Law and Conversation

January 2, 2013

From 2012 to 2013

For several years I’ve been keeping a running list of books I read per year. During 2012, I averaged not quite a book a week and hope to increase that number in 2013. I also hope to read a few more that have been on my TBR list for a LONG time.

This year I finally got around to reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” a classic that I somehow missed as a child. I keep seeing references to it as one of the best examples of storytelling—the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, for example, said in a podcast that she rereads it periodically to try to figure out how Stevenson did it. It is unquestionably a fine story and I enjoyed it, but it held no deeper resonance for me.

Some maintain “The best reading is rereading.” I’m not sure about that – there are so many books I haven’t read that rereading just isn’t generally feasible – but I did spend some time this year rereading some classics and I’m glad I did. I discovered that I enjoyed Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Persuasion” more than ever now that I’m reading far more critically than ever before, and William Deresiewicz’s “A Jane Austen Education” was a delightful companion read. (Disappointingly, P.D. James’s “Death Comes to Pemberley” didn’t come close to doing Jane justice and mainly underscored the rule against settling for substitutes. It did, however, raise some really interesting legal issues and fascinating comparisons of substantive and procedural law in early 19th-century England and early 21st-century U.S.) I also reread some plays by Ibsen and a short work of Henry James, “Daisy Miller,” and enjoyed thinking about how they spoke to me differently today than they did when I read them as an adolescent.

In addition to getting “Treasure Island” under my belt, I finally read a short Dutch novel, “The Following Story,” by Cees Nooteboom, that had been sitting on my shelf for a number of months. It’s magical and surreal; I didn’t love it, but I’m glad I read this curious little book with the Brueghel (?) gargoyle on the cover.

I read a number of books in John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” series—given to me by an extremely thoughtful area lawyer who had very kind words about my articles in the Illinois Bar Journal—and thoroughly enjoyed these well-crafted, thoughtful, fun stories about English barristers. The marvelous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus” had also been sitting on my shelf for a while; not only did I read it at last, but I also loaned my (already extremely used) copy to two friends along with exhortations of its excellence.

I love reading international fiction, and in 2012 I read THIRTEEN books published by Europa Editions. (Woo hoo! That’s one over the Caffe Luongo level!!) I haven’t been able to review all of them in my spare time, but you can read what I have posted over on the Europa Challenge Blog. I’m re-upping for 2013, which includes a commitment to write and post more reviews of specific books in the coming months.

I didn’t love everything I read, and that included some of the Europa Editions books. The last one I read in 2012, Edwin Yoder’s “Lions At Lamb House,” seemed to have everything going for it when I checked it out of the library—it’s the story of an imaginary encounter between Henry James and Sigmund Freud—but I struggled throughout with whether to bag it or finish it. The narrative style, which seemed to be an attempt to imitate the period style of a century ago, just didn’t ring true to me, and the author seemed to feel compelled to spell everything out in the narrative instead of leaving a few things up to the reader, which made me feel written down to.

I also didn’t love Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel “Ghost World,” which was incredibly well rendered. That’s not because it wasn’t good – to the contrary, it was very good, and I believe it’s generally considered part of the graphic canon – but because it, like John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” was so absolutely spot on at depicting two incredibly unpleasant characters going nowhere fast.

Deciding on a personal “best book” of the year is something I like to do, but none was as memorable for me as Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel “Watchmen” last year, or Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” the year before that. Instead, a few candidates that stand out slightly from the rest for me are Russell Hoban’s magical and beautifully written “The Mouse And His Child,” graphic novelist Vera Brosgol’s “Anya’s Ghost,” and two Italian novels published in translation by Europa Editions, Elena Ferrante’s “Days of Abandonment” and Amara Lakhous’s “Divorce, Islamic Style.” (I’m not allowing my rereads of classics to enter this competition that exists only in my mind. It just seems pointless to me to set even the best contemporary writers up against Austen and Ibsen. Apples and oranges can’t compete.) A book of graphic essays, “The Beats,” by Harvey Pekar and others, was also memorable—particularly the beautifully written and illustrated piece by Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner, and artist Summer McClinton, “Beatnik Chicks”–and inspired me to reread Joyce Johnson’s beautifully written memoir, “Minor Characters,” an essential read for any young person visiting New York for the first time.

