Archive for January, 2009

1964  Crime Writers Association Best Foreign Novel

Chester MacFarland is on the run, the American agencies are catching up with his life of stock manipulation and fraud.   We meet him and his wife, Collette, on an extended tour of Europe, changing identities as needs must.  But in Greece, a local agent spots them.  Within 4 pages, he is dead and Chester finds an unexpected ally in Rydal Keener who helps him stash the body in a broom cupboard and make a getaway.  Then the fun really begins.

Told in chapters alternating between the two men’s viewpoints, The Two Faces of January analyses the relationship that begins under these circumstances.   You’d think Chester would be grateful – and at first he is – but then he begins to suspect Rydal’s motivations.  Why would a stranger put themselves in jeopardy so willingly?  He must be a blackmailer.  Rydal too is confused by his rash act and subsequent helpfulness.  Soon enough, however, he comes to understand his subconscious.

I am using this man for my own inner purposes.  He is helping me to see Papa a little better, maybe to see Papa with less resentment, more humour; I don’t know, but God knows I would like to get rid of resentments. …. By an odd coincidence, his wife, much younger and quite attractive and vivacious, reminds me of – that unhappy mistake of my youth.

Rydal’s initially subconscious desires make him accompany the MacFarlands to Crete, where gradually Chester’s suspicions and the flirtation between Rydal and his wife poison the friendship.     Far from freeing himself from past resentments, Rydal unearths a host more and the two men become locked in a psychological battle for supremacy – symbolised in the battle for the female.  Events can only spiral out of control.

Rydal’s motivations in the second half of the novel are no longer subconcious.  His cat and mouse game with Chester is all about retribution.

I detest him.  I think I am fascinated by that.  I have no desire to kill him, have never wanted to kill anyone.  But I will say I would like to see him fall.

This explains why he does not walk away and endangers himself because he is the one sought by the police in connection with events in Crete.  And Chester has no moral scruples, he wants Rydal dead.   As the two men chase through Europe, the tension escalating with each encounter, the question is not only who will survive but will Rydal maintain a vestige of decency or will he descend to the depths that Chester expects of him?

The complexity of Rydal’s character is the real talking point of this novel.  On one hand, he’s young, has a lot to learn and has a decent heart.  On the other, he keeps some particularly dodgy company, is an accessory to murder and is not above stealing another man’s wife.  Yet he manages to hold the reader’s sympathies – Highsmith manipulating her reader’s psychology as well as she does those of her characters.

As I was reading I couldn’t help thinking that, written today, the details would be differ radically.  Most of the fake passports would all be Euro-burgundy (if they were needed at all).  Neither would there be the same difficulties with currency.  While this may bleach the novel of European flavour, I doubt it would render it less suspenseful.  It might actually focus the attention on the psychological battle between the two men – because, if I have one criticism, it’s that this is sometimes lost in the adrenaline and the repetition resulting from the trans-European chase.

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Choosing what to read after a 5-star experience is always difficult.  What can possibly follow without being a disappointment?  Inevitably I pick a favourite/established author – preferably a dead one – so that the risk of readerly disappointment is minimised, harsh judgements from the keyboard tempered and the chance of a wounded literary ego eradicated.  It was in these circumstances, i.e following on from the superlative What A Carve Up! that I came to Royal Highness.

I don’t know if I can claim Thomas Mann as a favourite author of mine.  I certainly recognise the masterpieces that are Buddenbrooks and Death In Venice.  Others will cry “So too are The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus or Joseph and His Brothers.”   It’s here that my mixed feelings towards Mann begin to surface.  I waded through The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus while at university.    I suspect the musicality of Doctor Faustus to my tone-deaf ears was simply incomprehensible.  And The Magic Mountain was ruined for me by a jokster of a lecturer (I won’t name him) who once set the following translation exercise.  “Nice and easy this week” he said.  “Only one sentence” ,  forgetting to mention that at 3.5 pages (I think), it was possibly the longest sentence ever written in German  (it certainly felt that way) … and it came from The Magic Mountain.  So that was a masterpiece ruined forever but, now that I have a beautiful Folio Society edition, I may mount another attempt on its northern face.  The length of Joseph and His Brothers simply terrifies me.

Royal Highness was chosen as the first group read on The World Literature Forum.  I joined in because, published in 1909, it’s an early work and, therefore, I hoped, not as susceptible to the long intellectual asides (be it music (Doctor Faustus) or tuberculosis (The Magic Mountain) that spoil Mann’s later works.  What I can say is that the asides are there but they are controlled, not overly long and add to rather than detract from the story as a whole.

