instead sent 30 divisions into Egypt in 1941. I think he could possibly have won the war that way.

Brendan O'Leary said...

I'm not big on AH but have read The Man in the High Castle (along with everything else of Dick when I was about 20).

Since you are in Australia, you might try Bush Soldiers http://www.amazon.com/The-Bush-Soldiers-John-Hooker/dp/0670197513

It's really a long time since I read it, but I remember liking it. No Yiddish in it though.

John McFetridge said...

Well, as usual with Coen brothers movies, I'm looking forward to Inside Llewyn Davies with equal parts hope and dread. I like the fact that they are willing to chances, but that means, of course, sometimes (often?) they fail. Good on them for trying, of course.

adrian mckinty said...

John

Not such a terrific track record over the last decade for the Coens though...But better than Ridley Scott, Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppolla (pere), and George Lucas.

macca said...

I love Chabon but I just couldn't buy into that last one of his.

adrian mckinty said...

Macca

Yeah the records one? Me mate Dec Burke raved about it but I got to about page 25. A total shit sandwich I thought.

Macca said...

Yeah, the records one. I might have got to about page 50-odd.

Massive disappointment when you don't like a book by one of your favourite writers - you wait and wait for it to come out, buy it on the first day, give it the flick and then it hits you that you've got maybe another 2-5 years to wait until you get another one.

I might have filched this observation from you or someone else, but to me it read like it was written with a possible HBO series adaptation in mind.

adrian mckinty said...

Macca

And it shows you how corrupt the review process is in New York. Really ecstatic positive reviews of that book in the New York press by Chabon's friends...

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Sheiler said...

Woody Allen gave an interview on the BBC in the late 1980s where he said that he hoped Mia Farrow gave birth to a girl; that he didn't want to have a son. And then Farrow popped out a boy.

If I were working retail and had him as a customer I'd probably not want to sell him chocolates. But Allen wrote some things in places I can't recall that made me laugh out loud. I like some of his movies a lot (Annie Hall, not so much).

I heard Waldman's interview where she talked about loving her husband more than her kids. I felt really bad for the kids. I haven't read anything by her either. But that might just be due to it being hard to find her books in Montreal for $1. Or in my mountain town's bank where they give away beach reading in English because no one up here buys much in English.