Law and Conversation

August 17, 2013

Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin, and backing it up

I’ve just finished Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which came out a couple of years ago and had been sitting on my nightstand in a TBR stack. I was really looking forward to seeing what Tomalin had to say about Dickens, especially since I’d recently finished “Little Dorrit” and had also read Tomalin’s masterpiece of biographical sleuthing and deduction, “The Invisible Woman,” her biography of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’s much younger mistress.

Tomalin delivered some fascinating insights into the great author in highly readable form. Still, there were a few references that bothered me.

First, in chapter 16, she writes that after the death of their nine-month-old daughter Dora in 1851 “Another Highgate funeral had to be planned and carried out, and [Dickens’s wife] Catherine brought to London and comforted.”

For me, Tomalin’s phrasing leaves much to be desired. As a friend observed, it conveys that Catherine was – horrors – NEEDY, as great a sin 160 years ago as it is today, at least when we’re talking about those in the circle of a Very Important Person with an ego to match his (or her) ability. No matter that Catherine’s CHILD HAD JUST DIED.

Based on sympathetic references to Catherine elsewhere in her book, I don’t really think Tomalin meant to suggest anything unkind about her. However, I would have liked some additional information and commentary here about Dickens’s and Catherine’s relationship and the impact of their child’s death on both of them individually and on their relationship, which had deteriorated badly by that time. Dora was Dickens’s child, too; did he not also grieve, even though, as Tomalin notes elsewhere in her book, he said on more than one occasion that he regretted having more than three children? Even a statement that there is no information, or that Dickens made no reference to Dora’s death in his surviving contemporaneous correspondence with his close friends, if that was the case, would be insightful.

Second, in chapter 25, Tomalin refers to Dickens’s daughter Katey’s marriage to Charles Collins, 12 years her senior and an invalid, as “not much of a marriage.” Again, though I realize a biographer has to make some hard choices about how much information to include about members of her subject’s circle, I would have liked a few more details to support her conclusory description. Plenty of happy couples, after all, have similar differences in age, and it’s hard to imagine greater devotion and commitment than that of one whose spouse is so disabled as no longer to be capable of being a partner. Tomalin asserts earlier that Katey decided to marry Collins (the brother of the writer Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend) “without love” and “to get away from home” (chapter 21). A supporting quotation or two would have benefited these conclusions; the endnotes do not make the bases for Tomalin’s assertions clear.

I don’t remember reading biographies this critically before I became a lawyer. Though lawyers get a bad rap for writing obscurely, the characteristics of good legal writing are the same as good general writing and include clarity and, for nonfiction, documentation. If you write a brief – a document in which you make your best argument for your client – you need to support every assertion with authority. So when I read a work of nonfiction, for every single assertion I want to know on what primary sources the author relied and what in them warrants the author’s conclusions.

As has already been reported, Tomalin was taken in by an academic fraud: she recounts as fact a meeting that supposedly took place between Dickens and Dostoevsky in London in 1862. The purported meeting never happened, though the academic hoax was accepted for years. (I believe the error has been corrected in later editions of Tomalin’s biography). The lessons? First, as journalism students have long been taught, even under deadline pressure and even with a seemingly unimpeachable source, “check it out.” Second, even tremendous writers and scholars like Tomalin can make mistakes, which should actually be heartening for all of us.

February 15, 2013

3 wonderful website reasons why I don’t always read a book a week

One of my goals for 2013 is to read at least 52 books. In 2012, I averaged just under a book a week. That is a fair amount of reading, though it’s only fair to note that most of my choices were not 500+ page epics. But for this year, I’d like to achieve the congruency of 52 books in 52 weeks. Plus, I’m always looking to improve on my past performance.

With a substantial chunk of commuting time available every day, why didn’t I read more books last year?

Surfing the ‘net may have a bad name, but there’s a LOT of wonderful writing in cyberspace, and mobile devices facilitate finding it even in transit. Here are three great websites that I found only toward the end of 2012, on occasions when I was a bit too tired to decide to focus on a nice, old-fashioned book: A colleague told me about this wonderful site that aggregates long form journalism from publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, New York magazine, Esquire, Outside, The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books,….I could go on and on, but why not just click on over and check out the 300+ pages of article links for yourself? Jodi Ettenberg is a lawyer from Canada who quit her BigLaw job in New York in 2008 to travel the world and she’s still going. She explains how she made her decision here. She loves food, too, and has learned how to enjoy wonderful international cuisine, especially from street vendors, even with celiac disease. Like Ettenberg, Angie Orth, whose background is public relations, quit her job in NYC to travel the world. That was in 2010. She, too, is still going. She describes how she maintains her globetrotting life here. Bottom line: she works her behind off and loves it. Her writing, like Ettenberg’s, has a strong, positive, and well-grounded voice. The photos on both blogs are gorgeous.