Two neat literary events happened to me this year. First, on a business trip to Boston, I got to meet Marie from Boston Bibliophile, who runs the Europa Challenge Blog, in person. She patiently waited for me at the Porter Square T station even though I was almost half an hour late (I’d never been to Boston) and took me to the indie bookseller Porter Square Books where I bought Andrew Miller’s “Pure” on her recommendation (I really enjoyed it, thanks, Marie!) as well as the latest Granta. We had a tasty vegetarian lunch at Grendel’s Den and bopped around the area a bit, including the grounds of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home!

The other cool literary event for me was LauraPalooza 2012, a semi-scholarly conference on Laura Ingalls Wilder and the “Little House” books, at Minnesota State University in Mankato in July, where I presented a paper on the personal and business relationship of Rose Wilder Lane, the only surviving child of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Roger Lea MacBride, her lawyer, literary agent, best friend during the last dozen years of her life, and sole heir. A New Year’s Resolution for my leisure time is to get my presentation into publishable shape, either in a journal or, less formally, as a blog post. The conference was a lot of fun, I met some wonderful people, and I got to spend a lot of time catching up with one of my oldest and dearest friends (we go back to 5th grade!) who presented her own paper at the first LauraPalooza conference and moderated the session at which I spoke this time.

Looking forward to 2013, I hope I’ll be able to stay on track to read an inevitably hefty Dickens novel, most likely “Little Dorrit,” as well as his equally hefty biography by the amazing Claire Tomalin, both of which I’d planned to read during 2012. Having seen Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” recently, I’m also planning on the highly praised and recommended Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” I also have a number of classics loaded for e-reading, including George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” and Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Enchanted April.” But before I pick up any of those, I’ll be finishing my current reading in progress: Hilary Mantel’s (first) Man Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall,” Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” and a graphic novel, Harvey Pekar’s “Cleveland.”

Also in 2013, I’ll continue to enjoy reading critically and relating what I read to my profession, the law, whether it’s legal history, current legal issues, or simply noting that the writer happened to have studied law. I hope to post more often this year, too–among other things, it helps me draw conclusions about works that had eluded me and to remember what I read.

What are your reading plans for this year?

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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?

July 20, 2011

Three to read from Maurice Sendak, and how we create our families

The other day I added Maurice Sendak‘s “Nutshell Library,” composed of “Alligators All Around,” “Pierre,” “One Was Johnny,” and the immortal “Chicken Soup With Rice,” to my personal list of series books everyone should have read before the age of 21. If Sendak wrote or illustrated it, it’s hard to go wrong, in my experience.

“Where The Wild Things Are” is probably Sendak’s most famous book. Here are three more wonderful but not quite as well known books that Sendak either wrote or illustrated:

1) “The Wheel On The School,” by Meindert De Jong. This Newbery Medal winner for 1955 is a wonderful story of what children can achieve when they’re motivated and organized.

2) “Zlateh the Goat,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This earthy, timeless tale is suitable for children and adults alike. The Great Books Foundation has included it in its Shared Inquiry student anthologies for the early grades from time to time.

3) “The Bat Poet” and “The Animal Family,” by Randall Jarrell. The former, which I read only as an adult, is one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read. The latter, which I read many times as a child and loved, is also wonderful, though, contrary to John Updike, I think “The Bat Poet” is even better. For each, Sendak’s drypoint (?) illustrations perfectly enhance the story.

“The Animal Family,” which has to do with a family in the woods made up of a hunter, a mermaid, a bear, a lynx, and a boy who was a foundling, made me think about how many people create their own families, sometimes because they don’t have many close biological family members, sometimes because they don’t find their biological family members congenial or because they’ve grown away from them, and sometimes because they live far away. Naturally, that line of thought took me to musing about how social customs and practices have influenced the evolution of family law.

Though there’s great current popular emphasis on family, it seems to me that creating family-equivalents from unrelated friends must have a long tradition in the Americas and Australia, as Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts in her stories of Christmas and other occasions with the Boasts and Mr. Edwards in her “Little House” books. The alternative would have been a solitary existence–fine for some, but probably unbearable for most. Now as then, true friends are more valuable than rubies.

Marriage and adoption are the most common and accepted ways for those who aren’t related by blood to create families. In the last couple of decades, the law around the world has been rapidly changing to encourage marriage and permanent relationships by permitting marriage or civil unions between adult same-sex partners.

