Thursday, March 28, 2013

Reading Report: March 2013

I know reading reports bore some of you-- my pageviews always go way down.  So here is the non-book news for those of you who skip this one:  We're headed out for spring break tomorrow (which is why this is going up before the end of the month), so have a great week without me.  We're driving to Southern Utah and hiking around the rocks.  If you think I sound somewhat less than enthused, you're right. I'm trying to keep an open mind. I'll take pictures and let you know how it goes.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  Loved, loved, loved this book.  Seriously:  read it.  It's a heartbreaker-- two hyper-intelligent, snarky teens with cancer find each other and slowly, believably fall in love.  But they have cancer.  You know it's not going to end well.  Even though it has some sad moments, it's funny and clever and still manages to be joyously life-affirming.  Beautifully done, and I wish I could carry Hazel and Augustus around in my pocket.   

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.  If you're interested in computers and technology (and I am), this is an interesting book.  San Francisco is overrun with DHS (Dept of Homeland Security) agents after terrorists blow up the Bay Bridge.  The solution ends up being worse than the problem--in the name of "protecting" the U.S. from terrorism, they end up treating everyone like terrorists.  San Francisco turns into a police state.  Doctorow likes to teach (and preach), so it often reads more like a textbook on internet security, cryptography, first amendment rights, and the history of protest movements than a novel.  There is definitely a story--there are teenage protagonists who bring down the bad guys.  And it's clever enough that you don't mind the lectures.  Much.  But I did start to skim after awhile, I'll confess--partly because I've read a fair amount about this topic in non-fiction so I didn't feel like I needed the info-dump.

The rest of this post is about The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon.  You've been warned.  For some reason his writing stirs up my brain, even when it's a quasi-detective novel.

I love Chabon. I feel a great deal of affinity for his writing, even though I'm pretty sure from various things I've read about him and his wife that I wouldn't care for him if I were to meet him in person.  At least part of that affinity is because he has a religion (Judaism) that grounds him and helps define who he is, yet he is very willing to reinterpret it, topple it over, turn it inside out, and otherwise chew on it to find out how it works.  He has no patience with sacred cows, but you wouldn't write an entire novel about a fictional Jewish community, a novel that's so steeped in Jewishness that as a non-Jewish reader, it's occasionally difficult to figure out what's happening, unless you found profound inspiration in the religion of your youth.

Yiddish Policeman’s Union (YPU) is a murder mystery, there’s no doubt about that—a man calling himself Emanual Lasker has been murdered by a gunshot through the back of his head, and the mystery of who did it and why is unraveled by two police detectives, Meyer Landsman and Berko Shmetz. If you want to just find out who murdered Emanual Lasker, you can do that, but your task will be made more difficult because YPU is also an alternative history, a newish sub-genre of historical fiction.  All historical fiction takes a particular period of time and imagines a story within those confines, but alternative history takes a particular moment in history, changes it, and then imagines how history would have unfolded differently.  What if the South won the Civil War?  What if the Germans won World War II?
In YPU, Chabon imagines what would have happened if the Jews had been forcibly expelled from Jerusalem in 1948, and two or three million of them had ended up in Sitka, Alaska--an idea that was apparently actually proposed by FDR just before WWII.  If you’re like me, with a sort of vague understanding of major historical events compounded by a sieve-like brain incapable of retaining details, topped off with an obsessive need to understand what you’re reading about, it can nearly drive you to distraction to read alternative history. I keep getting tripped up by the need to know what parts of the story are "real" and what parts are made up.

But I know enough history to know that there is no Jewish colony in Alaska and in that, at least, we are firmly in the realm of Chabon’s imagination.  Then he starts naming streets and parks after famous Jews (real? made-up?) and he creates a history that has happened since 1948 that contains some real people and some not.  The whole thing must be full of insider jokes, sly humorous references to Jewish history and culture that I’m not getting, and it irritates me.

But that's pretty minor once you get past the first 60 pages or so.  Once the story really gets underway, it's a good one.  Landsman has been slowly fading away since his divorce, carried along by Shmetz, his half-Tlingit, half-Jewish cousin.  The Jewish colony has always been temporary, and it is only a matter of a few months until they will lose their homes again.  The powers that be bring in a new supervisor to make sure all their open cases get cleaned up before Sitka gets handed back over to the state of Alaska, and the new supervisor is Landsman's ex-wife.  And then the murdered man turns out to be the son of a prominent Orthodox Jew.  There's plenty of stuff to think about:  marriage, divorce, abortion, faith and belief, home and homelessness, miracles and crimes.

Chabon is a verbal genius.  It’s his gift and also his downfall.  He plays with words like they are bright shiny objects he can juggle, sending them spinning into the air until their movement blurs their outlines into what appears to be a web of substance, of meaning (that tricky word that we are no longer allowed to use).  YPU is often jaw-droppingly beautiful writing.  But on the downside, it often feels like he is trying too hard.  He probably knows he’s a virtuoso with language, so he seems to feel the need to stuff every paragraph with startling images, surprising metaphors.

