Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

I'm devoting a whole blog to this, because it was a most unusual book, with wonderful language full of metaphor and sentences I sometimes read twice over. Stop now if you don't want to come across some plot spoilers.

My family didn’t speak Yiddish, but words filtered through, and I was surprised at how much I could recognise. Nevertheless, I still had to guess at some words, just as I did with A Clockwork Orange. and, in fact, as I do with any references I don’t understand, for example when it comes to chess, which is as much a mystery to me as Yiddish might be to others.

One of the reading circle compared it to Shakespeare - that is to say, stopping to clarify every word spoils it, whereas reading on and getting the idea is, in my view, (and in his view) a much better way to read it. However, another of our group did say that he investigated a number of the points, on the Internet, in order to understand.

I like to be able to empathise with a character, and I very soon became very comfortable with Meyer, the world weary copy and his partner, Berko. Plot is normally important to me too, and this case, I sometimes got lost in the plot. But by the time I’d finished, I felt it wasn’t all that important for me to understand it, because the journey itself was enjoyable. I very much liked Michael Chabon’s language (English, that is), in spite of the excessive use of 4-letter words - and found myself laughing frequently. He has a wonderful way with words.

Because I read it twice, I did understand it more second time around, and notice that Chabon cleverly puts in a lot of seemingly irrelevant details, which are actually important after all. For example the potential coming of the Messiah, which is crucial to the plot is mentioned in the second chapter.

The Plot:

In a parallel universe, during the Second World War, about 3 million Jews were rescued from Europe and given shelter in Alaska. After the Middle East war in 1947-8, which Israel did not win, these displaced Jews were granted a temporary home, for sixty years, in Sitka, Alaska. The occupants speak Yiddish with occasional American

Now it’s 2006, and the lease is coming to an end. Orthodox sects want to return to the Holy Land, and a plot is constructed by a right wing American government. With their backing, the Verbover sect, who are orthodox Jews, but nevertheless a criminal organisation, are involved in a plot to genetically engineer a red heifer, which will convince other Jews, by virtue of biblical text, that this is a portent of the coming of the Messiah and that they should return to Israel. The Verbovers are also involved in a further plot, led by a ex army commander, to dynamite the Dome of the Rock. This will prompt an invasion of the middle east, help to distract the Jews of Sitka from the end of their lease, and encourage them to return to Israel, themselves.

This is all funded by the government, who have promised the land back to the original Alaskan population, when the Jews go, and who are assisting in creating a conflict in the middle east, either for religious reasons, or for oil, or for some other reason we don’t understand.

Mendel Shpilman, alias Emanual Lasker (a famous chess player,) a man who can perform miracles, is selected to be the reluctant Messiah. He finds himself pushed into a corner, from which there is seemingly no escape.

Detective Meyer Lasssman, a broken man since the death of his sister and divorce from his wife, needs to solve the case, and finds it much more complex than the death of one man. Although I got lost in the plot, I felt that, in the end, it is Meyer’s personal story that needs to be resolved satisfactorily, and to me it was.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Seein a novel through different eyes

Everything’s falling apart at the moment. Apart from bits of me below the equator, upon which I will not elaborate, I paid my second visit to Orthoptics on Friday. I was fifteen minutes early and as I settled down in the waiting area, surrounded by children’s books and toys (because normally squints are problems which occur when you are a child), I had nothing to allay boredom. I went to the receptionist and asked if she had some scrap paper, and before I could explain my purpose, she gave me an oblong piece about 4” x 6”. I couldn’t write a novel, but I might just squeeze on a blog.

When I eventually saw the orthoptician (at least, I suppose that’s what she’s called), having filled one side of my paper, we talked again about the possibility of an operation to shorten a muscle in one eye. This hopefully would reduce the effect of double vision, which I increasingly get, even when I have not been imbibing. It would not be a major operation, unlike the other one on the horizon, and it seems like a sensible thing to do. I need to programme it in, somewhere, where it will not affect the other events in the diary.

