Kirkus Review, Collateral Damage and Stories

Received this nice review of my latest, to be released June 2, 2016

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A collection of subdued tales features characters who can neither evade the past nor confront the inevitable future.

John Fromme, narrator of the book’s titular and longest story, is a schizophrenic freelance writer. When his wife, Janet, frantically tells him their son, Ted, is missing, the two eventually find him with John’s mother, Charlene. It seems that Ted, ashamed of his dad’s condition, may want to live with Grandma. But as John and Janet argue with Charlene over who should be Ted’s guardian, readers are privy to John’s skewered perception. Voices in his head, for one, are personified, including look-alikes Lana and Carly, who talk to him as Janet and Charlene’s dispute presses on. Charlene points to the family’s history of mental illness, but John’s recollection of his past soon has him questioning his own memories. Characters in the other five, much shorter stories may not have a clearly defined disorder like John, but they are similarly afflicted. Nathan Ploegger, in “The Offering,” for example, is an American obsessed with finding a strange woman he met while touring the Yucatán, an obsession that may prove disastrous. In “I, Singularity,” Harold, blind since birth, experiences unbearable headaches. Surgery may help, but early tests lead to a surprise that could change Harold’s life as well as his relationship with his clingy sister Tess. In many ways, “Complementarities” is reminiscent of a soap opera, as Frankie’s affair with Juanita, the girlfriend of his pal Jimmy Sheephorn, invariably results in deceit and discontent. But like all of the tales, it’s shackled with an almost cruel predetermination: readers, in this case, know from the beginning that Jimmy’s died horribly. Mustin (We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile, 2013, etc.) rounds out his book with “Object of Affection” and “The Phantom.” In the former, a mother tells of her son Carlos, a celebrity athlete whose rise to fame is curtailed by a faster and miserable drop from the spotlight. The latter and closing story is also the most upbeat: baseball fanatic Karl has a shot at a career in his favorite sport—and his grandfather’s special homemade baseball is along for the ride.

Often despondent, but the brooding characters will stick in readers’ heads like emotional glue.

 

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What Makes The Master Writer?

 

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Thumbing through the latest New Yorker issue (March 28, 2016) turned up a pleasant surprise: a short story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” by Ian McEwan, probably today’s most highly regarded English novelist. Predictably for me, the story proved as satisfying as cold watermelon on a hot North Carolina summer day.

Then I began to wonder: What attracts me (and scores of other readers) to McEwan’s work? His stories  and novels hinge to perhaps an excessive degree on narrative and his voice, while distinct, is not an elegant one. When dialogue does appear, it’s no great shakes, either. And his storylines seem all too familiar from one to another, almost formulaic on the surface. And almost all of his work over the last decade has to do with social issues of one sort or another.

In other words, the sort of writing some 25 year-old MFA instructor-editor would reject with the usual, “This work doesn’t meet our needs at this time, but we thank you for submitting” sort of trash.

Every writer, I think, who can be seen as a master has his/her own approach to story, characterization, style, voice, etc. With McEwan I believe it’s his characterizations. He’s able to place characters into social settings with such apparent ease. In his case, his offhand narrative style prevents polemics, his characters simply acting out bits of life in the author’s chosen social context. Too, he’s a master of the story twist that underscores these given social contexts. In this particular story a mundane friendship between two writers hinges on plagiarization as the two – one successful, the other struggling – find their successes reversed.

Every writer needs to know his/her skill with the many aspects of literary writing, but in the end, as always, it comes down to the gifts of storyline and characterization.

 

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Thirteen Hours In Benghazi, The Inside Account of What Really Happened,

by Mitchell Zuckoff

Journalism has been expanding it reach, particularly since 9-11, when the U.S.’s invincibility began being called into question, and the world stage became a much more complicated place. In times of political transition world-wide, nothing is certain; there are no rules, no theories for such transition and a subsequent world stability. The world must reinvent itself. The most fertile region for such confounding change in this century has been the Middle East (with Africa not far behind), with its Arab Spring, and the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya has proven to be an Achilles heel for the U.S.’s belief in American exceptionalism and its foreign policies wrapped up in nation building.
Against this backdrop, Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, set up shop in Tripoli’s “bad sister” twin city, Benghazi, hoping to reach out to the various militia groups there, as well as to ordinary Libyans, to say that America was there not only to bring stability, but to be Libya’s friend.
Such idealistic forays always seem to go awry, though. The compound where Stevens set up his headquarters was, at Stevens’ request, given minimal security protection, both to show Libyans that the U.S. wasn’t afraid to be there, and to open doors to average Libyans. From this book, three reasons for the attack on Stevens’ compound appear: Eastern Libya is and was a lawless, violent place. Then al-Qaida militias roamed there, fighting with others, and the sparsely guarded compound must have seemed an easy target. Also, an anti-Muslim film appeared in the U.S., and it set off demonstrations and, possibly the attack on the diplomatic compound.

