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What can we say of the agita and tsouris that was 2020 other than it, as all things must, has passed -- although we'll need to wipe carefully to rid ourselves of the last "cling-ons."

The lessons we sadly learned, yet again (poignant for my family descended from Holocaust and Russian pogrom survivors), include that civilization is a fragile veneer ... that chaos closely underlies our fragile social order, and that we must never ever take our liberty or our way of life for granted, that opinions never trump (pardon the verb) science, and empathy and kindness are more valuable, more vital, to our societal well-being than even the strict enforcement of the law. As Rabbi Hillel the Elder (circa 100 BCE) answered, and by his answer converted, the mocking proselyte who asked "Teach me the entire Law in the time I can stand on one foot":

"Do not do to others what you do not wish them to do to you. That is the whole Law. Now go and study it." --Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a

I think he also said, "Dumpkoff! Wear a mask!" but don't quote me on this.

But perhaps the preceding is not what you are looking for? How about blessings? The blessings of 2020 for me include: none of my family contracted COVID or was seriously ill, none lost their jobs, and the future for us all (my family and, I hope, yours) looks brighter and more hopeful in 2021.

With my wife and my 2020 travel plans tossed into the dustbin, we began the dreaded post-retirement project of house decluttering. Yet, even this onerous task after so many decades proved a blessing. Amid the clutter, I rediscovered childhood joys (and toys) such as fifty-year old model rocket kits to build and metal Cthulhu Mythos miniatures to paint (ha!).

During another long-delayed task of cataloging my library [I'm on now as Dr_Bob], I discovered many lost treasures, and I have spent the last half-year reading/rereading one to two books per week: histories, classic literature, Judaica, as well as science fiction and fantasy, of course.

Of these, I'll briefly mention the three, unjustly out-of-print, Vandarei fantasy novel, also known as The Kendreth Cycle, by Joy Chant (Red Moon and Black Mountain, The Gray Mane of Morning, and When Voiha Awakes). As per my Library Thing review of the last novel:

Each volume of Ms. Chant's Kendreth cycle is unique, and each successively stronger in emotional insight and depth. Sadly, this is the last novel of Vandarei from her pen. Where "Red Moon, Black Mountain" was classical wonder literature with echoes of Narnia, Middle-Earth, and Scripture; and "The Gray Mane of Morning" was heroic fantasy to stand among the finest such tales, recounting a pivotal event, both just and terrible, that forever changes her world; "When Voiha Awakes" is a romance that pierces and reveals in all its joys and sorrows the human experience of and capacity to love. Set in a matriarchal society, the gender role reversal Ms. Chant artfully depicts highlights the accepted injustices and follies of our own in a manner that is enlightening and never pedantic. The further I read, the more I had to read as Ms. Chant relates with unforgiving honesty and insight "emotional levels" rarely achieved in works of fantasy, to paraphrase the review by Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. It is a work I find I appreciate much more at age 62 than when I was a much younger and less-worldly (and less love-experienced) man. As in all three Kendreth novels, Ms. Chant's prose is near perfect, her skill in this particular work more in the artful, at times playful, conveyance of human feelings rather than the powerful evocative description of the first two novels. This short novel is a delight for any who've loved.

I also discovered that Ms. Chant wrote only two short stories set in the same world -- one that was only ever published in German. This tale, "Die Waurem von Kophitel (The Walls of Kophitel) I, being a completist (and a touch -- okay, a heavy touch -- OCD, perhaps) and after failing in my attempt to contact Ms. Chant, reverse-translated the tale back into English for my personal reading pleasure. It, too, is lovely.

My favorite new novels of the year were, I am pleased to say, written by friends:

  1. The King of Next Week by E. C. Ambrose, a delightful historical fantasy romance with sailing ships, beautiful djinn, partly set in my home state of Maine,

  2. The Back of the Beyond by James Stoddard, an epic fantasy in the modern classic fantasy style of Lord Dunsany, E.R.R. Eddison, James Branch Cabell, where a diverse group of adventures travels even beyond the lands of Faerie where everything is sentient -- animals, trees, the sun, moon, and stars. Pure magic. And:

  3. The Last Campaign by Martin L. Shoemaker (for whom I was a "shiva" consultant), the second of his acclaimed hard SF "Near Earth Mysteries," where a murder conspiracy threatens humanity's fledgling colonization of Mars. [Link: ]

Of my own writing, I managed to jot down about 75,000 words, 50,000 of which earning two acceptances and an exciting project (by invitation) for a possible third! But, alas, as is the nature of the business, particularly during a pandemic, only a single tale of ~6000 words actually saw print.

