Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Reviews: John Grisham's The Firm and Theodore Boone: The Activist

Q: How many lawyers does it take to roof a house?
A: It depends on how thin you slice them.

OK, that was was mean. I won't tell the second one.

Having just finished two John Grisham audiobooks I have lawyers on my mind. The first was an abridged version of The Firm, the legal thriller that put Grisham on the map and his name in lights. The suspense is diminished when you know the ending, but it's still a good read.

In the same way that Erle Stanley Gardner knew courtrooms, John Grisham understands the legal profession. When he wrote his first novel, A Time To Kill, he was working 60-70 hours a week in a Mississippi law firm. After his next novel became a blockbuster movie starring Tom Cruise he could spend the rest of his life doing what he really wanted to do, which was to be a writer. That's a pretty good deal for a fellow in his thirties.

The Firm tells the story of Mitch McDeere, a bright, ambitious young lawyer who has the good fortune of landing a position in an Alabama law firm where no one has ever left and everyone retires rich. At least that's the surface story. The reality is, occasionally a few members in the firm have failed to become partners and failed to actually retire. Their accidental deaths are mourned, and their memories honored with portraits in the boardroom.

As Mitch soon learns, his firm's primary client is a Chicago mob family and one of their services is to help move their revenue into off-shore banks to reduce taxes, among other things. How Mitch manages to survive long enough to assemble evidence necessary to help the FBI indict the entire law firm is the heart of the story.

The only scene I really remember from the movie is Tom Cruise turning the music up loud so that he can tell his wife what's going on without being heard by the bad guys who have bugged his home. Though I recall enjoying it the film didn't make a lasting impression, perhaps because the story seemed so over-the-top.

The audio version of this book is abridged, so it feels plot heavy. On the flip side, I am not sure I'd want to digress overmuch in a story about lawyers. It just feels tedious.

Theodore Boone: The Activist is actually in the young adult category with junior high aged readers as its target. It's part of a series of books featuring Theo Boone, a 13-year-old whose parents are lawyers. Following the advice one gets in most writer's conferences, Grisham writes about what he knows. Like the Hardy Boys, the books feature our young hero in a range of adventures, using his wits and legal knowledge on behalf of truth, justice and the American way.

Actually, the book is almost a tutorial on a facet of law which I've never seen addressed in a book before, the concept of eminent domain.

Theo's home life includes family meals together in which issues come up because they get seven to nine newspapers Theo is such an inquisitive kid. His father leans conservative and his mother leans liberal so they do not always agree in the issues but they are respectful in the way they dialogue about it all.

The central matter in this book is the building of a highway bypass to relieve congestion in their town. Theo gets involved because one of his best friends is going to lose the family farm to the developers due to eminent domain. He understands that government has the right to take people's property in this way if there is a good reason, but in this case there have been back room deals which from which certain parties will profit if this deal goes through.

As I was listening to the first chapter about Theo on the debate team I expected this to be a background story about his development toward becoming a major activist. I did not realize that this was a setup for a story about a 13 year old kid who is a boy scout and a legal eagle.

Like The Firm, it's well written, informative and driven once again by the plot, chiefly due to being an abridgement. There are some interesting characters who likely appear in other books in this series, most prominently Uncle Ike who used to be with he parents' firm of Boone and Boone before something happened and he was disbarred. Ike helps guide Theo with yet another perspective on matters legal, political and otherwise.

The book is Theodore Boone: The Activist.

Friday, July 31, 2015

This in the Beginning

In the old days writers frequently kept notebooks where they jotted ideas, observations and snippets of conversations. These days much of this miscellany is stored in folders on our laptops, backup drives and in other virtual spaces.

As a columnist I often go through many false starts before I hit on a theme that I can carry all the way through. Many of these false starts are stored as seed for future articles.

This morning I found this bit of patter which found its initial impetus in a poem by Billy Collins titled Aristotle.

This is the Beginning

This is the beginning. Almost anything can happen. Except we’re writing for a ____ magazine, so it constrains our possibilities somewhat.

Being somewhat responsible the beginning has a purpose beyond merely hooking the reader. It is useful for telegraphing what’s to come, something akin to a billboard. It’s like an introduction at a party. You really don’t entirely know where it will lead, but you’re intrigued. You still want to go with it. And if it is a proper beginning it will not chew up too much of the real estate on this page because all the important parts need breathing room as they flow out from this, the beginning.

So, where are we going from here? That really is a question for so many aspects of life. When we try to see the future it’s a real problem because our only clues are the ones in our past. There’s a wall between today and tomorrow, and we don’t have a periscope to see over or around it.

The only thing we see with clarity is behind us. Even though we’re fond of saying “hindsight is 20/20” the reality is not really that way. All too often we filter events through a mental grid and misinterpret their significance. So it is that we have to become detectives and learn to recognize which clues are important, and when we connect the right dots a shape will begin to form.

