The Yiddish Policeman’s Union – Michael Chabon

And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured. Even in the more casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which I finished nearly a week ago, is an idiosyncratic, alternate history mystery novel. The District of Sitka, an autonomous region adjacent Alaska, is the temporary safe haven for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany and elsewhere in the world. Temporary haven dragged on, for some sixty years, but now Reversion is looming. Although there was an abortive attempt to establish the country of Israel, most of the world’s Jews chose the cold safety of Sitka, which is became a densely populated city composed of widely disparate people from all over the world, loosely unified by the common language of Yiddish. Reversion, and the likelihood that most citizens of Sitka will not be allowed to remain, has tensions running high.

Meyer Landsmann, for the time being a homicide detective with Sitka police, is a mess. He is an alcoholic, divorced, living in a slum of a hotel and without either family or prospects after Reversion, and now his ex-wife Bina has been placed as his immediate superior, tasked with closing all open cases. But he is barely prepared for the mess he finds himself in when one of the residents of his neighbors, a heroin addict and former chess prodigy, is murdered and his new chief summarily closes the case. But Landsman becomes obsessed and, with the help of his partner Berko Shemets, chases every possible clue anyway and soon discovers that the dead man was one of the Verbover clan, an ultra-orthodox crime syndicate that is, oddly, the only group unconcerned with pending Reversion, and was widely thought to be the Tzadik ha-Dor, a potential messiah. This case leads Landsman into a tangled web of conspiracies that expose the seedy underbelly of the Jewish communities in Sitka.

I put down The Yiddish Policeman’s Union simultaneously enamored of the book and unsure that I want to read any of Chabon’s other novels.This book is remarkably idiosyncratic in a way that reminded me of a cross between the best of Joseph Heller and of Gore Vidal’s Live from Golgotha, but with the atmosphere of noir. It actually took me a while to get into YPU, what with its treatment of a radically different post-World War Two world (for instance, the war ends after Berlin is destroyed with a nuclear bomb) as utterly normal, its frequent deployment of yiddish phrases found in a glossary, and that it extremely particular in its references. None of these are bad and I found that once I got into the book it was both refreshing and provocative, making it fully deserving of its accolades, but that initial buy-in took time.

At the outset, YPU seemed like a clever detective story with the window-dressing of a humanizing story about chess fanatics and the backdrop of momentous changes, but it is so much more. Chabon builds by drips and hints a rich world that, in the best noir style, is filled with characters, each of which with their own motivations. At the heart of this seething, tangled mess are the little relationships, with Meyer Landsman the broken cop who lives for his job and is kept on his feet by people who, for better and for worse, care about him while he seeks some measure of salvation in caring for the young man killed in his building.

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Next up, I finished reading André Malraux’s The Conquerors about the 1925 revolution in Hong Kong and just started Last Words from Montmarte, a posthumous, postmodern, epistolary novel by Qiu Miaojin, a Taiwanese lesbian author. How is that for a mouthful? I am also in the middle of reading Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, which I am struggling to get into.

Every House Needs a Balcony – Rina Franks

Blurbed as “the Israeli Kite Runner,” Every House Needs a Balcony has the bones of an engaging immigrant story, but, ultimately, falls flat. Told in the first person, the book alternates between two timelines, one with Rina as a girl in Wadi Salib, a poor immigrant neighborhood in Haifa, the other as a young woman in Israel, Barcelona. The first timeline deals with observations of family, poverty, and immigration; the second with money, relationships and children. Both sections provide plenty of chances for observation. Between these thematic elements and the intriguing title that promised to tell a story either looking out from balconies or pining for that opportunity, this novel had all the makings of a gripping story, but it did not live up to any of these possibilities. In fact, in my opinion, it flopped.

I managed to finish Every House Needs a Balcony despite a genuine disinterest in what would happen next for two reasons. First, nothing about the book was terribly complex, so the story read quite quickly, and, second, I kept reading because I was determined to figure out what I found off-putting about it. I knew that I lacked an emotional connection to the story, but for most of the read I couldn’t figure out why, wondering about a translation issue (it was originally in Hebrew), or an unfamiliar setting, or experiences that I couldn’t relate to. None of these felt quite right, though.

Eventually I determined my problem with my the book was the first-person narration. There is nothing inherently wrong with this viewpoint and it did allow particular insight in both narrations—the best part of the story was the juxtaposition of the poverty and dangers for the young girl in Wadi Salib and the pampered luxury in Barcelona. And yet, the extremely limited viewpoint meant that the narrator is the only character who has even a modicum of well-roundedness. In my opinion, the narrator was not a particularly interesting character. In contrast, Franks sometimes fills out the other characters in the story, but does more with this in the Wadi Salib portion of the book, while the romance plot has a variety of flat characters (including those who are more-rounded in the other half) who come in and out of the story with no warning or explanation. Adding to my frustration with Every House Needs a Balcony was that it was effectively two independent stories linked by a small number of characters and juxtaposed. This technique can work, but here I thought the two were jarring and did not hang together.

