Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Rate this book
For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage—and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.

At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.
(front flap)

414 pages, Hardcover

First published May 1, 2007

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Michael Chabon

168 books8,185 followers
Michael Chabon (b. 1963) is an acclaimed and bestselling author whose works include the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). Chabon achieved literary fame at age twenty-four with his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), which was a major critical and commercial success. He then published Wonder Boys (1995), another bestseller, which was made into a film starring Michael Douglas. One of America’s most distinctive voices, Chabon has been called “a magical prose stylist” by the New York Times Book Review, and is known for his lively writing, nostalgia for bygone modes of storytelling, and deep empathy for the human predicament.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
17,888 (23%)
4 stars
29,517 (39%)
3 stars
19,415 (25%)
2 stars
6,131 (8%)
1 star
2,666 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,558 reviews
Profile Image for Anne.
80 reviews95 followers
June 3, 2007
"I don't care what is written," Meyer Landsman says. "I don't care what supposedly got promised to some sandal-wearing idiot whose claim to fame is that he was ready to cut his own son's throat for the sake of a hare-brained idea. I don't care about red heifers and patriarchs and locusts. A bunch of old bones in the sand. My homeland is in my hat. It's in my ex-wife's tote bag."

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is one of those rare, rare novels of ideas that is also character-driven, and the people of this book are warm-blooded and quirky; they do not stand for ideologies, and this is no morality play. Chabon manages to write a top-notch piece of mystery-detective-novel-noir that simulatenously parodies and celebrates the genre. The plot is a page-turning thrill, and his prose throughout is gorgeous -- suitably hard-boiled to give his nozzes clout, ripe with metaphors (pastiche or fresh), always delicious enough to taste Literary. This is speculative fiction that makes you feel, not just think: Will Meyer and Bina reunite? Will Meyer ever be OK? What did it feel like to be blessed by Mendel Shpliman, to play chess with him?

And of course Chabon's book makes you think. It's full of Big Questions... What would have happened if countries had -- however reluctantly -- opened their doors to European Jews during WWII, sparing 4 of the 6 million killed? If Zionists had botched things in Israel and instead found themselves in Alaska, disputing land with Native Americans, dreaming up terrorist plots to win back the holy land? Characters and readers alike must wonder, can a people who have been driven from place to place, who have been massacred and betrayed, who are desperate...can they make good moral choices? Can they choose to live by the book, "the book," or any book at all?

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is about horrible things done to and by Jews, to and by people all over the world. It's about entitlement and destitution. In ways both obvious and subtle, it examines the Problem of Israel, the real one we face, and America's role in it -- the dangers of fundamentalism, of a "Jewish" state, of the lack of one, of the pain of believing in nothing and the stain of believing in anything. It cracks open the possibility that we do not and cannot understand everything around us. While the story is painful and the outlook for the characters often grim, Chabon helps us believe in miracles, blessings...even the crumbs of salvation. They taste, I think he'd tell us, like a shtekeleh.*

*an Alaskan-Jewish Filipino-style Chinese doughnut
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,221 followers
September 23, 2017
This would make my short list for the most overwritten novel I’ve ever read. It’s Michael Chabon so of course there are some fabulous lines. But at times I felt like I was reading Thomas Pynchon or Nabokov fan fiction. Several times I was on the point of abandoning it but annoyingly Chabon would suddenly bring all his considerable talents as a storyteller to the table and produce a great chapter. Problem was, that was almost always followed by another five rambling overwritten ones.

It reminded me in ways of Jonathon Safran Foer’s last book, which is essentially a small-canvassed novel about the breakup of a marriage but given monumental import by inventing an apocalyptic war in Israel as a backdrop. This too is essentially about the break-up of a marriage and this too reinvents history to up the stakes. Such vast world changing premises, often used in science fiction, are an effective device for heightening expectation, promising untold revelations but there usually arrives a moment when you realise what you’re reading is just another story about a man and a woman who can’t get on any more. Maybe though that’s clever as all good storytelling is essentially about raising expectation. It didn’t though seem especially clever here because my expectations were quickly punctured by all the grandiose overwriting.

A tactic he uses is to often describe the insignificant in terms of something infinitely more significant through high voltage overwrought similes, so the everyday has a kind of bogus epic sweep to it. Again maybe this is clever as the novel has at its heart on the one hand an existence of thrift and on the other a belief in transfiguration symbolised by a Messiah character. But for me it came across as someone indulging in the kind of fun that gets out of hand.

It’s also about a murder and I’m guessing pastiches or high fives famous noir writers like Chandler and Hammett.

There’s lots of talk of the great American novel but I wonder if, behind the scenes, there isn’t also a kind of competition to write the great Jewish novel. Interestingly, Nicole Krauss in her new novel alludes indirectly to the existence of such pressures. I suspect you’re much more likely to enjoy Chabon’s novel if you’re Jewish because if you’re not it’s often like eavesdropping on family jokes as an outsider. For me it had an elitist strain running through it which I didn’t like. Writers surely should be intent on breaking down barriers, not reinforcing them, no matter how playfully.
March 27, 2022
An alternative history novel with a dark setting, a language one could endlessly use for interpretation, to debate about, and a monument of not giving up while protecting oneself with cynicism and Jewish humor at its best.

Unique style some may find too heavy and exhausting to read
The language is amazing, I guess that there are huge differences between the English and German version and that it´s close to impossible for the poor translator to find the right equivalents, as the language is so loaded with hidden meanings that it might be close to impossible to lose nothing in translation, get something wrong, or destroy the required effect. Or, also very possible, that there is simply no equivalent in other languages, because the historical and cultural context is needed to get a deeper meaning out of it.

Maybe bring some interest in the topic, foreknowledge, or sheer nerdiness along for this read.
I guess the more foreknowledge someone has in cases of books like this one, the more she/he can enjoy reading it, finding all those pearls, innuendos, and connotations, laughing more, and feeling prouder about each hidden treasure one has found as a manifestation of smartness. It feels to me as if books that use this technique always have something special, mysterious, and subtle, normal literature doesn´t make one feel like that while reading, that even if one doesn´t understand much of the deeper meaning, just like me, duh, one intuitively feels that there is so much more than just what the eye can see. And there is always the reread option.

Criticism on a very high, subtle level.
I understand some of the more obvious criticism of US politics and religion, but one would have to know much about North American, European, and especially Jewish history, tradition, and culture to have the ultimate enjoyment. That´s probably the reason why many understandably can´t get comfortable with the work, as it´s no easy read and could have been much more successful by explaining more of the context, adding references, footnotes, an appendix, or trying to be both profound and understandable. I loved some passages, but got frustrated a few further pages, because I knew that there was something above my horizon, then again a great part, a true emotional roller coaster.

Entering or leaving…
Should I read more of this author or not, it´s difficult as it isn´t the average comedy and satire writing, (except for his work https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3... that seems to be outstanding regarding the great ratings) more something close to being a bit of a downer and exhausting to read too, but because of a lack of literature like that, I might possibly give it a try.

Tropes show how literature is conceptualized and created and which mixture of elements makes works and genres unique:
Profile Image for Lyn.
1,882 reviews16.6k followers
March 17, 2019
Oy vey!

Michael Chabon’s 2007 novel is about as original an alternative history as can be imagined: Israel collapsed in 1948 and a section of Alaska has been set aside for an extended Jewish territory. Within this setup, Chabon then goes on to tell a fun whodunit.


Like the best of Tom Wolfe’s writing, Chabon’s descriptive language and inventive style sets this apart from other alternate history books about Jews in Alaska. While the mystery can drag at times and this was longer than I would have liked, what kept me going was the way in which the author told his story. Chabon’s mastery of the narrative style, blending crime noir with Jewish cultural and sociological allusions, and also throwing in enough of the Native American Alaskan references to be freaky, this was a fun schlep.

While there is plenty of Woody Allenesque kvetshing to please the stereotypical sensibilities, Chabon’s dialogue and characterization are first rate. Chabon is such a wonderful mensch, should we not enjoy it?

