Archive for November, 2008

It is a universal truth that a reader in want of a good read returns time and again to the backcatalogue of a favourite author.  What’s less well known is that there is always one book that puts the dampers on the unmitigated enthusiasm.

I can be thankful, therefore, that Beware of Pity, was not my first encounter with Stefan Zweig because it would have been my last.  I read Zweig for the intensity of the experience, emotional highs and lows like no other.  His novellas and short stories are first-class and it is perhaps their brevity that makes them so.  I recently read the collection Amok and Other Stories, the high point of which was the final story, Incident on Lake Geneva.  A WWI Russian deserter is stranded in Switzerland while trying to make his way home. The man’s isolation, incomprehension and despair oozing from every syllable on the page despite his not being able to communicate with the Swiss villagers.  Very involving, very painful, very dramatic.   As a reader, I was devastated even though the ending had been foreshadowed from the start.  Literary control, high emotion, short, sharp and very far from sweet, all in 10 pages.

That same intensity doesn’t map well, though, to a novel of 361 pages.  It’s very wearing.  More so when the narrative voice is monotonous and the situation doesn’t elicit sympathy from the reader. I found the tone more agonising than agony.  A smidgeon of common sense and the whole drama/tragedy would have been avoided.  Of course,  that would have meant no novel, but perhaps it would have been better if Zweig had stuck to his favourite novella format.

He certainly retains novella-writing techniques in Beware of Pity.  The pages are punctuated by stories within stories.  The main event, itself,  is sandwiched between a prologue and epilogue that take place many years later.  An effect that  works well in depicting the change in moral outlook brought on by World War I.  After all, the conscience of a lieutenant,  who has killed many,  is no longer affected by the death of one individual to whom he had behaved less than honourably before the war. 

Or had he? The epigram is telling:


One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.

It’s a given that the lieutenant’s actions are governed by the first kind of pity but, instead of walking away after making a particularly blunt faux-pas at a ball (he asks a crippled girl to dance), he tries to rectify his error by befriending her.  His motives are mistaken for romantic interest but instead of clarifying the situation early on, he allows himself to be sucked in.  His honour as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army is at stake.  An author’s note emphasises that this sense of honour was tied to a special moral code, higher than that of society at general.  A code that led to the mental conflict central to the book and a code that was shattered during the 1914-1918 war.  Zweig seems to be saying that this dilemma couldn’t happen in the time he was writing of it and it certainly wouldn’t happen now.  This reader simply wishes that it hadn’t happened at all.

Beware of Pity

Amok and Other Stories   (Incident on Lake Geneva )

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Three months ago while I was bloggish feverishly about my adventures at the EBF, I was also reading some astounding literature.  Time has been of the essence since then and I am still trying to catch up on a review or two.  Having burned itself into my mind, Robert Cormier’s young-adult classic from 1974 is a must blog.  So here I am must-blogging.

34 years after its initial publication The Chocolate War recognised as one of the best young adult titles ever, remains one of the most challenged books in the USA – challenged in the sense that parents do not believe it should be part of the school curriculum nor should it be stocked on library shelves.  Its themes of corruption, betrayal, vicitimization and conspiracy within a boy’s private school are portrayed in a vivid and uncompromising way.  The cruelty of the boys to each other, the helplessness of the victims and the bravery of the young protagonist Jerry Renault who “dares to disturb the universe” simply leap from the pages.  From the sinister first chapter in which Jerry rejoicing in his skill as a rugby player, is watched by two members of the Vigils, the school’s secret society, you know it is all going to end in a train wreck.  The shock quotient is phenomenal – off the scale almost.  How are the Vigils allowed to rule the roost?  Because the head master, Brother Leon, is complicit.  The Vigils, without knowing it, serve his purposes.

Yet along the way there is riotous laughter – such as the lesson in which the classroom furniture collapses because all the screws have been removed from it.  A chapter which lightens the mood but serves a literary purpose also.  A foreshadowing of the tragedy to come.  As with the furniture, each support is systematically removed from Jerry, before the knockout blow is delivered.

I was reading from behind my fingers. The book is unbearable to watch, yet impossible to put down.  My blood pressure has risen while writing this review.  Worse still, there’s a sequel.  The Chocolate War ending as a second war begins to brew – a civil war within the Vigils.  There’s a few characters needing their comeuppance.   Will they get it in Beyond the Chocolate War, I wonder?


WINNER 1974 – School Library Journal Best Books of the Year
WINNER 1974 – ALA Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER 1974 – ALA the Best of the Best Books for Young Adults
WINNER 1974 – New York Times Notable Books of the Year

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ISBN: 0199230862
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Copy


Things have been turning somewhat sinister on this blog recently – what with turnings of the screw and flutterings of the raven.  Ideal time then to focus James Hall’s analysis of the sinister side in art – sinister, as in Latin for left.

