North to Alaska: ‘The Yiddish Policemen’s Union’

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union

Nearly everyone knows about the humble and unusual origins of Jesus: the Son of God who comes to Earth as a baby born to a virgin in a barn under dubious circumstances, the carpenter from a backwater town turned Great Teacher and Healer. But what if the messiah had a radically different background? What if he came back today as, say, a shy, gay chess genius?

A scenario along those lines is offered up in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which also poses interesting historical questions: What if the nations of the West had provided a space for Europe’s persecuted Jews to go prior to the Holocaust? And just where would all those people have gone, presuming the Nazis had allowed them to leave?

Interestingly, the panhandle of Alaska, the setting of this book, was an actual possibility. The Slattery Report was floated in Congress in 1940 by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, and it proposed setting aside a section of southeastern Alaska for Jewish refugees to help settle what was then (and still is, really) a large, empty space. In real life, the bill wasn’t supported by the Jewish people already living in the U.S. at the time, and it was ultimately killed by Anthony Dimond, who was delegate to Congress for the territory. (Alaska did not get U.S. statehood until 1959.)

But in Chabon’s book, history takes a turn when Dimond is killed instead by a drunk DC cabbie — who, incidentally, is Jewish. In this counterfactual tale, the Jews are given the territory of Sitka, which is officially administered by the feds but is essentially governed without interference by the locals. They turn it into a city of sorts, one that will be both recognizable and strange to readers. Imagine Seattle populated entirely by Jews with the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Borough Park in Brooklyn replacing the neighborhoods surrounding the downtown area, and you have a rough approximation of Sitka. However, there’s a catch to all of this: The area reverts to Alaska state territory after 60 years.

Meyer Landsman is a drunken, depressed police detective working in this fictional but familiar metropolis of a couple million people when that 60-year period is just about up. The book starts off with him being called to investigate a late-night murder that took place in the run-down roach motel where he lives. As he looks into the victim’s background, he finds that he’s not only the black sheep son of a Jewish organized crime boss, but also a messiah figure to many of Sitka’s Jews.

Consequently, he and his partner — actually his cousin, an imposing half-Jewish, half-American Indian named Berko Shemets — find quite a bit of resistance to their investigation. Moreover, the deadline for the reversion of Sitka to Alaska territory looms large over their efforts.

In spite of all I’ve just written above, I still haven’t said much about the story. That’s in part because I don’t want to give away too much. But it’s also due to the fact that The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is fundamentally about Landsman coming to terms with his perceived failures — as a husband, a detective, and a human being — yet holding out hope for some kind of redemption. He strives to find it by throwing himself into his work, particularly the murder investigation. He also clumsily begins to rekindle a relationship with his ex-wife Bina Gelbfish (gotta love these names), who’s also his boss.

Even though the themes of the story are as dark and depressing as Anchorage in January, it’s also a highly entertaining romp through all kinds of Jewish humor. It’s full of clever one-liners and self-deprecating insults, and it’s more readable than any book stuffed with Yiddish slang ought to be. I actually liked it better than The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is widely regarded as his masterwork.

(By the way, the Coen brothers, who can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned, are supposedly planning to adapt The Yiddish Policemen’s Union for film. I can’t even tell you how much I’m looking forward to this, whenever it happens.)

Really, you’d have to be mishegas to not read this book. Don’t be a shmendrik — get off your tuches and go pick it up.

 

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Danish Invasion: ‘Death of Kings’

Death of Kings

Death of Kings

Ah, the Saxon Stories. Bernard Cornwell’s account of the reign of Alfred the Great and formation of the English nation is one of the best serials today. Are they great literature? Not really. But who cares? What makes these stories so engaging are the action-packed plots; the colorful cast of princes, priests and peasants; and the worldly, battle-hardened protagonist, the English warlord Uhtred of Bebbanburg.

It’s pretty much impossible to write about Death of Kings, the latest installment in the series, without getting into the backstory. So, here goes.

