Law and Conversation

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.


October 22, 2013

Aya is back!


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.


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.

January 15, 2013

Crazy clients? Read Elena Ferrante’s Days Of Abandonment

James Wood reviews Elena Ferrante’s novels in The New Yorker, so now seems like a good time to paste the review I wrote of one of that Italian writer’s novels for The Europa Challenge Blog.
I once heard a lawyer with years of experience in family law assert that everyone who gets divorced is “crazy” for at least a year afterwards. By inviting us inside the head of her divorcing narrator in “The Days of Abandonment,” the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante lends support to that view.
Ferrante’s books are tough reads. Having “pre-read” this one and discovered that some graphic and extreme unpleasantness was in the offing, I was tempted to bag it and return it to the library.
But graphic and extreme unpleasantness can’t be a dealbreaker if you’re going to read 21st century literary fiction. I’m glad I didn’t succumb to my momentary impulse, because Ferrante’s tale of the thoughts and actions of 38-year-old Olga, the narrator, in the wake of her husband’s leaving her for a mistress half his age and only just out of her teens, blew me away, as Alice Sebold’s cover blurb promised.
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me,” Olga tells readers at the novel’s outset. In the wake of that “it’s not you, it’s me” declaration, Olga describes how behind her outward calm, “a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me,” particularly once she learns that there’s another much younger woman behind her husband’s departure.
Her circumstances bring back the desperation and deterioration of a similarly bereft neighbor from her childhood, “La Poverella.” Olga remembers her mother and associates remarking “when you don’t know how to keep a man you lose everything.” Like La Poverella, Olga tries to hold it together and to get her husband back. Neither is within her power.
Olga’s unflinching description of even her most unflattering thoughts and actions are part of what make Ferrante’s story so compelling. Early on, in a flashback to her college days, Olga remembers “As a girl I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I knew that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine.” And indeed it does: she gets into a riproaring fight with her husband, and, with the children in the next room, lets him have it with both barrels, as Marie notes in her review. “Speak like what? I don’t give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?…What words am I supposed to use for what you’ve done to me, for what you’re doing to me?…Let’s talk about it!…[I]n order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children,, I’m supposed to use clean language, I’m supposed to be refined, I’m supposed to be elegant!….”
Describing her descent into deep, self-destructive depression, Olga muses “What was I? A woman worn out by four months of tension and grief.” When a series of unrelated and grim crises hit at once, she realizes she must pull herself together, but she has such difficulty in doing so that she gives her preteen daughter a sharp paper cutter and instructs her to prick her with it if she perceives that her mother is becoming “distracted.” Confused and repulsed, the child asks how she will know whether Olga needs a prick. Olga responds, “A distracted person is a person who no longer smells odors, doesn’t hear words, doesn’t feel anything.”
Her daughter does have to prick her, the crises get resolved—though not all happily—and Olga begins her climb out of depression and back to normal life. Throughout Ferrante’s taut storytelling, we feel Olga’s emotional and even physical pain. Even in translation, Ferrante makes every word in every sentence count. I’m looking forward to reading “My Brilliant Friend,” her newly published Europa novel, which I have at the top of my TBR list.

January 2, 2013

From 2012 to 2013

For several years I’ve been keeping a running list of books I read per year. During 2012, I averaged not quite a book a week and hope to increase that number in 2013. I also hope to read a few more that have been on my TBR list for a LONG time.

This year I finally got around to reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” a classic that I somehow missed as a child. I keep seeing references to it as one of the best examples of storytelling—the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, for example, said in a podcast that she rereads it periodically to try to figure out how Stevenson did it. It is unquestionably a fine story and I enjoyed it, but it held no deeper resonance for me.

Some maintain “The best reading is rereading.” I’m not sure about that – there are so many books I haven’t read that rereading just isn’t generally feasible – but I did spend some time this year rereading some classics and I’m glad I did. I discovered that I enjoyed Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Persuasion” more than ever now that I’m reading far more critically than ever before, and William Deresiewicz’s “A Jane Austen Education” was a delightful companion read. (Disappointingly, P.D. James’s “Death Comes to Pemberley” didn’t come close to doing Jane justice and mainly underscored the rule against settling for substitutes. It did, however, raise some really interesting legal issues and fascinating comparisons of substantive and procedural law in early 19th-century England and early 21st-century U.S.) I also reread some plays by Ibsen and a short work of Henry James, “Daisy Miller,” and enjoyed thinking about how they spoke to me differently today than they did when I read them as an adolescent.

In addition to getting “Treasure Island” under my belt, I finally read a short Dutch novel, “The Following Story,” by Cees Nooteboom, that had been sitting on my shelf for a number of months. It’s magical and surreal; I didn’t love it, but I’m glad I read this curious little book with the Brueghel (?) gargoyle on the cover.

I read a number of books in John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” series—given to me by an extremely thoughtful area lawyer who had very kind words about my articles in the Illinois Bar Journal—and thoroughly enjoyed these well-crafted, thoughtful, fun stories about English barristers. The marvelous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus” had also been sitting on my shelf for a while; not only did I read it at last, but I also loaned my (already extremely used) copy to two friends along with exhortations of its excellence.

I love reading international fiction, and in 2012 I read THIRTEEN books published by Europa Editions. (Woo hoo! That’s one over the Caffe Luongo level!!) I haven’t been able to review all of them in my spare time, but you can read what I have posted over on the Europa Challenge Blog. I’m re-upping for 2013, which includes a commitment to write and post more reviews of specific books in the coming months.

