Law and Conversation

September 10, 2015

Why read disturbing fiction?

Filed under: Books and writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:52 pm

The Wall Street Journal has an interview with Jonathan Franzen, who has chosen Kenzaburo Oe’s “A Personal Matter,” a novel published in 1964, for the WSJ Book Club. I particularly enjoyed Franzen’s commentary on the disturbing aspects of the novel, which deals with a new father’s reactions to his son’s severe birth defect. I haven’t yet read the book myself, but the review mentions some of the character’s thoughts and behavior, which might charitably, or euphemistically, be described as “unattractive.”

Here’s what Franzen said:
“Maybe you’ve led a charmed life, and have never been tempted to run from any disagreeable reality you’ve ever encountered. But I think it’s hard to get through life without encountering a really disagreeable reality. You know, the first thought is not always the best thought. The first thought is, ‘How can I get out of this?’ It’s hard for me to characterize that human response as despicable.”

Franzen went on to say

“It’s a funny thing—people go to these Academy award-winning films that feature the most extreme graphic violence. But a book that has someone throwing up and, you know, cheating on his wife? It doesn’t compute that this would be so disturbing, and it tells me that Oe is onto something correct. People don’t want to deal with reality. If that’s not what you look for in a reading experience, I don’t have any advice. You know, whatever. Go find a gentle historical novel to read.”

Having hemmed and hawed a bit on occasions when I’ve been challenged about why on earth I’d want to read a book about awful people doing awful things, I found Franzen’s articulation helpful to clarifying my own feelings. It’s not that we like or approve of the awful behavior, but thinking and behaving imperfectly are part of being human, and reading fiction about imperfect people behaving imperfectly helps us to understand and accept our own imperfect selves.

I wonder how many readers really enjoy a diet of literary sugar–reading nothing but happy stories about nice people who always do the right thing and have good things happen to them. Boring, isn’t it? Just as in real-life legal matters, interesting fictional characters have emotions and passions, exercise poor judgment, often do the wrong thing, have bad luck, misinterpret situations and the motives and behavior of others, and end up with less than optimal outcomes. That’s life, and that’s what makes good fiction interesting.

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.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at