Less than a mile away stood a CIA station. When the attack on Stevens’ compound began, the CIA’s operator-guards sought to help defend the compound, but were delayed while a timid Team Leader there sought approval from Washington to attack the insurgents. Meanwhile, the operators took off for the compound and a thirteen hour series of battles occurred in which Stevens, a computer jock, and two of the operators were killed.

Zuckoff’s writing is detailed, minute-by-minute, and based on fact-laden reports, while scrupulously avoiding political commentary. The author has a flair for the dramatic present in this event, and in how to write it, and the book is very human, very compelling.

My rating: 18 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

 

The Big Short – Movie Review

 

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I’ve pretty much gotten out of the habit of seeing movies in a theater – or as an old country friend of mine calls them, walk-in picture shows. Part of it is I have enough physical discomfort to make theater seating an ordeal and, I suppose, the threat that someone who carries what remains of his manhood on his hip might unload a few clips of warfare ammo into people he doesn’t even know accounts for a tiny bit of it.

That said, I’ve taken to watching movies at home, streamed by my cable provider, and this past weekend, while nursing a case of pneumonia, I settled in to watch The Big Short. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s almost a documentary about the banks’ buying increasingly underwater mortgages, packaging them in bonds, pressuring the rating services to rate these bonds above their worth, and promoting and selling the bonds to unwitting investors. The ultimate pyramid scheme.

Then one of the characters come up with the idea of buying the bonds as, if I understand it, something called credit default swaps. Kind of like derivatives in stocks and commodities. The idea being that if the bonds go bust, the person buying the swaps would get filthy rich. We’re a nation now of fantasy and other forms of unreality, and even the banks selling the swaps didn’t see – or care – what was happening.

Then, of course, the 2008 crash.

This is all very arcane, I realize; I don’t think I understand it well. But the movie handles this cleverly. The action stops occasionally to allow some peripheral character to explain key terms and processes, or the screen is overwritten with such defining things.

We all know that it order to salvage the economy, the taxpayers had to bailout the mega-banks, and the Dodd-Frank Bill was enacted to help prevent this from happening again. And so the banks have learned their lessons, right. No! They’re setting out to repeal Dodd-Frank and are already offering devices that could cause this to happen again.

It’s a chancy subject, and was taken on bravely. It’s a public service that informs far more than it entertains.

 

My rating: 20 of 20 stars.

Inventions and Business – An Interview

 

 

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When Stephen Fairchild first approached me with regard to interest in his novel, “The Silver Lining Betrayals,” I confess, I didn’t know what to think of it. But as I read the book it dawned on me that he had written it, not only as a business tool, he was delving into new genre territory. Now I’m so enamored of what he’s done that I thought my review deserved a follow-up interview. One follows.

 

GF – Your novel takes an unusual form – much emphasis on invention and business. How did the idea for such a novel come about?

SF – I have worked for and with various technology companies and family businesses over the last 50 years. Observed and supervised many brilliant engineers who invented interesting technologies and products. But when it came to commercializing the technologies into profitable revenue streams, these engineers often failed. They fell in love with their technologies and forgot that politics (aka customer relationships) are equally important. You always need to balance technology and politics when practicing the art of commercialization. When you add the complication of family issues into the mix, then you get strange decisions and consequences.

 

GF – Your central character, Pug James, is just such an idea guy, and inventor, a product creator and, as you imply, not a particularly good businessman. But let’s talk about him as a person for a moment. Would you spend a moment describing Pug’s character, his inner conflicts?

SF – The Pug character is a composite of many engineers whom I have seen and worked with over the years. Starting with the base material of “ego and asshole” mentality, my imagination added the following elements:

Pug’s father is a very hateful person who abused his wife, refuses to recognize Pug’s accomplishments, and remains jealous of Pug. Pug wants his father’s approval but never achieves it. Pug resents that his father favors his nephew and namesake, Darin.

Despite Pug’s estrangement, he nevertheless inherited several of his father’s bad traits such as infidelity, paranoia, biased opinions, delusional thinking, etc. It probably bothers Pug internally that he is more like his father than he cares to acknowledge.

Pug ignores important lessons and advice about balancing technology and politics and like the definition of insanity, he repeats the same errors over and over expecting different outcomes.

Pug thinks he is developing his sons to inherit his business legacy. He doesn’t realize that his management style and thinking will produce the opposite. Skip is hopeless and finally resorts to betraying his father while Dave departs and seeks a better life in Japan. Ironically, Dave will learn the lessons that Pug could never learn.

 

GF Much of the novel is taken up with of Pug’s dealings with Japanese business types. Can you give your readers an idea of the dynamics of these dealings?

SF – Having worked and lived in Asia for six years, I realized the importance of recognizing and adapting to the diverse business cultures and traditions. Generally, the General Patton tactical approach does not succeed. You have to play the long game and think in terms of years, not months. Relationships are everything and Pug never learns that lesson.

