book review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon (narrated by Peter Riegert)

I read and loved [repeat: loved] Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. So when I had a gap in my audiobook queue and saw this at the library, I couldn’t resist. He didn’t disappoint.

deliciously literary detective story

Some years ago, Michael Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bon) purchased a phrasebook entitled “Say it in Yiddish.” He wondered what place one could travel to in which a phrasebook would be useful (as Yiddish is such a rapidly disappearing language) and wrote an essay about it [1]. Now he has gone on to write a detective novel that takes place in just such a place: Sitka, an imaginary homeland established for the Jews in remote Alaska (this was an actual proposal from the US government before World War II as a potential refuge for European Jews).

The story itself is a fun read, but that’s not what makes this book exceptional. It’s the language. First, Yiddish is interspersed throughout, including Chabon’s plays on Yiddish (cell phones are “shoyfers,” which is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew “shofar,” the ram’s horn used “in Biblical times chiefly to communicate signals in battle and announce certain religious occasions and in modern times chiefly at synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” [2]). This results in, as the Slate reviewer writes, Chabon’s “paradox: a mass entertainment largely inaccessible to the masses” [3]. And yet, even for readers like me who know only a couple words of Yiddish, this smattering of foreign words somehow enhances the reading experience.

The same is true with Chabon’s marvelous way around metaphors. Not all of them bring a clear image to mind (“He talked like a sausage recipe with footnotes”), but they are so clever that I don’t mind the occasional interruption of the flow. To demonstrate, here are my five favorite metaphors from the book:

5. A narrow pile of dirty white brick and slit windows, three or four blocks off the tawdriest stretch of Monsatir Street, the place has all the allure of a dehumidifier.

4. He talked like a sausage recipe with footnotes. [Yes, I had to put it again. I have no idea what this means.]

3. Its Philipino-style Chinese doughnuts beckon like glittering sugar-dusted tokens of a better existence.

2. “See this, sweetness?” Bina has fished out her badge. “I’m like a cash gift: I’m always appropriate.”

and the very best:

1. A gun of wind has blown down from the mainland to plunder the Sitka treasury of fog and rain, leaving behind only cobwebs and one bright penny in a vault of polished blue.

If you like clever dialogue (sometimes a little too clever, but that – again – is a lesser evil), witty prose, and an exciting mystery, then read on. The climax is a little disappointing (only a little), but since the prose is the real star of the show, even that doesn’t take much away.

I listened to and recommend the audiobook (10 CDs), narrated by Peter Riegert. The reading is excellent, and the audiobook has an informative interview with Chabon at the end. I’ve only read one other Chabon book (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay); I enjoyed that one significantly more, but that’s a high bar.

Note on content: the book has a little violence and quite a bit of strong language, including significant profanity.

[1] “The Language of Lost History,” Harper’s, October 1997.
[2] “shofar,” Dictionary.com.
[3] Ruth Franklin, “God’s Frozen People,” Slate, 8 May 2007.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union CD: A Novel

My next audiobook is another attempt in Spanish, Daína Chaviano’s El hombre, la hembra y el hambre. Promising, eh? I can afford to listen to this stuff in Spanish since I only understand three quarters anyway…

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1 thought on “book review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon (narrated by Peter Riegert)”

  1. Sausage is the epitome of food you eat but have no desire to know how or what it’s made from. Thus, perhaps someone who speaks like a sausage recipie (let alone one with footnotes!) is one who speaks with undesirable clarity or lack of sublty, one of those who confuses rudeness with directness.

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