Skip to content

JuliansAbroad: El Toro y La Cruz Posts

Maybe Read This Book: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

I love reading what Michael Chabon writes. As an American author, he has few living peers. When he’s average, he’s better than average, and when he’s on, he can break your heart.

Given that love for Chabon, I don’t know why it took me so long to sit down and read this book. Last year I read a collection of Chabon’s essays, two collections of short fiction, and an early novel, but The Yiddish Policemen’s Union has been sitting on my shelf longer than all of those. On reflection, I can only conclude that the reason I read those first was because they were on my Kindle, and for my reading habits, the convenience of a Kindle significantly exceeds that of a single, paper volume.

But on my shelf it sat, for maybe six years, its brightly colorful dust-jacket collecting dust, its title full of promise.

This year, as I mentioned, I’m trying to mix my reading between Kindle and paper copies. I also put together a list of fiction both literary and genre (ha!), old and new, American and international. And a few of these books are setting there like treats, drawing me on through the less-anticipated works, like King John or This Side of Paradise. Chabon’s book was one of these treats.

And it was a treat. The story was entertaining. The language was—as always with Chabon—beautiful. The characters were tragic and hilarious. The resolution was resolute.

The quick and dirty summary of the plot: in an alternate history, Israel’s attempt at nationhood failed in the late 40’s, and the United States granted some land in Sitka, Alaska to Jewish exiles. After 60 years, the US government is dominated by a group of apocalyptically-minded and fairly loony evangelical Christians who are on the verge of shutting down the temporary Jewish state and returning Sitka to Native American control. The main character, Meyer Landsman, is an alcoholic, divorced, nihilistic detective investigating the murder of a neighbor who turns out to be someone much more important than expected. And with that opening, the case proceeds to wind its way through the various corners of Sitka’s dying society, coming to a satisfying and dissatisfying conclusion.

Among other awards, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union won the Nebula, Locus, Sidewise, and Hugo awards.

A few thoughts:

You’ll notice I changed the title from “Read This Book” to “Maybe Read This Book.” Here’s why: Chabon has always treated his own Jewish heritage with some mixture of skepticism, frustration, love, and confusion. In this book, he does the same for the most part, but unfortunately dips into hateful invectives at times. I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say he was pretty frustrated with conservative political perspectives during the second President Bush’s administration—the various cheap shots are buried, but not too buried to miss. Case-in-point: the sub-plot involving a mysterious cabal of evangelical Christians who are not only controlling the government from the White House down to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but who are also arranging a series of geo-political events with the goal of bringing about the final apocalypse.

This is where alternate histories fail for me. Some writers of alternate history use their alternate histories to condemn or warn about some trend the author sees in our history. But, as someone wiser than me put it, all they’re saying is that things would be different if things were different. But things aren’t, so they’re not. In other words, there really are some evangelicals influencing government, but they have not been nearly as nefarious as those in this book, so it is pretty difficult to take too seriously Chabon’s hand-wringing over the possible disasters such evangelicals could bring about.

Also, last week, as I was looking at possible markets for my short stories, I ran across this hilarious (and all-too-accurate) line requesting that people stop submitting stories about “near future Christian fascist dystopias”:

“We’ve seen a lot of these lately, and they’re beginning to strike us as more ludicrous than nightmarish. You can’t get a bunch of Christians to cooperate long enough to run a church rummage sale, much less an oppressive police state.”

Yep.

Additionally, I’ve changed the title from “Read this Book” to “Maybe Read This Book” because there is some content that would maybe make my mom blush. To be fair, the sexual content is anything but titillating. In fact, Chabon treats sex and sexual feeling with the a level of care that is unusual these days—as something that matters, that affects us, and that runs deeper than simple satisfaction. But still, you might rather skip it.

A few quotes:

“Night is an orange smear over Sitka, a compound of fog and the light of sodium-vapor streetlamps. It has the translucence of onions cooked in chicken fat.”


“Brennan studied German in college and learned his Yiddish from some pompous old German at the Institute, and he talks, somebody once remarked, ‘like a sausage recipe with footnotes.’”