One quickly learns that you must respect local practices, spend hours developing relationships and trust, and be very methodical in your steps. The “checkers” approach may succeed in the very short term but it’s the “chess” approach that succeeds in the long game.

When I first read Michael Crichton’s “Rising Sun”, it resonated. The success and failure of dealing with Japanese businessmen, was clearly highlighted by the differing styles exhibited in the movie version by Harvey Keitel’s, Sean Connery’s and Wesley Snipe’s characters.

Asian businessmen, especially the Japanese, appreciate the value of IP (Intellectual Property) and will acquire it by many different means. Business espionage is a fact of life (more so for Korea and China) and one has to proceed cautiously. Pug is too impatient to accept this reality and hence his approach is doomed.

 

GF – Steve, you’ve been a businessman in real life – do you think your novel accurately represents the modern business community?

SF – Since the setting occurred between the mid 1980’s and 2002, the novel did reflect reality more as it existed then. Now, the business community is much more sophisticated and their techniques are less transparent thanks to the internet and technology progress. Pug’s style and actions would not be tolerated today like they were in the earlier years.

Protecting one’s IP is a critical process. Resorting to litigation is an instinctive reaction and short-term satisfying. But considering other alternatives like licensing, JV’s, win/win approaches will be much more successful in the long term. The modern business community tends to adopt this approach more and more.

 

GF – What’s next for you? Will you continue to write on this subject?

SF – Plans include writing a sequel to continue the firsts novel’s themes and to resolve unfinished matters from the first novel.

I plan to develop a series of case studies for use in the business and law schools that draw on events described in the novel. Hopefully, professors can use these in teaching courses that involve protecting and commercializing IP, managing family businesses, and developing executive talent.

 

 

 

The Big Why

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The Girls of Usually, by Lori Horvitz

When you take a creative writing course in college, you’ll no doubt have a professor like Lori Horvitz, and if you display some talent and follow the professor’s guidance, you’ll write some well constructed non-fiction pieces similar to those in The Girls of Usually. Ms. Horvitz has led an interesting life of travel and bohemianism, slowly finding her footing as an adult and her sexual solace as a lesbian.

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There’s little to critique in the author’s writing style; she’s all too aware of how to string opening “hook” passages, meaty stories, and ironic ending sentences into publishable confessionals. However, despite the author’s adventurous early life, the prose is sometimes bland, cautious in glossing over her inner life. As I read piece after piece, the author traveling from exotic place to familiar haunt, extrapolating from home in New York to unfamiliar locales, having sex with multiple males, then females, I had to ask, “Why?” What was she avoiding in seemingly superficial sexual encounters, some lasting for several years? Why the constant urge to travel? What subterranean wounding led her to run from family, from sexual partners, from commitment? What was it she finally had to confront about herself? and how did she, in the end, grapple with it? I don’t think it was her journey from heterosexuality to bisexuality to lesbianism, but if it was, how did her inner life change as she went through this sexual odyssey? At a minimum, perhaps more could have been made of the parallels between travel and sexuality.
As a result, one gets the feeling that it was simply age and perhaps becoming jaded with her adventurism that resulted in her coming to rest in academia as an outed lesbian. Still, with the contemporary focus on gay marriage, teens coming out, and the transgender phenomenon, this book, despite its weak links, is perhaps as good a place as any to begin yet another conversation on sexuality in modern society.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

The Perils of Business and Personality

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The Silver Lining Betrayals – A Novel, by S.J. Fairchild

One of the great things about the novel is that it’s always evolving, and with The Silver Lining Betrayals, Fairchild has broken new textual ground, both in genre and style. This book is all about the business of business, and Fairchild has captured the manner in which business is both carried forward and held back by human inventiveness and foible.

Pug James is a gifted inventor/businessman, who has come up with a revolutionary product he calls the IPS 10000 dissipater, which promises to set a new paradigm for appliances worldwide. He sets up a company to license and sell this new product, but the aptly named Pug is irascible and combative. Intrigue within and without the company begins to set in and, despite Pug’s gifts as head of this venture, his business connections start to betray him. The book is about Pug as much as it’s about the business and its product, how Pug’s personality is so closely linked to the success of his product, his company, and all those around him.

Fairchild knows his subject. He grew up in a family business, worked internationally, and gives insight here, in great detail, of the creativity and machinations necessary to carry a business forward in aggressive fashion. The story line has elements of mystery, murder, and suspense as well as giving the reader a primer on the fragile nature and interdependence of international business ventures. His style is somewhat experimental; he weaves inner dialogue near-seamlessly into conversational passages, and allows the reader to judge Pug clinically on his successes and failures rather than on narrative judgments.

For a first novel, it’s a success in this reader’s view, and a worthy read, although quite dense in its exposition of technical and business matters.

 

My rating 16 of 20 stars