Notes on Books I’ve Recently Read

My Life in Court

Louis Nizer (1902 – 1994) was a prominent attorney who was a litigant in many famous trials.  He wrote a book, My Life in Court (1961), about some of those cases and it was on the New York Times bestsellers list for an amazing 72 weeks.  It should be required reading for all attorneys.  His advice on what to do and what to avoid in a trial is worth the cost of tuition to any law school you care to name.  His actions demonstrate that even the best known attorney in the world needs to research every aspect of every case – even if he must suffer through many sleepless nights.  Nizer’s action followed Thomas Edison’s saying that, “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

My Life in Court recounts the stories of half a dozen of his most memorable cases.  None is more fascinating that the libel suit that the war correspondent Quentin Reynolds brought against columnist Westbrook Pegler and the Hurst newspaper organization that published Pegler’s scathing rants.

Pegler accused Reynolds of being a coward.  He said that Reynolds was an absentee war correspondent who covered World War II from a safe distance, and fled from danger whenever he could.  He also accused Reynolds of “nuding around” with various people, and of embarrassing a woman when he rose completely nude from the water in front of a boat she was riding in alone.  When Reynolds instituted his lawsuit, Pegler printed more charges against him, and actively tried to convince potential employers to shun him.

Every charge that Pegler made was proven false.  Quentin Reynolds was beloved by the reporters who covered World War II with him, and lionized by the military men who dealt with him.  Pegler’s charge of Reynold’s indecent behavior before the woman in the boat was absolutely refuted by her in court.  She also testified that she couldn’t swim and would never have been alone in a boat. Even more damning to Pegler’s case than her testimony were the photos of Reynolds wrapped up in clothing to keep the sun from shining on him because he was literally allergic to direct sunlight. The jury saw the truth and made the largest award in a libel trial up to that time.  And it was a judgment against both Pegler and the Hearst organization.

During the trial Nizer brought to light some actions by Pegler that made him look like the one who should have been derided in print.  While building a gorgeous country house for himself, using materials that were scarce due to the war, he was publicly urging his readers to detach the metal bumpers from their cars and to donate the metal toward the war effort.  He also claimed (for tax purposes) that his country home was actually a farm.  Nizer proved that it wasn’t and that Pegler had zero knowledge of farming.  Pegler was cowed, but remained defiant.

Nizer’s cases were very diverse.  In one he was the plaintiff’s attorney in a plagiarism lawsuit against comedian Morey Amsterdam and others.  It concerned the popular Calypso song “Rum and Coca-Cola” which was a huge hit for the Andrews Sisters in 1945.  In that case Nizer had to go into great detail about music theory and composition in order to prove his client’s case.  Imagine having a deep discussion with a hostile music expert about each note in a song while the jury and everyone else in the courtroom listens in.  There was no room for error, and Nizer didn’t need any.

In each of the cases in his book, Nizer presents vast amounts of trial testimony and explains his strategy to the reader as he goes along.  He demonstrates patience when he must and becomes an aggressive questioner when that is appropriate.  He is like a chess player: carefully planning his moves and reacting cautiously but decisively to his opponent’s actions.  Time and time again, his opponents underestimate him to their sorrow.  My Life in Court is as riveting as any book or movie you’ll ever encounter about courtroom action.

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It Can't Happen Here

I recently read two novels written by Sinclair Lewis, and they couldn’t be more different.

Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, has received a lot of attention recently as an example of the great dystopian.  I think that Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here is much more realistic than Atwood’s novel.  In Lewis’ novel Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the 1936 election by Senator Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip who is a charismatic populist with dictatorial tendencies.  Doremus Jessup is a small town newspaper owner who opposes Windrip’s policies.  With terrible consequences for himself and his family, Jessup quickly incurs the wrath of a paramilitary group that supports Windrip.  Jessup then joins an underground group that opposes Windrip and his policies, but that has some harrowing results as well.  This is a truly scary novel.

