Law and Conversation

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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August 27, 2010

Thieves, plunderers, and musicians

The Chicago Tribune reports on a happy ending, with the aid of the newspaper’s Problem Solver column, for a violist whose prized instrument was stolen more than ten years ago.  As columnist Jon Yates wrote, Northwestern University law professor Robert Bennett recited blackletter law that a thief cannot convey good title to stolen property.

The old saw, “Possession is nine tenths of ownership,” can trump the law when it comes to repatriation of property stolen decades or centuries ago, as Colin Woodard shows in his article, “The War Over Plunder: Who Owns Art Stolen in War?” from The Quarterly Journal of Military History.  Many treasures are simply of unknown provenance, including many artifacts held by museums:  their origins and creators may be undisputed, but what happened after their creation and the paths they took to get to the museums where they now reside are often murky, if not impossible to ascertain.  One famous example of museum property whose rightful ownership is bitterly disputed is the Elgin Marbles, in the possession of the British Museum since the early 19th century.  You can read more about that controversy here, here, and here.

The stolen viola’s rightful owner spoke movingly in Yates’s article about what her instrument meant to her.  Two other books that illustrate why, to a musician, just any instrument won’t do are Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music” and Perri Knize’s “Grand Obsession.”

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