Redemption without Messiah (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union)

January 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Harper Collins, 2007), but it helps. Michael Chabon has blended a police procedural into an alternative universe where the Arabs pushed the Jews out of the promised land in 1948 resulting in 3 million of them migrating to a narrow strip of land in Alaska. However, the land grant was temporary and with only two months to go before the Jews have to vacate, Meyer Landsman, a police detective who is living off of Slivowitz in a seedy hotel won’t let the murder of a young heroin addict go uninvestigated despite explicit instructions to drop the case by his ex-wife boss.

Chabon’s inventive history and heavy use of Yiddish terms — some of which he invented for this book — will be tough sledding for some readers. Those willing to suspend their disbelief and learn that a noz is a cop and a shoyfer a cell phone, however, will be repaid with the luxury of Chabon’s inventive imagery, imaginative plotting and ingenious insights into the human condition.

Alternative histories are not uncommon these days. Harry Turtledove is perhaps the best known writer of this genre, but Chabon also leans on Philip K. Dick, Murray Leinster and Harry Harrison. Chabon’s world has a direct bearing on the plot as readers discover when his murder investigation ties into the Chassidic longing for coming of the Messiah and secular Jews desire to recapture their lost homeland.

At its core, despite the fictional setting and ethnic flavor of the plot and characters, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is about people trying to do the right thing in a world conspiring against them. Detective Landsman works to forget the son he and his wife aborted which ended their marriage as well as the fact that he sees himself as having been a disappointment to his father. His half-cousin and partner Berko hasn’t seen his father in years and the dead heroin addict so disappointed his rabbi father than he buried him in a religious ceremony many years before the young man’s actual death.

But in addition to the complex plot and the down-to-earth characters, Chabon invites us to see a world where there are shtekeleh (Philipino doughnuts), latke (rookie policemen), boundary mavens, shtarkers and tohubohu, where the “winter sky of southeastern Alaska is a Talmud of gray; an inexhaustible commentary on a Torah of rain clouds and dying light,” where “Landman’s congratulations are so ironic that they are heartfelt, and they are so heartfelt that they can only come off as insincere,” where Landman’s ex “accepts a compliment as if it’s a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken,” and where “every generation loses the messiah it has failed to deserve.”

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is about redemption of the kind that you don’t have to be Jewish to long for.

Everything Happens on Telegraph Avenue

January 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

In one sense, not a lot happens in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. In fact, you could summarize the plot in a sentence or two. (I won’t give it away.) But, on another level, Telegraph Avenue is the center of our cultural universe circa 2010.

Narrowly viewed, Telegraph Avenue presents a cultural history of Oakland CA over the past half century — beginning with the migration of Blacks from the South into California during the second world war through the present time when big box stores, Gen X/Y/Z consciousness and hip hop quake the landscape. In the midst, as the chronicler of changing tastes and values, stands the entertainment industry (primarily music, but also film). Entertainment — where it originates, how it is transmitted, who benefits and what happens to those who try to ride the wave–is one of the truly American industries. Entertainment is a window into our collective soul, a measure of how we’re coping and a record of our successes and failures.

Selling used vinyl (records to the lay person) from a storefront is how Archy Stallings and his white Jewish partner Nat Jaffe try to support their families, while their wives struggle with the more down-to-earth challenges as midwives to Oakland’s new age mothers-to-be. But big box competition threatens the guys’ livelihood and the strains of family history coupled with the perils of trying to make a difference by providing counter-culture healthcare threaten domestic tranquility. In Michael Chabon’s hands that’s all that’s needed to serve as the backdrop to portrarying life in America.

Parenting, making a living, the Man, kids, race, local politics, death, business, gender and soul. Chabon throws them all into the blender creating a drink that only he could devise. The result will leave you hungry for his next concoction.

Everything Happens on Telegraph Avenue

January 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

In one sense, not a lot happens in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. In fact, you could summarize the plot in a sentence or two. (I won’t give it away.) But, on another level, Telegraph Avenue is the center of our cultural universe circa 2010.

Narrowly viewed, Telegraph Avenue presents a cultural history of Oakland CA (and hence the USofA) over the past half century — beginning with the migration of Blacks from the South into California during the second world war through the present time when big box stores, Gen X/Y/Z consciousness and hip hop quake the landscape. In the midst, as the chronicler of changing tastes and values, stands the entertainment industry (primarily music, but also film). Entertainment — where it originates, how it is transmitted, who benefits and what happens to those who try to ride the wave–is one of the truly American industries. Entertainment is a window into our collective soul, a measure of how we’re coping and a record of our successes and failures.

