Law and Conversation

January 2, 2012

Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012

2011 was a great year for reading for me. I focused even more than I have in past years on reading critically and with purpose. That meant I read more books, and better books, than when I’ve read more haphazardly.

I like to keep a running list of the books I read, the better to remember them (which writing about them on this blog also helps me to do). My personal Best Book Read In 2011 was the graphic novel “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Other books I enjoyed greatly included several by Alexander McCall Smith; Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s memoir, “Red Dust Road;” Suzanne Collins’s YA blockbuster, “The Hunger Games;” and Anthony Trollope’s masterwork, “The Way We Live Now,” which had been on my TBR list for at least a couple of years.

One book I especially enjoyed wasn’t even my idea to read. Knowing of my passion for Laura Ingalls Wilder, an intuitive friend surprised me with a gift at the end of 2011, Kristin Kimball’s “The Dirty Life.” Ever wonder what it was REALLY like for Laura to live with Almanzo and build a life on the farm together? After reading Kimball’s memoir of meeting, moving in with, and marrying her farmer husband, I think I have a pretty good idea (and, like Kimball’s husband, I bet Almanzo and, for that matter, Laura, had smelly armpits, too).

One of my resolutions last year was to read a nice, juicy biography. I had two in mind: Maynard Solomon’s “Beethoven” and Benita Eisler’s “O’Keefe and Stieglitz.” Alas, they’re still sitting on my nightstand, unread. But I kept that resolution by reading another thick biography I’d had for several years: Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.” Lovell’s book was a good read about an interesting family, but I found myself agreeing with a discerning friend who described it as having “lost its moral compass.” To her, and to me, the author seemed rather too enthralled by the faded glamour of the unrepentant Diana Mitford, in particular, who married Oswald Mosley, an M.P. who became the leader of the British Fascists and, with Diana, was imprisoned for much of World War II because of their open sympathy for Hitler. Scandalous Women has more about the Mitford sisters.

Another aspiration of mine in 2011 was to read a Dickens novel. I’m sorry to say I didn’t keep that one. But in 2012 I hope to make amends by reading both Claire Tomalin’s new biography of Dickens and a Dickens novel I haven’t read before, since both were under our Christmas tree. I’m excited!

I did something new in 2011 that I plan to continue in 2012: I became a guest blogger on The Europa Challenge Blog. It was pure serendipity that I peeked at my Twitter stream one evening and saw Marie’s tweet inviting fans of Europa Editions publications to participate on this fan blog. Having already read several Europa books, I had no hesitation about accepting. Initially, I signed up for the fairly conservative four-book Europa Ami challenge level. But I like a bit of competition, so I pushed myself and surpassed the 7-book Europa Haver level, reading 8 new Europa books in all—which doesn’t count the several I’d read before accepting the challenge. For 2012, Marie has renamed the levels with a wonderful continental café theme. I’m starting out cautiously, signing up for the 4-book Espresso level, but I’m quite confident I’ll be able to reach at least the 6-book Cappuccino mark. As a lawyer, I love finding and thinking about the legal issues in the books I read. In Europa’s books, I’d particularly recommend Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” for its brief discussion of Roman legal proceedings, Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” and “Fresh Fields” for his depiction of Australia’s treatment of the mentally ill who have committed crimes, and Jane Gardam’s wonderful “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat” for her portrait of a marriage from both spouses’ respective points of view.

What are your New Year’s resolutions?

February 16, 2011

Lawyers in fiction

Since I posted earlier this week about Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth,” a novel with a retired British lawyer as its main character, I thought today it would be nice to highlight three other novels with lawyers as protagonists.  Some obvious possibilities came first to my mind: Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird,” John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” series, and legal thrillers by Scott Turow, John Grisham, and other bestselling authors. 

Worthy as all of those are, though, I’d rather highlight some lesser-known books, or some that have fallen out of the spotlight.  Here are three such novels with lawyer characters that I particularly liked:

  1. The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy.  This trilogy, which begins with The Man of Property, is a fascinating picture of Victorian and Edwardian England.  (Outmoded Authors goes into more depth on the Forsyte Chronicles here.)  Soames Forsyte is a creepy solicitor whose divorce is the main subject of the second book, “In Chancery.”  The story shows how wretched life could be for even women of the upper classes who were unlucky enough to be married to men they loathed because of their legal status as chattels in the not so distant past.  Galsworthy, incidentally, studied and practiced law before going on to a distinguished literary career, which included helping found PEN International and winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1932.
  2. The Floating Opera, by John Barth.  Tightly written and screamingly funny, this novel, which I read in law school, helped me see, as my class never did, that civil procedure could be a fascinating subject.
  3. Pudd’nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain.  Like Barth and Galsworthy, Twain certainly knew how to tell a good story, and this novella of pre-Civil War America is riveting even more than a century after its publication.

