The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy, tr. Howard Curtis

Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author:   Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator:   Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8

The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is  just one of  the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record.  Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.

Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a  historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI.  The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.

What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.

“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”

“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”

Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford.  Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters.  This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction.  But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama.  Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.

The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.

Cue the sinister music.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.

Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.

The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

Any novel can be read straight thru from beginning to end.  But how many novels offer the choice of starting from either the front or the back?  Or tell a reader two stories, from two drastically different perspectives which eventually merge into one?  Open Letter Books calls The Canvas a “mind-bending investigation of memory, identity, truth, and delusion… the publishing event of the year, a novel whose meaning depends on the order in which it is read”.

Jan Wechsler – who in an interview Benjamin Stein described as his alter-ego – is an Orthodox Jewish man who lives in an apartment with his wife and two children in Germany.  One Shabbot (the Saturday sabbath) a suitcase from Israel shows up at his front door. He claims it’s not his, but many things about it show otherwise.  The luggage tag is in his handwriting.  Among the contents is a book, written by Jan Wechsler, attacking and exposing a man named Minsky who wrote a false Holocaust memoir. (Both Minsky and his memoir are based on a true story).

The suitcase and the items inside destabilize Wechsler’s life.  His memories, his marriage, his entire history – all come into question.  And so he sets out on a journey to Israel, hoping to solve the mystery and piece together who he once was.

Amnon Zichroni – the second protagonist –  is a talented psychoanalyst who was born into a strict German, Orthodox Jewish community.  In an incredible act of love his father, realizing his son will require more interaction with the secular world, sends him to Switzerland to be raised outside of the community.  Amnon’s path is one of balancing spirituality with the material world.  He has been given an extraordinary gift.  A gift he can either accept or deny.  But denial means turning his back on his beliefs.

The Canvas  opens with a simple set of instructions:

There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel.  Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action.  Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.  You can follow the narrative on one side until you get to the middle of the book, then flip it over and continue reading from the beginning of the other side.  To follow one of the side-trails, turn the book over after each chapter, and continue reading where you left off before.  Of course, you’re also free to find your own way.

I chose to follow a side-trail which required regularly flipping the book over.  I alternated between the Amnon Zichroni & Jan Wechsler chapters.  My experience was (though it’s not an adjective I usually use to describe a novel)  surprisingly rewarding.  So much so that it’s difficult to imagine the novel taking any form (or path) other than the one I chose.  At the same time, I realize the narrative can be experienced differently. For example: by someone choosing to remain with Zichroni for the entirety of his narrative and then move on to Wechsler.  (This is exactly what Trevor from Mookse and the Gripes did.  We’ve been discussing The Canvas on his forums for anyone who wants to join in).

On the meandering path I chose each chapter ended on a cliff-hanger.   It was a bit like reading a serial.  Flipping the book over became more and more difficult.  I wanted to continue reading (regardless of which side I was currently on).  Most of the book is spent trying to figure out what is going on.  Stein expertly teases out his story so that when the denouement arrives it is both abrupt and conclusive.  And, like a camera lens locking into focus, all the seemingly disparate elements come together to form a wonderfully complete and cohesive picture.  Both narrators intrigued me.  Though I trusted Wechsler less, neither protagonist’s story ever became the “true story”.   As there is no correct way to read this novel – there is not one correct version of events.  The essentials remain the same, the characters interpretations do not.   And perception really is everything.

Zichroni is only a peripheral figure for most of Wechsler’s narrative – and vice versa.  Because their “relationship” is once removed for most of their lives and narratives, both men are essential to understanding The Canvas.  The unusual format Benjamin Stein chose for his novel is not a gimmick.  Separating his two protagonists in every way possible was necessary to achieving his goals for the book.

The Canvas has a fair amount of symbolism and philosophy – as well as beautiful descriptions of Jewish tradition and teachings – layered into the story.  While there is a mystery involved, it is also a novel about ideas.  And, to some extent  about religion.  (In this way The Canvas reminded me of Daniel Stein, Interpreter).   On the Zichroni side there is one particular passage – a gorgeous description of tzitzes.  Tzitzes are the carefully knotted fringes at the four corners of a prayer shawl.  How they are knotted – the number of knots and coils of the thread used – is symbolic.  I’m not Jewish, or particularly religious, but I found the subject beautiful and fascinating.  The detail which Stein includes regarding Jewish life reminded me more than once of Melville’s descriptions of whaling.  Precise without ever becoming pedantic.