Selling used vinyl (records to the lay person) from a storefront is how Archy Stallings and his white Jewish partner Nat Jaffe try to support their families, while their wives struggle with the more down-to-earth challenges as midwives to Oakland’s new age mothers-to-be. But big box competition threatens the guys’ livelihood and the strains of family history coupled with the perils of trying to make a difference by providing counter-culture healthcare threaten domestic tranquility. In Michael Chabon’s hands that’s all that’s needed to serve as the backdrop to portrarying life in America.

Parenting, making a living, the Man, kids, race, local politics, death, business, gender and soul. Chabon throws them all into the blender creating a drink that only he could devise. The result will leave you hungery for his next concoction.

It Made the Grade

December 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

…for one reviewer at least.

Making the Grade, my police procedural starring a female protagonist, earned a very positive review recently by an Australian book reviewer.

Here’s what he wrote:

“Ever wondered what it is like to be a rooky police detective? What if you were the first woman detective on staff? What if your first case was a no breaks murder by a bona fide psychopath? Shannon Lynch is on her first day of duty as a detective and she immediately feels that her new workmates don’t really trust her and wont until she proves herself. She knows this is a serious job and she is determined to meet the standards. Her new boss, Lieutenant Keller, says he at first will not appoint Shannon to a partner, but attach her to two other detectives, Al Joiner and Chuck Miles, to basically just observe. Shannon is not impressed and Joiner and Miles’ reception of her leaves her even more peeved. Peter Pollak has written a novel that grips the reader right from the start guiding them through the working of a case that takes the police to standard and not so standard territory.

“This is a `hard boiled’ police yarn ideal for any reader wanting to be entertained. While Pollak’s approach to police work is standard, giving us some idea of the routine of a police job, the events are hardly standard and are narrated in an exciting style. Pollak surprises us, shocks us and keeps us on tenterhooks. Most of the book is written from Shannon’s point of view, however, at key points we also see into the lives and thoughts of other characters. This gives variety and depth.

“From the start we gain a liking for Shannon and in time we come to understand Joiner and Miles. These characters ring true and are well crafted. While the style is `hard boiled’ we still feel that Shannon and her partners, and even the perpetrator are real. They are not in any way larger than life. Shannon slowly evolves over time developing into a more complex view of her work and life. Joiner and Miles also change, though to a lesser extent.

“Making The Grade is chiefly about success. What is success? How do we get there? What should be our mental attitude to both success and failure? So much of modern society revolves around this issue and the topic arises early, when we are young. We may consider ourselves beyond that but we all have to take tests, keep our jobs, be accountable to our friends and family.

“Indeed a second issue is friends in trouble. Some people are pure users and others are not. How do we decide who to help and who not? Pollak does not give us any pat answers, but instead chooses to raise questions in our mind. Life is never easy to navigate.

“Closely connected to friendship is the issue of loyalty. Once again it is recognised that life is complex and there are no easy answers.

“As I have indicated the book has a lot to do with a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. Feminists will not be offended by the novel, but Pollak is not issuing standard polemics. Pollak recognises that there certainly IS a male power system, but once again life is seen to be complex. This is definitely not a cut out detective story with cut out opinion. Shannon is a feisty capable woman, but she does shed a few tears (though she certainly struggles for control with fortitude). She never was and never will be a stay at home with the kiddies `little woman’.

“Pollak has got the psychology of his novel right. Most of all this is not your standard out there over the top psycho. The killer could easily pass for any man in the street, except of course when he is in the act of actually killing someone. Martha Stout is a psychologist who is successful both as an academic and in a flourishing clinical practice and her book The Sociopath Next Door makes it clear that these people are very good at appearing normal and even helpful. Indeed a sociopath could be living next door to you and you wouldn’t even know it. Pollak’s killer certainly fits this picture. The details I have mentioned and others make it clear that the author has certainly done his research on this one.

“The law is of course an institution of society and Pollak invites some contemplation of the matter. What is the purpose of the law? The philosopher Michel Foucault has challenged the law, saying it is another power system used to manipulate the masses in such a way that ruling elites are reinforced. Would we, however, survive without it? Once we step out of our comfortable lounge room into the hustle of everyday living we may learn that life can be unpleasant, dangerous. Even the `safety’ of our homes is not an assured fact.

“Close to the discussion of the law and society is that of bureaucracy. Organizations certainly can put ridiculous restraints on people, but then again some order is needed to make systems work.

“At 255 pages this book is excellent for a weekend read on the patio. It is interesting and entertaining, with some excitement and characters that are believable. Making The Grade can be read purely as light entertainment, but also has some depth if you care to look for it. Don’t get me wrong: it is not a boring philosophic tome. All in all the book is a great read, especially for those interested in police yarns.”

