Law and Conversation

April 29, 2011

The royal wedding, law, and story

UK freelance writer Alex Aldridge has provided a 3-part legal perspective on today’s royal wedding for Above The Law, including quotes from some who believe that Will and Kate have a signed prenuptial agreement and at least one who thinks they don’t. And Penelope Trunk lends some affirmation for my fascination with the royal wedding by acknowledging her own in a thoughtful post in which she muses on how Will and Kate will build a happy life together by finding meaningful work.

Media reports notwithstanding, we don’t and can’t really know much of the real story of this royal couple’s romance–though it’s very pleasant to see that they seem happy and very much in love, and at least as likely to remain so as any newlyweds. For some really detailed accounts of other aristocratic relationships, history provides a more fertile field.

It’s hard to beat Stella Tillyard‘s “Aristocrats,” the story of Caroline, Emily, Louisa, and Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, for a marvelous story of 18th century marriage among the English gentry. For other stories of upper-class alliances that clearly set forth the role of completely non-romantic factors in marriage negotiations–i.e. money and social rank–read not only the nonfiction “Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt:  The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age,” by Amanda Mackenzie Stewart, but also any of Jane Austen‘s novels and Edith Wharton‘s sadly unfinished “The Buccaneers,” among other titles.  What I’m currently reading, Anthony Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now,” is a completely cynical look at marriage among the 19th century’s English upper classes that’s guaranteed to cast a dark veil over any starry eyes.

Stella Tillyard said “I’ve always thought that one of the reasons why people read biography is to find out ordinary things. We tend to read the lives of extraordinary people in order to find out details of ordinary life.” What do you think?

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April 26, 2011

Get your Beethoven on

Filed under: Music,piano — Helen Gunnarsson @ 6:00 pm
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My amazing piano teacher, Abraham Stokman, will play a benefit concert for the victims of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on Wednesday, April 27, at 7 PM at Nichols Recital Hall, 1490 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL. Beethoven junkies, this one’s for you: Abe will play not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE (count ’em!) Beethoven sonatas:  Op. 28, Op. 90, Op. 101, Op. 27, No. 2, and Op. 111. Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 seniors, $7 students at the door. All proceeds go to the Japanese Red Cross.

You can watch a fourteen-minute video of Abe playing part of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations on YouTube.

Two Questions from Lynda Barry

Filed under: Books and writing,graphic novels,memoirs,storytelling — Helen Gunnarsson @ 8:37 am
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WordPress today called my attention to a 2008 post from Mikkelina’s Thoughts on Two Questions from the artist Lynda J. Barry.  Having been a fan of Barry for 30 years, I’ve sung her praises here a number of times. I keep finding more and more to love about her work, including the panels Mikkelina has reproduced on her blog. Perhaps more writers should use the term she coined for One! Hundred! Demons!, “Autobiofictionalography,” I wonder? Time to go look for her latest book, Picture This: The Near-Sighted Monkey Book, I say.

April 25, 2011

Read This: Anthony Trollope

Until just a few years ago, I’d read nothing by the 19th century British novelist, Anthony Trollope, and was under the impression that he was a bit of a second-rate writer. Why read Trollope when there are Dickens and Eliot novels I still haven’t read, I thought?

I’m delighted to report I was mistaken. Far from an also-ran, Trollope is a delightful writer, and his work provides a vivid picture of 19th-century English society.

Trollope is best known for two series:  The Barsetshire Chronicles, starting with “The Warden” and centering on England’s ecclesiastical class, and the Palliser series, starting with “Can You Forgive Her?” and focusing on Parliament and British politics. The BBC made both into TV series, which I haven’t watched but which remain very popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

Well-crafted though both series are, many think a standalone novel, “The Way We Live Now,” is Trollope’s greatest work. Though I’m enjoying this 800-page, hundred-chapter brick as much as the other Trollope novels I’ve read, I put it aside the first time I started it. What bothered me was the anti-Semitism Trollope expresses in some of his description and some of his characters’ dialogue, so casual as to take one’s breath away.

I suppose some might condemn Trollope for this, and some might think publishing a revised edition of the book that amends or deletes the anti-Semitic remarks (as a recent edition of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” bowdlerizes the n-word) would be appropriate. I wouldn’t agree with either.

Though I’m not a Trollope scholar, I suspect that he was a product of his times. His books, as well as those of Dickens (who includes some anti-Semitic characterizations of his own in, for example, “Great Expectations”), bear out that anti-Semitism was, indeed, so casual as to be taken for granted in English society of the 19th century. The audiences for whom Trollope and Dickens wrote wouldn’t have seen anything extraordinary about those characterizations; in that day, that language was realistic for those characters and narrators, and their readership, I’m guessing, might have made or snickered at similar comments without seeing anything wrong. Trollope and Dickens, not to mention Twain, gave us not only great stories but also valuable historical pictures of life as it was, warts and all, during their lifetimes.

That, it seems to me, is a valuable lesson for us today. Though prejudices haven’t exactly disappeared, it’s now generally recognized that disrespectful comments about people’s culture and ancestry are not funny and not cool–and in some contexts, most notably the workplace, can lead to legal liability. With all the imperfections of 21st-century life, some things have improved.

