Kirkus Speaks About Intimate Things

In This Love Together_ebook


Coincidentally, today’s the day I received a review of In This Love Together – Love, Failing Limbs and Cancer. When you’re writing about things as intimate as a marriage, inseminated deeply with love, you’re never sure if you see the width and breadth of the forest for at least one of the trees comprising it. The review seems a good one, but a couple of twisty phrases had me unsure. (This is quintessential writer’s insecurity – comes with the territory.)

So I felt the need to gather a second opinion, from the one person who had almost as much to do with the book’s compositions I – Connie May Fowler. Connie’s opinion? It’s a rave review – you should celebrate! So to kick off the celebration (to be followed by a very necessary, spring cleaning scrub-down, fore and aft, of my condo), here’s what Kirkus has to say about the memoir:

Mustin (We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile, 2014, etc.) offers an emotional, articulate memoir of his late wife’s fight against cancer.

The author, a longtime engineer, had already gone through a rocky marriage and a sour divorce when a former co-worker, Becca, reentered his life. She was an outdoorsy, practical, and attractive environmental specialist who was still healing from a previous marriage herself, and the two began seeing each other romantically. As Mustin notes, dating in middle age isn’t very different from the blissful giddiness and insecurity of dating in one’s 20s, and eventually he and Becca married at a courthouse on a workday afternoon. But 17 years later, his 64-year-old wife developed a cancerous tumor on her tongue. “My thoughts resist the linearity of chronological order,” the author says as he explains his abstract narrative, which starts the book with the onset of Becca’s illness, backtracks to the day that they first met, intersperses well-researched facts on cancer, and weaves through events in the couple’s marriage with the randomness of human memory. It’s a brilliant storytelling device—the reader struggles to understand new contexts, details, and narratives, just as the author himself struggles to make sense of a maddening terminal illness. Mustin’s love for and frequent awe of his wife is evident in every detail of this remembrance. Even when he frankly points out her shortcomings, such as her somewhat taciturn air and her difficult relationship with her mother (which he discovered during a particularly uncomfortable holiday visit), his reverent tone gives his words a rosy, warm hue. The details of Becca’s squamous-cell carcinoma are unsparing, yet the author balances them with delicate, loving vignettes of their life together, including unexpected moments of romance, which gives the book a disarming eloquence. Their relationship was not perfect, as Mustin makes clear; their flaws, insecurities, and reluctances often got the best of both of them. Yet as he writes their story, he articulates how their difficult journey revealed their true love, in spite of it all.

A memoir that balances clarity, precision, and emotion while telling a tragic story.


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To Read Or Listen, That’s The Question



This week, when a technician stopped by to install a security gizmo for me, he quickly made note of my book collection and bemoaned the fact that as a newlywed he hardly had time to read any more. But, he added, I listen to audiobooks now when I’m on the road.

So I offered him a free copy of an audiobook for my story collection, Sam’s Place, and he gobbled it up. (NOTE: I still have a few free audiobook copies of that book, so if you want a copy, let me know. It’s the complete book, not a teaser.)

But as this article makes clear, there are no clear cut advantages to either print or audio books. For myself, I think reading a book, whether print or digital, requires a bit more participation by the reader than audio, but that’s a close call.

Let me know what you think.


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Fiction as Reality That Makes Sense


We writers know we have to compete in a changing market, and with the prominence of MFA program graduates, plus the added complication of self-pub writers, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. And with the digital revolution – e-books, etc. – the publishing industry is twisting in the wind.

In the past year, too, I’ve discovered that fiction (most of what I write) is losing readers to non-fiction. There are apparently a host of reasons for that, which I won’t try to enumerate here, but this does add to the challenge of becoming a financially successful fiction writer (caveat: most writers, including myself, are virtually compelled by our natures to write; thus the money issue is only the capstone to writing as hobby/craft/profession).

What are we fiction writers to make of this drift to non-fiction? Certainly, we can encourage teachers, writing facilitators, professors, and others to teach the values of fiction to the reading public. And of course, to write the best fiction we can, to keep learning about the craft of writing. The best fiction, it’s been said is more real than reality; it helps reality make sense.

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.

Every Picture a Story, Every Story A Picture

Last week I promised a bit on what goes on in the most engrossing of books, and I think I’d like to tackle characterization first.  If you’ve read Anna Karenina or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, what do you remember the most? Probably Anna’s difficult affair with Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s epic work, and in Tartt’s, it would be Theo Decker and his sleazy pal, Boris, right? But what of the laundry list of other, probably less memorable characters?


