Sandi's Reviews > The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
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Sep 03, 08

bookshelves: 2008, cross-genre, hugo-nominees-2008
Read in September, 2008

I picked up a copy of “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon purely out of curiosity. This novel was nominated for, and won, the prestigious Hugo Award. The Hugo Award is for outstanding science fiction and I have never seen “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” on the science fiction/fantasy bookshelves in any bookstore. It’s only been in the mainstream fiction section. Now that I’ve read it, I still don’t understand how it won the Hugo. True, it is an alternate history; but it’s a socio-political alternate history rather than a technological one. Any differences in science and technology due to the events that veer off from real history aren’t covered in the course of this novel. In addition to it not being science fiction, I’m surprised it won the Hugo because it’s really not that good. I know that saying this book is not good, or is merely okay is heresy, but I’m saying it.

My problems with this book stem mainly from the semantics and the fragmented storytelling. I liked that Chabon implemented Yiddish into the telling of the story. I liked that he used sentence structure that mimicked Hebrew/Yiddish sentence structure. I thought the use of present tense was unusual and interesting. I know that in Hebrew, present tense is often used in storytelling to make it more immediate. What I disliked about the semantics of this novel was they way it went back and forth between present tense and past tense. I figured out that the present tense was used when the story was focusing on Landsman and what he was doing. The past tense was used for telling about things that were happening. That sounds pretty straightforward, but it isn’t. There were a few times when Chabon would be telling about something that happened to Landsman in past tense then pick up on the present and switch to present tense. The tense would change from one paragraph to the next.

Now, just the fact that I was analyzing verb tenses should tell you how tedious I found the story. It had so much potential. The murder mystery was a good one. Landsman had a lot of potential as a protagonist. The alternate history of millions of Jews being relocated to Alaska in 1948 because of the failure of the Jewish state in Israel was intriguing. The impending reversion of the Jewish territory to the United States and the uncertainty of what would happen to the Jews in Sitka added dramatic tension. However, none of the individual element gelled into a compelling narrative. It seemed like a lot of great ideas strung together with no real connection. The language had the potential to enhance the story, but ended up detracting from it. The characters seemed to be two-dimensional symbols rather than three-dimensional people. The author would go of on expository tangents that had nothing to do with the story. Towards the end, solutions to different aspects of the mystery came out of the blue. A heretofore-unseen character would show up and hand Landsman and the reader a huge piece of the puzzle, no deduction necessary.

For me, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” was a book that had a heck of a lot of potential and a lot of great ideas. It just failed to put it all together in a way that was compelling and/or comprehensible.
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Lori (Hellian) I disagree with you completely, but great review nonetheless! :)


Sandi Thanks, Lori. I try to be really articulate when I don't like something that's really popular. I really don't think it was a truly awful book. A truly awful book would have received one star and ended up, unfinished, on my tossers shelf. My opinion may have been clouded by my mood, my attention span, or the atypical humidity we're experiencing.


message 3: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Where are the stars??? I need to see the stars.


Sandi Sorry, I added them.


message 5: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Thanks, I couldn't tell if you liked it or not from your review alone.


message 6: by Lisa (last edited Oct 11, 2008 02:06PM) (new) - added it

Lisa Vegan Sandi, This one remains on my to-read list. Despite your terrific review. Despite the fact that I couldn't stand his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and that I liked Summerland but the his writing style I found difficult even though it worked for that fable of a book.

I'm so frustrated with him because he writes stories that should be of great interest to me, but I have such a hard time with his style.



grace bartlett this is pretty much exactly how i felt about the book. though i never even noticed the tense changes. I did however find it tediuos and non-compelling. However, in the end i did have to finish the story


Brooke This is similar to how I'm feeling roughly 100 pages in. I don't think I'm disliking it as much as feeling very ambivalent about it. Based on all the element I really should like it, but it does feel very tedious and I'm not in any hurry to pick it back up.

I'm trying to read all the Hugo and Nebula nominees, so I'll see it through, but I'm not sure it's going to be any fun.


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