Monthly Archives: April 2015

Picture Perfect Focus on Polaroid

CBR_Logo2A Triumph of Genius:
Edwin Land, Polaroid,
and the Kodak Patent War
by Ronald K. Fierstein

In an era when selfies are ubiquitous and everyone is taking pictures on all manner of mobile devices and posting them instantaneously for the world to see, it might be difficult for readers of a certain age to identify with the wonder that was the Polaroid.

But it wasn’t so long ago that photos were developed on film, requiring a trip to the drug store and a matter of days before a batch of prints revealed what images the photographer captured. For Edwin Land, that wait was excruciatingly too long. One imagines that he would have loved digital cameras, smart phones, other mobile devices, and all the various apps that today function as photographers’ tools (even if, as it happened, the company he launched failed to keep up with changing technology). Alas, that technology would be years in the future, and so Land instead had to triumph of geniusfocus on the science and technology of his day and age in order to bring one-step photography to life.

The Polaroid camera, which to many today is a relic of anachronistic kitsch, was at the time of its invention a true wonder, an awe-inspiring invention that rocked the worlds of science, technology, photography, and business. Polaroid and Edwin Land were in the twentieth century what Apple and Steve Jobs became in the twenty-first.

Ronald Fierstein relates the amazing and captivating story of Land and Polaroid in A Triumph of Genius, which is a work of near genius in its own right. Tightly written and thoroughly researched, this wide-ranging book is a true page-turner, full of tension and emotion.

Fierstein, who as a young lawyer with the law firm of Fish & Neave worked on the “epic patent battle” between Polaroid and Eastman Kodak, provides keen insight into both companies, the people behind them, the inventions that catapulted them to success and fame, and the protracted legal fight that pitted the two companies—once collaborators—against each other.

A Triumph of Genius looks at Land’s tireless inventive spirit, which drove him to secure 535 patents during the course of his life, second at the time only to Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson. It looks at the evolution of photography, an evolution in which Land, a brilliant, reclusive man, was instrumental. It looks at the roles science and technology played in that evolution. It also looks at the business of Polaroid and of Eastman Kodak, both of which were at the forefront of the science, technology, and business of photography. And, then, it looks at the connection between Polaroid and Kodak and the patent lawsuit that destroyed their relationship.

Much is at play in this riveting story, and Fierstein handles it all deftly and with panache. A skilled writer, he lays the foundation with a look at Land’s early life and career. He carefully explains in understandable terms the science and technology behind Land’s inventions and related patents. He provides a balanced view of the relationship between Polaroid and Kodak. And he clearly outlines the legal issues that resulted in a landmark patent case that still resonates today.

ronald fierstein

Author Ronald K. Fierstein

As an insider on Polaroid’s legal team during the battle that ultimately lasted well more than a decade (Polaroid first filed suit against Kodak in 1976; Kodak finally settled, for $925 million, in 1991), Fierstein could easily have focused solely on that company’s experience. Instead, A Triumph of Genius provides a balanced view, sharing insight and information from both sides of the legal battle. Fierstein could easily have portrayed Land as an amicable genius who, in trying to protect his intellectual property, was forced to go after big, bad Kodak. Instead, he shows Land not only as a genius but as someone who could be abrasive, thoughtless, and relentlessly determined. Although told mostly from Polaroid’s point of view, it is clear that Fierstein has done much to be as balanced and objective as possible. As a result, the material feels even-handed, even while engendering sympathy for Polaroid, which was clearly the underdog in this David-and-Goliath story.

Although a truly remarkable book, it is not without a few minor flaws. Some of the descriptions of the science and technology behind the various inventions and patents at issue can feel like dense minutiae and are skimmable without losing much meat. Too, some of the author’s attempts to add contemporary context to the story can feel a little clunky, as when he writes, “America was a troubled and distracted country in early 1971. Richard Nixon was starting the third year of his first term as president and continued to pursue the war in Vietnam rigorously. Protest grew …” and continues on for a lengthy paragraph before concluding with “It was in this environment that Edwin Land continued to work toward realizing his almost thirty-year quest to provide the world with the ultimate instant photography system.”

