The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon

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In the 1940s, the US Government approves a proposal to establish a settlement for European Refugees at Sitka – a seaside town in Alaska. These refugees, largely Jews fleeing the holocaust, establish a culturally and economically thriving settlement. In this fictional narrative, the state of Israel lasts but a few months in 1948 before it is overrun by Arab forces and destroyed completely. Thus Sitka becomes the focal point of Jewry, with members of various denominations packed tightly into that tiny town. Sixty years later, this territory is set to be handed back to the State of Alaska, throwing life in the frigid shtetl back in flux. 

Meyer Landsman, a highly respected homicide detective is at rock bottom due to his failed marriage and consequent alcoholism. With two months to go before the Sitka Police Department is either integrated into the Alaskan administration or disbanded altogether, Landsman’s life gets more complicated when he begins to investigate the shooting death of his neighbour – a heroin-addicted chess prodigy.

What ensues is a thrilling ride through the Alaskan shtetl – two murder mysteries entwined with a sinister global plot featuring eccentric chess players, Chassidic gangsters, and diabolical government agents.

Within the first three pages, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union rises miles above mere pulp fiction as a masterpiece that can be enjoyed at multiple levels. The book does well as a thrilling whodunit with a well-woven plot, sufficiently justifying the time you take with it. The more discerning reader has deeper themes to enjoy. Chabon has made up an intuitive Yiddish slang to correspond with life in the Film Noir shtetl. Common Yiddish terms appear matter-of-factly through the text, and the alternative meaning clicks in place effortlessly – instances are “sholem” for firearm and “latke” for patrolman. Yiddish phrases such as “A shvortz yor” and “Er zol kakn mit blit un mit ayter” appear in their English approximations throughout the book – a sort of a secret handshake to readers with exposure to the mame loshen.

Beyond the linguistic theme, there is the deeper exploration of Jewish identity. Landsman’s colleague and cousin – Berko Shemets – is the son of a Jewish father and a Tlingit mother. The implicit question of Berko’s Jewishness takes the reader on a tumultuous and thought provoking ride through his personal history; his view of his father; the Jewish-Tlingit conflict in the early days of Sitka; and the varied cultural interpretations of “Who is a Jew?”  

Without weighing down the plot or flow, Chabon effortlessly integrates a succinct narration of the exhausting rigours of Chassidic observances and Judaism’s heretofore unfulfilled hopes of a messiah. There is also a riveting account of politics and power play within a Chassidic clan.

In short, Michael Chabon has crafted a pulp masterpiece that is entertaining, tragic, funny, and educational. There’s the ever-present spark of an indefatigable hope in a time of intense bewilderment. At the end of this book, whoever you are, you’ll empathize deeply with its characters and feel a little Jewish.

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Book Review: Leila By Prayaag Akbar

[no spoliers]

This is a review of the Book by Prayaag Akbar, and NOT the Netflix series.

Leila is set in the not too distant future, when the social fracturing and economic inequality in Indian society leads to a nation divided into cloisters based on linguistic and caste identity. A grassroots leader who claims to be representing the interests of the socially disadvantaged vaults into power at the head of a sweeping political movement. A brutish army of “repeaters” – a epithet earned by their tendency to chant slogans and parade – enforces the movement’s moral and social standards. The nation is in decline, clean air, potable water, and security are at a premium. Climate change and crumbling urban infrastructure make life a challenge for all but the most privileged.

Shalini, the protagonist, grows up in a prosperous household that sees its fortunes decline as the traditional structures of privilege are eroded by rising economic inequality, social fracturing, and climate change. She marries her high school sweetheart – a Muslim – and together, they move to a neighbourhood where cosmopolitan intercultural couples like them lead a life that seems insulated from the turmoil outside.

On the evening of a party hosted by them, a group of repeaters attack their home, kill her husband, and send Shalini to a re-education camp. Their daughter goes missing. The novel, set sixteen years from the party, follows Shalini’s efforts to locate her child with the back-story revealed in non-linear flashbacks.

As the father of an intercultural child and someone who is concerned about inequality and climate change, this novel fuelled my private anxieties about India’s future. Akbar has concocted a compelling tale that could be considered the average-case outcome of current-day events. This novel is a thought-provoking read for anyone who is unsure about the long-term outcome of our direction as a nation.

As a novel though, Leila is a bit rough at the edges. It feels as if Akbar wrote this book in the last three weeks of a twelve-month deadline and sent his second draft to press. Given the complexity of the themes in this book, Akbar had a choice to make this book about a quest, a tale of personal misfortune, or a social commentary. He tries to do all three, and ends up with a hodgepodge that is part Die Hard, part Animal Farm, and part Nineteen Eighty Four. Two thirds into the book, a weak plot twist breaks the suspense and the ending is totally predictable.

Regardless of its technical deficiencies, Leila remains a compelling read and an important commentary on inequality, class, and climate change in the Indian context.

Own It: Leadership Lessons from Women Who Do

A well rounded book of personal stories and sound advice.

Books on professional development, more often than not, tend to be a uni-dimensional and disguised boast. Authors of such books – often successful executives – use the benefit of hindsight to weave a “strategy” to help one succeed. These books often lie within demographic bubbles that make them irrelevant to people from other cultures. The bullet points at the back of Aparna’s book seemed like generic career advice – but it was the Preface that sealed my decision to buy this book. Aparna claims that she interviewed 190 women in senior leadership positions, and I was eager to hear what they had to say. Divided into six dense chapters, this book certainly says a lot!

The first section on Biases, Bullies, and the Boys’ Club contains a number of first-person accounts. Those hoping for a string of happy endings will be sorely disappointed. While there are some stories of women who have been able to prevail over the patriarchy ingrained in corporate systems, there are poignant accounts of the emotional and psychological damage that such workplaces can cause. More often than not, the woman leaves the company for a workplace that is more woman-friendly.

