Monday, March 30, 2009

Tweets, Textiquette and the Tsunami of Technology

We had a long and involved discussion at last Sunday’s Descant literary magazine meeting (where I serve as a Co-Editor) about upcoming themes for future issues. We meet once a month. One co-editor suggested a theme along the lines of communications and incivility, the erosion of the personal and public space (an idea which obsesses me a bit I must say). I think that was the gist of the suggestion. This conversation carried over into drinks at a bar down the street after the meeting.

I cannot say it isn’t maddening to have a friend or colleague peering at their Blackberry, cellphone, PDA, or what have you, during a meeting, social or otherwise, or that I haven’t nearly lost my mind asking my daughter J to put away, put away, please put away, the cellphone, DS, Macbook, etc … she is using when company is over, during dinner, while practicing her guitar, etc …

Listening to complete strangers discuss the most intimate or unsettling details of their lives to friends, boyfriends or sisters on the streetcar ain’t my idea of fun either. And I fear that I will soon become one of those old, sour-faced ladies who will bellow to some apple cheeked but oblivious youth on the subway: “COULD YOU PLEASE TURN DOWN YOUR IPOD??”

But although a curmudgeon at heart, I feel we rail against a stronger foe than ourselves that cannot be beaten, indeed, should not be beaten. Secretly, I do sometimes wring my hands thinking, “Why can’t people send handwritten letters any more instead of e-mails?” To my mind, e-mails are as a characterless and ephemeral as the dust on butterfly wings – who will save the e-mails that we send to each other a hundred years from now? “Why don’t we read more newspapers?” I sometimes wonder. The great newspapers are being diminished and destroyed, page by page, column by column, every day for readers who favour getting their news on-line. Guilty as charged because that’s what I do now for the most part aside from the occasional Globe & Mail or New York Times.

“Why can’t X just call me instead of tweeting or writing on their Facebook page or sending me a text or an e-mail?” But I am part of that problem too …

“Why am I getting my political news from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Bill Maher’s Real Time rather than Peter Mansbridge or Brian Williams?” I sometimes think guiltily.

I really do have these thoughts and that’s just … sad.

I will attempt to answer these questions: We now have access to modes of communication that are seen to be more relevant, faster, exciting, interesting to utilize. Not necessarily superior, mind you, but more relevant, faster, exciting, interesting. The new technology is like a tsunami and there is no point in saying I really wish I wasn’t in the path of that tsunami. I really wish we had been better to the environment and then maybe this wouldn’t have happened. You are in its path, it has now reached the balcony and the roof - it’s here now so how shall we deal with it? Despite moralizing and handwringing, we cannot compel people, especially younger people, to use modes of communication or media that may seem outdated, un-user friendly, not ecologically sound, uninteresting.

I love newspapers but I don’t subscribe to one anymore.

I love my library of books but I have definitely reduced my purchase of them now sometimes borrowing from libraries and friends and weeding out my library at home (I have images of my kid cursing me when I pass away and she has to dispose of all my books and such).

I am a bit of a news hound but am I listening to respected news anchors on the CBC or network television? No, I’m guiltily watching Jon Stewart on the Comedy Channel or Anderson Cooper on CNN or reading the Globe & Mail on-line.

When compelled to do something that one finds somewhat distasteful but necessary (as in engaging with the real world - as irksome as that may be to some of us) do as Lady Alice Hillingdon, wife of 2nd Baron Hillingdon, did in 1912.
When speaking of the need to fulfill her husband’s unsolicited desires she wrote: “I lie down on my bed, close my eyes … and think of England.” The original quote, possibly apocryphal, was a bit more graphic than this but you get the message.

Think of the phrase “Think of England” as the future, and that this is the technology that I will need to navigate the new world with. Pretending that the world has not changed or should change to your liking won’t make you more adapted to it. Only a bit sadder …

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Autograph Man

The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith (Penguin Books, 2002) 419 pages

In reviewing Smith’s second book, I don’t want to join the anti-Zadie bandwagon post publication of White Teeth. There was great hoopla when she published White Teeth (a truly wonderful book) in 2000 and her first published effort which met with incredible acclaim for one so young and so new to the scene.

