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In our world, in 1938, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes suggested that Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe be settled in Alaska. The measure didn't pass — but in Chabon's book, it did. The number of Jews killed in the Holocaust in this AU was considerably fewer, but the modern state of Israel did not survive its war for independence. In the 70 years since, the Jews of Sitka have developed a Yiddish-speaking culture on the fringe of the frequently frozen wilderness of the north, but now their little world is coming to an end as the U.S. prepares to reclaim the District and cast out the vast majority of its residents. Unsurprisingly, many of the more religious residents of Sitka are once again speaking of the coming of the Messiah.

Against this End Times backdrop, police detective Meyer Landsman becomes obsessed with a murder all too close to home: a chess-playing junkie who was shot execution-style in Landsman's rundown apartment building. Who was this ruined man, and why was he killed? Is there a significance to the chess problem that was left set up in his room? And will Landsman, who has been told by his new supervisor — who is, just incidentally, his ex-wife Bina, for whom he's still carrying a king-sized torch — to consider the case closed because they have to have everything shipshape by the time the U.S. government takes over, ever solve the mystery?

I was reluctant to start this because it sounded too depressing, but I liked it a lot. The grimly funny prose, with its Yiddish sentence structure, just flowed off the page for me, and I found myself grinning or snickering several times each chapter. So it was a shock to look at Amazon's reader reviews — and find that significant numbers of people couldn't get into the book at all, found the language offensive or incomprehensible, and thought it too grim to finish. I guess I need to add YMMV. In my case, this is told in one of several accents with which I grew up (many of my New York cousins and their parents and our grandparents and great-aunts and uncles sounded more or less like this), as well as the style of humor to which I was accustomed. The idea of making terrible, cutting, and even vulgar jokes and humorous insults as the world is ending around you is an old tradition of our people, but clearly it doesn't work for everyone.

Comments

( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
smillaraaq
Feb. 24th, 2009 03:38 am (UTC)
So it was a shock to look at Amazon's reader reviews — and find that significant numbers of people couldn't get into the book at all, found the language offensive or incomprehensible, and thought it too grim to finish...The idea of making terrible, cutting, and even vulgar jokes and humorous insults as the world is ending around you is an old tradition of our people, but clearly it doesn't work for everyone.

Humor's always one of the hardest things to translate between languages and cultures, isn't it? I see the same thing come up in a lot of reviews of writers like Alexie, especially his heavier stuff -- folks who are either unfamiliar with native humor, or just so overwhelmed by all the dark-and-depressing stuff going on that they just can't seem to see the thread of sarcasm and gallows humor running right alongside it all.

Is there any interaction between the Jewish community and native Alaskans, or is this mostly focused on the Sitka settlement?
chomiji
Feb. 25th, 2009 12:54 pm (UTC)

The local Tlingit actually get quite a lot of ink. Tensions between the two communities were very high in the early days of the settlement, a slow-smoldering near-war that culminated in a number of incidents of open violence. Things are at an uneasy peace in the current day of the story.

Actually, most of this bit of the history comes through a very important secondary character: Landsman's partner and first cousin Berko Shemets, son of Landsman's paternal uncle and a Tlingit woman who is killed in the violence. He's arguably the most well-adjusted and certainly the most endearing character in the book: a big bear of a guy with a wife and two small children who is constantly appalled at Landsman's excesses but is always there for him anyway. (That's not to say he doesn't have his own issues: massive resentment of his father, for example, and he's not too thrilled when he hears his wife is pregnant for the third time - their apartment is pretty damn crowded as it is.)

There's also an adventure outside the Sitka border where Landsman's ass is saved by the local Tlingit police chief, who is not happy to find Landsman out in his area.

[ETA - Son of a bItch! LJ screwed my favorite Gojyo icon! I am SO PISSED!]

Edited at 2009-02-25 12:56 pm (UTC)

smillaraaq
Feb. 25th, 2009 11:28 pm (UTC)
Mmmm, that does sound interesting...

(But what weirdness did LJ do now?)
chomiji
Feb. 28th, 2009 11:46 pm (UTC)
(LJ weirdness)

Look! He's back!

