A Dinner, A Play, Your Bill
Three books with which to escape the law for a few hours
Published in 2018 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine on January 30, 2018
If you’re reading this issue, you’re probably a lawyer.
I am, too.
There may even be a little biographical thing at the end or the bottom of this piece that specifically says that.
If not, I assure you it’s true, and I can prove it. I have a law school degree in a frame behind my desk. It’s impressively large and austere, although it’s entirely possible that I was given it by mistake because I honestly don’t recall attending enough classes to graduate.
But after nearly 30 years of practice—a fact I’ve caught myself mentioning whenever a younger lawyer insults me, which happens with surprising frequency—I’ve found that there’s one subject I have no interest whatsoever in reading about after I get home from work.
I also don’t have any interest in reading about electrical engineering, home improvement, cupcakes or vampires, but that’s not my point.
Please don’t take that as a criticism of John Grisham or Scott Turow or any other author who writes popular legal thrillers. (Although I will tell you that after nearly 30 years of practice—have I mentioned that?—I’m still waiting for something “thrilling” to occur in my career. Accidentally taking someone else’s briefcase and having to chase him down in the parking lot is about as close as I can come.) I’m sure they’re all fine writers and that their books are enjoyable and compelling and un-put-downable, or whatever it says on their dust jackets. I just don’t want to read them.
Please don’t take that as a criticism of nonfiction legal books, either. I used to enjoy reading Richard Posner’s remarkably thoughtful books, for example.
But not anymore. Maybe you’re the same way.
With that in mind, I’d like to recommend three books that, to my recollection, don’t mention the word “law” once.
by Jonas Karlsson
Have you ever purchased a book on a whim just because something about it caught your eye, only to find that you didn’t want to put it down?
That was The Invoice for me.
The premise: A young man comes home from work to find a bill for an enormous sum of money from a company he has never heard of—and it’s demanding prompt payment, or else.
As the main character tries and tries and tries to convince the company to rescind the invoice it sent him, and as it insists that the invoice is proper and must be paid, he has to consider the price of his life. What are his memories worth to him? His family? His friends? Love?
The book defies classification, and even a description of the plot can give away the surprising direction the book takes. There are developments that readers should discover for themselves, and I’m not about to spoil them.
But I can tell you this: There is a moment near the end of the book, as a crucial scene develops, where you can’t help but smile because you not only know exactly how the scene should play out, but you’re hoping that it actually plays out that way.
Did I mention it’s a quick read? It is.
Did I mention I’ve been practicing law for almost 30 years?
The Dinner by Herman Koch
Where The Invoice is charming, The Dinner is menacing. It keeps you off balance.
The author is a Dutch writer and, like the author of The Invoice, he’s also an actor. (What are the odds? Europeans sure seem multi-talented.)
Like The Invoice, I picked up The Dinner on a whim (an airport, this time), only to find myself racing home each night to pick it up again (always staying within the posted speed limit and signaling all turns).
The novel tells the story of two brothers and their spouses meeting for dinner at a tony Amsterdam restaurant with a laughably pretentious menu. There was some incident involving their teenage children that the two couples avoid discussing, but little is shared about the incident at first. As you will learn, it’s horrific. (Whatever you’re guessing it might be, it’s worse.) Oh, one of the brothers is about to become the prime minister of the Netherlands. The incident could doom his career.
Little by little, as the dinner progresses, you can’t help but feel your allegiances switching from one brother to the other, then back again, as the incident involving their children is revealed, along with each family’s response.
Which brother is the “good” one?
Which parents are the better parents?
Who handled the situation right?
And might one of the brothers be a very different man than he portrays himself to be?
The unreliable narrator is a very old literary device. When done well, it’s a great one. Here, it’s a great one.
Hamilton: The Revolution
by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter
I probably would sound considerably more intellectual had I just recommended Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton, which was the inspiration for Miranda to write the musical in the first place. But I haven’t read Chernow’s biography yet—it’s on my nightstand, along with about 10 other books that I swear I’m going to get to.
I have read this book, though.
It’s an oversized book with Miranda’s stories about how he created the musical that everyone has been talking about for two years, along with photographs, lyrics, notes from the performers, and other tidbits.
I recommend reading it while listening to the soundtrack.
The musical, as you know, has been a mega-hit on Broadway for a couple of years now. It’s touring the country, and tickets for a performance often sell on the secondary market for a sum you’d expect to pay for a semester of college tuition.
People who’ve seen the show just won’t shut up about how spectacular it is.
“Oh my god, the songs!”
No matter how many times friends told me how spectacular the show is, I couldn’t have cared less.
It’s not that I don’t enjoy musicals (I do), or that I had anything against Alexander Hamilton (I don’t). It’s just that, living 2,500 miles from Broadway, I really don’t think much about Broadway other when the Tony Awards show preempts some show or ballgame I was hoping to watch on TV.
But then I saw a matinee of Hamilton when I was in New York with our daughter … and now I’m one of those people who won’t shut up about how spectacular the show is.
The soundtrack hasn’t left the CD player in my car in more than three months—it’ll be closer to five by the time you read this—and I find myself thinking about the show on almost a daily basis.
I mean, the idea of writing a musical about the life of Alexander frigging Hamilton, on its face, is absolutely ludicrous.
That Miranda would even try to do it is itself a testament to how artists work.
I’m sure he told a hundred people that he was writing a musical about one of our founding fathers—“No, not Jefferson or Washington. Alexander Hamilton! You know, the guy on the $10 bill!”—and I’m sure a hundred people walked away thinking he was out of his mind.
But being out of your mind, and being willing to take chances, may be the key to great art, whether it’s a novel, a sculpture, a painting or, yes, a musical.
Hamilton is the story of a man’s remarkable life. It’s about the American Revolution and about how our government was formed, but it’s also a love story and a story about jealousies and betrayals.
And the story behind those stories—how Miranda came up with the musical, which is what this book is about—is itself an inspiration.
Although, now that I think of it, both Hamilton and Aaron Burr, his friend-turned-nemesis-turned-killer, were lawyers.
And a couple of songs might actually use the word “law.”
So maybe there is never any escape from the law.
Michael S. Kun, an employment & labor attorney with Epstein Becker & Green, is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels You Poor Monster and The Locklear Letters. His most recent novel, We Are Still Tornadoes, which he co-authored, was published by St. Martin’s Press.