Herewith the first in a series of guest posts from Jeff Kamin, who runs the monthly book club Books & Bars in Minneapolis, MN. The Minneapolis/St. Paul magazine said of Books & Bars Book Club: "For those who take their books straight up - not off Oprah's list - Books & Bars is the cure. Bookended by social hours, it's a perfect opportunity to meet hip literary types - and the liquid courage doesn't hurt." This month, the book club read Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union. Read on to hear about their great discussion which included ruminations on character, setting, Chabon's style, and of course, genre.
Hi, I'm Jeff Kamin, moderator of Books & Bars, the biggest book club in one of our nation's most literate cities, Minneapolis. Books & Bars is not your typical book club. We provide a unique atmosphere for lively discussions of interesting authors. Every second Tuesday about 100 of us meet in a theater attached to a bowling alley in Uptown Minneapolis. We drink, eat and socialize before, during, and after the book discussion. We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we do seriously get into discussing our books for an hour and half each meeting. (Tongues loosen with our liquid courage.) Our newsletter goes out to over 550 people each month. We've had regulars and newcomers the 55 times we've met in our 4 1/2 years together. An average crowd is made up of about 60-65 women and 35-40 men in their 20s-40s with some a few…wiser. We strive not to be the women's only, Oprahesque, suburban group. We're not your mother's book club, but we welcome her, too.
Our latest pick was The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. We gathered our own Frozen Chosen on the first snowy Minneapolis night of the season. 85-90 people braved the early winter weather to participate in our discussion, meet some new people, and have a few brews. The book was well received for the most part, but it had its detractors. We're not much of a mystery-reading club, having done only a few standouts in our past like Case Histories by Kate Atkinson and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. We probably posed as many questions as we did answers with this Yiddish puzzler.
Everyone loved Chabon's rich characters and sparkling witty dialogue. Policemen and former couple Bina & Landsman had a playful Nick and Nora (The Thin Man) vibe. Perhaps the best character is actually Sitka, the territory. We had a few members on hand with Jewish backgrounds to help contextualize some of the customs and background for us. Apparently there is even a boundary maven working in one of our local suburbs. I even received e-mail from a club member with Yiddish phrases in it. Nu is the new buzzword to use. Try peppering your slang with some Yiddish. It's fun. And our appetites were stirred for noodle kugel. Overall, it wasn't the easiest read to get into, but fortunately the paperback version contains a Yiddish glossary among other interesting interviews and essays in the P.S. section.
Some felt the protagonist Landsman (an old nickname for a fellow Jew especially during the blacklist days) was redeemed through solving the Mendele case or with his relationship with Bina or the even stronger bromance with Berko. Other attendees who were more well-mystery-read (not just having a past with Encyclopedia Brown, like yours truly) felt that a detective is never really redeemed. Mystery fans argued that redemption equals retirement for a gumshoe. What do you think? Does a detective in a mystery ever get redemption? If they're redeemed are they done as a detective? Can a mystery transcend the genre? Does it need to?
Chabon fans spoke of feeling his presence in the narrative, as per usual, but in a good way. There were the familiar themes of fathers and sons and also the prerequisite-closeted gay character. Chabon embraced his "fan fiction" theory of writing what he loves and paying homage to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Chabon wears his influences on his sleeve, refreshingly so. The pie shop and dwarfish Willie Dick character seemed to be allusions to Twin Peaks.
We wondered why the book has been considered science fiction even winning awards for it. The counter-factual aspects of history were fascinating fun like JFK being married to Marilyn Monroe. They reminded us of our last book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, and its references to the Watcher and What If series by Marvel Comics. Chabon plays the Watcher here posing his what if Jewish theories post World War II. What do you think makes the book sci-fi?
Some members felt the book lost its way or even "jumped the shark" with the red heifer, conspiracy theories and government terrorists by the final third. The Mendele/Messiah aspect of the book seemed to get left behind with more government agents and old men pulling strings off camera. Speaking of which, we're anticipating a very good film adaptation from our hometown heroes, the Coen Brothers. Casting ideas have been posted on our site. Some of our members even had the chance to be extras in the next Coen film, A Serious Man, shooting here this fall.
Overall, the detective mind seemed to be the writer's mind and I think our mystery bone is being tickled for more cases. We enjoyed our time in Sitka with these characters and would recommend it with some reservations. I expect we'll be doing more mysteries in the future.
Our next book is Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson on Dec 9th, an even more apropos book for Minnesnowta with its Norwegian roots. You're welcome to join our discussion on our forum or even come to our event if in the Twin Cities.
Let me know what you think of The Yiddish Policemen's Union, mysteries, and more. Thanks for reading.
Jeff Kamin, Moderator, Books & Bars, jeff AT booksandbars DOT com