Sitzbook: "The Yiddish Policemen’s Union" by Michael Chabon

Hi again! I’m back with another review, although this one will be mostly quotes. My brother gave me The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for Christmas and it was, in a word, excellent. The story takes place in an alternate reality in which Sitka, Alaska, has taken in millions of Jewish refugees during the Second World War, thereby basically avoiding the bulk of the Holocaust. (In reality, this was actually a plan that was briefly proposed in the US Congress but ultimately came to nothing.) Anyhow, the story picks up in more modern times, when the city is about to revert to American/Alaskan control, since it had been an autonomous region before, basically controlled by the Yiddish-speaking Jewish community.
Still following? OK, the main thing though is that there are crimes, intrigue, mysteries and a strong “human” element in the form of the relationship between the (anti-)hero Meyer Landsmann and his ex-wife Bina. I don’t want to give away anything, since I knew basically nothing going into this book, and that’s the best way to approach this one. Just pick it up and let the story take you away. But I do assure you that the book is one of the best ones I’ve read this year, and even in the last two years, of Sitzbook. And I don’t know exactly what I expected when I first saw the cover, but I somehow know that the book was completely different than what I might have thought it’d be about.

I’ll give you a few quotes to show you what the writing is like.

From p. 262, Landsmann is hearing some people speak Hebrew; the content of the quote isn’t that amazing, but it does illustrate how great of a writer Chabon is, and how he’s able to paint vivid images in the reader’s mind:
“In the dreamy seconds that precede his loss of consciousness, the guttural language that Landsman heard Roboy speaking plays like a recording in his ear, and he makes a dazzling leap into impossible understanding, like the sudded consciousness in a dream of one’s having invented a great theory or written a fine poem that in the morning turns out to be gobbledygook. They are talking, those Jews on the other side of the door, about roses and frankincense. They are standing in a desert wind under the date palms, and Landsman is there, in flowing robes that keep out the biblical sun, speaking Hebrew, and they are all friends and brothers together, and the mountains skip like rams, and the hills like little lambs.”
This is from p. 362, when Landsmann’s being held by American police officers:

“Landsman pisses away the next twenty-four hours in the hum of a chalk-white room with a milk-white carpet on the seventh floor of the Harold Ickes Federal Building on Seward Street. 
In teams of two, six men with the variegated surnames of doomed crewmen in a submarine movie rotate in and out of the room in four-hour shifts. One is a black man and one a Latino, and the others are fluid pink giants with haircuts that occupy the neat interval between astronaut and pedophile scoutmaster. Gum chewers, overgrown boys with good manners and Bible-school smiles. In each of them at moments Landsman sniffs out the diesel heart of a policeman, but he is baffled by the fairings of their southern and gentile glamour. Despite the smoke screen of back talk that Landsman puts up, they make him feel rattletrap, a two-stroke old beater.”

And finally, I just liked this quote from p. 64:

“Brennan studied German in college and learned his Yiddish from some pompous old German at the Institute, and he talks, somebody once remarked, ‘like a sausage recipe with footnotes.’”
This is half of the inside cover. To be completely honest with you, it’s beautiful.
I obviously thought this was a great book, and above all else its most intriguing accomplishment is the ability to make the reader really ponder “What if?” The whole bulk of the story is also excellently done, but that underlying idea that there could have been a way to prevent so many people from dying, well, that’s what made me think a lot more than the actual plot of the book.
If you’ve read anything else by Chabon and enjoyed it (like Wonder Boys or The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), you’ll surely like this one, too. And if you’ve not read him, then get going!
Thanks for reading this, by the way! Have a great week!

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5 thoughts on “Sitzbook: "The Yiddish Policemen’s Union" by Michael Chabon

  1. Almost done with THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY. Freaking awesome. He’s a great writer, even though he sometimes seems to let his smart prose carry him into smarmy self-importance. Just like all the great ones.
    If you haven’t read it, you should check it out. Or you can wait for it for Christmas.

  2. Hey Paul!

    Thanks for the comment. But first of all, make sure you DON’T get me Cavalier and Clay, as I got it last Christmas (I thought I got both from you, but it may have been mom and dad). In any case, I’d probably be reading it right now but I was needing shorter books since it’s already December and I still have 6 books I need to read to make my book a week. But I’ll get to it ASAP.

    And I can definitely understand what you’re saying about authors seeming too pleased with themselves when they’re awesome. I like Chabon, but I think I liked him even more after reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh a few years ago, when I thought he was a nerdy gay guy (which he’s not, but that shows how a book can somehow paint a picture of its author…a picture that’s completely false).

    Have a good one!

  3. Oops. Guess I should have caught up reading your blog (uhh, and writing mine…I’m three months behind on book reviews too) before I emailed you. This sounds so unusual–can’t remember who or where, but I know I’ve heard Chabon recommended before–anyhow, I just put this one on my library list. Thanks!

  4. Hey AnnaLisa!

    No problem, and I’m glad you saw the review. I’d definitely recommend the book, as long as you tell me what you think after you read it! 🙂

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