The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Initially I was put off by the translation. I felt it wasn’t complex enough or it lacked some sort of depth. I like reading translations because they are often vastly different from American books, many of which seem too simplistic to me. But then as I got deeper into the book I could start to understand why the language is the way it is. There’s a feel of an anthropologist looking at these particular subjects, much the way Tom Perrotta looks at the suburbs of New Jersey. So he, the narrator, feels like he exists somewhere up above and quite distant, but with binoculars and high powered cameras, and is able therefore to dig into the characters predicament(s). And then, in fact, when you’re in the fourth or fifth section, Kundera starts referring to I, meaning his narrator self. He tells us which characters he loves. And why. By this point I had no problem with the translation at all.

I’d bought this book when it was reissued in 2009 and have had it on my stack since then. What prompted me to pick it up is that someone in my writing class said that the character I am working on was much like Tomas, of this book, in that he is a womanizer (my character is gay) and doesn’t like to stay in the same bed with someone after he has climaxed. My character is the same, but describes it as a kind of gauze that lands on him and makes him want to flee. People object to this and think it depicts some sort of pathology — that he’s sick. In fact my book is called Impaired and, as my teacher Susan Breen has suggested, the novel’s question is whether or not he is, in fact, impaired, in all the meanings of that word.

Although I really liked this book and it goes deep into the politics of instilling fear (which I remembered from the movie), I did not really understand why Tomas was so sexually promiscuous. There’s a place in the book where he tells friends that he figures he has slept with about 200 women. In the gay world, of course, that number is more like 2,000. But what that had to do with all the other themes of the novel, I don’t know, and I could draw no conclusions by the end. It seemed like it was just his personality.

If we’re looking for a question that this novel is supposed to answer, it would be this, from page 5. “What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?” The idea of the eternal return, he says, weighs on us because eternity is unbearable. Conversely, without anything to act as a burden on our lives, we become lighter than air and only half real.

I suppose then on the next page, Kundera says, “I have been thinking about Tomas for many years.” And goes on to tell how Tomas, a womanizer, ends up being “burdened” with Tereza, a woman he meets in a distant town. This book is essentially the story of their lives, with other lives woven into the narrative, all told against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

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Nemesis, by Philip Roth (2011)

I’ve not written many reviews — or any actually — so this entertainment blog is going to be a little bit of an experiment. It will cover mostly movies, books, and maybe some television though that would most likely be Netflix or HBO as I watch almost nothing else. The Covid-19 pandemic brought to mind a book I thoroughly enjoyed and, in its later part, shocked me.

This was Philip Roth’s last novel. Fairly slender, at least it seemed so to me, it concerns the multiple dilemmas that face Bucky Cantor, a 23 year old playground director in Newark, New Jersey, in the summer of 1944 during “polio season.” It becomes clear that this particular season is much worse than usual, and Bucky, who suffers from a humiliation in that his weak eyes prevented him from serving in the war, attempts to stay courageous during this epidemic. All the while his fiancee is urging him to head to the Poconos, where he can take a job at a pristine summer camp. I think it has to be understood, when you read this, that polio came every summer — the most devastating outbreak took place, as you are informed on the first page, in 1916. In that instance, there were 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths in the northeast. (We are already far beyond that with Covid-19.) But by 1944, a small number of cases in a town like Newark (pop. about 400,000), were expected and it wasn’t usually news worthy if there were 20 or so cases. But this year, there were an unusually large number — 40 — in the Italian section of Newark. But by July 4th, it had spread to the Jewish section where Buddy lives and works. And it’s against this backdrop that Buddy tries to “do the right thing,” a thing which is often completely uncertain. As a present day example — should you wear a mask or not? It’s clear that unless it’s a specifically designated N95 mask, it probably isn’t going to protect you from catching anything; most people wear them incorrectly; they take them off to talk. Wearing gloves doesn’t make them sterile. In fact they can be covered with germs if you wear them a lot, so touching your face with a gloved hand is virtually the same as touching it with an un-gloved hand. Yet I see people doing that all the time.

The narrator is one of the playground’s children, Arnie Mesnikoff, but it’s deliberately unclear from what present moment the story is being narrated. And when we get to that present, that is where the real strength of the novel comes in. Publisher’s Weekly gave it a pretty poor review, as you can see on the Amazon web site. But I was pretty taken with this story of a relatively unexceptional man trying to do the right thing.

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Writer’s Digest

I won! Well I won 2nd place in the Writer’s Digest 2019 Literary short story award. The prize for 2nd place was $500 plus a bunch of freebies at the WD website and this little graphic which I’m supposed to place on my email and on my website. So here it is.

