The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon

I’m a big fan of Chabon’s writing. When my book club read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay some years ago, I didn’t think I would like it because the subject didn’t interest me. However, I was so caught up by the writing that I ended up loving the book. Recently I read (and blogged about) his book of essays, Maps and Legends, one of which has to do with how he came to write this book. Apparently, he stumbled across a phrase book called Say It in Yiddish and was utterly taken with the notion that somewhere there might exist a country or even a town where Yiddish is the primary language and business is conducted in Yiddish by everyone—gas station attendants, hotel clerks, police officers. Where could that be?

This mystery, then, takes place in fictional Sitka, Alaska, a temporary Jewish colony established in 1948. In reality, such an Alaskan safe haven was actually considered by Roosevelt, but of course support for the state of Israel in then Palestine won out. In Chabon’s alternate universe, the District of Sitka is about to revert to Alaskan control, and the Jewish population dispersed. Our moral center in this atmosphere of chaos and fear is Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective who can barely keep his own life together since the collapse of his marriage, leaving him with only alcohol and work to hold onto. Landsman and his half-Tlingit partner investigate the murder of one of Landman’s neighbors.

I like mysteries, and the plotting here is great: twists and turns that shed new light on the clues and put them in a different relationship to each other. As always, Chabon’s writing is a thing of beauty, with marvelous images such as “In the rain the wind shakes rain from the flaps of its overcoat.” Yet, for some reason, I never felt engaged with the story; rather I felt that I was observing it from the outside. However, I must say that the other members of my book club were thoroughly caught up in it.

A friend told me about a puppet show she saw recently, where there was no theatre or curtain. Instead, a man stood operating his puppets in full view of the audience. As a result, she focused on his expertise rather than the story being enacted by the puppets. This, I believe, is what happened to me here: I was so busy admiring Chabon’s cleverness that I never really connected to the story or to Landsman. Perhaps as well, I thought Landsman too much the stereotype of the noir detective. Some of the other characters seemed more complex and interesting: his ex-wife, particularly in her efforts to balance work and personal life, and his partner, particularly in his relationship with his father.

My book club discussed the religious sects described in the book, as well as how some fundamentalist factions in various religions seem to want to “return” their culture to a former time, a past that appears less complicated, when it was easier to be good. Nostalgia for a golden past is part of the human condition. All paradises are lost paradises. The modern world can be terrifying and, like many others, I take comfort in mysteries. There, wrongs are righted and, as P.D. James has said, we are reassured that we live in a moral universe.

In his essay, Chabon goes on to wonder what Europe would look like today if those millions of Jews had never been killed, if they had gone on to have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Perhaps there would be rural towns where Yiddish is the first language. Perhaps he would have cousins in these towns whom he could visit and family roots he could search out. What does it mean, Chabon asks, to come from a culture that no longer exists and from a language almost no one speaks anymore? Recalling my mother’s obsession with her genealogical researches and her pride in how far back she could trace her family history, I wonder about how we define our identities when we are stripped of language and history. Can this loss ever be freeing, making it easier to engage in the peculiarly American pastime of reinventing ourselves? Or does it always cause alienation, leaving us longing to recreate a past, even a mythical past, where we might feel at home?

Edge Effect: Trails and Portrayals, by Sandra McPherson

This is the twelfth of McPherson's books, but the first I've read. It is made up of two parts: the first, the portrayals, are poems about outsider artists; the second, the trails, longer poems about particular trails she has traveled, rich with descriptions of flora and fauna.

In the endnotes, she mentions the resonance between the two words, portrayals and trails. An epigraph defines edge effect as the place where two communities overlap like a Venn diagram. Because these liminal areas share characteristics of both communities, they boast a richer diversity than the bulk of the community. I am reminded of a time Jill and I were at the Worcester Art Museum looking at a painting of two blocks of color. I couldn't make sense of it until Jill pointed out that where the colors met was no clear line, but a shimmer of many colors, spreading, interpenetrating, playing off of each other.

I enjoyed the first part of this book but the second, the trail poems, seemed impenetrable to me. In one of my maillists we have been discussing poems you have to take a chisel to, their peculiar rewards, and what it is fair to ask of a reader.

I've mentioned here before how each reader brings to a book a constellation of circumstances that the author can have no way of anticipating. I had just come off a stretch of reading the poetry of William Carlos Williams in order to prepare to lead a discussion and, after his adherence to plain language and the rhythms of speech, McPherson's trail poems seemed overly complex and obscure. I had trouble following the sense of the sentences. Even some of the flora was new to me: I know weeds and wildflowers, but mostly those of the east coast. Of the places she names, I have walked only one.

