Tuesday, December 17, 2013

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!

Saturday, September 01, 2012

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.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

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!

Monday, April 30, 2012

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.

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.

Friday, April 06, 2012

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.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

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.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

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 his, they tend to focus on legal matters (wills, trusts, contracts, and patents, alongside the more readily anticipated counterfeiting, theft, and kidnapping), and legal information or advice from him or one of his colleagues often proves pivotal in solving the mysteries. Further, when her father praises her investigative prowess, the compliments are sometimes couched in legal terms. "'You sound like a trial lawyer, the way you cross-examine me,' Mr. Drew protested, but with evident enjoyment." And later: "Excellent deducting."

Perhaps, then, I fancied that lawyers' work involved Nancy Drew style investigation but with a paycheque attached, and I really ought to have set my sights on a career as a private detective. If it was Nancy rather than Carson Drew who served as primary role model and inspiration, then I'm in good legal company, standing with the likes of U.S. Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. Still, I can't help but think that for me, and perhaps for them too, the legal aspect contributed to the allure.

But the notable lawyers of children's literature must number more than two. Who have I missed? Please share any names that occur to you in the comments section below.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

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 one morning in the Parliament House, when he came dancing up to me waving a bundle of legal papers in great glee: 'Guthrie, that simpleton So-and-so has actually sent me a case! Now I have tasted blood, idle fellows like you will see what I can do!'" But he was not offered many briefs, and he accepted even fewer. Guthrie made reference to only "four complimentary pieces of employment [Stevenson] is said to have received, the fees for which did not run into two figures."

Stevenson wrote to Fanny that he found it "a great pleasure to sit and hear cases argued or advised,” but nevertheless bemoaned the fact that: "I lose all my forenoons at Court!" Before long, he gave up the charade and devoted himself full time to writing. The brass nameplate engraved "R.L. Stevenson, Advocate" that his parents had affixed to the door of their home at 17 Heriot Row remained, but Stevenson no longer walked the halls of Parliament House in wig and gown. In fact, he soon quitted Edinburgh, and Scotland, altogether.

Stevenson "had no natural taste for the law," Guthrie concluded. Nor, it seems to have been generally agreed among his legal friends, did he have any particular talent for it. So Stevenson's defection was no great loss to the law. But it was a great gain to literature. And his keen readers, among whom I count myself, can be grateful that, in the end, he chose a literary life.


Sidney Colvin, ed., The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (1900).

Lord Guthrie, Robert Louis Stevenson: Some Personal Recollections (1920).

Claire Harman, Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography (2005).

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

* The above photo of Robert Louis Stevenson as an advocate is from the digital collection of the National Library of Scotland.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

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.