There was a little bit of overstated blather about her in the media, I suspect, not because she wasn’t enormously talented but because she was so young, she was so brown, so pretty (and therefore un-author-like), bi-racial, highly educated and articulate.

I always think in these scenarios that there is a little bit of Dr. Johnson’s response to the viewing of a talking dog at work here when I read the accolades being heaped upon her: "the wonder is not that it was done well but that it was done at all" which astounds the reading public.

When this second book came out there was the inevitable letdown in the literary community – it wasn’t as accomplished as White Teeth. Would she prove a one hit wonder, etc…? Who could live up to all that hype? And she was so gracious about the praise about her talent and physical beauty.

Whenever I dislike work by a writer I admire and can't articulate why I search for an explanation by a better writer - am I jealous? am I too simple to "get" it? am I too harsh in my assessment? But I think I found in James Wood's well known review for the London Review of Books a pretty good summation for what I could not articulate: it feels inauthentic, it is painfully unfunny, and the main character Alex is vacant, boring character devoid of depth engaged in a sad and superficial profession - the buying and trading of autographs.

This book feels so sophomoric and undisciplined in its prose next to White Teeth that one has to wonder if it was written well before White Teeth, it feels so much like a first effort. Did her agent and publisher push her to produce something right after the success of the first book?

Alex Li-Tandem, our 27 year old hero, is a half Chinese, half Jewish autograph hound who buys and trades for money. The book is an odd and not terribly interesting combination of pop culture, movie trivia and musings about the Kabbalah, Zen and Jewishness vs. goyishness. Unfortunately none of these topics engaged me much. Alex, as you can imagine, is surrounded by fellow nerdy “Autograph Men” like Dove, Duchamp and Lovelear with whom he travels to conventions and trades and buys product.

His chief obsession in life is obtaining the autograph of a fictitious beauty, the 40s film actress Kitty Alexander of Russian/Italian descent who seems to be combination of Louise Brooks and Greta Garbo. She lives in America, now a recluse, and has never responded to Alex’s requests over thirteen years for an autograph. One day he receives the autograph by mail but cannot fathom why or how after so many years. His friends are convinced that he fabricated it himself and he is going mad.

Wood's observation rings too true that this is one of those ...
"... novels in which the leading characters are human Cray computers of arcane trivial facts, in which people quote Casablanca to each other, or start conversations with challenges like ‘name three vintage Hollywood decapitations’, or go on about Kitty Alexander and Lauren Bacall, are now coming to seem dismally familiar. We have had High Fidelity, and White Noise, and Quentin Tarantino, and The Sopranos, and Fury, and by now we get the idea that we are poor sops in the society of spectacle, and that everyone under fifty speaks in consumer clichés and TV tags. It may be time to retire this little observation."

On a trip to New York for a memorabilia convention, Alex is determined to meet Kitty Alexander and inadvertently enlists the aid of a Divine Brown like figure (yes like the Divine Brown who got entangled with actor Hugh Grant back in the 90s) named Honey Smith who is, get this, part-time prostitute, part-time memorabilia collector and trader. Why she would be interested in a geek like Alex is never really explained. I think that Honey is likely meant to be a metaphor for the seedier side of fame and notoriety.

Of course, Alex finds Kitty fairly quickly in NYC despite a few petty obstacles and in such an improbable manner. Of course, she absolutely loves him upon meeting him and reveals why she has not written before. It’s such a silly, contrived plot. And it makes no sense at all …

Honey’s interest in Alex, her interest in memorabilia, her interest in helping him find Kitty Alexander, Kitty’s ecstatic swooning over Alex’s letters which have been kept from her all along ... sister please. Alex's fascination with Alexander is understandable but unconvincing to me even as one who has a similar sort of fetishistic interest in silent film actress Louise Brooks. And why the beautiful Esther back in England (sister of best friend Adam) would be involved with Alex is a stretch as well … nerdy, neurotic, unreliable Alex who constantly disappoints her?