As a reader, it’s exhausting.  Eventually, after all the endless, complicated setup that an alternative history requires, you just want to read.  You don’t want to get tripped up by verbal gymnastics that may be brilliant, but slow down the story.  You don’t want to stop in the middle of a chase scene (where Landsman is running through the woods practically naked being chased by bad men in an ATV) to marvel at the “scrotal” pair of propane tanks that have absolutely no bearing on anything.  They’re just there so that Chabon can remind us that he is a genius at riffing on words.  Or at least that’s how it feels.  I started to resent it after awhile.  Just knock off the verbal pyrotechnics and tell the damn story, I wanted to yell at him.

And the ending.  I’m sure if I’d gone back and re-read all the cryptic conversations that Landsman has in the last 50 pages, I would have been able to figure it out.  But by that point, I just didn’t care enough to go back and ferret out all the details.  I got the main parts of it.  They solved the crime in front of them.  But which deal was the one they couldn’t believe they made?  Was it the one with Litvak? Or Cashdollar? Or Mrs. Shpelman? Did they make one with Uncle Hertz?
So, yeah, the end was too complicated, and I was too ready to be done with the book to bother with figuring it out.   But, unlike That Book from last month that I ended up wishing I hadn’t read, even though this isn't Chabon’s best work and I thought the ending was dumb (because it made me feel dumb), I’m still glad I read this one.  There are several parts of it that moved me--the relationship between Landsman and his ex-wife, the dead man's history--and that made me think.  And when I wasn't annoyed with the verbal gymnastics, I was in awe at the writing.  Not to mention that there are several laugh-out-loud moments.  Can’t ask for more than that from a detective novel.  Recommended, with reservations-- if you like Chabon (but if you do, you’ve probably already read it), or if you enjoy alternate histories.

I just found out he has a new one that came out a few months ago.  And I still haven't read Kavalier and Clay.  When I find a good author, I spread the books out so I can look forward to them. :-)


  1. Great wrap-up! You tell the stories of the stories so very well.

    Also, yeah..... me and Utah. Kinda like me and Texas, I have an irrational dislike for the cliches they stand for, and tend to cringe when I even hear them mentioned. So, my assvice will be to micro-enjoy. Look at tiny things, and appreciate that aspect. Also, ya know, family time!

    1. Had to pull out my laptop to reply to this, coudln't get it to work on my phone. "micro-enjoy" is pure genius. Love that. We're still in Wyoming at the moment so can't comment on Utah yet. I'll let you know.

  2. I hope the rock hiking went well and you found at least a few things to micro-enjoy. (Wonderful word, Julie!)
    Totally agree with you on The Fault in their Stars. John Green totally rocks in many ways. Look him up on YouTube if you ever have some free time.
    I couldn't finish YPU. The writing annoyed me and I couldn't summon up any liking for any of the characters and it all just seemed like way too much work instead of enjoyable. So I quit.
    I've been re-reading series as I just haven't wanted to introduce anything new right now - so far it's been Lois McMaster Bujold (The Curse of Chalion, etc.), Dana Stabenow, and Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series. I would highly recommend the LMB books, especially the second - Paladin of Souls, as an interesting contemplation of religion along with great writing, great characters and very good plotting. It's fantasy though, so if that's not your cup of tea, be forewarned. Also, read Laurie King's Folly. It's fabulous.

    1. I thought of your daughter when I picked up Fault in Our Stars-- I think you mentioned that she loves Green. Thanks for the YouTube tip, I think I knew about his videos, but I'd never really gotten around to listening to any of them. He and his brother are great! And agreed on YPU-- I didn't really commit to reading it until I got to about page 65 and they were carrying a fungal couch out of their temporary office space, for some reason that hooked me in. Not that I'm trying to convince you to go finish it. I did love his ideas about what messiah means-- which he never directly addresses (thank god at least he never preaches) but still it was interesting to me.

      I'm also a re-reader, and especially when I'm stressed. It's like a flannel blankie or something to pick up a book that I know I love and re-read it. Loved Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls, but haven't made it to the 3rd one yet. I'll track down Laurie King, you've recommended her before but I haven't tried her yet.

  3. "Eventually, after all the endless, complicated setup that an alternative history requires, you just want to read." - Anything Fantasy can be like that, so I admire the authors who can draw you into the story and just dribble out the Unknowns at an appropriate pace.

    1. yes, exactly. It is a true gift. When I was 10-15 or so, I LOVED books where you had to read the first 50 pages or so before you could figure out what was going on (which was pretty much all SciFi and fantasy) but I don't have the patience for it very often anymore. Has to be a REALLY good writer.

  4. Great list! And I always love your reading lists, even if I'm late to the party. :)

    1. Thanks, Delia! And you can be as late as you want since I'm pretty chronically late, too. :-) Just got back from vacay late last night and haven't even started on laundry yet.