Fun for tribe as well as the goyim, it’s an Alaskan Chagiga!


Profile Image for Manny.
Author 30 books14k followers
August 13, 2009
My father's family is Polish-Jewish. My paternal grandmother was fluent in Yiddish, and whenever I see my parents they talk incessantly about Israeli politics. I must have read at least half of Isaac Bashevis Singer at one time or another. Also, I'm a chess player. I even knew the chess problem in question, and had read Nabokov's explanation in Speak, Memory of his thought processes as he constructed it.

So how would it be possible for me not to love this book? But my reasons for loving it are sufficiently unusual that I won't try to convince anyone else that they're necessarily going to feel the same way. Me and The Yiddish Policeman's Union just happen to be made for each other, and we're very happy together.

Profile Image for Megha.
79 reviews1,092 followers
February 20, 2012

When I think of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, I can picture a complacent Chabon frequently patting his own back while writing this book. If he can come up with three ornamental ways to portray one thing, he includes all three of them in the book. He seems mighty pleased with his writing and probably believes in sharing his beautiful mind with everyone. He will leave you sitting on the edge of your seat with suspense, to furnish a leisurely description of the setting before moving on. Every little thing. He will read as many details in the cracks in the wall as a palm-reader does in the lines of a hand.

Err...wait! Do I sound like I am criticizing the book? Because I don't intend to. Honestly, I enjoyed reading this a lot (apart from slightly OD-ing on the bejeweled descriptions, that is). Chabon had my attention from the word go and the story never lost momentum. The alternate history is fully realized. Chabon does lean on some convenient co-incidences here and there, but for the most part the plot is well- conceived. The dialogue is crisp and snappy.

And the characters! Whatever they do, they do with panache. It is almost as if each character has been given a role card which they are determined to follow till they are six feet under. Bina never drops her 'I am smarter than everyone else' attitude and detective Landsman performs his duty of being a full-time smart-ass with flair. A scene had people trying to shoot him, while he was running in sub zero temperature wearing only his underwear, but he refused to go down without letting fly a wisecrack or two.

All in all it was light and good fun to read.

Kavalier and Clay! I look forward to seeing you sometime.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,969 reviews1,985 followers
January 10, 2019
Rating: 4.75* of five

2019 UPDATE***Soon to be a cable TV drama!***

The Book Report: For sixty years, Jewish refugees and their descendants have prospered in the Federal District of Sitka, a "temporary" safe haven created in the wake of revelations of the Holocaust and the shocking 1948 collapse of the fledgling state of Israel. Proud, grateful, and longing to be American, the Jews of the Sitka District have created their own little world in the Alaskan panhandle, a vibrant, gritty, soulful, and complex frontier city that moves to the music of Yiddish. For sixty years they have been left alone, neglected and half-forgotten in a backwater of history. Now the District is set to revert to Alaskan control, and their dream is coming to an end: once again the tides of history threaten to sweep them up and carry them off into the unknown.

But homicide detective Meyer Landsman of the District Police has enough problems without worrying about the upcoming Reversion. His life is a shambles, his marriage a wreck, his career a disaster. He and his half-Tlingit partner, Berko Shemets, can't catch a break in any of their outstanding cases. Landsman's new supervisor is the love of his life—and also his worst nightmare. And in the cheap hotel where he has washed up, someone has just committed a murder—right under Landsman's nose. Out of habit, obligation, and a mysterious sense that it somehow offers him a shot at redeeming himself, Landsman begins to investigate the killing of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy. But when word comes down from on high that the case is to be dropped immediately, Landsman soon finds himself contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, hopefulness, evil, and salvation that are his heritage—and with the unfinished business of his marriage to Bina Gelbfish, the one person who understands his darkest fears.

At once a gripping whodunit, a love story, an homage to 1940s noir, and an exploration of the mysteries of exile and redemption, The Yiddish Policemen's Union is a novel only Michael Chabon could have written.

My Review: A small, overlooked historical tidbit...very real and true...gives rise to a what-if novel of huge impact and fascination. What if Roosevelt's half-serious proposal to resettle European Jewry in the American territory of Alaska, made in 1939, had been accepted? Millions of Jews forcibly relocated to the southern reaches of what was then virtually terra incognita...living in the world's largest, most beautiful ghetto, at the mercy of a sixty-year term lease, and an American government that (one senses) was caught flat-footed by the plan's success. The novel opens as the lease is just about to expire...and the problems that presents to the world, to the people who have built a culture...yet again! changing the whole of their known world!...that now is under order of execution. All seen through the eyes of a policeman doing his job, in spite of the fact that the laws he's enforcing are set to vanish. It's fascinating.

Superb book. Characters I could imagine living next door to, and enjoying the mishegas of their lives from a distance. A fascinating PoD for the alternate history buffs, a tiny footnote to history of a proposal that went nowhere in 1939 OTL. I felt fascinated by Chabon's exploration of this alternate history because it was never done "historically" but rather through the lives of the characters, their intertwined existences depended on *this particu;lar world* coming into being. That, ladeesngennlemun, is how it should be done.

Side note, book won the 2008 Locus Award for best novel. And deservedly so. Also won the Sidewise Award for best long-form alternative history, the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the BSFA Best Novel Award.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
651 reviews385 followers
July 8, 2023
Many years ago, after I'd finished off The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of my all-time favourites, I decided to follow up on my personal Chabon binge with The Yiddish Policeman's Union. For one reason or another, I made it about 50 pages deep and abandoned the entire book. I sat it next to its better known counterpart on a shelf where it would rest for many years. Then, suddenly, it became a book club pick and I saw it as a sign to dig in and give this book another kick at the can. Luckily, it turned out to be a very rewarding experience!

The Yiddish Policeman's Union is a major departure from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in that it is a detective story set in an alternate timeline where the Jewish populace settled in Sitka, Alaska rather than Israel following WWII. In short, this is one quirky book. It begins with a murder mystery, but quickly becomes a character study of Detective Meyer Landsman, his supporting cast, and this strange world. Sitka is fully realized and entirely believable, due to Chabon's world-building with alternate-timeline music, donut shops, neighbourhoods, and the disposition of his characters. Much has been made of Chabon's signature writing style, and he employs it here to pack readable and gorgeous packets of prose in between on-point dialogue.

Meyer Landsman, the book's lead, is a relatable and interesting character who acts as the reader's guide through the novel. Though it all starts with a man catching a bullet in the back of the head, Jewish mythology, colourful characters, and a complex conspiracy lie in the path of Landsman's case. Though the plot becomes absurd at points, it is grounded by Landsman's consistent and biting perspective, as well as Chabon's realistic descriptive passages. The mystery is also supplemented with Landsman's tangly love life, and his life's intersection points with his partner, Berko Shemets. These ingredients all make for a story with real heart, and more than a few heartwarming moments.

More than once, I thought of Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie while reading The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Both employ religion and mythology to supplement the story in a fashion that helps to develop the culture and world that their characters inhabit. Yet both novels also, in my opinion, share the same flaw: they both go into territory that becomes esoteric for those not familiar with the subject matter. While I thought Chabon handled this much more effectively than Rushdie, there were still times where I had to pause my reading to do a little research on Jewish religion or history (see the "red heifer"). Another minor gripe I had with the story is that it seemed to expand exponentially in ridiculousness as the story wore on. I'm conflicted on this, as I absolutely adored the weirdness of it all, but I also thought it seemed to be getting slightly out of control during the last 50 pages.