Remembering the chisel, I struggled with several poems, reading and rereading, not sure that the effort was worth the reward. Then as night fell, I read a poem that I simply didn't understand. Irritated at being held at arm's length, I tossed the book aside.

That full-moon night I dreamed many dreams, but the last one was of my city, the one I often dream about, but a new aspect of it: underground. Cynthia had to go downtown for an interview, so for the adventure of it, we decided to go by way of the abandoned water tunnels that we'd heard interconnected in such a way that you could get from the uptown plaza with the blue reflecting pools to downtown's towers without ever surfacing.

To make it more interesting, and because we thought it too far to walk, we rode two glossy brown horses. I'm not sure where we got them—the only horses I'd seen in this city before had belonged to mounted police—but we seemed to know them well. And our small cats, Blue and Sophie, came with us, scampering alongside when not dashing off to explore.

The tunnels were where our friend Frank, who had designed the plaza with the reflecting pools, said they would be and tall enough for us to ride easily. I'm not sure what the source of the dim illumination was. Sometimes we slowed to a walk while the horses picked their way over cobbles strewn with broken chunks of branches, smoothed from their immersion years earlier. Other times we moved up to a trot, the smooth motion of posting like a second heartbeat.

But then we came to a dark pool with no way around. Nor was it shallow enough to walk through. I let my horse step into it, but he soon lost his footing and began to swim, so we returned to shore. Cynthia didn't want to risk ruining her interview clothes, tied up in a bundle behind her saddle, so we decided to retrace our steps and ride downtown on the familiar surface street.

As we emerged from the tunnel, Cynthia spied two friends of hers—she has friends everywhere, dream city or no—entering an apartment door. Chatting of many things, she explained our dilemma. The women said they often used the tunnels and invited us to dinner the next night. I hoped that over pasta and wine they would reveal the secrets of the unfathomable pool and how to traverse it. We emerged into sunshine and the bright shimmer of the reflecting pools. My cat Blue squirmed under a fence, taking off on her own adventures, and I awoke.

I reread the poem, and this time it made perfect sense. I found that I had dreamed the poem: the wood underfoot, the depths and dim tracings of time, the intricate working of fetlock, cannon and pasterns. I went back to the earlier poems, and their rewards came easily. Sometimes it takes a chisel; sometimes a dream.

The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu

Last year, Kyoto celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of this epic tale, generally considered to be the world's first true novel. Consisting of 54 chapters, it describes courtly life in the Heian era of Japan, which extended from 794 to 1191, when Kyoto was the nation’s capital. An extended period of peace and prosperity meant that art and literature flourished, and a Japanese culture, distinct from that of China, began to emerge, a culture based on poetry and music rather than the arts of war.

The author is a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, who lived in Kyoto from approximately 978 to 1014. Her real name is unknown. Her first name, Murasaki, is the name of Genji’s most beloved wife, while Shikibu comes from an office held by her father. After her husband's death, she became a courtier to the empress Joto Mon'in. According to tradition, Murasaki dreamt up The Tale of Genji during a single night at the Ishiyama-dera Temple in August of 1004 while she contemplated the moon (which curiously reminded me of J.K. Rowling’s famous train ride in which she conceived of the entire Harry Potter sequence). Evidence indicates the tale was composed sometime between 1001 and 1010.

The story covers three generations of aristocratic and royal families, but concentrates primarily on one man, Prince Genji, the son of the emperor and a lesser consort. Genji is a hero of love rather than battle, a man who appreciates women of all types and stations. These women are not just conquests to him, notches on a sword, but individuals. He is attentive to their lives and wants and needs, and it is this sensitivity, along with his surpassing beauty, that makes him so successful a lover.

I had to keep reminding myself to suspend judgment. This tale is set in a different culture, far distant in time and place, with different mores and different expectations. I found it hard not to be shocked by the casual assumption that all women are there for an aristocrat’s taking, whether they like it or not, and that a man forcing himself on a woman may be considered romantic and the prelude to a love match. Genji is regarded as remarkable for taking responsibility for the women he has used in this way, housing them in a wing of one of his palaces or providing for their upkeep. A different time. A different culture.

Once I could let go of outrage, I fell victim to the poetry:

“‘_Ageless_ shall be the name of our pleasure boats.’

‘Our boats row out into the bright spring sun,
And water drops from the oars like scattering petals.'”