The Sinister Side – subtitled “How left-handed symbolism shaped Western Art” – explores the choices the artists make when painting their masterpieces.  Should the subject present their left or their right side? What difference does it make to the meaning of the picture? It something I’d never considered before and Hall is turning it into a fascinating discussion. 
Fuseli The Nightmare (Right) 

What, for instance, are the differences in interpretation in Fuseli’s two paintings of the nightmare?

I love my allegories in literature – understanding the allegories in art is just as engrossing. Why, for instance, has Cardinal Archtinto’s left-side been occluded by a veil in Titian’s painting shown on the dust jacket and how does this point to his spiritual rebirth?

We lefthanders (and there you have my declaration of interest) have been served a raw deal throughout the ages.  The connection between the left hand and evil runs back centuries, the image not aided by the modern associations of the original Latin word, sinister.  It wasn’t all that long ago that teachers tied pupils’ left hands behind their backs.  After all

Righthandedness is the price to pay for a more perfect and accomplished civilization; this is why left-handedness seems to be an archaicism, a return to the primitive state. (Anonymous, “Left-handedness”, Medical Record, New York 1886.)

And for more prejudice, have a look at all the slang – mostly derogatory – that has been created to malign the k-podders (term used by my Lancastrian mother, the etymology of which I cannot track down).

So, it was a relief, to find that not all left-hand associations are negative.  Indeed in the fifteenth century, the left-hand was regarded as the beautiful hand, the hand of truth, of honour, of love .. which is why 8 of the 9 characters are presenting their left sides in Botticelli’s beautiful Primavera.

Botticelli - Primavera

Botticelli - Primavera

I’m about half-way through Hall’s magnum opus.  Taking it slowly, browsing.  Looking forward immensely to the second-half in which I will meet up with my favourite German painter, Caspar David Friedrich and discover how Picasso used left-handed symbolism in his cubist works.  Though how anyone can find anything left or right-handed in this is an absolute mystery to me at this moment.

Ma Jolie

Picasso - Ma Jolie


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Let’s hear the fanfare – Lizzy’s read a poem! Thanks to the wackiness of Jasper Fforde.

One of the questions on the reading group guide to the Eyre affair was:  “Which sentence do you think is worsedeath by a silver bullet to the heart or an eternity trapped in Poe’s “The Raven”? ”  Completely unanswerable if you’re unfamiliar with the Poe’s ominous black bird.

A quick virtual trolley dash (because the book’s not available at my library) and I found myself in possession of a delightful edition, published by Dodo Press.  (Serendipity at work here as all those familiar with Fforde’s pet dodos will understand.)  In addition to a rather incomprehensible mid-C19th introduction (let’s hear it for 21st century plain English), there’s a series of a dozen dark gothic drawings, emphasising the ominous foreboding atmosphere.

Don’t ask me to comment on meter, cadence and other poetic subtleties – I need to work on my poetry appreciation skills.  Regardless I was utterly transported by the strong narrative.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.’

Read the remainder here.




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Giveaway admin

Amazingly, I have an unclaimed giveaway!

So here’s the random number generator rerun:

Here are your random numbers:

3 Timestamp: 2008-11-20 06:49:41 UTC.

Janice, Charles Cummings is on his way to you. Lucky girl!


The Glenfarron giveaway was restricted to British entries – which means that Jonathan Falla is on his way to Jennifer Dee. Lucky girl, also!

 Would the winners, please email their details to lizzysiddal@yahoo.com.

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I’ve been leading a real-life book group for 5 years now and we’ve just read our 50th novel together! During that time it’s become clear that to be a success the book must have some or all of the following qualities:

1) It must divide opinion.  This is something that really ignites the discussion and ensures that all (in my case 15-20 group participants per session) can pitch in.

2) There must be strong characterisation whereby a dastardly villain is much more interesting that an saintly heroine.

3) There must be hooks to extraneous discussion – we quite like to digress into related news events or other reading.

 Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair  ticked  (tickled?) all three of those boxes. 

Box 1 – Following on from last month’s read Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, it retained the C19th century theme but in an absolutely mind-boggling way for those who hadn’t known what to expect.  There were those who failed to complete the course because it was so radically different, those who went along with the ride and enjoyed it and those evangelical converts to Fforde’s wacky universe who now want us to read the whole series!  We compromised on that and decided that we’ll take on The Big Over Easy  during December – something light and frothy and not too challenging during that time of year when everything lies heavily on the stomach.  And they’ll need something light to follow Karen Connelly’s magnificent but emotionally devastating The Lizard Cage

Box 2 – not one but two dastardly villains.  Acheron Hades and Jack Schitt (how can you not smile at that?).  Thursday Next, the heroine, not so saintly either.

