1. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
Well, it was more like “listened” since this was the audio book, read by Peter Riegert, who was fantastic. Riegert has the perfect gravelly voice for a hard broiled detective novel and it adds to the mood of the book beautifully.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is first a detective novel, playing off the traditional noir genre with sarcastic, mouthy homicide detective Meyer Landsman looking into the shooting of a former chess prodigy and heroine addict. The investigation leads him through the various seedy realms of Yiddish Sitka, Alaska* and it unfolds like a great chess game in which he finds himself “contending with all the powerful forces of faith, obsession, evil, and salvation that are his heritage.” Like most hard broiled detectives, Landsman finds himself seeking his own salvation as he tries to uncover truths.
The book is also a fascinating alternate history, because Yiddish Sitka never existed. Chabon unfolds a fully realized, multi-layered imagining of what this island and its inhabitants would look like if it did, full of worldwide politics and local eccentricities. The details are rich and I could feel both the cold of Alaska and visualize the inner workings of this Jewish community.
On top of a fantastic, complicated plot and an fascinating litany of character, there’s Chabon’s writing style — poetic and rich and beautiful. When he describes a grimy hotel, you can feel the dirt getting underneath your fingernails. When he speaks of breathing in the cold, your teeth ache in sympathy. Chabon is just so, so good.
When the audio book ended and the last word was read, I sat back with a happy sigh and thought to myself, Well. That was just about perfect.
The audio book also includes an interview with Chabon following the book, in which he provides insight into how he came to write the story and how he approached the writing. I love that kind of thing.
*Yay, Alaska! Including Alaska in a story immediately grabs my attention.
I always mean to read more lit journals, both online and in print, but never seem to get around to actually doing so. Managed it this time, and the experience made it clear why I need to do so more often.
Kristina McDonald’s “Dear Prince“, in particular, gave me chills. The poem is from Cinderella’s point of view and I love how the image of the glass slipper is used and where it’s taken. She does a wonderful audio reading of the poem, too.
Each poem in this edition of Goblin Fruit is fascinating and expansive and compelling in its own unique way. This is a must read for poetry lovers.
3. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Description: “As her mother prepares to be a contestant on the 1980s television game show, “The $20,000 Pyramid,” a twelve-year-old New York City girl tries to make sense of a series of mysterious notes received from an anonymous source that seems to defy the laws of time and space.”
I read this book in just a few hours. Miranda is abandoned by her friend Sal for unknown reasons. While she longs for the return of his friendship, she begins to make new friends. She is the kid-mixture of selfish and good, and her growth as a character comes from that place. When she begins to receive strange, mysterious notes, she at first disbelieves them until they begin to predict future events. The discovery of the notes and what they mean unveils the plot and its speculative elements in a subtle and intriguing way.
There was only on confounding moment for me, when Miranda talks with another kid about the concept of time travel and how it works. It’s excellent kid speak, and I could picture a pair of kids saying exactly these things. However, even though I have an understanding of the theory of time travel, the kids attempt to describe it made my head spin. Their explanations over complicated the idea and I couldn’t wrap my head around what they were trying to say, and I’m curious how younger reader would be able to decipher that conversation. It worked for the story (since Miranda was confused) and, as I said, was excellent kid speak.
On the whole, a very satisfying read.
A blog on writing, which has been fueling me with a variety of entertaining and inspiring posts. Though admitedly most of the inspiration is toward text in the comments section rather than text in my blog.
5. March by Geraldine Brooks
I didn’t realize this was a new spin on Little Women until I picked up the book. While I loved the 1994 Little Women movie, I didn’t actually read Louisa May Alcott’s book until I was an adult and by that point I found it far too goody-goody and moralizing. So, I don’t think I would have picked up this book, if not for the fact that I loved Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book so much.
Instead of following the March girl’s lives as they wait for their father’s return from the Civil War, the story is told from the point of view of Robert March as he tries to minister to the troops and help emancipate and educate slaves. The story explores the brutality of war, the racism of the North in its approach to freeing blacks, and the impact the war has on March’s physical and mental state. In the same way that Alcott based the Little Women on her real-life sisters, Brooks based Robert March on Alcott’s father, who was a radical liberal. Mr. Alcott was firmly for Emancipation and was a vegetarian, who founded a Utopian commune that failed, because its inhabitants refused to kill the infestation of worms invading its apple crops.
Brooks is a wonderful writer. The style is clear and vivid in its portrayal of the Civil War South. And though the story is far more brutal, bloody, and graphic than the children’s book it’s based on, Brooks managed to capture the thread of that moralizing tone, which was just under the surface of every description, so that the novel felt as though it fit neatly within the fictional realm of Little Women.
One of the things that fascinated me about the novel and kept me interested was the ways in which Robert March lied in his letters home to his wife and his Little Women. It’s understandable that he would not want to worry them with the true turmoils of war and it sets up and interesting duality between his home life and the life he now lives on the battlefield.
I don’t know how to talk about this book without talking about bits from the ending, so WARNING: SPOILERS ahead.
Spoiler 1 — At the end of the novel, when March is on his sickbed and nearing death, the POV switches to his wife and we see how Robert misunderstood her feeling and how she misunderstood his. It’s a wonderful moment (in literature, but hard on the characters) that shows just how easy it is to mistake people and how you can love and know someone for years and not really understand them.
Spoiler 2 — Throughout the story, I was a bit annoyed by Robert March and his wife, both of whom were avidly for Emancipation to the point of being almost too noble, too good, coming across as great white heroes of the Civil War. This was especially evident in the way March feels about one slave he meets named Grace, who has been educated and who he makes into a symbol for what the “Negro” can become.
At the end of the story, when March is wracked with guilt and insists on finding someway to make himself useful to Grace, she turns him down. She tells him that she doesn’t need him, that the blacks need to be able to take care of themselves, and that the best thing he can do is to go home and preach emancipation and equality to other white people.
I can’t even tell you how relieved I was to see this scene presented and it was that moment that really brought me from liking this novel to loving it.