Book Review: Good Company by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Good Company
by
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I knew this book was going to be good before I even started it, and it wasn’t because I thought I’d relate to the characters’ professions or to the setting, but simply because I loved Sweeney’s characters in The Nest and was confident she would write another good story! The main characters in Good Company are two married couples who have been best friends since their early days. Three of the four are stage actors (one is a doctor) who move from New York to Los Angeles and undergo west coast career and life changes. I’m neither a New Yorker nor an Angelino and my last stage performance was in my school’s fifth-grade production of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. The reason the book is good is because Sweeney draws you in with her characters, who are really just regular people who face typical life problems. The title, named after the actors’ New York theater company also looks at old friendships, family, love and marriage and forces the characters to question if they are indeed in good company.

The story begins in Los Angeles, when Flora Fletcher finds her husband’s lost wedding ring in the back of an old filing cabinet. Thirteen years earlier, Julian had told her the ring had slipped off his finger while swimming and, despite searches, they had declared the ring lost forever. So, what’s it doing in the cabinet?

Flora’s discovery puts a cloud over their daughter, Ruby’s high school graduation party that night and leads to an unraveling of her life and marriage as she knew it. How can this be? She and Julian are in a good place in their marriage and careers. She’s a voiceover actress for a popular animated show and Julian stars in a successful seventies’ series. Also at risk is Flora’s relationship with her best friend, Margot, now a regular on a popular medical drama.

This is a book about transitions and the stresses that pop up, a super-interesting topic to me. I love how the author writes about how big life changes force you to reassess.

While Los Angeles is their current home, New York City and Good Company’s upstate performance venue figure prominently. The author jumps back to New York, when Flora and Julian first meet, marry and have Ruby. I liked the realistic dynamics between Flora and Julian in during these times, what they disagreed about, how they soldiered on, despite not having regular work. And while readers know Flora and Margot, who are very different from each other, are best friends, I liked learning how they became that way and what Margot brought to the relationship. Readers also learn about Margot’s marriage to David and why he gave up his practice.

I could say a lot more about this book, but readers are better off enjoying it first-hand. Told from several points of view, readers get a look into the minds of Flora, Margot, Ruby and later, Julian. Sweeney tackles the universal tough questions, writes with humor, and gives us authentic and likable characters.

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Book Review: Love Marriage by Monica Ali

Love Marriage
by
Monica Ali

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I could not stop reading this book in which two families struggle to understand themselves and their relationships with each other. Set in London, Yasmin Ghorami is a doctor-in-training and her fiancé, Joe Sangster, is a practicing obstetrician. The story begins as Yasmin and Joe bring their parents together for the first time. Yasmin worries about the cultural divide between her parents, Anisah and Shaokat, and Joe’s mother, Harriet, an upper class liberal and outspoken feminist and writer. And Joe can only hope that Harriet will behave around Yasmin’s Muslim parents. Their dinner together unfolds nicely, but soon Harriet has taken over the wedding preparations, with Anisah’s full and enthusiastic approval, and much to Yasmin’s shock at the idea of a now-large and complicated religious ceremony. Readers may think they are settling in for a bit of a romantic comedy, but will soon discover a host of serious and complicated problems. Ali’s characters must undergo important and often painful transformations before they can find happiness.

The first problem: Joe and Yasmin. Joe tells her he wants to settle down, but he has secrets and must work through complex issues about sex and his unusually close relationship with Harriet. Yasmin loves Joe, but is there enough passion? Her limited dating experience is of no help. I like the way the author shows how the couple’s genuine love and affection for each other makes this problem all-the-more painful.

The second problem: Shaokat’s stubborn pride. Yasmin’s father became a doctor against all odds, but at a cost. Now, above everything, he wants Yasmin and her brother, Arif to succeed and his intense expectations work against him. Although Yasmin is on her way, she questions whether she really wants to be a doctor. Arif, unemployed and angry, locks horns with Shaokat who berates him about his lack of motivation. I was incredibly drawn into these simmering conflicts between fathers and their adult children. There are some powerful scenes between Shaokat and his children.

