Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Still Life and Still Life (A Favorite Books Post)

From personal experience, I know authors struggle with what to title their books. The goal is to give readers a sense of what the book is about and to choose something memorable, but not so memorable it gets used too often, possibly creating confusion when the reader searches for the book. (In the U.S., titles are not copyrightable, so any number of authors and publishers can use the same title.) Two of my favorite thrillers have the same title: Still Life.

Still Life by Joy Fielding 

Casey Marshall is a businesswoman who suffers severe injuries from being hit by a car. She's plunged into a coma, but she gradually becomes aware of what's happening around her. She can hear, at least some of the time, but can't move, see, or communicate. Despite that, Fielding makes her a proactive main character who does everything she can within the (significant) limits placed upon her. I found every moment fascinating as Casey begins to realize the people she loves might not be quite who she thought they were, and the "accident" may have been an attempt on her life.

Still Life by Louise Penny

Like Joy Fielding's book, I couldn't put this one down. It is a more traditional suspense novel in that there is a detective--Chief Inspector Gamache. Yet it is distinctive in several ways. While Casey exists almost in a vacuum due to her coma, the mystery here is grounded in Three Pines, a small town in Canada that almost becomes a character in itself. The residents include an accomplished aging poet, several artists, a former psychologist turned bookstore owner, and proprietors of a beautiful bistro that is also an antique shop. The murder victim is a beloved long-time resident of the town, murdered just after she's been brave enough at last to enter a painting in an art show and has learned she's been accepted. She has no enemies that anyone's aware of, and no one can imagine who would kill her.

Point of View

Joy Fielding's book is told from a single point of view, that of Casey Marshall. The reader knows only what Casey hears and understands. Louise Penny's novel is told from multiple points of view, sometimes within the same scene, which at first I found a bit distracting. In the end, though, seeing the town, the crime, and the resolution from so many viewpoints added layers to the story. It also added to my desire to live in Three Pines, or at least visit regularly.

The Meaning of the Title

The most obvious meaning of the title of the Joy Fielding book is that the protagonist is literally still, due to her coma, and yet is more alive than anyone realizes. Still Life also reflects some of Casey's realizations about her pre-coma life.

In the Louise Penny book, the title in part refers to the artists in the town and their work. But it also reflects aspects of life in the town in ways that shed light on the mystery.

Tone and Title

Still Life by Joy Fielding is tense and suspenseful, with little relief from Casey's fear. Still Life by Louis Penny has a mixed tone. Despite beginning in an atmosphere somewhat like that of a cozy mystery, the people and events have dark sides and twists. A few times I found the humor a bit buffoonish given the darkness of the story as a whole; however, I enjoyed the book so much it didn't matter.

If you enjoy suspense or mysteries, I highly recommend both Still Lifes. They are among my favorite thrillers of all time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Inside The United States States Supreme Court: The Brethren (A Favorite Books Post)

Current cover for The Brethren.
The Brethren is a behind-the-scenes study of the people on the United States Supreme Court during a time when landmark decisions, including Roe v. Wade, where issued. I came across it while in law school, when I told a friend I didn't understand how the Court could issue such conflicting opinions during the same time period. I often felt some underlying reason for a decision was being left unspoken. He loaned me The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong.

Not Like Other History Or Political Books

The idea of reading another book did not appeal to me. I was working full-time, attending classes at night, and reading at least eight hours every Saturday and eight hours every Sunday to keep up with the required reading. While before I started law school, my favorite thing to do to relax was to read novels, after wading through dense, difficult case law for sixteen-twenty hours a week, I generally turned on the TV when I had a rare half hour with nothing to do. (That's how I started watching X-Files, which was on after my Friday night class.) I also had never liked any history book I’d ever read, probably because I’d only read textbooks.

So if my classmate hadn't actually handed me the paperback edition of The Brethren (cover shown below), I doubt I would have read it. But I started it and was immediately hooked, flying through it within a week despite all my other commitments. It became the first nonfiction book I loved. I had never read a Bob Woodward book before, so I didn't know what it would be like. (I’ve now read and enjoyed several, but this one is my favorite.) I was fascinated by the horse-trading, personal relationships, and thought processes behind the Court's decisions.