Speaking of England, since it was Easter yesterday it seems like a good opportunity to call attention to a wonderful exhibit at Bath Abbey.  Artist Sue Symons uses exquisite embroidery and calligraphy to depict the story of Jesus’s life in her diptychswhich you can view online.

Are you reading anything that has material in it that bothers you? What is it, and what do you think about it?

UPDATE: After I posted, I realized that yesterday’s edition of The Writer’s Almanac noted that yesterday was not only Easter but also Trollope’s 196th birthday!

April 22, 2011

Story and memoir: truth or not?

I love to read a good memoir, so the proliferation of stories on books published as memoirs that get exposed as less than truthful is really bugging me.

Most recently, 60 Minutes and other sources, including the very fine writer Jon Krakauer, have cast doubts on the veracity of Greg Mortenson’s bestselling “Three Cups Of Tea,” written with professional writer David Relin. Outside Magazine has an interview with Mortenson on the scrutiny of his story.

Mortenson’s message remains compelling and persuasive: resources from the US and other democratic powers would be far more beneficial and effective if they were spent on facilitating education, particularly for girls, in nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, instead of on military operations. Unfortunately, the publicity surrounding the disappointing possibility that the book fudges some facts does nothing but detract and distract from the message.

I can think of at least two possible reasons for memoir writers to be less than truthful in telling their stories. First, it’s uncomfortable to include less than attractive aspects of yourself and your actions in your life story. Second, maybe you think your story just isn’t interesting enough, and would improve with some fiction added.

Fibbing is dangerous, and I don’t see how either of these reasons can justify not telling the truth. If you don’t want to write your life story without changing the unattractive aspects, or if you think you could make it a better story by changing it, why not just publish it as fiction? If neither writing it truthfully, meaning as it really happened, nor writing it as fiction appeals, why write it at all?

I don’t understand why there seems to be a significant segment of readers who think that it’s no big deal if a writer’s work, billed as nonfiction, contains fictional elements. Are these the same people who think it’s no big deal if a witness in a trial, or a prospective juror, who’s sworn to tell the truth doesn’t do so? Why is this NOT a big deal?

Loving a good story as I do, I disagree that a story presented as nonfiction improves when its author adds some fiction (and thereby transforms the whole story into fiction). For me, the appeal of a memoir is that I want to read about what someone actually did, what actually happened to the person, and how the person was transformed by those actual experiences.

I know, and other reasonable readers know, that nobody’s a saint. It’s heartening to read a first-person account that includes unattractive behavior and mistakes on the part of the storyteller, because that’s part of what makes a story universal: we all make mistakes, and we all have some unattractive behavior in our background that we’d like to make sense of, atone for, or otherwise get beyond as part of our personal journey through life. The best memoirists show us, as part of their stories, how they came to make the mistakes they did and then how they recognized and learned from their mistakes. One good recent example is Mary Karr’s “Lit.” Jon Krakauer himself provides another good example in “Into Thin Air,” in which he’s as hard on himself as he is on anyone else. Both books are extraordinarily compelling.

Just as with witnesses in trials, when I learn that memoirists have painted themselves as more virtuous than they really were, or exaggerated events in their lives, I’m not only disappointed but also starting to wonder what else they didn’t tell the complete truth about. Ultimately, fibs always come back to haunt people who didn’t tell the truth and always diminish their stories and messages.

I think that’s even worse for the memoirist who just fudged a little bit than it is for the one who made up a story from whole cloth and presented it as the unvarnished truth.  The latter deserves to be branded as a liar. The former may very likely be a basically goodhearted person with a good message and a good story who unwisely gave in to fear, or insecurity, or a desire to sell more copies, or bad advice, told a story that was mostly, but not entirely, true, and, when the fudged facts are discovered, gets tagged in the same category as the latter writer.

I’m hoping that Mortenson’s detractors turn out to be mistaken, because the story he told is inspirational and his message, I believe, worthy. In the meantime, let’s withhold judgment until he’s spoken further and all the facts are out.

Among many other good posts on this topic, Salon.com has a good essay by Thomas Gladysz, “Before Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea,” about Margaret Bohme’s 1905 bestseller, “Diary of a Lost Girl,” published as the memoir of a young girl forced into prostitution but ultimately exposed as fiction. Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill recently interviewed James Frey, author of the controversial bestseller “A Million Little Pieces.” Among other things, Frey said “the idea of a memoir in America as it is marketed and published and sold is a bunk idea…it’s just something people slap on the sides of books to sell them.” And The New Yorker has an interview with its staff writer James Stewart, a very fine and thoughtful writer who’s also a lawyer and has a new book out, “Tangled Webs:  How False Statements are Undermining America.” In it, Stewart discusses the harm that the breakdown of the public commitment to telling the truth under oath is doing to our society.

What do you think about less than truthful memoirs? How about not telling the truth under oath? Are these okay? Not a big deal? Is everyone really doing it? I don’t think so, but I’d love to hear what you think.

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