I'd heard from various sources that Chabon is a divisive author. While The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay seems to rock everyone's literary world, I'd heard his other books tended to turn people off, or at least thin the thick crowd of fans from Chabon's Pulitzer-winning novel. I'm very happy I read The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and I'll be sure to try more Chabon in the future. The novel is complex, beautifully written, compelling, quirky, and more often than not, a hilarious read. My gripes above are relatively minor, and while not all The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay fans may enjoy the novel, it is certainly worth a shake.
Profile Image for Lena.
Author 1 book348 followers
March 18, 2009
When I first heard about this novel, I found its premise too fascinating to resist: it's a noir-inspired murder mystery set in an alternate universe in which refugees from the failed state of Israel are living in a section of Alaska temporarily loaned to them by the US government. At the beginning of Chabon's novel, their lease on this land is about to expire, signs of the messiah's imminent arrival are accumulating, and a dead man has inconveniently turned up in the fleabag hotel of broken down detective Meyer Landsman.

The narrative revolves around Landsman's quest to solve this murder despite growing evidence that there are quite a few people who would strongly prefer he mind his own business. The story is a complex one, the basic murder mystery woven through with issues of religion and race, politics and love, loss and redemption.

Despite the intriguing premise, it took me quite some time to get into this novel. Though I felt a certain amount of detached pity for Landsman, I simply didn't find him involving enough as a character to really care that much about him. It wasn't until the identity of the dead man was revealed that I really felt myself begin to get invested in just where this story was going. Unfortunately, that didn't occur until 100-plus pages in.

Chabon's writing may have contributed to my difficulty engaging with this story. Though he is clearly a highly creative prose stylist, there were times when he shifted between past and present in a way I found very confusing. In addition, he would go on such long expositional passages between brief lines of dialogue that I would forgot what the main thread of the conversation was about and have to go back and re-read. Perhaps this is all very literary, but quirks like these repeatedly took me out of the story.

Despite those problems, I did enjoy this novel in a detached sort of way. I found the themes it explored and the way it explored them intellectually interesting. But it just didn't grab me emotionally as much as I expected it to from the premise. I think my taste and Chabon's style are perhaps not the best match.
Profile Image for Melki.
6,026 reviews2,387 followers
February 26, 2020
The corpse with the extra hole in his head may turn out to be the least of Detective Meyer Landsman's problems. His ex-wife is now his boss (professionally, this time around), and she's just handed him a tall stack of file folders full of cold cases she wants him to solve. A dark Alaska winter is creeping in, and Landsman is sinking deeper into a shady mess that reeks of conspiracy and long kept secrets.

There's no denying it . . . Chabon plays well with words; crafting sentences of such loveliness, you go back and read them again and again, committing them to memory, and savoring them later.

He feels like he suffers from tinnitus of the soul.

See what I mean? That's yummy!

Or take for instance, this tender scene where an injured Landsman accidentally winds up sharing a bed with his partner's two young sons:

. . . the Shemets boys set up a whistling and rumbling and blatting of inner valves that would shame the grand pipe organ of Temple Emanu-El. The boys execute a series of maneuvers, a kung fu of slumber, that drives Landsman to the very limit of the bed. They chop at Landsman, stab him with their toes, grunt and mutter. They masticate the fiber of their dreams. Around dawn, something very bad happens in the baby's diaper. It's the worst night that Landsman has ever spent on a mattress, and that is saying a good deal.

Say it with me now . . . They masticate the fiber of their dreams.

I'm pretty sure I'd sell my soul to be able to write like this guy.
Profile Image for Sandi.
510 reviews279 followers
September 3, 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.
Profile Image for Deidra.
31 reviews4 followers
October 18, 2007
Had a pretty lengthy review, which was deleted when I made the mistake of changing the shelf. Yeah, I don't get it either.

Long story short: I still don't get why Michael Chabon is supposed to be one of the great writers of the 21st century. "Wonder Boys" was an enjoyable read. Nothing life-changing, but smart, fast, and chock full of quirky characters.

"Kavalier & Clay"....not so good. I am a fan of the comics industry, and I have to say the beginning describing it's birth had me riveted. And then the characters' hardships begin. And then they continue. And keep going. The depressing acts were so unrelenting that it started to border on the melodramatic, one long dirge on the suffering and pain humanity inflicts on itself.

Now "The Yiddish Policemen's Union". I have to admit that I only made it through about 3/4 of this book. See, Chabon seems to have done the same thing all over again: taken an interesting, original concept and then populated it with contrived, formulaic plot lines and tired characters. Example: A mystery set in an alternate reality where the Jewish population has been relocated to Alaska after the atrocities of WWII. Sounds good, right? Well, it would be if he didn't just drag out the tired old noir cliches: the alcoholic, loner detective on a destructive downward spiral who won't give up the case; his family-man, responsible partner, there to pull him from the messes he makes; his estranged ex-wife who he still loves. Give me a break. I couldn't get enough of an investment in these characters to actually care where the plot was going.

There are some interesting scenes and it's obvious Chabon is well-educated in the areas of Jewish ritual and history. But even with a couple of unforseen twists, it wasn't enough to keep me reading.

Also, as a sidenote: I have to say the book jacket for this edition is one of the most obnoxious I've ever seen. Could his name get any bigger? The entire spine of the book is taken up with "PULITZER PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR" which completely overshadows the actual TITLE of the book. I know Chabon had nothing to do with this design, but it's pretty bad.

Profile Image for Chloe.
350 reviews552 followers
January 24, 2009
This is a book that I didn't want to read. Once I actually acquired a copy it sat mouldering on my shelves for over a year before I got to it. Having only read Kavalier & Clay and having been only mildly whelmed by it, it didn't call to me at all. Then, madness of madnesses, it was not only nominated for, but won the Hugo Award, even when stacked up against such brilliant scifi writers as Ian McDonald and Charles Stross. Upset doesn't begin to describe my reaction. How dare this dabbler in genre fiction, already with a Pulitzer under his belt, swoop in and steal this award (and accolades) from more-deserving authors struggling to break through that glass ceiling that genre writers toil beneath? It wasn't even true SciFi! The only fantastic element is that it's an alternate history type of story! To say that I was predisposed to hate this book is an understatement. I wanted to loathe this book, write a scathing review, inspire mass riots and book bannings. This affront to Science Fiction could not stand!

Imagine my surprise, then, when within the first 50 pages I was so deeply sucked in that I almost missed my connecting flight. The next 100 flew by so quickly that I didn't notice when the plane had even landed until everyone around me began standing up. The book was just that engrossing. Still, it's not Science Fiction.

Imagine, if you will, a world where Israel has yet to be established. Sure, there was a push for it after WWII, but the Arab nations made good on Amadinejad's oft-stated threat to "push the Jews back into the sea." So once again landless and reviled (apparently there were no Truth and Reconciliation committees) the scattered Jews turned to the Americans who offered them a 60 year lease on several ice-blasted scraps of islands up in Alaska. You can't help but think that it's a return to Shtetl living at its finest.

Once settled in Sitka the Jews go about solidifying their holdings, building up a major metropolis, dealing with the displaced Tlingit tribes (you'd think a group of people who had been chased from one corner of the world to the other would have more compassion for oppressed peoples), and quashing the militant zionists in their midst. All goes well for nearly six decades, until the time for Reversion comes. Then everything hits the fan.

Meyer Landsman is a washed-up disgrace of a policeman pulling a Leaving Las Vegas in a fleabag hotel until one of the other boarders is found in his room with a bullet in the back of his skull. For whatever reason, Landsman takes personal offense at this and begins investigating, against the direct orders of his new boss, his ex-wife with whom he shares a guilt-ridden past. Along the way he ventures deep into the heart of the very insular and very Orthodox crimes families that may or may not be planning for Civil War, into the frozen wastes of Alaska, and deep beneath the city itself.

To say that I was captivated is an understatement. This book grabbed me and would not let me go. This was no crisply polished apple of a story. It is dirty, it stinks of spoiled plum brandy and poor quality tobacco and it's falling apart from years of abuse. In other words, it hits my literary G Spot just right. Chabon mixes just the right blend of tradition, corruption, history and the eccentricities of a people who, reviled for no good reason throughout the world, have turned so insular and secretive that they no longer know themselves. I would be kicking myself for waiting so long to read this book, were it not for the fact that I finally got to enjoy it now and am still basking in the heady afterglow. But, still, it's not Science Fiction. Hugo selection committee, take note.
Profile Image for Kersplebedeb.
147 reviews87 followers
June 21, 2008
Imagine a crazy world in which, following the Holocaust, Jewish survivors languished in DP camps in Europe, were often still barred or discouraged from immigrating to the various "democracies", and found themselves pushed into emigrating to the Middle East where, through a variety of historical coincidences, they founded a new society based on dispossessing the indigenous Arabs and acting as imperialism's pit bulls in the region.