The Saxon Stories are so named because they’re about Britain’s Anglo-Saxon kingdoms’ struggle to preserve themselves from annihilation at the hands of invading Danish hordes, who continue to flood into the island year after year like the Borg. Uhtred, a fictional character in these based-on-true-events stories, is a sort of Middle Ages equivalent of an entrepreneur, but he deals in death instead of digits. He fights for what will one day be called England, but he identifies closely with the Danes — their love of battle, their war gods and their desire to reach Valhalla, the great hall of feasting and fighting, after they die.

Uhtred, son of a northern English nobleman, picked up a proclivity for Norse mythology and viking (a term that actually refers to the raids conducted by the Scandinavians, rather than to the people themselves) from a youth spent as the captive — and later the adopted son — of a Danish warlord. However, as Cornwell points out frequently throughout the series, fate is inexorable, and a series of events leads Uhtred to become a great warlord in the service of Alfred. Along the way, he loses several lovers and friends and experiences numerous rises to and falls from power. All the while, he schemes and dreams of getting back to his home, the impregnable castle Bebbanburg up near the Scottish border.

(While Cornwell writes these books in such a way that readers can jump right into the most recent one and still be entertained, it’s a series worth starting from the beginning, with The Last Kingdom. You’ll get through them quickly, I promise. And once you do, give Death of Kings a read. You’ll be glad you did.)

In Death of Kings, Uhtred is called to the capitol of Wessex on the eve of King Alfred’s death to renew his pledge of loyalty to the throne. He and Alfred have an ambivalent view of each other. Uhtred respects Alfred’s skills of organization and governance, but dislikes the king’s foolish and sentimental Christian piety. For his part, Alfred appreciates Uhtred’s understanding of war, but frowns at his lack of decorum and refusal to acknowledge Christianity as the one true religion. Consequently, he treats Uhtred unfairly, giving him relatively little in the way of rewards and favor even as Uhtred saves his kingdom time and again through cleverness, cunning and fighting spirit.

As he approaches death, however, Alfred seemingly has a change of heart toward Uhtred. He bestows many acres of good land on Uhtred in the kingdom of Mercia. However, it’s not all pure benevolence. Alfred also asks him to pledge loyalty to his son Edward following his death, and the land he gives him sits between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes. That’s fine by Uhtred, though, who’s always up for battle.

And he gets it soon enough, as the Danes seek to capitalize on the transition between Alfred’s death and Edward’s consolidation of power. (Alfred’s brother, who has a legitimate claim to the throne, complicates matters.) They undertake a massive invasion, using misdirection and secret alliances to strike deep into southern Britain and surprise the armies of the new king. So Uhtred must once more put aside his own plans to return to his homeland in order to risk his life by advancing into the glistening swords and battle axes of the shield wall.

There’s no point in getting into scholarly themes or deeper meanings, because there really aren’t any. Like all of the Saxon tales novels, Death of Kings is simply a rollicking story, well written. And that’s good enough for me.

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Welcome to the Machine: ‘Boss Tweed’

Boss Tweed

Boss Tweed

In Chicago, there’s a little joke that sums up our system of public corruption nicely. It goes something like this:

A government official needed to construct a new public facility, so he started looking into contractors around the country to do the work. He narrowed his search to three, and invited them in to present bids for the project.

The first one, from Cincinnati, provided a very straightforward presentation that laid out a very basic, functional plan. He then concluded by telling the official that he would do the project for $4 million. The second one, who was from Dallas, came in and explained that he would put together a more forward-thinking approach with contemporary design flourishes and modern green-building techniques. He added that this project would cost $6 million.

Finally, the third contractor, based in Chicago, came in. He gave no presentation, but simply told the official, “My project will cost $12 million. But I guarantee you’ll pick me.”

The official, a bit surprised, responded, “Wait a second. You haven’t told me anything about it, and it’s double the next-lowest bid. What makes you think I would take that deal?”

The guy from Chicago says, “Here’s how it’ll work: You’ll take $4 million, I’ll take $8 million, and I’ll subcontract the guy from Cincinnati to do it.”

Chicagoans can be forgiven for thinking they invented this strain of corruption, which succeeds by spreading benefits around. But the genesis of this system was not the Daley Machine, but Tammany Hall, the New York Democrats’ alchemical institution used to convert immigrant votes into wealth and power. And Tammany Hall reached its peak under the guidance of William “Boss” Tweed.