Not terribly interesting writing tics appear throughout the book such as references to characters making the “international gesture for …” fill in the blank – wonder, boredom, disbelief, anger, etc … bits of arcane movie trivia, pieces of the Kabbalah as interpreted by Alex’s more devout Jewish friends. Each chapter heading contains a tiny, vaguely comical synopsis of the chapter which is meant to telegraph all the funny bits.

Perhaps we are meant to think that Alex is redeemed from his mediocre, superficial life by what he tries to do for Kitty Alexander at the end or by his final token of respect for his deceased father Li-Jin by attending his Yahrzeit which he has resisted throughout the novel for some inexplicable reason. In my view, he is not redeemed.

My advice: skip this book and pick up White Teeth. Let’s wait for Smith to fulfill her bountiful promise as exemplified by the first book.

Monday, March 23, 2009


Pontypool (Canada, 2008) directed by Bruce MacDonald

I was dragged somewhat reluctantly to see this film by the husband but I'm glad that I went. Based on a novel by Tony Burgess whom I knew slightly from when I was the Fiction Editor of a quirky little lit mag called Blood & Aphorisms which was run into the ground with its staff dispersed by its new avaricious owner/publisher many years ago in the 1990s. He shall remain unnamed as he thrives on any media mention good or bad. But that's another story (or blog) I fear. Listen to Burgess talk about the film here.

Burgess' fiction work always left me a little cold if intrigued. He's obviously very bright and writes fiction in an ingenious way which at times verges on what might be described as the horror genre but the work is too smart and interesting to be labelled merely as such. This is how the film struck me as well. The psychological terror elicited is truly disturbing (with a minimum of gore I might add).

On his way to work on a wintery Valentine's Day morning, radio personality Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) finds himself confronted with a strange woman wandering around in the snowstorm trying to communicate something to him. She is obviously distressed but disappears before he can find out what's wrong. As TIFF's Steve Gravestock has so cleverly put it in a description of the film when it premiered at the film festival last September, Mazzy looks and sounds a bit like shock jock Don Imus but one who likes to quotes Norman Mailer and Roland Barthes on air.
He arrives at The Beacon, a small radio station based in a church basement in the town of Pontypool, perturbed and intrigued, sharing this info with his producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle). The day rapidly spins out of control. Weather reports and traffic updates, brief announcements about school closures give way to a series of strange radio announcements as communicated by the station's lone roving reporter Ken Loney, voiced by Rick Roberts, who allegedly is flying around in a chopper above Pontypool but in actuality sits in his car at the top of a hill to survey traffic in the small town.
A group of people have attacked and destroyed the practice of Dr. John Mendes (Hrant Alianak) and the OPP are having a shootout with a group of people who were ice fishing. The suspects, or rioters, are reported to be speaking gibberish, running around naked and, in some instances, missing body parts. They are obviously zombies we realize but how did they become so?

Slowly Sydney and Grant are able to piece together that the virus is spread by language, the English language specifically, and hastened by "terms of endearments". Okay, here's where it gets weird ... However, the zombies are not infected by the French language which both Grant and Sydney speak a little of. Which means what? That if we Canadians were truly bilingual we might stave off disaster here in Canada? Is my little brian thinking too hard on this one? My reading of this is strengthened by BBC reports from a twitty British broadcaster on the telephone fed to Grant and Sydney that "French Canadian forces" have landed in Pontypool and are attacking the zombies (this turns out to be true).
This is a very interesting writer. In talking about the film, he described the zombies as being "metaphors for metaphors that keeping hunting you long after their meaning as figures of speech have left the stage". Hmm, chew on that for a bit ...

Much of the horror is off screen and frighteningly effective as the zombies attack the radio station and try to get in: we sometimes see only bits of these creatures, sometimes through a blood smeared glass or hear the devastation through a phone call to the station listened to by the horrified Grant, Sydney and Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly), the station's technician. Good thing too ... I don't know how much more I could have taken if it was more graphic. As it was I was reduced to covering my eyes during particularly frightening segments ... gulp!

