Law and Conversation

September 30, 2010

Dinner guests from purgatory

Thanks to Zimbabwean lawyer and writer Petina Gappah for posting a link to South African writer and filmmaker Gillian Schutte’s account of a dinner party not quite from hell, but, perhaps, from purgatory.  Schutte’s impromptu guests were 2001 Nobel literature laureate V.S. Naipaul and his wife, Nadira.  I’m disappointed that she doesn’t report whether they brought a hostess gift!  The site that published Schutte’s review, BOOK Southern Africa, looks like a great resource for those interested in South African literature.

South Africa banned Shirley Jackson’s famous and deeply unsettling short story, “The Lottery,” after it was published in 1948.  On learning of the banning, Jackson reportedly said she was pleased, for it indicated that the South African authorities at least understood her story

After The New Yorker published Jackson’s story, it received hundreds of letters expressing shock, confusion, and disgust, which the magazine forwarded on to Jackson.  Some letters were abusive, and, indeed, Jackson’s own mother told her that neither she nor Jackson’s father liked it and wondered why Jackson didn’t write something uplifting instead.  An analysis of the story that appeared in the spring 1985 issue of the New Orleans Review is here.

I’ve previously noted that it’s Banned Books Week here in the US.   The American Library Association has published lists of the most frequently banned and/or challenged books, not just in the US, but in other countries as well, together with summaries of the reasons stated for the challenges or bans.  According to this article, Playboy reported in 1984 that “The Lottery” was among the 30 most often banned works in American schools and libraries.  But it’s required reading in many schools also, including the 6th grade honors English class in my own community.

Anyone who still thinks that “Twitter is for twits” should consider how writers and passionate readers (including me) harnessed its power to publicize an attack on Laurie Halse Anderson‘s terrific YA novel, “Speak,”  as reported by The Guardian, among other publications.   And any reader of my posts can tell that I don’t generally approve of banning books.  So many classics have been the subjects of banning attempts, and, whatever the book’s merit, it seems obvious to me that trying to prohibit people from reading a book has demonstrably the opposite of the desired effect, serving only to whet curiosity.  In fact, I well remember my own reaction the one and only time that my father, who, throughout my childhood, used to take me to the library (my favorite place!), told me I was not to read a book–“Love Story,” by Erich Segal.  That summer at camp, on discovering that one of my 11-year-old cabinmates had a copy, I immediately borrowed it from her and read it–and, on finishing, thought “That’s IT??!?”

First Amendment advocate though I am, I would agree that there are publications that have no redeeming value and should be legally prohibited, with criminal penalties for their creators.  Child pornography comes to mind, as do crush videos.  But, as the litigation over the law prohibiting the latter shows, it can be very difficult to craft legislation that doesn’t violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (though the Senate is again trying).

Do you agree?  What do you think?

September 28, 2010

Nigerian writers

Filed under: Books and writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:30 am
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CNN has an interesting review of some new and not-so-new Nigerian writers.  They include Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, and Chibundu Onuzo, a 19-year-old history student at King’s College London whose first novel, “The Spider King’s Daughter,” is coming out next year.  Though I haven’t read all of those writers, I’ve noticed that the ones whose work I have read tell great stories that, while profoundly rooted in Nigeria, have the universality that’s characteristic of great fiction from any time and place.

Using Google Reader, I subscribe to Onuzo’s blog, “Authorsoundsbetterthanwriter,” and look forward to reading her book when it’s published.

September 27, 2010

Read This: Banned Books Week

Filed under: Books and writing,First Amendment,Law,Read This!,YA — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:16 pm
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It’s Banned Books Week here in the US.  I thought a good way to celebrate it would be by reading one or more books that have been banned or the subject of banning attempts, so I’m planning on checking out Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” which, along with Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak” and “Twenty Boy Summer” by Sarah Ockler, was the subject of a complaint to the school board of Republic, Missouri

According to the local newspaper, Vonnegut’s book was removed from the Republic schools; the other two are still there.  For a description of the extent to which local school boards may exercise discretion over removing books from school libraries, see Island Trees School Dist. v. Pico by Pico, 457 U. S. 853 (1982).

I read “Speak” as well as another acclaimed YA novel by Halse Anderson, “Wintergirls,” last week and have put Ockler’s book on my list as well.  I might not have read any of these books absent the editorial attacking them, which caused quite a fuss last weekend among many of the readers and writers I follow on Twitter, including Halse Anderson.  My reaction clearly wasn’t unique, since, I see, the Springfield (MO) News-Leader, which published the editorial and subsequent articles about the controversy, has a sidebar noting that every single copy of those books has been checked out from the local library and is the subject of multiple holds.

