Favourite Readings 2019 – 10 Good Reads

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As in previous years, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, has invited EJIL board members and (associate) editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2019. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Joseph Weiler. You can read all the posts in this series here.


It is the time of year once more when I publish my pick from some of the books that came my way since my last “Good Reads” listing. These are not book reviews in the classical and rigorous sense of the word, for which you should turn to our Book Review section. I do not attempt to analyze or critique, but rather to explain why the books appealed to me and why I think you, too, may find them not only well worth reading but enjoyable, good reads. 

Anthony Julius, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (OUP, 2010)

The anti-Semitism scandal in the British Labor Party has been front page news. Entirely legitimate criticism of the Israeli government (and Israel) has opened the floodgates and given cover to some of the most familiar and odious forms of Jew hatred. The word “hatred” actually mischaracterizes the most typical forms with which this ancient prejudice manifests itself in Britain. Revulsion, sometimes even physical, contempt, loathing are better epithets. How thrilling it must be for some to come out of the closet and even feel sanctimonious about it. You can almost hear the words of gratitude: Thank you Netanyahu.

Anthony Julius is a distinguished London lawyer, Deputy Chair of Mishcon de Reya (of LGBT fame), who came into the public eye in handling Princess Diana’s somewhat messy divorce from Prince Charles and in defending Deborah Lipstadt in the libel action brought by that Prince of anti-Semites, David Irving (another libel action in the making?) His passion, I think, is literature, which he studied at Cambridge and in which he earned a doctorate. Indeed, the finest and most subtle chapter in this Good Read is the one dealing with anti-Semitism in British (and Irish) literature. He does not own a broad brush in his palette, All analysis, in this chapter and elsewhere is fine-grained, nuanced, sober and judicious—the best of the British in picking apart the worst of the British.

I reread the book in the wake of the present scandal. (The revised paperback edition (2012) is better than the original, which I had read upon publication, though OUP did not do a great job in the physical production of the paperback. It falls apart.)

It’s a big book—not to be read in one gulp—but hugely erudite and engagingly written. Its great forte is in placing the phenomenon within English culture and history and bringing out the specific features of this context. A disturbing but very good read.

Julio Baquero Cruz, What’s Left of the Law of Integration? Decay and Resistance in European Union Law (OUP, 2018) and Julio Bquero Cruz, El árbol Azul (Cuadernos de Langre, 2018)

What’s Left of the Law of Integration? is a book one can read in one gulp. Agree with it or not—it’s hard not to agree with parts of it, and it is easy to disagree with others—it is the quintessential Book about the Law rather than Law Book and can only be done successfully, as it is here, when one has certain experience under one’s belt and sees the law in action.  I must confess to being partial to works in which fine analysis is accompanied by bold sweeping and historical synthesis, in which context is as important as text and in which structure is as decisive as process. These are proclivities that characterize the intellectual children and grandchildren of Mauro Cappelletti and the Florence School, though with a far more nuanced normativity and critical bite. For the most part the synthesis is refracted through the cases—both a virtue but also a vice. You cannot fail to be impressed as you read the book, with really interesting insights on cases from which you thought you could learn nothing new and as the field grows and grows and grows and like an amoeba splits and splits and splits it is quite satisfying to have this overall synthetic picture. For today’s Union it is as appropriate as Pescatore’s Law of Integration (oh, how different) was for the so-called heroic generation of the 1960s.

El arbol Azul is the product of a different side to Baquero Cruz—a novelist and short story writer of depth, a growing oeuvre and justified distinction. This book is of 2018 and thus represents the maturation and the hand of an author who has found and is sure in his voice. Comparisons are invidious, but a story such as La muerte del catedratico, stands its own among the best. His intellectual interests are present but in a totally organic and non-forced way. This is not an essay put in fiction form. Enjoy two very different but commendable reads.

Francisco J. Urbina, A Critique of Proportionality and Balancing (CUP, 2017)

Who has not heard that tired and smug old put down when listening to a presentation or reading an article or book—what is good is not new and what is new is not good? Urbina’s very valuable book risks that kind of put down. We are all in thrall to proportionality—we know all about it, we are aware of the problems of Stage 3 (or 4, depends who’s counting), namely balancing, we all read Alexy (who is treated very respectfully here, even in disagreement) and Barak (likewise) and Kumm (likewise). Please, discussing proportionality has long passed the limits of what is proportionate and reasonable and on balance I would rather not read another work. I know it all … Well you don’t and this book should be read. I expect few will join fully in the critique, and the alternatives are not really spelt out, but it will force you to question some of the comfortable assumptions we, at this point, allow the automatic pilot to pilot courts, judges and academics. It will also force you to disengage the automatic pilot on rights discourse. It’s not, strictly speaking, a “good” read in the sense of readable. But that is often the case with doctoral dissertations. Still, it is important and rewarding.