I had high hopes for Every House Needs a Balcony, and there are all the elements of a great story, but in the end I just can’t recommend it to anyone.

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Next up, I’ve been wanting to read more spy thrillers, and recently picked up a copy of Frederick Forsythe’s The Day of the Jackal. So far I’m quite happy with this change of pace.

Assorted Links

  1. Name Calling– A note in the New Yorker pointing out that, while there are still groups in existence claiming to the name Al Qaeda, those jihadist groups are increasingly local, which makes it hard to argue that it is feasible to have a war on terror (much less one that tries to use Al Qaeda as the target).
  2. In Defense of Classics (and Other Liberal Arts)-Another essay (via Rogue Classicism) arguing that the liberal arts train broad thinkers and creative people who can adapt to the specific needs of a workplace, rather than having specific, non-transferable skills that may themselves be antiquated in a few years.
  3. Diary of Archduke Franz Ferdnand RediscoveredFrom Spiegel, Archduke Franz Ferdinand kept a diary on his journey around the world; that diary has been rediscovered. This article discusses some of the things the Archduke did and saw on the trip, including his hunting excursions, his disappointment with Americans, and prisons/work camps in Australia.
  4. The Modern King in the Arab Spring– In the Atlantic, a portrait of King Abdullah of Jordan. This is a favorable account of his efforts to promote democracy, stability, and prosperity in the industrial world. The article notes some of the problems and difficulties Jordan faces as a country (poverty, refugees, lack of oil, Syria, etc), and also talks more generally about the problems faced by an absolute ruler in the modern world.
  5. Obama Sarcastically Asks How Israel Afforded Such a Great Missile Defense System– From the Onion.

Assorted LInks

  1. Naftali Bennett and Israel’s Rightward Shift– An article in the New Yorker that traces a rightward shift in Israel’s political alignment that includes both jettisoning moderate members of Likud and an uptick in membership of far-right parties that are likely to take the third most seats in the upcoming election if they don’t come in second outright. Naftali Bennett is the head of the party profiled; he, and others like him, are campaigning on a platform that opposes the peace process and also opposes the current security measures as being wasteful and inefficient–in a way that conquering greater Israel would not be. Moreover, at least some of the members of this party favor the construction of the third temple, expunging the Israeli democracy, and, quite in contrast to earlier generations of zionists, support a fundamentally religious zionism.
  2. Neolithic Remains Unearthed in Istanbul– While constructing a rail line on the Asian side of the Bosporus (because all manner of nifty things surface during rail construction), remains from a neolithic village have been discovered. Among the preliminary finds, researchers have been able to determine that the inhabitants ate a significant amount of sea food. Byzantine structures have also been found.
  3. France and West Pledge Support After Islamists Start Offensive in Mali– Ansar Dine began a sudden offensive into government held territory and as a result France has pledged to commit more military aid (advisors and supplies have already been in place). It is as of yet unclear, but France might be committing armed forces and there have been efforts to get an African-led military force into Mali. Part of the package, though, is that Mali must recommit to restoring its democratic-republican government in the entire country.
  4. France Claims Gains in Airstrikes Against Mali Islamists– As as follow up to the announcement that France would begin to use force, airstrikes have commenced and French troops from the UN mission in the Ivory Coast have entered the country. Despite hostages held by Ansar Dine, French President Hollande has reiterated that more French support troops are on their way and he is encouraging the UN to put together a West African peacekeeping force.
  5. Sweden Train Crash– A woman obtained keys to a train and crashed into a house. Here is a picture.