A wonderful, bizarre film. Regrettably only showing in two cinemas in the GTA. Get'im while they're hot folks.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Is there nothing more pathetic than a reader (invariably female) hanging around a handsome male author waiting for him to sign her copy of his book? Sadly, or happily depending on your perspective and how close you were standing to him, I found myself in this exact situation recently when I went to hear Joseph Boyden read at the University of Toronto with two colleagues from work.

He was part of a four person panel of Indigenous Writers called “Telling Our Stories: Indigenous Writers Symposium” featuring Joseph Boyden, Marilyn Dumont, Drew Hayden Taylor and Richard Van Camp at the OISE/UT Auditorium on March 18, 2009. Okay this is the thing that is always messing me up … it’s not cool to use that Eurocentric concoction “Indian” any more is it?
I like the position this woman Christina Berry has taken on the correct usage - refer to a person's tribe - after all the culture is so diverse and encompasses so many different groups. It's like referring to someone of European background always as European rather than acknowledging that we are Italian, French, Irish, Belgian and very different from each other.

The group was extremely varied which I think is good – blow up the stereotypes, blow them up real good is what I think. Richard Van Camp (a member of the Dogrib (Tlicho) Nation) has written poems, short stories and novellas and – okay truth to power, this is my blog right? I can speak freely, no? – his interaction with the audience had a bit of a vibe like he was accustomed to speaking very simply to children or very young adults which got on my nerves a wee bit. He started with a short book for babies he had written which was distributed to every new mother in B.C. last year. But I must say I was getting a bit verklempt when he read it thinking of my own daughter as a baby. He had a very positive energy and style which was engaging. He was wearing a photo of himself as a baby around his neck and made the point that if we all did so it would be difficult to be angry at anyone no matter what they did to you …

Marilyn Dumont, the Cree/Metis poet, read some beautiful poetry about beading which she has taken up and a longer non-fiction piece about discovering the fact as an impoverished young girl that she is a direct descendant of Gabriel Dumont who fought with Louis Riel. Lovely demeanour, very gracious and articulate.

Third on the bill was the multi-dimensional Drew Hayden Taylor whom I used to have a bit of a crush on but he came off very arrogantly during his readings – maybe because he was not positioned as the “star” attraction? That must have rankled as he has been on the scene long before Boyden hit it big winning the Giller Prize last year. I remember when I worked for the Ontario government under Bob Rae more than ten years ago he was dating one of the NDP politicos at the time. All I remember of her was her being rude and condescending to me on behalf of her MPP (but hey we were all under siege then I guess).

He started off saying he was glad to be part of this “Who’s Who” of Indigenous writers because for so many years it was “just Drew”. Crickets … crickets … no response at all, not even a titter from the audience which was comprised of a good number of Indigenous people. Hmm, are we referring to ourselves in the third person now? Sure sign of encroaching megalomania, no? He read a long piece from a vampire novel set on a rez, great idea but not great writing … some jokes about Indians and sexuality promoting his latest book Me Sexy. But overall it was very disappointing with a lot of grandstanding.

Boyden was the big name and read last (and deservedly so). He read three pieces: short sections from his previous book Three Day Road, his new book Through Black Spruce and a short piece written for Walrus magazine. All extremely moving especially the last piece which talked about two real incidents: witnessing the murder of a stranger on the streets of New Orleans and then describing the birth of his son Jacob. I was really taken with his reading.

Afterwards there was a very simple reception on the second floor to which we all trooped dutifully. My two friends had to leave a bit early so I was on my own, clutching my copy of Three Day Road. He was, of course, surrounded by several females … oh we are sad, so sad … I was skulking around a little bit trying to get up the courage to ask him to sign but didn’t want to seem too intrusive. I moved to the side with my book. A woman beside me was very kindly urging me to speak to him as she saw the book in my hands. After a few minutes he came up and said very politely, “Did you want me to sign that for you?” A lovely inscription and then on to the next giggly female in line … I scooted out quickly.

