Finalists announced for Autumn House Press book contest

The winner will only be announced at the end of the summer, but for now I’m pretty excited to join the high-caliber writers of nonfiction on the list of finalists for the Autumn House Press 2016 full-length book contest.

Cross your fingers…

Not quite the end of the world

I just finished reading Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel. I highly recommend it. It’s the one of two five-star ratings I’ve given on GoodReads after going a long stretch without being able to give more than a three-star. (The other recent five-star was Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld, more to come on that soon.)

Whenever I read a dystopian novel — and moreso when I read a well-researched, well-written one like St. John Mandel’s — I can’t help but examine my own life and my own “what ifs” in the face of some future life-altering catastrophe I somehow survive.

Lately, as my mind has been busy with the America vs. Israel conversation (a two-sided dialogue I engage with myself at least once a day exploring the pros and cons of leaving or staying in Israel), I considered the events of the novel. The Earth is ravaged by a pandemic, killing off 99% of the population. Those who are not sickened and killed by the flu are left figuring out how — and more existentially, why — to survive. Some survivors are stranded in an airport far from home. They understand quickly they will never return. And this, today, is the question that occupied my mind:

What if I knew I would never see America again? Would never see my parents? My brothers? Any of my friends who live there?

Could I be happy, or satisfied at least, living in Israel, remaining here on Hannaton?

What if it weren’t the apocalypse (meaning: what if I abandoned the upset of knowing my loved ones were ill or gone), but an event that meant the end of international travel?

Could there be such an event? After which my parents were still alive, but inaccessible? Following which we in Israel still lived a somewhat normal life, but simply could not fly anymore? Or buy passage on a ship, even?

No. All I can imagine is disaster. There is no in-between in my imagination. There is no mild cataclysm. Either things are as they are now or the worst-case scenario.

*  *  *

However, if I were to play fiction writer, for a moment, I might say, “Hold on now. Let’s consider Donald Trump.” 

Donald Trump as American president is possibly the in-between disaster I can’t imagine; the wonky future in which the world still runs on electricity and internet and Dunkin Donuts, but international travel is forbidden. Let’s say, for instance, a Trump presidency leads to a law being passed in which American immigration is on hiatus, but citizens living abroad have a brief window to return. Once they do return, however, they are required to remain on American soil for the next four years. America, in this fictional scenario, is testing out a new policy for the duration of Trump’s term. It’s called something like “No American Left Behind.”

“The In-Or-Out” law, the talking heads dub it.

Would I leave then?

Would we pack up our belongings and run back home?

What if there was no time for belongings? Only time for the five of us with one-way tickets and that which we could fill in our suitcases?

Would that be a home we would want to live in anyway?

What’s scarier? I considered. America as a gated-community? Or the idea of being stuck in Israel for an indefinite amount of time with no certainty of ever seeing my family again?

What kind of decisions, I asked myself, do we make in the face of black-and-white? Of choose this or that?

And what kind do we make in the face of seeming interminable uncertainty?

*  *  *

To be honest, I’m not paying too much attention to the U.S. presidential election, but I noticed on Facebook today someone saying they planned to vote Republican in the primary — vote for Rubio — as a way of derailing Trump’s run. But what if that was the plan all along? Democrats, for all their intellectualism, can be pretty stupid. Conservatives are wiley. Strategic. Cool cats. Liberals, with all their free love tend to act irrationally, emotion-based, don’t think enough before jumping in heart first.

Then, on Twitter later in the morning, someone wrote they thought the media hype equating Trump with Hitler was an exaggeration. I don’t quite align myself politically with this person, so I can’t put my faith in his ease. But as a reader of post-apocalyptic fiction I can say with certainty that there is always the guy on Twitter who thinks it’s not as bad as everyone says it is. This is classic disaster narrative. Bad guy/bad storm/bad killer disease. Makes no difference. The experts keep it quiet at first, but then feel compelled to reveal the danger to the masses as they realize their calculations were too understated. Upon learning of the now likely unavoidable danger, half the masses freak out, and the other half cry hysteria. Usually, there’s the goofy teenager who makes fun of the hurricane/flood/asteroid (he’s the first to go), and often, the old guy saying in his old guy voice “I never thought I’d see the day.”