That's the crazy world we do live in.

In many ways, Michael Chabon's humourous Jewish hard boiled detective alternate history seems much more realistic than what actually happened in our world. In The Yiddish Policemen's Union there is no Israel; instead we are introduced to the Jewish ghetto in Alaska, where Jewish refugees from the Holocaust have been allowed to live for sixty years, a transplanted bit of an Ashkenazi old Europe which in our world simply did not survive the twentieth century. But the lease is up, and in a matter of months the Jews of Sitka will be expelled, to where we
(and they) do not know.

Against this backdrop our alcoholic, suicidal, failure of a protagonist, Meyer Landsman, starts by following the trail of a dead junkie, found shot execution style in the very building he uses as an excuse for home.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union works on three levels.

First, the writing is great if you can stand it - reading other reviews, i note about one in four cannot - highly descriptive in a way which makes you laugh and makes you wince, sprinkled with Yiddishisms and saturated in the oddest of metaphors and similes (i.e. a carpet the color of a throat lozenge, a nipple like a pink lentil). Plus, it's all written in such an over-the-top Chandleresque style that really it feels, and for me worked, as a parody. Which is how that kind of noir writing works best for me, so i was happy.

Second, i liked the plot. It works on a personal level, on the level of the who-dunnit, and on a make-believe geopolitical level which meshes in with the whole alternate reality SF thing of introducing us to a world that does not really exist.

Last but not least, and also growing out of the alternate history/SF thing, it's a novel of ideas, specifically of the idea of what homeland means, what it provides and what it does not provide. Chabon focusses what many facile anti-zionists ignore, the question of what would it have meant to the post-Holocaust Jewish remnant if the zionist invasion of Palestine had not succeeded. It's not an easy question to ponder, and asking it could serve as an excuse for a lot of cheapshot bad politics, which to his credit Chabon doesn't engage in.


This is really subtle background noise right up until the last part of the book, where it suddenly becomes front and center as a our pathetic protagonist learns that the murder he has been investigating is in fact tied in with his own sister's death, and the people behind both are in fact an alliance of Jewish gangsters and fundamentalists working hand in glove with Christian fundamentalists in the usa to engineer a zionist invasion of Palestine sixty years after it happened in our world. In it's own way, Chabon's "alternate history" is folding itself back into our own all-too familiar one.

i think any honest reading of this book has to see it as soft anti-zionist, from a Jewish perspective. By which i mean, zionism is obviously not Chabon's cup of tea, and his protagonist rejects it as being incompatible with his own life and identity, all the while remaining sympathetic to the dynamics which can make it seem appealing.

It seems the Coen brothers are to make a movie out of this book. Simply because of the writing style, they'll have to take some liberties with the book, and i'm curious if they'll take the opportunity to erase or cover up this critical slant on zionism, with its obvious implications in the real, and really crazy, world we do live in today.

At the same time, Chabon's use of Alaska as a location for his alternate-world Jewish Pale is a useful reminder that the question of settlerism is neither specific to Jews nor to the Middle East. The relationship between the Tlingit and the Jews of Alaska is read by many reviewers as a watered down metaphor for Israeli-Palestinian relations, but i find it works far better on its own, as a reminder that settler Alaska is also a colonial society, all about taking land away from the original inhabitants. You know, you don't need to go to the Middle East to be a settler.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
874 reviews2,260 followers
November 23, 2020
Strange Times to be a Jew

So the yid is a shammes named Meyer Landsman. He lives and works in an alternative history version of Alaska, the Federal District of Sitka, to be precise.

The city of Sitka is home to 3.2 million inhabitants, most of whom are Jews (or descendents of Jews), “the Frozen Chosen”, who fled the collapsed state of Israel after it lost the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Like Hong Kong in 1997, Sitka is reverting to the control of the State of Alaska on 1 January, 2007:

“Nothing is clear about the upcoming Reversion, and that is why these are strange times to be a Jew.”

Return to the Camel Lands

Landsman has lived in the seedy Hotel Zamenhof since being divorced from his wife, Bina Gelbfish (another noz, who was promoted to be his superior, when the previous incumbent handed in his badge and skipped to Melbourne, Australia), and is summoned by the night manager (Tenenboym) when he discovers that the occupant of room 208 has been shot in the back of the head.

“The start is a dead junkie in my hotel.” He was a yid calling himself Emanuel Lasker, the name of a famous chess player (now, twice deceased). However, it soon becomes apparent that he was the prodigal son of a rebbe, who some thought was the Tzaddick Ha-Dor (a Messiah born into every generation, who could return the Jews to Jerusalem and the promised land [“the camel lands”]).

The murder is described as a “crime committed against a man who found himself left with no good moves at all,” in chess terms, a “Zugzwang”.

Reversionary Tactics

Chabon uses the imminence of the Reversion to establish an urgent timeframe within which to solve the murder mystery - after the Reversion, all of the Jewish nozzes will be replaced by Americans, so both Landsman and Bina will be out of a job and powerless to solve the crime:

“None of you yids is even going to be a policeman two months from now.”

As a result, the plot is propelled along like a hotted up seaplane or a rocket ship (“it’s like a proof of the physics of his foolishness, the inescapable momentum of his own bad luck”).

The story seems to tell itself, despite the fact that Landsman is supposed to be a crazy, erratic loose cannon with alcohol problems (his favourite drop is slivovitz, a plum brandy sourced from Romania).

Yiddish Homeland

The novel is packed with corrupt Americans, pious gangsters, Russian shtarkers, shlemiels, shlossers, shtekelehs, shtinkers, sheygets, shoyfers, shkotzim and patzers. (We’re meant to infer that Yiddish is the spoken language in Sitka. Occasionally, it’s mentioned that someone said something insulting or profane “in flawless American”.)

Landsman himself is “a dealer in entropy and a disbeliever by trade and inclination. To Landsman, heaven is kitsch, God a word, and the soul, at most, the charge on your battery.” (Not a bad definition of atheism!):

“Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realise that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss. That is part of the policeman’s job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor.”

There’s a nice sexual tension between Landsman and Bina, who “plays by the book” in contrast to Landsberg’s hunches (“Fuck what is written”). A mutual acquaintance observes:

“She spoke more highly of you than I would have imagined.”

Alaskan Vineland

The original Yids are “former partisans, the resisters, Communist gunmen, left-Zionist saboteurs - the rabble, as they were styled in the newspapers of the south.”

The underlying politics and conspiracy theories of the novel reminded me a little of Pynchon’s “Vineland”:

“The Bureau first recruited him [Hertz] in the fifties to fight Communists and the Yiddish Left, which, though fractious, was strong, hardened, embittered, suspicious of Americans, and, in the case of the former Israelis, not especially grateful to be here...Hertz wiped them out. He fed the socialists to the Communists, and the Stalinists to the Trotskyites, and the Hebrew Zionists to the Yiddish Zionists, and when feeding time was over, he wiped the mouths of those still standing and fed them to each other. Starting in the late sixties, Hertz was turned loose on the nascent radical movement among the Tinglit [Indians], and in time he pulled its teeth and claws, too.”

Telling a Story, Cashdollar

The writing style is perfectly hard-boiled Chandleresque (one character is reading a “Yiddish translation of Chandler… [and a] French biography of Duchamp”), with delightful Yiddish rhythms, Nabokovian chess metaphors and a touch of conspiracy theory a la Thomas Pynchon. But most importantly, Chabon is a consummate story-teller. Indeed, it’s implied at several points that detection itself is analogous to story-telling:

“She can shape them [cases] with confidence into narratives that hold together and make sense. She does not solve cases so much as tell the stories of them.”

