Tag Archives: lack of credibility

Drive My Car

Once Upon a Car: The Fall and Resurrection of America’s Big Three Auto Makers by Bill Vlasic (William Morrow, $26.99, 400 pages)

The Germans couldn’t change their company’s name back to Daimler fast enough.   Chrysler was a bad memory, and the automotive merger of the century a regrettable failure.

In 2005, the Ford Motor Company built 4.8 million cars and trucks, and sold 3.3 million of them.   This meant that 1.5 million sparkling new cars, SUVs, trucks and pick-ups were destroyed.   Such was the prelude to the disaster that fell upon the auto industry when the U.S. economy hit rock-bottom three years later in the summer of 2008.   Ironically, Ford was the manufacturer left standing, while General Motors (GM) and Chrysler came within days and weeks of shutting down operations forever.

How bad was it?   Well, by the end of ’08, GM was losing $60 million every single day.  Instead of buying 16 million cars a year, Americans were purchasing just 10 million.   Gas prices were up, leases were non-existent, and the home mortgage crisis was in full swing.   As Vlasic puts it, “The U.S. car market had imploded.”

GM had made some tough decisions, but it had not made them soon enough.

This is the tale of that implosion caused by faulty leadership and tepid management at two of the Big Three auto firms.   GM was within just weeks of insolvency when Barack Obama took over as president.   Yet GM’s then-chief, Rick Wagoner, “refused to even discuss bankruptcy as an option” and flew on a fancy corporate jet when he first traveled to D.C. to ask the nation’s politicians for a hand-out.   Wagoner’s leadership proved to be so disastrous that the Obama administration made Wagoner’s resignation one of the pre-requisites for federal support.

In its time of need, GM was missing the one attribute that could save it: credibility.

Wagoner was so detached that, “…he left the actual duties of building cars at arm’s length.”   Vlasic, though, not only details Wagoner’s many failings in this “fly on the corporate wall” account, he also takes us through the hopeful marriage and subsequently messy divorce of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler; and he shows us how and why forward-thinking leadership ensured that Ford would survive without needed dollars from American taxpayers.

Did America care enough about the autoworkers to save them?

(The) help was not simply to save GM or Chrysler, but rather to prevent an economic catastrophe on the order of the Great Depression.

Vlasic’s uber-detailed 400 page reporting will leave even the most skeptical reader with a full and fair understanding of why the federal automobile bailout of 2009 was essential; well, anybody not named Mitt Romney.   For years, the Big Three had been operating on razor thin profits (literally, working for cents on the dollar); in ’08 Ford brought in $38 billion in revenue, of which only $100 million remained as profit.   It was a business model that could not last, especially because more than 3 million jobs in the U.S. were tied to the auto industry.

The Big Three had to hit bottom – or avoid doing so, in Ford’s case – and refocus in order to see a future in which American consumers would prefer to drive a Ford Focus rather than a Hummer or Escalade: “It had a special, European-style direct injection turbocharged engine.”   It’s a new day in Detroit and Once Upon a Car tells the story of how we arrived here, for better rather than worse…  And, baby, you can drive my Focus.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer once served on the Ford Motor Company Consumer Advisory Board.

General Motors lost $45 billion in the last 15 months of Rick Wagoner’s tenure as CEO.

Bill Vlasic is also the co-author of Taken for a Ride: How Daimler-Benz Drove Off With Chrysler (2001).

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Paint It, Black

The Grief of Others: A Novel by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead Books; $26.95;  388 pages)

While an author can develop some great sentences and paragraphs in a novel, using language that is either stunningly creative or even gorgeous, it doesn’t mean much if the tale being told does not advance.   In The Grief of Others, a promising and potentially engaging story is overwhelmed by obtuse storytelling.   Because of this, I found the novel to be far more frustrating than pleasing.

The story revolves around Ricky Ryrie, wife and mother of two, who loses a third child (a male) 57 hours after his birth.   The child was diagnosed with Anencephaly four months prior to its birth, a fact that Ricky kept from her husband John.   Since Ricky once had an affair with a work colleague, this raises serious trust issues in the marriage; a marriage which may not survive the tragedy.   Ricky would not let John hold or touch the baby while it was alive, and so he goes on to remind her, “This was my child.  Too.”

