The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

This was the third in the trilogy of Thomas Cromwell’s life living under Henry VIII. The first was Wolf Hall and the second was Bring Up The Bodies. I think her titles are particularly interesting because they are not what they seem. Wolf Hall is the Seymour family seat in Wiltshire and Jane Seymour (Henry’s yet to be third wife) is just a lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn (his second wife, who he has not yet married in this book). Wikipedia (and an article on BBCAmerica) suggests that the title is an allusion to a Latin expression which roughly translates “Man is wolf to man.” Well that may be true under horrific tyrants like Henry VIII. But I think Wolf Hall is a terrific title that suggests something far off. Wolf Hall shows how Thomas Cromwell worked the system to twist Henry’s 20 year marriage to Katherine of Aragon (mother of Mary) into an illegal marriage which allowed it to be annulled. It ends with Thomas More’s decapitation.

Bring Up The Bodies refers to the guards in the Tower of London who, on the day someone was to be executed, would shout down the staircase, “Bring Up The Bodies.” Gruesome, but emblematic of how Henry VIII reigned: by execution. He is thought to have executed some 50,000 people who were not loyal to him, refused to recognize him as the head of the English church, or were just treasonous. The second book deals with his disintegrating marriage to Anne Boleyn, who is probably the second most famous person in Henry VIII’s orbit, as her story is the most dramatic and terrifying. Though she bore Elizabeth, who would eventually become “the virgin queen,” after her brother Edward (by Jane Seymour) and Mary (by Katherine of Aragon), she could not bear other children and so, with Cromwell’s help, a conspiracy was concocted and she was accused of having many lovers (most of the king’s privy counsel) and incest with her brother George Boleyn. She was decapitated the day after most of the king’s counsel were hanged. A second book in the series that ends with a decapitation.

So the third, obviously, is going to end in a decapitation and this time it will be the main character’s: Thomas Cromwell, who, in this horrific and murderous reign, is turned on for no clear reason, other than having arranged a marriage with Anne of Cleves who Henry found repulsive and could not touch. The tile of this one refers to Henry himself, who is both the mirror and the light: one cannot see oneself or judge oneself except by him. This was the hardest to get through. Jane is dead, having passed soon after giving birth to Edward, and there are hundreds of pages of governing, collecting taxes, fighting battles with the Scottish, worries about France and Spain and, of course, the power of the Pope. Increasingly, you sense Cromwell is making more enemies and he has also risen to be the most powerful of the king’s secretaries. But once Henry meets his fourth bride to be, you feel the tables turn and the loss of the king’s approbation. As you zero in on the last hundred pages or so, reading this book becomes almost frightening and it’s because she has for 1800 pages through all three books, kept us firmly rooted in the Thomas Cromwell’s mind. At this point, because of the time you’ve spent with him and because of Hilary Mantel’s skill in making you really feel what it was like to live and eat and walk around in those days, and even, I would say, live under a cloud of inevitability — that one day Henry will turn on you and send you to the Tower, you don’t want to continue. You want to leave it unfinished and not follow Cromwell to the Tower and then to the place where he is going to put his head on the chopping block, while people, including his children, watch.

But she manages, I think, to make the end both horrific and bearable, because I think she allows the character of Cromwell to make it bearable for us. She allows us to find comfort with Cromwell, not just for him, before the axe finally lands on the back of his neck.

She gives an addendum, in her own voice, pointing out that Cromwell was executed the very day Henry was married to his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, who would later be executed for committing adultery with a distant cousin Thomas Culpepper. But if you do a little more reading, there’s not really very much explanation for why Thomas Cromwell was executed, and his children, in fact, continued to work in Henry’s court. One thing these books made me feel, is how fortunate we are not to live under authoritarian regimes and how frightening it is that so much of the world seems intent on bringing back some of that style. For his final days in office, Trump has decided to execute five federal prisoners, making it a total of 13 since July. One gets the sense this is as just as arbitrary as Henry VIII’s nonsense.

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The horse race

I put this on Facebook, but as I don’t want to be too obnoxious, I kept it private. It’s not intended to start a fight. But one of my more bizarre ways of coping with stress is to study numbers (stats) or science (distance). When my father died, I became obsessed with trying to study the number of seconds a person has to deal with death — the instant of death that is — when someone dies in front of you, vs. the number of seconds a person deals with life. It was an attempt to understand why that moment of passing is so much more powerful than all the rest of living: the arguments, the anger, the simmering anger, the unspoken hostility, the love and the respect. I was convinced at the time, that I had experienced something unique. The other thing I did was try to draw on a regular size piece of paper, the size of the earth compared to the sun. And then I tried to draw the distances between the planets. I don’t know why but it comforted me. What I’ve been doing since the middle of March when everything closed down (and it closed down about a week before it was ordered to by the government, which I think is an important missing and forgotten fact), is doing a spreadsheet of the numbers of new cases. At first I started with the national numbers, and then I realized that New York’s high caseload was distorting what was going on in the rest of the country. Everyone was thinking that it was dropping, and it was, as a collective of 50 states plus Guam, Puerto Rico and DC. But if you separated out New Jersey and New York from the other 50 states, the picture was dire. I started doing that May 14 and at that time, the percentage of cases outside NY and NJ was already 65%. Now it’s 85% and it has not stopped rising. I then became curious about the top ten and whether or not the fast rising states of Florida, California, Arizona, Texas and Georgia would approach or even surpass New York’s numbers. So I did a rolling 7 day average of each states cases, added those to their numbers, and pushed this all the way out to the end of summer. After Memorial Day, I’m sure the numbers will skyrocket again, as people (with their Facebook degrees) continue to talk about herd immunity, or “trust in God,” or say idiotic things like “If it’s my time, it’s my time,” all of which is slap in the face of the health community and the hospitals, who are risking their lives to help save these people who, in my opinion, don’t deserve to be saved. Here’s the post and the numbers. I would love to be proven wrong, but so far, with the exception of NY and most of the northeast coalition, the numbers are actually getting worse, not better.

“Pushing the numbers out to the end of August. Congrats Florida. You’ll be number 1, with about 828K cases. (you can thank all your old folks and their fatalism “If I get it I get it,” attitude.) California, sorry, you only place with 766K cases. Texas, as big as you are, you just show with 753K cases. Very close. NY, you were sort of on your own, in the middle of the pack, with 440K. Arizona and Georgia, you were neck and neck at 267K and 260K respectively. You did manage to pull ahead of Illinois (208k) and New Jersey (185k). Penn and Mass, you fought for the 9th and 10th spots valiantly, but ultimately Penn, you take 9th place with 137K and Mass, just 125K.This forecast doesn’t take into account any of the current 10-20th place contenders. But it looks like Louisiana and North Carolina, by adding a whopping 15000 cases a day, might ultimately push Pennsylvania and Mass into the dustbin and could even give New Jersey and Illinois a run for the money. But Florida, this is yours to lose. Keep feeding your old people to the virus.”

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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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