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Detective solves the murder of a possible Messiah while grieving more than one struggle in his own life. The story seemed to be a continuation of the Jewish exile and diaspora in 1948 Alaska. Chabon's numerous, clever, original, witty metaphors make up for the multiple Jewish terms and rarely heard of, yet actual, geographic areas.
Positive ending, everything is solved. Steady suspense. Interesting use of chess strategies to help solve the murder. Chabon is a masterful writer. Four, of five, stars.
Couldn't get into it because of all the unfamiliar words, presumable yiddish. May try again another time.
I would write my own summary but I think Rab1953 did a wonderful job at that already. I will only add, having read a lot of Jewish history and familiar with the Yiddish language, I think Chabon does a masterful job at capturing that dark humoured, pessimistic European Jewish sentiment. His crusty, unlikeable but funny characters are perfect. He incorporates so much of the culture and worldview that defined European Jews in their unstable existence in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust. Even though the story is zany, the attitudes of the Jews he describes are believable. This is one heck of an alternative history. Not to mention Chabon is an incredible writer and provides amazing prose.
I wonder if people unfamiliar with the history, culture and language he is describing can really appreciate how 'spot on' Chabon is. In any event, great read.
What if the messiah comes, but he doesn’t want to stick around? This question underlies a completely engrossing, brilliantly told detective noir story set in an alternative reality Jewish homeland in Alaska. As a detective story, it’s well done, with a mystery that leads to numerous other crimes and conspiracies, all of which seem plausible in the context of a corrupted, criminal underworld at the edge of the world and the end of time.
The situation is a murder in a Jewish homeland imposed on a piece of the world that no-one wants except the Tlingit people living there (a nice parallel for the State of Israel in Palestine). The setting, with its ever-present fog, rain, snow and cold, hemmed in by forests and water, has the same foreboding character that Raymond Chandler would call up if his Los Angeles were 1,500 miles farther north. Also like Chandler, Chabon uses a colourful, hard-boiled style to evoke a tough, cynical and bleak view of the world. His language brings in yiddish slang and similes that fit naturally in the world he has created. It doesn’t feel like a forced pastiche of Chandler to find out that a sholem is slang for a gun (or “peacemaker” in western American slang); or that a latke is a street cop (or “flatfoot”). An artful homage, I would say.
Another departure from Chandler, or at least the Chandler novels I’ve read, is that the past of the protagonist Landsman is not hidden. It is revealed slowly, but Chabon does explain how he came to his bleak outlook and self-destructive life. And while the story centres on male protagonists, the women in the story are strong capable individuals who contribute to the plot and the characters. Ultimately, Landsman finds that salvation is not in the messiah, but in his relationship to the woman he loves.
The messiah figure is an interesting one, too. He has a genuine gift for bringing contentment into people’s lives, but he can’t bring the same satisfaction into his own life. The contradictions with his ultra-orthodox sect make him miserable and he wants out. His mother wants to protect him, but he flees before she can help him, if that’s even possible in her world. A self-sacrificing messiah this is not, which makes an interesting reflection on the Christian messiah.
From the start, though, I wondered what the title referred to, and about page 230, we find that the Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a fake: after losing his badge, Landsman uses a union card to pretend to be an active policeman. So I take it that the Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a cover for looking at something else. What Michael Chabon is really looking at seems to be a multi-layered view of Jewish-American and Israeli politics, society and personal relations.
A key theme in the novel is the expiration of the lease on the Jewish homeland in Alaska, which the Americans won’t renew it, leaving the few million Jewish settlers either searching for a new homeland or in a suspended animation – the existential challenge of Israel and the renewed diaspora of unwelcome Jewish people.
To resolve the challenge, a group of Zionists finds a messiah and concocts a scheme to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem and return to Israel. Their willingness to stop at nothing, including genocide, and with the probably ignorant support of wealthy American Jewish sponsors, leads to a scheme that would stir the imagination of anti-semitic conspiracy theorists. Chabon keeps the story from descending to such fantasies, mainly by making the imagined setting so much a part of the novel that the storyline cannot be separated from the city of Sitka and its seedy inhabitants. That and the fundamentalist Christian allies who back the plot.
Chabon uses the noir genre conventions to explore literature and society in complex ways, as Chabon’s Cavalier and Clay used comic book conventions to explore twentieth century Jewish life. This is a literary novel that is entertaining and a great read.