When I was a boy, my father had told me about the deeper meaning of the tzitzes, of the type and number of coils and knots.  They are all symbols for words, and they connect those words inextricably with their meanings.

There are different views on the exact number and sequence of the coils, which provide a coded answer about why people keep the laws.  The Sephardim tie ten, five, six, five coils – in that sequence.  The numbers correspond to the four letters in the name of Hashem.

The Ashkenazim, on the other hand, coil the thread only seven, then eight, eleven, and thirteen times.  The first two segments stand for the first pair of letters in the holy name, the third segment for the second pair.  The fourth segment, finally, has the same numerical value as echod – one – such that the combination of coils stands for Hashem echod – the Lord is one.

I am sure that there are even more variations of knots and coils, but clandestine ones, worn secretly by those who truly know.  But people like that wouldn’t have their tzitzes tied by someone else, not even by my father.

Regarding the translation:  Brian Zumhagen manages to capture each narrator’s distinctive voice, portraying the men as I believe the author envisioned them.  Zichroni is the more thoughtful, introspective, the cadence of the writing in his specific section reads slower.  Wechsler’s voice, in contrast, is brash and hasty.  Even a little slick (though that might be just my interpretation).   I had no problem shifting back and forth – it is impossible to confuse the two.  This, I imagine, was his main challenge.  The other area would be the pacing of the prose, which is perfect.  There was a real danger of Zichroni’s portion to become too wordy – too get lost in stream-of-conscious style (the character is a psychoanalyst) that leaps from topic to topic without getting to the point.  It’s a fine line, and Zumhagen walks it like a seasoned circus performer.

As I mentioned earlier, Trevor from the blog Mookse and the Gripes is also reading The Canvas.  I’m looking forward to his review and will add the link when it’s posted.  The Canvas is scheduled to be released on September 26, but can be pre-ordered.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 65 8

Daniel Stein, Interpreter by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated from the Russian by Arch Tait)

The title Daniel Stein, Interpreter is loaded with meaning. The novel’s namesake and hero is a Polish Jew gifted with languages. He survived WWII by acting as an interpreter for the Germans, the Belorussians and Soviets. Each time the city of Emsk changed hands, so did Daniel. At times re-translating the same documents over again for each new occupier. It was through his position that he was able to save the lives of hundreds of men, women & children – both Jews and non-Jews.

After the war Daniel converted to Catholicism and immigrated to Israel as a monk in the Order of Barefoot Carmelites. There he built a sometimes controversial congregation that embraced both the Christian & Jewish faiths. He took on a new role as interpreter – elucidating church doctrine and dogma. He taught that Christianity is an extension of Judaism. He lobbied and eventually sued to gain Israeli citizenship as a Christian Jew.  His teachings, while not entirely unique (we’re told there were rabbis who felt the same), were revolutionary.

People wrote denunciations against him. I had one sad little paper here for a long time which Daniel brought. He was summoned one time by the abbot and given a notice to attend the Office of the Prime Minister. Daniel came and sowed it to us, wondering what it was all about. This was after his court case. All that fuss in the press seemed to have died down. I looked at the paper and the address there was not the Prime Minister’s Office at all but the Israel Security Agency, Shin Bet. Something along the lines of your CIA. I told him not to go. He sat there, said nothing, scratching behind his ear. He did that when he was thinking.

“No,” he said. “I shall go. I’ve been dealing with these services the whole of my life. I worked in the police, and I was in the partisans. By the way, I have two medals, one with Lenin on it and one with Stalin. I even worked for the NKVD for a couple of months before I ran away.”