Something weird has been happening where someone else's icon(s) get cached on LJ's servers in place of yours, so you go to put in your icon (or look at your icons page), and your icon is gone. It's actually been happening to various people for a couple of months now (see thei open issues list - it's listed as userpics - I'm surprised you haven't run into it, at least on someone else's.

But look, they fixed mine!

I was so insulted that it happened to this particular icon, which is currently my just-about-favorite.

smillaraaq
Mar. 1st, 2009 01:41 am (UTC)
Re: (LJ weirdness)
Nope...I've heard other people griping about it before, but I've never yet seen it affect any of mine. Curious!

(Maybe it's less likely to affect folks who only have the "default" number of pics? I don't have a paid account and the last I checked, they still hadn't gotten around to offering the pay-as-you-go a la carte extra icons, so I only have the standard number available for my account type...)
bad_mushroom
Feb. 24th, 2009 03:43 am (UTC)
Mmm, Michael Chabon. Speaking of carrying a torch...

I don't know if that kind of humor is necessarily a Jewish thing. It seems a little more general east coast to me. It's certainly always been part of my life. Or it could be that east coast culture is more in touch/influenced by Jewish culture than say, the Midwest (speaking of which...they seriously don't have Jewish people here in Wisconsin. It's very strange.)
lady_ganesh
Feb. 25th, 2009 02:03 am (UTC)
I am reminded of the grim humor of murder detectives, at least in every depiction I've run across.
smillaraaq
Feb. 25th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
Or it could be that east coast culture is more in touch/influenced by Jewish culture than say, the Midwest

There's probably a huge element of that -- just look at this map of distribution of Yiddish speakers in the US, for instance, and New York is the epicenter -- New York City is supposed to the second largest Jewish population center in the world, and this concentration goes back to the wave of immigration from Eastern Europe in the 1800s. It's much easier to have a lot of cultural/linguistic cross-pollination when there's a bigger population base to start with.
chomiji
Feb. 25th, 2009 12:42 pm (UTC)

Yeah, he is pretty hot, isn't he? Between him and Neil Gaiman, who need Hollywood actors? Let's hear it for brainy, witty guys!

I think you're probably right about the East Coast. Also, I expect that my f-list is pretty much OK with this kind of stuff - from the AU setting to the non-English vocabulary to the type of humor. When I write stuff like book review on LJ, though, I try to think about people finding the reviews at random through Google.

bad_mushroom
Feb. 25th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, a friend and I have an ongoing list. Another personal fav? Reza Aslan.
chomiji
Feb. 28th, 2009 11:48 pm (UTC)
(Reza Aslan)

Oooh, very cute! But young enough to make me feel inappropriate! Gaiman and Chabon are much more my age.



Edited at 2009-03-01 03:06 am (UTC)
bad_mushroom
Mar. 1st, 2009 06:32 am (UTC)
Re: (Reza Aslan)
Yes, which makes me feel rather creepy, lusting after much older married men as I am apparently wont to do... :P
lady_ganesh
Feb. 25th, 2009 02:03 am (UTC)
found the language offensive or incomprehensible

Dude, I made it through Clockwork Orange, I bet this is a cakewalk in comparison!
smillaraaq
Feb. 25th, 2009 02:55 am (UTC)
And goodness knows there are absolutely NO reference books or online glossaries of Yiddish and Yinglish WHATSOEVER!
lady_ganesh
Feb. 25th, 2009 02:55 am (UTC)
And it's not like any of those exotic Yiddish words made it into good old-fashioned English!
smillaraaq
Feb. 25th, 2009 03:04 am (UTC)
Oy vey, such crazy talk! XD
chomiji
Feb. 28th, 2009 11:50 pm (UTC)
(Oy vey!)

Get with the program! That's meshugganeh talk!