Interesting concept but I had to fight my way to the end. It felt like the book was written by two people; the first two thirds by one person wanted to confuse the heck out of the reader, and the last third by someone who just wanted to get the book finished. I slogged through this book hoping by the end there would be some explanation for the way the first two thirds were written but that was not to be. It confirmed to me that I shouldn't have to work so hard read a book. I should have let it go.
The book could have used a glossary for the Yiddish words because context did not help to define them. It was the first time I wanted the electronic version of the book so I could use the dictionary feature. I considered stopping and looking up each word but that would have made a tough read even longer. But in the end I decided that the author did not want the reader to understand the Yiddish. Pity.
This novel served as my introduction to the concept of alternative histories - fascinating idea, that. Chabon writes up a very believable world of post WWII America-ish Alaska with a yiddish accent; and he knows about gangsters, too! It is a steady paced & amusing read. Be prepared to ask people or google yiddish words and slang...which lead me to an essay about the loss of a culture & a language, by same author. The warm funny tones of yiddish overpower the gritty noir ishness of the story, in my memory.
One of my favorite novels, I had to reread it to appreciate the story and characters fully. Patience will be rewarded!
This is a murder mystery set in a Sitka that might have existed had the hopes of a Jewish homeland in the frozen north of Alaska come to pass after 1949 instead of the turbulent Israel we have today. Meyer Landsman, a down and out homicide detective living in a flea-bag building, is confronted with investigating a murder of a neighbour. We follow his trail and get a strong sense of the city with its many dark spots, marking it as just like any other city, except for the bitter cold. Crimes of every kind; competing gangs and factions to be wary of. The game of chess and the promised return of the Messiah figure prominently in the array of clues Freedman has to work with. The beginning was a bit of a struggle until I got into the rhythm of the writing and the progression of the plot. The introduction of many yiddish words and phrases were a bit of a distraction as I don"t know much (or any) yiddish, but they didn't figure prominently in the bones of the story so I didn't get lost. I did enjoy the story but the draggy beginning was a bit of a chore to get through.
Absolutely one of my favourite novels ever.....I want to go to that gritty, mystical Sitka that Michael Chabon invented and stay awhile....
Didn't finish. Not a compelling plot and too much yiddish jargon/reference to plod through.
"Imagine if tiny Sitka, Alaska, had been annexed as a temporary territory for homeless Jews after World War II. This odd proposition makes for a wonderfully surreal setting populated by rabbis, chess masters, and ultra-orthodox gangsters. In the midst of all this is Meyer Landsman, a depressed, alcoholic, and irreligious Jewish homicide cop who's only got a couple months to figure out who murdered a heroin-addicted former chess prodigy and gangster before Sitka reverts to Alaska and Sitka's Jews find themselves homeless once more. "Impressively wacky," says The New York Times." Fiction A to Z October 2013 newsletter http://www.nextreads.com/Display2.aspx?SID=5acc8fc1-4e91-4ebe-906d-f8fc5e82a8e0&N=691547
Relentlessly inventive novelist Michael Chabon invents a new genre, the dystopian hardboiled alternative history mystery. His hero, Meyer Landsman, is an alcoholic cop in Sitka, the makeshift resettlement territory established for the Jews in the desolate, dark reaches of Alaska after the promised Jewish homeland turned to ashes in 1949. When a middle-aged junkie is found dead in the fleabag hotel Landsmann calls home, he persuades his reluctant partner and cousin, the half Jewish/half Tlingit Berko Shemets, to join him in the investigation. Chabon serves up a rich stew of dark and demonized characters in a book that is as improbably believable as an episode of The Sopranos crossed with Philip Roth's The Contract Against America. Note: keep a copy of Leo Rosten's The Joy of Yiddish handy. Unless you grew up in one of the 5 boroughs, you'll need it.
Mainstream author who is not a genre snob. An feat of alternate history, very evocative about Jewish identity, and a damn good noir mystery too.
V interesting detective/mystery, fast paced. Funny. Lots of Jewish words thrown into the dialogue - takes awhile to figure out what some of them are but good fun.
I found the first 100 pages to be a bit slow, but got right into the rest of the book. It's a neat whodunnit that might be especially enjoyable for chess fans.
Chabon admittedly likes difficult novels. He likes to read them. So it's no surprise that he writes them that way too. If you like his writing style, try his non-fiction Manhood for Amateurs. Brilliant!
I wouldn't call it at all SF. If you start reading it and expect a SF or a mystery, you will be disappointed. Just expect a well-written novel and you will also find a very funny book.
Just couldn't get into this book-I like a lighter kind of mystery.