Box 3 –  Fforde’s plot contains a plethora of literary allusions and an alternative ending to Jane Eyre.  There are hooks to further conversation on every page.  Some obvious allusions, some more obscure but you can be sure that a group of 15 spotted more than I’d clocked in two readings.  It was also a good excuse to get out the poetry anthology  and “wander lonely as a cloud” with Wordsworth while beating off Poe’s ominous raven.    Fforde proving that literature can be fun.  

January’s group will be interesting.  In 90 minutes we’ll solve the mystery of Humpty Dumpty’s death, deconstruct crime fiction and discuss the etymology of our favourite nursery rhymes.  I can’t wait.

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At a recent reading, a member of the audience commented that she wanted to take the book home with her only if Barry himself would accompany it.  He was that good and uproariously funny!  I was sitting next to a couple of friends who had already read the novel.  They both commented that it wasn’t at all the voice in which they had read the book.  Excellent, I thought, sometimes being behind the times is an advantage after all.

The genesis of Sebastian Barry’s tale begins in his own family.  One day, while driving near Sligo,  his mother pointed out a little tin hut and commented “Of course, that’s where that woman stayed for many a year”.  That woman turned out to be Barry’s great-aunt.  A little research, the discovery that his relative had been institutionalised for social reasons and a fertile imagination combined to produce this year’s Booker-shortlisted novel.

Roseanne McNulty’s tragedy is a fictionalised account related to that of Barry’s great-aunt; the novel his attempt to reconcile himself to being the member of a family that treated one of its own so shabbily.   Roseanne is one of the lost people – Barry believing that Irish history is told more truthfully by documenting the stories of the losers, not the winners.  Facts don’t always lie on the surface.  They must be hunted, dug out, remembered, misremembered.

Roseanne is almost 100 years old, has been institutionalised for 60+ years and care in the community policies mean her psychologist, Dr Greene, must determine whether she is sane enough to be “freed”.  Her history is not clear.  While Roseanne creates a narrative that makes sense, it is not always factually true.  It becomes clear that she has sanitised her history – possibly to remove the terror from the truth, which involves fearful and loathsome incidents replete in the Irish past.

Barry controls his novel beautifully.  Past psychological policies contrasting with the present (in many ways just as insane).  The narrative voices of Roseanne and Dr Greene contrasting and complimenting.  Dr Greene has troubles of his own, which echo the experiences of Roseanne.  The fascinating, if uncompromising, portrayal of Irish society in a time when one could be institutionalised for simply not conforming to society’s expectations.  The blurring of fact and fiction in the memory.  Misrememberings – not lies.  A mystery – the solution of which is signposted from the middle of the novel.  A solution I was hoping would be avoided. 

The only faux pas in an otherwise perfect novel.  I’m only deducting a 1/2 star but it rankles much more than that.  Could it have been the reason why Ariga triumphed in this year’s Booker?.  The Secret Scripture is much more accomplished than The White Tiger  but the ending is a veritable rafter in the eye and so I have still to fall out with this year’s Booker judges.

Final point – I would recommend The Secret Scripture to all lovers of The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox.  There are common themes, yet The Secret Scripture has a broader scope,  documenting not just the personal tragedy of one unjustly incarcerated, but the troubled history of the Irish nation.


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When one reading trail such as the Jamesian Experiment Part 2 leads to the same title as another, Glenfarron, it’s time to pick up the book in question and get on with it.

James’ The Turn of the Screw is accepted as one of the best ghost stories of all time and that’s possibly why I’d never read it.  Not my genre at all.  Still reading trails converging is a sign not to be ignored.

The gist of the plot is quite simple.  A governess finds herself charged with the care of two orphans.  Their uncle finances their upbringing although he wants to play no active part.  When she takes up her position, she begins to see strange people and gradually she becomes convinced that these are apparitions of her predecessor and her lover.  The reader, however, is not so sure.  Because scattered in the text are hints that the governess may be losing her mind.  Why?  Because her charges are outwardly too well-behaved.  This is too good to be true and the boy must have been expelled from his boarding school for some reason, mustn’t he?

At first I was convinced that the ghosts were real.  Then I wasn’t and a couple of weeks later, I need to reread to see what I believe.  James’s narrative skill is triumphant.  In the preface to his final ghost story, The Jolly Corner, he wrote that he preferred to create ghosts that were eerie extensions of everyday reality – “the strange and the sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.”  The debate with regard to The Turn of the Screw is whether the strange and sinister embroidery is sewn only the mind of the governess.   Tough call when the main narrative is written in the first person – the governess’s voice is overwhelming and very involving and objective distance is very hard to achieve.  It’s no wonder that the story has spawned an industry in literary criticism in the 100+ years since it was first published!

