Law and Conversation

June 20, 2011

Read This: The Wind In The Willows

I’ve been thinking about The Book Show’s list of books everyone should read by the age of 21 ever since I saw it a couple of weeks ago. It’s a fine list, mind you–but the authors who contributed to it emphasized the very high end of the age range at the expense of the younger reading years that one might think should have been included.

If I’d been asked to name one book for such a list, I’d choose Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind In The Willows.” It’s simply a marvelous book that everyone should have read by the age of 21 and everyone older than 21 should reread every few years.

This charming story of friendship among riverdwelling animals in England has inspired many talented illustrators, including Ernest H. Shepard–the edition I grew up with, which has a well-known cover illustration of Badger, Toad, Mole and Ratty–and Charles van Sandwyk, illustrator of the current Folio Society edition. Though Grahame’s story is perfectly beautiful all by itself, the illustrations make it even more of a joy to read; would that more publishers today would hire artists to illustrate stories for youth and adults alike.

Though Grahame’s book has universal appeal, lawyers, especially those who practice traffic law, should make a special place for it. Though the story takes place long before cell phones and texting, Toad is the archetypal distracted driver, so pleased with the motorcar he’s stolen and so self-absorbed that it doesn’t occur to him what a menace he is on the road. Even lawyers have to cheer when the gaoler’s daughter helps Toad to escape after being picked up for his crime and summarily sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, and cheer again when Badger, Mole, and Ratty liberate Toad Hall from the weasels’ attempt at adverse possession.

More important, the book is a wonderful story of friendship. Though Toad doesn’t make things easy for his friends, they love him and are unflinchingly loyal to him, even at great inconvenience and potential cost to themselves. Good friends that they are, they also kindly but firmly tell him the truth about his pompous behavior–and, to his credit, upon their doing so, Toad recognizes that he needs to change his ways. The bond between Mole and the Water Rat is also beautiful, particularly the scene in the snow at Christmastime, when Mole catches the scent of his old house and, in tears, begs Rat, who wants to forge ahead, to help him find it. They do, and Ratty even helps Mole, whose joy at finding his home almost immediately turns into overwhelming embarrassment and unhappiness at seeing what a mess it is, put it to rights and transform it back into the snug den that it used to be, and, in Mole’s mind’s eye, still was.

Every now and then The Folio Society, which publishes gorgeous (and somewhat expensive) books, runs member polls. A few years ago it asked members which books they’d want to have if they were marooned on a desert island. “The Wind In The Willows” was one of the top vote-getters, if I remember correctly. What a wise choice!

What books do you think everyone should have read by the age of 21? What books would you want to be sure to have if you were marooned on an island?

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May 9, 2011

Read this: more Jane Gardam, on marriage

A few months ago I recommended reading Jane Gardam’s “Old Filth,” a novel told from the point of view of Edward Feathers, an elderly British barrister who is looking back over his long life and distinguished career. By itself, the book is a gem. To fully appreciate the story, though, you need to read its companion novel, “The Man in the Wooden Hat.”

In “Old Filth,” we learn something about Feathers’s long and seemingly staid marriage to Elisabeth (Betty). In “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” Gardam tells the story of Feathers’s marriage from Betty’s point of view. The resulting portrait is surprisingly complex and anything but dull.

I thought of Gardam’s fictional stories of the Feathers’s marriage in connection with the recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Last week I wrote that I fully expect theirs to be a long and happy union, though, of course, nothing in this life is ever certain.

All marriages have many facets, though, and unhappy ones are more often the stuff of novels than happy ones. Please check back on Wednesday when I’ll have some recommendations for more reading on marriage in fiction.

There’ve been some snarky assessments on the ‘net of Prince William’s genetic odds of marital longevity. Granted, the marriages of several of his parents’ generation haven’t held up so well, but that of his paternal grandparents is now going on 65 years. His paternal great-grandparents appear to have been models of devotion, as the movie “The King’s Speech” depicts. And his father, whose marriage to Princess Diana was a disaster, has to all appearances remained in love with his current wife (and she with him) for decades.

The new Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, was voted the third most beautiful royal beauty in a poll on a dating site shortly before her wedding, the Telegraph reported. I wouldn’t argue about Kate or any of the other placeholders, but I wonder why we never see the reigning Queen Elizabeth, who as a young woman was as stunning as any classic or modern beauty and who now has the look of a lovely grandmother, on such lists?

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!

February 21, 2011

Read This: biography, probate law, & scandal – Pamela Churchill Harriman

One of the greatest reading pleasures is a nice, meaty biography.  If some of the material’s scandalous, so much the better, as long as it’s clearly and thoroughly documented.

Far from being dusty and dull, probate matters may arise from every bit as much passion and scandal as divorces.  So a well-researched biography of a subject with both probate and divorce matters in her life is practically guaranteed to be a fascinating story.