In case there’s any doubt – Daniel Stein, Interpreter is about religion.  As such the text sometimes takes dense, philosophical tangents.  I’m not particularly religious, yet I found the book fascinating.  It might be difficult for someone unfamiliar with either the Jewish or Christian faiths to understand all the nuances of the story being told.  I think other readers will shy away specifically because of the religious subject matter. They shouldn’t. Because it is an interesting, well-written and – though it might seem a contradiction –  accessible.  A story that is also about the difference a single person can make in the world by (forgive the cliché) doing what they believe is right.  In a way, Ulitskaya redeems both these religions by demonstrating in Brother Daniel what they might represent.

___________

Ludmila Ulitskaya is an award-winning (most recently France’s Simone de Beauvoir Prize in 2011) Russian author. She was nominated for the Man Booker International in 2009. She’ll be speaking at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in NYC. Daniel Stein, Interpreter celebrates the life of the real Brother Daniel Stein by piecing together a fictionalized history of letters, recorded interviews, diary entries and transcripts spanning a period from 1960 up to almost the present day.  She numbers and dates them (i.e.-the letters, interviews, etc.) like items in an auction catalog. She even inserts her own correspondence about the writing of the novel in a post-modern twist.

I am not a real writer and this book is not a novel but a collage.  I snip out pieces of my own life and of the lives of other people and glue together “without glue” (pause…) “a living tale from fragments of days.”

Ulitskaya’s prose is consistent and she establishes strong identities for each of her characters. Their voices remain interesting – though at times some of the female characters become a little homogeneous. Regardless, we get to see Brother Daniel’s life through multiple lenses.  As he sees himself – in unvarnished, practical, matter-of-fact terms.  And also a more complicated figure – as viewed by his friends, family, colleagues and the institutions whose lives he touched.  It is a life interpreted for the reader.

The plot and portrait are developed with subtlety, forming a story that has no arc other than what can be found in the life of this man.  Ludmila Ulitskaya accomplishes this – without emphasizing the emotional peaks or valleys.  She minimizes the drama, breaking Brother Daniel down to a series of anecdotes and burying the significant events amongst the trivialities of her characters’ daily lives.  This author chose to leave a good portion of the ‘boring bits’ in the book. The overall effect, once you realize what she is doing, is startling in its breadth and accomplishment.

Publisher:  Overlook Duckworth, New York (2011).
ISBN:  978 1 59020 320 0

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An Interview with Joan Leegant – Author of Wherever You Go

Do you ever find yourself unintentionally reading in blocks?  Somehow, without any planning on your part, all the books you pick up seem to have something in common?  Over the Summer I couldn’t get away from Argentinian authors (not that I really wanted to).  Now it seems I’m on a bit of a Jewish literature jag.

Wherever You Go is an engrossing novel, and a much more comfortable read than The Prague Cemetery.  The writing style is contemporary.  The storytelling is solid.  And the prose moves along so gently that you’ll forget you’re even reading a book.  Hours flew by without my noticing.

Wherever You Go follows the emotional journeys of three protagonists.  (More about them in a moment).  Their journeys, all quests for redemption in one form or another, take them to Israel.  And Joan Leegant’s descriptions of that place had me longing to catch the next flight to Tel Aviv!  Through her characters we’re able experience different facets of this amazing and troubled country – West Bank settlements; the Jewish radicalism/extremism at the fringe of Israeli society; the complicated relationship between Jewish Americans & Israelis; the religious and the secular citizens of Jerusalem, desirous of peace.  It’s an engrossing portrait of a country as described by the people who live & visit there.  And when I had the opportunity to ask Joan Leegant a few questions: Israel was at the top of my list.

tolmsted:  All three main characters find a home & solace in Israel, regardless of their level of commitment to religion and not always with good results.  For example –  Mark Greenglass, who spends the majority of the novel in NYC and who I felt was the most centered of your characters, doesn’t fully come into himself until he’s back in Jerusalem.

Which brings me to the title of your novel, Wherever You Go. It’s a famous quote from the Old Testament.  Ruth’s request to her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” .  It made me wonder if Israel is to the characters, in a sense, what Naomi was to Ruth?