In Glenfarron, Jonathan Falla transposes that ghostliness and doubt to the Scottish Highlands in the mid-1970’s.  A young couple move from the city into the highland village where the young woman begins to display the same symptoms as James’s governess, when she develops an obsession with the nearby, but thankfully no longer active, leper colony.  (Yes, you’ll learn things about Scottish history too.)   I shall say no more because, thanks to the generosity of Two Raven’s Press, a rising star on the face of Scottish publishing, I have a copy of Glenfarron to offer as a giveaway.  I can highly recommend it. In fact, I did – here.

Entries are restricted to residents of the UK and Eire – mainly because, as good as the Book Blogger Giveaway was last week, most of those entries were restricted to the USA and Canada.   It’s time to redress the imbalance in a small way. To enter the draw,  simply leave a comment.  You don’t have to have a blog.  Additionally you might tell me if you have read James’s masterpiece and if so, I’d like to know what you decided about the apparitions.

The draw will take place on Sunday 17.11.2008.

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Unfortunately life:work:blogging ratios are so out of kilter at the moment that I can’t even joke about it.  And it’s likely to remain that way for the month of November.  The current blog-deadly combination is major project, tight deadlines!  Book reviews, when they appear, are likely to be short – when leisure time is at a premium, I prefer reading to writing.  When I have the energy that is.

I’m hoping, at a minimum, to keep up with The Sunday Salon.  There will be another post later today with a new giveaway but for now, here are the results of last week’s.  Thanks to the Book Blogger Giveaway, more entrants than ever before.  50 and www.random.org has chosen number 38.

Here are your random numbers:


Timestamp: 2008-11-09 08:18:32 UTC

By my reckoning, Clara’s new home is with Marie from Kids, Cats, Books and Chaos.  Please send your details to lizzysiddal@yahoo.com.   I sincerely hope that you come to love Janice Galloway’s Clara as much as I do.

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Last week was a holiday during which I had intended a reading bonanza. However, the best laid plans and all that …. Decorating aside, I decided to bring this blog up-to-date. I didn’t quite manage it and so I’ve still a number of reviews to write from August! The books were truly excellent, details of which are still vivid in my mind.  Most notably Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Also Hjalmar Söderberg’s crime classic Doctor Glas. Fortunately John Self has now written a truly excellent review on TheAsylum and so now  no need for my tuppence worth!

Celebrations for the 200th post shared with a celebration of the greatest novel written here. And with it the semi-official launch of a desert island book series. The reasoning behind this being that I will some time in the future move home. It will be a downsizing and I will have to cut down my library. So let the mental preparations begin….. Not sure if , in reality, I could cut  my 1500+ collection down to just 10, but as an intellectual exercise, I’m quite curious to see the results.

Books 1 and 2 have been named. Look in the special desert island box on the right. —> Today I’m adding Janice Galloway’s Clara  to the list. It’s the finest historical novel I’ve read. Full,  glowing, even gushing, review here. I had a spare copy to giveaway during the Edinburgh Book Festival but it vanished. Thanks to this week’s decorating, it has reappeared from behind the cupboard. So, somewhat belatedly I offer it to the blogosphere. Usual rules. Just leave a comment. Giveaway open to the whole world. Non-UK destinations will receive it via surface mail.

The winner will be announced in next week’s Sunday Salon post i.e 9.11.2008.

EDIT:  More giveaways this week with bookroomreviews organising a book giveaway carnival.  Go check it all out. 

Could I at this juncture ask Michelle from Australia to claim her copy of Charles Cumming’s Typhoon.  I have emailed you several times but maybe my mail got lost in the spam.


Other literary events this week. A midweek trip to the theatre and another to the Goethe Institute in Glasgow to hear Sasa Stanisic reading and discussing his mega-successful “How the Soldier repairs the Gramophone”. Stewart from Booklit has promised a full write-up and as I have time management issues at the moment, I await it impatiently! When I told him of my cunning plan, he suggested I rename myself LazySiddal. Many a true word …..

Amidst all these non-achievements, I did however perform the impossible. A full hour’s browsing in Edinburgh’s Princes’ Street Waterstones and I walked out with nothing, nada, nichts! See I have some willpower! I was sorely tempted by a number of titles on Philip Pullman’s Writer’s Table. It appears that our reading tastes are highly attuned. A quick mental jog through the TBR at home and I counted at least four of his choices gathering dust.   No need to buy the other half-dozen that were added to the wishlist …. not at this juncture anyway.  I was delighted to see Kolymsky Heights in his list.  “The best thriller I’ve ever read”  says Pullman.  “The first thriller I ever read” says Lizzy and the seed that sowed a reading addiction!

And I also managed some reading in the course of which I almost fell out with this year’s Booker judges  …. more on that later this week.

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