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Kate's Book Blog

Books that make me think.

Updated: 2018-03-07T16:01:42.212-05:00


My Blog Has Moved


After a long hiatus, I've decided to revive my book blog, but I'm doing so on my own website. Please visit me there. I look forward to reconnecting with old blogging friends on the new site!

Salman Rushdie on Film and Fiction


Salman Rushdie on the possibilities film has opened up for writers of fiction:
As a writer, one of the things we all learned from the movies was a kind of compression that didn't exist before people were used to watching films. For instance, if you wanted to write a flashback in a novel, you once had to really contextualize it a lot, to set it up. Now, readers know exactly what you're doing. Close-ups too. Writers can use filmic devices that we've all accepted so much that we don't even see them as devices any more.
To read the rest of the Globe & Mail interview from which the above quotation is drawn, click here.

A Tribute to Adrienne Rich at the Toronto Women's Bookstore


I'll be reading one of my favourite Adrienne Rich poems at the below event this evening. All are welcome to attend! (image)

Talking About Adrienne Rich on the Radio


Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of discussing the life and work of poet and activist Adrienne Rich with Michael Enright on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition. You can listen to the segment, excerpted from the CBC podcast of the show, by clicking on the player below.

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I have continued to read and reread Rich's awe-inspiring body of work in the intervening weeks, and I expect I'll post some reflections on particular poems and essays, and more broadly on her intertwining of poetry and politics, here soon.

L.M. Montgomery's Toronto Stomping Grounds


I had a lovely walk along the Humber River today. The snapshots below were all taken within a mile or so of L.M. Montgomery's Toronto house and, knowing how much she loved to walk among trees and beside water, I imagine that the places they depict were once her stomping grounds.


I may have gotten carried away at the book sale today...


The only authors whose books I was specifically looking for were Louis Auchincloss (a lawyer-writer about whose work I intend to write a paper) and Charles de Lint (a fantasy writer whose novels and short stories about the fictional city of Newford I’ve recently fallen head-over-heels for), and I did well on both counts: The House of the Prophet and Fellow Passengers by the former; and Tapping the Dream Tree, Muse and Reverie, and Spirits in the Wires by the latter.While I was searching the “A” section for Auchincloss, I stumbled upon a pair of Chinua Achebe novels of which I already own copies, Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease, but how could I resist a matched set of classic paperback Penguin editions?Then I found my way to the literary criticism and biography section and I was done for. Because, the thing I enjoy most about big second hand book sales is stumbling upon obscure works of literary criticism, and difficult-to-find copies or cool editions of books by or about writers that I already love or that I’m curious to know more about. I picked up a ridiculous number of books during a lengthy browse but, after persuading myself to relinquish two-thirds of them, these are the ones that I actually bought and brought home:Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (for my research on writers’ trials);A.B. McKillop, The Spinster & The Prophet (another story of a literary trial, this one about a 1925 plagiarism suit brought against H.G. Wells by Canadian scholar Florence Deeks);Hazel Holt, A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym (Barbara Pym!);Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (her much-lauded letters);Donald Stevens, Bliss Carman (Carman shared a U.S. publisher with L.M. Montgomery⎯the nefarious Lewis Page⎯, so I’ve been reading about him for a bit more context); and,Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green (it’s always exciting to come across anything by Henry Green!).All in all, not a bad day’s work.[...]

International Crime Fiction: Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh Series


(cross-posted from law.arts.culture)“International crime fiction” can be an unhelpful label, given how often people use it simply to denote the crime fiction of any country other than their own, so as to indicate border crossing by readers rather than sleuths. But it is an apt one for Shamini Flint’s series featuring Inspector Singh whose investigations cut a wide swath across Southeast Asia. Inspector Singh is a detective in the Singapore police force, but it seems that his superiors are keen to take advantage of any opportunity to send him on distant, unpalatable assignments. In the first installment of the series, he is sent to Kuala Lumpur to ensure that a Singaporean woman accused of murder is fairly treated by the Malaysian police. In the second, he finds himself on secondment in Bali to assist with anti-terrorism efforts in the wake of a bomb exploding, and in the fourth he is sent to Cambodia as an observer to the international war crimes tribunal in Phnom Penh. (In the third, he stays home in Singapore, but even there it seems that there’s an international dimension given that the murder at the centre of the plot occurs at an international law firm.)The first book in the series, Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder, amply illustrates the richness that such cross-cultural and individually diverse settings can afford. In it, the shared colonial histories of Singapore and Malaysia are highlighted, and current tensions between the countries⎯political, cultural, and religious⎯are mirrored in the interaction between the Singaporean Sikh Inspector Singh, and his Malaysian Moslem counterpart Inspector Mohammad, and also in the details of the case that they must cooperate to solve: the murder of a wealthy Malaysian businessman of which his estranged Singaporean wife, a former model who grew up in poverty, stands accused. The author of the series, Shamini Flint, is a former lawyer who practiced for ten years with an international firm in Singapore and Malaysia before opting to write full time, and she makes excellent use of her legal knowledge in this book. The inner workings of the Malaysian criminal justice system are explored, as are Malaysia’s plural legal regimes, the latter providing a crucial plot point when the murdered man suddenly converted to Islam in order to have a bitter custody battle transferred to Syariah court in the hope of thwarting his wife’s seemingly imminent victory in the secular courts.These facets effectively combine to evoke the strong sense of place that distinguishes much of the best crime fiction, and make for extremely interesting reading. The most appealing feature of the book, though, is Inspector Singh himself. One of the back cover blurbs draws a parallel between him and Precious Ramotswe of Alexander McCall Smith’s Ladies Detective Agency series. I can see why the publishers would stress such a comparison given the enormous popularity of that series. But the comparison is all wrong. Inspector Singh has much more in common with his police procedural brethren such as Martin Beck and Kurt Wallander (methodical, glum, portly and wheezing, at odds with his wife), John Rebus (at odds with his superiors), or even, if we can step into the realm of television for a moment, Lieutenant Columbo (rumpled and underestimated). In her characterization of Inspector Singh, Flint strikes the perfect balance: sufficient familiarity to meet genre expectations, and sufficient novelty to make it feel altogether fresh. I have only read the first book so far and I recommend it enthusiastically. I fully expect that, on further investigation (ha ha), Inspector Singh will join my pantheon of favourite fictional sleuths.[...]