“Men tend to cry, in Landsman’s experience, when they have been living for a long time with a sense of rightness and safety, and then they realize that all along, just under their boots, lay the abyss. That is part of the policeman’s job, to jerk back the pretty carpet that covers over the deep jagged hole in the floor.”


“‘When it comes to marriage I like to let other people make the mistakes,’ Landsman says. ‘My ex-wife, for example.’”


“Then he looks at the picture, and in the instant before he regains absolute control of his features Landsman sees Zimbalist take a swift punch in the belly. The wind departs his lungs, and the blood drains from his face. In his eyes, the steady maven flicker of intelligence is snuffed out. For a second Landsman is looking at a Polaroid of a dead boundary maven. Then the lights come back on in the old fart’s face. Berko and Landsman wait a little, and then a little more, and Landsman understands that the boundary maven is fighting as hard as he can to maintain that control, to hold on to the chance of making his next words Detectives, I have never seen that man before in my life, and having it sound plausible, inevitable, true.”


“They were both past the age of foolish passion, so they were passionate without being fools.”


“The clock on the hospital wall hummed to itself, got antsy, kept snapping off pieces of the night with its minute hand.”


“Like most policemen, Landsman sails double-hulled against tragedy, stabilized against heave and storm. It’s the shallows he has to worry about, the hairline fissures, the little freaks of torque. The memory of that summer, for example, or the thought that he has long since exhausted the patience of a kid who once would have waited a thousand years to spend an hour with him shooting cans off a fence with an air rifle. The sight of the Longhouse breaks some small, as yet unbroken facet of Landsman’s heart. All of the things they made, during their minute in this corner of the map, dissolved in brambles of salmonberry and oblivion.”

So, maybe read this book. Maybe read anything by Chabon, and thank me later.

Happy Hunting,
Dan J.

Read This Play: The Life and Death of King John

Anna insists that I’ve read other plays by Shakespeare. That we read Macbeth or maybe Romeo & Juliet in high school. And maybe so. I don’t remember. I remember scenes from those plays, but that might also be the consequence of a general cultural familiarity with a few of Shakespeare’s better-known works.

Assuming Anna is correct, “The Life & Death of King John” is not my first Shakespeare. Anna’s usually correct.

But I suppose I can still claim its the first work by Shakespeare that I’ve read of my own volition rather than for a grade. That counts for something, surely.

As with Don Quixote, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought: “Well, I will probably be looking up a lot of words. I’ll probably get pretty bored. I’ll probably be totally confused as to who is who and what is happening.”

And, with the exception of some boredom, I was wrong. For the most part, the language was clear, the action was easy enough to follow (though see my second thought below), and I found myself surprised at what a quick read it actually was.

The rough plot is: King John is trying to maintain his throne against the claims of his nephew. The nephew has the support of France, and temporarily of the Vatican. John, through combat, diplomacy, and murder, succeeds in defending his throne. Then he dies.

A few thoughts:

Shakespeare, shmakespeare.

I read it on my Kindle, which worked fine. I have no point of comparison, but I am happy with the edition I purchased. Most of the footnotes were unnecessary, but when they were needed, they were very helpful.

I found that it was much easier to understand the plot and dialogue after I did two things: (1) I read Wikipedia’s synopsis of the play, and (2) I read a bit about the historic King John. These two things made it possible for me to put the words and action in context, so that I was able to enjoy the story rather than spend half of my time trying to figure out who was who and what was happening.

On that note, several friends recommended watching the play before reading it. Good luck. Very few playhouses perform King John these days, and there has been only one (silent) film production and two television adaptations—the last being in 1984 and unavailable online. You can, if you are interested, watch the Wichita Shakespeare Company perform the play in a park on YouTube.

And finally, I was surprised at how easy it was to read. Seriously. If you’re considering reading a play by Shakespeare so that you can say, “Yeah, I’ve read some Shakespeare. No big deal,” at your next party, then read “The Life and Death of King John”. There are some dry passages and some monologues that will make you wonder if you should be washing the dishes or engaged in some other productive task, but for the most part it’s an easy, quick read.