“‘We are telling a story, Cashdollar. That’s what we do...That’s all the poor suckers want.’ Only he didn’t say ‘suckers’...

“We are part of the story. You. Me…

“I know enough about Landsman here - fuck, I know enough about homicide detectives period - to know that...this is not about finding out the truth. It’s not about getting the story right. Because you and I, we know, gentlemen, that the story is whatever we decide it is, and however nice and neat we make it, in the end a story is never going to make a damn bit of difference to the dead. What you want, Landsman, is to pay those fuckers back.”

Yiddish Noir

It’s difficult to pass off the novel as a work of post- modernism beyond the appropriation of genre conventions and stylings, but there are occasional meta- elements to it:

“To the southwest a full moon was setting early, sharp-edged and gray, looking like a high-resolution black-and-white photograph of itself pasted to the sky.”

This is classic story-telling graced by noir humour, insight and affection.

Profile Image for Cassy.
250 reviews730 followers
April 12, 2022
1. Chess
2. Police investigations
3. Judaism
4. Alaska

I don’t know much about any of these topics. Which meant from page one, it was going to be an uphill battle for Chabon to interest/teach me.

And he lost the battle.

Now that I have finished the book, I have negative (literary) interest in most of these topics. My curiosity about life in Alaska remains mostly intact. Yet once it was used in the set-up, the cold tundra was tossed aside and rarely impacted the story.

To his credit, Chabon put up a good fight. I can understand how he won a Pulitzer Prize for his other book. Chabon is a good writer and created a truly brooding mood.

It may just be that the plot was predestined to fail with me. (If you are wondering why I read this book in the first place, there weren’t many options at the library that day.) But isn’t it an author’s job to make a topic reasonably interesting? I thought I’d be able to grasp onto something, anything.

Plus I had a hard time keeping all the names and events straight. You can blame this on a combination of listening to the audiobook while driving and, once again, the fact that I just didn’t care.
Profile Image for Jacob Overmark.
206 reviews9 followers
October 21, 2017
There are not less than 36 tzaddikim/righteous persons in the world who receive the Shekhinah/the Divine Presence
-- Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b

There is a person born each generation with the potential to become Messiah, if the Jewish people warrant his coming. This candidate is known as the Tzadik Ha-Dor, meaning Tzaddik of the Generation.

Sitka, Baranof Island, Alaska. Home to some 2 million Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews, resettled here during the late 30-ties and early 40-ties, fleeing the Nazis in Europe. This is the interim Promised Land.

They come in all shapes and colors, and from all layers of society, the good, the bad and the ugly, and a few good men. Black felt hats, full beards, long sidelocks. They work in all lines of jobs, they are doctors, traders, housewifes, public service employees, Rabbis, carpenters and motor repair men and then there is the Kosher Nostra or Undzer Shtik.

Landsman is the hard-boiled type. The Marlowe of his generation, except he is official, carrying badge and sidearm and proud to serve and protect. Divorced, drinking too much and prone to pick a fight, but a guy you can count on, also when you are proprietor of a cheap hotel, a hotel Landsman just happens to live in. So, one day the proprietor finds a stiff. Not so much out of the ordinary considering the kind of hotel, probably happen on regular basis if judged by the very moderate reaction from the hotel manager.

Except … this time it is quite different, we do not know who the deceased is.

The game is afoot, as another detective would have expressed it.

While we follow the leads, and try to establish an identity of the victim, a lot is going on.
Clearly “some people” will go to extraordinary lengths to hinder and prevent too much investigation into what soon turns out to be a murder case.

But these barricades only make our detective more inquisitive – and more vulnerable.

Going back through the recent history of the Sitka settlers, a pattern shows. It has to do with chess and with great expectations, broken family ties and politics and with a Messianic hope that is above everything else, except maybe organized crime ...

The Yiddish Policemen's Union is both crime and thriller.

The storyline is a bit flawed here and there with a few shortcuts, but well written and you will probably feel you are on a wild goose chase for the first 100-150 pages.
Then you start getting an inkling about what is really going on, how everything just may connect after all.
The generous use of Yiddish wordings is a bit annoying, but you get used to it after a while.

The true beauty is in the background Michael Chabon created.
There is a Jewish community in Sitka, and a quite strong one. However, they did not arrive in the years around WW2 and in Fairbanks they actively voiced a no-go to the petition from European Jews to settle in Alaska, deeming the many poor people “unfit to fit into society without being a burden”.

This is a what-if-history-had-been-different?

If so, it might very well have turned out like Michael Chabon describes it. A society so different from its surroundings, a parallel world and a parallel Jerusalem.
Heavily laden with Jewish symbolism, it is not just a book about a murder case, it is also a book about what happens when a group of people follow their dreams to the extreme.

3½ stars for storyline, 4 stars for the idea.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 24 books1,323 followers
October 21, 2009
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

Is Michael Chabon possibly our nation's greatest living writer? Oh, wait, I already know the answer to that rhetorical question -- yes, yes he is. And that's because, more than almost anyone else working today, Chabon has the ability to elegantly enfold the elements of literature most revered by academes with the elements most sought by the beach-and-airport crowd -- or in other words, he is able to find a magically perfect balance in his books between an exciting plot, deep character development, and a sophisticated personal style, and by "magically perfect" I mean that it's almost impossible to determine how exactly he pulls it off, even when you're sitting there actually reading the book in question. And so it is that Chabon is one of the few authors in America right now to have novels that regularly receive prestigious award nominations (and in fact even a Pulitzer win once, for 2000's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) even while being hugely popular bestsellers at the same time.

Take for example 2006's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, which I recently got a chance to read through the new "Netflix for books" service BookSwim.com (from whom I recently received a complimentary two-month membership, in exchange for writing about my experience here after it's over; that write-up will be coming in early December), a book so insanely popular that I've been searching for vain for a spare copy within the Chicago Public Library system for two entire years now. And that's ironic, because the book is in actuality a science-fictiony "alternate history" tale, and in fact is one of the few books in history to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards in the same year, the two most prestigious awards in SF and with highly competitive committees that are loathe to give it to the same book -- turns out that in Chabon's fictional universe, World War Two wasn't actually won until 1946, a much harder fight than what happened in real life (in his version, for example, Germany actually beats the Soviet Union), and that only ended after the US dropping a series of atomic bombs on Berlin. As a result, then, the very real Jewish experiment in establishing a unified Israeli nation in those same years was in his universe a dismal failure, due to the US's backing military support being so diverted by the war; prompted by liberals in Congress, then, as a conciliatory gesture the US establishes a new federal district in a large stretch of southern Alaska just for Jewish refugees (something actually contemplated in real life, which was the main inspiration behind this entire book), which over the decades swells into a major metropolitan area of over three million, comprising Jews from all over the world and of every persuasion, from mystics to militants and everything in between.

Whew, yeah, I know! And in fact, apart from the actual storyline itself, a major reason for this book existing is simply for Chabon to create a convincingly complex history for this "Sitka" that never was, using the incidental passages of this 400-page novel to leak out a massively complicated timeline: from the first generation of Mid-Century Modernist "Polar Bear" settlers, promised a fertile farmland paradise by Interior Secretary Harold Ickes as an enticement to move there in the first place, just to discover upon arriving a half-frozen wasteland and hostile Indian natives; to the World's Fair the district hosts in 1977, considered by most to be Sitka's cultural height; to the establishment of the "Jewish mafia," a particularly hardass clan of rural Russians known as the Verbovers (or slangily as simply "the black hats"), almost extinguished as an ethnic group during the war and with them never forgetting this fact; al the way up to the early 2000s of our story, with Chabon presenting us a crumbling, past-its-prime Sitka, just waiting out its last few months before officially reverting back to Alaskan territory (and with all three million residents getting kicked out at that point, and with no one quite sure where they're all going to go), with more and more of these soon-to-be exiles turning these days into trigger-happy Zionists, convinced that the Great Reversion of 2008 is a sign from God that it's time for them to march right back into the Holy Land and try taking over Jerusalem again, whether the Muslims currently there f-cking like it or not.