Oy … he really does have a megawatt smile that is very evident in the photos on his author’s website (who took these photos Annie Liebowitz?? They are beautiful). And I’m really looking forward to reading the book. I will keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The World of Gaia

Every once in a while your Internet meandering leads you to a beautiful blog ... such were my wanderings the other day. I was googling Blood & Aphorisms, a now defunct lit journal that I volunteered with many years ago as Fiction Editor. One of the writers that was published in B&A now has a film out based on one of his books (see the soon to be published Pontypool entry).

I was feeling a bit nostalgic and wondering if the mag would get many google entries. B&A was the first lit mag that captivated me and that I volunteered with (you never forget your first they say). Not as many entries as I would have liked to see but there was something about one of the anthologies that B&A produced where I had a story called "You Can't be Too Strong" featured. I cribbed the title from a Graham Parker song which used to be a favourite of mine.

I found the lovely blog, The World of Gaia, which I was immediately smitten with ... original photography, poetry, gorgeous design ... what is that new phrase where you are googling yourself (oh yes self-googling or ego-surfing)? Guilty as charged, but I'm glad I did as I never would have found this blog. Gaia had reprinted a small section of a story I had in a B&A anthology which had to do with being raised in an Italian family. What a moving entry she made to accompany this excerpt.

I have added her blog to my blogroll. Please visit The World of Gaia, often.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

... and I'm not that into it either

He's just not that into you directed by Ken Kwapis (U.S., 2009) 129 min.

I really did want to see this film with my pal B but we postponed it until we saw all the Oscar nominated films.

It has a certain ring of truth in it ... despite the silliness of the catch phrase (originally coined on a Sex and the City episode and then made into a book). It captures the insecurity that some women feel when dating, their uncertainty in knowing what men want, how to be happy in a relationship, how to read his signals, etc ... Characters pursue and fling themselves at potential partners who are not that "into" them. The power dynamic is always skewed, with one more ardent than the other. I can't say the experiences depicted are foreign to me.

The little sections prefaced by questions that women and men ask themselves while dating such as why a guy hasn't called hearken back directly to the first few episodes of Sex and the City which remind me of early Woody Allen films set in New York such as Annie Hall. It is a charming technique I admit.

Conor (Kevin Connelly), real estate agent, covets Anna (Scarlett Johannson), yoga instructor; Anna wants Ben (Bradley Cooper), music executive, who is married to Janine (Jennifer Connelly), copywriter for a spice company; Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin), Janine's co-worker, pursues Conor futilely then Alex (Justin Long), bar owner and Conor's friend; Mary (Drew Barrymore), ad sales flunky for a gay magazine, flails along in a number of hopeless relationships, most of them conducted electronically; Beth (Jennifer Aniston), Janine and Gigi's co-worker, and Neil (Ben Affleck) are in love but at cross purposes about where their relationship is going.

Despite the large Robert Altman-style size of the cast and interaction of characters who pop into each others' lives, it is surprisingly conservative in the end. From the title emphasizing that "he" is not into "you" ("you" inevitably being a female) and the opening sequence which shows women of all ages, physical types, ethnicities, moaning about the perfidy of men to the final scenes where those who engage in adultery end up alone (i.e. Ben and Anna's affair). Those who remain true to themselves and honest in their relationships end up playing happy couples: Mary and Conor, Beth and Neil, Gigi and Alex.

Beth leaves Neil because he refuses to marry her after seven years but returns to him realizing that their relationship is as valid as any marriage whereby he decides to marry her making all right in the end. Would it be too subversive to have both reject marriage? Hey, I'm big on the concept myself but I know it's not for everyone nor should it be advocated for everyone.

And why, I wonder, are the women so much more attractive, so much more desirable, than the men here? Kevin Connelly, of Entourage fame thinking he can get and keep the affections of Scarlett Johannson? Ginnifer Goodwin lusting after Mac spokesperson Justin Long? Bradley Cooper (who?) and Johannson?? Why would these women be so hung up on these so-so guys?

