Law and Conversation

August 12, 2011

Crime fiction, Giller Prize, CLE

Despite its popularity, crime fiction isn’t generally a genre that attracts me. Even though I’ve practiced only civil, not criminal, law, it’s just always seemed too much like reading about work in my free time. By its nature, any crime fiction novel involves an investigation, which is common to any legal matter, criminal or civil. Often lawyers are involved. And then there are the gory details–sometimes more, sometimes less.

But Sarah Weinman has an article in The Wall Street Journal that explains what its devotees see in it. Reviewing a new translation of French noir novelist Jean-Patrick Manchette‘s “Fatale,” Weinman writes “One way crime novels become classics is by channeling the social concerns of the day. Raymond Chandler’s novels were indictments of moral corruption, pre- and post-World War II, while Dashiell Hammett countered Jazz Age excess with a decided anti-capitalist bent. These works offered a window into how the world really works, not how we wish it did.”

Weinman’s analysis makes sense to me, and it’s helping to convince me to plan on reading some noir in the near future. Reading some intriguing reviews and mentions of noir such as Jean-Claude Izzo’s and Carlo Lucarelli’s works on The Europa Challenge Blog, which are published in translation by Europa Editions, is strengthening my resolve. Crime fiction always includes strong stories and place settings, both of which I love. And I’ve observed that doing or reading something outside my usual routine on a regular basis almost always reinvigorates me.

Speaking of the Europa Challenge blog, after noticing a tweet yesterday about the forthcoming announcement of the longlist for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize, which annually recognizes the (arguably) best Canadian novel or short story collection published, I wondered (via tweets) whether some of the many Canadian booklovers might establish a Giller Prize Challenge Blog along the same lines as the one for Europa Editions books, which, in turn, was inspired by The Complete Booker blog.

The Giller Prize has been awarded only since 1994, so there aren’t as many to choose from–and those with far more expertise in CanLit than I pointed out that the quality of some of the winners has been controversial. So I proposed (also by tweet) that if someone does decide to establish a challenge blog, extending the reading challenge to books that made the shortlist–to expand the choices, not to challenge participants to actually read all of them (unless they really wanted to). As on the Europa Challenge Blog, participants could choose to read 4, or 7, or 14, or any other number, for various levels of satisfaction.

Toronto literary critic Steven W. Beattie responded by linking to a recent post of his own criticizing the method for selecting Giller contenders. Follow him, @bookgaga, @janetsomerville, @jadeperreault, @lawartsculture, @GillerPrize, and, of course, @MargaretAtwood, among many other bookloving Canadians, on Twitter for incisive tweets about CanLit and more. Please follow my fellow bloggers over at The Europa Challenge Blog, too!

I was thrilled to learn this week that several of my articles that have appeared in the Illinois Bar Journal will be included in materials for upcoming CLE seminars in Illinois and Oklahoma. “Tech tools for solos” and “From Sheepskin to Shingle,” both of which appeared in the September 2009 issue of the IBJ, will be part of the materials for an Oklahoma Bar Association seminar on the basics of law office technology, while “Unbundling Explained,” published in the October 2010 IBJ, will be included in the materials for a webinar from the Illinois Institute of Continuing Legal Education on Limited Scope Representation. I had a lot of fun writing the lead article in the current (August 2011) IBJ, “To Tweet Or Not To Tweet: Twitter For Lawyers,” since as part of my preparation I got to talk to and quote a number of lawyers I follow on Twitter.

Are you reading or planning to read anything that’s unusual for you?

July 4, 2010

AmLit and CanLit

In honor of Independence Day, here are ten randomly selected novels or short story collections that, in my view, qualify as Great American Novels:

1) The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen

2) The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

3) The Road to Wellville, by T.C. Boyle

4) Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (interrelated short stories)

5) The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his collected short stories)

6) The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

7) Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis (or Main Street, or Arrowsmith, or Elmer Gantry)

8) Collected stories of John Cheever

9) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

And I just can’t say the term “Great American Novel” without including

10) Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

in the same breath.