The Lawyers of Children's Literature


(cross-posted from law.arts.culture)I recently reconnected with a childhood friend on Facebook, and she reminded me that, at the age of ten, I was already telling anyone who asked that I was going to be a lawyer when I grew up. As it turns out, I became a law professor, but I remain a paid-up (albeit non-practicing) member of the Saskatchewan Bar, so mission accomplished, more or less. The focus of this post, though, is not the attainment of the goal but what inspired it. Where did I get the idea that a lawyer was a thing to be, and what sort of work did I envision a lawyer doing?There are two of us now, but back then there were no lawyers in my family, or even in my family history. (Recent genealogical research has confirmed the latter perception. I’ve turned up shepherds, coalminers, steelworkers, carpenters, calico printers, tailors, domestic servants, schoolteachers, and even one errant phrenologist, but no lawyers.) Nor were there any lawyers amongst the family members of my friends. My childhood pre-dated the heyday of television legal dramas, so I don’t think that I can locate the inspiration there. I might have caught the odd Perry Mason rerun, but I was already in law school by the time L.A. Law and Street Legal arrived on the small screen.So I can only conclude that, as is true of many of my good ideas, it came from books. But which books? Who are the lawyers of children’s literature? I have thought long and hard about my childhood reading, particularly beloved repeat reads, and I can recall only two fictional lawyers that got more than a passing mention. The first appears in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. The novel details the adventures of eleven-year-old Claudia Kincaid when, feeling underappreciated, she runs away from her suburban Connecticut home with her nine-year-old brother Jamie in tow, and takes up residence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. But the tale is not told by either of the youthful protagonists; the book is narrated by Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, an elderly, eccentric patron of the arts, in the form of a letter to Saxonberg, her lawyer of 41 years, instructing him to change her will and explaining why she wishes him to do so. Throughout, Mrs. Frankweiler represents Saxonberg as no friend of the arts. He’s dull and boring, caring only for law, taxes, and his grandchildren. He’s “never set [his] well-polished toe inside that museum,” and is “altogether unconscious of the magic of Michelangelo.” Though it is apparent by the end that this is not an entirely accurate picture, it nevertheless renders Saxonberg an unlikely role model for my ten-year-old self who had artistic as well as legal aspirations. I might credit the book with stoking my interest in museums and art galleries, and certainly with contributing to the fascination that New York City held for me decades before I ever traveled there. But I rule it out as an early impetus to pursue a legal career.That leaves Carson Drew, “well-known lawyer,” and father to teenage sleuth Nancy Drew. But surely, I thought, Carson Drew played only a bit part in the series, keeping well in the background as parents are wont to do in children's literature to accord child characters plenty of room for independent action. Not so, I found after a bit of rereading. Certainly he doesn't get in the way of Nancy's independence⎯she whisks about the countryside in that enviable blue convertible with his blessing. But he's a solid presence and his legal work is far from an incidental detail. On the first page of the first installment of the series, The Secret of the Old Clock, we're told that he "frequently discussed puzzling aspects of cases with [Nancy]," and thereafter we find that her investigations are sometimes undertaken to assist in his work. Even when her cases are not connected with h[...]

The Very Brief Legal Career of Robert Louis Stevenson


(cross-posted from law.arts.culture)In a previous post, I wrote of lawyer-writers who successfully pursued simultaneous legal and literary careers. Robert Louis Stevenson was not one of them. Indeed, despite years of legal study at the University of Edinburgh, admittance as an advocate after passing his Scots Bar examinations “with credit,” and the above bewigged photograph (taken to please his mother), I don’t think that Stevenson can rightfully be claimed for the law at all.Law wasn’t even his second choice after literature, but his second second choice. He came from a famous family of engineers, known as the Lighthouse Stevensons, and he began in that field. But, according to biographer Claire Harman, after "four years studying at the university" and "three summers on the works," including stints "in a carpenter's shop, a foundry and a timberyard," Stevenson "still couldn't tell one kind of wood from another or make the most basic calculations." Even his father Thomas, who so dearly wished it otherwise, had to concede that Stevenson wasn’t cut out for the family business. That is not to say, however, that he was prepared to endorse a literary career for his son. Stevenson’s cousin Etta tells the story thus:I happened to be in the house when Lou told his father he did not want to continue to be a civil engineer. This was a great blow and a terrible disappointment to Uncle Tom, as for generations the Stevensons had all been very clever civil engineers; and already Lou had gained medals for certain inventions of his in connection with lighthouses. And Uncle Tom was more disappointed still when Lou declared that he wanted to go in for a literary life, as Uncle Tom thought he would make nothing at that⎯in fact that it was just a sort of excuse for leading a lazy life! Eventually it was well talked over, and Uncle Tom said that if he agreed to read for the Bar in order to become an advocate, after passing the examination, if he still persisted in wishing to go in for literature, he would not prevent it, for then he would have a good sound profession at his back.Alas, Stevenson was as indifferent a student of law as he had been of engineering. His friend Charles Guthrie (later Lord Guthrie) recalled, “we did not look for Louis at law lectures, except when the weather was bad.” Harman elaborates: “A notebook that survives from his law studies is peppered with caricatures and doodles, and the few notes there are on Roman citizenship segue with comical readiness into a much more engaging daydream containing lines of a later poem.” Andrew Murray (later Lord Dunedin), stated bluntly that, although he and Stevenson were “very good friends,” they “did not really see much of each other” even as fellow law students, for: “I was interested in my profession⎯a profession which he frankly cared nothing about.”If, in the words of another friend, John Geddie, Stevenson paid only "desultory attention" in his law classes, he did buckle down to study for the Bar examinations. But this study awakened no new interest in the subject, and it interfered with the work that really mattered to him. In a letter to Fanny Sitwell (later his wife), dated April 1875, he lamented: “I had no time to write, and, as it is, am strangely incapable. [...] I have been reading such lots of law, and it seems to take away the power of writing from me. From morning to night, so often as I have a spare moment, I am in the embrace of a law book - barren embraces."Stevenson passed the examinations and was admitted to the Bar on July 14th, 1875. For a time thereafter, as was the custom, he "walk[ed] about the Parliament House five forenoons a week, in wig and gown," seeking work from solicitors with cases before the Courts. He was not altogether unsuccessful in this endeavour. Guthrie recounted: "I do indeed remember [...]

Poetry & Law: M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!


(cross-posted from law.arts.culture)Poetry and law may seem to some as incommensurable as dancing and architecture. Not so, according to M. NourbeSe Philip: “Law and poetry both share an inexorable concern with language⎯the “right” use of the “right” words, phrases, or even marks of punctuation; precision of expression is the goal shared by both.” But language may be used to very different ends in each realm: “The law uses language as a tool for ordering; in the instant case, however, I want poetry to disassemble the ordered, to create disorder and mayhem so as to release the story that cannot be told, but which, through not-telling, will tell itself.”The story that cannot be told, the subject of Philip's most recent collection of poems, is that of the Zong massacre. In September 1781, the slave ship Zong set sail from the east coast of Africa bound for Jamaica under the stewardship of Captain Luke Collingwood. The "cargo" consisted of 470 Africans. The voyage should have taken six to nine weeks but, due to navigational errors, stretched into four months. By the end of November, sixty Africans had died "for want of water for sustenance," and forty more had thrown themselves into the sea "through thirst and frenzy thereby occasioned." A further 150 Africans were then flung into the sea to their deaths on the orders of the Captain who believed that if they died on board by "natural causes," the owners would have to bear the loss, whereas if they died by drowning, the loss would be covered by the owners' insurance policy as attributable to "the perils of the sea."Back home in England, a famous case resulted: Gregson v. Gilbert. It was not a murder trial, since the Africans who had been killed were regarded as chattels not as human beings, but rather a legal dispute that turned on the finer points of insurance law. The insurers refused to pay the owners' claim, and the owners challenged that refusal in court. The owners won in the initial trial, but the jury's decision was overturned on appeal by the Court of King's Bench.Philip describes that King's Bench decision, the only part of the litigation to make its way into the law reports, as "the tombstone, the one public marker of the murder of those Africans on board the Zong," and she opts to limit herself to that text, using it as "a word store" for the composition of her book-length sequence of poems. She literally deconstructs the decision, pulling apart the words with which it is composed, then rearranging them to construct her own text. Through the alchemy of poetry, she also thereby reconstructs the African passengers, so present aboard the ship, yet peculiarly absent from the legal decision. "In Zong!," Philip writes, "the African, transformed into a thing by the law, is re-transformed, miraculously, back into human."These are poems in which the placement of the words on the page is as important as the meaning that those words convey. In the early poems, the words are spread thinly across the page, the spaces making visible the absence of African bodies and voices. But as the sequence continues, the poems become denser and denser, the words tumbling over one another, sometimes scoring one another out. The effect is disorienting, disturbing, and, ultimately, extremely powerful.I recommend reading the book at least twice, the first time approaching the poems fresh, taking them on their own terms. Then again after having read the material appended at the end (Philip's essay on the writing of the book, from which I've quoted above, and a copy of the Gregson v. Gilbert decision) to more fully appreciate how Philip has illuminated injustice by making poetry out of law.[...]

"What must it have been like to have been curious, intelligent, and a woman in 1815?"



The following excerpt from a letter written by Rosana Beecher (nee Foote, mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe & 12 other children) to her sister-in-law prompted biographer Joan Hedrick to ask the poignant question: "What must it have been like to have been curious, intelligent, and a woman in 1815? (And Rosana Foote was among the privileged⎯what of Zillah and Rachel in the kitchen)?":

Would now write you a long letter, if it were not for several vexing circumstances, such as the weather extremely cold, storm violent, and no wood cut; Mr. Beecher gone; and Sabbath day, with company⎯a clergyman, a stranger; Catharine sick; George almost so; Rachel's finger cut off, and she crying and groaning with the pain. Mr. Beecher is gone to preach at New Hartford, and did not provide us wood enough to last, seeing the weather has grown so exceedingly cold....As for reading, I average perhaps one page a week, besides what I do on Sundays. I expect to be obliged to be contented (if I can) with the stock of knowledge I already possess, except what I can glean from the conversation of others....Mary has, I suppose, told you of the discovery that the fixed alkalies are metallic oxyds. I first saw the notice in the "Christian Observer." I have since seen it in an "Edinburgh Review." The former mentioned that the metals have been obtained by means of the galvanic battery; the latter mentions another, and, they say, better mode. I think that is all the knowledge I have obtained in the whole circle of arts and sciences of late; if you have been more fortunate, pray let me reap the benefit.

Roxana died a year later of tuberculosis at the age of forty-one.

(From Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (1994). The illustration that accompanies this post is of the Hartford Female Seminary, founded by Harriet's elder sister Catharine in 1823, an important institution in the history of women's education in the United States.)

Robert Louis Stevenson and Edinburgh


Edmund Gosse on Robert Louis Stevenson and Edinburgh:

Stevenson was not very happy in Edinburgh, and yet not perfectly happy anywhere else. He was severe on the climate and architecture of Edinburgh, but when Glasgow people rejoiced he told them to wait a while, for he had not written his book about Glasgow yet. Stevenson told me that, as a youth, he used to hang over the Waverley Bridge watching the trains start southward and longing to start too. He shrank from the cold for he was delicate; and he shrank from the somewhat excessive piety that surrounded him. But he loved Edinburgh with a passionate love, and in the tropical atmosphere of Samoa he was always longing to go back to the Gray Metropolis of the North.

(From Rosaline Massin, ed., I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson, 1922.)

The book obliquely referred to above is doubtless Stevenson's Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, one of my favourites. For some choice quotations from it, the city in Stevenson's own words, click here.

Edgar Allan Poe on Charles Dickens



Edgar Allan Poe was well-known as a savage literary critic, but he had high praise for Charles Dickens. Here are a couple of paragraphs from his 1841 review in Graham's Magazine of Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop:

It embodies more originality in every point, but in character especially, than any single work within our knowledge. There is the grandfather⎯a truly profound conception; the gentle and lovely Nelly⎯we have discoursed of her before; Quilp, with mouth like that of the panting dog (a bold idea which the engraver has neglected to embody), with his hilarious antics, his cowardice, and his very petty and spoilt-child-like malevolence; Dick Swiveller, that prince of good-hearted, good-for-nothing, lazy, luxurious, poetical, brave, romantically generous, gallant, affectionate, and not over-and-above honest, "glorious Apollos"; the marchioness, his bride; Tom Codlin and his partner; Miss Sally Brass, that "fine fellow"; the pony that had an opinion of its own; the boy that stood upon his head; the sexton; the man at the forge; not forgetting the dancing dogs and baby Nubbles. There are other, admirably drawn characters; but we note these for their remarkable originality, as well as their wonderful keeping, and the glowing colours in which they are painted. We have heard some of them called caricatures, but the charge is grossly ill-founded. No critical principle is more firmly based in reason than that a certain amount of exaggeration is essential in the proper depicting of truth itself. We do not paint an object to be true, but to appear true to the beholder. Were we to copy nature with accuracy, the object copied would seem unnatural.


In truth, the great feature of the "Curiosity Shop" is its chaste, vigorous, and glorious imagination. This is the one charm, all potent, which alone would suffice to compensate for a world more of error than Mr. Dickens ever committed. It is not only seen in the conception, and general handling of the story, or in the invention of character; but it pervades every sentence of the book. We recognize its prodigious influence in every inspired word. It is this which induces the reader, who is at all ideal, to pause frequently, to reread the occasionally quaint phrases, to muse in uncontrollable delight over the thoughts which, while he wonders he has never hit upon them before, he yet admits that he never has encountered. In fact, it is the wand of the enchanter.

It counters the standard vision of Poe nicely, does it not, to think of him chuckling over Dickens?

(Poe's review is reproduced in Robert L. Hough, ed., The Literary Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, 1965.)

A Foray into Italian Crime Fiction: Gianrico Carofiglio's Involuntary Witness


(cross-posted from my new blog, law.arts.culture)A couple of months ago, when I tweeted a link to an article in the Observer that heralded “a new wave of Italian crime writers,” I quickly received a flurry of replies insisting that, of the writers mentioned therein, Gianrico Carofiglio was the one whose work I must sample without delay. One of my correspondents went so far as to dub Guido Guerrieri, the character at the centre of Carofiglio’s series of legal thrillers, “an Italian Philip Marlowe.”Intrigued as I was by this description, it initially struck me as unlikely, given how thoroughly a product of 1930s and 40s Los Angeles Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe seems to me to be. But even if Marlowe is rooted in his time and place, noir certainly travels. The success of Akashic Books’ marvelous noir anthologies which serve up hardboiled crime stories from every corner of the globe amply demonstrates that point. It was undoubtedly the noir quality of Carofiglio’s books which my correspondent was lauding and, having now read Involuntary Witness, the first book featuring world-weary criminal defense lawyer Guido Guerrieri, I can echo the recommendation of him as a most intriguing noir antihero.At the beginning of the book, Guerrieri’s wife leaves him and, despite the fact that he hadn’t seemed particularly invested in his marriage, this provokes something of a breakdown. It’s an existential crisis. Guerrieri hasn’t lost his life’s purpose so much as the illusion that he had a purpose in life. Work provides no counter-balance to his unraveling personal life for, there too, he realizes he has long been deluding himself. He had not become a lawyer out of a passion for justice as he had sometimes tried to convince himself. Rather, he “had become a lawyer by sheer chance, because [he] had found nothing better to do or wasn’t up to looking for it.” He had just been marking time in practice, “waiting for [his] ideas to clarify.” His wife’s departure brings a now unwelcome clarity: “Then the lid blew off and from the pan emerged a lot of things I had never imagined and didn’t want to see. That no one would want to see.”But in the end, it is his work as a lawyer that brings him back to himself and into the world, when he is engaged to defend Abdou Thiam, a 31-year-old Senegalese pedlar who has been charged with the murder of a 9-year-old Italian boy. Thiam had been seen speaking to the boy on the beach on a number of occasions, and has been found to have a photo of him as well as some children’s books among his possessions. A bar owner has said that he witnessed Thiam walking towards the boy’s grandparents’ home on the day in question, and one of his fellow pedlars has said that he saw Thiam washing his car the day after. This tissue of circumstantial evidence, through the lens of the racism of witnesses, police, lawyers, and judges, is thought to add up to an airtight case. Guerrieri has no faith in his capacity to counter it, and initially advises Thiam to opt for “the shortened procedure” which would rule out an acquittal but perhaps lead to something less than a life sentence. But Thiam protests his innocence and wants to fight for an acquittal. Guerrieri’s growing belief in and sense of responsibility to his client, and the challenge of the trial gradually bring him back to life.This is not a mystery novel. No attempt is made to get to the bottom of the question of who committed the murder. All of the suspense relates to the outcome of the trial. Following the process from beginning to end offers some fascinating glimpses into the Italian legal system. (The author served for many years as an anti-mafia prosecutor in Bari, the sam[...]

Lawyer-Writers: Louis Auchincloss's Compromise


(Cross-posted from my new blog, law.arts.culture)The first fiction that I assign in my Law and Literature class each year is a couple of stories by lawyer-writers. I do this partly to provide inspiration to students who are writers and who fear that embarking on a legal career will mean abandoning their literary aspirations. But mostly, because it seems to me that one of the best ways to begin an exploration of the connections and tensions between law and literature is in the company of guides who straddle the boundary. On both counts, Louis Auchincloss fits the bill perfectly.Auchincloss, who died last year at the age of ninety-two, spent forty years practicing law in a Wall Street firm, and also published more than sixty books in his lifetime, including forty-seven works of fiction. His star has never burned as brightly in the literary firmament as those of fellow New Yorkers Edith Wharton and Henry James, but his work garners sufficient respect that his name is sometimes mentioned alongside theirs.As he revealed in his 1964 memoir, A Writer’s Capital, by virtue of his family, Auchincloss felt himself situated at the intersection of law and literature almost from birth. His father practiced corporate law at a single New York firm for fifty-seven years, and his mother was “an omnivorous reader” whose “literary opinions were pungent, incisive, always interesting,” and she was a skilled storyteller besides.That’s not to say that law and literature fell into an easy accord for Auchincloss in adulthood. He spent many years zigzagging between the two pursuits. Initially, he doubted his literary powers, and was all but resigned to the idea that it was his destiny to follow his father into the legal profession: “I believed … that a man born to the responsibilities of a brownstone bourgeois world could only be an artist or writer if he were a genius, that he should not kick over the traces unless a resounding artistic success, universally recognized, should justify his otherwise ridiculous deviation. The world might need second-class lawyers and doctors; it did not need a second-class artist.” Perhaps it's not surprising then that when his first novel, written as a Yale undergraduate, was rejected, he promptly enrolled in law school. Auchincloss found, to his surprise, that he enjoyed the study of law: “For what was a case but a short story? What was the law but language?” For a time, his duties on law review served as a satisfying substitute for fiction writing. But once he’d graduated and taken a job in practice, the fiction bug bit again. He spent all his spare time writing and before long he had a couple of published novels under his belt. It didn't interfere with his legal work and the partners at his firm regarded his writing good-naturedly as an interesting quirk. But if the writing didn’t interfere with his legal work, he feared that the same could not be said in reverse: “I was increasingly bothered by a nagging apprehension that I might be slighting my literary muse by not devoting myself full time to her.” Once again, Auchincloss felt he must choose and this time he chose literature. He resigned from the firm to write full time. But after only a couple of years, he realized that this was a failed experiment: “To sum up the account of my nonlegal years, they added nothing to my stature as a writer. The main thing about them, of course, was to have been time, but even that proved an undependable friend. My writing hours increased, but both the quantity and quality of my writing remained the same.” Auchincloss continued to write but also returned to practice: “People ask me how I manage to write and practice[...]