Assorted Links

  1. Paraguay’s Awful History– A story in the Economist about how a war waged by Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay against Paraguay in 1865 is having direct political consequences today. The immediate impetus is that those countries kicked Paraguay out of an economic agreement following the ouster of a leftist president that they interpreted as a coup. The new Paraguayan government then accused them of trying to create a new Triple Alliance–the alliance that waged war against Paraguay, killing up to 60% of the total population and 90% of the male population.
  2. Haredi education is dragging Israel closer to the third world– From Ha’aretz, a story about how Israel will be forced to cease taking international education tests because the numbers of people (learning disabled, special ed, Haredim) do not take educational tests. The largest chunk of those students are Haredim who are not required to learn math or English and thus are not subject to the tests. The author of the article accuses the Israeli government of “financially allowing” the Haredi to operate their own school system and, as a result, of crippling their ability to function within the Israeli economy and Israel’s ability to complete in the world system.
  3. The Frightening Hungarian Crackdown – An article in the New Yorker about a crackdown on leftist artists and intellectuals in Hungary, including (likely) coerced repudiations of statements in opposition to the government.
  4. Project Plans to Pump Oxygen into Baltic Sea– From Spiegel, there is a project currently being tested in a fjord that will artificially pump oxygen into the Baltic Sea. Fertilizer flowing into the sea has caused a rapid growth of algae, which, in turn, has caused de-oxygenation of the sea, suffocating the ecosystem. The hope is that an artificial process can restore that balance, but neither supporters nor opponents actually know what will happen.
  5. Semi Charmed Life: The Twentysomethings are alright– An essay at the New Yorker about the enduring features of being a twenty-something, arguing that despite the changes in the job market, technology, and the nature of society, there is something persistent and resonant about being twentysomething. While that may be of little comfort, it is an engaging essay and sometimes all you can do is laugh.

Assorted links

  1. A Tsunami in Switzerland– New geological findings provide evidence that Gregory of Tours documented an actual event in recording a wall of water on Lake Geneva in 563 CE. The study discovered a massive deposit of sediment in the middle of the lake, likely put there by massive rock fall into the silt near the mouth of a river.
  2. Having Gone This Far Without Caring About Syria, Nation To Finish What It Started– The Onion, of course: “at press time, sources confirmed that millions of readers skipped past this story immediately after seeing the word “Syria” in the headline.” Likewise, from eight months ago: Alien World To Help Out Syria Since This One Refuses To.
  3. Gaza– A thoughtful consideration of the many problems with the Gaza-Israel issue. In short: there are no good guys in this issue.
  4. Syrian Rebels Have Lost Their Innocence– A story in Spiegel that discusses the violence in Syria. In short, what was once seen as relatively one sided violence perpetrated by the Assad regime has devolved into violence perpetrated by both sides. Promises of war crimes trials after the regime change seem less and less likely the longer violence continues.
  5. Turkish Call For Help Puts Germany in a Tough Spot– An article in Spiegel that discusses a recent call for NATO aid in setting up patriot missiles along the Turkish border with Syria after mortar fire landed in Turkey. Commentators says both that this would be a slippery slope toward German involvement in Syria and that Germany is somewhat willing to aid Turkey–and can’t refuse the request.

Assorted Links

  1. What’s the Matter with Missouri-An essay in the Atlantic about the demographic and political shifts that have radicalized Missouri into a bastion of the Republican party.
  2. Boys on the side-An article in the Atlantic about the hookup culture among young people, arguing that it is largely perpetuated by women who have more choice and control than they ever have had before, rather than the traditional narrative about women being forced to submit to the passing fancy of men. Truth to tell, I have never participated in this culture and both at the liberal “east coast” universities and at more conservative locations there are a large number of people who are capable of having progressive relationships without resorting to flings or getting married; without pointing out legislators who seek to limit the control women have over their bodies or conservative groups who demand abstinence only or no sex before marriage, this article is polemical in that it presents an vision of relationships without stability…at least not until women are financially secure and find a good partner. I am not saying this is a bad thing, per se, and the author does a good job of showing some of the ways that having control over their actions and behavior empowers women (while not ignoring the fact that women enjoy sex, too) and that women are as a general rule more educated (though the article posits that women are more successful than men, which is not really the case), but fails to acknowledge the many people who (for a wide range of reasons) do not like or pursue a hookup culture–or end it prematurely for that antiquated notion of love.
  3. Adjuncts’ Working Conditions Affect Student Learning-An article in the Chronicle that covers a report that says that ways in which universities employ adjunct faculty members inhibits student learning because the instructors are almost necessarily unprepared to teach adequately unless they spend the period before they are actually employed preparing for courses they may never teach. This is particularly true (and hardly surprising) for instructors hired mere days before the start of semester.
  4. Former Israeli soldiers disclose routine mistreatment of Palestinian Children-An organization of former Israeli soldiers called Breaking the Silence published a booklet of testimonials that recount physical, verbal and psychological abuse of Palestinian children as a routine occurance. The IDF statement is that the testimonials were not given to them before publication to be investigated for accuracy.
  5. A Pachyderm’s Ditty Prompts an Elephantine Debate-An elephant in a zoo in Washington DC is obsessed with noise making objects, including her harmonica. This is raising a debate about what music is and whether or not it is a human construct.
  6. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?