True, I’ve found a certain amount of junk along with the gems, but it doesn’t take long to hit the X button or delete. I count as well spent the time I’ve enjoyed reading and learning from posts and articles on each of those sites, as well as posts on other sites I found through them, not to mention assorted other interesting folk I follow on Twitter who write on matters other than travel. I don’t keep track of those articles, nor of the print journalism or short stories I read, but it’s a lot!

Screens lure many of us, including me, away from books. But one of my 2013 resolutions is to meet the book-a-week goal. So far I’m keeping up with it, possibly in part because I haven’t visited any of those wonderful sites above since the winter holidays. Here’s what I’ve read in the way of books so far:

A Widow’s Story—Joyce Carol Oates (memoir)

Cleveland—Harvey Pekar (graphic novel)

Peeling the Onion—Gunter Grass (memoir)

The Enchanted April—Elizabeth von Arnim (light classic)

My Brilliant Friend—Elena Ferrante (modern lit, Europa Editions)

The Caliph’s House—Tahir Shah (travel memoir)

My Berlin Child–Anna Wiazemsky (modern lit, Europa Editions)

I’d recommend all of these very different books without reservation and hope to post about most of them this year.

My #FridayReads is a return to Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” which I started and set aside after a couple hundred pages. What’s yours, and what are your reading goals this year?

August 29, 2011

Three Cups of Tea, or Three Cups of Deceit?

If you’ve read “Three Cups Of Tea,” the bestselling memoir by Greg Mortenson and David Relin that professes to tell the true story of how Mortenson tried to climb K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, in Pakistan, failed, got lost on the descent, was rescued, vowed to build a school for the children in his rescuers’ village, and did so, you ought also to read the e-book, “Three Cups of Deceit,” by Jon Krakauer.

“Three Cups of Tea” is a compelling story with a convincing message: that it would be far more beneficial for everyone if the US and other countries used their resources to build schools and otherwise facilitate the education of children, especially girls, in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan than to provide military assistance to this or that faction opposing this or that objectionable government.  It’s inspired not only huge sales and a similarly best-selling sequel, “Stones For Schools,” but millions in donations to the Central Asia Institute, the foundation Mortenson set up for his schools project.

Like many others, journalist, author, and climber Jon Krakauer read Mortenson’s book, became enthusiastic about his message, and donated to CAI. Then, he says, people associated with Mortenson and CAI started giving him information suggesting that Mortenson’s story was not all that it seemed.

Krakauer, who is personally familiar with the terrain Mortenson wrote about through his own climbing travels, started investigating, and, in April, published his e-book. As his title suggests, Krakauer presents a case that Mortenson took far more than poetic license with the facts and actually fabricated significant portions of his story. He also quotes sources who question CAI’s fiscal management.

CAI characterizes the stories from “some media outlets,” including CBS’s “60 Minutes,” as “cherry-picked, manipulated, and misrepresented.” The organization notes that an investigation and a lawsuit are pending. A suit filed in the federal court for the Northern District of Illinois alleging, among other matters, fraud (H/T: JenandthePen), was voluntarily dismissed shortly after filing, but another suit remains pending in Montana, though news reports suggest that CAI is no longer a defendant. Mortenson recently filed a response denying that grounds exist for a class action. In the meantime, Krakauer is posting post-publication updates on the website.

Read both of these books, be on the lookout for responses from Mortenson and CAI and resolutions of the legal matters involving them, and make up your own mind. Here’s what I’m wondering: if Mortenson did deliberately fabricate portions of his book, which was classified as nonfiction and marketed as a True Story, is that a problem? Or everyone does it, no big deal? And if Mortenson made up parts of his story, does that damage his message’s credibility?

UPDATE, September 13, 2011: Mark Fowler, a lawyer in New York who tweets as @rightsofwriters, has written a very interesting and thorough post on memoirs and the law on his excellent blog, Rights of Writers.

June 17, 2011


I like to participate in the #FridayReads meme on Twitter. The idea is that every Friday those who like can tweet what they’re reading with the hashtag #FridayReads in the tweet. Putting # without a space immediately before a term transforms it into a hyperlink. You can then click on the hyperlink to see other tweets with that hashtag. So, clicking on #FridayReads in any tweet will take you to a page with an aggregation of the most recent tweets containing that term. The meme seems to get more popular every week and now has its own Facebook page, complete with prizes for those who participate.

This week, I have several books going at once.  Each is from a different genre–one work of fiction, one fictional graphic novel, and one nonfiction–but the three have a common theme: lawyers and law enforcement. My #FridayReads tweet contains all three: John Mortimer’s “Rumpole Omnibus,” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s “Watchmen,” and Steve Bogira’s “Courtroom 302.” I expect it will take me a while to finish all of them, but I often like to be reading several books at a time. I’m enjoying thinking about the different angles and ways that the different writers tell their stories, and I’m thinking that I may be able to see some parallels in these three very different books.