Ilenia Ruggiu, Culture and the Judiciary: The Anthropologist Judge (Routledge, 2018)

A focus on multiculturalism and the judiciary is not exactly new but this book, which appeared first in Italian in 2012 (and which I confess not having read then) does it quite differently. Though written by an Italian scholar one can detect the influence of the common law both in conception and presentation. Chapter One, The Cases, is a gem and a brilliant way to engage the reader and set the scene for the subsequent systematic treatment. The Greek grandmother denied custody for mourning too ardently; the Afghan father who kissed his son on the genitals; reasonable cannibalism—you get the feel. And then, taking the best of the civil law habits and customs, a valiant attempt at analysis disentanglement and systematization of multicultural adjudication. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe it as “cultural adjudication,” i.e. the greater attention one has learnt to give to culture, cultural practices and biases in the process of judging. The book is heroic in taking on this challenge, which involves both careful conceptual work in a field (culture, law & culture) that has defeated many and empirical work in analyzing cases with this prism. It is even more heroic in trying to provide judges with a vademecum for deciding such cases. As a practical proposition I tried it out on a few cases I arbitrated—it was a tad too indeterminate. Ruggiu belongs to the school that believes that once one has identified a complex problem our task is to seek solutions. The school I belong to identifies a complex problem and then shows how much more complex it is. I teach Law & Culture and am aware of the complexity. The book was enriching in making me realize how much even more complex it is.  No small feat.

Karen J Alter, Laurence R Helfer, Transplanting International Courts: The Law and Politics of the Andean Tribunal of Justice (OUP, 2017)

You may think you’re not particularly interested in the Andean Pact and its Tribunal, so why devote precious reading time to this? Karen Alter and Larry Helfer are arguably the preeminent political scientists writing about international adjudication, courts and transnational legal systems. Learning about the Andean Tribunal is “collateral benefit.” The principal benefit is receiving a Masterclass in the methodologies of comparative legal politics and, more generally, in comparative politics and politics of law. Whatever your interests in this field, whatever transnational system you may be researching or teaching, the rich insights of this book on how to think of such will upgrade your own analytical (and normative) toolkit. As a side benefit, it is very well written—a good read.


The Human Condition and the ‘Introspective’ Novel

We, legal academics, only get a glimpse of the experience of first-class novel writing. Most of what we write is fungible. Had I not written it, someone else would or could have. Most of what we write is read, if at all, by few. Almost all of what we write has a short shelf life—10 years is miraculous. Our original insights are trivial. It is only rarely, if at all, that we have an insight that is truly creative and transformative.

The master novelist works in a different realm. His or her work is never fungible. If successful, it is read for pleasure and edification by many; it lasts and lasts and lasts. And though situated in the world, the novelist creates, almost ex nihili, a “world” that simply did not exist before. Most importantly, almost with no exception, the master novelist has something important to say about the human condition.

Among the novels I read this year three stand out in one respect—they are “introspective novels.” You follow a compelling narrative page after page, not to find out “what happened next”, but rather exploring deeper and deeper in the inner life of the protagonist or protagonists. These three are excellent in every respect, including being extremely good reads. You do not need to struggle with the text (as, say, with some of Joyce’s or Svevo’s masterpieces), but have to stop yourself from reading too fast in order to savor insight, content and artistic expression. Each one of these (should you not have read them) would make a perfect Christmas gift to yourself or others. 

Javier Marias, Corazon Tan Blanco (A Heart So White) (Editorial Anagrama, 1992; transl. by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Press, 1995)

This is, arguably, Marias’ most famous novel, published in 1992 when he was 41 years old. It was pushed to worldwide fame by no other than Marcel Reich Ranicki (my first choice in last year’s list.)  I had read several of Marias’ other novels but finally got to Corazon Tan Blancothis year. It fully justifies its fame. Of all three, the What Happens Next is a little more pronounced in this wonderful novel. There is a suicide at the beginning, the explanation for which emerges at the end. But the heart of the novel lies in a careful examination of relationships between parents and children, wives and husbands—about love and its discontents. Marias, who should be on anyone’s list for a future Nobel Prize, is discerning in observation and precise in its expression. He often resorts to very long sentences which, however, flow flawlessly. The narrative contains four different story lines which slowly come together in an organic, natural and most satisfying way. All his protagonists, including the narrator, are complex, imperfect, and defy easy normative judgment. The title, based on a line from Macbeth—My hands are of your colour; but I shame to wear a heart so white—emerges step by step as one key to the vicissitudes of the internal and external unfolding worlds and the impossibly difficult normative judgments.

There are a few passages, entirely ancillary to the main narrative except that on that occasion the narrator meets his future wife, which will delight international lawyers accustomed to conferences and colloquia with simultaneous translation. The narrator, who is a professional translator, is “interpreting” (to distinguish from translation of text) a conversation between a Spanish and a British politician. Some have suggested it is an allusion to Felipe Gonzáles and Margaret Thatcher. He is unhappy with a reply given by the Spaniard and gives an entirely different response when translating back into English. Of course, this produces in turn a reply from his English interlocutor that has nothing to do with what the Spaniard had actually said, which forces the interpreter to pursue his invention. And so it continues. You risk peeing in your pants, it is so hilarious. All in all, a splendid read.

