Sunday, November 09, 2008

Book On Tape: Oy, Alaska!

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon, Harper Audio, Read by Peter Riegert, 2007

In an alternate universe, homicide detective Meyer Landsman has to deal with a shooting at his fleabag hotel. The victim is a junkie, who left behind a chessboard, an assumed name, and big mystery as to the hows and whys of his demise. The detective, hotel, and dead junkie, however, are all in Federal District of Sitka, which for sixty years has been the temporary home of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust in Europe. The timer is about to run out, dumping the Jews of Sitka, including Detective Landsman, back into the Diaspora. What the dead junkie has to with the Reversion of Sitka and the fate of the Alaskan Jews is the heart of the novel.

This is at its heart a detective novel, and as such it plays by detective novel rules. It spins it way through a number of suspects and clues, reaches an apex, then winds its way back through the suspects to the one ultimately responsible, learning in the process the whys and wherefores. And like a good detective novel, it is also about redemption, both for the victim and for the investigator - Meyer Landsman has to understand the victim, as well as deal with his own lack of faith and his own past failures in unspooling the crime.

This is also an alternate history novel, and as such to stops (almost lurches) at the point that it identifies the point where the everything goes that different direction. In this case it is death of Anthony Dimond, who in our world successfully fought against the plan to create a homeland in Alaska (in our world, the plan didn't have a lot of support among the American Jewish Community, either, and FDR never mentioned it in public). But at this point in the book, the demands of the alternate world novel (to explain the divergence) intrude on the demands of the detective genre, and you get the feeling of two genres passing each other like trains in the night. Its the one rocky part in the novel for me.

Lastly, it is Chabon novel, and while I have only read Kavalier and Clay, I note that both have the sense of family within them, in particular the relationship of a distant cousin from another culture. For Union, the cousin is Meyer's partner, who is also his half-Tlngit cousin, Berko Shemets. And Meyer's new boss, in the waning days of the FD of Sitka, is his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish. So there are all the connections from the story, and all the connections of the story before the story begins.

The books on tape are well-presented, but the length of the cuts is too long, particularly for a mystery. Sometimes you have to back up to catch what a clue from earlier, and while a simple thing for a book, inevitably it will be five minutes earlier on the disk. Peter Riegert is a good reader for this, and while it helps to be able to tell a schlemiel from a schmuck, context will help for most of the goyim.

The book itself won the Hugo for best SF Novel this year, which begs the question - what is Science Fiction? It definitely is an award-winning book, but does it break genre or merely exist outside it? I've mentioned this to a couple other writers, and got the response "It happens in an alternate world". But doesn't all fiction, whether it is Sherlock Holmes or Cthulhu or Tom Sawyer? Aren't these all alternate worlds? How broad is must the definition of SF be in order to include this but exclude anything else?

In the meantime, its a worthwhile listen, and an excellent book. Check it out.

More later,