Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

Not long ago, Erin of A Dress A Day wrote about a word I'd never heard, namely diegogarcity, which means that you learn something new and then suddenly notice it all over the place. And it was also through a link in another of Erin's posts that I learnt of the red heifer, because being Catholic of course my Bible skillz are a little atrocious - too busy remembering the sacraments, dontchaknow. Anyway, so then I read The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, and was immensely gratified that I knew what was coming the minute they arrived at the field with cows. Stuff like that makes you feel smart. So thank you Erin!

The novel is based on an alternative history premise. During WWII the Alaskan town of Sitka attracted Jewish refugees and settlers, and after the war the US government gave the Jews autonomous control of the place for 60 years. In other words Sitka is an alternative to the state of Israel, which in this novel lost that first Arab-Jewish war in -48, and all the New Hebrews were driven out. Instead Sitka grows to a Yiddish city of over 3 million inhabitants. Our hero is Meyer Landsman, a noir-esque policeman with plenty of demons, who hides in his work and in alcohol, waiting for Reversion, when Sitka once again becomes American and all the Jews (almost) have to leave. He lives at a grotty hotel, and one night the manager wakes him and asks him to come look at a dead body in another room. This becomes a case that he gets told to drop, but can't. Instead he and his half-Indian partner-cum-cousin slog at it, to find some sort of truth.

The idea of the Yiddish culture living on is, in itself, fascinating. The shards that survived the Holocaust were all but swallowed up in life post-war, and perhaps especially in Israel's desperate desire to leave the shtetl behind once and for all. Here they all speak Yiddish, except to now and they say "fuck you" in "American". People play chess and klezmer, they eat kugel and pickles, no-one has neo-Hebrew names. Chabon's future yiddische Sitka is quite depressing though. Crime seems to be rife, but maybe this is just because it's a cop novel after all, and that's what they see. In an unusual twist one of the most powerful Orthodox rebbes is also a major crime lord - the ultimate break with shtetl subservience perhaps. Is it this bleak because Sitka is only on loan? Because the shtetl came with the Jews to Sitka (not my opinion necessarily, I think our hero Meyer Landsman voices it at some point)? Because all hope really has died after the Holocaust and death of the fledgling Jewish state? I haven't quite decided what the angle is - if there is any. I read (on Wikipedia) that it was being filmed by the Coen brothers. I wonder if they'll be able to pull off the many layers the novel has, or if it will end up one-dimensional - good cop with booze problem and hot ex-wife. The Coens don't have a one-dimensional track record by any means, but the novel is full of pitfalls. And language - are they going to film it in Yiddish? How are they going to manage that? If they don't they'll miss out on a lot.

I had a lot of things I wanted to write about The Yiddish Policemen's union, but I'm having trouble expressing my thoughts... Let me finish by stating that I definitely will be reading more of Michael Chabon. He's very good.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Terry Eagleton: The Truth About the Irish

The other day my husband texted me: "Does your bag feel heavier than normal?" Well yes, it was a little heavy, but mostly because I'd found The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon at the library in hardback, and I'm not used to lugging hardback novels around - and I didn't think that was what he meant. So I texted back "What? What?", thinking that maybe Minimus had put his wallet in my bag or something, thus ruining all shopping plans for that day, and he texted back "look properly" - so I did, and in one of the front pockets I found this little volume. Wasn't that sweet? Impromptu present! God it's embarrassing, I never do this for him. I'm hereby making a note to change.

The book is a little encyclopedia of Irishness written (clearly) for Americans. The kind of yanks who turn up on the Emerald Isle dressed in Aran jumpers expecting thatched cottages and plain-spoken peasants. You look up words like begorrah and craic, but also jews, children, RTE and Easter 1916. It's very funny in an understated way. The articles can digress wildly from their starting point, as the entry Phoenix Park shows us - it starts off by describing where Phoenix Park is, and then moves on to the Duke of Wellington, Irish people trying to be English, Irish-British relations, Americans' shaky knowledge of geography and why the British are parochial. It ends with
None of this has anything to do with Phoenix Park, but Irish thinking is famously digressive.
I like that a lot.

