Law and Conversation

November 20, 2014

Law and Horror: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Filed under: Books and writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 11:03 pm

Halloween week seemed like a good time to reread some 19th century horror fiction, so I downloaded the free e-book for Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” To my surprise, I found a number of interesting legal issues in the text, starting at the very beginning, when a horrible man who turns out to be Mr. Hyde tramples a little girl.

The legal areas involved in that event and others as the story unfolds include personal injury torts, settlements, extortion, evidence, estates, and legal ethics, including the lawyer-client relationship, advice to clients, confidentiality, and misconduct. What I found most fascinating was thinking about how the attitudes of the legal profession and the public in the 21st century U.S. contrast with those of 19th century England on actions relating to these points.

If it’s been a while since you’ve read “Dr. Jekyll,” or if you’ve never read it at all, this would be a great time to do so. It’s not very long, so you can finish it in just a few hours. While you’re reading and reviewing, I’ll be working on another post expanding and detailing the story points that involve these legal issues. See you back here soon!

October 6, 2014

Chicago Taxi Writer

Filed under: Books and writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:00 pm

I had to take a taxi tonight and had the unexpected good fortune to hail Jack Clark, a Chicago writer and cabdriver, who made me a gift of one of his books. Mr. Clark used to write for the Chicago Reader, one of my favorite publications since the 1970s, and has published a number of books, some of which have garnered high praise and even at least one award. I was unfamiliar with Mr. Clark or his work, though it seems likely I read some of his Reader articles back in the day, but we had a great conversation about the business of writing on the short trip to the train station. He writes crime fiction set in Chicago and covered trials for the Reader. The book he gave me is “On The Home Front,” his mother’s stories of growing up in Chicago in the last century. I’m looking forward to reading it! It was a great pleasure to meet Mr. Clark.

September 24, 2014

Let’s get this blog restarted!

Filed under: Books and writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 9:45 pm

I’ve been keeping track of the books I read for several years. I just reviewed what I’ve read so far in 2014 and counted 31. OK, one’s a picture book, but still that’s a pretty respectable total for 2/3 of the way through the year. I don’t think there is any way I will make it to 52–a nice number that would mean I’d averaged one book per week–but we will see how many more I can get in. It’s always quality, not quantity, that matters, of course.

Here’s my 2014 list to date:

Villette—Charlotte Bronte (reread)
My Stroke of Insight—Jill Bolte Taylor
Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt—Amanda Mackenzie Stuart
Barnaby vol. 1—Crockett Johnson (comic collection—Philip Nel, ed.)
The Cuckoo’s Calling—Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling pseud.)
The Hare With Amber Eyes—Edmund de Waal
Two Lives—Vikram Seth
Art Lover: a Biography of Peggy Guggenheim—Anton Gill
The Joke—Milan Kundera
Closely Watched Trains—Bohumil Hrabal
O’Keefe & Stieglitz: An American Romance—Benita Eisler
I Served the King of England—Bohumil Hrabal
The Good Soldier (reread)—Ford Madox Ford
The Smartest Guys in the Room—Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind
The Peabody Sisters—Megan Marshall
The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon—Alexander McCall Smith
The Story of a New Name—Elena Ferrante (Europa)
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine—Alina Bronsky (Europa)
Jane, The Fox, and Me—Fanny Britt & Isabelle Arsenault (picture book)
The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds—Alexander McCall Smith
Jane Eyre—Charlotte Bronte (reread)
Small Island—Andrea Levy
Brick Lane—Monica Ali
Time Present and Time Past—Deirdre Madden (Europa)
Over Easy—Mimi Pond (graphic novel)
The Late George Apley—John P. Marquand
For Grace Received—Valeria Parrella (Europa) (short stories)
The Leftovers—Tom Perrotta
The Buddha of Suburbia—Hanif Kureishi
Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years—Laura Skandera Trombley

I always look back at the end of the year to see whether there’s one book that stands out as the best. As I review this list, I find several that were really, really good, all very different. “Barnaby” had me laughing out loud; it’s an absolutely brilliant comic strip collection that might be used to good effect in high school U.S. history or social studies classes. Elena Ferrante’s “The Story of a New Name” is the 2nd volume in a trilogy published by Europa Editions, a publisher whose selections I’ve found are of such consistently high quality that I joined a fan blog and post reviews over there now and then. John Marquand’s “The Late George Apley” was a best seller when it was published in the 1930s and deserves to be resurrected. And Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier” is an absolute gem of a story about some absolutely dreadful people.

Why would you WANT to read a book about dreadful people, a friend asked me a few years ago? At the time I wasn’t able to articulate a good answer very well, but I recently found a wonderful essay addressing that very question, Lee Kofman’s “Let me count the ways in which I dislike you, my beloved character,” published by the Australian website Writers Victoria.

Have you read any of the books on my list? What did you think? And did you find any interesting legal issues in the story? Please feel free to leave a comment if you’d like.