Though there’s great wisdom in current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “It takes a village” to raise a child, courts and legislatures have understandably proceeded with great caution when considering claims for custody or visitation of minor children from persons other than the children’s legal parents. In my home state, for example, the Illinois Supreme Court has grappled with such issues in headline-making cases such as “Baby Richard,” in which the court reversed the termination of a biological father’s parental rights, and Wickham v. Byrne, in which the court invalidated the state’s then-existing grandparent visitation statute. In the latter case, the court found it troubling that the statutory standard, the “best interests and welfare of the child,” put grandparents on the same footing as the child’s parents. It felt that courts should second-guess parental decisions only when a child’s health, safety, or welfare was shown to be at risk. The statute has since been amended.

You can listen to an interview with Maurice Sendak here on NPR. Did Maurice Sendak’s works make an impression on you when you were a child? Have you reread them on becoming a grown-up, and if so, did they inspire you with any fresh insights?

June 24, 2011

My turn: Books everyone should read before 21

As I’ve mentioned, The Book Show on Britain’s Sky Arts media channel recently asked a number of distinguished author guests from its shows for their ideas on books that everyone should have read before the age of 21. The resulting list is worth perusing by anyone and tacking up on a bulletin board or refrigerator door.

But the list bothered me, chiefly for what I see as glaring omissions. Instead of including books that most of the broad range of people under 21 could read, the authors consulted focused on the far upper end of the range, including such admittedly great, but mature-themed, books as John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy, James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

And the book prominently featured at the very top of the list? Erica Jong‘s “Fear Of Flying.”

“FEAR OF FLYING?” On a list of strongly recommended reading BEFORE turning 21????  What’s UP with that??????

Jong’s book is a fun read, I admit. But I’m not sure it’s a classic, and it probably isn’t for everyone. It’s certainly not a book for kids, which is what people 21 and under are, whether or not they’re adults in the eye of the law. As David Brooks writes in today’s New York Times, “The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things which young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12.”

I know, and have known, many amazingly mature young people. Certainly, all of the books on the list, including the ones I’ve highlighted above, are capable of being read by mature teens and those in their early 20s. After all, Updike himself wasn’t even out of his 20s when he wrote the first “Rabbit” book. Speaking only for myself, though, and having read it only recently, well after my 21st birthday ;-), I’m absolutely confident I wouldn’t have appreciated it at that age.

So what’s the hurry? Why rush to read adult-themed books before turning 21?

The first two “Rabbit” books challenged me when I read them this year. “Ulysses” is on my list of difficult books to tackle. I’m all for pushing myself, and for others pushing themselves, to read challenging material. But given that everyone’s going to grow up–absent an unfortunate event–why skip over any joys of youth if you don’t have to?

In my adult view, one of those prime joys is reading children’s books and literature classified as young adult (YA). Though writers today generally target their books to specific age groups, I’ve seen a number of books from the 19th century (a literary period I love) that were written for general audiences but are now classified as middle grade (MG) or YA for library and bookstore purposes. (Some of Dickens’s works particularly come to mind.)

Today I’m providing an off-the-top-of-my-head list of wonderful, must-read books that should appeal to just about anyone in the under-21 reading range. The enormous bulk of material makes this a daunting task: it’s really, really hard to come up with a manageable list. For that reason, I’m expanding my usual self-imposed limit of 3 per blog post to 10. But I am limiting my recommendations here to series books, somewhat loosely defined, and excluding marvelous standalone works. If you’re over 21 and haven’t read some of these books–or if it’s been years, since you were a kid, since you’ve read them–do yourself a favor and go read or reread these great stories now.

1) At the top of my list is the entire oeuvre of Theodor Seuss Geisel, known to all as “Dr. Seuss.” My personal favorites are “I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew,” “The Lorax,” and “Scrambled Eggs Super.” The first two, along with “Sneetches,” “The Grinch That Stole Christmas,” and “Horton Hears A Who,” carry timeless, serious messages. I haven’t discerned any particular message in “Scrambled Eggs Super,” but, like all Seuss books, its verse and illustrations make up an amazing work. It’s just plain FUN, and, as all of us who love “The Cat In The Hat” should know, “It is fun to have fun!”

2) Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s “Little House” books. Written by Wilder and edited–some argue partly ghostwritten–by her brilliant, extraordinarily difficult daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, this fictionalized story of Wilder’s life realistically depicts pioneer life in the late 19th century U.S. Though the story of Wilder’s and Lane’s relationship and collaboration has already inspired a few biographies and scholarly analyses, there’s plenty of room for more. Legal topics raised by their lives and work include fascinating probate and copyright issues.

3) The Burgess Books For Children, by Thornton W. Burgess. These wonderful series stories of animals include the adventures of Reddy Fox, Sammy Jay, Billy Mink, Jerry Muskrat, Peter Rabbit, and many, many more.

4) Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s books, including “Anne of Green Gables” and its sequels, her lesser known “Emily” series, and the standalone, apparently rather little known “Blue Castle.”

5) L. Frank Baum‘s “Wizard of Oz” series.

6) Lois Lenski‘s books on American life, including “Strawberry Girl,” “Houseboat Girl,” “Cotton In My Sack,” and “Coal Camp Girl.” Like Wilder’s “Little House” books, these books realistically depict life in the mid-20th century, or the 19th century in the case of “A-Going To The Westward” (which is tragically out of print), or the 18th century in the case of “Bound Girl Of Cobble Hill,” for working people and their children in the U.S.

7) J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

8) C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles.

9) L.M. Boston’s “Green Knowe” series, beginning with “The Children of Green Knowe.”

10) Andrew Lang’s fairy tale compilations in every hue of the rainbow, including “The Red Fairy Book,” “The Blue Fairy Book,” and so on.

For many of these books, including not only Dr. Seuss’s but also Lois Lenski’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, the artwork is integral to the stories. That leads me to wish again that more publishers would contract with artists to illustrate more currently published books.

As with any list, I’m certain to have left many fine candidates out. I’m already thinking that Beverly Cleary‘s series depicting Beezus, Ramona, Henry Huggins, and Ellen Tebbits, not to mention Louisa May Alcott’s series, Susan Cooper‘s “The Dark Is Rising” series, and J.K. Rowling‘s “Harry Potter” books are rather glaring omissions. And I see I haven’t included any great, classic science fiction series, or any graphic novel series. Well, that’s fodder for future writing!

What books would you include on a list that everyone really ought to read by the age of 21?

August 30, 2010

Read This!

Mondays are Read This! days on which I write about books that I really, really want everyone in the world to read.  With so many great books in the world, I can’t imagine ever running out of material!

Today’s recommendation is a classic:  Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.”  I first read it as a 4th grader and loved the passionate story, told so well in a young woman’s voice.  Since then, I’ve reread it many times and branched out to read the rest of the Bronte sisters’ writings.  It’s now been many years since my last rereading of “Jane Eyre,” so I think it’s time to move it up on my list. 

I’m always interested to find out how I feel as an adult about a book that I loved as a child or teenager.  Generally, as in the case of Beverly Cleary’s and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I find them every bit as good as, if not even better than, I did forty years ago.  I have no doubt that “Jane Eyre” will stand the test of time for me as it has for the rest of the world.

Many well-told stories that are classics, though, including the “Little House” books (which I passionately love), reflect widely held attitudes and prejudices of their times and places that we now rightly find unacceptable.  And, indeed, parents sometimes have problems with their children’s reading books that challenge their ideas of what’s right and proper.  The May 19, 2010 edition of CBC radio’s Q program had an interesting discussion on what to do with children’s books that reflect racism.  But the participants didn’t address the possibility that some books being published today may reflect attitudes that our great-grandchildren will consider unacceptable 100 or more years from now.  They also didn’t seem to recognize that characters in great stories, like real people, are imperfect and multifaceted.  How is it even possible to have a good story–which we all love, from childhood to old age–without different points of view and conflicts?  A great work of literature might even be told from the point of view of a frankly repellent character–and that might be a big part of what makes it great, as Azar Nafisi explains so well in “Reading Lolita In Tehran.”  Indeed, “Jane Eyre” underwent a firestorm of criticism when it was published:  reviewers called Jane herself  “the personification of the unregenerate and undisciplined spirit” and said she had “detestable morality.”  More than 150 years later, we generally love Jane and identify with her passions and morals!  Thinking about whether and why we like or dislike a story’s characters is part of reading critically, a valuable skill that children can begin learning, with the help of parents and good teachers, while still very young.

The Bronte Blog is a comprehensive resource, updated at least daily, for all things Bronte, all the time.  It recently referenced two fun articles on Jane Eyre.  The first, by Edan Lepucki, trashes Mr. Rochester and also swipes at Charlotte and Emily as “deeply weird.”  The latter criticism, IMO, is quite unjustified, so I was delighted to find that the second article agrees with me on that point.  It also rips up the other arguments of the first in a deliciously snarky fashion.

I have some more thoughts on “Jane Eyre” and other literature and the law of that period regarding women and the mentally ill that I’ll be posting later this week.  In the meantime, what books would you like everyone in the world to read?

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