My fave bit I can't find at the moment, so I'll just have to lend you the book if you're interested. Worth it!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Antonia Quirke: Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers

The beautiful strangers are the actors that Antonia Quirkes cinematographic obsession focuses on. Ever since her childhood she's loved films, and actors especially. This is a very frank autobiography, and I would have liked it more had I known her from Eve. She's quite a clever, rambling writer, so it wasn't a bad read, but I don't know who she is. And I googled her, but there's not an awful lot out there.She's some sort of film critic, but that's all in the book so I knew that. She's married to Jonathan Marr, whom I should also know about, apparently. But I don't. He's in the book too, of course, vyeing for Antonia's attention with her handsome actor loves.

Bits of this book are very funny indeed, bits would be funnier if I knew who she was going on about, bits are just okay, bits are actually moving. I got it from my editor friend E, who got it via work and made the probably wise decision not to get it translated. It's not translatable, because we don't know who Antonia Quirke is, and there isn't much else of tremendous interest in the book. Although after having read it I can say she sounds rather nice, if a bit scatterbrained.

If anybody wants to borrow it let me know. There was more I was going to say about it, it's not crap so merits more than this scant post, but by now it's been a while and I've forgotten the goodest parts so to speak. I can say that if she could write about something more universal, it could turn out great.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Left Hand of Darkness

Can’t remember how this book turned up in our house, but we own it. It must be the mister again. I like Ursula K, although I think she can be a little uneven as a writer. Her Earthsea books are of course classic. It took me ages to read them, I didn’t get around to it until I was an adult, and then I read them all in one sweep. The differences between the first ones and the last in the series became very apparent then. The first ones are, really, better as fantasy novels, since the latter ones are more argumentative. I’d hate to use the word preachy, but I had only four hours of sleep so I will, since my brain can’t find me another word. However, I haven’t actually read a lot of her books. That becomes clear now that I’m looking at her website, and seeing the very impressive bibliography. The library probably has it all, amassed during the decades of authorship, so I’ll just have to dedicate myself. (Speaking of library, I managed to run in today after work, and wasn’t allowed to borrow a book since I had a 55 kr debt on my card for late books. Embarrassing. They’d all been returned though (my lovely husband comes through once again!), so it was just a matter of giving them what coins I had to get the debt under 50 kr, which is the magic limit. Take heed, and learn from my absentmindedness!)

Anyway, according to said bibliography The Left Hand of Darkness is also part of a series (although I’m guessing more loosely held together) – the Ekumen novels. The Ekumen is a sort of space UN of the future, that with tremendous patience sends emissaries to non-member planets, to establish some form of peaceful relationship, simply for knowledge really. They only send one, because one alien will not be seen as an invasion. Enter Genly Ai, a (probably black) human who has come to the planet Winter, or Gethen, as an emissary of the Ekumen, a planet curious in that the inhabitants have no gender, and that it should really be too cold to sustain life. It is almost always winter. Only when Gethenians are “in heat”, in kemmer, which occurs on a cyclical basis, do they develop full-grown genitalia. But this kemmer-induced gender is not static. One person can both father children and give birth to them during a lifetime. The planet has two main large countries, one a traditional monarchy ruled by despotic and insane royals, who nevertheless give their subjects a lot of personal freedom compared to the other, a Soviet-type modern state that appears open and forward-thinking – until you’re sent to a prison camp, naked. Genly Ai unwittingly becomes a political pawn, and ends up depending on the only person he was sure he couldn’t trust.

Ms Le Guin wrote the novel expressly to explore the subject of gender and duality. Is gender necessary? What happens if there is no gender, if we’re not ruled by our gender roles? If they become meaningless? Gethenians cry freely, but can be tough too. In my opinion the novel has become rather dated in its handling of the subject. Genly Ai thinks too much like a human of the 1960s, which jars a little when we’re supposed to imagine him in a completely different time. He talks about his masculine pride being wounded, whereas I can already see that men are coming away from such notions. So those weren’t my favourite bits. But that aside, it’s quite a marvellous, different secondary universe Le Guin has created here. I really must read the book again some time, I think I missed lots. It’s surprisingly dense, and doesn’t explain much – preferring to throw you right into the story. My favourite type of fantasy/sci fi!

And here’s the baby, so the end for now….

Friday, May 09, 2008

Jasper Fforde: First Among Sequels

The latest in the Thursday Next series, a series I’ve had great pleasure from. Now,we’re not in the eighties any more. Thursday and Landon are long married, with three children. Thursday no longer works with the Literary Detectives, since most of Spec Ops has been dismantled. She still works at Jurisfiction however, and her carpet laying business is a front for covert Spec Ops work with former colleagues – not to mention her cheese-smuggling side income. None of this is known to Landon though. Now, people seem to be reading fewer books, which puts the Book World at risk, and the Goliath Corporation seem to be up to something. And Thursday’s and Landon’s firstborn, Friday, is not looking as though he means to fulfil his destiny of heading the Time Police.