The third problem: Anisah and Shaokat’s marriage. Anisah seems satisfied in her role as wife, mother and homemaker, but when she meets Harriet, she sees a wider world and a chance at happiness she never considered. She shocks her family when she grabs it and Yasmin will learn hard truths about her parents’ early days.

I think the best part of the book is how what seems to be a simple story develops and reveals complex problems within and between its characters. All of Ali’s characters undergo major, often painful transformations. I liked how the author made me feel like I was getting to know the characters, just as if I had met them for the first time, and how my early impressions of them changed over time. Likewise, was my understanding of their relationships with each other, something you don’t understand until you know a person longer. The author does an especially great job portraying the Ghorami family, Arif in particular, and the unique problems they face as Muslims in London. I thought Arif’s transformation was one of the most interesting storylines in the book.

Love Marriage portrays a specific culture and relates it to how everyone experiences similar personal and family conflicts. This is both an entertaining and serious book and I recommend it to all readers who like stories about family and marriage.

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Book Review: The Party by Robyn Harding

The Party
by
Robyn Harding

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

About a month ago, I was getting a haircut and my stylist, knowing I have a book blog and work in a library, told me about a book she liked: The Party, about a sweet sixteen party that went terribly wrong. Curious, I went home and downloaded it from the library. Plots like this are hard to resist because we’re reading them and thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad this isn’t happening to me!”

The Party, set in a posh neighborhood in San Francisco, is all about bad decisions, bad relationships and cyberbullying. And it’s not just the kids who make the bad decisions. The adults are just as bad! There’s more at work here too. Themes of friendship and what’s right work themselves into the reader’s experience. So what sounds like sort of a voyeuristic look at a messed-up group of people points to what’s really important in life, even if the characters don’t get it. And believe me, they don’t!

The story begins as Hannah approaches her sixteenth birthday. She’s been a good girl her whole life, directed by her mom, Kim, who is intent on keeping her daughter on the straight and narrow. Her father, Jeff, is a workaholic and a work-out fiend and he’s in the dog house because of some event that comes out later. Hannah’s an A-student, an athlete and plays piano, but lately she’s been dissatisfied with her high school social life. That changes when she gets a cool boyfriend and Lauren, the most popular girl in school, brings her into the cool crowd. Hannah’s old friends, Marta and Caitlin seem so boring to her now!

Turning sixteen is a big deal and her parents allow a small sleepover, to include Lauren and Ronni, a girl Hannah knew when they were kids, but part of the fast crew now. The girls solemnly agree to Kim’s rules: no alcohol, no drugs and no boys. What Kim doesn’t know is that Jeff, in an impulsive mood and wanting to be the cool dad, sneaks the girls a bottle of pink champagne. That might not be enough to cause too much trouble, except that the girls have brought in a variety of drugs and alcohol. More secret plans ahead, too.

Something bad happens during the night, resulting in a police investigation and a lawsuit. Lauren becomes the ultimate “mean girl” as she and her friends work to destroy their classmate. Other friendships also break and Kim and Jeff’s marriage, due to major indiscretions by both, may not survive.

Harding writes the story from her main characters’ points of view, giving readers a good look into their selfish and shallow thoughts. Hannah exhibits a few redeeming qualities, teetering on the “what’s right” side and readers will wonder where she’ll land.

I enjoyed this read. Harding includes details about the privileged and upscale life, poking fun at the value her characters place on nice things and experiences. I’m looking forward to my next hair appointment so I can tell my stylist that I read the book she recommended!

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Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler

French Braid
by
Anne Tyler

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I had to wait a long time to get Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel from the library, but it was worth it! Back in the 80s and 90s, I read a lot of her books. Despite the time lapse, I’ve found it easy to fall back into the familiar rhythm of Tyler’s writing style.

