A Bringer of New Things

I want to learn all I can, live as wisely as I can, and savor every moment on the journey.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

Snowy Alaska is the location of Chabon’s fictional Jewish settlement called Sitka.

As the title promises, this novel by Michael Chabon is interesting and unique. The story is a unique mix of history revision, mystery, character redemption and romance, and poetic setting description.

I do recommend this read. What follows are some details about the story as well as my own experience reading the novel. (I don’t give away plot spoilers, but if you want to read the book and go into it fresh, without prior knowledge of the story’s unique setting and without having heard someone else’s opinion on the book, you may want to quit reading this post here.)

– – –

In the world of this story, the country of Israel was not created in 1948, and the Jews remained scattered. Many were sent to a special reservation in Alaska called Sitka. And in this story, the District of Sitka is getting ready to be reverted back to Alaska, scattering the Jews once again.

The story focuses on the struggles of the main character, Meyer Landsman, a detective with the Sitka Police who uses alcohol to dull the pain of his recent divorce and the death of his sister. A particular case comes along that grips him so much he can’t stop working on it, even when he’s told to. Working on the case leads him to big, unsettling discoveries—and his own personal demons.

I enjoyed the novel and am glad I read it, even though I did not care for the writing style. I hesitated to even say that. Who am I to criticize a Pullitzer-Prize-winning author? But well, I’m a reader, that’s who. And I personally thought the writing was painfully slow and excessively poetic—and I’m usually one to like poetic prose! My friend pointed out that the writing style gives the book a thoughtful, savoring feel. That may be true for her. For me, it was more like traffic-jam slowness, and the only reason I stuck with it was because the story was unique and the characters were interesting and earned my sympathy.

Nevertheless, here is one passage of poetic prose that I found especially beautiful and profound:

“It never takes longer than a few minutes, whenever 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.” (p. 309)

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2 comments on “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

  1. Witness
    June 2, 2014

    Congratulations on making it through!

    Don’t let the style of TYPU scare you away from Chabon’s other stuff. His Manhood for Amateurs, a collection of reflective essays, is quite good, and zippier.

    You might ought to flag this post with a spoiler alert. Part of the fun of TYPU for me was getting my bearings at the beginning, trying to understand what a community of Jews was doing in the frozen place of the story, and reviewing what I (thought I) knew of history. Maybe most people will already know enough about the book that there will be no such puzzle for them, but if there are any others who, like me, enjoy approaching books innocent of any surprising bits, they might want to go read (or try to read) the book first, and then come back and take in your reflections.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I can’t say exactly why, but even hearing specifics of what you didn’t like about something I did like enriches my experience. For one thing, I guess it helps me to get to know myself better; I never thought of myself as one who finds poetic prose engaging, and the contrast of your experience with mine broadens or loosens my sense of self (in a good way).

    Of course, it’s also gratifying to get to know you better, through this “third thing.”

    Like

  2. Sarrah J. Woods
    June 2, 2014

    Thank you, Witness! Good idea—I will add a spoiler alert. Being a lifelong reader of book jackets, I forget that some readers, like you, enjoy going into a book blank-slate style.

    It’s enlarging for me too to learn to disagree. Actually, I’m posting on this on Wednesday (though you already know all about it, of course).

    [By the way, hopefully I’ll get to email you back this evening.] Thanks again for your comment.

    Like

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2014 by in Discoveries from Learning and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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