Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Summer Reading, In Detail

I'm more than halfway through Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and even though it's a genre I can't really get with (actually, it's a mix of several, some of which appeal to me and some of which don't: wisecracking detective story, crime story, and family drama, plus handfuls of cultural displacement, sorta fantasy, and hints of Jewish history thrown in), I am rapt. It should be noted that due to my appreciation of another of Mr. Chabon's novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and his full-throttle endorsement of one Barack Obama, I was predisposed to respond in this way. Plus...

...The Yiddish Policemen's Union boasts several Filipino characters. I find this fascinating. And not just maids or drivers, either (though there are those). There is, for example, Benito Taganes:

The hidden master of the Filipino-style Chinese donut is Benito Taganes, proprietor and king of the bubbling vats at Mabuhay. Mabuhay, dark, cramped, invisible from the street, stays open all night long. It drains the bars and cafes after hours, concentrates the wicked and the guilty alongs its chipped Formica counter, and thrums with the gossip of criminals, policemen, shtarkers, and shlemiels, whores and night owls. With the fat applauding in the fryers, the exhaust fans roaring, and the boom box blasting the heartsick kundimans of Benito's Manila childhood.


He is a squat, thick man with skin the color of the milky tea he serves, his cheeks pitted like a pair of dark moons. Though his hair is black, he's past seventy. As a young man he was the flyweight champion of Luzon, and with his thick fingers and the tattoed salamis of his forearms he gets take for a tough customer, which serves the needs of his business. His big caramel eyes betray him, so he keeps them hooded and downcast.

It goes on like this for six pages, this portrait of Benito Taganes. I feel like I know the guy. The Filipino-style Chinese donut referred to here is called a "shtekeleh," which I'm going to assume is one of the thousands of invented words in the book (did I leave out the whole he-also-made-up-a-language thing when I was praising the author?). I found a Pinoy blogger who says it's a bicho-bicho, and he posted an intimidatingly lengthy recipe here. Here's Chabon's description of the donut:

A panatela of fried dough not quite sweet, not quite salty, rolled in sugar, crisp-skinned, tender inside, and honeycombed with air pockets. You sink it in your paper cup of milky tea and close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.

Really good book.

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