A few quotes:

BASTARD: For he is but a bastard to the time
That doth not smack of observation.


BASTARD: Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich:
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.


CONSTANCE: War, war, no peace! Peace is to me a war


CONSTANCE: When law can do no right,
Let it be lawful that law bar no wrong


LEWIS: Strong reasons make strange actions


KING JOHN: Why seek’st thou to possess me with these fears?
Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him: I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him.
HUBERT: No had, my lord! Why, did you not provoke me?
KING JOHN: It is the curse of kings to be attended
By slaves that take their humours for a warrant


KING JOHN: How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Make deeds ill done!

Well, that’s the second book from my 2016 list. I think if you have the time, you should give “The Life and Death of King John” a go.

Happy Reading,
Dan J.

Read This Book: Don Quixote

So, I finished Don Quixote, Part II.

I read Part I back in July, and though my plan was to continue, I chose to set the book aside for several months. One reason for doing this was because I wanted to get a small taste of the original experience (the other reason was I wanted a breather). Cervantes published the first part ten years prior to the second, and by the time the second part was published, Don Quixote was known throughout most of Europe and the New World. So to its first readers, it was a return to some well-known and well-loved characters.

The first part literally shocked me. I was expecting a fairly bland road-trip story. Quixote and Panza wandering from town to town, having conversations with random individuals, exposing various aspects of the culture of Spain circa 1600. I thought I might get some insight into modern Spain, and in the meantime scratch a book off of the list of “Books One Must Read While Still Breathing In Order to Feel Like One Has Read the Books One Must.”

Instead, I found a hilarious, deeply amusing, gracious and pointed excavation of Spanish culture. And of art. And of religious belief. And of political authority. And of love. And of humanity. I think that’s a fair way to say it—Cervantes unwraps Spain, but his wisdom runs deeper than a simple cultural evaluation. He also demonstrates a keen understanding of and love for humanity.


Side note: This love for people is critical. A lot of very good literature, music, painting, sculpture is poisoned by a cynical hatred for humanity. Folks churn out misanthropic art disguised as biting wit or “savage commentary on larger social issues.” An evident love for people is a big part of why I think Michael Chabon is a much better author than, say, Jonathan Franzen. More on that when I write about Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union.


So, as Quixote & Panza wander in search of quests suitable for Quixote’s attention—Quixote seeking to bring honor to his imaginary beloved, and Panza holding out hope for riches and power—they encounter a wide cast of characters. Some are brokenhearted lovers. Some are scoundrels in (or out) of chains. Some are violent herdsman or innkeepers. Some are noblemen and women with a taste for vicious mockery. They meet Quixote or Quixote meets them. They realize that he is insane, and in responding to his insanity, they reveal their own character for good or for ill. In the end, Quixote suffers an unexpected loss, returns home, regains his sanity, and dies.

A few thoughts:

The structure of the novel is exceedingly intricate. At one point, we are reading the English translation of a Spanish translation of an Arabic record of a Spanish cleric’s public reading of a novel. In spite of this, it’s incredibly easy to read and to follow the action. The complexity serves rather than obscures. Cervantes’ use of the various layers adds texture and realism; in fact, large sections of this novel reminded me of an afternoon with a large group of Spaniards, eating and laughing and listening as each tells a story.

The novel is also fairly modern. Part II plays on the assumption that many of the characters have read or are familiar with Part I. It’s a smart, hilarious device. Cervantes spent much of of Part I describing the reaction of those just discovering Quixote’s insanity. In Part II, he then explores the reactions of those already aware and ready to have some fun. Additionally, this literary device allows Cervantes to skewer the unknown author of a spurious Part II, which had been published a year before his own. Cervantes frequently allows Quixote and others to criticize the artlessness and poor quality of the fake sequel.

And Don Quixote is, in my opinion, an excellent picture of Spain. Many characters throughout the book find their modern-day manifestations in our neighbors or local shopkeepers. Many cultural values remain culturally valued. For instance, it is not uncommon for characters unknown to one another to offer the same sort of unsolicited, personal (invasive?) advice that we receive from day to day.