Can you talk about the role of Israel in the book and in your character’s lives?  Part of me wants to ask what Israel represents (maybe I am asking that), but the idea and actuality of the country of Israel  is so loaded with meaning and expectations it’s hard to imagine it representing anything other than itself.

Joan Leegant:  You’re correct that Israel itself is almost a character in the book; the
story could not have taken place anywhere else. One major element of the novel
is religious extremism, in particular Jewish religious extremism. This is a huge
issue in Israel today, commanding headlines in fact this week due to some
incidents involving religious extremists.

Israel is also central to each of the three main characters’ lives and quests,
though they are all Americans who find themselves in Jerusalem for different
reasons. Yona Stern has come to make amends with her sister who is a radical West
Bank settler fiercely committed to the settler movement. So Yona’s experience of
Israel in the novel is given largely through the lens of the settlement issue. Mark
Greenglass is a more overtly devout man who, when the book opens, is enduring
a crisis of religious faith. For him, Israel is the place that enabled him to
embrace that faith most fully in the first place. In the course of the book, he will
find a way to deal with his spiritual struggles while remaining attached to
Jerusalem. For Aaron Blinder, a year-abroad drop-out who struggles in school
and is a failure in his father’s eyes, Israel is the place where he plays out his
need for approval and acceptance, for a sense of self-worth and belonging. He
does this by aligning himself with violent radical settlers, to tragic ends.

Of course, I’m not the first writer to mine the volatility and emotional power of
Jerusalem and Israel. As you say, it is a country loaded with meaning and
symbolism. It is difficult to be there and not be affected by the religious and
political and geographic and historic currents that continually run through it.
This is what makes it such an exciting and complicated and rich place to be. In
fact, I am writing you now from Tel Aviv, where I will spend the next six months
as the visiting writer at an Israeli university.

tolmsted:  You mention that you’re “not the first writer to mine the volatility and emotional power of Jerusalem and Israel”.   I think the term mining can have a negative connotation (specifically, how Aaron’s father mines the holocaust for his novels). I only mention this because I was struck by how even-handed you were in telling Mark, Yona and Aaron’s stories.  You were very respectful…  I’d go so far as to say that you are extremely kind to your characters – even those who are more difficult for the readers to sympathize with (like Aaron & Yona’s sister, Dena). Were you conscious of this?  Or is it just the way the story played out as you were writing it?

Joan Leegant: That’s a great question. I sometimes start out with harsher views of
my characters, but invariably, as they develop, I begin to have more compassion
for them. This comes about as I begin to see them more fully, more completely.
Which is also my hope for the reader, that the reader too will have compassion
for even the most problematic or difficult characters, as they see them more
fully.

Actually, part of what draws me to writing fiction is the desire to explore
problematic people, like the ideologue Dena or the impulsive and
rash Aaron. And though I have no interest in shying away from their most
terrible traits –in fact, I like exploring those traits – I always end up finding
something in them about which to feel compassion. I guess this mirrors how I
feel about people in real life. I’m very interested in terrible people, but I’m also
interested in what might have made them that way.

tolmsted:  Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions (and on short notice too!)   Can you offer some recommendations for readers who want to continue exploring the topics you’ve introduce in Wherever You Go?  Are there authors who’ve inspired you? or who you would recommend for readers wanting to read/learn more about Israel?

Joan Leegant: One author I love is the Israeli writer David Grossman, whose novels
are (beautifully) translated into English. I love his earlier books – The Book of
Intimate Grammar, Someone To Run With, and See Under: Love. His most
recent, To the End of the Land, is painful and difficult if spellbinding. It’s about
a mother whose son has just gone into the Israeli army (compulsory for all).
She’s so terrified of receiving word that he’s been killed that she embarks on a
weeks-long hike the length of the country as a way of artificially protecting
herself from this possible news. Several years into the writing of the book,
Grossman’s own son was killed while serving in the Israeli military. A devastating
and chilling confluence. Grossman’s non-fiction about the Palestinian-Israeli
situation is also outstanding, especially the book Yellow Wind.

Another Israeli writer I recommend is Etgar Keret, who writes terrific short
stories, also wonderfully translated.

Publisher:  W.W. Norton & Company, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 393 33989 5

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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.