January 20, 2014

Martin Luther King Day, Father Pfleger, and stories

Getting to hear the remarkable Fr. Michael L. Pfleger speak on violence last week at a meeting of an organization of lawyers and judges to which I belong was especially timely given that today is Martin Luther King Day in the U.S. I can’t adequately summarize everything he said–you need to listen to him yourself–but, among other things, he emphasized the importance of good schools and education for every young person and said that we as a nation must “come to terms with our love affair with guns.” I couldn’t agree more.

Fr. Pfleger is an eloquent, direct, and dynamic speaker whose message deserves wide dissemination. You can read more about him and watch a number of his speeches on the website of Chicago’s St. Sabina Parish, where he is pastor. Be sure to check out St. Sabina’s main page, too, which has other links of interest.

Several rather disparate books I’ve read in the past few years came to my mind on this holiday honoring Dr. King:

1) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a remarkable memoir that takes the 21st-century reader inside the life of a 19th-century slave. The link takes you to a site with the free text.

2) Martha Washington: First Lady of Liberty, by Helen Bryan. This well-written and carefully researched biography is not only a fascinating story of its subject but also a detailed study of slavery that demonstrates what a deeply sick system it was and what profound and long-lasting effects it had for our country. A bonus for me was noticing that the author, whose job was quite difficult because her subject deliberately left so little documentation for posterity (Martha burned every scrap of correspondence between herself and George that she could find), is a lawyer.

3) Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann. The book as a whole did not quite work for me; it consists of several stories of people in New York City that the author links with 9-11-01, and I did not find that the link was strong enough to call the separate stories a novel. But McCann writes really well. His depiction of the violence and despair in New York’s inner city is realistic and heart-rending.

The speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. are, of course, tremendous. CNN has a story of some that are often overlooked or overshadowed by the more famous “I Have A Dream.”

How inspiring and hopeful that one man could effect such change in our country through determination and nonviolence.

January 6, 2014

Cross-examinations and Author Interviews

A good author interview, like a good cross-examination, is a thing of beauty. In both, the lawyer or interviewer seeks to flesh out a story. For the lawyer, the story is the one told by the witness, which is a smaller part of the story presented by the lawyer’s client’s opponent. For the interviewer, the story is the author’s work. Like the witness’s story in a trial, a book is a component of a larger story that includes the real-life background and events that inspired the author to write it, which may include political issues, current events, history, and the author’s personal life.

An effective cross-examination or author interview will seem relaxed and effortless. But the lawyer or interviewer has to work really HARD to make it look so easy. The lawyer will know the facts of the case inside and out, including what each witness said happened, what, if any, motives the witnesses have to shade their stories, and how the witnesses’ perceptions might have been altered (as by a vision angle or tendency toward selective memory); what documents exist, what they say, when they were created, and who created them; and how to elicit the story so as best to help the judge and/or jury to understand it. The effective interviewer will have acquired a familiarity with the author’s works by reading or at least skimming not only the one designated for discussion but as many of the author’s other writings as possible, knows enough about the current or historical background of the book to speak and ask intelligent questions about it, and will have found something out about the author’s personality and personal history. A great cross is never about the lawyer, and a wonderful interview is never about the interviewer: both are all about the subject.

Apart from substantial reading and research, both trial lawyer and author interviewer face another challenge: getting the witness or the author to answer the questions. Both may be reluctant or even hostile. Court rulings may place limits on a lawyer’s ability to ask questions of a witness (even over the general rule that cross-examination is limited to the scope of the direct testimony), and superstar authors may succeed in conditioning interviews on avoiding certain uncomfortable topics. Even absent such special circumstances, witnesses often do not want to testify at all, let alone be cross-examined by the lawyer for an unfriendly party. While authors typically want to sell their books, they may not want to talk about them, or may not want to talk about the aspects that the interviewer wants to discuss. In fact, it’s not unusual for an author to hate book tours and interviews. An effective interviewer, like an effective trial lawyer, has to be prepared to deal with the hostile or oyster-like subject without losing equanimity.

The Paris Review’s long-running series of author interviews is renowned for its depth. I’ve also long been a fan of Australian Ramona Koval’s author interviews on “The Book Show,” a sadly now-defunct broadcast of the Australian Broadcasting Company, which I listened to for years via the modern miracle of podcast. I’m pleased to learn via The New Yorker that Koval has now published a collection of her interviews, “Speaking Volumes.”

Other interviewers whom I particularly admire include Dick Cavett, NPR’s Terry Gross, Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill, and the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel and Jian Ghomeshi. All, like Koval, are impeccably prepared and show a genuine interest in their subjects, are unfailingly gracious, and elicit wonderful stories from their guests. For two examples of an interviewer’s grace in dealing with the difficult subject, see Ghomeshi’s interviews with Billy Bob Thornton and Cissy Houston.

Interviews occur every day in all kinds of work and life contexts. How do you deal with the difficult subject, whether at work or a cocktail party? Don’t tell me you just walk away; cutoffs are copouts. I’m looking for comments describing situations where you, like the litigator or the talk show host, MUST continue to engage and interact with the person.

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