No matter what, though, there’s always the guy who — just before the shit hits the fan — says most assuredly, “It can’t be as bad as people are making it out to be.” This is the point at which you should start storing water and supplies. 

I haven’t started shopping, though. In fact, my storage room/bunker is as empty as it’s been since we’ve lived here. And I wonder why. I wonder if it’s acceptance or if it’s resignation.

And does it matter? Am I saner if I am accepting or saner if I am resigned?

Acceptance: Yes, this is the world we live in.

Resignation: Yes, there will be disaster.

Acceptance: There is no certainty.

Resignation: Why bother? You will likely not survive the apocalypse, anyhow.

I don’t know which it is. What I do know is that reading Station Eleven has me grateful for my flushing toilets, and for my Google search, and especially for my at-home, self-grinding espresso machine. It had me abandon for a few hours my ongoing, inner turmoil over where to live now or next; which direction to choose.

Neither decision, I suppose, would be the end of the world.

 

Book Review: The Ambassador

For all my love of time travel and exploration of whether or not we could or should alter the past, I’m surprised I don’t read more fiction in the category of alternative history. Perhaps I will now, after reading The Ambassador (The Toby Press), a novel by the late Ambassador Yehuda Avner and award-winning novelist Matt Rees.

Set mostly in the late 1930s with World War II as its backdrop, The Ambassador imagines the impacts on Europe’s Jews had Israel been established in 1937, as opposed to 1948, when the Peel Commission recommended to the British cabinet to establish a Jewish state. The novel’s main character is Dan Lavi, a young diplomat sent by Ben Gurion to Germany to serve as the fledgling nation’s first ambassador to Berlin. Dan’s there with his wife Anna (an American) and Shmulik, who masquerades as part of the diplomatic team, but is really in Berlin on behalf of the Mossad.

The characters, their dialogue, and even the actions they take that veer from historical events come off realistic and plausible. I was caught up in Dan’s conflict once in Berlin as he struggles between proper diplomacy and his clear distaste for Nazi politics.

“The words of the Old Man, Ben-Gurion’s nasal Polish accent echoed in Dan’s mind, the order delivered in between reports from Shmulik on the first maneuvers of the War of Independence.

You will sup with the Devil, Dan. You will do everything the Devil requires. Whatever it takes, you will maintain the transfer of Jews from Germany to Israel.'”

The transfer of Jews from Germany is, in fact, Dan’s primary goal in Berlin. He is there, as he argues repeatedly, to “secure as many Jewish lives as we can.” He does so by working with and catering to the ego of Sturmbannfuhrer Adolph Eichmann, who serves (in this alternative reality) as head of the “Central Office for Jewish Emigration” offering Israeli visas to Europe’s Jews under the controversial “Transfer Agreement.” In this 1938 Berlin, Jews are permitted to leave the country, hundreds per day, for Israel. The Israeli Embassy’s main purpose is administrative, filling out and processing applications of families requesting exit. On the side, however, Shmulik and his Mossad team are investigating rumors of a “final solution” for the Jews, and recommending plans of action to Ben Gurion.

Most interesting to me — especially as a fan of time travel — was watching the story unfold and witnessing how some decisions in this alternative reality led the Jews to the exact same fate they met in our current reality, and how other actions managed to transform a people’s destiny. Less interesting to me were a few brief distracting side stories (based on some historical truth) of lost love and family secrets; though not distracting enough to take away from the main plot.