The novel is a study of duty vs freedom, tradition vs modernism and as such, it echoes the thematic concerns of  Buddenbrooks. Rather than dealing with the merchant classes, however, it is a study of royalty and its relevance in the modern world.   Prince Klaus Heinrich is the younger and most dutiful son of the Grand Duke.  His elder brother, Albrecht, inherits the duchy but, due to his nervous disposition and poor health, abdicates in all but name, to his younger brother.   Klaus Heinrich, then takes up his calling:

There was no workaday element about his life and nothing was quite real: it consisted wholly of a succession of exceptional moments.  Whereever he went it was feastday, the people glorified themselves in the person of their sovereign, the humdrum of existence became transfigured by an element of poetry.

How relevant is all this pomp and circumstance to the “snotty street urchins turned into mannerly little boys and girls in Sunday suits” , “the dim citizen in his frock-coat and top-hat”, the duchy that is almost bankrupt, without means to raise revenue apart from selling off its decrepit castles to rich American businessmen.  The country, symbolised by a red rose bush with a foul perfume,  is stagnating. 

Klaus Heinrich too suffers.  

How tiring life was, how strenuous!  At times it seemed to him as though he were constantly compelled to keep up something with enormous expenditure of energy which normally could not be kept up, save under the most favourable circumstances, and which taxed his elasticity to the utmost.  At other times his calling seemed to him sad and barren, although normally he loved it and gladly went towards his representtional duties.

The constriction of  duty is externalised by a physical deformity, a withered left hand, which in order to keep up appearances, he must keep out of sight at all times.

I have quoted from the chapter “A Lofty Calling” which is located at the midpoint of the novel.  Enter the rich American businessman, Herr Spoelmann and his daughter, Imma.  The name, Spoelmann (the rinser)  giving a clue to developments they are about to trigger in Klaus Heinrich’s outlook.  New world, new thoughts, new outlooks.  I won’t give the whole game away but the rose bush is eventually transplanted to sunnier ground and its perfume transforms accordingly ….  and a family rift developed between Thomas and his republican brother Heinrich!

The text is rich with Thomas – I cannot resist calling them – Mannerisms  The surnames of his characters often indicate the role they play in the story.  I’ve already mentioned the Spoelmanns – the rinsers.  The duchal family are the Grimmburgs – the fierce castles.  The government administrator is  – von Buehl zu Buehl – the man who smoothes the way, negotiting the duchal family from hill to hill.  Klaus Heinrich’s tutor is the intellectually superior Ueberbein.   Mann is also the master of the leitmotif .  Taken from music, this is a refrain that is repeated whenever the characters  appear.  So, for example,  Klaus Heinrich always hides his left hand behind his back and Imma Spoelmann continually purses her lips and turns her head from side to side.

Add in the rich symbolisms and the continuing relevance of the issues in our modern day world and you have the makings of literary merit.  And yet, I found it dull and that was not down to the curse of the previous 5-star read.  The pace is monotonous – an omniscient 3rd-person narrative for 75%  of the book.    While the observations are precise, the effect was a distancing of this reader from the fairy tale.  So, while I shed a tear,  it wasn’t joy at the happy ending,  it was the relief of turning the final page.


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Were it possible that he had he lived,  Robert Burns would be 250 today.  Instead Scotland is celebrating the life and works of its national poet.  It is the day of the Burns supper; the dram, neeps, tatties and that Scottish culinary delight – the haggis.  Now as I have mentioned before I love the dish, and so to mark the day, I shall present Burns’s

Address to a Haggis


Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o’ need,
While thro’ your pores the dews distil
Like amber bead.

His knife see rustic Labour dight,
An’ cut you up wi’ ready sleight,
Trenching your gushing entrails bright,
Like ony ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich!

Then, horn for horn, 
they stretch an’ strive:
Deil tak the hindmost! on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve,
Are bent lyke drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
“Bethankit!” ‘hums.

Is there that owre his French ragout
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him ower his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank, a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro’ bloody flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread.
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ legs an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,
Like taps o’ thrissle.

Ye Pow’rs wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer,
Gie her a haggis!

You those to whom the above is like a foreign language – and that would include myself, even after 20 years in Scotland – there’s a modern rendition here, alongside all kinds of haggis-related trivia.