And let's face it, that just this alone would've made for a fine book, although one probably with only a limited appeal among mere genre enthusiasts, but this is where Chabon is truly brilliant -- because in reality, everything I've just described serves as background dressing only to the murder mystery making up the actual main plotline of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. And not just any murder mystery either, but a noir murder mystery, full of wisecracking alcoholic detectives and tough-as-nails dames, dangerously close-lipped gangsters and all the rest; in fact, Chabon has gone on record in the past about this, confessing that he meant this novel to partly be an homage to such pulp-fiction writers as Raymond Chandler and the like. And the reason this is brilliant is because an environment like this surprisingly turns out to be perfect for telling a noirish pulp-fiction story; because believe me, you've never heard sparkling rat-a-tat dialogue until you've heard it from the mouths of a couple of bitter, Yiddish-speaking Jews. It's the element that really earns Chabon his chops, and what elevates him way past the usual genre author; because while most writers would be exhausted merely from the effort of putting together this fantastically original and complex history of a frozen Holy Land tucked away in the Arctic Circle, Chabon himself essentially starts over from scratch at this point and instead asks, "Okay, now what can I actually do with this environment I've created?"

And this isn't even the end of the inventiveness; because on top of everything else, the book turns out to have a political message too, with George Bush in Chabon's made-up universe still managing to be President in the early 2000s, despite the fantastically fictional half-century of alternative history that precedes him. Although I won't reveal any of the actual plot developments regarding the last half of the novel, let's just say that it's important to the story that Bush is President, and that by its end The Yiddish Policemen's Union turns out to be yet another early-2000s scathing indictment of the neo-fascist, superstition-obsessed times we all lived through back then; and in fact, the ending of this book is not going to be very well received either by hardline Israelis and other militant Zionists, a surprising element in a novel where nearly every single character is Jewish.

Any of these elements on their own are just fine, and alone would make for a perfectly serviceable if not eventually forgettable book; combine them all into one tale, though, and you suddenly have an explosive game-changer that will literally blow your head right off your freaking neck. This is the power of Michael Chabon, and why more and more people each year are going absolutely nuts for his work; and I admit, now that I've read three of his novels myself (the other two being the aforementioned Kavalier & Clay and his early hit Wonder Boys, adapted in 2000 by Curtis Hanson into an equally great movie starring Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire), I too am rapidly becoming one of these Chabon fanatics, and am even thinking now of reading his new book of essays regarding the struggle among perpetual-childhood Gen-X males to grow up (Manhood for Amateurs), even though the very subject usually makes me want to claw out my own f-cking eyes. As you can tell, The Yiddish Policemen's Union comes with a giant recommendation today, and now stands in my eyes as easily one of the top ten post-9/11 novels so far in history.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,565 reviews1,887 followers
August 5, 2017
It is probably my own fault that I was disappointed by this book. I heard a review of it many years ago on the radio and hunted up and down the shelves of bookshops until years later I found a paperback copy.

In my imagination I was sure that this book would be the hard-boiled love child of Isaac Babel and Raymond Chandler, witty, insightful and with its collar turned up against the rain. The title promised an array of pleasures. The slog of police union politics conducted in Yiddish, a hint of inter-police union rivalry, the ribald camaraderie shared over the mid shift bagel break.

Ah, how that book lived for me and was so vital and entertaining right up until I got home and started to read it.

I loved the details of the Jewish settlement in Alaska setting, the ritual reinterpretation to create outside areas that were part of the home so as not to breach the Sabbath, the yiddishisms, the awkward interrelationships with the indigenous population, the chess club and so on but the messiah plot never engaged me. A personal messiah would obviously be very useful but it is just not something I either believe or care about in this novel.

The temporary settlement didn't convince me either - it didn't strike me as remotely plausible that the USA were really going to turf out the settlers and return the site to nature. And what is it with this world in which dead men tell no tales that it apparently is too inconvenient for the bad guys to kill the hero but kidnapping and false imprisonment makes perfect sense? Had this been played as an affectionate wink to the woeful traditions of the genre it would have been OK, perhaps that was the intention, but it came across to me as though Chabon was serious about this. On the other hand I suppose an abrupt ending with the hero's corpse dumped somewhere in Alaska as a Christmas snack for the wildlife, fated not to be found (and then well chewed) until the spring is unlikely to catch on.

I suppose on the upside I learnt that I am not the target reader for a Chabon book, but I still feel cheated of a book about a Yiddish policemen's union. For me the setting won over the story and dragged it limply behind it, though I concede if your religious sensibilities are such that you are keen on the rebuilding of the Temple and the imminent Day of Judgement that apparently follows you may well be completely in love with this story.
Profile Image for Stuart.
722 reviews273 followers
March 26, 2017
The Yiddish Policemen's Union: Larger-than life characters overwhelm noir plot
Originally posted at Fantasy Literature
I knew I would eventually get around to this book. How can one resist? An alternate history about the US resettling European Jews to Alaska to escape the Holocaust, in a world in which Germany defeated the Soviet Union, Berlin was destroyed by nuclear weapons in 1946, and Israel was destroyed in 1948 in a different version of the Arab-Israeli War. Michael Chabon uses this setting for a hard-boiled detective noir story inspired by the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, and adds the most colorful, ironic, and over-the-top narrative voice I’ve read in years. The audiobook is narrated expertly by actor Peter Riegert, who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood outside New York and whose resume includes two years on The Sopranos. He handles the colorful literary chutzpah of Chabon’s prose without embellishment and with cool competence.

Chabon revels in all aspects of Jewish culture, both what can be viewed as stereotypes or treasured cultural traits, along with classic detective noir, alcoholic self-destructive cops, sinister and yet comical mob bosses, chess geniuses that may also be the Messiah, Native American tribes, and the cold inhospitable backdrop of the Alaskan coastline itself. It’s a very eclectic and enticing stew with different flavors battling for supremacy, and for that reason will not be to everyone’s taste, but nobody would deny is unique and memorable. There is also a copious amount of Yiddish terms that add yet another layer of flavors to an already heady concoction, so have your web glossary handy.

I won’t describe the plot in detail since others have done that already. Rather, I’d like to include some of my favorite quotes from the book, because they are frankly what gives the book its character, rather than the plot itself. In fact, while I really liked the writing most of the time, it sometimes completely overwhelmed the story. Strip out the colorful, larger-than-life character descriptions and alternate history backdrop, and the noir mystery isn’t really that memorable. So the charm is in the telling, and as far as that goes, Chabon certainly doesn’t hold back. Whether you find it incredibly brilliant, charming but overbearing, or just too much really depends on your literary preferences. I felt all three at times, so I gave it 3 stars overall. Here are some memorable passages that will help you decide if this book is for you.

The main character, detective Meyer Landsman:

“He has the memory of a convict, the balls of a fireman, and the eyesight of a housebreaker. When there is crime to fight, Landsman tears around Sitka like a man with his pant leg caught on a rocket. It's like there's a film score playing behind him, heavy on the castanets. The problem comes in the hours when he isn't working, when his thoughts start blowing out the open window of his brain like pages from the blotter. Sometimes it takes a heavy paperweight to pin them down.”

Landsman’s estranged ex-wife and fellow detective, Bina Gelbfish:

“You have to look at Jews like Bina Gelbfish, to explain the wide range and persistence of the race. Jews who carry their homes in an old cowhide bag, on the back of a camel, in the bubble of air at the center of their brains. Jews who land on their feet, hit the ground running, ride out the vicissitudes, and make the best of what falls to hand, from Egypt to Babylon, from Minsk Gubernya to the district of Sitka. Methodological, organised, persistent, resourceful, prepared... A mere re-drawing of borders, a change in governments, those things can never faze a Jewess with a good supply of hand wipes in her bag.”