Avon Books cover for The Brethren

When Only White Men Were On The Court

I had an added personal interest in the book because the only other lawyer in my extended family clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court toward the end of the time period of the book—1969-1975. It was a time when only white men served on the Court, and it's interesting to see how their views and politics varied despite all having that in common. (You can see a list of all Supreme Court justices throughout history here.)

My cousin told me Bob Woodward called him when researching the book, but he declined to comment, as clerks are supposed to keep everything confidential. While I'm glad my cousin honored that, I confess I'm grateful that others apparently did not, because the book is fascinating to read for the human stories alone. It also helped me understand the extremely varied reasons why the justices reach their decisions and how the Court fits into the larger political system of my country. I highly recommend The Brethren to anyone who has even a passing interest in how the United States works.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Hundred Ways To Look At Hillary (A Favorite Books Post)

This book generated the most book club discussion.
My clearest first memory of Hillary Clinton is from 1992. She reacted to criticisms of why she'd worked as a lawyer even while having a child by saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas.” She went on to point out that her work as a professional and a public advocate had been aimed at ensuring women could make choices, “whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood or some combination,” but that aspect of her comment wasn’t widely reported.

While I wasn’t excited about her husband’s candidacy, Hillary intrigued me. I’d grown up in a world where only one of my friend’s moms worked, and when other parents talked about it, they whispered she works as a hushed aside, the same way people said she has cancer. That was always followed up with speculation that her husband’s business must not be going very well. Because of that, much as I loved the cookies and cakes my mom baked (which I often traded for store bought Ho-Hos we couldn’t afford), I liked Hillary’s unabashed statement. My mom, along with her baking, also got involved in local politics, served on boards of non-profits, and volunteered on a regular basis with various organizations, so she provided me an example of a strong, smart woman who got things done. But Hillary said unequivocally, yes, a woman can be a professional, a woman can pursue a career, and there is nothing wrong with that.

When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, my women’s book group read a book that sparked more discussion than any other: Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary. Normally, I’m not a fan of books of essays. I love novels, particularly suspense and thrillers, and I read them all the time (and write them), but I have to push myself to read essays and non-fiction, other than business and finance books. But these essays I love because they run the gamut. The writers not only address Hillary Clinton as a person and politician, examining her past, her aspirations, and her actions, they consider what her life and choices—and the widely varying endorsements and critiques of them—say about our world. The essay titles alone fascinate me, from The Yellow Pantsuit to All Hail Betty Boop to Cheating to How Hungry is Hillary? (For my thoughts on how commentary of her wardrobe reflects the extra effort and thought women must put into being seen as professional, see Do The Clothes Make The Woman?)

Now that she's completed one presidential primary campaign, served as Secretary of State, and is once again seeking to become President of the United States, there is more and more to say about Hillary Clinton, but one things remains the same: she sparks strong feelings in everyone. So my main goal for the primary season, other than avoiding as many political ads as possible, is to reread Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Will The Real Lawyer, Writer, [Insert Your Profession Here] Please Stand Up?

When The Awakening appeared on Best Sellers in Horror
When I worked as a paralegal and was nearing the end of law school, I talked with an attorney about a lawyer position I'd been offered. It didn't involve much trial work, and I said that in my mind a real lawyer was one who tried cases. He told me that though he tried a lot of personal injury cases, he felt he wasn't a real trial lawyer because he'd never tried a murder.

That feeling that whatever we do is not quite the real thing is sometimes known as the “imposter syndrome.” I recently shifted from full time lawyer who is writing on the side to full time author who practices law part time. This change has caused me to think more about identity and work, including what factors might affect the imposter syndrome.

Who feels it?

In the articles I read, the experts estimated that as much as 70% of the public experiences the imposter syndrome at one time or another. In fact, the New York Times quoted Maya Angelou, the late author and poet who spoke at President Obama's Inauguration, as saying she felt with each new book that people would find her out and realize she wasn't as accomplished as she was reputed to be. While some studies suggest women are more apt than men to feel like imposters, some U.S. presidents (obviously all men to date) have reported feeling that way on their first day in the Oval Office. Also, the two lawyers I spoke with about this were men. The first was the one mentioned above. The second was a male prosecutor. He'd been practicing about three years when we had the conversation, the same amount of time I had. I told him he seemed more like a real lawyer to me because he was in court more than I was. He said he thought I was more like a real lawyer because I often researched and wrote briefs (written arguments to submit on paper to the court) and analyzed and argued complex legal issues in ways more similar to what we’d learned to do in law school.

