Law and Conversation

October 11, 2010

Read This: Books You Dislike, Part 2

Filed under: Books and writing,Read This!,reading — Helen Gunnarsson @ 8:47 am
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Last week I suggested that giving another chance to a book you originally disliked can be a good idea.  As my own action, I proposed a deal to a friend, Chicago lawyer Ava George Stewart.  The terms were that I’d read J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” a book I started a few years ago on another friend’s recommendation but disliked so much I returned it to the library without finishing it, in return for her reading a book I thoroughly enjoyed, Vikram Seth’s “The Golden Gate,” a novel written all in sonnets.  She’d owned up to being not much for poetry, and we agreed.

I’ve now finished “Disgrace.”  It’s remarkably well written, but I feel toward it as I would exercise:  it’s good for you and helps you stretch and improve yourself, but it’s not exactly fun.

I asked Ava what made the book outstanding for her; she tweeted back “it was a disturbing & yet poignant view of the gray in humanity. There was no black or white, just gray. It hurt.”  Her assessment hits the mark:  a book with well-rounded, imperfect characters is far more interesting, and engages the mind much more, than one in which there are clear heroes and villains.

Though I didn’t care much more for the chief protagonist than I did the first time around, and though I certainly didn’t enjoy the violence depicted against both people and animals, I’m glad I’ve now finished the book.  I can now discuss the book intelligently with others who have read it and understand why Ava, another friend, and literary critics universally praise it.  And, as I noted last week, lawyer readers can’t help but think about the legal issues inherent in the story, including sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

Coetzee crafts his story in perfect, terse prose, making every word count.  The subplots interlock and support the main plot, and there’s not a word of superfluous dialogue or description.  Through his characters, Coetzee expresses profound thoughts about humans’ attitudes toward the animals we keep as pets or livestock and ultimately kill.  Though the main character, a university professor, begins the book as a selfish predator who admits that his heart is with writing books about dead people and has no true interest in other living beings, he undergoes a redemptive transformation, largely through helping euthanize unwanted animals at a pound, which makes a fascinating story.  I got most of what I’d hoped out of this endeavor:  “Disgrace” made me think, and I now appreciate its substantial merit.

I’m disappointed, though that my friend isn’t as keen on “The Golden Gate.”  Admittedly, it’s a generally lighthearted story, not weighty literary matter to be taught in university classes, and more than one critic has perceived its sonnet format as overly cute.  But I enjoyed it so much that I’ve recommended it to many people, and when I really like a book, I really want others to enjoy it as much as I do.  Every reader comes to a story with a unique background and perspective, though, and it’s inevitable that different people will have different levels of appreciation for any given book.

Speaking of animals, I have a favor to ask all readers:  Please visit The Animal Rescue Site and vote for Friends Of Strays, a small animal shelter in Princeton, IL, as your favorite shelter.  It only takes a few clicks and typing in the name of an animal from a photo (to verify that you’re a real person and not a voting bot).  Costs nothing, you don’t have to register, and you won’t get a virus.  You can vote once a day, and you certainly don’t have to live in Illinois, or even the US, to vote for Friends of Strays (in Princeton, IL, remember).

I’ve been signed up to receive daily e-mail reminders to click to give and have voted religiously for Friends Of Strays in several contests for the last couple of years.  I don’t know how many other people have also been clicking, but tiny FOS has come very close to winning, making it into the top 10 Illinois shelters several times now.  If just a few people who read this blog will commit to clicking for Friends Of Strays in Princeton, IL every day, I’ll bet this tiny and very deserving shelter could win a cash prize that it would put to excellent use.  Tell your friends to vote, too!  No interest or affiliation with FOS on my part, BTW; Princeton’s my hometown, and I think FOS is a great organization.  As of the publication of this post, it’s #9 out of 10 Illinois shelters, and the contest has been going on for a couple of weeks.  Please vote!

October 8, 2010

Everyone needs stories

The sad tale of the teenage Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself last week by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student posted a video they’d clandestinely shot of him in an intimate encounter with another male, together with the attempted banning of Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak,” in Missouri a couple of weeks ago, has me thinking about how everyone needs stories. 

Author Cheryl Rainfield wrote of her own childhood abuse and in support of Halse Anderson’s book:

“[A]llowing children and teens to find reflections for their own experiences; being able to read about those experiences in safety while gaining knowledge to arm themselves; or encouraging readers to speak out and find healing themselves because of what they’ve read is SO important.”