“Babbitt: a smugly narrow and conventional person interested chiefly in business and social success; Philistine.”  That is a great description of George Babbitt the protagonist of Sinclair Lewis’ 1922 satirical novel  Babbitt.  (In fact, Lewis’ novel gave us the word Babbitt.)  George Babbitt is shallow.  He’s a nice guy, but he “goes along to get along.”  He is a realtor who subscribes to the prevailing thinking even when it means that he’ll charge someone more for a property than it’s worth.  “Everybody does it” could be his mantra.  Babbitt, unlike It Can’t Happen Here, has very little action.  As H. L. Mencken wrote, “There is no plot whatever, and very little of the hocus-pocus commonly called development of character.  Babbitt simply grows two years older as the tale unfolds. . .”  (Mencken didn’t like Lewis’ Main Street either.  In fact, he claimed that, “. . . Babbitt is at least twice as good a novel as Main Street. . .”)

It seems to me that Babbitt is a minor novel compared to It Can’t Happen Here, yet Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930 based on that novel alone.  Of course It Can’t Happen Here was not written until five years later, so the Committee couldn’t compare the two.  Perhaps Babbitt is a masterpiece and I just don’t get it.  Still, if you choose to read only one of the two novels mentioned here, I strongly suggest that you read It Can’t Happen Here.

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I enjoy reading the early works of well-known authors to compare the quality of their early and later works.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) was Agatha Christie’s first novel.  It is most notable for introducing the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot who uses his tiny gray cells to  solve crimes.  Poirot’s occasional sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings, narrates the adventure much as Dr. John Watson narrated the adventures of Sherlock Holmes.  Hastings and Watson are equally clueless and befuddled.  (Hugh Fraser, who played Hastings in the British Poirot series opposite David Suchet’s Poirot, narrates the audio book.)  The plot revolves around a man who was poisoned.  Christie, for the first of many times, was able to use the knowledge of poisons that she gained while working in a pharmacy during part of World War I.

The Secret Adversary (1922) was Agatha Christie’s second novel.  It introduces Tommy and Tuppence, a young couple who decide to become amateur detectives.  Their given names are Thomas Beresford and Prudence Cowley.  It’s never made clear why Prudence is nicknamed Tuppence.  The novel is overflowing with unlikely, near catastrophes for the heroes, but we must remember that Christie was just starting out.  Like Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence would reappear in Christie’s stories many times during her long, productive life.

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Out of the Flames

Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy and One of the Rarest Books in the World (2003) by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone is a remarkable story that centers on the Spanish polymath Michael Servetus (1509 or 1511 – 1553) who is considered the father of Unitarianism (and the first person to accurately describe how blood circulates in our bodies).  The Goldstones take numerous detours from Servetus’ story to tell us about people and events that are, in some way, related to the main story.  Under less capable authors those diversions could have been terribly tedious, but because of the Goldstone’s skill, they add tremendously to the overall story.

For instance, Servetus wrote a number of books – some of which would be used to prove him a heretic – so the authors tell us about Johannes Gutenberg, his invention of the printing press, and his troubled life.  We also learn a lot about the tenacious and vindictive John Calvin who would go to any length to destroy his enemies – and Servetus was one of Calvin’s most hated enemies.  Another figure who is discussed in detail is the equally tenacious Ignatius Loyola, the mirror image of Calvin in religious beliefs, who founded the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits.   “Protestants and Catholics—Calvinists and Jesuits—dug ecclesiastical trenches, two great armies prepared to pound it out.  And they did,” say the authors, “in one of the bloodiest and most barbaric centuries in human history.”

Religious turmoil was only one upsetting element of the times.  Another was the scientific progress made by people like Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke because many felt that their faith and the very existence of God were coming into question as scientific advances were made.

Out of the Flames is one of the few books to which I have given five stars. You might think that I’m prejudiced because its subject is something that appeals to me, but an incredible 91 percent of those who posted Amazon reviews of the book awarded it either four or five stars.  It’s definitely worth reading.

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Watership Down

Both of the novels below take place in England and are considered books for children, but I think the second is a lot deeper than the first and would appeal to many adults.