As with her other books, French Braid is about marriage and family relationships. Set in Baltimore, Tyler looks at three generations of the Garrett family and asks the question, “What is a normal family?” Because the Garretts seem anything but normal. They’re disjointed and noncommunicative, even when they’re together. Past hurts remain buried, but show themselves in unexpected moments. Many of them have solitary personalities. Others don’t know how to connect. Robin, for example, adores Mercy, but he’s awkward around her. And Mercy is too caught up in her painting to notice.

French Braid isn’t a chronological story. Tyler jumps around and readers get to know the family through a variety of situations and points of view. She begins with Serena in 2010, returning from Philadelphia with her college boyfriend. On the train, they argue about families. The boyfriend is baffled by Serena’s detached comments, especially after they’d run into a cousin she’d barely recognized at the train station. She tries to explain why they don’t see that side of the family much. “It’s Uncle David, really. My mom says she can’t understand it. He used to be so outgoing when he was a little boy…”

Soon we’re back in 1959 when Robin and Mercy take their three children on their only family vacation This first generation of Garretts are all a little detached. Mercy spends her time painting, leaving the meals to Alice. Lily meets a boy. Robin heads to the lake and David, just seven years old, seems happy to stay out of the water and play by himself. He does not want to learn to swim and grows quiet at the suggestion.

Next it’s 1970 and David heads off to college. Robin and Mercy talk about their empty nest and what they will do together, but Mercy has her own plans, edging bit by bit away from her husband.

I don’t want to give more away, so I’ll stop here. I’ve had to think about this book to let it sink in. The Garretts are frustratingly distant, especially Mercy. At first, it seems to be only a bunch of unrelated snippets of time, but then you begin to see a connection between generations. For example, I didn’t like Mercy because I thought she was selfish, but later when I saw how she connected with her granddaughter, Candle, I felt I understood her better. Still selfish though, in my opinion!

Over time, the family reassembles in haphazard ways. Interestingly, it’s a couple of the in-laws who smooth the rough edges and help their spouses understand. What it all comes down to is that there is no real definition of family. Tyler also seems to suggest is that the Garretts need to define themselves as individuals, alone.

French Braid is a deceptively simple story that explores uncomfortable family dynamics. In the end, I felt understood the Garretts better. Like everyone, they’re just looking for happiness. At the finish, Tyler brings us to the present as David and his family manage during the pandemic. David’s heartening connection with his grandson makes you feel full of hope for the whole group.

This sounds like a depressing story, but it’s not! It’s full of both touching and amusing moments. Tyler’s ability to see into the complex ways families relate to each other comes through time and again. I enjoyed French Braid very much and recommend it to readers who like stories about marriage, families and relationships.

Check out my reviews of these other books by Anne Tyler:

The Beginner’s Goodbye
Breathing Lessons
A Spool of Blue Thread

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Book Review: Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel

Stiltsville
by
Susanna Daniel

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I enjoyed Daniel’s Sea Creatures so much, I went back to read her debut novel which begins in the same community of stilt houses in the sand flats off Miami’s coast. This is also a story about marriage, family and relationships. It was interesting to read Stiltsville after Sea Creatures because I can see the where her unique writing style and character development begins.

When Frances Ellerby and Dennis DuVal meet at the DuVal family’s stilt house in 1969, they are twenty-somethings playing at being adults. Sparks fly and Daniel chronicles their relationship and marriage for thirty years. It’s not a perfect union, however, and they face many of the typical the pitfalls of married life.

I liked a lot of things about Stiltsville because I like reading about the ocean and boats. The author spent much of her childhood at her family’s stilt house and it’s obvious she knows what she’s talking about.  In addition, the stilt house community has a lot of draw because it is so different. Daniel does a great job describing the stilt houses and the dangers that exist, things people on land wouldn’t even think about. I think her other strength is in portraying the tensions and conflicts these characters face as they start their adult lives. I especially liked reading about Frances and Dennis’s early years because there’s a certain excitement in the time before things happen. That shows.

There’s a definite slow-down as time passes, however, and there are a few undeveloped story lines that would have been fun to know about. Frances’s friendship with Marse begins with a lot of tension and I think the early Marse is a great complex character. As the years go on, however, her personality mellows and becomes a little stereo-typed.  I also would have liked to have learned more about their daughter Margo, who struggles in her teens and during college, and about her marriage to Stuart, who has the potential to be one of the more interesting characters. 