The most powerful mob boss in Sitka, Alaska:

Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined desert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God.

Some hard-boiled noir description of a greasy spoon in town:

The hidden master of the Filipino-style Chinese donut is Benito Taganes, proprietor and king of the bubbling vats at Mabuhay. Mabuhay, dark, cramped, invisible from the street, stays open all night long. It drains the bars and cafes after hours, concentrates the wicked and the guilty along its chipped Formica counter, and thrums with the gossip of criminals, policemen, shtarkers and shlemiels, whores and night owls. With the fat applauding in the fryers, the exhaust fans roaring, and the boom box blasting the heartsick kundimans of Benito’s Manila childhood, the clientele makes free with their secrets. A golden mist of kosher oil hangs in the air and baffles the senses. Who could overhear with ears full of KosherFry and the wailing of Diomedes Maturan?

On the Messiah:

“But there was always a shortfall, wasn't there? Between the match that the Holy One, blessed be He, envisioned and the reality of the situation under the chuppah. Between commandment and observance, heaven and earth, husband and wife, Zion and Jew. They called that shortfall 'the world.' Only when Messiah came would the breach be closed, all separations, distinctions, and distances collapsed. Until then, thanks be unto His Name, sparks, bright sparks, might leap across the gap, as between electric poles. And we must be grateful for their momentary light.”
Profile Image for carol..
1,564 reviews8,203 followers
December 24, 2012
I would call this urban fantasy only by the skin of it's teeth. In fact, sci-fi / mystery might be most appropriate. Alternate reality very like this, except that it takes in a Jewish settlement, a carved out area of Alaska, that is going to "revert" to Alaska in the coming year. More about identity and homelands.
Profile Image for Michael.
Author 108 books93k followers
October 28, 2018
Just starting, been wanting to read this for a long time.
Profile Image for notgettingenough .
1,032 reviews1,185 followers
March 23, 2017

I just have to record some great bits of this book as I go along.

p. 13

And just last week, amid the panic and feathers of a kosher slaughterhouse on Zhitlovsky Avenue, a chicken turned on the shochet as he raised his ritual knife and announced, in Aramaic, the imminent advent of Messiah. According to the Tog, the miraculous chicken offered a number of startling predictions, though it neglected to mention the soup in which, having once more fallen silent as God Himself, it afterward featured. Even the most casual study of the record, Landsman thinks, would show that strange times to be a Jew have almost always been, as well, strange times to be a chicken.

p. 95

'"Man makes plans,"' the kid reads. '"And God laughs."'

p. 153

Landsman watches the progress of Elijah the Prophet trhough the snowstorm and plans his own death. This is a fourth strategy he has evolved to cheer himself when he's going down the drain. But of course he has to be careful not to overdo it.

p. 156

'Penguin Simkowtiz? Where?' She looks around, turning from the waist, and Landsman seizes the opportunity to peer into her shrit. He can see the freckled top of her left breast, the lace edge of her bra cup, the dark indication of her nipple against the cup. The desire floods him to run his hand inside her shirt, to hold her breast, to climb into the soft hollow there and curl up and fall asleep. When she turns back, she catches him in his dream of cleavage. Landsman feels a burn in his cheeks. 'Huh,' she says.


'Nu,' she says.
'Okay, then,' says Landsman.

If he lets he go, he will never lie in the hollow of her breast, asleep. He will never go to sleep again without the help of a handful of Nembutal or the good offices of his chopped M-39.

p. 163

'Jesus fucking Christ,' she says with that flawless hardpan accent of hers. It is an expression that always strikes Landsman as curious, or at least as something that he would pay money to see.


'Are you taking medication?'
'No, not really.'
'Not really?'
'No, I don't want to.'
'You don't want to.'
'I'm, you know. Afraid I might lose my edge.'
'That explains the drinking, then,' the doctor says. His words seem tinged with a sardonic wiff of liquorice. 'I hear it does wonders for one's edge.' He goes to the door, opens it, and an Indian noz comes in to take Landsman away. 'In my experience, Detective Landsman, if I may,' the doctor concludes his own jag, 'the people who worry about losing their edge, often they fail to see they already lost the blade a long time ago.'

Written after reading:

It occurred to me this morning as I sat curled up at the bottom of the bath and the shower kept me company, both of us weeping copious tears, most of my brain wondering about the the sorts of things I dare say everybody does who is in hell and doesn't understand why; it occurred to me that one little bit of my brain, not engaged in these rather futile activities, still wanted to do this book justice and had I? Maybe in a way.

Let me add a few points. This is as fine a hard-boiled detective novel as I've ever read and I've read hundreds. It is a book that should make all those Ursula le Guin types creating worlds and language to match hang their heads in shame. The world Chabon invents, the one where instead of taking Israel the wandering Jews are leased part of Alaska, this world is more than believable, it just is. Not for one moment would you think as you read this book that his world does not exist. Nor the language. Nor the ramifications of the one and the other. Not only that, but he makes a dull, mean, nasty world utterly enticing to the reader. Every word he puts on the page is there for a purpose and yet is a thing of joy for the reader. This is surely a writer who loves to write. (I guess you can read my review of The Dispossessed for more pontificating on this matter.)

This book is witty and intelligent without being difficult. In fact, this is the book that makes me wonder. I finished the Girl, Dragon book a few days ago and thought perhaps there is something in writing badly. That writing badly is actually writing well. But I read this book and I simply can't understand why it will attract a tiny audience compared with Larsson's.

It's got chess in it, and I'd have to say now that it is my favourite chess novel, but don't let that put you off. Yes, it will be funnier if you know a modicum of chess. But not knowing your horse from your knight will still leave you with a brilliant read.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,309 reviews120k followers
October 6, 2008
What if Israel had not come into existence in 1948 and another solution had been found, namely the USA ceding a portion of coastal Alaska for a temporary Jewish state? Now add to that a noir crime yarn set in this fictional state. What’s not to like?

Oy! This is a very slow-moving detective yarn, so slow in fact that I contemplated not finishing it. Chabon concentrates on giving family and cultural historical details in this alternate reality yarn. That becomes too much, particularly as the forward movement of the story suffers while he is establishing all the facts he wants the reader to have. He takes extreme joy in the noir patois, and that is one of the things that is fun and worthwhile about the book. In a strange way I was reminded of Thomas Hardy, in that I love Hardy’s use of language more than his plotting, and that is the case here as well. That is not to say that this book is on the level with Hardy’y works. It is not. But the fun-with-language aspect keeps it afloat long enough for the plot to kick in. There is also a wealth of yiddishisms that can be far too much for those who do not have a general familiarity. Bottom line is that I enjoyed the book in spite of itself, but would not recommend it to just anyone. It takes a certain sort of view to make this trip an enjoyable one.
Profile Image for Dana Stabenow.
Author 99 books1,951 followers
February 19, 2022
I wanted to be a good reader, I wanted to give it a good chance and not pick nits because it wasn't written by an Alaskan. But I just. couldn't. trudge. through the prose. So, yet again, I feel out of step with everyone I know, who all loved the book and demanded I read it. Sigh.
Profile Image for Rafal.
327 reviews18 followers
December 16, 2019
Świetne. Stylistycznie ta książka jest bez zarzutu. Doskonały język uwzględniający specyfikę narodowościową, profesjonalną, religijną a nawet genderową bohaterów. Świetnie poprowadzona fabuła w formie klasycznego amerykańskiego kryminału. Całość zabarwiona elementami political fiction i czarnym humorem i doskonale osadzona w środowisku, które co prawda nigdy nie istniało, ale jest bardzo wiarygodnie namalowane. Do tej pory tylko Philipa Rotha uważałem za autora umiejącego w tak wiarygodnie postmodernistyczny sposób pisać o Żydach. No to mam drugiego autora i na pewno sięgnę po kolejne jego dzieła.