The irony of winning this contest is that it was originally two chapters from the book I’m working on which I’ve called, “Impaired.” I was asked to do a reading and I pared the two chapters down to 9 pages (about 10 minutes which was what we were asked to limit it to.) After that huge amount of editing, the chapters actually felt like a self-contained story. Later that week, after the reading, I got an Email that said something like, “Last week to enter WD 88th annual short story contest,” and I thought, “well why not.” I slapped a name on it, “The Sound Artist,” and 3 weeks later I got the notice I had won 2nd place. There were about 4,800 entries.

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Bread Loaf

Bread Loaf

In a class I took with Susan Breen, one of my classmates, whose name I’ve totally forgotten, told me that I ought to try to get into Bread Loaf, which is held at Middlebury College in Vermont. I asked why, because I had become so cynical about things, and she said she was certain I’d get in. Did she get in? No. But she knew I would.

Well I went home and checked and discovered I had missed that year’s deadline (2016), but I put it in my calendar to submit once the submission period was open for 2017. I did, and it turned out she was right. I got accepted as a participant.

I was still very cynical about it — in fact I think I tried to sabotage the whole thing by missing just about every deadline; not reading up on the teachers or the fellows or the agents or editors, and not even looking up the books that they’ve written. But every step of the way I got a reminder that I was late and so I ended up in a class with Robert Cohen and Natashia Dion.

Basically Bread Loaf was a wonderful experience. It’s 10 full days of writers being around other writers, going to workshops, lectures, craft classes, meals, dances and tons and tons of readings, and one of the things that made me sad when it was over was that, although it took awhile, I realized I had just spent ten days not feeling like someone who had to explain himself. I don’t know how true it is for others, but often in the “real world” I have this vague and somewhat constant discomfort at having spent my life chasing a career in writing. As Emily Dickinson once wrote, “The longest day would pass me on the chase,” and that’s sometimes exactly how I feel when someone — almost always American — asks, “What do you do?” I feel like I can’t really tell someone that I was compelled to try this; that I’ve had modest successes that to most of the world probably don’t look like success at all; that I still feel the need even if people don’t like my work; and that I quit a career I had in computer technology, in order to keep chasing this thing called writing.

But for two weeks or so at Bread Loaf, you don’t need to explain anything. Everyone understands why you want to be alone and why you need an inordinate amount of solitude. As my teacher said we have the odd need to isolate ourselves from the world in order to go down and write about the world and then bring it back to them in the form of a novel, which they immediately, mostly, reject. There’s no explanation for it. But I had a great time and now, “Bread Loafer,” is part of my resume.




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New Millenium Writings

Here you will find Lorain Ohio Easter basketmy name listed as an Honorable Mention in the Short Story category at New Millenium Writings. (Dot Org.) I entered a story with them once before that didn’t get any sort of mention so I suppose this is a step up. Sometimes I am wary of places that charge entrance fees for their contests, because when you do the math, they probably only give away a very tiny portion of what they take in. But the market is in such turmoil now, it seems unlikely to expect that everything be done for free. Zoetrope, which is accepts submissions, receives 12,000 stories a year. That’s more than thirty per day. I honestly believe the only way they can keep that up is because of Francis Ford Coppola’s name and business acumen.

Anyway, I was told to “use this” little honor by my current teacher and submit the story to other places, so I have tried the following:

Glimmertrain, One Story, Ducts.Org, Tin House, and Word Riot. I was going to try as well, but they want stories shorter than 3,500 words and mine is about 4,500. Another which a friend told me about is called, but they also want shorter stories.

I guess I will try to make a page with a linkable list of these places as I’m always trying to find a useful site that lists short story publications and most are outdated with broken links, etc. Glimmertrain and The New Yorker are consider the top choices, and of those two, Glimmertrain is the only one that anyone, not already famous, could possibly have a chance of getting into.

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Miss Over

VerticalCoverfor Ebook

My second book is Miss Over, which is the story of a school teacher from Illyria, Ohio who takes a long needed dream vacation to The Okavango Delta in Botswana. As she travels deeper into the delta, aspects of her past start bothering her and eventually threaten to overwhelm her.

This is a link to the paperback version and below it is a link to the Kindle version. There will be other electronic versions available later, but at the moment I am limited to Amazon because of their restrictions.

Miss Over (paperback)

Miss Over (Kindle)

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NewCoverIllyria front in JPGIllyria was my first book — first published book that is. The original cover was a photograph my father took of me when I was a toddler at the beach, trying to carry a strange looking beach ball. My brother Richard is in the carriage behind me. It kind of expressed everything I felt about trying to write this novel, which was difficult. The second cover used a painting from the 17th Century in Spain, which somehow managed to capture almost perfectly one of the scenes early in the book, when the three boys are playing a board game in the woods: one with great intensity, one less interested but observant, and the last very worried about something.

Paperback edition

Kindle edition

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