But it’s not just Ricky’s story that’s covered here…   We also witness John’s, and those of the children – 13-year-old Paul and 11-year-old Biscuit – and of Jess, John’s daughter by another woman.   And then there’s Gordie, a young man who attaches himself to the Ryries in much the same manner as the troubled young man Kiernan does with the Lathams in Anna Quindlen’s novel Every Last One.

Unfortunately, Cohen’s book does not seem to handle the issue of overwhelming, shattering grief as effectively as Quindlen’s story; nor does it tackle the issues of  marital trust and fidelity quite as well as Commuters, the near brilliant debut novel by Emily Gray Tedrowe.   There may simply be too many characters on the stage here, another one of whom is Will, Gordie’s very sick father.   Cohen seems to have spread herself, and her story, a bit too thin.   Some of the writing is admirable as when John notices that the instant tragedy seems to foster “in everyone around him a sudden, alarming presumption of intimacy.”   (It can be a tad frightening when strangers and coworkers are seemingly a bit too kind and understanding.)

Of all the characters, Ricky’s daughter Biscuit is the one that appears to be the most true-to-life, as if she had been created by Lesley Kagen (Whistling in the Dark, Good Graces); however, the key problem is that the young children Paul and Biscuit are saddled with the thoughts of adults, thoughts that simply don’t seem credible.

Biscuit thinks that, “Her parents seemed like the books you could see (in a bookcase):  they smiled and spoke and dressed and made supper and went off to work and all the other things they were supposed to do, but something, a crucial volume, had slipped down in back and couldn’t be reached.”

Paul, meanwhile, worries that, “(His parents) couldn’t seem to detect anything wrong with each other, never mind that his mother had been silent for most of the past year, or that his father, for all his apparent optimism, was beginning to show fissures.”   How many 13-year-olds would know the meaning of the word fissures, let alone think in such terms?

An intriguing twist – a pregnant Jess lands on the family’s doorstep almost one year after the family’s tragedy of losing the baby – tends to get lost after all this.   This is an almost 400 page novel that feels, in the reading, to be almost twice that long.   At one point, Ricky thinks about her “unbearable helplessness,” and her loneliness in carrying to term a defective child:  “The thought exhausted her.”

This read was something of an exhausting experience.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Where Were You When I Needed You

before-ever-after-paper

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (Broadway Books, $16.00, 304 pages)

There are times when an author takes a perfectly interesting and creative plotline and pushes it just past the boundary of plausibility.   This is what occurs here with debut author Samantha Sotto.   She begins her novel with a great premise.   Shelley Gallus lost her husband Max three years earlier to a terrorist bomb set off in Madrid, Spain.   She’s just about to come to terms with her loss when a young man named Paolo shows up at her door.   He claims to be Max’s grandson, which comes as a shock to Shelley who did not know that Max was previously married nor that he was old enough to have a grandson.

Paolo informs Shelley that Max is still alive, operating a business in the Philippines and Paolo appears to have a photograph that substantiates this claim.   In the photo, Max is wearing jewelry that was given to him by Shelley.   Now, stop at this point and we have a fine story about a decent woman who may have been the victim of a sad hoax; a woman who is ready to go and find Max, alive or dead (If he’s alive, she might kill him).

Here, though, is where the problem arises…  Paolo proceeds to make the case that not only is Max alive, but he’s at least hundreds of years old.   It may be that Max was alive as a young man during the French Revolution, and at this point the story loses its credibility.

A knowledgeable reader might note that a similar plotline was used by Jane Mendelsohn in the novel American Music.   This is true, but Mendelsohn used her years of writing experience to craft a magical novel – one of the best of its type.   Even then, it was not an easy sell; for some, the setting of a tale in four different periods in time was a bit too much to properly absorb.   This reviewer found American Music to be especially brilliant, but then only the best at their craft make it appear to be easy.   (In Before Ever After, the overly complicated plotline comes off as simply tricky.)

Sotto does write in an entertaining and casual style and there are, no doubt, some readers who will find the story engaging enough to satisfy their financial and temporal investment in the book.   However, there are likely to be many who will find that this fictional journey asks a bit too much of the imagination – the literary equivalent of a bridge too far.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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