Charles Dickens' 1844 Copyright Suit


(Cross-posted from my new blog law.arts.culture)In January 1844, Charles Dickens launched a copyright suit in the Court of Chancery against printers and publishers Richard Egan Lee and John Haddock.Dickens’ A Christmas Carol had been published on December 19, 1843, and not quite three weeks later, on January 6th, Lee & Haddock’s version, “re-originated” by Henry Hewitt, had appeared for sale under the title A Christmas Ghost Story. An outraged Dickens instructed his solicitor to “stop the Vagabonds” at once. Over a whirlwind three days, his bill of complaint was filed, and an interim injunction sought and obtained.Dickens was known to be an advocate of copyright, having caused quite a stir during his 1842 visit to the U.S. with speeches agitating for an international agreement. But despite having been a frequent victim of domestic piracy, he had never before taken legal action to enforce the copyright protection available to him at home.Why, then, did he act with such alacrity in January 1844? Perhaps because his hopes for A Christmas Carol were so high. Dickens had attained enormous success by this time, but his fortunes appeared to be on the wane. Critics had not been enthusiastic about his most recent books, and sales had dropped so precipitously that his publishers were poised to invoke a contractual clause that entitled them to reduce their payments to him accordingly. Indeed, their faith in the marketability of his work had soured to the extent that they rejected A Christmas Carol. Dickens had to self-publish, taking all of the responsibility and the risks upon himself. But he did not hesitate to do so, so convinced was he that the book would revive his critical status and earn him a quick profit as well.Dickens’ confidence proved well founded. The reviews were raves; even William Thackeray, usually his harshest critic, had nothing negative to say, pronouncing A Christmas Carol to be "a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness." The book went through three printings in two weeks, with 15,000 copies sold in that space of time ⎯extraordinary numbers given the steep price of 5 shillings charged for each lavishly produced volume. But that lavishness, particularly the inclusion of colour plates, rendered the profit margin very slim, so runaway success though it was, many more copies would have to be sold before Dickens could pocket the “thousand pounds clear” on which he had set his heart.Thus Dickens’ concern over the potential undercutting of sales by Lee & Haddock’s penny edition was understandable. But if bringing suit against them was initially a business decision, the affidavits they filed in support of their motion to dissolve the interim injunction transformed it into a matter of personal honour.Lee & Haddock maintained that A Christmas Ghost Story was not simply a copy of A Christmas Carol, but a considerable improvement upon it, and hence an original work. Henry Hewitt had, it was averred, “tastefully remedied” the “defects and inconsistencies” in Dickens’ work, and supplemented it with “a more artistical style of expression” and “large original additions.” For example, Lee pointed out, where Dickens had made only a brief mention of Tiny Tim singing a song about a child lost in the snow, Hewitt had penned an original song of sixty lines that was “replete with pathos and poetry.” They went further to allege that Dickens was in fact indebted to Hewitt, having obtained “the germs of many of his works” from the “hints” and “criticisms” contained in Hewitt’s earlier re-originations of The Old Curiosity Sh[...]

Maggie Gee's My Animal Life



I'm currently reading Maggie Gee's memoir, My Animal Life, with great pleasure. Here are a couple of passages from early in the book to give you a sense of Gee's voice and the terrain that she covers:

     Why call this book My Animal Life?
     Not to degrade my life, but to celebrate it. To join it, tiny though it is, to all the life in the universe. To the brown small-headed pheasant running by the lake in Coolham. To my grandparents and parents, and my great grandparents who like most people in the British Isles of their generation wore big boots, even for the rare occasions of photographs, and lived on the clayey land, and have returned their bones to it, joining the bones of cattle, horses, foxes. To the blind out-of-season bee bombing the glass of this window. To link, in a way I only learned to do in my thirties, my mental life to the body I love and enjoy, to my secret sexual life and my life as a mother.