Goodwin seems not much different here than her role as Margene in the HBO series Big Love: lovable, goofy, easily duped but good-hearted and she is charming but it doesn't seem like much of a progression from that role as the third wife in the polygamous household depicted in the series. Johannson emulates the flaky, hedonistic sex kitten Cristina from Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Aniston, while extremely likable on screen, has taken to playing these slightly melancholic, put out women who are unlucky in love and inept with men (The Good Girl, Friends with Money, and last year's unbelievably bad Management which premiered at TIFF).

It has its comic moments but the slight characterizations and silly plot take away the pleasure of some of the more sensitive performances by Jennifer Connelly, Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Writers' Sandbox

A fairly well written story in the National Post on Descant and literary journals in general. If you look carefully you will see my hands in the front of the photo. How flattering ... :)

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Visitor

The Visitor (U.S., 2008) written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, 1 hr. 48 min.

This is a film largely overlooked by the general public I think (but not the critics luckily). It's a really terrific film whose only recognition at the Oscars was a Best Actor nomination for the lead Richard Jenkins. Jenkins, an actor who has been in some 70 films, is perhaps best known for his role as the deceased (but reappearing) father on the HBO series Six Feet Under.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a Connecticut College economics professor who fills his lonely hours by taking piano lessons and pretending to be writing a new book between teaching lacklustre college courses. He is an emotionally repressed, very cold individual who seems disconnected to everyone in his life. He is widowed, has a son, whom we never see and of whom he rarely speaks of. Jenkins' face is so expressive here ... even though he says very little it conveys so much: sadness, loneliness, desire, hope for a better life, compassion; he was absolutely wonderful here.

Walter is asked to present a paper at an academic conference at New York University which he reluctantly agrees to do. He has an unused apartment in NYC and is alarmed to discover a couple inhabiting it. He is almost attacked and beaten up by Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), an illegal immigrant from Syria, when Walter comes upon Zanaib (Danai Gurira), his wife/partner from Senegal, in the bathroom. The couple have been deceived into paying rent to a man claiming to be the owner of the apartment during Walter's prolonged absence. In a panic, they gather their belongings and leave. Walter persuades them to return and stay until they have found a new place to live.

Here begins a a slow flowering of Walter's hidden passion for music and a desire for community. Tarek teaches him to play the djembe, an African drum, and a bond forms between the two men. In between his appearance at the conference he joins Tarek in impromptu drumming circles at Central Park. Walter even pitches in for Zanaib who sells "ethnic" jewelry at her little street vendor's table when needed.

Tarek's warm and charismatic nature has unleashed something in Walter. On one musical adventure the two men return by subway to meet Zanaib. Tarek is mistakenly thought to be jumping the subway turnstile and is caught by two subway cops who discover that he has no ID and is an illegal immigrant. The aftermath of 9-11 has reared its ugly head and an atmosphere of terror and paranoia makes every Arabic person a suspect. He is sent to a detention centre in Queens.

Walter hires an immigration lawyer as Zanaib leaves the apartment as she feels it is inappropriate to live there with Walter despite his protests. As an illegal, she cannot visit Tarek without being found out so the task falls to a bewildered, nervous Walter.

Walter is further alarmed to find Mouna (Hiam Abbass), Tarek's mother, literally on his doorstep in NYC. She lives in Michigan and has not received a phone call for almost a week. By the fifth day she realizes that something is terribly amiss. She, too, is an illegal immigrant and cannot risk visiting Tarek. But Walter convinces the lovely, elegant Mouna to remain in the apartment.

A gentle courtship unfolds and the two fall into an amiable domestic routine: Mouna cooks and cleans the apartment; Walter tends to the business of having Tarek released. She urges Walter to return to Connecticut but he reveals that he has no desire to return to his lonely, sterile life. He dislikes his life: the same course that he has taught for twenty years; the fictitious book that he is allegedly writing but has no interest in completing; his empty life as a widower eating alone. He arranges a leave of absence from the college so that he might devote himself to widowed Mouna and her son.

One day, acting on a wistful desire that Mouna has expressed to see a certain Broadway play, he takes her to see a production of Phantom of the Opera. The gesture is small but intensely romantic.