The second section, Pinstripe Predators, deals with sexual harassment. Here too, there are few happy endings. Most of the accounts in this section describe the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that ways that companies protect their predator stars. There is a balance though – the section mentions cases where sexual harassment laws have been unfairly used against men – for instance – to cover up a consensual affair.

The third section – The Man and his Mother – is particularly relevant to the Working Woman in India. While I know that married women face challenges at home when it comes to balancing work and a career, I had no idea that this affected even women at the top of the corporate ladder. This chapter was very interesting, Aparna mentions strategies that women have used to manage their relationship with their husband’s family. If you’re a working woman who is married or plans to get married, this chapter is the strongest reason to buy this book.

Pregnancy, pumps, and paternity, the fourth section, dwells on the challenges that pregnancy and children pose to a woman’s career. This section too, is rich with strategies and sound advice on delegation and enrolling spouses and family to pitch in. Like the other sections of this book, this too tells the other side of the story. Aparna includes case studies of how companies today are establishing support systems for employees who take a break to have children. Crucially, she cites real-world instances where corporate leaders prove that this makes business sense.

Diversity is just a ‘Danda’ discusses how diversity initiatives range from being merely a checkbox to functional programmes that lead to an inclusive workplace. Aparna’s interlocutors highlight regulations such as the mandate for female independent directors on company boards and comment on how these can be used effectively.

The sixth section, the Woman Impedimenta, was the most valuable section of this book to me personally. Aparna is really in her element as a coach and communicator, and has very sound advice for anyone in the workforce. She prescribes actions, attributes, and development goals for anyone seeking to advance in corporate life. I read this chapter three times, and now, starting a new job, plan to read it again. Man or woman, college fresher or middle management, you NEED to read this chapter.

Overall, Own it was an enlightening read. While this book is aimed at women in the workplace, Aparna steers clear of the slippery slope of criticizing and commiserating. She deals with difficult topics and relays sound advice from women who have shown up, owned it, and prevailed. The anecdotes, told in graphic detail, enroll the reader in the situation, the issue, and the solution. The section on “Man and his Mother” is unique, and is a must read for any Indian woman. The Woman Impedimenta has crisp and actionable career advice for anyone at any stage in their corporate career.

There are some rough points though – a financial planner interviewed in this book suggests that gold jewellery is a sound investment. In my opinion, this is inaccurate, and the realizable value of gold jewellery can be as low as 50 per cent of the sticker price. People would be much better off learning the basics of investing – deposits, mutual funds, etc, and self-manage a small portfolio. The information is freely available, and all it takes is a few hours each month to keep oneself abreast of market movements. Investments in equity, real estate, and alternative assets would need help from a professional.

An account in the book describes the disintegration of a marriage after a couple repatriated to India and the man, who was no longer working became a couch potato and a slob. This account, I felt, offered an overly simplistic view of what could have been depression triggered by a transition to “trailing spouse”.

You need to read this book if:

You’re a woman in the workforce

You’re a woman about to enter the workforce

You’re a people manager or aspire to be one

You’re an entrepreneur with an idea who is planning to start a company

You’re a man who has been a mute spectator to sexist or predatory behavior and has been at a loss for what to do

Buy on Amazon 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

img_5213-2A chronicle of human despair with hope for the future

Yuval Harari is a historian and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His earlier books (which I haven’t yet read) appear to be on military subjects – “Renaissance Military Memoirs: History and Identity”; “Special Operations in the Age of Chivalry”; and “The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture”.  With Sapiens, Harari has made an ambitious attempt to chronicle the journey that Homo Sapiens has taken over the past 100,000 years.

In Sapiens, Harari suggests that three “revolutions” have played a pivotal role in getting humans to where we are today. The first, the Cognitive Revolution, enabled humans to develop fictive language that allows people to tell stories, and further, believe in “shared delusions” such as God, Human Rights, and Peugeot. The Cognitive Revolution supposedly allowed humans to unite in larger social groups under shared fictions such as religion and national identity to thrive in an environment where competing humanoid species such as Homo Rudolfensis, Homo Erectus, and Homo Neanderthalensis failed. Consequently, it is either through genocide, or winning the contest for shared resources, that Homo Sapiens prevailed and remain the only Human race on the planet.

The second revolution, Harari postulates, is the agricultural revolution, which marked a transition from the forager lifestyle to the creation of human settlements. The consequent food security permitted human energy to be directed to the development of arts, commerce, and science.

The third, the scientific revolution, brought colonization of the entire planet, improved lifespan, and a more integrated global society. Harari tracks how science, politics, religion and business worked hand-in-hand to bring humans together. Despite what the media would have us believe, Harari suggests that we are currently living in the most peaceful and just period in human history.

This book, however, is not a history textbook. Harari points out that while historians have kept track of events, they haven’t really chronicled human happiness. Are we happier? Harari suggests that given the workings of human consciousness, a peasant in the dark ages who believed in heaven may have been happier than a modern atheist trying to amass experiences and achievement before a final oblivion. This thread segues into a subtle plug for the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. A criticism of the cruel treatment of domesticated animals is another key feature of this book.

In his conclusion, Harari stops short of offering a prediction for the future – perhaps his publisher wanted him to save that for the sequel – Homo Deus, which is also on my reading list.

Harari has an easy, immersive style, peppered with witticisms that relieve the intellectual stress for the lay reader. That being said, this book is dense, both in information and insight. Meticulously researched and heavily annotated, Sapiens is a brilliantly written book that I highly recommend.

Buy on Amazon – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind