Law and Conversation

January 2, 2012

Looking back on 2011 and forward into 2012

2011 was a great year for reading for me. I focused even more than I have in past years on reading critically and with purpose. That meant I read more books, and better books, than when I’ve read more haphazardly.

I like to keep a running list of the books I read, the better to remember them (which writing about them on this blog also helps me to do). My personal Best Book Read In 2011 was the graphic novel “Watchmen,” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Other books I enjoyed greatly included several by Alexander McCall Smith; Scottish poet Jackie Kay’s memoir, “Red Dust Road;” Suzanne Collins’s YA blockbuster, “The Hunger Games;” and Anthony Trollope’s masterwork, “The Way We Live Now,” which had been on my TBR list for at least a couple of years.

One book I especially enjoyed wasn’t even my idea to read. Knowing of my passion for Laura Ingalls Wilder, an intuitive friend surprised me with a gift at the end of 2011, Kristin Kimball’s “The Dirty Life.” Ever wonder what it was REALLY like for Laura to live with Almanzo and build a life on the farm together? After reading Kimball’s memoir of meeting, moving in with, and marrying her farmer husband, I think I have a pretty good idea (and, like Kimball’s husband, I bet Almanzo and, for that matter, Laura, had smelly armpits, too).

One of my resolutions last year was to read a nice, juicy biography. I had two in mind: Maynard Solomon’s “Beethoven” and Benita Eisler’s “O’Keefe and Stieglitz.” Alas, they’re still sitting on my nightstand, unread. But I kept that resolution by reading another thick biography I’d had for several years: Mary S. Lovell’s “The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family.” Lovell’s book was a good read about an interesting family, but I found myself agreeing with a discerning friend who described it as having “lost its moral compass.” To her, and to me, the author seemed rather too enthralled by the faded glamour of the unrepentant Diana Mitford, in particular, who married Oswald Mosley, an M.P. who became the leader of the British Fascists and, with Diana, was imprisoned for much of World War II because of their open sympathy for Hitler. Scandalous Women has more about the Mitford sisters.

Another aspiration of mine in 2011 was to read a Dickens novel. I’m sorry to say I didn’t keep that one. But in 2012 I hope to make amends by reading both Claire Tomalin’s new biography of Dickens and a Dickens novel I haven’t read before, since both were under our Christmas tree. I’m excited!

I did something new in 2011 that I plan to continue in 2012: I became a guest blogger on The Europa Challenge Blog. It was pure serendipity that I peeked at my Twitter stream one evening and saw Marie’s tweet inviting fans of Europa Editions publications to participate on this fan blog. Having already read several Europa books, I had no hesitation about accepting. Initially, I signed up for the fairly conservative four-book Europa Ami challenge level. But I like a bit of competition, so I pushed myself and surpassed the 7-book Europa Haver level, reading 8 new Europa books in all—which doesn’t count the several I’d read before accepting the challenge. For 2012, Marie has renamed the levels with a wonderful continental café theme. I’m starting out cautiously, signing up for the 4-book Espresso level, but I’m quite confident I’ll be able to reach at least the 6-book Cappuccino mark. As a lawyer, I love finding and thinking about the legal issues in the books I read. In Europa’s books, I’d particularly recommend Alberto Angela’s “A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome” for its brief discussion of Roman legal proceedings, Peter Kocan’s “The Treatment and The Cure” and “Fresh Fields” for his depiction of Australia’s treatment of the mentally ill who have committed crimes, and Jane Gardam’s wonderful “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat” for her portrait of a marriage from both spouses’ respective points of view.

What are your New Year’s resolutions?

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May 18, 2011

Three doctors in fiction

Earlier this week I posted about an awful case of medical malpractice that Gustave Flaubert depicts in his classic, “Madame Bovary.” Flaubert doesn’t have much sympathy for his fictional physician, Charles Bovary; he paints him as boring and not very smart. Certainly, that’s how Bovary’s wife, Emma, sees him, though her more memorable character is far less attractive.

The medical profession has long been a source of fascination for many storytellers and their audiences. I still remember watching episodes of two long-running soaps, “The Doctors” with a young Kathleen Turner and “Days of Our Lives,” where a significant portion of the action took place in the hospital coffee shop (the characters would find one another there and one would inquire whether the other Wanted To Talk About It), in the early 1980s with my mother (who would guiltily leap up to turn the television off when she saw my father, a doctor who disdained soap operas as a waste of time–not that he’d ever watched any–arriving home).

Here are three novels with wonderful doctor characters, all of which deserve to be much more widely read:

1) “Doctor Thorne,” by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope and have recently noted that I’m now reading what’s generally considered Trollope’s masterpiece, “The Way We Live Now.” Like “Madame Bovary,” “Doctor Thorne” is a 19th century novel about marriage.  Unlike Charles Bovary, Doctor Thorne is intelligent and perceptive as well as kind and generous. In a story that probate law buffs should enjoy, Thorne serves as guardian of his niece and executor of a wealthy man’s will. Though Trollope excels at depicting mankind’s mercenary motives–the family of one of the heroes of the story, Frank Gresham, emphasizes throughout that “Frank must marry money”–you can count on him to get everything to come right at the end.

2) “A Country Doctor,” by Sarah Orne Jewett. Like Trollope, Jewett displays a keen understanding of human nature. Unlike Trollope, she had some trouble with structuring her stories–ending them, in particular–and many are not so much stories but peaceful landscapes of life in Maine, where she lived. Her model for “A Country Doctor” was her father, Dr. Theodore H. Jewett, to whom she was very close and who would take her, as a young girl, on his rounds of visiting patients.

3) “The Citadel,” by A.J. Cronin, who himself was a physician. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Cronin’s book. I saw the UK production on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre” years ago and loved the story and the production. Ben Cross, who may be more familiar to some of us as the star of “Chariots of Fire,” was perfect in his role as Dr. Andrew Manson.

A fun result of my posts on Trollope was that The Trollope Society and I chatted across the pond and started following each other on Twitter. Another interesting person I recently came across on Twitter is Caroline Rance, whose website, “The Quack Doctor,” has lots of fascinating info for anyone interested in medical history.

Ramona Koval moderated a delightful conversation with several Australian doctors about their vocational reading on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s “The Book Show” a year ago, on May 28, 2010.

What stories of doctors and/or medical issues in fiction have made an impression on you?

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!

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