Law and Conversation

July 4, 2011

Read This: Europa Editions

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be contributing to The Europa Challenge Blog, the brainchild of Liberty and Marie, whom I follow on Twitter.

The blog’s idea is that those of us who love books published by Europa Editions, a publisher based in New York, will accept a challenge to read a certain number of Europa books between now and the end of the year and write reviews of them. Europa publishes mostly books by European authors in translation, but also publishes a number of books originally written in English, some books from Asian and African writers, and even a few from North America, if I’m not mistaken.

Liberty and Marie have come up with several suggested levels of participation, starting at the Europa Ami level, a commitment to read four Europa books between now and the end of 2011, and culminating with the Europa Amante level, in which you commit to read 2 Europa Editions books per month, for a total of 14 by the end of the year. At any level, you can qualify as a Connoisseur, an Expatriate, or a Passport Holder, by accepting the Perpetual Challenge to read all of Europa’s books, choosing books from a single country or original language, or choosing books from different countries or original languages, respectively.  The Europa Ami level is quite enough of a challenge for me, I think–I have a pretty busy life, and a reading list whose unmanageability does nothing but increase. Neither Liberty nor Marie is affiliated with Europa Editions (nor, for that matter, am I) , and the only remuneration from participating in the challenge is the fun of it and our own personal satisfaction.

I’ve introduced myself to Challenge blog readers and will be cross-posting the reviews I write there on this blog. Since I’ve already posted here on Jane Gardam’s books, which are published by Europa, I’ll be referencing and recycling some of those posts. I’m looking forward not only to writing my own posts but also reading posts of the other fine bloggers who are participating in this challenge. What great company to join!

Please surf on over to the Europa Challenge Blog to check it out. If you’re interested, do join me in signing up for the challenge!

Challenge Button

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?

December 1, 2010

3 books to transform your reading

Filed under: Books and writing,fiction,reading — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:01 am
Tags: ,

On Monday I posted about the best book I’ve read this year:  Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran.”  Her book showed me why ideologues and totalitarian governments fear the power of literature and transformed the way I read fiction.

Here are three other books that have fundamentally changed the way I read, for the better:

1)  On Writing, by Stephen King.  Yes, THAT Stephen King.

2) Reading Like A Writer, by Francine Prose.

3) Art of Reading, by Prof. Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University.  Not a book, but a course on DVD, audio CD, or audio download offered by The Teaching Company.

On my list of other books in this area to check out is James Wood’s “How Fiction Works.”

What’s helped you to appreciate the stories you hear or read?

October 1, 2010

Slaughterhouse-Five and Banned Books Week

Filed under: Books and writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 8:32 am
Tags: , , ,

As I previously reported, I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut‘s “Slaughterhouse-Five” in honor of Banned Books Week.  I’d hoped to have finished the book (a slim volume) by today so I could review it, but too many other tasks with higher priority have intervened, so I’m only up to page 65.

I can report that the book is beautifully and tightly written and draws the reader in.  From reading this editorial, and since the characters in the book are, after all, soldiers on a wartime front, I’d expected plenty of profanity.  At this point, though, there’s been hardly any.  I’ve leafed through the remainder to see if the language becomes more profane, but I’m not seeing many four-letter words in the rest, either, in contrast to what the editorial’s author alleged. 

True, the content has some horrifying stuff–but the book is about war, and war is, after all, horrifying.  I can’t think of any good reason to sweep that under the rug.  Shouldn’t we who are fortunate enough not to have participated in battles or lived where wars have recently taken place educate ourselves about what those who haven’t been so lucky have had to endure?  Vonnegut knew what he was writing about, having survived the 1945 firestorm of Dresden when he was an American POW.

An excerpt from Vonnegut’s “Palm Sunday:  An Autobiographical Collage” in which Vonnegut reacts to his book’s being burned in a North Dakota school furnace by the janitor, at the school board’s direction, is here.  (Hat tip:  Laurie Halse Anderson.)

The Guardian has a quiz so you can test your knowledge of banned books.

June 17, 2010

Trials in literature

Filed under: Books and writing,fiction,Law,reading,trials — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:01 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

The trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, which began last week in the federal district court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, made me think about depictions of trials in literature.  Apart from the contemporary works of Chicago’s own terrific novelist and lawyer, Scott Turow, not to mention presiding Judge James Zagel’s thriller, “Money To Burn,” and, of course, the works of John Grisham, the following books came to my mind:

1)      To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

2)      Pudd’nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain

3)      An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser

4)      The Trial, by Franz Kafka

5)      The Stranger, by Albert Camus

6)      The Crucible, by Arthur Miller

7)      The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe

None of the trials in these works, however, bears any similarity to the issues surrounding the Blagojevich trial, and I’m disappointed for not being able to think of any good similar fictional depictions.  Professor Daniel Solove of George Washington University Law School provides a list of fine works of literature with legal themes on his faculty website, but not all of these contain actual trials.  I can’t help thinking there must be a number out there; readers, can you think of some I’ve overlooked, especially trials involving allegations of political corruption from other times (i.e. centuries) and places?

Among a number of other good sources, I’m enjoying looking at The Blago Report’s daily analysis of the trial.  Don’t know why that writer, who, according to the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn is Phil Smith of Tampa, FL, doesn’t provide his name on his site (unless I’ve missed something really obvious, which has been known to happen); perhaps he’s concerned about being overly self-promotional, but I think he should take more credit for his articles.   You’ll find a list of other bloggers and tweeters about the trial at the link for Zorn.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at