However, these are but minor quibbles in such an engaging story, especially for one with such a wide scope. A Triumph of Genius spans nearly a century and covers myriad topics. Readers with an interest in business, history, law, photography, science, or technology will find much of interest in these pages. This nuanced, absorbing book reveals a story with lasting implications and enduring lessons. It is as multifaceted as Edwin Land, the reclusive genius, was himself.

Four-Star Review

February 2015, Ankerwycke/ABA Publishing
$35, hardcover, 640 pages
ISBN: 978-1-62722-769-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
(it should be noted that the reviewer once worked at ABA Publishing, although she does not know the author)


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Brutally Beautiful

CBR_Logo2Pieces of My Mother
A Memoir
by Melissa Cistaro

A daughter’s memories correspond with the timing of letters written—but never mailed—by her absent mom, in Pieces of My Mother, Melissa Cistaro’s excruciating memoir about finally unearthing, and coming to grips with, the big picture of her family’s deep dysfunction.

pieces of my mother 9781492615385It’s only as her mother, Mikel, is dying, and Cistaro begins rifling through her home office, that she stumbles upon the letters. They fully reveal for the first time her mother’s painful life journey, before and after she abandoned her family.

Cistaro delves deep into the wreckage wrought by her mother’s abrupt departure when she and her brothers are ages four, five, and six. They go on to be single-handedly raised by their loving but also imperfect father, seeing their mother only occasionally.

Cistaro pens her story as nonfiction; it’s immediately evident that she has an abundance of weighty material to carry it without fictional padding.

The first scene takes Cistaro back to the day that changed her life. It’s a hot summer afternoon. She is watching out of the window as her mother loads her belongings into a car, preparing to leave her young children home alone—and forever. Their father is at work, unaware of her imminent departure. Cistaro writes,

“I know this is not a trip to get cigarettes.
I want to yell out to her: ‘Please don’t leave …’
I am trying to say it. But nothing comes out.”

The guilt of not asking her mother to stay becomes a recurring theme that haunts Cistaro into adulthood.

Drawing from scores of notebook journals she kept over the years, Cistaro goes on to detail her and her brothers’ turbulent childhoods and adolescences. She continues on into the present day, as she struggles with insecurities and questions about her own role as a wife and mother.

Pieces of My Mother particularly soars in its crafting, the masterful way in which the past and the present, and elements of the story in general, are edited and knit together. Juxtaposing scenes and chapters connect critical moments from Cistaro’s past and present with her reflections as she reads the letters. We see Cistaro, at age four, watching her mother leave while she is supposed to be taking an afternoon nap. In the next chapter, she lays down with her own four-year-old daughter, who is having trouble falling asleep. Cistaro writes,

“She smiles, pleased that I am lying on her bed, then whispers a reminder,
‘Don’t leave, Mama.’ The room tilts again; the ceiling stars go blurry.
The words I never once said.”

We see Cistaro losing a tooth during a deeply disturbing, rare visit with her drug- and alcohol-addicted mother, followed by a scene in which her own daughter loses a tooth. She rubs a forehead scar in consternation while reading Mikel’s letters, immediately followed by a car accident scene from her childhood, in which her visiting mother is driving. And a tussle with a chicken at Mikel’s home reignites a long-ago memory of a farm their father bought after their mother’s departure.


Author Melissa Cistaro

While they don’t exonerate her mother, the letters do explain some things, at the very least providing much-needed context. They tell, palpably, of a young mother overwhelmed by three babies, who longs to get away from diapers, strained peas, and stifling responsibility. Walking away from that—if they’re honest—is something many mothers fantasize about. Mikel actually follows through. Not without regrets, though.

“Now darlin’—you must write to me. I want to hear about school and your friends and the animals at home,” she writes to an adolescent Cistaro, while her daughter is shakily navigating her teenage years without a strong adult female presence. “And please, please let me know how you feel—I mean really feel—about my going away so suddenly and about things in general.”

Had she received those and other loving notes from her mother as a teen, at the time they were written, Cistaro ponders, would her life have been different? Cistaro writes,

“In her letters, I feel her full presence for the first time—
the beautiful, complex and full human being she was.
There are no concrete answers in her letters.
There isn’t anywhere where she really says ‘I’m sorry.’
But her words here are something that I can hold onto.”

