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Holiday Law Book List

The year of the pandemic shut-in has opened up even more time for reading (never enough time for reading!). Clients and friends of our executive employment law practice have kindly claimed to enjoy my annual selections, so here we go again, a bit later this year but hopefully in time for last-minute shoppers.

In this year of national problems and concerns, some of the books which spoke most directly to me of our current situation were books of history as opposed to contemporary legal analyses.

First, a television recommendation as well as a book! A few years ago, I read James McBride’s deservedly praised novel The Good Lord Bird with both delight and admiration. John Brown became a freedom fighter and a terrorist, willing to sacrifice his own life and the lives of his family members, in his implacable determination to rid the United States of the unspeakable evil of slavery. How can a contemporary author write about such a historical figure without reducing the complexity of his actions and motivations to myth? McBride’s brilliant answer was to tell the story of John Brown and the violence he provoked through the eyes of a 10-year-old black boy whom the fictional Brown unaccountably thinks must be a girl, and so puts him in a dress and calls him “Onion.” While sympathetic to Brown’s biblical fury over slavery, Onion also is keenly aware that this charismatic and fearless old white man is probably going to get him/her killed. McBride uses this dual vision as a source of rich comedy as well as pathos while recounting the John Brown story — a narrative which all Americans should know — with substantial factual accuracy. At a time when much of our political conversation centers around the difficulties of partisan division, it is worth being reminded of a time when the country was literally being torn apart by a legal system which made a mockery of the founders’ professed ideals of equality.

Now, if you don’t want to read the McBride novel (he has since moved on to another novel with a contemporary Brooklyn setting, Deacon King Kong, which I have yet to read but which was one of The Times 10 best books of the year), you can watch the wonderful seven-part dramatization of The Good Lord Bird (Showtime on Demand) in which Ethan Hawke, credited as a co-writer and producer, masterfully plays John Brown himself. It may take the first few episodes to catch the rhythm of the story as it moves through comic uncertainty towards its tragic climax, but I found the overall experience to be deeply moving. The television adaptation features a number of wonderful cameo appearances by a talented group of New York stage actors, as well as a memorable soundtrack of gospel and country music which perfectly underscores the action.

As anyone who is not willfully ignorant of our history knows, the end of slavery was far from the end of America’s struggle with racial discrimination. Calvin Baker, a gifted novelist, has now tackled the continuing social justice imperative in a new work of non-fiction entitled A More Perfect Reunion: Race, Integration, and the Future of America (Hachette). The fires of promise kindled by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution at the conclusion of the Civil War were swiftly extinguished by the so-called Black Codes and Jim Crow laws which established a draconian system of segregation; any prospect of equal treatment was fiercely resisted for the next hundred years. The effects still linger on, as Baker demonstrates, in too many areas of our civic life, a fact which is particularly distressing since the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education is now itself almost 70 years old. Calvin Baker, despite the pain of the history, still believes in the promise of true integration, which he celebrates in his own rich and lyrical prose style.

And, for anyone still in search of exactly how the legal system contributed to an oppressive society from 1865 until — and beyond — the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s, I recommend, as a foundational text, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (Norton) by Eric Foner, our premiere historian of the era called “Reconstruction.”

Another national concern this year has been whether intense partisanship and mistrust of the political process would somehow prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a national election. History again provides some insight, and I highly recommend Ted Widmer’s Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster). Elected by less than 50% of the popular vote over a number of other candidates at the most divisive time in our history, there was a serious question as to whether Lincoln as president-elect could even physically get to the national capital for his inauguration at a time when state after state was seceding from the Union and the occupation of Washington, DC, a Southern city, hung in the balance. Contemporary politicians and voters may struggle with social media and Zoom conferences, but, as Widmer points out, Lincoln and his contemporaries were also struggling with the benefits and perils of rapidly changing technology, including the ability of the telegraph (called the “Lightning”) and the railroads to radically alter every citizen’s sense of time and distance. Widmer’s suspenseful narrative of how Lincoln actually made it to Washington in time to take charge of the government is enlivened with a host of fabulous old photographs, most of which were totally new to me.