If you haven’t read Making the Grade, you can find it in digital format on the Amazon website. Click here.

Signed paperback copies are available at The Book House in Albany, NY, The Open Door in Schenectady, NY, at Greetings & Readings in Hunt Valley, MD and at Mysteries on Main Street in Johnstown, NY. Mysteries will mail out copies. Links to all four stores can be found in the “where to buy” section of my website.

Unsigned copies can be found at Ukazoo Books in Towson, MD and Antigone in Tucson, AZ or ordered from the Amazon or Barnes & Noble websites.

Where is The Last Stop on Desolation Ridge?

December 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Identify the location of the photo posted on the Last Stop on Desolation Ridge page on my website and win a free autographed copy when the book is released.

Hint: The location, which is the inspiration for the title of my third novel, is in the Adirondack Park.

Last Stop on Desolation Ridge takes place in the Adirondacks and in my home town of Gloversville, New York.

Like The Expendable Man and Making the Grade, Last Stop is a page-turner.

Last Stop on Desolation Ridge –– a suspense thriller — is in the final editing stage. Watch for its release around the first of the year.

Cloud Atlas Sextet: Music to be Read

November 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

I haven’t seen the movie version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but he gave the film makers a vote of confidence (Translating ‘Cloud Atlas’ Into the Language of Film) recently, so it’s on my must see list.

Cloud Atlas has been out since 2004; so many of you will have read it. The purpose of this review is to urge the rest of you to do so.

It’s not an easy book, but don’t be put off. A little effort–and Mitchell doesn’t demand as much as many modern authors–will reward you with hours of pleasure.

What makes reading Cloud Atlas challenging is that Mitchell chronicles the lives of his characters in their own words and that he does so in six stories nested like a Russian matryoshka doll. The stories are also nested in time, moving from the early 19th century through the Pacific journal of an American notary, Adam Ewing, through the correspondence of Robert Frobisher, an Englishman whose legacy is the Cloud Atlas Sextet and who read Ewing’s Journal, through the muckracking journalism of Luisa Rey whose main source is Frobisher’s correspondent, through the ordeal of her British publisher Timothy Cavendish, into the future with the “orison” of Sonmi-451–a clone living in the 21st century equivalent of a Brave New World and Zachry the Brave, a young survivor on post-cataclysmic Hawaii.

Sounds confusing, but does it ever work! Don’t put off reading Cloud Atlas before or after you see the movie.

Geraldine Brooks stars at National Book Festival

September 25, 2012 § 2 Comments

I was fortunate to be in the audience at the fiction tent at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Saturday Sept. 22 to hear Geraldine Brooks talk about Caleb’s Crossing and her writing career. Brooks is becoming, if she hasn’t already become, one of the literary stars of the 21st century.

I empathize with Brooks having begun her writing career at the bottom of the newspaper ladder covering racing in her native Australia. It reminded me of my start on the Oberlin Review producing the entire sports page by interviewing the coaches after their events. I learned to write varied prose, lay out the page, fit headlines into the allocated space and even proof-read upside down and backwards, which you had to do with hot type in the days before offset.

Brooks appreciation of getting the facts is readily apparent in her fiction. Caleb’s Crossing is testimony to the extent to which she researched life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony at the end of the 17th century. Since there are few surviving documents, Brooks had to use all of her reporting skills to find relevant information about topics as varied as the early days of Harvard College, about the proselytizing missionaries who settled on Martha’s Vineyard, about the native Wampanaugh and about how people made a life in the wilderness.

I loved her answers to the young would-be writers who asked her how she deals with writers block and how does she know when she’s done enough research.

She doesn’t get writers’ block she said because of her journalism background. There is no such thing when you’re on deadline and the editor is standing behind you tearing sheets out of your typewriter. In terms of research, she reports she only does the research when she needs it. In other words, instead of spending months obtaining all kinds of information, much of which she might never use, she stops writing and does the research when she needs answers in order to move on. I wish I’d taken that approach when working on my Ph.D. I would have finished six months sooner.

I heard two other fine writers on Saturday–Patricia Cornwall and Steven Millhauser. Cornwall impressed me with her sense of humor and humility. I’ve never read any of her books, but the next time I see one at the next library used book sale I visit, I’ll pick it up. I’d never heard of Millhauser, but he seems to be my kind of writer. I bought his latest book of short stories and will add his novel Martin Dressler to my to-be-read list.

All in all the National Book Festival is an amazing event, attended by thousands. The organizers kept things moving, had lots of volunteers available, etc. My only request would be to allow more food vendors to set up on the margins of the mall. Maybe I’ll see some of you there next year.