To quote Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, "So it goes."

My short story "The Mouth of the Wicked," , as recounted elsewhere on this site, was published in the Inklings Press anthology Tales From the Pirates Cove in August. The anthology collects twelve tales of swashbuckling adventure on the high seas and in outer space. Eleven of the stories are science fiction and fantasy, and the oddball twelfth . . . is mine :D , historical fiction concerning the 17th-century Jewish "pirate" Moses Cohen Henriques

("Yes, Elizabeth. There were Jewish pirates.").

Reviews were, overall, kind:

'The Mouth of the Wicked,' by Bob Finegold, tells a pirate tale filled with many twists and turns. It’s a tale about family, and loss, and how seeing the whole picture can change our perception of what we know, or think we know. I enjoyed this story for the history and the passion of the characters... --Geoff Habiger, Goodreads reviews

The camaraderie of the writing and publishing community has been one of my greatest blessings during this year of lockdowns and isolation and, in truth, of these my first four years post-retirement. I do hope to be more productive in my writing in 2021.

Shanah tovah umetukah!

May 2021 be a year of renewed hope, greater joy and appreciation of life's gifts, and love for everyone!



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"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what's a heaven for?" -- Robert Browning

May 30, 2020

Successful launch!

Congratulations to NASA, SpaceX, and to all of us!

I was born 21 days after the launch of Explorer 1, America's first satellite, and having gazed with open-mouthed awe when I was a child and young adult at the live images from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, I've felt a loss, personally, and also for our nation--and for the children who have not had the opportunity to tilt their heads skyward with wonder and pride these last nine years since the last American-launched manned space mission.

Especially gratifying is the knowledge that astronaut Douglas Hurley who piloted that very last Space Shuttle mission nine years ago is inaugurating America's return to home-soil spaceflight today, providing a sense of continuity .

Mazel tov!

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Off and on of late, I've been cataloging my library on Library Thing. I'm up to the hardcover K's and, in entering the Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King, I noted the dedication:

"In memory of THOMAS WILLIAMS, 1926-1991: poet, novelist, and great American storyteller."

and, above it, the author's autograph and brief inscription:

"In Memory of Tom--Stephen King".

And thereby, much like my brief intersection with the late great Harlan Ellison, hangs a tale, perhaps two.

Professor Thomas Williams is, was, the 1975 National Book Award-winning author of The Hair of Harold Roux (1974) as well as seven other novels and short works who sadly passed away in 1990 at the age of 63 -- an age I note with slight disquiet that I myself will reach in two years. Tom was, as described by New York Times critic Orville Prescott:

"a marvelously exact observer of the natural world, of the behavior of men and animals, and of the shape and surface and significance of things... (who) manipulates the English language with love and with controlled power."

Tom's insights extended to writing and, perhaps more importantly, to writers. With them, he shared both empathy and sympathy. Regarding Professor Williams and his novel The Hair of Harold Roux, Stephen King wrote in The Atlantic in 2011:

"He was a wonderful, wonderful novelist. ...The Hair of Harold Roux, which is one of my favorite books, (is) about a writer named Aaron Benham.
Benham says that when he sits down to write a book it's like being on a dark plain with one little tiny fire. And somebody comes and stands by that fire to warm themselves. And then more people come. And those are the characters in your book, and the fire is whatever inspiration you have. And they feed the fire, and it gets big, and eventually it burns out because the book is at an end.
It's always felt that way to me. When you start, it's very cold, an impossible task. But then maybe the characters start to take on a little bit of life, or the story takes a turn that you don't expect ... With me that happens a lot because I don't outline, I just have a vague notion. So it's always felt like less of a made thing and more of a found thing. That's exciting. That's a thrill."

and he wrote in Rolling Stone magazine in 2016:

"I’ve read (The Hair of Harold Roux) four or five times. It’s a couple of days in the life of this guy, Aaron Benham, who’s writing a book about a man who is writing a book. It’s this little house of mirrors. I love it because it tells the truth as I understand it about what it is to be a writer."

Professor Williams taught creative writing at the University of New Hampshire when I was an idealistic and romantic (the cynic in me also adds: naive and immature) undergraduate in the late 1970s. I majored in English, my focus being creative writing and British literature, while I cobbled together the necessary prerequisites of a pre-med student (i.e. my "back-up" career choice). My dream, however, was to be a writer of stories of wonder like those that had so enchanted me since a child.