* * * *

This is the end.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Belling the Cat: Another Fable of Aesop That Still Speaks Today

A week or two ago I received an interesting email from my daughter Christina regarding a book about translating poetry into different languages. The book's premises revolve around a French poem called "A une Damoyselle malade" by Clement Marot. My daughter wrote that "it's a cute little poem that is 28 lines long, each line has 3 syllables with the stress on the final syllable, and it's a string of rhyming couplets (AA, BB, CC...)" The author, Douglas Hofstadter, made a challenge to his translator friends to try to translate the poem and keep as many of these constraints as possible, and keep the same sort of vibe as the original poem, which is light hearted and sweet. She then shared the poem  with me and some of the translations she liked best because she thought I'd find them interesting. Which I did.

This came to mind because last night I was looking for a good translation of Aesop's fable titled Belling the Cat. When we were growing up I doubt there were many of us who ever considered that we were not reading Aesop's Fables in the original language, that these stories and many others we read as kids -- such as Grimm's Fairy Tales -- were originally conceived in some other language that may have had more nuanced connotations at times.

For example, in the 1990's my story "Terrorists Preying" was translated into French by a student working on his Master's degree. At the end of the project he contacted me regarding the challenge of translating the title, which in English conveys a bit of word play that gets lost in translation.

In my email exchange with Christina she shared a several versions of the poem with me. The first was quite literal, but missed all the emotional weight and came across flat. The others took liberties and were much improved.

I decided to share two versions of the fable in part to show how different they can be. I like the telling of the tale better in the second one, but I like the wording of the story's moral better in the first. In either case, you can easily get the message.You can find this first version here at

Belling the Cat

The Mice once called a meeting to decide on a plan to free themselves of their enemy, the Cat. At least they wished to find some way of knowing when she was coming, so they might have time to run away. Indeed, something had to be done, for they lived in such constant fear of her claws that they hardly dared stir from their dens by night or day.

Many plans were discussed, but none of them was thought good enough. At last a very young Mouse got up and said:

"I have a plan that seems very simple, but I know it will be successful. All we have to do is to hang a bell about the Cat's neck. When we hear the bell ringing we will know immediately that our enemy is coming."

All the Mice were much surprised that they had not thought of such a plan before. But in the midst of the rejoicing over their good fortune, an old Mouse arose and said:

"I will say that the plan of the young Mouse is very good. But let me ask one question: Who will bell the Cat?"

It is one thing to say that something should be done, but quite a different matter to do it.

* * * *

Here's version two from the Harvard Classics.

Belling the Cat

LONG ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighbourhood.”

This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said: “IT IS EASY TO PROPOSE IMPOSSIBLE REMEDIES.”

* * * *

Whether you prefer one over the other, both illustrate perfectly one of my favorite maxims: "Everything is easy for the one who doesn't have to do it."

EdNote: For another blog post dealing with translating poetry visit my page on Rilke's The Panther

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

This Is My Best

This past week I listened to an audio lecture by Professor Elliot Engel called The Rise and Fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In it he begins by making the case that there were only four major American authors in the twentieth century whose works would still be studied 200 hundred years from today. They would be Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald.

That's quite a short list, and Professor Engel makes his case as to why Fitzgerald should be included amongst the others. It's the same dilemma any time people make lists, whether it's who are the five greatest guitar players, jazz singers or inventors.

In 1942 The Dial Press pulled together a book titled This Is My Best in "America's 93 Greatest Living Authors" were asked to select their very best prose or poem and tell the readers why. If you like anthologies, and I always have, this one's unique feature is that the authors themselves are the ones doing the selecting, and the defending of their selections.

The book is 1180 pages and like many such books you're not likely to just pick it up and run through from start to finish. In fact, while you are not reading it you can use it as a doorstop.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is not one of the contributors because he'd died two years earlier. But the names of those who were included is fairly substantial. Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, H.L. Mencken, Stephen Leacock, Conrad Aiken, Morley Callaghan and George Ade make up the first section, titled The Man's Story. Quite a few heavies there, but a few who have already been near forgotten. The second section is titled The American Dream and it features selections from Archibald MacLeish, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, James Truslow Adams, Mark Van Doren, Bernard De Voto (a bio of Mark Twain), Dorothy Parker and Wolcott Gibbs.

One thing I do enjoy about anthologies like this is that they can introduce you to writers whom you were previously unfamiliar with. In the 1980's I spent quite a bit of time looking for new authors who I could then mine like a coal vein.

Considering that there are 93 authors covered, I won't list them all here, but there a dozens more whom we are all familiar with including Upton Sinclair, E.B. White (of Strunk & White fame), John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, Eugene O'Neill, Wallace Stevens, Ogden Nash, James Thurber, Lillian Hellman and John Gunther.

