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.

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

 

 

 

What time travel sounds like

Oh how I wish I was in your bedroom right now and could place inside your tiny paper plate ears a pair of plastic headphones so you could close your eyes and hear what time travel sounds like at least once before you die.

Since I can’t or, let’s face it, you won’t let me no matter how nicely I ask or how sane I try to sound, I will settle for the next best thing which is to request that you click through to this link and turn the volume up as high as it will go, press play and close your eyes.

The next 27 seconds is what time travel sounds like; and the three and a half minutes after is best suited for singing out loud. No, not lip syncing, but, singing out loud. Or (this part is optional and only for the truly possessed) pretend you are slow dancing — with me, or with someone else not me, someone you won’t let put headphones into your ears even though you really want to because you think she’s a little off or a little too sorrowful or a little off.

Close your eyes. Then, cross your arms. Rest your hands on opposite shoulders. Sway back and forth. Back and forth. Until

The story within the story

Reporters will tell you there are two, maybe three narratives in the Middle East. They’ll split the stories into perspectives and call them Palestinian and Israeli or East and West or Arab and Jew. But that’s like saying Moby Dick is about a whale and a man. I don’t know what Moby Dick is about — I still haven’t read it. But hundreds of thousands of people have and I can’t believe it’s because it’s a story about a whale and a man.

So it is with the Middle East.

There are so many stories. People. Lives.

READ THE FULL POST (in the Times of Israel).

 

Book Review: Dear Luke, We Need to Talk

Book Details

Title: Dear Luke, We Need to Talk, Darth: And Other Pop Culture Correspondences
Author: John Moe
Publisher: Three Rivers Press

 


Review

It was in one of my favorite online magazines, Fast CoCreate (a Fast Company publication) that I first heard about John Moe’s anthology of satiric correspondences which fictionally  “exposed” the behind-the-scenes letters and diary entries of some of  pop culture’s most famous characters and relationships, including the title characters’, Darth Vader and his son, Luke. I am a big fan of satire and pop culture, and as a writer was curious to see in which direction Moe, a regular contributor to McSweeney’s would take this. I imagined a mix of fan fiction and Dear Abby. I was excited for the book.

dear lukeSo I jumped on the opportunity to read it when Books for Bloggers made it available to me in exchange for an honest review. Unfortunately, though, I think this book was better off a collection of articles than an anthology of more than 50 imagined conversations and correspondences, most of which went on too long. My overall reaction to the book is that the ideas were funnier than the selections themselves; or that the selections would start off funny, but then went on too long.

For instance, I liked the idea of psychoanalyzing Bruce, the shark from Jaws as the author does in the second piece in Dear Luke, but tired of the concept after 3 or 4 journal entries (it continued for a total of eight). The list of “Jay Z’s 99 Problems” was funny, too, but again went on too long. (David Letterman stuck with a top 10 for a reason; Moe takes his list to 99. Is there a pop culture reference I’m missing? Probably.)

As I mentioned, there were spots in the book which I laughed out loud: Moe is a funny writer! Most of his ideas were really clever; it’s just that the execution could have benefited from a more serious editing job, especially for length. The best selections in the collection were the shorter ones, such as the “welp” listings of fictitious restaurants, including the Cheers bar, the Regal Beagle (which made me giggle just to see its inclusion), and Moe’s Tavern. Similarly, I laughed out loud at the concept alone of Gunther writing a letter to Rachel on the coffee shop chalkboard. But the letter itself (spoiler alert) is funny, too! Gunther explains to Rachel that she and her “friends” are all ghosts; dead after drowning in the fountain from the opening credits.  He writes to her in chalk because, “as everyone knows, that’s the only thing that can get a ghost’s attention.” (I always though ghosts preferred writing in the fog of mirrors.)

If I were to highlight the selection that worked best in terms of length, ingenuity and wit it would be “Exchange Between Neal Hefti, Creator of the Batman TV Theme Song, and the Show’s Producer” in which there is a correspondence that eventually leads to the explanation of why the theme song to the television show had no lyrics except for “Na na na na na na na na na Batman!”  During that one, I laughed out loud a bunch of times.

I’m bummed to give this book less than a stellar review because Moe deserves accolades for his creativity and success in execution in many of the selections. But I think the publisher might have been a little too over zealous in expecting readers to push through to the end of this collection.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.