And a bit further on:

     I am writing this book to ask questions—to which I do not know the answer. How can we be happy? What do men want? What do women want? What do children need from us?
     Can I save my belief in the soul from my love of science?
     How can we bear to lose those we love most?
     How do we recover from our mistakes—our many mistakes?
     How do we forgive ourselves? And our parents?
     Why do we need art? Why are we driven to make it?
     And class: Can we ever really change it?

I've been reading a lot of nonfiction this year, in part because I've been writing a lot of nonfiction, and I've been on a bit of a quest to figure out what, beyond interesting content, makes good nonfiction good. Suffice it to say that, so far, on that front, My Animal Life is a model and an inspiration.

An Interview with Robert J. Wiersema About His New Novel Bedtime Story


Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Bedtime Story, was one of the books that I most eagerly anticipated this publishing season, and it fully lived up to my expectations. It's a book about being swept away by reading, the reading of which utterly swept me away. I won't say any more than that by way of preamble, as I don't want to give away a single plot twist, but I'm confident that you'll find much to pique your interest in it in my interview with Robert below.KS: Bedtime Story very viscerally evokes the intensity of childhood reading experiences. What books did you read as a child that provided that kind of magic for you?RJW: My whole childhood, I think, was a wonderland of books. To say I was a bookish kid doesn't really do it justice. I was born with a clubfoot, and an inborn aversion to sports, so books were my world. Worlds, actually. Because everything I read took me away from myself and the world I knew. Which wasn't difficult: I grew up in a one-stoplight town; everything was elsewhere. I started off reading non-fiction. I was fascinated with dinosaurs, and space travel, and arcane secrets. Once I realized the power of fiction, though, I was completely gone. Books like Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and The Wind in the Door, which transported me across dimensions. John Bellairs' The House With A Clock In Its Walls, which terrified me then, and still does now. Thinking about it, the last book I can remember working that sort of magic for me as a child was Geoffrey Trease's Cue For Treason. That book took me away, back into Elizabethan England, back into the orbit of Shakespeare. Written in 1940, it's very much a Boy's Own Story, but it got me. Right in the heart. That's the book that inspired the book within Bedtime Story, though they're absolutely nothing alike. KS: Being read to, and not just reading, is of central importance in the novel. Christopher Knox continues to read to his son David past his eleventh birthday, an age by which many parents would have stopped. This is partly because of the dyslexia that prevents David from reading easily on his own, but there are deeper reasons for continuing the ritual. Can you reflect a bit on the nature of the bond that creates, and if there are ways that we might wish to carry the experience of being read to into adulthood?I think there's nothing more intimate (well…) than the bond created over a book. I'm biased, of course, as a writer, bookseller and reviewer. In a lot of ways, my whole life is based around that belief. Whether it's writing a book, or handselling a book, or recommending a book, there’s a level of intimate exchange: you're trusting someone with a piece of yourself – whether they're your own words, or someone else's – and trusting them to recognize that it's a gift, and not to scorn it. Which sounds, now that I read it back, a bit overdramatic, but it's not. At least, it’s not for me. With reading to a child, it's an extension of the other nourishment that parents provide. You’re feeding them, mind and soul. But it’s more than that, I think. The act of reading to a child creates a deep bond, a moment (at bedtime especially) of connection, of meeting across someone else's words. Cori does the bedtime reading in our house most of the time, and I get to watch, from the bedroom door, the sheer power of that bond, and just how important it is. That's where Chris and David's bedtime ritual comes from. And I think that bond can exist for adults as well, though, naturally, without the parental overtones. There's something so intimate about sharing a book. Reading a book aloud t[...]

Call for Presentations: L.M. Montgomery and the Leaskdale Years (1911-1926)



The Lucy Maud Montgomery Society of Ontario is hosting a three-day celebration in October 2011 to mark the centenary of L.M. Montgomery's arrival in Leaskdale, Ontario from Prince Edward Island. You can see from the above poster that they've already got a number of speakers lined up for the event (yes, I'm giddy to be included on the list among so many of my LMM scholar heroes!). But they're also putting out a general call for proposals for 20-minute presentations that focus on Montgomery in the Leaskdale years (1911-1926). Proposals of 200-250 words should be sent to by January 5, 2011.

Talk: L.M. Montgomery's Legal Battles with Her Publisher


I'll be giving a talk on Friday afternoon at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, in Toronto on L.M. Montgomery's legal battles with her first U.S. publisher, L.C. Page and Company. The event is the first Feminist Friday of the year, part of a series hosted by Osgoode's Institute for Feminist Legal Studies. It's open to the public, and I expect it will be good fun, so please come if you're in Toronto and you're interested in hearing me and my colleague Shelley Kierstead speak. Also, I understand that Osgoode's new dean, Lorne Sossin, has graciously agreed to serve as commentator. You can find all the details on the poster below:


And if you need help finding Osgoode Hall Law School on the York University campus, maps are available here.

Jane Austen's Fight Club


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Jane Austen's Fight Club: "No corsets, no hatpins, and no crying."