Canongate’s recently published  anthology of the best of Burns was selected by Andrew O’Hagan.   Due to the unexpected pleasure and success of  my 2008 Jamesian Experiment, I have extended my 2009 reading ambitions to poetry appreciation.  Burns as the starting point probably isn’t the wisest move, but this volume, at least, makes it an entertaining one.  O’Hagan has organised the poems into sections dealing with various Burnsian concerns:  The Lasses, The Drinks, The Immortals (Religion), The Politics.  He also contextualises each poem with a small introduction relating it to either Burns’s life or his own in contemporary Scotland.   A glossary of the dialect is thoughtfully provided at the back though it would have been more thoughtful had the English terms been placed on the same page as the poem.   Not to worry,  after a couple of whiskey collins (recipe astutely provided as an introduction to the drinks section), I’ll be so fluent in the lingo that the glossary will be rendered entirely superfluous!

EDIT: Poetry is incomplete without a recital. Watch this.

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I love Dorling Kindersley books.  Here’s a small sample from my collection … bought as an educational library for my son, they reverted to my ownership when he flew the nest.  While he outgrew them,  I didn’t and,  I suspect, I never will.

DK Reference Library

 These are robust hardbacks – full of knowledge, beautiful photography and diagrams.  Apart from glossy art publications, they’re my favourite coffee-table books, perfect for browsing.  I’m honestly hard-pressed to pick a favourite.  Currently I think it’s Earth,  published in 2007.  Just browsing through this colourful and enlightening study of our planet is guaranteed to make me care more and take for granted less.  No political stances necessary. 

DK Earth

 So beautiful and thought-provoking is this 520-page volume, that I shall  add it forthwith to my list of desert island books.   While I’m at it, can I land on an island with some of my favourite topological features?Earth Mountains

So how exciting it is to have a chance at writing  an article for a forthcoming DK publication?   Not that I’ve been singled out  – this is the prize in a current Dorling Kindersley competition.   The publishers are looking for members of the public to submit unique objects with incredible stories. The winning entry will be included  in their new book All This Makes Life Worth Living, to be published later this year.  It  will feature a vast array of astonishing items that add something to the world we live in, from Jimi Hendrix’s burnt guitar to Edison’s lightbulb.

More information on their website: http://www.allthisbook.com/.   Get your skates on if you want to enter.  The competition closes on 28th January. 

I have to say this book sounds fascinating and will be an must-own at this house.  A must-must own if I end up contributing to it.  Now where can I find my fascinating object ….  Actually I own over 1500 of them , all on my shelves and each and every one is treasured; the stories in them incredibly interesting.  Somehow though I don’t think that’s exactly what Dorling Kindersley have in mind …..

Do you possess something that you might enter?

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It’s a mark of the rapid rise of Jonathan Coe’s “What A Carve Up!” to contemporary classic status that there are so many editions in print.

I read the one on the left. But if you prefer a classic orange penguin look and feel, there’s the one on the right.

Or if you prefer something saucier there’s the one below!


That faintly purplish edition shows a scene from the classic 1961’s comic horror movie starring Sid James, Kenneth Connor and, an at times déshabillée, Shirley Eaton  The movie giving the title to and forming the structural backbone of Coe’s novel.   It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the movie – the book stands on its own two feet.  But, if you do watch the movie, you’ll realise just how much Coe borrows from it.

Not that this in any way detracts from the novel.  The camp gothic elements of the movie are exaggerated, transformed by Coe’s pen into the real horror in 1980’s Britain as a whole dynasty of immoral, greedy Thatcherites are – er – carved up!  I won’t say too much about the methods of dispatch – suffice to say they are highly symbolic.

But there I am jumping right to the end – let’s start at the beginning.  Michael Owen, a depressed writer with problems of his own, is commissioned by Tabitha Winshaw to chronicle the history of her family.  In chapters which are interspered with Michael’s own story, we witness the unscrupulousness of the banker, the farmer, the politician, the journalist, the art dealer, the arms dealer.   Each “trade” represented by a different Winshaw – in true iron lady tradition, the ladies more reprobate than the gents  The satire is savage and,  as a result,  the characters become caricatures.  Again it doesn’t matter – it’s far too entertaining and shocking to worry about “bagatelles” such as rounded-out characterisation.

More empathy is evoked by Fiona, Michael’s neighbour, who manages to infiltrate the loneliness in which Michael has swaddled himself, only to be betrayed by the incompetence of the NHS.  This is a moving story serving to highlight the carving up of one of the great British institutions.

