Finally! Back to Byatt…

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt has been a hurdle I’ve needed to jump all Summer.  I’m approximately 100 pages in and don’t know why this book is taking so long to get through.  I pick it up and put it down fairly regularly.  (The putting down part is most likely the problem).  My goal is to have it read and reviewed by the October 6th release date here in the States.  In the meantime, here is a comparison between the U.S. (top) and U.K. (bottom) covers.  Personally, I think we got gypped.

U.S. Cover
U.S. Cover
UK Cover
UK Cover

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (Redux)

Let’s start with Michael Chabon.  Being a fan of all things Sherlock Holmes, I read “The Final Solution” when it was first released. It’s a slim novella that, in my opinion, tread too much water.  You move from beginning to end at a satisfactory pace with no major plot disappointment or style road bumps to slow you down. But, it was average. Middle of the road. Bland.  I was left with the sense that both our efforts, mine and the author’s, had disappointing returns.

Note:  Chabon was also hurt by the fact that “A Slight Trick of the Mind” by Mitch Cullin came out at about the same time. Of the two, Cullin’s book reads better, creates more atmosphere and adds something to the canon. Both use the same gimmick – an unnamed detective at the end of his life who is, but never identified as, Sherlock Holmes. Cullin’s story is the more solid, more crisp, and better channels Doyle.

So, I’m not even really sure why I picked up this book.

Author aside, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” isn’t a story I’m normally drawn to. It’s a hard boiled detective novel.  It’s alternative history. It’s very, very Jewish. I’m not against any of these things – I just don’t browse those sections of the bookstore. Fortunately the book turned out to be more than the sum of its parts.  “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is a book to read because you enjoy good storytelling… and I’m happy to say that the writing isn’t so shabby either.

Better than not so shabby, in fact.  Chabon writes sentences that pull you through the main plot  while cheerfully directing your attention to vignettes he’s skillfully placed off to the side. (He’s very much what I imagine a MGM movie lot tour guide to be: instructing you to please look to the left and to the right, while hurrying you ever forward to the main event). Here’s an example of that kind of moment:

The main character of the story, Meyer Landsman, and his partner Berko Shemets wander into a seedy bar/strip joint at 7AM to talk.  Inside is Hershal, a dog waiting patiently for his master, Nathan Kalushiner, to return. Nathan was a jazz clarinetist who ran off with a mobster’s wife and whose various body parts subsequently washed up on the docks (but not, we are told, his C-soprano clarinet). Hershal has been waiting in the same spot for 5 years.

Berko has been staring at the dog with increasing fixity. Abruptly, he gets up and goes over to the stage. He clomps up the three wooden steps and stands looking down at Hershel… He takes hold of the dog’s head in his massive hands and looks into the dog’s eyes. “Enough already,” he says. “He isn’t coming.”

The dog regards Berko as if sincerely interested in this bit of news. Then he lurches to his hind legs and hobbles over to the steps and tumbles carefully down them. Toenails clacking, he crosses the concrete floor to the table where Landsman sits and looks up as if for confirmation.

“That’s the straight ems, Hershel,” Landsman tells the dog. “They used dental records.”

The dog appears to consider this, then much to Landsman’s surprise, he walks over to the front door. Berko gives Landsman a look of reprimand: What did I tell you? He darts a glance towards the beaded curtain, then slides back the bolt, turns the key, and opens the door. The dog trots right out as if he has pressing business elsewhere.

Berko goes back to the table, “looking like he has just liberated a soul from the wheel of karma” and the main action resumes.

These stories within the story are the foundation on which Chabon builds a novel that is an  homage to the magical realism of South America & Marquez as much as it is to the genre literature he is such a proponent of.  They are also, in my mind, an indication of all great fantasy writing.  Because creating a world that immerses readers is all about attention to detail.   The details are what sell it.  And the pleasure of a Chabon book, a good Chabon book, is found in how skillfully he handles these details.

The plot of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” is otherwise surprisingly straight forward.  There are two parallel story lines. Two years after its creation Israel fell and was wiped from the map of the Middle East. The American government gave the Jewish refugees of WW2 the use of a desolate area of Alaska – for 60 years. The 60 years is about up and everything, including the police force, is about to revert back to the Americans.