Daniel also introduces several historical events into the plot which I think must be very hard to do.  There’s a shift in her writing style as this happens and I prefer when Frances returns to her thoughts about her own life. These events help bring authenticity to the Miami time and setting, however, and help to make the story whole. But the book is otherwise well-constructed and if you like to have the details of your story tied up in the end, you will enjoy this.

If you read both Stiltsville and Sea Creatures, you will be interested to see how Daniel experiments with themes and the ideas of marriage and family in Stiltsville. The mixed attractions of danger and the beauty of the stilt house settings are apparent in both. She also introduces the Stiltsville hermit in her first book – I enjoyed that!  And of course, the forces of nature play in both books.

This is an easy entertaining read with a relaxed and contented ending.  I’m looking forward to what comes next!

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What’s That Book? In the Night of Time by Antonio Muňoz Molina

In memory of my brother Rick who passed away on August 9, I’d like to share this review he wrote for my blog, originally published in 2016.

Title: In the Night of Time

Author: Antonio Muňoz Molina

Genre: Historical Fiction

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s it about? The outset of the Spanish Civil War, as seen through the eyes and experiences of a married, middle-aged architect with 2 children, and his affair with a younger American woman. By the end of the story, Spain is mired in senseless violence and the main character has escaped to New York alone, with his estranged wife and children remaining somewhere in Spain, the affair ended and the future uncertain.

How did you hear about it? Several “best of” book lists. The book has received many favorable reviews.

Closing comments: Rich with detailed descriptions, the book is highly effective in conveying through small incidents, minor characters and specific observations a depressing impression of the Republic, the Nationalists, their respective supporters and an entire people and nation sinking into an abyss, while at the same time telling an ambiguous story of a man expanding his personal experience while betraying his wife and children. The book is beautifully translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman.

Contributor: Rick

Have you read something you’d like to share?  Consider being a contributor!  Contact bvitelli2009@gmail.com for more information.

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Short story review from: The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “Written in Stone” by Catherine Brady

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.

“Written in Stone”
by
Catherine Brady

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I found myself immediately immersed in this story about an Iranian husband and his American wife, who separate after twenty years of marriage and try to navigate their new relationship. The narrator, a surgical nurse at a hospital in San Francisco, has told Hassan to leave because she cannot bear the thought of his betrayal. He’s moved in with a younger woman, an aspiring opera singer.

Hassan works as a liaison for a nonprofit that connects government, scientists and business and his overly gregarious nature has gotten him in trouble. He’s not being inappropriate, he tells his wife, he’s simply misunderstood. His behavior has gotten him into trouble before. Early in their marriage, they’d moved to Iran and lived with his family, during the fall of the Shah’s regime and the Ayatollah’s takeover. He’d talked too much, told too many jokes, and was picked up for questioning. They’d had to leave the country illegally.

Now, at Hassan’s insistence or maybe feelings of guilt or longing, he returns to their apartment once a week so they can have dinner together. Lately he tells her about his problems between him and the young singer. Some are because of the age difference, but one of the biggest problems for her is his drinking. The girlfriend doesn’t understand him, he complains to his wife. It’s a new dynamic between the narrator and Hassan, in which they analyze this new relationship. The reader sees them move back towards each other, through the routine of preparing meals together and talking companionably.

I enjoyed this story very much because of the contrast and similarities between Hassan’s marriage and their experiences in Iran. The author provides strong images of freedom, family loyalty, lush gardens with climbing roses, Persian cooking and dangerous political unrest. Hassan’s history and their marriage left me uncertain about their future together because I couldn’t quite decide if they would try or what concessions she would make, or even if they were concessions. I felt that they understood each other very well, but I wondered if that would be good for their marriage. I read this story twice and felt it even more the second time.

I highly recommend “Written in Stone” which the author wrote soon after 9/11.