I know, I left out a lot of great ones, either because I haven’t read them, because I have read them and I didn’t love them, because I arbitrarily decided to limit this list to ten, or because I read them but temporarily forgot about them.  So put your own lists in the comments!  Other lists of great novels from U.S. and other writers are here and here.

The Canadian counterpart to our Independence Day, Canada Day, was July 1, just a few days before our most important holiday.  Formerly known as Dominion Day, it commemorates the Canadian confederation of the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia with the Province of Canada, which, according to the Wikipedia entry, was at the same time divided into the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has some great programs available on podcast; one I particularly enjoy is The Next Chapter, with host Shelagh Rogers, which focuses on Canadian literature.  Though the website doesn’t currently reflect it, the June 28, 2010 podcast featured, among other matters, an interview with Ryerson University professor Randy Boyagoda about a survey course on American literature he teaches in which his students compare American and Canadian literature.  Boyagoda noted that both countries share some significant characteristics, including division, as in native/settler differences, racial differences, landscape differences, and (more so in Canada’s case) language differences.  He said the two bodies of literature, however, are fundamentally different.  He and his students identified vitality, liveliness, argument, ambition, and immodesty (his words, not mine) as some characteristics that apply generally to American literature and not generally to Canadian fiction.  The U.S. and American literature emphasize the individual, whereas Canada and its literature focus on the collective, he and Rogers agreed. 

My American feathers ruffled when Rogers took a swipe at a Walt Whitman quote, and by implicit extension at the U.S., as “arrogant,” nor did I care for the adjective “immodest,” but the segment, which begins about 23 minutes into the podcast, was thought-provoking.  What are the differences between AmLit and CanLit, and why are there differences, given our geographic proximity and similarity of cultures?  Is our literature more “vital” than Canadian literature?  I haven’t read enough of the latter to be able to opine, but it’s certainly true that our literature is better known throughout the world than Canadian lit.

The Literary Review of Canada has a list of 100 great Canadian books that you can download in .pdf form, with an introduction by Margaret Atwood, who’s generally acknowledged as, along with Alice Munro, possibly the greatest living Canadian fiction writer and who has a couple of books on the list.   (I’ve enjoyed some of Atwood’s books and agree that she’s a fine writer, but the gratuitous snide remarks about the U.S. she seems to delight in making at every opportunity, at least on the podcast interviews I’ve listened to with her, are offensive to me and disincline me to praise her overmuch.  Can’t she say something positive now and then about the U.S., especially when so many individuals and institutions in our country have so generously praised and supported her talents and work?  Certainly, criticism is healthy, and the substance of some of her criticisms may have merit, but when she feels she must criticize, can’t she confine it to a policy or policies and not expand it to belittling our whole nation?) 

Here are some Canadian novels and a short story collection that I’ve enjoyed:

1) The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, by Wayne Johnston

2) Street of Riches, by Gabrielle Roy

3) Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

4) Island, by Alistair MacLeod (short stories)

I have read more CanLit, but not more that I thought qualified as Great Canadian Novels.  Still, I’m planning on expanding my CanLit experience.  Two generally acknowledged great Canadian works on my perpetually unwieldy and growing reading list are Robertson Davies’ “The Deptford Trilogy” and Margaret Laurence’s “The Stone Angel.”  Also on my list are Elizabeth Hay’s “Late Nights On Air” and Don Hannah’s “Ragged Islands.”  I don’t know whether I’ll like them, of course, but what I heard about them on CBC podcasts intrigued me enough to purchase used copies of each.  Also, I’m currently giving Lisa Moore’s 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize winner, “Alligator,” a second chance after it failed to draw me in some months ago.

Happy Independence Day to all of us Americans, and Happy (belated) Canada Day to all Canadians.  Which of your favorite Great American or Great Canadian Novels did I leave out, and what’s on your reading list this Fourth of July?

Create a free website or blog at