The second storyline revolves around Meyer Landsman… destined to become one of the great gumshoe detectives.  Landsman is a drunk who lives in a dive hotel that caters almost exclusively to lowlifes. His neighbor, a grandmaster chess player and smack addict is murdered in the room next door. This bothers Landsman and he becomes fixated on solving the case. As is par for the course in these kinds of stories, a lot of people seem to have a vested interest in his not doing that.  Landsman also manages to face and resolve several personal issues along the way.

Overall, “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is an enormous and welcome surprise of a book  Chabon took the cliche detective novel and tossed it into an alternative history novel. He populated it with people who are the neighbors you want to have in the world you almost wish you lived in. Every last eccentric character is completely exotic; but is at the same time fleshed out to the point of being completely believable in their every description, word and action.  And in a time when the word literature has become synonymous with angst and depression, Chabon’s book is happy and laugh out loud funny. And did I mention? – the writing isn’t so shabby, either.

Hmmm….Why do I own this? – Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

I don’t know that much about Kingsley Amis, other than what was in a 2007 article in the New York Review of Books (NYRB Volume 54, Number 9 · May 31, 2007), most of which I have forgotten.  But I own an old, battered copy of Lucky Jim which I apparently paid 90 cents for and never read.  The cover states:  “No one has been so funny in this vein since Evelyn Waugh was at his best.”  – Arthur Mizener.  Since I’ve never read Waugh,  or heard of Mizener, it’s probably safe to assume that I picked it up because the cover was drawn by Edward Gorey.

Lucky Jim, lucky for me, turned out to be an enjoyable little book.  Jim, or Dixon as he’s called through the majority of the novel, is an underling in the medieval history department of a British University.  He has no illusions why he is there.  “He’d come up to college he realized, nothing very clear in mind, chiefly out of a reluctance to leave Beesley’s (his friend from the RAF) company.”  When asked by the same Beesley as to why he went into medieval studies, he admits, “…that the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course, so I specialized in them.  Then when I applied for the job here, I naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested in something specific.  It’s why I got the job instead of that clever boy from Oxford who mucked himself up at the interview by chewing the fat about modern theories of interpretation…”  His motivating interests in the novel, the two that really propel the plot, are whether or not he’ll be fired and the fact that he’s fallen in love with his professor’s son’s girl.  Alcohol and smoking also rank high.

That’s the basic story:  Dixon maneuvering his way through the obstacle course of his antagonists, like the silver ball in a pinball machine, until he reaches his happy ending.  And just like on a pinball machine it’s the obstacles and not the silver ball that give the book all its color.  Each fits into their own stereotypical niche.  The boorish, long-winded professor who is completely out of touch with the reality of everyday people and whose only interest in the world around him is in how it directly effects him.  His son, Bertrand, is a pompous, self-aggrandizing faux “starving” artist – sure of his own greatness and more than happy to explain it to anyone who will listen.  Dixon’s current romantic interest at the opening of the book is an unattractive, suicidal, blue stocking with a multitude of affectations and a penchant for creating dramas where she plays the starring role.  They are all caricatures.  Not because they don’t exist as people, but because Amis has trimmed all the excess humanity from them.  We are left nothing with which to empathize.

Despite that, or maybe because of it, the book can be a lot of fun.  There is a certain pleasure to be taken in moral absolutes – where our choices are obvious and the outcome assured.  And the author has a way with banter, making it witty and quick, like a black & white Pre-Code Hollywood film.  This is found not just in the way the characters talk to each other, but in the way Amis talks to his readers.  Parenthesis mine.

“… The bathroom was evidently occupied; perhaps Johns had decided to blockade the bedroom belonging to the defacer of his periodical (that would be Dixon).  Dixon stood well back, straddling, and raised his hands like a conductor on the brink of some thunderous overture or tone program;  then, half conductor, half boxer, went into a brief manic flurry of obscene gestures…”

‘Over the whiskey bottle an hour and a half earlier Atkinson had insisted, not only on coming to the lecture, but on announcing his intention of pretending to faint should Dixon, finding things getting out of hand in any way, scratch both his ears simultaneously.  “It’ll be a good faint,” Atkinson has said in his arrogant voice.  “It’ll create a diversion all right.  Don’t you worry.”’

“Christine began laughing noisily and blushing at the same time.  Dixon laughed too.  He thought what a pity it was that all his faces were designed to express rage or loathing.  Now that something had happened which really deserved a face, he’d none to celebrate with.  As a kind of token, he made his Sex Life in Ancient Rome face…”

There is a pleasure to be found in a well written book, with dry humor, that you can relate to.  Kingsley Amis accomplishes this in Lucky Jim.