Think of your book’s primary characters the way a painter would approach an art project (since we’re talking about The Goldfinch anyway). How does a painter accentuate the most prominent aspects of an art piece? Google Titian’s Diana and Callisto, for example, for a more expanded view of the above art piece. Every picture tells a story, and Titian drew from Roman Mythology in this one, Diana discovering that her maid Callisto has become pregnant by Jupiter.

Notice what Titian does with this? Diana is the prominent one, more nearly facing the viewer, and one of four who are presented with the most light. Callisto is to the left, in the shadows of others presenting the maid to Diana. Notice how the others are turned to the side, or are darkened in contrast to Diana?

This is what the writer does with his/her characters. The protagonist – and perhaps the antagonist – are more visibly “naked.” That is, their physical traits, their inner selves, and their presence in the context of the story, are the most prominent, i.e., you know the most about these characters. Notice in the Titian painting how the others are depicted less vividly, perhaps left darker in the reader’s mind? Their presence is to support or accentuate Diana or Callisto.

Also notice how Titian has positioned and posed his figures to evoke emotion from the viewer? This is also the purpose of supporting characters in a story: these characters are usually the ones who create the conflict that your protagonist must work through. They’re not presented vividly; they only exist – through their looks, attitudes, or actions – as catalysts to drive the story or to create more vividly the protagonist or antagonist.

So think of your book’s characters as having been built in layers – of description, of conflict, of conflict. I think as this sinks in, you’ll want to re-read your favorite books – and you’ll get more out of them. As a writer, you’ll understand better the mechanics you’re putting into play in your stories.

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 e-single

The digital revolution is not only here to stay in publishing, but it’s bringing about new literary forms, such as the e-single.








(Don’t take this photo literally – tongue should be firmly in cheek)


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Common Core Nonfiction Reading Standards Mark The End Of Literature, English Teachers Say/HuffPo

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This, to my mind, is socially dangerous. At the least, reading well written fiction can help users of the more linear non-fiction, such as specifications, legal briefs, and technical manuals. At the greatest, we humans have the need for story, to engage in alternate realities, in reliving the might-have-beens of history. Without fiction, we will eventually face a visceral rebellion in the human experience – or we will surrender our humanity and become automatons.




Primitive Peace within a World at War

Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff


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Mitchell Zuckoff has unearthed a compelling story of a lost world amid the global conflagration of WWII. Under his hand, however, the story’s facts aren’t given their just deserts. Here’s the story, writ small:

A group of American army types stationed in New Guinea as Allied forces push relentlessly toward Japan decide to take a military version of a tourist flight to see an unspoiled area of this primitive island. The plane crashes (due to pilot error?) and only three survive: Corporal Margaret Hastings, Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker, and Lieutenant John McCollom. McCollom survived with minimal injuries, but Decker and Hastings were severely injured.

Luckily, the USAAF is able to locate the three, send paratroopers and parachuting medics to help them and feed them until a method can be devised to rescue the three. Meanwhile, the hapless survivors – and their ad hoc rescuers – are confronted with New Guinea tribesmen, and these lost people from a lost world and American military personnel form emotional bonds of sorts. In the end, the rescue is an exotic one: a glider is guided into the area, and those on the ground snared on a cable by an Air Force plane. 

The story’s details, as depicted by Zuckoff, are all too brief to make a full length book, and it seems to this reader that, no doubt at the urging of agent or editor, he added a lot of fluff to fill out the story. A book that could have been a suspenseful page-turner – coupled with this encounter with lost people – seems diluted with minutiae about the primary characters, their families, even that of peripheral characters.

One of the skills of both fiction and non-fiction writing is parceling the story out in ways that keep the story’s energy building – until its climax and denouement. I’ve always been one, whether reviewing a finished book or critiquing one in progress, to honor the author’s strategy in orchestrating a story, in unwrapping the characters, both amid a vivid scenic background. With Zuckoff’s story, I’m fatally tempted to critique, but, alas, I won't.

I don’t want to say that the author is a poor writer. To the contrary, his research was formidable and thorough. There are moments of great prose here, and moments of elation, pathos and whimsy – enough to enthrall readers despite the roadblocks thrown in their way. Despite the telling, this is a great story, and readers will both learn and enjoy its passage.


My rating: 15 of 20 stars