In his book Boss Tweed, former political operative and historical non-fiction author Kenneth Ackerman offers a deep and detailed — yet surprisingly accessible — history of Tweed’s rise and fall. But for the corruption, Tweed’s story could almost be seen as a manifestation of the American Dream. He had a rough-and-tumble, working class upbringing in Manhattan, but thanks to an unusually keen political sensibility and a deep understanding of human nature, he rose to the head of what was perhaps the most sophisticated system of graft that had existed up to that point in time.

Ultimately, it took a combination of skilled political rivals, dogged investigative journalism, and traitors to the Tammany system to bring Tweed down. Oh, and America’s greatest political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, whose memorable, satirical caricatures of Tweed made his face recognizable throughout the United States and even across the Atlantic. (Nast also devised the donkey and elephant symbols for the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively, and created the modern image of Santa Claus.)

A Thomas Nast editorial cartoon featuring "Boss" Tweed, the bald, bearded, portly figure with the fancy diamond pin at the far left.

Ackerman’s recounting of Tweed’s political career makes him seem like the anti-Lincoln. Both politicians came from lower-class backgrounds, but Tweed’s was as urban as Lincoln’s was rural. Both were physically imposing, but Lincoln was lanky and lean, whereas Tweed was a rotund, Falstaff-like figure. Both were great communicators, yet Lincoln’s talent was in public oratory, while Tweed’s was in backroom wheeling and dealing.

Tweed and Lincoln also changed the political landscape of their era, but because of their values and styles, their legacies could hardly have been more different. Lincoln commanded the winning side of the most important war in American history and preserved the Union through sometimes extreme and extra-legal means. Tweed institutionalized corruption in New York and midwifed the modern urban political machine.

One would be inclined to say that the former is the more important of the two. But in the Land of Lincoln, it’s tough to tell who’s been more influential.

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11/22/63: History Is a Relentless Master

11/22/63

I’m a sucker for counterfactuals. (Nerd alert!) Perhaps it’s because I love history, but I’ve always enjoyed stories that consider how the past might have played out had key events gone in different direction. Stephen King’s new book, 11/22/63, which is about a time traveler from the present day who attempts to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, would seem to be such a story.

The book really isn’t about stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, though. Oh sure, that’s what the plot advances towards and what the title conveys, but 11/22/63 mostly dwells on two things: the mechanics involved with and results of changing the past (even in seemingly minor ways), and what life was like in the “idyllic” 1950s and early 1960s. The story is no less interesting for that, however. I was really pulled into the picture King paints of that time.

In many ways, that world appears to be so much better than today’s. People moved around more freely, as they trusted each other more. The social contract was seemingly ironclad. Also, goods and services were high quality and inexpensive. Something as simple as a 10-cent root beer from that era would leave a lasting impression on today’s consumer, who’s accustomed to paying a buck for a Barq’s in an aluminum can. But what really stands out is the way people interacted: They were just more social, in part because they didn’t have the many, many time sucks that allow us to amuse ourselves to death.

That world was not without its problems, as the author makes clear. This was the time of Jim Crow, of course. Plus, you faced harsh treatment from your neighbors and colleagues if you strayed just a little bit from social norms. And certain dysfunctions in home life seemed to be tolerated more back then.

Despite all of that, though, you get the feeling as you read this book that something important has been lost in all of our progress. The protagonist shares that sentiment, at one point vowing to stay in that time. But he’s also on a mission, and that gets to the other theme in the book.

King’s conception of how time travel might work is both familiar and novel. He covers the well-known Butterfly Effect, but also explores quirks such as strangely parallel events and people, as well as the resistance of time itself to change. Suffice to say, the main character’s foreknowledge of what transpires doesn’t necessarily make it easy for him to affect the outcome.

One other thing worth mentioning: I hadn’t read anything by him in more than a decade, and I’d forgotten how good Stephen King is at spinning a compelling yarn. Although I mentally lump him in with other purveyors of “airport fiction,” the guy really can write. Don’t let his pop-lit rep — or the 800-plus pages — keep you from reading this book.