I’ve been toying with reading something by Kingsley’s son, Martin, who I’ve heard is much darker than his father.  But as far as a summer read, a book to bring to the beach or read on the train, you can’t go wrong with this book.  It reads well.  It’s surprisingly not dated.  You should be able to get it fairly easily at the library or at the used bookstore – though it seems as if it’s still in print if you want to buy new.  If you’re really lucky, you might find a copy with the cover art drawn by Edward Gorey.

Venue:  This is strictly for entertainment, though its old enough to qualify as vintage.  If you get a good, beat up paperback copy,  stick it in your back pocket and read it anywhere.  It might look interesting enough to get someone walking by to start a conversation.  If not, download it to your iphone or Sony reader* – nobody needs to know.

* not available on the Kindle

Vive le Genre!

Lately there has been a renewed interest in genre fiction. Whether it’s Stephen King’s lurid covers on retro paperbacks in the grocery aisle, Michael Chabon’s serialized adventure story in the New York Times Magazine, or Arturo Pèrez Reverte’s Captain Alatriste swordsman-for-hire series, – the pulp novel is suddenly being taken seriously. And I’m glad. Books written & read for entertainment and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Graham Greene, Dumas, Dickens and Faulkner were the mass market darlings of their times. It seems that some books, like wine and Juliet Binoche, only get better with age. But before you jump into the latest crop of retro-flavored genre fiction, here are my recommendations to establish your street cred:

Wilkie Collins – Collins, who last topped the best seller lists in the 1860’s, is on the edge of most readers’ radars.  His best known works are The Woman in White & The Moonstone, so either would be a good introduction.  Both books are filled with over the top plot contrivances (complicated revenge schemes, heroines locked in asylums and Hindu jugglers to name just a few) that make them entertaining reads in ways the author probably never intended.  In addition to solid writing, Collins can arguably be credited with creating the English Detective novel.   Dubbed a “sensationalist” author, it is my opinion that his stories seem less dated and maudlin than his contemporary (and mentor) Charles Dickens.

Arthur Conan Doyle – Everyone has heard of Sherlock Holmes.  Doyle created a character so popular, who so captured the imagination of his readers, that societies exist to this day that study the short stories and novellas as canon.  While most are dazzled by the deductive reasoning of the hero, I contend that Doyle’s greatest stroke of genius is Watson. It is Watson who lends the tales the semblance of fact with his offhand references to past cases and conversational, first person narrative.  He’s much more personable than Holmes, and ten times more entertaining.  If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the man never seems to get the credit he deserves.  It is unquestionably because of John Watson that the Sherlock Holmes stories are some of the best short stories ever written.

H.P. Lovecraft – Lovecraft was another short story author who used first person narrative to brilliant effect.  His narrators mentally deteriorate in the course of their stories – slowly driven mad when confronted by alien and unspeakable horrors.  I need to repeat that… UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS!  Only Lovecraft could mold such a seemingly quaint old fashioned phrase into a vessel of terror!  Read him, you’ll understand.  They invented the phrase “blood chilling” for this man’s stories, and if they didn’t they should have.  You doubt me?  Google the Necronomicon.  A book that people, to this day, still believe exists. And which was entirely a creation of Lovecraft’s imagination.  Convincing readers that fiction is fact is impressive in anyone, but particularly so when the author wasn’t even trying.

Fritz Leiber – Fritz Leiber is the creator of my favorite swords & sorcery buddy team – Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. This dynamic duo were cast in the tradition of fantasy heroes like Tarzan & Conan (Fafhrd is a Barbarian & the Gray Mouser is a Thief and former sorcerer’s apprentice), but they take themselves a lot less seriously. Two Lankhmar adventurers who have seen better days, their luck going up and down with the whims of fate, they first meet after each loses the current love of his life. Rakish, if a little shabby, they get themselves into and out of trouble (and under various female characters’ skirts) with the kind of panache to make James T. Kirk green with envy. Old Gods, underwater kingdoms, magicians & thieves’ guilds all make an appearance and add to the fun. Leiber has a cheeky sense of humor that keeps the stories light, despite some dark happenings. There’s a silliness about these tales which is a large part of their charm. Originally published in those old 60’s & 70’s magazines with names like “Fantastic Stories” (it doesn’t get any booksexy-er than reading them in the original), all the stories are collected in paperback editions that are a little bit more attainable. Lucky us!