As Seen On TV

I suspect that professions frequently shown in television shows, books, and movies are more apt to trigger imposter feelings. Pop culture depicts the most exciting parts of any profession, leaving anyone who actually does those jobs feeling like they're the only ones doing the drudge work.

When I was practicing law full-time, a typical week went like this: get on an hour long conference call; read a document my opponent filed with the court; research cases in a legal database; write a legal brief; email clients and other lawyers; and rewrite that same legal brief four or five times. Maybe 15% of my work involved trials, hearings, or appellate arguments, but usually if I went to court, it was for all of fifteen minutes to an hour to argue a motion. In other words, the video would show: work at my desk, work at my desk, work at my desk, walk two blocks to court, sit, talk, return to my office and work at my desk. Even the criminal lawyers I know who try a lot of cases—making their jobs more like what’s on television—typically spend at least half their time sitting in court waiting for their cases to be called, trying to collect fees from clients, and driving from courthouse to courthouse. Likewise, I suspect most doctors don't find their lives nearly as exciting as those on television.

What's Money Got To Do With It?

How much we get paid or whether we get paid at all matters. Yet how much a person makes, especially in the arts, often has little to do with the quality of work. I've seen plays in various cities in the United States, including New York, and in London. The ones I’ve thought were the most amazing were at small storefront theaters in Chicago where many of the actors, directors, and other artists involved needed to have other full or part-time jobs. Likewise, most novelists, with notable exceptions like Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark, take on other work to help pay their bills. All the same, not making a full-time living at what you do can make it easy to feel you’re not worthy of calling yourself an actor, author, designer, artist, etc.

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As an author (and a lawyer), getting paid matters to me because it means I can spend my time doing work I love rather than working only with the goal of surviving. Equally important, it means there’s a demand for what I do. On the other hand, commercial success doesn't always leave people feeling satisfied or "real." The movie Birdman focuses on an actor with tremendous commercial success who feels the need to do "serious" work in order to feel like a real actor. Similarly, I know independent/self published authors who make a better living than authors published by traditional print publishers, but they still get asked whether what they truly want is a "real" book deal.

Longevity and passion often matter as much as money when it comes to identifying ourselves with our work. If you’ve been writing poems for twenty years, whether or not you show them to anyone or publish any, you probably feel like a poet. Similarly, if you love your work for a non-profit medical clinic treating homeless people, that may be less important to you than whether you could earn three or even ten times more as a plastic surgeon. For myself, I try to balance all these factors and focus on the best parts of my writing life and law practice.

Beware The Shifting Bar

Viewing goals as unimportant or easy to achieve once we’ve met or surpassed them adds to the feeling of being an imposter. For many years, I never called myself an author, as opposed to a writer, because I hadn’t had anything published. Then once I’d had poems, short stories, and articles published in magazines, I still wouldn’t call myself an author because those publications paid very little or nothing at all. I felt that way even though many literary magazines and trade journals don’t pay their authors, and even though before I had those pieces published, getting into any of those publications seemed like a high hurdle. Years later, when I started publishing my thrillers, my goal was for the first one, The Awakening, to appear in the Top 10 on the Kindle occult or horror best seller lists. When that happened, I was very excited, particularly since it appeared alongside a Stephen King novel and stayed on both lists for many weeks. I printed out the horror list the first time and framed it (see above--this is in my home office). But within a week or so it didn't feel as significant. In retrospect, it seemed easier to have achieved, and it didn't feel like the stamp of approval I'd once imagined it to be.

All the same, I believe in setting new and larger goals all the time. It keeps life and work exciting and compelling and keeps me moving forward. But I try to remember how hard certain goals, like the first 10,000 downloads or the first $1,000 in sales were before I rush to the adjust the bar.

What about you? Do you feel like a "real" [insert your profession here]? Why or why not? Would you like to feel differently?