Law and Conversation

July 25, 2011

Read This: Watchmen

I recently mentioned that I’d started three books at once, all of which had a common theme of law and law enforcement, and all of which lawyers recommended to me: John Mortimer’s “Rumpole Omnibus #1,” a collection of short stories; Steve Bogira’s nonfiction “Courtroom 302,” and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s “Watchmen,” a graphic novel. (I should note that John Higgins gets well-deserved high billing as colorist along with Moore, the writer, and Gibbons, the illustrator/letterer, on the hardcover edition’s title page.) I still have the first two going, but I’ve now finished the third.

What I’d most like to tell you about “Watchmen” is this: Change whatever your reading plans are and move it to the top of your list.

It’s an amazing, complex, multilayered work. If you’d like to know a bit about it before you begin, read the Wikipedia entry, which is scholarly and thorough. It also contains spoilers, so you might prefer to stop after the “Background and Development” section. Once you’ve finished it, you may, as I did, want to reread portions to pick up what you missed the first time around or put some pieces together. The Watchmen Wiki, as well as the rest of the Wikipedia entry, can help you to make sense of anything you missed.

Published in 1986 and 1987 as a 12-volume serial comic book, “Watchmen” is mostly a graphic novel, but interspersed are meta-fictional straight narratives as well as a comic book story within this comic book story–meta-metafiction. Its structure puts it ahead of its time, not only in 1988 but still today. It fully deserves the high praise it’s garnered from, among others, Time magazine, which named it one of the hundred best English-language novels published since 1923.

Have you read “Watchmen?” What did you think of it?

July 18, 2011

Read This: Maurice Sendak

Bemused by the inclusion of such works as John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Erica Jong’s “Fear Of Flying” on a list of books that noted contemporary authors urged reading BEFORE the age of 21, I recently posted my own off-the-top-of-my-head recommendations for such a list.

There are so many great books that, in my opinion, everyone should read, preferably while they’re still kids, that, for the sake of manageability, I decided to limit my picks to series books (loosely defined, so that I included the entire body of some writers’ work, most notably Dr. Seuss). I also decided to expand the number of recommendations from three, my usual aim for a manageable blog post, to ten.

Even with limits, it still made for a post that was far longer than usual. And even expanding my usual number of recommendations from three to ten, the minute I finished writing, I thought of several more that really ought to be toward the top of any reading list for the under-21 group, which I then sneaked in at the bottom of my post.

Here’s yet another great series that everyone under 21 should read: Maurice Sendak‘s “Nutshell Library,” composed of “Pierre,” “One Was Johnny,” “Alligators All Around,” and the best known “Chicken Soup With Rice.”

These charming books, which come in a little box that small children can easily hold in their hands, combine the best of storytelling, poetry, and art. Whether you’re under or over 21, if you haven’t read them yet, go pick them up at your local library or bookstore. Check out their musical setting, too, from the Really Rosie TV special, by Carole King. ALL seasons, and all ages, are nice for reading Chicken Soup With Rice!

Sendak’s other books are also marvelous. Many, like the fairy tales collected by Andrew Lang and other great books written for young people by Sherman Alexie and Laurie Halse Anderson, deal with very dark themes, which has resulted in their appearing on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned books with some regularity.

Please check back with me on Wednesday, when I’ll have three more recommendations for books by or illustrated by Maurice Sendak. If it has Sendak’s name in the credits, you just can’t go wrong!

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?

January 10, 2011

Read This: Poetry

Filed under: Books and writing,poetry,Read This! — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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No time to read?

Sure, you’re busy.  You work, you’re understaffed, you have a partner, you have a spouse, you have kids, you have other family members who need your time, you’re tired, you have chores, you travel, you’re on call, you do volunteer work, you’re active in professional organizations, you’re campaigning for a promotion, you’re a Very Important Person.  So, you sigh, much as you’d love to, you have No Time To Read.

Excuses, all of them. 

I know:  I’ve made many of them myself.

Here’s what all of us can do in the course of any day:  read a poem.  One poem.

Most of us probably don’t think of poems when we think of what we’d like to read or draw up our reading or book group lists.  Andrew Petcher’s comment on my post about the Elgin Marbles, quoting “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” Lord Byron’s eloquent poem from 1812, on Lord Elgin’s plundering the Parthenon, got me thinking about how great it would be if we all read more poetry.  And nobody is too busy to find two minutes in a day to read a short poem.

Here are a few reasons to read poetry:

–Like reading anything else not required by your employment, it challenges and refreshes your mind and outlook.

–Most poems are short.  You can read many in just a minute or two.  You can also spend more time savoring the language and thinking about how the poet put words together, structured the poem, and what the poem means to or evokes in you.  (Of course, some poems are epics, and require the time of a hefty novel to read and enjoy.)

–In a good poem, every word counts.  There’s nothing superfluous.  A short poem might tell a very complex story and evoke strong feelings in the reader.  Reading a terse, carefully crafted piece, whether an essay, fiction, or poetry, is a delight.  It will also influence the reader to become a better writer.

–Poetry is beautiful. 

You can start by reading Byron’s poem, which Project Gutenberg has made freely available online.  For more poetic comments from Byron  on the Elgin Marbles, see his “The Curse of Minerva” (also free).  For background on Byron and the Elgin Marbles, see Ann Wuyts’ 2009 post on the Heritage Key blog.  (To my delight, I see that Ann has recommended several graphic travel novels on her bio page on the Heritage Key site.)

Another good way to get some poetry into your life is to sign up for Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac” via e-mail, RSS, or podcast.  It’s free, and Keillor starts every edition with a poem.

Do check out Andrew Petcher’s “Have Bag, Will Travel“; he’s just posted about his trip to Segovia, Spain.  Some of his commenters have their own very interesting and beautifully illustrated blogs, including James ‘s Plus Ultra.

Readers, any poems you’d recommend?

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!

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