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Space Case: ‘Have Glove, Will Travel’

Have Glove, Will Travel

Back when I wrote about Doug Hornig’s book on the ’75 World Series between Boston and Cincinnati, I touched on the fact that Red Sox ace Bill “Spaceman” Lee was my all-time favorite baseball player. I admire the guy because of his gifts on and off the diamond. When he was on the bump, Lee was a trickster. This was out of necessity as much as anything else: He didn’t have a heater in the high nineties, so he had to rely on his own cunning and a combination of curves, sinkers and the infamous “Leephus” pitch, AKA the Space Ball.

Off the mound, though, Lee can tell one hell of a story. The proof is in Have Glove, Will Travel, a book he and writer Richard Lally penned as a sequel to his classic, The Wrong Stuff.

Have Glove, Will Travel starts at an interesting point — the end of Lee’s career in the majors in 1982. In his telling, he squabbled with the manager of Montreal, the team he was playing for at the time, for unjustly cutting Rodney “Cool Breeze” Scott, a second baseman who contributed a great deal to the Expos’ play and also happened to be Lee’s best friend on the roster. In protest, Lee challenged the manager to a fight and then didn’t report for a game. The Expos GM unceremoniously fired him for those offenses.

Although past his prime, Lee still had quite a few seasons of good pitching left in him. Problem was, he found that no MLB team was interested in picking him up after the ‘Spos dropped him. He even offered to play for any team in the bigs at the league’s minimum salary (since Montreal had to keep paying on his existing contract), but still had no takers. He couldn’t prove it, but he was pretty sure they colluded to keep him out.

Lee initially dealt with this by partying non-stop in Montreal for a short while, then set off on what was truly a baseball odyssey. He pitched at hockey matches. He pitched in tiny towns set on the vast plains of Canada. He pitched in Venezuela, Cuba and the USSR. (In Soviet Russia, base steals you!) He pitched for total amateurs. He pitched in senior leagues with rosters full of formerly great players. Essentially, he pitched everywhere except big-league baseball stadiums.

Through this roughly two-decade stretch in sports purgatory, Lee went through two divorces, sampled all kinds of drugs and booze, and struck up friendships with The Golden Jet and Teddy Ballgame. Oh, and almost got eaten by a bear. And he recounts all of this with incredible wit, verve and fearlessness. Lesser men would have gone crazy through all of that stuff, but fortunately, the Spaceman was already crazy to begin with.

Seriously, though, Lee seems to have come out of all of this a better person. He still loves baseball, and still pitches in spite of the fact that he’s eligible to collect Social Security. And he accomplished something great with this book: Hitting bottom has never looked this fun.

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‘River of Gods’: Rajas, Robots and Religion

River of Gods

Where to begin? Ian McDonald’s River of Gods is definitely one of the strangest, most imaginative and most epic books you will ever come across, like a Philip K. Dick novel rewritten by Dostoyevsky. The plot contains myriad twists and turns — villains becoming heroes, heroes becoming villains, that sort of thing — and when you throw AI technology, quantum physics and Hindi colloquialisms into the mix, things can get really confusing.

The setting of the story is India in 2047, the centennial year of the country’s independence from the British Empire. Only it’s not really India anymore: In the future as imagined by McDonald, the Subcontinent has fragmented into several smaller states. Most of the action in this book takes place in Varanasi (also known as the holy city of Kashi), a hotbed of political strife, Hindu mysticism and technical innovation, and the capital of the nation of Bharat. This bustling, hot, overcrowded metropolis on the banks of the Ganges River teems with life and energy in spite of the large-looming shadows of war, revolution and drought.

The main characters (and there are a lot of them) include a pair of American professors, a police detective who fights cybercrime with an arsenal of Hindu-deity avatars like Krishna and Kali, the set designer of South Asia’s most popular soap opera, a Muslim political advisor to the prime minister of Bharat, and a mysterious prophetess, among others. It’s to McDonald’s credit that he was not only able to dream up such a cast in the first place, but also make them more believable and relatable than the characters in much more pedestrian books than this one.

