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Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Book Recommendations: Alafair Burke's The Ex & Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton

Happy New Year! I spent the winter break reading lots and lots of fiction, among other things, and thought I'd mention two good ones.

Alafair Burke, the most prolific contemporary prawf-novelist I am aware of (another full time law prof, and now dean, who is a super talented fiction writer is my former army commander Yuval Elbashan, but his books are all in Hebrew), has published over a dozen crime novels, including two best-selling series. She also co-authors with Mary Higgins Clark. I just finished her newest novel The Ex. Its in the suspense genre of Gone Girl and The Girl on a Train, told by first person narrator Olivia Randall, a criminal defense attorney (As Gillian Flynn writes, “Burke’s female characters are always very involving, with big, strong voices.”). The Ex is a great fast read -- the attorney's perspective, knowing and not knowing her client and wondering whether or not he is guilty, is sharp. I liked the realistic feel of the court proceedings, the dynamics between the opposing attorneys, and the intensity of the trial preparation. If any of you ever wondered about a murder case and considered whether and how is it possible for seemingly normal, normative, people to plan monstrous crimes, there is a part in Burke's novel that I found particularly interesting. Olivia the protagonist visits a psychiatrist who has specialized in criminology. The psychiatrist tell her: "Because I've testified in numerous homicide trials, (I've been asked about) my insight about how a quote-unquote normal person can come to commit cold-blooded, premeditated murder." "And?," Olivia asks her. The psychiatrist continues:"I've spent a good number of hours of my career talking to people who admit to being murderers. These seemingly normal people tell me how it starts small. They get fired from their job, or dumped by their husband, and they begin to wish some kind of bad upon the person responsible - typically, that the world will come to see the person for what they really are. And when karma or fate or whatever doesn't come through, the seemingly normal person starts to think, 'what if they died?' And that turns into 'What if I killed them?' And eventually, 'How would I do it?' and 'Would I get away with it?'" The thoughts become a training ground until the person is conditioned to the idea of killing and it's no longer shocking to them, she explains. 

Pulitzer winning Elizabeth Strout does it again with My Name is Lucy Barton. Strout is a minimalist, understated, heartbreakingly honest writer and this book is unforgettable. It happens mostly in a hospital and mostly through a conversation, and extended moments of silence, between a daughter and her mother. It is a book of our times, telling the stories of Midwestern poverty, fear and contempt toward those who go away and aspire to other (better?) lives, childhood abuse, forgiveness and love. Lucy's dad walked her brother down the street yelling at him a "f*cking fagg*t" in front of everyone when he was caught trying on Mom's high heels; Lucy's parents locked multiple times in the truck including during the winter. She survived her terrifying physically and mentally cold conditions by staying late at school where it was warm and she could read. Her parents basically disowned her when she got into college with a full scholarship. And yet she loves them, understands them even. And maybe they too can understand her as time goes by. We need more books like this as we move into 2017. 

Happy New Year, may it be full of good fiction and non-fiction. Hope to see many of you here at AALS! Don't forget the MarkelFest happening tonight.

Posted by Orly Lobel on January 4, 2017 at 11:55 AM in Books, Criminal Law, Orly Lobel | Permalink

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