Law and Conversation

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?

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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?

May 16, 2011

Medical malpractice in Madame Bovary

Earlier I posted about miserable marriages in literature and noted The Guardian’s recent reference to Gustave Flaubert‘s nineteenth century French classic, “Madame Bovary.”

Most think of “Madame Bovary” as a novel about marriage and adultery. It is, but did you know that there’s also a horrible case of medical malpractice within its covers?

The Guardian’s article dismisses Charles Bovary as “boring,” which I won’t argue about.  But he’s also a good man who loves his wife and daughter and does his best to make a living for them. A physician, he unwisely allows a frenemy to talk him into performing an operation on a village youth, who was born with a clubfoot. He hopes the operation will help the youth to walk normally and gain him recognition and renown as a brilliant surgeon.

It’s easy for the reader to see where Flaubert is going with this subplot: Bovary, who’s not very bright, is incompetent to perform the operation and botches it. As a result, the youth who formerly walked with a limp develops gangrene, has to have his entire leg amputated, and can no longer work. In an age before public welfare and before legal remedies for medical malpractice, we can only imagine the young man’s fate.

As a lawyer who knows many excellent and caring physicians and has enormous respect for the medical profession, I become very discouraged when I encounter distrust or antipathy on the part of some of the dedicated members of that profession–not to mention some in other occupations–toward those in my own. What can we do, I wonder, about this unfortunate state of affairs?

I’ve posted before on writers who are lawyers or who were trained in the law, as Flaubert was.  But there are also many doctors who are marvelous writers as well as some great doctor characters in literature. (Interestingly, Flaubert’s father was a doctor.)  Please check back later this week when I’ll have some reading suggestions regarding doctors in literature.

May 11, 2011

Miserable marriages in literature

To my disappointment, I couldn’t find any fictional stories containing prenuptial agreements to accompany my recent post on the royal wedding and prenups.  But fiction abounds in unhappy marriages, as the Guardian recently observed.

In addition to the Guardian’s recommendations of Edward Albee‘s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” and Henry James‘s “Portrait of a Lady,” I’d recommend George Eliot‘s “Middlemarch,” and Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” and “The Custom of the Country.” And for a stunningly well-crafted saga of an absolutely dreadful marriage between two absolutely dreadful people from two absolutely dreadful families, John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy is hard to beat. (To be fair, those dreadful people are three-dimensional, and from the circumstances that Updike presents, the reader can understand, if not excuse, why they’re as dreadful as they are.)

All of these books are classics, meriting reading and rereading.  But they’re only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fictional depictions of miserable marriages.

Do you think prenuptial agreements would have mitigated the fallout of any of the marriages depicted in these works? And am I being too hard on Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom and his family?

September 10, 2010

Trials of literature

Thanks to Harrisburg, PA lawyer and writer Harvey Freedenberg for connecting with me on Twitter and calling my attention to this story about the obscenity trial of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”  In the Autumn 2010 issue of The American Scholar, Ben Yagoda writes, “for six days in late October and early November of 1960, Penguin Books was tried in the Old Bailey for having attempted to bring out a paperback edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been banned since its 1928 publication.”  Yagoda’s description of the literary star-studded cast of witnesses and testimony presented is fascinating for anyone interested in freedom of expression and literature.

Yagoda teaches English, journalism, and writing at the University of Delaware.  He’s recently published “Memoir:  A History,” in which, using memoirs from St. Augustine to the present, he discusses “memoir’s fraught relationship with the truth.”  The New York Times reviewed Yagoda’s book here; Yagoda also discussed it with guest host Kevin Sylvester on “The Sunday Edition” from the CBC on its November 22, 2009 program.

Other books that have been the subjects of obscenity trials include James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”  All are now considered classics.  More recently, a number of Turkish writers,  including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish institutions.  Stories are available on the CBC, in the New York Times, and in The Guardian.

Have you read any books that have been the subject of trials for obscenity or other alleged offenses?  If so, what did you think of them?

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