In Michael Chabon's invented world, Yiddish is spoken in the Alaskan panhandle.
After World War II, the Federal District of Sitka in Alaska -- not Israel -- became the homeland for the Jews.
"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" (HarperCollins, May, $26.95) is the much-anticipated novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay." While Chabon has published short stories, a novella and a novel for young adults, this is his first full-length work of fiction since 2000. Film rights have already been bought by Scott Rudin.
Sitka is "a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor street lamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat. The lamps of the Jews stretch from the slope of Mount Edgecumbe in the west, over the seventy-two infilled islands of the Sound, across Shvartsn-Yam, Halibut Point, South Sitka, and the Nachtasyl...."
The novel is set in the present, and Sitka is reverting to Alaskan control, after 60 years of prosperous times for the Jews. Homicide Det. Meyer Landsman of the District Police discovers the corpse of his neighbor, a former chess prodigy, but his investigation is mysteriously ordered closed. This is a hard-boiled detective story that's an homage to 1940s noir, a love story, a meditation on identity and faith and a celebration of language, spiced with Chabon's distinctive humor.
Chabon's first novel, "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," was originally written for his master's degree from the University of California, Irvine, and became a national bestseller. His other novels include "Wonder Boys" and "Model World"; his adventure novel, "Gentlemen of the Road," is now running in serial form in The New York Times Magazine.
Born in 1963, Chabon grew up in Columbia, Md., a planned community with utopian aspirations, and has lived in California for the last 20 years. He now lives in Berkeley with his wife, novelist Ayelet Waldman, and their four children. Chabon will embark on a 15-city author tour, making two unusual stops -- in Anchorage and Juneau.
Chabon will speak in Los Angeles on May 9, 7 p.m., at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., Los Angeles; and May 10, 7 p.m., at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. For more information, visit www.michaelchabon.com.
Einstein, Times Two
Two new biographies look closely at the life and work of the 20th century's most celebrated mind, Albert Einstein, whose name -- and shock of hair -- has come to symbolize genius.
Veteran journalist Walter Isaacson, formerly managing editor of Time magazine and chairman and CEO of CNN, who now heads the Aspen Institute, has written "Einstein: His Life and Universe" (Simon & Schuster, April, $32), following his best-selling biography of Benjamin Franklin.
A journalist with a background in physics, Jurgen Neffe is the author of "Einstein: A Biography," translated by Shelley Frisch (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May, $30). His book was a bestseller in Germany when it was published in 2005, on the 100th anniversary of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.
Isaacson's book is based largely on newly released personal letters of Einstein. More than 3,500 pages of correspondence between Einstein and his two wives and children, along with photos, were released last year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The release was made in accordance with the will of Einstein's stepdaughter, Margot.
Isaacson probes Einstein's private side, as well as how his mind worked. He sees Einstein as a rebel from childhood, always questioning conventional wisdom; his character, curiosity, creativity and passion for freedom were interconnected, driving his life, science and politics.
As Isaacson writes, "His tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science, from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein's universe...."
Isaacson is also the author of "Kissinger: A Biography" and co-author of "The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made"; he lives in Washington, D.C. Neffe looks at Einstein as a parent and physicist, as a citizen and a Jew and as an American. He writes of his complicated subject: "He could reconcile discrepant views of the world, but he was a walking contradiction. Einstein polarized his fellow man like no other. He was a friend to some, an enemy to others, narcissistic and slovenly, easygoing and rebellious, philanthropic and autistic, citizen of the world and hermit, a pacifist whose research was used for military ends."
He adds, "Rarely has a single individual been so far-sighted and myopic at the same time."
The English version was updated to include information from the recently published 10th volume of Einstein's collected papers.
Isaacson will discuss and sign "Einstein: His Life & Universe" on April 27, 7 p.m., at All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena.
Memoirs from Harry Bernstein and Ruth Gruber, both 95
In this age of memoir, two new volumes are particularly notable for their wisdom and the age of their writers: Both Harry Bernstein and Ruth Gruber are 95. Bernstein is a first-time author, making his literary debut with "The Invisible Wall" (Ballantine, March, $22.95), and Gruber is a veteran author and journalist. "Witness" (Schocken, April, $27.50) is her 19th book.
The wall of Bernstein's title is the figurative barrier running down the middle of the street in a northern English mill town on the eve of World War I. On opposite sides were Jewish families and Christian families; the two didn't speak, although they had much in common in terms of poverty as well as prejudice. Written from the perspective of a young boy, the memoir details how the author's sister crossed the line, falling in love with a brilliant young Christian man. Harry was the go-between, hiding their secret. He describes the atmosphere inside their home and outside in the fear-filled world.
Bernstein, who lives in Brick, N.J., began this book about four years ago after his wife died. At his age, he says, people have less of a present and no future, so the past becomes larger. When he started thinking about his childhood, the memories came easily.
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