The obituary of Kathleen Harriman Mortimer the other day in the New York Times reminded me that her stepmother’s life included multiple divorces and probate issues, all of which are documented and explained in Sally Bedell Smith‘s impeccably researched biography, “Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman.”

More thoroughly, that would be Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman.  (To be fair to Bedell Smith and her publisher, there was only so much space on the book’s dust jacket for its subject’s name along with her charming photo.)

Check this book out if you have any interest in 20th century history and government, or Winston Churchill, or social climbers and high society, or scandal, or probate law. Bedell Smith’s subject, who was Churchill’s daughter-in-law throughout World War II and U.S. ambassador to France in he 1990s, at the end of her life, was on intimate terms with many prominent and wealthy movers and shakers in business and politics, as Bedell Smith describes and documents.

Kathleen Harriman Mortimer became chums with Pamela Churchill in London during the war.  As Smith recounts, Pamela, who was around the same age as Kathleen, embarked on an affair with Kathleen’s father, Averell Harriman, a few months after her husband, Randolph Churchill, went off to war and a few more months after giving birth to their son, named Winston in honor of Pamela’s father-in-law.

After a divorce from Randolph, many more affairs, another marriage, and thirty more years, Pamela and Averell reunited, rekindled their affair, and finally married.  His death in 1985 made her fabulously rich.  In 1994, Kathleen and other Harriman heirs sued Pamela for mismanaging their inheritance.  Bedell Smith meticulously describes the fascinating personal and legal background for that suit.

Mortimer herself married into another well-connected family.  An article on the Mortimer family from the New York Observer reminded me of the ancient and intricate web of alliances among Europe’s royal families and of the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Do stop by again on Wednesday, when I’ll have three recommendations for other biographies touching on or suggesting probate law issues.  In the meantime, I’d love to see comments on biographies that you’ve enjoyed.

February 14, 2011

Read This! Jane Gardam

On noticing “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam at my public library, I had to pick it up and leaf through it.  How could I not, with a title like that?  And furthermore, I saw that Europa Editions was the US publisher.  I’d read Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” a title which likewise intrigued me, also published by Europa, and decided at that time that any Europa book was likely to be well worth reading.

But at that time “Old Filth” just didn’t appeal to me.  I kept returning to it when I’d see it in bookstores, though, and reconsidering reading it—especially since I learned that it’s the story of a lawyer, whose nickname is the book’s title.

Then I saw another book by Gardam at the library, “God On The Rocks.”  The plot summary appealed to me, and it didn’t hurt that the cover indicated it had been shortlisted for the 1978 Booker Award.  I’d kept “Old Filth” in mind and had noticed that Gardam was highly praised in online reviews.  I figured that reading a book of less than 200 pages wouldn’t be too much of a loss if I ended up not liking it.

Readers, I LOVED it.  So much that on finishing it, I ran back to the library for more Gardam, including “Old Filth,” which turned out to be at least as good as “God On The Rocks.”

As Gardam tells her story, “Filth” is an acronym:  Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.  The principal character from whose point of view she tells the story is Edward Feathers, a “Raj Orphan” as a child, now, in the 2000s, a highly respected retired lawyer and judge. 

To others, “Old Filth” may be legendary for his long life and upright career, but up close, he doesn’t appear too interesting.  A young, stylish, up-and-coming London barrister, the partner of the son of one of Feathers’s childhood friends, exemplifies how dismissive the young can be of the old, condescending toward him as she makes some blatantly mistaken assumptions that he’s had a quiet, easy, happy life away from the city and any complexities.

Throughout the novel, Feathers is looking back at his life after the death of his wife, considering his life of loneliness and searching for meaning in his personal history.  “All my life,” he says at the book’s end, “from my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me.  I want to know why.”

Feathers’s complex story, which Gardam unfolds in slow and masterful stages, would shock everyone except the few who knew him as a small child.  At the end, the reader can understand why he’s repressed his own story and kept it a secret throughout his life.  I wondered how Feathers’s life would have been different and, perhaps, happier, if he had openly acknowledged his story, or at least allowed some to get close enough to him so that he could tell them.  

In both “Old Filth” and “God On The Rocks,” Gardam is very, very good at telling stories in which the characters have far more under their surfaces than they display to others.  She’s published a companion novel–NOT a sequel–to “Old Filth,” “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” in which she tells the story of Feathers’s marriage from the point of view of his wife, who is only a minor character in “Old Filth.”  I can’t wait to read it.  Note to Man Booker Prize judges:  Gardam really, really needs to win sometime soon.

Gardam was partly inspired to write “Old Filth” by reading Rudyard Kipling’s story, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” about his miserable experiences as a “Raj Orphan” when his parents sent him back to England as a small child from India to receive a proper English education.  How strange it is, in another time and another place, to think that doing so was once considered a matter of course.  I’m putting Kipling’s story on my list.

What stories are you excited about reading these days?

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