At a few points, Cervantes mentions some Spanish pueblo or another, and I found that many of them still exist, four hundred years later, and still remain small villages. For example, El Toboso, the home of Quixote’s imaginary beloved, has a little over 2,000 residents and continues to plod along as it always has. Or Puerto Lápice, with its 1,000 residents. I don’t know why, but this blows my mind.

I mentioned to a few Spanish friends that I was reading Don Quixote, and that it was helping me to understand and to love Spain. Some of them said, “Fantastic! It’s a great book!” Others said, “It’s a terrible book, and it paints a bad picture of Spain and of Spaniards.” Amusingly, this past week, the second group also referred to Spain as a nation full of Quixotes. And it is. But it’s also full of Sancho Panzas.

A few quotes:

“For I want you to know, Señor Knight, that in these small hamlets people talk and gossip about everything, and you can be sure, as I am, that a priest must be better than good if his parishioners have to speak well of him, especially in a village.”


“There came into view the shepherdess Marcela, whose beauty far surpassed her fame for beauty.”


“That’s the way,” said Sancho, “I’ve heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I’d rather love and serve Him for what He can do.”


“I can’t believe it!” said the barber. “You, too, Sancho? In the same guild as your master? By God, you’ve taken in so much of his lunacy and knighthood, it looks like you’ll be keeping him company in the cage and be as enchanted as he is! It was an unlucky day for you when he made you pregnant with his promises, an evil hour when you got that ínsula you want so much into your head.”

“I’m not pregnant by anybody,” responded Sancho, “and I’m not a man who’d let himself get pregnant even by the king.”


“Each of us is as God made him, and often much worse.”


“I tell you, Sancho, with your natural wit and intelligence, you could mount a pulpit and go around preaching some very nice things.”

“Being a good preacher means living a good life,” responded Sancho, “and I don’t know any other theologies.”


“If it is good, faithful, and true, it will have centuries of life, but if it is bad, the road will not be long between its birth and its grave.”

So there you have it. Don Quixote. I think everyone should read this book. If you have the option, Grossman’s translation was very smooth.

Happy Trails,
Dan J.

7 Questions for Pro-Choice Individuals

We are aware that the government has determined that unborn infants have no legal status (except in certain cases). The following questions are not about “what the law is,” but to discuss “what the law should be.”

  1. It has often been said that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Why rare? Why not frequent?
  2. Do you believe the mother’s right to choose an abortion is absolute throughout the pregnancy and should never be denied? Or is there some point prior to delivery at which you think her choice should be limited? Why at that point?
  3. If there is no point prior to delivery at which the mother’s choice should be limited, at what point during the delivery process do you believe that a mother loses her right to choose an abortion? Why that moment? (Again, remember that we’re not asking what the law is, but what you think it should be.)
  4. What–apart from their legal status–do you consider to be the difference between an 8lb infant in the womb as the mother arrives at the hospital and that same 8lb infant outside of the womb four (or fourteen) hours later?
  5. Prior to the moment at which you think the abortion should no longer be an option, what do you think actually exists in the pregnant woman’s womb? Is it a person, a human being, a ball of cells, a potential life, or some other thing entirely?
  6. Do you find any of the following motivations for an abortion to be morally offensive: genetic defects in the child, the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the baby is a girl, the father is of another ethnicity or lower economic class? If you are offended by any of these, which ones and why? What grounds do you have for taking offense over the mother’s choice rather than celebrating it as an expression of reproductive freedom?
  7. If scientists were able to develop a test to determine, during the pregnancy, the likely sexual orientation of the child, would you oppose an abortion chosen by the mother because the child is considered likely to identify as gay? If so, on what grounds?

For fellow Christians, please read and consider the following article: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2015/07/14/this-kind-cannot-be-driven-out-by-worldview-training-and-legislation-the-place-of-prayer-and-fasting-for-the-pro-life-movement/

What John Piper writes is true. At some point, the logical arguments are going to fail to persuade those committed to the use of abortion. The series of horrific videos released in 2015, which detail terrible evil at Planned Parenthood clinics, have also demonstrated that many are willing to turn a blind eye to the gruesome nature of the practice they staunchly support.