Throw in a war-time story of spying and fraternal betrayal, a mad aunt, Michael’s estrangement from his mother.  Stir in a hommage to Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” and the aforementioned British movie.  Sprinkle with a soupçon of hilarity including the trials and errors of writing a sex scene and,  I promise, the funniest occurence of the word “biro” you’re ever likely to read.  While you may be forgiven for thinking that this is just a hodge-podge of mad ideas flying off  in all directions, I advise you to go with the flow and wonder at the skill – or should that read “brio”  – with which Coe pulls it all together in the final third. 

1994 Winner John Rhys Llewellyn Prize

Published in the USA as “The Winshaw Legacy” – a title which obviously loses all playful connections to the movie.  However, it’s a title that is more apt than would have appeared in 1995.  18 years since Thatcher left office, UK businesses and institutions remain as corrupt, greedy and as carved-up as ever.  Could Coe’s political satire be taking on a timeless aspect?

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A new series on Lizzy’s Literary Life, which is beginning to take on a (selected) diary alterego.

I’ve always been a culture vulture. It’s only when I lived in Germany, that I decided to take a month long rail tour of the UK! This was pre-marriage, pre-motherhood, pre-digital photography. So while we’re at it, let’s dispense with hopes of fresh-faced hopeful youthfulness. (I have told you that Jude the Obscure is a cheering read, haven’t I? Cheering as in the sense of  life could be worse … could be like Jude’s …)

Middle-age notwithstanding, I remain a culture vulture and during 2009 I’m going to document that particular addiction – which, may or may not be book-related.  For January, it is …. sort of.

While in Scotland and within a 60-minute drive of Edinburgh, the place to visit is the National Gallery and The Vaughan Bequest.  It’s a great start to any New Year – particularly to fans of Turner’s art – and it beats a Hogmanay hangover any day!   Henry Vaughan was  a 19th-century collector of Turner’s drawings and watercolours.  In 1900  he bequested them to the Scottish nation, stipulating that they could only be shown in January, free-of-charge, “when the light is at its weakest and least destructive”.   38 paintings in all, most of them unavailable online or in book format, unless of course, you possess  the National Gallery’s  publication – which, I do.  A much loved volume on my art history shelves.  The front cover depicting, perhaps the finest painting in the collection – a colourful thunderstorm in Venice. 

A storm incidentally more colourful, warm and romantic than the storm that was wreaking havoc in Edinburgh last Sunday. I was far too busy battling the elements to get out the camera.  It was something akin to this but much, much wetter! 

Picture courtesy of Daveybot from Flickr.

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between 20:00 and 22:00 GMT on Wednesday 14.01.2009 is at The World Literature Forum where prize-winning Italian author, Niccola Ammaniti, author of  I’m Not Scared and The Crossroads, is subjecting himself to an online interrogation Q&A with forum members  …. See you there?

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The Short Story on The Sunday Salon

Extracted from

Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

I came across this book as I was hunting down something to read from the 1870’s for last year’s decades challenge.  There’s nothing from the 1870’s in it but this book became an irresistible addition to the TBR as

a) 2008 was the year I discoverd gothic and 19th century sensationalist fiction

b) the idea of  Louisa May Alcott  penning thrillers is an oxymoron.  Rather was an oxymoron for it transpires that besides the rather twee “Little Women” series, she wrote a whole bookcase full of  adult gothic, sensationalist and fantasy stories and novels.  Phew, there’s enough there to keep me going for a decade.

So I started with the story with the most intriguing title.  Who can resist the dark secrets promised by a skeleton in the cupboard?  An intrigue there is in what is quite a subversive tale.  Nineteenth-century fiction is replete with madwomen in the proverbial attic.  Mrs Rochester, the yellow wallpaper lady, etc.  Alcott dishes up a madman.  In fact, this short story is almost a role reversal of Jane Eyre, with additional treachery in the form of the lovebirds’ “best” friends.  Plots and counterplots indeed!

As I make my way through more of these stories and C19th sensationalist fiction (which I shall because an obsession is in bud), I shall have to track the Germanic influence.  Both here and in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Grey Woman (incidentally the only two C19th sensationalist stories I have read)  Germany features in both.  That’s quite a coincidence.

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10 entries and one winner selected at random.org.

Here are your random numbers:
Timestamp: 2009-01-10 19:49:47 UTC

Congratulations, raidergirl3!  A great novel will soon be on its way to you.  Please email your details to lizzysiddal at yahoo dot com.

Thanks to all entrants for the great historical novel suggestions also. I haven’t read any of them – so that’s another 10 for the TBR!

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R N Morris’s A Vengeful Longing was my historical crime fiction read of 2008.  The author, himself, is hosting a signed copy giveaway.  Hie thee over to Roger’s Plog for a chance to bag yourself a fantastic read!

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