However, writing genre fiction (as oft told by survivors of the times) and sharing it with my fellow English majors at our story workshops was akin to bringing pork to Passover seder. After nearly three years of patient disdain for my nascent tales of SFF, despite my focus on "character" and "theme," those two story qualities that my classmates and professors considered the quintessence of worthy literature, I finally crafted a tale that was overall well-received by my classmates, but their general consensus was that I was wasting whatever talent I possessed in writing SFF, and that I should focus on writing fiction that mattered (i.e. "literary").

After this class, Professor Williams asked to see me in his office. Expecting similar remonstration like those of disapproval I'd received from my prior writing professor John Yount (who I greatly admired and still earned an A- from, btw), I settled in the chair before Tom's desk while he thumbed through my semester's submissions. I must have looked pitiable, but he closed my student folder, sat back, and told me the following story. How much of it is true, I cannot say, or even if I recall it 100% correctly, but here it is. Professor Williams told me:

"A young man came to my door and asked if I would read his novel. The day was hot.

He was dressed in a torn t-shirt and jeans. Looking past him down my walkway,

I saw a idling black truck with too many miles on it, and the shadow of a woman inside

the cabin, her arm resting on the open passenger door window. I sighed and, feeling

sympathy for the young man, I agreed to read his manuscript. A week later, he returned, and I informed him that he had skill with writing, but the audience for such a work was very narrow. I handed him his manuscript and wished him well with it.

"Time passed, and when next this young man came to my door, he was wearing a tuxedo. He and his wife picked Elizabeth and me up in a limousine to join him for a celebratory evening. The young man was Stephen King, and the novel I read was 'Carrie.'"

This was the essence of Professor Williams: he was kind, inspirational, and supportive. Of all my writing professors, he alone ventured into the borderland between literary and fantasy fiction, touching upon it in his award-winning The Hair of Harold Roux and a spin-off from it entitled Tsuga's Children (1977) which he wrote for his own children. Of Tsuga's Children (and novels of its like), Mr. King wrote in Danse Macabre (p. 259):

"(It is) one of those books about childhood...that adults should take down once in a while not just to give to their own children, but in order to touch base again themselves with childhood's brighter perspectives."

While I soon turned away from writing to pursue a career in medicine (a Hobson's choice as sensibility insisted I select a profession with greater promise of putting food on my table and providing for a future family), I never forgot Tom or his story/parable that was both encouragement and humble acknowledgment of the fallacy of one's presumed certainty of anything in regard to what readers want. It is a lesson still relevant when considering the balance between writing what one loves and what editors/publishers/readers purportedly want. There are audiences for everyone.

Sixteen years later, on June 30, 1996, I met Mr. King at what I perceived as a paying it forward and paying back book signing that he provided, sadly in vain, to sustain Bookland, a struggling Maine bookstore chain that had strongly promoted and supported him as a young author. Reservations for the event were $50 and included pre-release copies of Stephen's The Regulators and Desperation in a combined package, a signed bookplate, and a numbered place in line (mine was #210 which was near the front).

The line coiled around the store. Ushers informed us that Mr. King would sign two books and that he would not have time for conversation. I would have preferred to have Mr. King sign my first edition The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982, Donald M. Grant) which I had purchased at Bookland over a decade before, however, understandably, only books purchased in-store would be signed.

The line wound forward past displays of of Mr. King's works. I owned nearly all of them, mostly his novels. Thus, I picked up his short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes and felt a bittersweet hollowness in my chest when I read the dedication (above) to Professor Williams. Having been lost to the rigors of medical school and residency, I had not known that Professor Williams had passed away. It left me a bit shaken and strummed that easily reachable string of Jewish guilt--here for having lost touch with him and, also, of my choice not to further my own writing.

When I reached Mr. King, he greeted me with a generic smile and reached for the book. Upon seeing its title, his expression turned quizzical. Among the plethora of Carrie-s, The Stand-s, The Shining-s, and Salem's Lot-s that he'd autographed, I suspect this particular book had not yet been passed to him for signature. In answer, I said only that Thomas Williams had once been my writing professor and how much I cherished his memory. To the surprise (and annoyance) of the ushers and the waiting King fans behind me, the line stopped. Mr. King and I shared a conversation about Tom, paying off our respective if different debts to this good man.

In the best written works, time stops a moment when something genuine is shared. Quickly, however, the hubbub of the crowd rushed back upon us. Time with its duties and obligations resumed, and I moved on.

As with great works, so with the great people who made impressions intaglio upon our lives. Here is made evident the truth in the traditional saying among Jews which

we say for the departed:

"May his name be as a blessing."

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