But it's the selections thatthey chose that are interesting. Hemingway selected The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Steinbeck selected The Leader of the People. Upton Sinclair selected an excerpt from his novel which he titled The Slaughter of the Pigs.

If you're here in the Twin Ports and interested in borrowing it, let's cross paths and you can have it for a spell. I have a stack of other books I am working my way through.

As for my own personal best, I would like to believe my story The Unfinished Stories of Richard Allen Garston, from my eBook Newmanesque, is worthy of more lasting consideration.  Either that or my story Uuremembered History of the World, which can be found in my first published short story volume Unremembered Histories.

What is your favorite story? And if you are a writer, what do you consider your best?

Monday, July 27, 2015

First Impressions of the Documentary Film Amy

Last night went to see Amy, the tragic story of Amy Winehouse, whose light burned out in 2011.

If you're from my generation ("Talkin' 'bout my generation") you can't watch this film without remembering the sudden early departures of Janis, Jimi, Brian Jones and Jim Morrison.

When I first heard about this film being made I thought, "Who's going to play Amy Winehouse?" I didn't then know it was a documentary. Unlike generations past, we live in an age of video cameras and digital movies that capture far more of our lives than ever in history, and with painstaking effort director Asif Kapadia pieced all these pieces together into a coherent overview of her short and tragic life.

There were many thoughts this film stimulated. First, the consequences of fame, especially on young artists who become megastars. Dylan survived it by means of a motorcycle crash that led to a break from touring for several years and enabled him to re-center. At 74 he is still going strong.

I once read an interview with Malcolm McDowell in which he stated that an actor's career has three stages, and that stars don't always transition well from youth to middle age to elder statesman. The same can no doubt be said for performing artists. What would have come next for James Dean, Marilyn, Kurt Cobain?

Second, what an incredible talent Amy Winehouse was. If you were not familiar with her incredible voice before, then you'll be somewhat amazed at what she was able to do with those vocal chords. Yes, she is worthy of being compared to the great ones, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. And it was something she was quite serious about at a very early age. Her interest in jazz came first, hence her real fame in the broader pop world was a relatively short time frame. She'd been riffing in clubs for many years beforehand.

Third, there seemed to be an inevitability in the story that made the film haunting. Of course this was a self-destruction that was being played out on a very public stage, and we all knew the film's end from the beginning. But it seemed that everyone around her could see it and one wonders how no one was able to stop it.

The broken home and pain from her childhood is another common denominator in the self-destructing superstar stories. Kurt Cobain's anger stemmed from that poisoned fount. But you don't have to be famous to self-destruct. That's an epidemic all too pervasive in our current culture.

Winehouse was a unique talent, both a gifted singer and songwriter. She pushed the boundaries and got swallowed in the chaos that became her life. It's not a film for everyone, though instructive and insightful for anyone who goes.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Luxury of Clutter (Revisited)

“The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don't.” ~ Marie Kondo

Saturday afternoon I continued my battle against the clutter in my life. It was the 25th and my goal was to eliminate 25 more things from my garage. Thursday the 23rd I rid the garage of 23 items. Today 26 will be the target, and it shouldn't really be a problem. What's immediately noticeable is how much we can get rid of without making a dent.

Based on the fact that you can't take it with you, at some point during the arc of our lives we will eventually need to start downsizing, to let go of all of it. Why, then, is it so hard?

It could be worse, as Eddy Gilmore's Emancipation of a Buried Man reveals. But I'm surprised what a never ending battle it is.

When I reflect on it, I get the impression that there's more clutter in America than in any country in history. In 2008 when I wrote about this the thought I had at the time was that clutter is a luxury. It's the downside symbol of America's wealth and success. Think of the efficiencies required for impoverished people to raise a family in a two room house. There is simply no room for all this baggage we store.

Our refrigerators and freezers are so large that as much food often goes bad as gets eaten. This simply doesn't happen in rural Mexico, Haiti or Pakistan.

As a writer I have developed the bad habit of believing "someday I will use that article" or that folder of notes, doodles, ketchup labels, or whatever. As an artist, too, it gets difficult to let go of the rest of this debris, because it does glisten and glitter so. And these rocks, wires, pens, notebooks.... 

In looking back over my eight years of blogging I've noticed this is a recurring topic, and I'm at a loss as to how to deal with it. Except, as Bob Marley famously sang, "Don't give up the fight."

In the end, if we don't deal with it, someone else will have to.  What's your exit strategy?

Recommended readings: Clutter's Last Stand by Don Aslett, Organizing from the Inside Out byJulie Morgenstern. Or just do a Gogle search and fire up your motivation with whatever stokes you.