Any fiction pertaining to the Holocaust is potentially contentious. Still today, there are debates about who, if anyone, has the right to construct fictional tales set in or during the Holocaust. In the preface to The Ambassador, Avner writes “I fought in the war that established Israel. I worked decades in the highest circles of the Israeli government with every Prime Minister up to Rabin’s second term and as Ambassador to Britain and Australia.” One wonders if Avner is not attempting to stave off those critics of Holocaust fiction with this list of credentials. Whether or not he was, it certainly lends credibility to the story and his right to tell it.

“I sat among the crowd commemorating Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, as then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres addressed us. More precisely, he apologized to them. The ones taken by Hitler. ‘We were 10 years too late,’ he said.

And I thought, ‘What if we hadn’t been.'”

The Ambassador will be available in bookstores September 1, 2015.

==

This review was made possible by The Toby Press with an Advanced Reader’s Copy.

 

 

 

The call for submissions to end all submission

I am a sucker for signs. I see evidence for action in unusual places: on the bumper sticker that says “I miss you!,” on the tractor trailer in front of me on the highway, or in that dream in which cats have snuck into my hotel room and eaten up all the free pastries left on a tray by the door, or when Nina Simone sings “For Myself” at the same time an article on the Self written by Maria Popova pops up in my feed.

This week, old houses keep popping up, too — mine and others’. In poems I haven’t written yet, but also in my waking life.

* * *

Clue #1: After my middle son finished Key to the Treasure the other day, I was certain he was going to choose Clues in the Woods because choosing Haunted House would be very unlike him — he, like I am, is scared to be scared, especially before bed.

But he chose Haunted House, and after checking in with him to make sure this was the one he wanted to read next, we began.

Clue #2: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides: “Leonard had grown up in an Arts & Crafts house whose previous owner had been murdered in the front hall. The grisly history of 133 Linden Street had kept the house on the market for years.”

Clue #3: This article from December about memory and mentally mapping our homes — it showed up at the top of my Twitter feed today. More than the study results, I was struck by the dollhouse image used to illustrate the story.  Dollhouses have a way of being so inviting and so terrifying at the same time. Like old hotels. Like Stephen King. I felt this way before I read The Dollhouse Murders and long before I saw The Shining.

Clue #4 is a secret. I won’t tell it, but no matter.

* * *

I am going to enter the contest to win a bed and breakfast in Maine.

I haven’t figured out yet how to explain to Janice in 200 words why it feels as though I am already the winner.

This makes me sound like a narcissist and I want to sound like a dreamer. Or at least like someone who lives her life one foot atop one pole and one foot atop the other.

I want to explain to Janice that the word Maine is blue and that I love that northern state because I spent four summers at overnight camp there, three of which I spent in love and that this is a good thing, not a thing that makes me crazy, but makes me the type of person who other people — guests — will be happy to see in the morning. And anyway, my husband will be the one cooking breakfast and serving pancakes in the shapes of native birds. Once he served our dinner guests sweet potato pancakes with a dollop of wasabi sour cream that was as delicate as a meringue. I will be the one who organizes the books in the library each night. (There will be vintage National Geographic magazines and perhaps a set of Encyclopedia Brittannica, too.) I will be the one who changes the sheets. I will keep the ghosts appeased. I will invite them to have tea in the garden so they don’t frighten the guests.

* * *

I had a dollhouse once. It was this one. Not this exact one, but its doppelganger.

(photo credit: https://www.pinterest.com/magnoliasra/kh/)

* * *

I still love miniatures.

I love it that my husband sneaks into the bathroom before bed to set up clever scenes with the Playmobil my daughter left behind after her bath, with the purpose of surprising me when I happen upon them before brushing my teeth.

I especially love the miniature toilet and the European style hand shower: Bathroom appliances were never furnished with the dollhouses I played with as a child.

Which brings me back to the dream of the cats eating pastries in my hotel room.

I had been in the bathroom when they snuck in. They took advantage of my uniquely human need to relieve myself in privacy.

I was angry at first, but I couldn’t blame them. After all, I had left the front door open.