The suicide of another young gay person, reportedly after intense bullying based on his sexual orientation, inspired Chicago native and writer Dan Savage to start a story video project to let young gay people know that It Gets BetterIn Savage’s words, “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”   He’s asking other gay adults to make videos of aspects of their life stories, hoping that young people who watch them will realize that tough times don’t last forever.  As Chicagoist reports, only 11 states, including Illinois, currently specify LGBT students as a protected class in anti-bullying and harassment legislation.

Bullying for any reason, of course, is shameful, as is discrimination on grounds unrelated to people’s ability to do their jobs, or afford housing, or other matters.  But drafting a law that prohibits bullying without being overbroad is not an easy task.  Though many look to the law above all for power, story can sometimes be an even more powerful and enduring bulwark against evil, as the responses to “Speak” and the “It Gets Better” project show.

Difficult real-world subjects that many young people have to deal with include not only sexual abuse and coming to terms with sexuality but also poverty, parents’ unemployment, war, racial prejudice, divorce, substance abuse, and eating disorders.  Here are some books with great stories that portray young people coming to terms with some of those issues:

“Ramona And Her Mother,” by Beverly Cleary (parents’ job difficulties, family tensions)

“Houseboat Girl” and “Cotton In My Sack,” as well as others in the American regional series by Lois Lenski (poverty)

“Wintergirls,” by Laurie Halse Anderson and “Perfect,” by Natasha Friend (eating disorders)

“Lush,” by Natasha Friend (parent’s alcoholism)

“Where The Lilies Bloom,” by Vera and Bill Cleaver (poverty, loss of parents)

“Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry,” “The Gold Cadillac,” and many other books and stories by Mildred Taylor (racial prejudice)

“The Ark,” by Margot Benary-Isbert (war)

“A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” Betty Smith (poverty, parent’s alcoholism)

“Veronica Ganz,” by Marilyn Sachs (divorce, family tensions, bullying)

“Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan (sexual identity)

“Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank (ethnic prejudice, war)

Traditional folk and fairy tales, “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott, and the “Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, may not readily come to mind when thinking about children’s or YA books with edgy subjects.  But fairy tales often include poverty and wicked stepmothers, Marmee and her brood are struggling with the absence of the girls’ father due to war, and the “Little House” books depict a family living hand to mouth and clawing themselves up through a series of unremitting disasters that weren’t unusual for their time.

Are there any books or stories that have helped you through a difficult time in your life?

October 7, 2010

Thursday Thanks: Adrian Mark Baron and The Nutmeg Lawyer

Filed under: Law,Social media — Helen Gunnarsson @ 9:09 am
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Today I’d like to thank Connecticut lawyer Adrian Mark Baron, who writes the outstanding Nutmeg Lawyer blog, for including this blog on his blogroll.  As the name of Baron’s blog suggests, it’s a mite spicy–just enough to make its substance, the trials and tribulations of daily law practice, interesting and fun to read.  How could you NOT click on a link to a post entitled “Lawyer Lessons From Lady Gaga?”

Like this blog, The Nutmeg Lawyer is a relative newcomer:  Baron began it in 2009, when I remember reading more than one article suggesting that the legal blogosphere was saturated.  He’s proven that there’s always room for high quality writing and content, having already been profiled, reprinted, and recommended in major legal publications in the US and Canada, including American Lawyer Media’s and Oklahoma lawyer Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips Blog.

Speaking of the fabulous Lady Gaga, two weeks ago I linked to this video of her hit, “Bad Romance,” by the University of Oregon a cappella men’s group, On The Rocks .  For a much different, but equally delightful, interpretation of a Lady Gaga hit, check out tween Greyson Chance’s rendition of “Paparazzi” (if you’re not among the more than 31 million who have already watched it).

October 6, 2010

The newspaper biz: The Chicago Tribune and Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists”

Filed under: Books and writing,reading — Helen Gunnarsson @ 4:49 pm
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This article by Phil Rosenthal in the online edition of today’s Chicago Tribune, which links to this detailed NYT article suggesting problems and unhappiness at the Tribune, naturally caught my attention. 

As a reader of the Tribune since childhood, reading about negative developments in the newspaper’s business disappoints me.  I miss the Tribune of a decade or more ago; today’s paper, like most others, has been pared back so much that it takes me only a few minutes to read it.   Tribune execs, if you happen to read this, please consider hiring a few more writers and reporters and increasing your content.  You still have many very fine journalists–I’ve praised Eric Zorn’s incisive commentary many times and also enjoy the work of Dawn Turner-Trice, Greg Burns, Mary Schmich, Clarence Page, Stephen Chapman, and John Kass, among others.  Aren’t there some unemployed or freelance writers out there who would provide even more great content and make fine additions to your staff?  I realize it’s become increasingly difficult for print publications to turn a profit, but continuing to scale back the content, especially while increasing the prices, can only result in the loss of paying subscribers. 