The complaint about the books cites the profanity in “Slaughterhouse Five” and the references to sexual activity, including rape, in the other two books as support for the complainant’s argument that they “should be classified as soft pornography.”  In his editorial, he asked “How can Christian men and women expose children to such immorality?”  But more than one person commenting on the various recent editorials in the News-Leader cited Biblical stories of incest (Lot and his daughters) and other similarly pungent tales, and wondered whether the complainant would extend his logic to the Bible.  Most of those who actually read the books in question also observed that they actually make strong statements against the violence that they refer to or depict.

Banned Books Week comes on the heels of a Gainesville, FL minister’s announcing, and then canceling, a public burning of the Koran.  Miriam at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management made the obvious link to Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451,” saying “books, like phoenixes, rise from the flames of censorship.”

I recommended “Speak” last week.  After reading both that book and “Wintergirls,” a story about a teen’s struggle with depression and anorexia, I was mightily impressed.  Both, in my view, are excellent books for tweens, teens, and adults alike to read.  How any thinking person could argue that “Speak” qualifies as “soft pornography” is absolutely beyond me.

What’s your reaction on hearing that someone wants to have a book removed from a library or reading list?  Does that pique your curiosity so that you then want to read it?  Do you think it’s effective at keeping the book away from people?

September 24, 2010

Crime fiction and story

Filed under: Books and writing,crime fiction,storytelling — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
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One of my favorite podcasts, “The Book Show,” from the Australian Broadcasting Company, had a good interview with Scottish crime writer Val McDermid at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last month.  McDermid, who,  in an interview with Deutsche Welle’s Breandain O’Shea a few years ago, memorably responded to literary writers who have disparaged genre fiction by suggesting that some of them “can’t plot for toffee,” spoke to the ABC’s Ramona Koval of her passion for story.  In response to Koval’s question about the transformation in crime fiction that’s taken place over the last 20 or so years, McDermid speculated that many present-day crime writers might be writing “literary” fiction if that genre hadn’t been usurped by those more interested in the theory of writing than in engaging with readers through storytelling.

McDermid said that in the United Kingdom and Europe, and to a degree in the US, that change in literary fiction took place around the 1980s.  With last year’s Man Booker Prize having been awarded to a whacking good story from the historical fiction genre, Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall,” I’m wondering whether storytelling and plot are regaining ground and whether genre fiction is gaining more respect.

Do you agree with McDermid’s observations about literary and genre fiction, or is she overstating her point?

September 23, 2010

Thursday thanks: TJ Thurston

Filed under: Law — Helen Gunnarsson @ 7:37 am
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Everyone who posts or  lurks on the online discussion groups of the Illinois State Bar Association knows Rob “T.J.” Thurston.  A solo practitioner with experience in law firms and as general counsel, TJ always has helpful, cogent, professional responses to questions about practice issues that lawyers frequently encounter, especially in small or solo settings.  Because my “beat” at the Illinois Bar Journal is practice-oriented topics that appeal to a wide cross-section of lawyers in the state, TJ has been one of my “go-to” sources over the years that I’ve been writing for the IBJ.  Among many other topics, I’ve quoted him on electronic filing in the courts, representing friends and family members, and using technology effectively to manage a solo practice.

I’d like to thank TJ not only for his consistently responding to my requests for commentary, no matter how busy he’s been, but also for linking to this blog on his own new blog, “Dee’s Battle with MS,” in which he chronicles his wife Deanna’s fight with multiple sclerosis. 

As you can read in his posts, TJ and Deanna are exploring a treatment for MS that’s based on a relatively new theory for its cause that’s not yet accepted in the North American medical community.  The theory is that MS is caused by “Chronic Cerebro-Spinal Venous Insufficiency” (CCSVI), and you can read more about it here.  The treatment is, of course, expensive and will require TJ and Deanna to travel, adding even more to the cost.  If you’d like to consider donating to help them pay for this procedure, you can do so on this page that TJ has set up.

TJ and his family moved to New Jersey earlier this year.  We miss you back in Illinois, TJ, and hope you’ll think about returning.

If you’ve been reading this blog lately, you may have noticed that I’ve been thanking people, one by one, who have linked to this blog or otherwise referenced my work.  If you’ve done so, please let me know so I can thank you, too.

On a humorous note, take 5 minutes out of your day to smile by watching this video of Lady Gaga’s hit, “Bad Romance,” by the University of Oregon a cappella men’s group, On The Rocks.

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