Magda Szabo, The Door (transl. by Len Rix, Harvill Press, 2005)

Another breathtaking masterpiece of the contemplative introspective type. Published in Hungarian in 1987, with strong autobiographical elements, it revolves around the relationship between the narrator, Magda (someone much like Szabó herself) and her cleaning lady/housekeeper who lives on her street. If you are familiar with her Abigail—also a wonderful book—this is very different since it, like Corazon Tan Blanco, is mostly relational and introspective but remarkably “page turning,” it is practically impossible to put down. The relationship between Magda and Emerence (an unforgettable character) is a microcosm of human love and conflict, shame and honor, decency and egoism, all written with profound empathy. Simply compelling.

Richard Ford, The Sportswriter (1986) (followed by Independence Day, The Lay of the Land, Let Me Be Frank with You; it is possible to buy the Bascombe Novels in one book) (Vintage, 1995)

Richard Ford is a distinguished American writer, but had gone under my radar until this year when a friend sent me TheSportswriter. Having read it, I found myself compelled to read the sequels. Independence Day is probably a greater achievement, but you should start with The Sportswriter. The whole quartet is not unlike John Updike’s inimitable Rabbit series, tracking the life of the protagonist in successive stages of his life. Yes, it is very American in some respects. So there is some baseball and other artifacts of American popular culture. But do not let that put you off. Of all three novels I am recommending it is the most contemplative in that hardly anything “happens” in the span of a few days (flashbacks apart) during which the novel takes place. The style is also the most direct, clipped, yet totally authentic since it, like Corazon and The Door is a first-person narration and thus consistent with the character of the narrator. But it, too, is hard to put down and again and again forces you to look into the mirror of your own life, unflinchingly but with empathy and kindness. I can hardly imagine anyone being disappointed.

Kalypso Nicolaidis, Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit (Unbound, 2019)

Like the cry “Mortar” in the trenches of WWI, the word Brexit sends us rushing for the nearest dugout for cover. Make an exception for the latest to come from the pen of the cultured and creative Kalypso Nicolaidis. It is not the usual Brexit fare. (Who actually buys or reads that interminable flow of hastily written drivel of monographs and [non]edited books which, like the Brexit saga itself, seems never to end? Does David Cameron at least receive some consolation royalties?)

Nicolaidis uses Greek mythology to ascribe meaning to this tragicomedy—and does it with verve, insight and imagination. It is not unlike Walzer’s and Halbertal and Holmes’ use of the Bible to throw light on the deeper meanings of contemporary politics. This distance allows a much more, yes, contemplative (is not our profession meant to be that of la vita contemplativa?) and in some respects even empathetic take—eschewing the angry judgmentalism of much Brexit writing. It emerges in some ways as the sad unfolding of the human condition and its foibles. For a thoughtful read.

Hanoch Levin, The Labor of Life: Selected Plays (Stanford University Press, 2003)

I have read the entire opus of Levin in the original Hebrew (like many I am something of a Levin addict), and always lamented that the premier Israeli playwright, and no slouch as a poet too (deceased 1999), with a distinct ironic, scathing, at times vicious and highly political yet simultaneously tender voice, was unknown outside his native country. I realized I was mistaken when I was recently gifted (excuse the Americanism) a translation of his principal plays into English going back to 2003. And then, shame on me, I checked him out on YouTube: He is of course far less unknown outside Israel than I had blithely imagined.

What is he like? Brecht? Rabelais? Swift? All of the above and more.   

Fiercely antimilitarist, when it was a lot less popular and de rigueur than today, his plays of the 70s such as You, Me and the Next War and Queen of the Bathtub created scandal.

Here is an excerpt from the first of these (You, Me and the Next War):

“Whenever we go out walking, we’re three

You, Me, and the next war.

And when we’re sleeping, we’re three

You, Me, and the next war…

And whenever we smile in a moment of love

The next war is smiling with us

And when we wait in the delivery room

The next war is waiting with us.”


And this from the second (Queen of the Bathtub)

“Sleep child, don’t fear

for the kingdom has been made whole

most of the uncles have only one leg

but the kingdom has been made whole

and all the aunties standing by the grave

are waiting for you, brave boy

but the kingdom has been made whole”


But in my view, he is at his best in those slices of daily life, women and men, in particular, of which there is plenty in this Good Read, where you will squirm and squirm again with no escape.

One is always a bit cautious when it comes to translation of plays and poetry, more so than novels. In this case, the translator Barbara Harshav is no less than excellent. Settle down, fasten your seatbelt, squirm and be transported.  

Read my 2014-2018 Good Reads.

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