I hope the Tribune will recover from its troubles.  Canadian writer Tom Rachman, an experienced journalist himself, recently published “The Imperfectionists,” a novel about the decline and fall of an American-owned European English-language newspaper in the early 2000’s.  A couple of weeks ago, the novel made the longlist for Canada’s ScotiaBank Giller Prize, Canada’s equivalent of the US’s National Book Award.  (The shortlist was announced yesterday; “The Imperfectionists” didn’t make it.)  After hearing Rachman interviewed on podcasts such as Q from the CBC, I couldn’t wait to check his book out from the library.  Once it was available, I wasn’t disappointed; it’s a fine novel.  Composed of short stories, each focusing on an individual newspaper employee, Rachman has skillfully linked the stories together to form a coherent and engaging narrative.

Rachman provides a list of his own favorite books and writers on his website.  I see that one of his picks is J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” which I originally disliked but have committed to rereading.

The Giller Prize website provides wonderful ideas for reading literature from Canada.  You can follow developments in the prize on Twitter, too!

UPDATE:  Next day coverage of the Tribune’s woes from the Trib itself is here.  Lots of work for the bankruptcy bar, and, if the NYT article reports matters accurately, the employment bar, also.  Query how many additional writers the Trib could hire to produce more high-quality coverage of local, national, and international matters alike with even a fraction of those inflated bonuses approved by the bankruptcy court?

October 4, 2010

Read This: A Book You Dislike

This week I’d like to urge everyone to give a book you originally disliked another try, as I am.  I’m giving another chance to Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee’s universally praised “Disgrace,” a novel I disliked so much the first time I started it, a few years ago, that I put it aside.  

Aside from the entire rest of the literary universe, two friends whose reading recommendations are generally right on tell me “Disgrace” is great.  So, even though the main character strikes me as repellent, and even though I know that there are at least two really awful incidents of violence in the book, I struck a deal with one of those friends, Chicago lawyer Ava George Stewart:  I’ll give “Disgrace” another try. 

I’m not doing this for nothing, though:  Ava’s part of the deal is that she has to give Vikram Seth’s “The Golden Gate,” a novel written entirely in sonnets, a try.  Seth is better known for his more conventional prose novels, “A Suitable Boy” and “An Equal Music,” both of which I loved.  But I also enjoyed “The Golden Gate” tremendously. 

Though Ava says she’s not much for poetry, I think she’s getting the better end of the bargain.  Seth’s novel, though bittersweet, is a lot of fun, while I’m fully expecting to be horrified and depressed over the course of “Disgrace.”  Still, I’m the one who crafted and proposed the exchange.  What I’m hoping and expecting to get out of it is an appreciation of the work’s merit, but even if I end up hating it, I’ll have gained the right to criticize it.

After trying and putting aside “Disgrace,” I read another classic South African novel:  Alan Paton’s “Cry, The Beloved Country.”  Now, THERE’S a beautifully told story.  It seems unfortunate that the Booker Prize hadn’t yet been funded back in Paton’s day, but the book did win the Cheltenham Booker Prize in 2008 for the year 1948.

Both of these South African novels are chock full of legal issues.  “Disgrace” begins by setting up a case for a university professor’s sexual harassment of a student and continues through vicious crimes of violence inspired by South Africa’s now dismantled apartheid system.  “Cry, The Beloved County” is all about the misery of colonial racial policies that led to the country’s adoption of apartheid laws later the same year the book was published (1948).  It, too, depicts a crime and legal proceedings, which I won’t detail in order not to spoil things for those who haven’t yet read it.  The South African government banned it–a timely note, since last week was Banned Books Week here in the US.

“Disgrace” won’t be the first book I originally disliked that I’ve tried again:  I recently gave John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run,” another chance.  This time, I not only finished it but also went on to read the next book in the “Rabbit” tetralogy, “Rabbit Redux,” and added the last two to my list.  I’ll have more on my experience with Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom later this week.

What highly touted books have you tried and hated?  Might you be willing to give any of them another try?  If you’ve done so, did you end up eventually liking, or at least respecting, the book?

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