Today, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, women all around the country are marching for life. Please join them and us in praying and fasting for the end of abortion in America and around the world.

Seeking God’s Mercy,
Dan & Anna J.

A Look Back at What I Read in 2015 and a Look Forward at What I Plan to Read in 2016

2015 was a good year in many ways. We had our first kid, we led our first Spanish Bible studies, we joined our first church planting team, we made a successful move across Spain, we got the go-ahead to start working on the types of ministry to which we feel clearly called, and we enjoyed visits from both sets of parents.

We also had–thanks to the first kid–a lot of evenings in which we were home a little earlier, and during which I had my hands on a couple of unexpected hours of free time.

Early in the year, I started to read What’s Best Next by Matt Perman, and as a consequence, spent some useful time thinking through my mission statement. One of the conclusions I came away with was that I should focus my ministry efforts on training Spanish nationals and on writing.

So, I used some of the time to write, and managed to place my first short story, “The Earth Groans,” with Youth Imagination in August. I wrote it a while ago, and it came out of some reflection on Romans 8:19-22. I’m still writing and hoping to get more stories and a couple of articles or essays accepted in 2016.

And I used the rest of the time to read and read widely. Reading helps me to preach and teach more effectively (see Kevin Vanhoozer’s useful comments here: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-reasons-pastor-theologians-should-read-fiction), and it helps me write more competently. In his post, “Read Until Your Brain Creaks,” Douglas Wilson wrote:

“Wanting to write without reading is like wanting to grind flour without gathering wheat, like wanting to make boards without logging, and like wanting to have a Mississippi Delta without any tributaries somewhere in Minnesota. Output requires intake, and literary output requires literary intake….

“Go for total tonnage, and read like someone who will forget most of it. You have my permission to forget most of it, which may or may not be reassuring, but you will forget most of it in either case. Most of what is shaping you in the course of your reading, you will not be able to remember.”

And of course, Faulkner’s famous advice to writers:

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master.”

So, I went for tonnage in 2015. I read a lot of books. Some of them very, very good. Some of them just okay. Some of them absolutely horrible. In all, I read 48 books.

The best were (and I recommend these with the caveat that some of them include content that one might find objectionable and so of course, use discernment):

So I found 12 books (since Winters’ work is a trilogy) out of 48 to be particularly good. Out of the rest, I counted 11 terrible reads, and the remaining 25 books were somewhere in between. I nearly included some of them in the list above, but for some reason or another, I didn’t find them as compelling or enjoyable as those I’ve listed. If you’re looking for something to read, you can’t go too wrong with any of these.

So, 2016 is here, and I think I want to accomplish two things with my reading: I want to read less this year, and I want to read better. If 2015 was about volume, I would like 2016 to be about value. I’ve picked 24 books (although three of these are trilogies, so I guess it’s 30) to read over the next 12 months.

I chose books that are well-known classics, books by authors that I admire, and some genre books that come highly regarded in their fields. (Also, I already own all of these, and Anna would like me to read what I have before buying more.)

I’m planning to read:

  • Don Quixote, Book 2 by Cervantes
  • The Life and Death of King John by William Shakespeare
  • The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  • Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
  • The Turner Trilogy by James Sallis
  • The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe
  • The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
  • The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  • The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee
  • The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot
  • Absolom, Absolom by William Faulkner
  • This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Twelve by Justin Cronin
  • The Sunlight Dialogues by John Gardner
  • The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy
  • A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe

I might change one or two of these, but for the most part this is what I will attempt to read this year, Lord willing. I’m also reading through the Bible (this app is fantastic!), and I imagine I’ll do some other reading as well. I’m hopeful that at the end of 2016, I will look back on a year of reading many good books.

If you have some reading plans for 2016, drop them in the comments. If you’re interested in reading one or more of these along with me, let me know and we can read them together! I would really enjoy it.

Happy Reading,
Dan J.