Law and Conversation

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.

October 22, 2013

Aya is back!

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From checking Amazon and Drawn and Quarterly’s website I knew there were more than the 3 collections of Aya comic strips that were available in my public library and which I read and enjoyed three years ago. But they were available only in French and Spanish, and I wanted English translations. So I was thrilled to find a new omnibus collection, Aya: Love in Yop City, on the shelf of new graphic novels the last time I was at the library, and I promptly checked it out.

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I’ve loved comics since I was a child and that I’ve been on a graphic novel jag off and on for several years, ever since reading Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” a few years ago. I’ve also specifically written of how engaging I find the Aya series, written by Ivorian native Marguerite Abouet, who now makes her home in Paris, and gorgeously drawn by French artist Clement Oubrerie. The new collection is as delightful as the other three volumes, and very much worth the wait. To my delight, I also spotted a number of legal issues in the tightly crafted story about a girl growing up in 1980s Abidjan, the largest city in the Ivory Coast.

Aya is now a college student studying medicine, still living at home in the working-class north Abidjan town and commune of Yopougon. At the outset of the story, she receives a rude introduction into the adult world of unfairness when her biology professor turns out to be a bully who subjects her to explicit quid pro quo sexual harassment, telling her she can forget about medical school and that she’s too stupid ever to be a doctor when she spurns his advances.

Abouet is really good at weaving several subplots about Aya’s friends into her main narrative. Her friend Adjoua’s brother’s ex, Innocent, has decamped to Paris to seek his fortune but has a rough go of it; culture shock and immigration issues in early 1980s France make things difficult for him, just as they often do today in France and the U.S. alike, as well as many other countries, for foreign-born individuals seeking to immigrate. Luckily, Innocent makes a friend when he saves another young gay French man, Sebastian, from being beaten by thugs. The horrified reactions of Sebastian’s and, in a later, different subplot development, Adjoua’s parents on their sons’ coming out to them as gay inevitably called to my mind the public debate in this country over bullying and seeking legal means, including tort suits and criminal statutes, to combat it, as well as over the increasing inclusion of sexual preference in anti-discrimination laws and enactment of laws permitting same-sex couples to marry.

I got to attend multiple programs recently at Chicago Ideas Week. Chicago native Dan Savage, a writer now living in Seattle, spoke at one of those programs about the It Gets Better Project that he started with his husband in response to the suicide of a gay teenager after having been bullied.

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Gay kids, of course, aren’t alone in being subject to bullying for being different. Though Savage’s admirable project is directed specifically and primarily toward young LGBT people, the message of the project and the videos applies equally well to all who are feeling as if they don’t and will never fit in in their schools, families, or other communities. I hope the project helps not only LGBT youth but straight kids, too; it seems to me that if people could feel safe being true to who they really are (I’m exempting sociopaths, of course), an enormous amount of unhappiness and conflict in the world would vanish. Remember not only Rudolph, but Hermie in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” who wanted to be a dentist, not a toy maker like the other elves?

And there’s something else that’s really cool: The stories of Aya in 1980s Ivory Coast and Hermie the elf in a 1960s American movie resonate with each other and with the U.S., France, and the rest of the world in 2013. Linking the commonalities of people from vastly different backgrounds, places, and times is one of the great things about stories.

So please go read Aya! Abouet deftly and satisfyingly resolves all of her subplots, and, as I mentioned, Oubrerie’s artwork is just beautiful. And I couldn’t help but be pleased to see that strong, sensible, intelligent young heroine acquire an admirer who seems worthy of her. The book is billed as the conclusion to Aya’s story, but I’m hoping Abouet and Oubrerie will continue their collaboration; I’d happily settle for a new series with different characters, though, if they feel that they’ve taken Aya as far as they can.

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