Nice blurb eh? All from memory. Go me.

I got a tad tired of this one, to be honest. There are too many puns and Bookworld jokes, and just not enough story. The Nursery Crime series looks like the better one at the moment – shame, because I love Thursday Next as a heroine. Love.

Jasper Fforde at his best manages to combine nonsensical wit with real pathos and feeling, so his stories don't become ludicrous and merely flippant. But this one... hm. Doesn't cut it 100% at all.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Laurie R King: Touchstone

Well, this has taken a long time, hasn’t it? I just haven’t found the time, and also I’ve naturally been suffering from my standard achievement anxiety – you know, the anxiety that has been not insignificantly instrumental in hindering my writing of my law thesis. Essay. Whatever, the paper that would provide me with a paper saying “yay, she graduated”. I sort of felt like the utter specialness of not only the novel per se but even more the fact that I won it and it is signed by Laurie King to ME warranted something extra special blog-wise, something so clever and well-thought out that I really should have laughed at myself then and there and just written something already, Jesus. I now brought my laptop to work so I could write on the train (on the train was the plan. Sadly, Minimus decided that if I was getting up at six, so was he, and he didn’t want me to leave, so yada yada yada, I missed the train, and I’m on the bus instead and I’m not comfortable. And the noise, dear God the noise. How do bus drivers stick it, I really don’t know. I love trains. Commuting by train is a pleasure by comparison, a veritable treat.).

So, enough of the Livejournal-esque rants – Touchstone. *rubs hands with glee* This is a stand-alone novel, and I previously very much enjoyed Laurie’s stand-alones, I think especially Folly. Also, it’s very good for me, as a reader, to be forced to break free of the tyranny of a series and the characters therein. One does become a little too obsessed and stale I think. What can become true of the writer certainly can become true of the reader.

The story centres on Harry Stuyvesant, an American FBI agent – except not FBI, the other agency that preceded the FBI, the name of which escapes me at the moment, and I’m writing on the train (yes, the train now, because I had to keep going next trip) without the book at hand and no interwebz – who arrives in England to hunt for a bomber, a terrorist. His agenda is personal, so while he claims to be in England on official business, in reality it’s only semi-official. Harry’s search introduces him to an unpleasant man who operates in the background of British Intelligence, and he in turn directs Harry to a survivor of WW1, a shelling victim whose near-death experience has left him hyperaware of his surroundings, so aware it seems he can read minds. Our unpleasant Intelligence operative, Carstairs, covets this Bennet and his ability, to the point where he is almost blinded to everything else.

The idea of a person whose war experiences have left him supersensitive did, at first, strike me as more than a little naff, to be honest, and I blame that horrible tv series about the Vietnam veteran. You know, he’s developed superhearing and supersight in the jungle, and now he fights crime in that other jungle, the big city. And whenever he hears something four blocks away the camera sort of does this zoom-pan out-zoom-pan out thing that is really silly. As naff as Bionic Woman (or Man), the original. However, Laurie is a good enough writer to carry it off. Bennet is not naff. Actually. Nevertheless, I am not 100% happy with that theme, because I never really get into it as a main theme. The whole book is named after Bennet after all (the Touchstone), but somehow he never seems to really be the centre of things. Hm. But I am very tired and sleep-deprived, so I may be talking out of my arse.

The research is thorough, the writing is fluid, and I’m kept guessing about the culprit until the end (well done!). Nevertheless I found myself not completely riveted, and I’ve tried to think about why that might be. Possibly I expected something different, pure and simple, and was distracted from enjoying the book by those expectations.

Also, the book strikes me as a comment on current affairs in a sense (I think it sort of is, if I remember Laurie’s blog entries correctly, but again, I may well be mistaken), as it focuses on terrorism, bombings, what makes a terrorist and so on. Here, the terrorist is fuelled by the ideas of Anarchism. And since it is (a current-affairs-comment), I sometimes feel it slips into being just a tad too contemporary. There was a turn of phrase here or there that niggled at me.

However, I haven’t yet read a Laurie King I hated, and this certainly is no exception. Plus it’s SIGNED, which would make it a fave no matter what... I should take a photo. Maybe when I become a responsible adult.