 Cistaro’s beautiful prose – she is a gifted writer — sweeps the story along, as when she writes,

“I rest my lips against Bella’s shoulder
and breathe her in like sweet, warm bread.
I want my daughter to feel safe. Every day I rebuild a scaffold inside myself
in hopes that she will have something sturdy to hang on to.”

There is always more to be understood about a situation; unearthing the why requires opening your heart to what might seem best left buried. In stumbling across her mother’s letters, Cistaro gets the chance to go there. In reaching resolution—not necessarily the same as granting absolution—Cistaro pushes beyond her own lifelong pain and simplistic childhood views to maturely empathize with her mother’s underlying agony and to see her as a multi-dimensional person whose full breadth of experiences complexly led her to abandon her family. She comes to see Mikel a woman who, as one letter eloquently states, “have and will ever mourn the loss of my babies … none will know the agonies of missing you.”

Brutally and beautifully honest, Pieces of My Mother chronicles the intertwined, soul-wrenching journey of a mother and her daughter in search of individual, and shared, peace.

Four-Star Review

May 2015, Sourcebooks
$24.99, hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4926-1538-5

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann


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No ‘Happy’ Endings

CBR_Logo2The Far End of Happy
A Novel
by Kathryn Craft

Ronnie’s and Jeff’s marriage has been unstable for years. Jeff is drowning in drink and debt, unwilling to open up to Ronnie about his needs or support her in hers, and unable to fulfill his role as father to two little boys. Nonetheless, Ronnie is Jeff’s whole world and, rather than face a divorce, he storms in staggering drunk on the day he’s scheduled to move out, brandishing the shotgun with which he promises to take his own life. During the twelve-hour police standoff that follows, Ronnie—hidden in a safe house with her mother and her mother-in-law—must come to terms with her broken relationships, her family’s sordid history, and her own uncertain future.

far end of happyBased on real events in her own life, Kathryn Craft’s novel (forthcoming from Naperville’s Sourcebooks) promises a suspense-filled story of a family embracing its strengths and overcoming its failures in the face of tragedy. Unfortunately, The Far End of Happy falls terribly short.

The success of this novel, the author’s second work of fiction, hinges on the suspense of Jeff’s suicide standoff: Will he end his life or get himself the help he needs? Unfortunately, the novel’s heavy reliance on nostalgia and its generally weak character development put all nail biting to an end.

The novel is divided into twelve sections, each one an hour in Jeff’s standoff; each section is written in rotating points-of-view, shifting between Ronnie, her mother, Beverly, and her mother-in-law, Janet. Throughout those twelve hours, all three women look back on their lives, their relationships, and their many, many regrets. While it seems right that such trauma should inspire these reflections, they are so heavy-handed and ubiquitous in Craft’s novel that they dilute any sense of urgency and lend the whole thing the air of a melodramatic diary reading.

Flat characterization causes problems throughout the novel as well. Ronnie is a dissatisfied housewife who would have liked to have been a writer. Beverly is a single mother who’s spent her whole life chasing men. Janet is the kind to use her money to manipulate her family. And the two little boys, Andrew and Will, are wise and compassionate beyond their years. There is little more to any one character. Jeff, however, is the most problematic, as his two-dimensionality further waters down the novel’s intended suspense. Readers are introduced first to present-day Jeff, an alcoholic and liar who emotionally abuses his wife, and Ronnie’s flashbacks do not redeem him, either. Scenes of their early relationship depict a man who ridicules his ex-girlfriends, hates his mother, and coerces Ronnie into marrying him at the expense of all her own goals and dreams. There is no version of Jeff for readers to root for, no inkling that he could become a good husband or father, and so, crass as it may seem, there’s no real reason to be too concerned about the outcome of the standoff.

Although Craft’s work has earned praise in the past as raw and emotional, the overwrought dialogue and a narrative filled with clichéd turns-of-phrase and repetitious expressions of regret in The Far End of Happy turn what might have been a highly suspenseful, thought-provoking family drama into a trite, overlong parade of nostalgia.

One-Star Review

May 2015, Sourcebooks
$14.99, paperback, 368 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4926-0495-2

—Reviewed by Sarah M. Weber

Learn  more about the author.

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