The previous night, at the book circle, we discussed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – my suggestion, following my son’s recommendation to me. I originally bought it for him for his birthday, having seen a review which sang its praises in Writers’ News. Because of the snow in January, we had two book discussions rolled into one. The result of this was to demonstrate how different people want different things from books. In both cases, some people loved the book, whilst others couldn’t get into it, or in one case, didn’t finish it (in the case of Note from an Exhibition.)

I normally want a plot in a book, and I missed it in Notes. I normally want to empathise with the characters, and yet despite being in all the viewpoints in Notes, I eventually found myself with an empathy overload. I couldn’t care about all these characters. The opposite was true of Yiddish Policeman. We were more or less exclusively in one viewpoint, that of Meyer Landsman, and I cared what happened to him, to his wife, to his partner, Berko, and his wife – I cared because I loved his wise-cracking voice and the knowledge of his pain. As for the plot, it was so complicated, I read the book twice, in order to make a presentation to the book circle, but before I had finished, first time around, I had already realised I was enjoying the book because of the language, (including some of Yiddish which I understood,) not necessarily the frequent use of 4-letter words, but the English – the use of metaphor and the descriptions, as well as the humour. It is very rare for me to enjoy a book because of the style, but this time, I did. It made me aware of my own plain writing style and, whereas I’ve sometimes read a book and thought, mine’s as good as this, on this occasion, I thought – I could never write like this – with much regret.

I might do a more detailed review later on. Shortly I am expecting the ProdigalD and family. It is some time since we last saw them, and I am looking forward to seeing my newest granddaughter, who is now five months old, as well as big sister.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

No prizes for rambling

The last couple of weeks have allowed me to escape from the originally snow-bound prison, much more. We have even seen some sunshine, which has allowed us to reside in a fool’s paradise, since I hear that yet more snow is forecast in the coming week.

However, during the last couple of weeks, I have been to a regular meeting at Guildford Writers, during which I read a first draft of part of my latest story. The lack of enthusiasm sent me back to the drawing board, and I’ve rewritten it a further three times, each time allowing a day’s grace, to look at it afresh. I think it’s improved now, and will take it once again on this coming Tuesday, when the intrepid travellers returned from India (Irene and Jennifer) will hopefully be in attendance again, with tales of their holiday.

Other social events included a visit from bro-in-law, a visit to the OM’s aunt, last Sunday, and a wedding, yesterday, to Eltham Palace, not far from Greenwich, the childhood home of king Henry VIII, although, to quote from the website, all that remains of the vast original palace is the Great Hall, which is where the ceremony and dinner took place.

In the 1930s, the remains of
Eltham Palace were bought by the wealthy artistic couple Stephen and Virginia Courtauld, who designed and built a mansion in art deco style at the site that incorporated the Great Hall. We took a tour around the building, which added an extra dimension to the wedding of our young friends – the groom, known to us since he was a year old baby, just a month older than our daughter. We didn’t get to bed till past 1.00 a. m., so are somewhat shattered today.

With the other Goldenford members home again, we carried out a presentation at Bramley Library for one of their two reading circles, at which we were made very welcome, and were happy to sell copies of our books to them. Because two meetings had to be condensed into one, as a previous one had been postponed because of the January weather, we kept our talk to a mere ten minutes each, and in this were far more restrained than the host, groom and others during the wedding speeches. Speeches, like articles, I feel, should be edited and all ramblings excluded. We have another Bramley talk in a few weeks, though we may be a little more self indulgent, with another five minutes each, to play with.

My copy of Writers’ News arrived during the week, with a piece about Irene, in it, and also a surprise for me, in that a letter I sent, criticising the way Amazon deals with small and mid-list publishers, was their ‘Star Letter’. I look forward to receiving from the a copy of Writers’ Market 2010, as my prize. Needless to say, it was carefully written and reread before being sent off. Spontaneity doesn’t always win prizes.