It is not just the small poems Genji exchanges with friends and lovers, but the narrative and description. “Even the most ordinary music can seem remarkable if the time and place are right; and here on the wide seacoast, open far into the distance, the groves seemed to come alive in colors richer than the bloom of spring or the change of autumn, and the calls of the water rails were as if they were pounding on the door and demanding to be admitted . . . ‘A bridge that floats across dreams?’ he whispered, reaching for a koto . . . Diffidently she took up the lute which he pushed towards her, and they played a brief duet.”

And it is not all about love and music. The author writes sensitively of nature: “There was a heavy fall of snow . . . The contrast between the snow on the bamboo and the snow on the pines was very beautiful . . . (Genji says,) ‘People make a great deal of the flowers of spring and the leaves of autumn, but for me a night like this, with a clear moon shining on snow, is the best — and there is not a trace of color in it. I cannot describe the effect it has on me, weird and unearthly somehow.'”

Here is Genji after his father’s death:

“Coming to the grave, Genji almost thought he could see his father before him. Power and position were nothing once a man was gone. He wept and silently told his story, but there came no answer, no judgment upon it. And all those careful instructions and admonitions had served no purpose at all?

‘Quickly the blossoms fall. Though spring departs,
You will come again, I know, to a city of flowers.'”

And of Genji’s own death Murasaki says:

“He went away like the foam upon the waters.”

Waiting, by Ha Jin

Picking up this quiet book after last week’s The Clockers was like bursting out of the rapids into a wide pool of water, where ripples gently rock your craft and the roar of the water is replaced by the soothing buzz of crickets and cicadas. Price’s sprawling saga of inner city violence gave way to this focused exploration of a man’s heart.

Lin Kong is a doctor in the Chinese Army, living at the army hospital in Muji City. Every summer, he visits his home in the rural village where he grew up and where his wife and daughter still live. His marriage to Shuyu was arranged by his parents, and after the wedding, Lin is disappointed to find that she looks decades older than her age and was illiterate. Shuyu is old-fashioned both in appearance, with her bound feet measuring only four inches long, and by nature, humble and deferential. Hard-working, she labors in their plot of land, takes care of Lin’s parents until their deaths, and raises their daughter Hua.

Meanwhile, Lin has fallen into an understanding with a nurse who lives in a dormitory at the hospital. Forbidden by hospital rules to live together or even to walk together outside the hospital grounds, they still spend time together. For many years Manna has eaten meals with Lin, walked with him inside their restricted area, and waited for him to divorce his wife. The hospital rule is that a man had to be separated from his wife for eighteen years before he can divorce her without her consent. As the story opens, Lin has not had relations with his wife for seventeen years, since Hua’s birth.

Of course, if Manna had known from the outset how many years she would have to wait for Lin, she might have made different choices. On his annual visit home, Lin would ask Shuyu for a divorce. Sometimes she would agree but always changed her mind when standing before the judge. Part of what fascinated me about this story was the way minor, seemingly inconsequential choices over the years can lead to an impasse that no one wants or can find happiness in.

It is the mysterious nature of happiness, or—let’s not go overboard—just contentment that is being examined here. Unfulfilled longing can eat away at your soul, but getting what you ask for can be a curse.

Of course, I was reminded of Faith Wilding’s 1972 monologue, “Waiting”. As Wilding herself describes it:, the monologue “condenses a woman’s entire life into a monotonous, repetitive cycle of waiting for life to begin while she is serving and maintaining the lives of others.” When I first read it in Judy Chicago’s book Through the Flower, a few years after its inaugural performance at Womanhouse, it jolted me into a new understanding of wasted time and the need to be mindful of each moment.

Although this brief description of the story as a man trying to divorce his loyal wife while also keeping the modern woman he loves on a string would be enough to raise the hackles of any self-respecting feminist, I gave the book a chance because it was by Ha Jin. I’d read another book of his, a seemingly simple story that ended up resonating deeply, not just with me, but with everyone else in my book club. I found Waiting just as satisfying.

I particularly like stories like this one where we stay with one or two characters, examining them from all sides, observing their natures gently unfolding, just as I like to stay awhile in that quiet pond, listening to the cicadas ruffle the air with their song, watching the damselflies skim across the water’s surface, instead of paddling quickly past to get somewhere else. Stories like this one reveal the depth and complexity of a person, of each person. They remind me to pay attention. To be present in this moment, instead of waiting, as Wilding says, for what might come next.