Catherine Brady is an American short story writer. Her most recent collection, The Mechanics of Falling & Other Stories, was published in 2009. Her second short story collection, Curled in the Bed of Love, was the co-winner of the 2002 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2003 Binghamton John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Brady’s first collection of short stories, The End of the Class War, was a finalist for the 2000 Western States Book Award in Fiction. Her stories have been included in Best American Short Stories 2004 and numerous anthologies and journals.

Brady received an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Hollins College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts. She was elected to the board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in 2005 and served as Vice-President (2006) and President (2007). She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.

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Short story review from: The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “Intervention” by Jill McCorkle

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.

“Intervention”
by
Jill McCorkle

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In his excellent story about marriage and adult children, Marilyn and Sid, now retired, have settled into an alarming routine. Every evening, Marilyn watches Sid drink too much. And she’s let it slip to their daughter that she’s concerned. Sally is a take-charge daughter and quickly sets up an intervention, led by her social worker husband. Sally’s brother books a flight and they prepare to confront Sid.

Marilyn is sorry she ever mentioned it, but there is no stopping her children, who mean well, but cannot understand the complex dynamics between Marilyn and Sid. “You have to deal with Dad’s problem,” Sally tells Marilyn. Marilyn is also insulted that their marriage is under scrutiny. Whose business is it?

When the day arrives, despite their children’s careful planning, only Marilyn understands Sid’s reaction. Readers may look back and determine that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What’s great about this story is how the author explores the touchy topic of children taking charge of their parents’ lives. I enjoyed thinking about these dynamics and the opposing points of view. In addition, McCorkle shows the powerful influence of private understandings between husband and wife, which is both invisible to their children and not meant for them to know.

Jill McCorkle is an American author of eight novels and four collections of short stories. Her most recent novel, Hieroglyphics, was published in 2020. She is currently a faculty member of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and is affiliated with the MFA program at North Carolina State University.

I am never disappointed by the stories in this collection. I’m looking forward to working my way through it all.

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
(A Mostly True Memoir)

by
Jenny Lawson

Rating:

If you are looking for a great story about being different and making it anyway, I highly recommend Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. In some ways, it is a classic success story about perseverance, but mostly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who’s not mainstream. Because Jenny Lawson is the opposite of mainstream.

Through a rambling, often irreverent and always hilarious “where is this story going?” narration, with plenty of colorful vocabulary, Lawson tells you about her childhood, depression, anxiety and illness, her family, early jobs, marriage, motherhood and how she became a blogger and writer.

Yes, Lawson is The Bloggess, here on WordPress, and you can read her latest post here. Nielson recognizes her as one of the Top Most Powerful Mom Bloggers and Forbes ranks her on their Top 100 Websites for Women.

Lawson may likely have had the most unique childhood, ever. She and her younger sister grew up in a rural town in western Texas. Their father ran his taxidermy business out of their house, never hesitating to share his enthusiasm for his unconventional job. Wild animals were frequent visitors, including squirrels, raccoons, chickens, armadillos and pigs, and they were all part of Lawson’s quirky family.

When she was a young girl, Lawson desperately wanted to fit in at school, but she did not. In high school, she suffered from an eating disorder, tried drugs, was into Goth, and had many other anxieties. But she also had a superpower: humor. And it saved her. I laughed out loud throughout her story, not because of her struggles, but because of how she describes them. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She holds nothing back. She’s full of human flaws and she gives herself completely to her readers. By the end of the book, I felt like I had made a friend.

Lawson’s chapters reveal a keen understanding of the human condition and a genuine appreciation of her life and family. She writes,

I can finally see that all the terrible parts of my life, the embarrassing parts, the incidents I wanted to pretend never happened, and the things that make me ‘weird’ and ‘different,’ were actually the most important parts of my life. They were the parts that made me me.”

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was published in 2012 and is Lawson’s first book. Furiously Happy was published in 2015 and her newest book, You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds was published in 2017.

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Friday Fiction – Launch – Chapter 2 Part 1

Today I’m sharing the first half of Chapter 2 of Launch, an unpublished book I wrote a few years ago. Last week we met Cindy Clarke and got a look at her life. She’s in the middle of a launch from stay-at-home mother to the working world.