I have an extra incentive to read each book, too:  on different occasions lawyers recently recommended each to me. I’d like to be able to tell those lawyers that I’ve read their recommendations and compare our views the next time I happen to see them! Since I’ve read enough of each to have become quite captivated by their stories, this won’t be a difficult commitment for me to keep.

In the meantime, I’ve been continuing to ponder The Book Show’s list of novels everyone should have read by the age of 21. I have lots of thoughts about that list and about what list I’d create if I were to do so. I hope to post some of those thoughts next week, so please check back with me then.

What’s your #FridayReads?

April 22, 2011

Story and memoir: truth or not?

I love to read a good memoir, so the proliferation of stories on books published as memoirs that get exposed as less than truthful is really bugging me.

Most recently, 60 Minutes and other sources, including the very fine writer Jon Krakauer, have cast doubts on the veracity of Greg Mortenson’s bestselling “Three Cups Of Tea,” written with professional writer David Relin. Outside Magazine has an interview with Mortenson on the scrutiny of his story.

Mortenson’s message remains compelling and persuasive: resources from the US and other democratic powers would be far more beneficial and effective if they were spent on facilitating education, particularly for girls, in nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, instead of on military operations. Unfortunately, the publicity surrounding the disappointing possibility that the book fudges some facts does nothing but detract and distract from the message.

I can think of at least two possible reasons for memoir writers to be less than truthful in telling their stories. First, it’s uncomfortable to include less than attractive aspects of yourself and your actions in your life story. Second, maybe you think your story just isn’t interesting enough, and would improve with some fiction added.

Fibbing is dangerous, and I don’t see how either of these reasons can justify not telling the truth. If you don’t want to write your life story without changing the unattractive aspects, or if you think you could make it a better story by changing it, why not just publish it as fiction? If neither writing it truthfully, meaning as it really happened, nor writing it as fiction appeals, why write it at all?

I don’t understand why there seems to be a significant segment of readers who think that it’s no big deal if a writer’s work, billed as nonfiction, contains fictional elements. Are these the same people who think it’s no big deal if a witness in a trial, or a prospective juror, who’s sworn to tell the truth doesn’t do so? Why is this NOT a big deal?

Loving a good story as I do, I disagree that a story presented as nonfiction improves when its author adds some fiction (and thereby transforms the whole story into fiction). For me, the appeal of a memoir is that I want to read about what someone actually did, what actually happened to the person, and how the person was transformed by those actual experiences.

I know, and other reasonable readers know, that nobody’s a saint. It’s heartening to read a first-person account that includes unattractive behavior and mistakes on the part of the storyteller, because that’s part of what makes a story universal: we all make mistakes, and we all have some unattractive behavior in our background that we’d like to make sense of, atone for, or otherwise get beyond as part of our personal journey through life. The best memoirists show us, as part of their stories, how they came to make the mistakes they did and then how they recognized and learned from their mistakes. One good recent example is Mary Karr’s “Lit.” Jon Krakauer himself provides another good example in “Into Thin Air,” in which he’s as hard on himself as he is on anyone else. Both books are extraordinarily compelling.

Just as with witnesses in trials, when I learn that memoirists have painted themselves as more virtuous than they really were, or exaggerated events in their lives, I’m not only disappointed but also starting to wonder what else they didn’t tell the complete truth about. Ultimately, fibs always come back to haunt people who didn’t tell the truth and always diminish their stories and messages.

I think that’s even worse for the memoirist who just fudged a little bit than it is for the one who made up a story from whole cloth and presented it as the unvarnished truth.  The latter deserves to be branded as a liar. The former may very likely be a basically goodhearted person with a good message and a good story who unwisely gave in to fear, or insecurity, or a desire to sell more copies, or bad advice, told a story that was mostly, but not entirely, true, and, when the fudged facts are discovered, gets tagged in the same category as the latter writer.

I’m hoping that Mortenson’s detractors turn out to be mistaken, because the story he told is inspirational and his message, I believe, worthy. In the meantime, let’s withhold judgment until he’s spoken further and all the facts are out.

Among many other good posts on this topic, has a good essay by Thomas Gladysz, “Before Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea,” about Margaret Bohme’s 1905 bestseller, “Diary of a Lost Girl,” published as the memoir of a young girl forced into prostitution but ultimately exposed as fiction. Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill recently interviewed James Frey, author of the controversial bestseller “A Million Little Pieces.” Among other things, Frey said “the idea of a memoir in America as it is marketed and published and sold is a bunk idea…it’s just something people slap on the sides of books to sell them.” And The New Yorker has an interview with its staff writer James Stewart, a very fine and thoughtful writer who’s also a lawyer and has a new book out, “Tangled Webs:  How False Statements are Undermining America.” In it, Stewart discusses the harm that the breakdown of the public commitment to telling the truth under oath is doing to our society.

What do you think about less than truthful memoirs? How about not telling the truth under oath? Are these okay? Not a big deal? Is everyone really doing it? I don’t think so, but I’d love to hear what you think.

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