;-)

smillaraaq
Mar. 1st, 2009 01:36 am (UTC)
Re: (Oy vey!)
*giggles madly*

Considering I'm a total shiksa who spent half her life in a place where the Jewish population is only about 0.5% of the state's total, it's a little surprising that I've managed to pick up as much as I have. :)
chomiji
Feb. 28th, 2009 11:59 pm (UTC)
(Yiddish ... exotic?)

No, of course not!

(Boychick, chutzpah, glitch, kibitz, klutz, nebbish, maven, noodge, nosh, shlep, shlock, shmooze, shtick, tush, zaftig ... and those are only the most common.)

The trouble is, I don't think this was pitched in most venues as either an AU or a detective noire. Chabon has attained such respect that (for instance) book club readers who would normally avoid either of those genres ended up reading it, and just weren't ready to wrap their heads around so much vocabulary they didn't know right off, or such attitudes. Whereas anyone who regularly reads good historical fiction or SF&F is used to reading things with vocabulary that has to be taken in stride - either deciphered from context or, yes, looked up (oh noes!).

lady_ganesh
Mar. 1st, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
Re: (Yiddish ... exotic?)
I'm sure some people expected Summerland 2.0 and were shocked when they didn't get it, but dude. Read the book description.
smillaraaq
Mar. 1st, 2009 02:22 am (UTC)
Re: (Yiddish ... exotic?)
It's funny, too, because (given the Hawai'i demographics noted above), I can very distinctly remember the first time I came across a seriously concentrated dose of Yiddish -- and it was by way of Isaac Bashevis Singer stories presented in a magazine that mostly presented "serious" mainstream literary fiction in the vein of Updike and Oates and such, nothing too trashy-genre-populist but nothing super-challenging avant-garde, either! (I'm sure I'd probably run into random words here and there prior to that by way of comedians and TV/movie characters, but those all blended into a sort of undifferentiated mish-mash of "mainland people talk different"; the Singer pieces were the first time I'd seen a bunch of the words all together in one place with historical and cultural context, and I was utterly fascinated. The second big dose, funnily enough, came by way of genre fiction a few years later, when I first discovered some of Harlan Ellison's short stories...particularly his comedic ghost story "Mom", where the Yiddish and Yinglish come so thick that he even included a helpful glossary at the end!)

The trouble is, I don't think this was pitched in most venues as either an AU or a detective noire. Chabon has attained such respect that (for instance) book club readers who would normally avoid either of those genres ended up reading it

*nods* It's another side-effect of the marketers' increasing ghettoization (speaking of loanwords!) of genre, isn't it? When you've got authors who've made a name for themselves in mainstream/literary fiction, you'll almost never see their later works tagged as a lower-prestige "popular" genre like mystery or romance or horror or F&SF, no matter how much the book seems to fit there -- sometimes the authors themselves seem hostile to the genre labelling, and even when they're not genre-hostile I'm sure the agents and editors and marketers are likely to be against it for fear of losing all the sorts of readers you mention who strenuously avoid genre fic.

Those confused reader expectations sometimes end up burning folks coming from the opposite direction as well, of course...Alexie's Indian Killer or Høeg's Smilla's Sense of Snow disappointed and ticked off a lot of readers who were expecting all of the murder-mystery trappings meant that the endings would follow the most basic mystery rule, that the puzzle will be solved and the criminal identified (if not actually punished)...heck, in Alexie's case he's actually pretty disappointed with his own work here a few years down the line, precisely for that reason -- it wasn't marketed as a mystery since he'd already made a name as a hot young lit-fic author, but he now thinks it was a real cop-out on his part to flout the genre expectations there anyway. Or you've got something seriously genre-blurring like Gabaldon's Outlander, which sort of baffled the marketers and shelvers, and a lot of early readers, alike, since it overlapped multiple genres and didn't really follow the rules for ANY of them. It was seriously-researched historical fiction...full of magical time-travel elements! It had F&SF trappings of time travel and rare but real witchcraft and magic...but way too much focus on romantic relationships, and not enough attention to exactly how all the fantastical elements work, to make the SF sticklers happy. And there was a marvelous, passionate love story -- with an older, married heroine and a younger, virginial hero, in defiance of the usual romance tropes...
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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