But shortly afterward they discover that Tarek has been deported, without warning or notice, back to Syria. This infuriates the normally sedate Walter who cannot fathom the process or mindset which has brought them all to this point. Mouna makes a decision to return to Syria to be with her son with the understanding that she can never return. Walter can do nothing and she leaves to join Tarek.

But his life changes for the better and so does he. What a wonderful film - true, honest and full of passion.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Yiddish Policemen's Union

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins, 2007) 411 pp.

I am starting to resent this talented writer: young(ish), prolific, learned, imaginative, first published at 25. A writer's worst nightmare. This is an inventive detective/whodunit story with an interesting twist.

The language here is funny, profane and inventive: "Landsman [our hero] can hear them talking about him in the hushed tones reserved for madmen, assholes and unwanted guests."

Imagine a Jewish refuge in the state of Alaska after the imagined collapse of the state of Israel in 1948 in the aftermath of the Holocaust. A Jewish community thrives in the Sitka District of Alaska (a real place in Alaska) - street and hotel names, Jewish rituals, the Yiddish and Hebrew languages spoken, Jewish cuisine - all remain intact in the new world after two million Jews emigrate to the state. It is a completely realized world inhabited largely by Jewish refugees, their descendants and Tlingit Indians.

But there are disturbing rumors that the Jews will be forced out of Alaska due to their burgeoning numbers. This is ominously referred to as "The Reversion" of Alaskan territory to the United States perhaps anxious to rid itself of this group.

Enter Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective, a shammes, middle-aged, melancholic and miserable (do these words always have to go together?). Chabon is very witty with his use of Yiddish and Hebrew and incorporating it into this fully realized world. The original meaning of "shammes" is a sexton in a synagogue but here it sounds very like "shamus", American slang for police officer or private investigator. A gun is a "sholem" (literally meaning "peace" in Hebrew, which sounds exactly like "piece" or gun in street slang). Very clever stuff.

Landsman encounters the death of an apparent junkie who was shot in the head in the Zamenhof hotel, the same fleabag hotel that he resides in. Mendel Shpilman, who was living curiously under the alias of a chess genius, was a known heroin junkie who was so talented that he played multiple games of chess at the Einstein Hotel for spare cash.

The more Landsman digs into the case, the more intrigued and disturbed he becomes. Shpilman is the son of a Verbover rebbe (Verbover being a certain type of Hasidic Jew). The elder Shpilman is also Sitka’s most powerful organized crime boss. Mendel was a child prodigy at the game of chess and the reputed Tzaddik Ha-Dor (the Messiah or "righteous man of his generation"), said to perform miracles. He disappeared on the day he was to be married. We soon find out why.

Landsman's commanding officer Bina Gelbfish, who is also his ex-wife, warns him off the case as the vic's father is a very prominent member of the Verbover community. Even his first cousin and partner Berko (intriguingly half Jewish/half Tlingit Indian) is nervous. Yet Landsman persists in the investigation.

Here the somewhat mysterious death of Landsman's sister Naomi Landsman, a bush pilot, collides with the disappearance of the once professed to be Messiah Mendel Shpilman. Before her death, Naomi had flown Shpilman to Peril Strait - a set of mysterious buildings set up by Jews outside the Sitka District. At first glance, it appears to be, alternately, a drug rehab center, a farm or a military training camp where Mendel might have been seeking treatment for this addiction.

Obviously on to some shady business involving Mendel's death, Landsman ends up at Peril Strait to puruse this. He is threatened, beaten, stripped, locked up and somehow escapes half naked and shackled to a wire frame of a mattress to join his cousin Berko who has followed him there.

Together they uncover an international plot which involves both the return of the Messiah to Jerusalem and the death of his sister.

I actually spelled out more of the plot here until I realized I was revealing too much of the story ... I was puzzled and disappointed by the ending. It seemed too flat. The resolution of Mendel Shpilman's homicide is neither as eventful nor as satisfying as I imagined from this artful book.

But I think we are dealing with a major talent with a vast and encyclopedic knowledge. And being a typical writer I am both gratified by the quality of his work and supremely jealous.