Law and Conversation

October 18, 2010

Read This: Books You Dislike, Part 3

Filed under: Books and writing,Read This!,reading — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:38 am
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 I’ve posted for the last 2 Mondays on giving a second chance to a book I disliked the first time around, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace.”  It took urging from two friends for whose reading recommendations I have great respect and a public commitment here on this blog for me to do it, and I’m glad I did for all the reasons I stated last week.

“Disgrace” wasn’t the first book I initially disliked and set aside, to find on returning to and finishing it that it was an excellent work.  I’d also tried John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run,” a modern American classic that’s on every list of the greatest 20th century American novels, some years ago, disliked it and set it aside, returned to it a few months ago, and finished it, on the recommendation of one of the same friends who praised “Disgrace.”

On giving it another go, I still found the characters universally repellent for their complete selfishness and parochialism.  But I did finish not only it but its sequel, “Rabbit Redux,” in which the characters reach new depths of dreadfulness. 

Having done so, I agree with my friend that Updike does write beautifully.  I can visualize the characters in a scene, feel what Rabbit’s wife is feeling postpartum, see the inside of the car in which Rabbit drives all night as well as the outside night itself, and feel the wind rushing past.  Dreadful though the characters are, they’re well-rounded and real.  And I’m thinking that even dreadful people have stories and deserve to be written about just as much as those with more altruistic or noble temperaments.  They’re part of life, after all.

Martha Nussbaum and Azar Nafisi both speak eloquently of how fiction and the humanities support democracy.  And now that I’ve so recently read these novels featuring characters I so disliked, Emily St. John Mandel’s article, “In Praise of Unlikable Characters,” in The Millions, an online literary publication, seems especially timely.

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).

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 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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