The Railway Children (1906) by Edith Nesbit is a beautiful story for children.  It begins when some men come to the apartment of a family in London and insist that the father leave with them.  When he doesn’t return, the three children ask their mother what has happened, but she refuses to tell them anything.  Soon, due to financial hardship, the family is forced to move to a small country cottage.  That’s where the children’s adventures begin.  The coincidences are more than a little too convenient, but children would hardly find this off-putting.  Eventually the children ingratiate themselves to many people – including a mysterious elderly man who rides a train that passes on a railroad track near their home – and the mystery of their father’s disappearance is solved.  Ultimately, their father returns, and all is well.

Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams is another book that children will enjoy.  It started out as a story that Adams made up for his two daughters as he drove them to school.  It might never have been written down if Adams hadn’t become frustrated with a children’s book he was reading.  Throwing the book against the wall, he declared that he could write a better book than that.  And so he did.

The two main characters in the book are rabbits who are brothers.  Fiver has the ability to occasionally see into the future, but his older brother, Hazel, is often the only one who believes Fiver’s predictions.  When Fiver becomes convinced that death stalks their warren, he insists that the rabbits evacuate immediately.  Unfortunately, only Hazel and a few other male rabbits leave with Fiver.  They set out for an unknown destination that Fiver vaguely sees as a safe haven.  Along the way they have many adventures, and after they get there they decide that they must find some females for their new warren.  That’s when the most interesting part of the book begins.

We don’t think of rabbits as being violent, but these rabbits become so on many occasions.  The leader of a rival rabbit warren is absolutely vicious even when it’s not necessary.  That’s the only aspect of the book that I think would upset young children.

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Life on the Mississippi

Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883) is the latest One Book One Community selection of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library system.  Mark Twain is always a good choice, but this book is particularly appealing because it combines history, memoir, and tall tales – along with Twain’s unique humor which surfaces in whatever he is writing about.

He gives us a history of the Mississippi River and details about the towns and cities on its shores; he talks about his years as a “cub” pilot on the river boats and tells tales (both true and made-up) about life on the river.  He describes the ever-changing hazards to the boats, and the dangers of navigating the river at night in the time when you only had moonlight to illuminate the river ahead.  He describes the hairpin turns in the river that got cut through at times (thus considerably shortening the distance between river towns), and teaches us respect for the river pilots who had to know every bend, sandbar, snag, and bank landmark in the 1,000 plus miles of the mighty Mississippi.  You wonder how they could possibly have kept everything straight in their minds, but they had to, and did.

Twain talks about his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri and about a trip home he made 30 years or so after he left it.  Not only are most of the townspeople he meets strangers to him, but he finds out that many of his boyhood acquaintances are dead or have had pretty sad lives.  The funniest thing to me is his realization that girls he knew when he was a boy are now grandmothers.

Twain often seems to randomly jump from one subject to another, so don’t be surprised to find him giving you river history on one page and telling a tall tale on the next.

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BUtterfield 8 (1935) by John O’Hara is a book we discussed in my Reading the Classics book club.  It’s the story of Gloria Wandrous an amoral young woman who lives in New York City in the early part of the twentieth century.  She is impetuous and seemingly addicted to the “fast life.”  The novel is full of sex, drugs, and violence, and O’Hara is shockingly frank about all of them.  It’s surprising that O’Hara wasn’t censored for the frankness of his writing.  For example, Gloria has an affair with a married man in his wife’s bedroom while his wife is out of town (alarm bells should go off at that), and Gloria leaves the next morning in the wife’s expensive fur coat when she discovers that her lover (now gone off to work) has ripped her party dress while getting it off of her the night before.  Gloria doesn’t seem to know or care that her actions have consequences.

There is nothing uplifting in BUtterfield 8.  Frankly, John O’Hara’s writings are full of depressing people and situations as far as I’m concerned, but the stories are definitely interesting.

You might also be interested in the 1960 film version of BUtterfield 8 that starred Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, and Eddie Fisher (who Taylor had recently married). I doubt that portraying Gloria Wandrous was much of a stretch for Taylor.

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