John Mullan of The Guardian posted lists of the 10 best lawyers and the 10 best bad lawyers in fiction that I found inspirational for my own ever-growing reading and rereading lists.  The ABA Journal also published a list of 25 great fictional lawyers who are not Atticus Finch, which inspired BL1Y of Bitter Lawyer to come up with a list of the 10 greatest fictional lawyers overlooked by the ABA.

Who’s your favorite fictional lawyer, good or bad?  Do leave a comment with your picks.

On a completely different topic, check out Dutch engineer Theo Jansen’s Strandbeest site and associated videos.  I first learned about Jansen and his PVC beach animals several years ago, from a Radio Netherlands documentary.  There’s a more recent video from the BBC here that’s been making the rounds on Twitter.  Beautiful!

February 14, 2011

Read This! Jane Gardam

On noticing “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam at my public library, I had to pick it up and leaf through it.  How could I not, with a title like that?  And furthermore, I saw that Europa Editions was the US publisher.  I’d read Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” a title which likewise intrigued me, also published by Europa, and decided at that time that any Europa book was likely to be well worth reading.

But at that time “Old Filth” just didn’t appeal to me.  I kept returning to it when I’d see it in bookstores, though, and reconsidering reading it—especially since I learned that it’s the story of a lawyer, whose nickname is the book’s title.

Then I saw another book by Gardam at the library, “God On The Rocks.”  The plot summary appealed to me, and it didn’t hurt that the cover indicated it had been shortlisted for the 1978 Booker Award.  I’d kept “Old Filth” in mind and had noticed that Gardam was highly praised in online reviews.  I figured that reading a book of less than 200 pages wouldn’t be too much of a loss if I ended up not liking it.

Readers, I LOVED it.  So much that on finishing it, I ran back to the library for more Gardam, including “Old Filth,” which turned out to be at least as good as “God On The Rocks.”

As Gardam tells her story, “Filth” is an acronym:  Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.  The principal character from whose point of view she tells the story is Edward Feathers, a “Raj Orphan” as a child, now, in the 2000s, a highly respected retired lawyer and judge. 

To others, “Old Filth” may be legendary for his long life and upright career, but up close, he doesn’t appear too interesting.  A young, stylish, up-and-coming London barrister, the partner of the son of one of Feathers’s childhood friends, exemplifies how dismissive the young can be of the old, condescending toward him as she makes some blatantly mistaken assumptions that he’s had a quiet, easy, happy life away from the city and any complexities.

Throughout the novel, Feathers is looking back at his life after the death of his wife, considering his life of loneliness and searching for meaning in his personal history.  “All my life,” he says at the book’s end, “from my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me.  I want to know why.”

Feathers’s complex story, which Gardam unfolds in slow and masterful stages, would shock everyone except the few who knew him as a small child.  At the end, the reader can understand why he’s repressed his own story and kept it a secret throughout his life.  I wondered how Feathers’s life would have been different and, perhaps, happier, if he had openly acknowledged his story, or at least allowed some to get close enough to him so that he could tell them.  

In both “Old Filth” and “God On The Rocks,” Gardam is very, very good at telling stories in which the characters have far more under their surfaces than they display to others.  She’s published a companion novel–NOT a sequel–to “Old Filth,” “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” in which she tells the story of Feathers’s marriage from the point of view of his wife, who is only a minor character in “Old Filth.”  I can’t wait to read it.  Note to Man Booker Prize judges:  Gardam really, really needs to win sometime soon.

Gardam was partly inspired to write “Old Filth” by reading Rudyard Kipling’s story, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” about his miserable experiences as a “Raj Orphan” when his parents sent him back to England as a small child from India to receive a proper English education.  How strange it is, in another time and another place, to think that doing so was once considered a matter of course.  I’m putting Kipling’s story on my list.

What stories are you excited about reading these days?

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