He also creatively extrapolates where current trends in medical science, human sexuality, war and energy could lead us. For example, the book features a couple of fanciful visions of where bioengineering might take us. The first is a new gender called “nutes,” the members of which — despite their lack of sex organs — are hypersexual and sensual. Additionally, a new “brahmin” class is created that ages half as quickly as regular humans, so the hottest bars and clubs of Varanasi are filled with what look like 12-year-old kids.

For all its complexity, though, River of Gods is at its core a cautionary, consequences-of-man-playing-God tale along the lines of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Checks to scientific progress are circumvented (legally and illegally, ethically and unscrupulously), and a high price is paid by just about everyone involved for these transgressions, not to mention their own moral, all-too-human shortcomings. In the end, it’s these failings that bind the characters to each other — and them to us, in spite of gulfs in distance, time and experience.

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Cold as Hell: ‘The Terror’

The Terror

Been a bit slack on the book reviews lately: A combination of holiday hangover and a series of illnesses pulled me out of my flow. Mostly recovered now, though.

Since we’re finally well into our winter weather here in Chicago, it seems appropriate to write about a book that makes you feel as though a malevolent, icy hand is running up the length of your spine as you’re reading it. That book is The Terror by Dan Simmons. A sort of companion piece to Drood (the first thing ever reviewed on this site), The Terror is another story that adds supernatural fictional elements to actual events experienced by actual people.

In this case, it’s the disastrous Franklin expedition in the Arctic that took place during the 1840s. In the real Franklin expedition, two wooden (!) ships — one of which was the HMS Terror — left Britain in an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage through the massive, rocky islands and ice-choked channels and seas of northern Canada. (The ships were fitted with external iron plates and steam engines to help push through some of the ice.) More than 100 men took part in that expedition, which was not properly provisioned and prepared for, and they all died due to extreme cold, starvation or illness, and it’s believed that some of them may have resorted to cannibalism to stave off their ultimate, unpleasant end.

Simmons’ book offers an interesting spin on this: What if there was something else involved with these men meeting their doom? Like a giant, ancient, practically un-killable Inuit monster-god that looks something like a polar bear with the head of an aardvark? As ridiculous as that sounds, the author makes it seem quite plausible and terrifying. This thing stalks the men across the plains and crevasses of the Arctic icepack for months, picking them off a few at a time, and their fear of it becomes the reader’s as well.

But as with Drood, Simmons doesn’t just make the monster the sole focus of the horror. He also goes into explicit detail on the well-below-freezing conditions of the Arctic, and how the sailors would dress in several layers of soggy, fusty wool clothes to try to stay warm. Hypothermia, anyone?

(I should mention here that I read The Terror a couple of years ago, during the most miserable winter I’ve ever lived through. It wasn’t particularly snowy, but ye Gods, was it ever cold! It was not uncommon for the mercury to fall below zero, and severe winds made it even worse. And it wasn’t like this for an occasional day or two. This went on for weeks. As I proceeded through this book’s vivid descriptions of the frozen wastes of the north, the bleak landscape and freezing temperatures around me made me feel at times like I was living it along with the characters.)

In addition to the cold, there was also the drudgery experienced by the sailors of the expedition. When the ships were frozen in place, these men often had to continue the expedition by dragging supplies over the ice on heavy, cumbersome wooden sledges. Their reward at the end of the day for all this laborious work was a can of salted, putrid meat and — if they were really lucky — a cup of rum.

The most chilling thing in the story, however, is not the hardship or the cold or even the beast. It’s the treachery of people. Simmons brilliantly sets The Terror up as a classic man vs. nature tale, but then shifts the plot toward the machinations of a few malevolent members of the ships’ crews. The schemes of these “sea lawyers” become the main source of conflict in the story.

There’s a great deal more in this nearly 800-page book, including portrayals of the notoriously stifling English class system, Inuit mythology, and telepathy. In spite of its length and breadth, though, it’s a quick, engaging read. And there are some real page-turning scenes, such as when one of the sailors performs some acrobatic maneuvers on the masts of the HMS Terror to evade the monster. It got a little preachy at the end — not that the message was bad, but it kind of took me out of the story. That small thing can be forgiven in an otherwise great book, though.

So check out The Terror, if you dare. But you may want to wait until winter’s over to pick it up.

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