Gdybym miał się zastanawiać o czym jest ta książka, to główny sens widzę w swoistej introspekcji. Zanurzenie się w środowisku i opisanie, jak funkcjonuje w ekstremalnych warunkach. To spojrzenie jest bardzo ciekawe a fakt, że chwilami jest naciągane mieści się w konwencji. Bo lekko naciągane jest niemal wszystko co dzieje się wokół głównego wątku: odradzająca się miłość głównego bohatera i jego byłej żony; działalność tajnych służb i religijnych gangów, świat opleciony siecią spisków, rozpadająca się społeczność, która jak Feniks zaczyna się już odradzać z popiołów.

Więc to zdecydowanie książka godna polecenia.
Profile Image for Steve.
943 reviews140 followers
October 20, 2020
The New York Times outdid itself touting this as "The Frozen Chosen." (If you're not familiar with Chaim Potok, that won't mean much.) Still, I'm not sure how to categorize the book, particularly given the success/acclaim it has enjoyed - and, even having read it - it doesn't "feel" like science fiction to me. Yes, yes, it's fiction, and it's better than serial detective fare, and Alaska (particularly a recreated portion of Alaska) is intriguing - particularly with the mix of natives and immigrants, and it's not your normal orthodox Jewish/black hat enclave mystery, and the Yiddish angle is kind of fun, and chess has a certain appeal, yet... yet... Well, there's a lot going on here, maybe just a little too much for me. Kudos to Chabon for keeping it all straight in his head, particularly since he had to (dramatically) change 50+ years of history to set up the story and let his scenario play out.... And, indeed the prose is impressive. Chabon is a craftsman, and this vehicle - even if it has a few too many facets - is an impressive demonstration of his proficiency with prose...
Profile Image for Fiona.
1,266 reviews229 followers
March 21, 2021
They smell of lamentation, these yids, long underwear, tobacco smoke on wet overcoats, mud. They're praying like they're going to faint, fainting like it's a kind of observance. Weeping women cling to each other and break open their throats. They aren't mourning Mendel Shpilman, they can't be. It's something else they feel has gone out of the world, the shadow of a shadow, the hope of a hope. This half-island they have come to love as home is being taken from them. They are like goldfish in a bag, about to be dumped back into the big black lake of Diaspora. But that's too much to think about. So instead, they lament the loss of a lucky break they never got, a chance that was no chance at all, a king who was never going to come in the first place, even without a jacketed slug in the brainpan.

There's something about a hopeless underdog staring down the barrel of a situation that can't be changed and charging headlong at the problem anyway, that just calls to me. It's the refusal to accept certain defeat, the slow-but-steady picking away at a mystery without a whole lot of flash and bang, a quietly stubborn persistence that just pings a particular nerve in my head. (See also: Disco Elysium and Ben Winters' Last Policeman Series).

Landsman contemplates sending down for a pint, but he takes a hot shower instead. Alcohol has failed him, the thought of food turns his stomach, and let's face it, if he was ever really going to kill himself, he would have done so long before now. So, all right, work is a joke; it remains work.

Set in a world where a few things happened differently - most central to the story, that a temporary Jewish settlement was set up in Alaska. It's temporary in the long term sense, but we find ourselves about ten weeks out from the end, and Meyer Landsman is a detective with a dead neighbour and a deadline to do anything about it.

It took a while to get into this one, as there's certainly no hand-holding from the author (though there's a glossary for the hefty sprinkling of Yiddish at the back). Google was my friend, but there's also a certain amount of wait-and-trust - most of the things that don't make sense will, sooner or later. In the meantime, thankfully, is the internet and it's vast database of context that really did help.

I still can't entirely say that I necessarily enjoyed this book - that's not quite the word. But sometimes you just need to stand over the shoulder of someone willing to shout into the darkness, even if they're fictional.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,378 reviews1,652 followers
March 31, 2020
I had no intention of ever reading this book, or probably any of Michael Chabon's books, if I'm totally honest. I don't know what it is, but they just... don't appeal to me. I know nothing about them, other than the titles and the covers I've seen (because you know that's my way) but they just don't snag my attention, and when they are put in front of my face, I'm just... meh.

But then, my friend 2.0 suggested this as a buddy read (pushing this book in front of my face) and I was like "Nah..." and then he poked me with sharpened sticks until I agreed. And that is how I came to read this book, against my own will. But... you know. It's not like I have anything else going on. #CORONATIME

I'm not sure HOW I feel about it, but I finished it, and that's more than I can say for a whole lot of books. And I'm not mad at it.

So a note on how I read this book. And why that matters. (To me... probably less to you.) So, I fully intended to read this on my kindle. I am, as I may have mentioned, living in this Shelter-At-Home world we're all in at the moment, and one would think that, reader that I am, with so much forced time on my hands, I would be reading. Alas, we would both be incorrect. I can't focus my eyeballs on printed words for shit lately. (I may have discovered the secret solution to this problem as of today though - which is literally blocking all news and current events from all of my access points on all of my devices. Take that, apocalyptic distractions! We'll see if that works. Or if I just find something else to be distracted by. Probably the latter.)

Anyway, so, because my eyeballs fail me, I have been relying on my earholes, and thus I had to track down the audio. TWICE. GRUMBLE. The first time, I thought that the file was bad, because at one point it skipped half a paragraph. So I REJOINED AUDIBLE and bought the dang thing and retried listening... only for it to have the same exact problem. Son of a beech.

I decided to just go with it, and I continued listening. BUT, I also sort of tracked along in the ebook, for 2 reasons. 1) In case there were weird errors or skips or inconsistencies - and there were; and 2) because, though it may come as a surprise to you, I am not familiar with Yiddish. And, there was a whole lot of Yiddish in this book. I know. Who would have guessed??

After a while, I stopped tracking in the ebook and just listened, and I think it was OK. I didn't notice any other glaring issues with the audio, but I will be returning it anyway. Heck NO I'm not paying for an audiobook with a bunch of errors and skips and such in it. *Scowl*

Anyway, as far as the audio reader goes, I think he added a lot to the story. It was nice to have "Meyer Landsman" voiced like this, and to have the tones and cadence and inflection and accents all blend together to make a tapestry of the feel of this narrative. It really worked for me, and it was necessary for me to really enjoy this book. I think had it not been for the flawed audio, I'd have likely pulled a Becky and just put it down, only to return 3 weeks later and DNF it officially.

I don't think it would be the book's fault though. Again, the state of my brain and focus lately is not so good, and this book, though I would say it was good, just didn't have enough oompf to really keep me interested and engaged.

The writing was good, and as I commented to Mr. 2.0 while I was reading it, I thought that it had a nice way of conveying the emotionality of the scene or characters through the writing, without being heavy handed or obvious about it. But, I also said that it was like listening to my grandpa tell a story that may have a point somewhere, but it's gonna be a while before he makes it... if he remembers to... and what it is.

This is a murder mystery set in an alt history version of America where refugee Jews were given the area of Sitka, Alaska as a temporary home after the events of WWII. And for the most part, I did enjoy it, but somewhere along the line I had to shift my expectations from "thriller" to more of a "beat down cop who has to find the truth" story. And it's effective in that. The character of Landsman is at once easily someone that I empathized with and rooted for. From the time of his being called in to look at the dead man in the shitty hotel room, to the way that he forced himself, through his own phobias and self-interests, to do his due diligence in finding the truth, I knew he was a character I would like. And I did.

The writing in this book is really exceptional, but you have to be patient with it, and let it get around to saying what it has to say in its own due course. Along the way, you'll wonder where in the hell it's going... at one point, I was like "WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT COW SPOTS?!? How did we get HERE??" But... in the end, it all came together and made sense as a story and as a character study. But it was... meandering. Meandering and convoluted and confusing and at times just plain frustrating. I wanted it so badly to be more straightforward and just tell the damn story... But then it wouldn't be THIS story.

I liked it. I don't know if I would ever call it a favorite, or if I intend to read more Chabon now... but this was good, and it had a lot of interesting and cool easter eggs of alternate history to keep an eye (or ear) out for.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,558 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.