Friday, July 12, 2013

Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective StoryWhy Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spoiler Alert:  No one knows.  But, if you're interested in what philosophers, theologians and physicists have to say in the matter, this is the book for you.  Jim Holt writes for The New Yorker and the book reads like a long New Yorker article.  At times the concepts are far above my head, but overall, Holt keeps the book readable for the lay person.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Literary Life: A Second MemoirLiterary Life: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Larry McMurtry follows Mark Twain's advice for writing a memoir to a fault, i.e. don't do a chronological review but follow threads as far as they interest you (and hopefully, the reader.)  McMurtry never fails to interest me, and this book is first rate in being interesting to me.  But, it does feel a little more like a transcript of a conversation than a planned-out book.  Nevertheless, I now am eagerly looking forward to finding his first volume of memoirs and reading it and waiting for the third volume to be published.

I particularly found it gratifying that McMurtry agrees with me as to which of his vast output is his best -- "Duane is Depressed," is a brilliant book in my opinion, certainly in my top ten books.  He rates "Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen" almost as highly.  I'm going to have to go back and read it again but my impression from long ago is that there was too much literary theory for my limited intellect. 

If all you know about Larry McMurtry is that he wrote "The Last Picture Show," later made into a movie by Peter Bagdonovich, that he won a Pulitzer prize for "Lonesome Dove," and that he co-wrote the screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain," then you need to get busy on his ouevre.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Mein KampfMein Kampf by Adolf Hitler

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Why in the world, you might think, would anyone waste their time reading "Mein Kampf."  My reasons were that 1) it was free; 2) I had never read it; 3) I had read a lot about Hitler but never his own words.  The book is chilling in its hatred of Jews.  It is amusing in the naivete of a man who believed that Germans were more pure than other races and that the purity of races was the most important thing for the survival of Germany as a nation.  Yet, it is insightful in furnishing some glimpse of the message that misled so many people and led to so much destruction and death of his supposedly superior race.  I think reading this book was an important part of my education.

Lincoln's Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit /Lincoln's Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit / by Guy C. Fraker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was written by a lawyer, not a writer, and, accordingly is long on lists of names associated with Lincoln in various counties in which he practiced law and short in interesting story telling.  Although the neophyte thinks that history equals boring, it does not have to be in the hands of a skilled writer, for example Doris Kearns Goodwin's Lincoln work, "Team of Rivals," and Robert Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson.  It is a shame because Fraker is very knowledgeable and there is an interesting story to be told.  He just doesn't do it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Testament of MaryThe Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very well done imagination of what it might have felt like to have been Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Told in the first person, the slim volume (only 81 pages) is beautifully written.  Although the author doesn't explicitly refer to it, this is what Mary might have been thinking when, as the Bible says, "Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart."

Traditionalists may be offended because Toibin's Mary is not a Christian; she doesn't even follow the Jewish teachings after her son's death.  There were some strange things that occurred during his life, but she maintains a skeptical stance.  She says that if he died for the sins of the world, it wasn't worth it.  That's the hook that caught me.  Indeed, what mother would be willing to sacrifice her son to die for the sins of the world? And what kind of god have we invented who would demand such a sacrifice?

There are some anomalies in the book.  Toibin's Mary has a 21st century outlook on the role of men and women.  She wears shoes, not sandals.  But the book is very much worth the little bit of time it takes to read it.  Then ponder it in your heart and wonder if Toibin's imagination gets it right.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Story of My Life

I was asked to give a "testimony" in church this morning.  This is what I said:

    As I understand my assignment, I have five to seven minutes to give my testimony on vocation, particularly as it relates to my having retired from my vocation several weeks ago.  I won’t even attempt to relate it to the scripture passages, although, if I had 20 minutes, it would be interesting to talk about the fishing story and especially about becoming “fishers of men.”
    Both of my sons are way smarter than I am, as demonstrated by oldest son, Jeremy’s, answer some 30 years ago, when he was five or six years old and he was asked by a relative what he’s going to do when he grows up, is he going to be a lawyer like his father.  Jeremy considered the question carefully and then said, “No, I think I’ll be a client.”
    Jeremy understood, even at that age, something I didn’t grasp in my mid 20s when I decided to go to law school.  That is, that the big enchilada; the swizzle stick that stirs the drink; the king of the jungle is not the lawyer, but the client.  And, then, of course, even above the king of the jungle is the judge, who, to extend the metaphor too far, is “God.”  And, so I spent more than 35 years, trying to please my clients, successfully occasionally; unsuccessfully occasionally, with mixed results usually.  It was frustrating to have to argue with clients about what was in their best interests; what the likely outcome of their cases would be, why they should be willing to accept less than the maximum outcome in order not to be stuck with the worst outcome.  Most listened; some did not.
     As Jeremy noted, even at the age of 5, that involved an awful lot of late nights and weekends, even a number of all-nighters (admittedly some of that was due to my own procrastination,) trying to please the King (and Queen).  And, trying to please the even almightier judge.   True, I could and did fire some clients, but that is not a way to make a living if you do too much of it.  I caught a few fish; a lot got away and a few caught me.
    I sued the University of Illinois many times, mainly because I was one of the few lawyers in town so stupid as to try.
    I guess at my age, 66 and counting, I would be expected to offer some words of wisdom to the younger generation.  Something to help you avoid the mistakes I made.  I actually don’t think that works.  Everyone has to make their own mistakes.  Advice from the elderly goes in one ear and out the other, as it should, because circumstances are different for everyone. 
    But, being old, I’m going to give you advice anyway.  We just can’t help it after we pass 60.  Along with the hearing aids and the Depends, we give advice.  The first piece of advice is,  if you can make a living at it, try to do something you like.  I remember going to work, whistling, and thinking, “Man, this is fun.”   I remember saying to several people over the last 35 years that making a closing argument to a jury is better than anything– well, anything we can talk about in church. (That isn’t exactly how I said it, but it’s the gist of it.)   I won a few of those battles, gloated too much when I did, then bloodied my head in trying again.  Not enough wins and too many losses or draws to consider myself a great crusader for justice.
    But, I would have gone out much happier if I had made my exit 10 years ago.  That’s when it stopped being fun.  My head was bloodied from banging it against the wall of injustice; I had become cynical when I saw how often the law was manipulated to protect the powerful and screw the little person.  I had fished too often with nothing to show for it in my net except a few little shrimp.  So, my second piece of advice (which I fully expect you will disregard, as well, but you really shouldn’t) is quit while it’s still fun. 
    Everyone asks me what I’m going to do now. (By everyone, I mean Rosalee – and others.)  Well, I’m going to be retired.  I have worked since I was 13 years old.  It’s almost unbelievable that I am getting checks deposited into our bank account for which I don’t have to do anything.  It really brings home to me the advantages of being born rich.  
    After it stops being fun sitting around, I hope to do occasional mediations.  That’s when two parties in a lawsuit, usually shortly before the trial, agree to meet with a mediator, with their lawyers present, and try to agree to a mutual resolution they are willing to accept.  Amazingly, to me at least, 85 percent of mediations, nationally, are successful, and with really good mediators the percentage is more than 90 percent, approaching 100 percent.  I’ve gotten the training; I’ve had lots of experience participating in mediations, now I just need other lawyers to refer appropriate cases to me.
    Martin Luther King said in a famous speech that when he is gone he wants to be remembered as a “drum major for justice.”  Obviously, my career should not even be mentioned in the same breath at Martin Luther King’s career.  But, if someone could just call me a “piccolo for justice,” I would be deeply honored.