I didn’t love everything I read, and that included some of the Europa Editions books. The last one I read in 2012, Edwin Yoder’s “Lions At Lamb House,” seemed to have everything going for it when I checked it out of the library—it’s the story of an imaginary encounter between Henry James and Sigmund Freud—but I struggled throughout with whether to bag it or finish it. The narrative style, which seemed to be an attempt to imitate the period style of a century ago, just didn’t ring true to me, and the author seemed to feel compelled to spell everything out in the narrative instead of leaving a few things up to the reader, which made me feel written down to.

I also didn’t love Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel “Ghost World,” which was incredibly well rendered. That’s not because it wasn’t good – to the contrary, it was very good, and I believe it’s generally considered part of the graphic canon – but because it, like John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” was so absolutely spot on at depicting two incredibly unpleasant characters going nowhere fast.

Deciding on a personal “best book” of the year is something I like to do, but none was as memorable for me as Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel “Watchmen” last year, or Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” the year before that. Instead, a few candidates that stand out slightly from the rest for me are Russell Hoban’s magical and beautifully written “The Mouse And His Child,” graphic novelist Vera Brosgol’s “Anya’s Ghost,” and two Italian novels published in translation by Europa Editions, Elena Ferrante’s “Days of Abandonment” and Amara Lakhous’s “Divorce, Islamic Style.” (I’m not allowing my rereads of classics to enter this competition that exists only in my mind. It just seems pointless to me to set even the best contemporary writers up against Austen and Ibsen. Apples and oranges can’t compete.) A book of graphic essays, “The Beats,” by Harvey Pekar and others, was also memorable—particularly the beautifully written and illustrated piece by Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner, and artist Summer McClinton, “Beatnik Chicks”–and inspired me to reread Joyce Johnson’s beautifully written memoir, “Minor Characters,” an essential read for any young person visiting New York for the first time.

Two neat literary events happened to me this year. First, on a business trip to Boston, I got to meet Marie from Boston Bibliophile, who runs the Europa Challenge Blog, in person. She patiently waited for me at the Porter Square T station even though I was almost half an hour late (I’d never been to Boston) and took me to the indie bookseller Porter Square Books where I bought Andrew Miller’s “Pure” on her recommendation (I really enjoyed it, thanks, Marie!) as well as the latest Granta. We had a tasty vegetarian lunch at Grendel’s Den and bopped around the area a bit, including the grounds of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home!

The other cool literary event for me was LauraPalooza 2012, a semi-scholarly conference on Laura Ingalls Wilder and the “Little House” books, at Minnesota State University in Mankato in July, where I presented a paper on the personal and business relationship of Rose Wilder Lane, the only surviving child of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Roger Lea MacBride, her lawyer, literary agent, best friend during the last dozen years of her life, and sole heir. A New Year’s Resolution for my leisure time is to get my presentation into publishable shape, either in a journal or, less formally, as a blog post. The conference was a lot of fun, I met some wonderful people, and I got to spend a lot of time catching up with one of my oldest and dearest friends (we go back to 5th grade!) who presented her own paper at the first LauraPalooza conference and moderated the session at which I spoke this time.

Looking forward to 2013, I hope I’ll be able to stay on track to read an inevitably hefty Dickens novel, most likely “Little Dorrit,” as well as his equally hefty biography by the amazing Claire Tomalin, both of which I’d planned to read during 2012. Having seen Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” recently, I’m also planning on the highly praised and recommended Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” I also have a number of classics loaded for e-reading, including George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” and Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Enchanted April.” But before I pick up any of those, I’ll be finishing my current reading in progress: Hilary Mantel’s (first) Man Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall,” Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” and a graphic novel, Harvey Pekar’s “Cleveland.”

Also in 2013, I’ll continue to enjoy reading critically and relating what I read to my profession, the law, whether it’s legal history, current legal issues, or simply noting that the writer happened to have studied law. I hope to post more often this year, too–among other things, it helps me draw conclusions about works that had eluded me and to remember what I read.

What are your reading plans for this year?

December 17, 2012

Europa Challenge Holiday Swap Time!

Challenge ButtonYay for the Europa Challenge Holiday Swap!

The Europa Challenge Blog is a fan blog for anyone who loves to read books published by Europa Editions. The idea is to read the books and then write and post reviews on the blog, with cross-posting to your own blog, if you have one, not only approved but encouraged. There’s no pay, and the publisher by and large doesn’t even publicize our posts or provide review copies, with just a few exceptions (none of which have applied to me, more’s the pity 😉 ). The reward is in the satisfaction of reading really good international literature and then writing as good a post as possible, which, for those of us whose idea of a good time away from work is writing essays, is both considerable and sufficient.

So Marie, who co-founded and administers the challenge blog, had the great idea that we should do a holiday book swap so we could each send and receive a nice EE book that we wanted and didn’t have. She posted the rules and matched us up, and here it is time to post what we’ve received.

I had quite forgotten about the swap after I sent my recipient’s book, so it was actually a surprise when I opened the parcel addressed to me and found an attractively wrapped package with my name on it from Megan. In fact, it was so pretty that I let it sit until the day for posting so I could admire it and wonder which of the several preferences I’d sent Marie it might be.

It turned out to be Angelika Schrobsdorff’s “You Are Not Like Other Mothers,” translated from the German by Steven Rendall. It’s set in Berlin between the World Wars and sounds like a fascinating, panoramic story. I haven’t read a great deal of German literature apart from novels by Thomas Mann and Theodore Fontane, a bit of Grass and Boll, and, of course, folk and fairy tales, though, coincidentally, I did recently read and post about Goethe’s “The Sorrows Of Young Werther.” So I am really looking forward to burying myself in this one in the next couple of months.

Thanks so much, Megan! And a HUGE thank you, as always, to Marie for all of her work in making the blog and the swap happen.

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