Noted writer and teacher Ian Buruma provides another timely historical synthesis in The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit (Penguin Press), Buruma’s own background is truly global. He lives and teaches in America, but his roots are European and many of his formative experiences took place in the Far East, particularly Japan. This international perspective is ideal for commenting on the ups and downs of the so-called “Special Relationship” between Britain and America, which turns out to be more unequal than either sentiment or international relations would suggest. An extraordinarily interesting book from a master of the long-form prose essay.

Finally, a few more recommendations to help you get through the long winter evenings until blessed Spring and, hopefully, wide distribution of a COVID vaccine arrive at the same time:

I am unlikely to catch up to my old pal Josh Rubins’ relentless march through all of Anthony Trollope’s 47 novels, but Josh is correct that these books remain compellingly readable, and many of them have a legal theme or subplot. Phineas Redux, the fourth book in the so-called Palliser series, features a criminal trial and the wisdom of a lawyer named Mr. Chaffanbrass. Andy Abbott, distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, quoted this (fictional) lawyer to me in an email exchange earlier this year, but I suspect that this year’s difficulties have left many lawyers feeling more like Sir Abraham Haphazard in The Warden, the dispenser of advice which no one wants to hear! Grab any Trollope and you will soon be engrossed in a Victorian world with peculiar resonances for our own era.

Another law case — in this instance, a hilarious failed libel action — is at the center of Robertson Davies’ Leaven of Malice, the second novel in his Salterton trilogy. Davies, one of Canada’s very greatest writers, died in 1995. He left us eleven terrifically witty and strangely moving books, which are worth reading and re-reading, particularly if you have a warm spot in your heart for our northern neighbor. The three books which make up Davies’ Deptford Trilogy, with their intricate plot, remarkable characters and their background in Jungian psychology, are his most aesthetically satisfying works. His Cornish Trilogy revels in the author’s love for the arts: literature, painting and music, in that order. Don’t deprive yourself of the lasting pleasure of these books!

Another good friend and client, Joan Waricha, persuaded me to read the most recent, and now probably last, novel by John le Carré, entitled Agent Running in the Field (Viking). At his best (i.e., A Perfect Spy), le Carré, who passed away only days ago, was a great novelist, not just a great spy novelist. Agent Running in the Field lived up to Joan’s high praise in terms of smarts and readability.

And, finally, the prospect of even a few more months of COVID is a perfect time for you to read or re-read some or all of Rex Stout’s magnificent 70+ Nero Wolfe mysteries. In Nero Wolfe, Stout created a cerebral genius as detective (think Sherlock Holmes) too physically indolent to leave his cozy brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City, and paired him with sidekick Archie Goodwin, a tough, handsome man about town who could have featured in a mid-century noir novel by Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. Archie, like Dr. Watson, is the typical obtuse narrator who is always three or four steps behind Wolfe in terms of figuring out who the killer was. A pageant of wonderful supporting players — Inspector Cramer the beleaguered Chief of Manhattan Homicide; Wolfe’s gourmet chef Fritz; the newshound Lon Cohen, whose office is next door to the editor of the Daily Gazette; the perfect operative Saul Panzer; and Lily Rowan, Archie’s independent (and independently wealthy) long-time girlfriend — make these books a refuge from the cares and troubles of 2020. Some will find them dated but, without embarrassment, I must confess that I have read them all four times (aided by my inability to remember whodunnit). Who wouldn’t like to be a genius and live in the old brownstone where Fritz prepares every meal to perfection!?!

In January I will return to offering some tips and reflections on executive employment law, but I take this opportunity to wish all of our clients and friends a happy holiday season as well as a healthy and easier new year!


Book lists

About the Author

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George Birnbaum

Since 1980, sophisticated business people have relied on George to apply the meticulous preparation, attention to detail, and devotion to his clients he learned from fabled trial lawyer Louis Nizer. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, George has over 35 years of distinguished deal-making, litigation, mediation and arbitration experience which he has used to negotiate high-stakes agreements for senior executives and select business clients throughout the United States.