(via Jezebel)

An Interview with Kathleen Winter About Her New Novel Annabel


Annabel is the story of an intersex baby, born in a Labrador village in 1968. Mother Jacinta and her friend Thomasina, also present at the birth, initially avoid assigning the baby a pronoun, wanting to keep all possibilities open. But father Treadway decides that the baby will be raised as a boy, Wayne. Medical intervention and relentless socialization by Treadway in the very masculine hunting culture of Labrador render Wayne visibly male. But Jacinta and Thomasina quietly nurture Wayne's hidden female self, Thomasina even bestowing on Wayne the name of the daughter she has recently lost, Annabel. The novel spans twenty years, tracing Wayne's sometimes harrowing voyage of self-discovery, and also those of Jacinta, Thomasina, and Treadway as they come to terms with Wayne's identity and their own.Annabel is a very powerful and thought-provoking novel. I have not stopped pondering it since I finished reading, so I was very pleased when author Kathleen Winter agreed to answer some of my questions. My interview with her is posted below.KS: One of the epigraphs with which the novel opens is from Virginia Woolf's Orlando. That’s one of my favourite books, and I think I would have thought of it as I read even without the epigraph given that you explore some of the same questions about gender identity across time and space in Annabel. Can you tell me about some of the influences or inspirations, literary or otherwise, behind Annabel?KW: I have had a lot of literary inspiration: Heinrich Boll, for his tenderness and humanity in books like The Bread of those Early Years; Virginia Woolf for her novels but also her diaries; E.M. Forster for his explorations of the barricades of class and gender; Roald Dahl for his explosive insistence on dark truth with one hairline fracture of golden light; Katherine Mansfield for her attention to detail and, again, her tenderness – I'm thinking here of "I seen the little lamp" in Mansfield's The Doll's House. KS: Annabel is deeply rooted in the Labrador landscape. There's a lovely line near the beginning about the relationship of people to land there: "No one minded being an extra in the land's story." What drew you to this landscape in your writing? KW: In Annabel I depicted the Labrador landscape as a magnetic force that gives off its own energy and seems to have visible light emanating from the ground. This is what I saw when I was there. I also saw people who are expansive in their thinking, and I think the big land and sky and rock and water are inside the people in a way that doesn't happen everywhere. And the land is generous. If you go there you can partake of this breathing between flesh, spirit and ground, if you are open to it. I felt this when I was there, and I tried to put it in the book. KS: That rootedness notwithstanding, there's a lot of travel in Annabel, with characters moving between Labrador, St. John's, Boston and Europe. Travel often represents reinvention in literature, but nearly all of the characters in Annabel seem to become more themselves away from home. Every journey is somehow an inward one. Can you reflect a bit on the connection drawn here between travel and self-knowledge? KW: I hadn't thought of this consciously but I guess Wayne, Thomasina and Treadway do become more themselves away from home. It isn't that they don't change – they shift their inner cogs considerably – but you are right, those shifts are shifts toward greater self-expression, not towards somethi[...]

Rereading Anne of Ingleside


After this latest reread, Anne of Ingleside remains my least favourite Anne book, and my least favourite but one L.M. Montgomery novel. Anne's children are noxiously cute and her perfect motherhood cloying. But I'm glad to have dipped back into it all the same for the dark undercurrent in it that intrigues me. I remembered the story of Peter Kirk's funeral, and of Anne and Gilbert's anniversary reunion with Christine Stuart as strong points of the book. But I don't think that I'd noticed before that most of the rest of the episodes in it, even the cutesy kid ones, are also tales of disillusionment. I'm looking forward to reading The Blythes are Quoted with this fresh in my mind and thinking about these books together as examplars of what editor Benjamin Lefebvre terms Montgomery's "late style." Also, speaking of style, this time around I appreciated how well structured Anne of Ingleside is, weaving deftly through seasons and years and in and out of key moments in different characters' lives, and thereby painting a rich picture of the Blythe household and the broader Glen St. Mary community. Finally, the meeting of Susan Baker and Rebecca Dew, two of my favourite characters in Montgomery's oeuvre and indeed in literature generally, is in itself worth the price of admission. What fun Montgomery must have had writing that bit of dialogue and the correspondence that followed. On now to a reread of Rainbow Valley.

National Divisions Hide More than They Reveal


Another passage from Nick Mount's When Canadian Literature Moved to New York that I can't resist sharing:

But however legitimate a concern for cultural nationalists, for the literary historian, national divisions hide more than they reveal. A national focus was essential for recognizing Canadian literature's arrival, and it remains essential for periodically reaffirming its health, but it cannot explain the actual circumstances of much of that literature's production. No national model can account for [Bliss] Carman writing the first of his Vagabondia poems after reading an English law book in a New York library, or for Palmer Cox creating his Brownies by combining the Scottish legends he heard as a child in Quebec with the skills he acquired as a cartoonist in California, or for Ernest Thompson Seton submitting his career-launching story about a New Mexico wolf to a New York magazine because he was urged to do so by a Toronto economist⎯or indeed for the circumstances that produced any literary work, in any literature.

Late 19th century focus notwithstanding, this still resonates today. For a bit more on Mount's book, see my post below.