Meantime, her husband Ted is facing a huge work problem at his high-pressure job at Spring Technologies.


Launch – Chapter 2 – Part 1

Ted Clarke was running late.  You could say it was a habit of Ted’s, being late.  Today he was late leaving work, late getting onto the Expressway, late running an errand.  Why does it even matter?  He’d asked his wife this question countless times.  The times when he’d arrive home and receive a frosty greeting.  Years ago, he guessed it did matter because Cindy was depending on him back then.  In the earlier days he could count on taking charge of five children almost as soon as he walked into the door, so that Cindy could finish making dinner.  Every day, a nine hours a day, full of people wanting a piece of him, sandwiched between a grueling hour-long commute into Philadelphia.  Then arriving home to a gaggle of children, pulling on him, jumping, telling him things, and competing for his attention.  So much floor time back then, giving rides on his back, holding babies, playing dolls and cars.  When he thought of it now, he was proud to say he’d done that, but he wasn’t exactly nostalgic.  Those were hard days, exhausting days, full days of work and what seemed to him a full-time shift as soon as he got home.

Cindy was young back then and she could handle a house full of kids.  That was her job and he’d always resented it a little that she needed him so much.  She seemed to get through the rest of the day without him, why not just an hour more so he could unwind a little and have a nice dinner?

Ted wasn’t exactly sexist.  He was just used to having things be a certain way and when you married and had your wife have her fifth baby just as your oldest was turning ten, it was already certain that your home life was going to be busy and crazy and loud.  So maybe sometimes he was a little late getting home because he knew what was there and what was expected of him.  And what he wanted was for someone to anticipate what he needed as he walked into that door.

Ted thought about those years as he sat in traffic.  Running late was still a habit, but why?  His kids were hardly going to charge at him now.  Only his younger son and daughter were still at home, teenagers.  The rest of the gaggle was out in the world.  His oldest two, Teddy and Brian were out of college and working.  Jessie was a junior at University of Delaware.  If Katie and Kevin were even home, they were usually up in their rooms, or planted on the couch, deep in their own worlds, managing their lives through their phones.

Cindy didn’t exactly need him to help the way she did years ago, but she still bristled when he came in late.  It was the one thing she could never change about her husband.  And somehow, Ted, after fitting into every other expectation, after adjusting his life to accommodate the needs of these six other people, Ted held onto the one piece of himself that he could still control, whether he knew it or not.

It was almost 7:00 when Ted pulled into his driveway.  Work had been extra grueling that week.  He’d advanced up the ladder at Spring Technologies, but it hadn’t changed the climate of his job.  Always busy, always some kind of problem, always a race to find a solution.  Early that Friday, one of his best programmers had simply walked out the door and presumably quit with no explanation.  It wasn’t until after lunch that people began to question where Anders was, and where the code he’d been working on was.  It was part of a series of code the whole IT team had been working on, as part of a new accounting program for a client, due next week.  Without Anders, by far the most brilliant programmer in the department, they would not reach their deadline.

Ted had spent the greater part of the afternoon trying to locate Anders, and then slowly realizing that they would most likely be on their own in trying to finish the code.  Ted had never been a programmer and had become manager and then Director of IT because of his managing capabilities, not his technical skills.  He was secretly panicking over the problem because he knew he couldn’t personally step in and fix the problem.  It was up to some unknown hero and because of that he felt powerless.  He’d dodged the early calls from the VP of Operations, Steven Colby, but by the end of the day, Colby was at the door to his office.

“Ted, you’ve been hard to track down – where have you been?”

Ted looked up from his desk and quickly assumed his look of control.  He’d been promoted in good part because of his confident and easy air.  People latched onto this look, because it made them feel good.  If Ted has a handle on it, then it’s all good, no need to worry.  This look had served him well, and as he advanced in his career, he started to realize it was his own greatest asset.  But Ted knew that the look could only carry him so far and this business with Anders walking out was a big problem…

Thank you for reading.


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