Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: May 2012 (page 1 of 2)

HHhH – Final Thoughts

HHhH by Laurent Binet, trans Sam Taylor

If you don’t know anything about HHhH, you may want to read my previous post first which describes a bit more about it, and the halfway hang-ups I experienced reading this book…
… I’ve now finished it, and it was one hell of a story. I remain, however, equally fascinated and irritated by this volume – I still can’t call it a novel.

The true story of the plot to assassinate Heydrich was thoroughly gripping and actively told, mostly in the present tense which builds up the suspense well.  The portraits painted of Heydrich, Hitler, Himmler and the other top Nazis show them to be the monsters we know they were.

But this is not just a straight-forward novelised account of Heydrich’s life and Operation Anthropoid. That is presented as an episodic novel within another novel following an/the author’s writing of the book.

This was where the book failed for me, because I just didn’t like the ‘author’, whether he is Binet himself or a fictional counterpart.

In particular, I didn’t like his snarkiness about other authors who have written around the same subject, (not that I’ve read any of them, but that’s not the point). Jonathan Littell’s doorstop of a novel The Kindly Ones is put down as “Houellebecq does Nazism.”  He also criticises a 1960 novel by Alan Burgess called Seven Men at Daybreak for waxing lyrical about the flight which will drop the parachutists into Czechoslovakia. Hang on!  They’re both novels – they’re allowed to blend fact with fiction for the sake of the narrative aren’t they?  Binet’s ‘author’ raises himself above them …

Once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints. No ordinary novel would encumber itself with three characters sharing the same name – unless the author were after a very particular effect. …
… This must be very tiresome and confusing for the reader. In a fiction, you’d just do away with the problem. Colonel Moravec would become Colonel Novak, for instance, and the Moravec family would be transformed into the Svigar family – why not? – while the traitor  might be rebaptised with a fanciful name like Nutella or Kodak or Prada. But of course I am not going to play that game.

and later he says:
My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.

None of this endeared me any further to him.  I realise that this is all about exploring the role of truth in an historical novel, but I found it to be too clever for its own good and even a bit heavy-handed in going on about it so much.  (6.5/10)

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However, you may have a totally different experience with this non-fiction metanovel. Here are a few other bloggers reviews to get a different picture: Just William’s Luck, Winston’s Dad, The Only Way is Reading, and 366 Days, 366 Books.

One good thing from this reading experience is that I am now keen to read more WWII books and novels. Already in my TBR are two by Primo Levi for instance, plus Anja Klabunde’s biography of Magda Goebbels (the scene in Downfall when she gave her children cyanide pills – sends a shiver down my spine to even think of it), and Emma Craigie’s fictionalised tale of Hitler’s youngest daughter.

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I received my ARC via Amazon Vine.  To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
HHhH by Laurent Binet
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
Magda Goebbels by Anja Klabunde
Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie
Downfall [DVD]

HHhH – Halfway Hang-ups

HHhH by Laurent Binet, trans Sam Taylor

HHhH is the book du jour, the one that’s getting the blog-inches, mostly giving it glowing reviews. It won the Prix Goncourt in France, and Mario Vargas Llosa thinks it “magnificent.”

For anyone who hasn’t encountered it yet, HHhH is the story of Operation Anthropoid, in which two Czechoslovakian parachutists were sent on a mission to assassinate Nazi poster-boy Reinhard Heydrich, ‘the hangman of Prague’.

I don’t usually write posts when I’m halfway through a book, but as much as I’m enjoying fascinated by HHhH, I’m having slight problems with it. The cover proclaims “All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true.”  But it’s a novel!  However you start reading it, and it’s all about an author – the actual  author? – who is researching Op Anth.  We have a story within a story, the author’s framing narrative, and his version of Heydrich’s life and the plot to end it.

The ‘author’ tells us about film depictions of Heydrich (including the rather brilliant Conspiracy with Kenneth Branagh).  He debates with himself about what to leave in the book, and what to leave out. His girlfriend berates him for writing a cheesy sentence which imagines Himmler going red with apoplexy.  He wishes that he could have written some better dialogue than documented discussions report.  All this makes me feel that HHhH is less of a novel, and more of a ‘making of’ type of documentary book.

I normally don’t have any problems with this kind of metafictional concept, I am a Paul Auster fan after all!  I am having problems reading HHhH as a novel though. It feels more like Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall which I read/reviewed earlier this year; that was a mixture of memoir and reportage – which is what HHhH feels like too. That added assertion that everything is true just adds to the non-novel feel.

All this adds up to HHhH being slightly hard going for me.  In the beginning sections, I spent far too much time trying to decide whether the author in the book is the real author, or a fiction, and maybe that’s why I’ve struggled slightly.  I’m nearly halfway through now and I won’t give up as the subject matter is too important to abandon.

So is this a novel, or is it a novelisation of a non-fictional topic, or something else?
Did you have any problems with this format?
Should I be bothered by this?

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I obtained my ARC through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
HHhH by Laurent Binet, pub Harvill Secker, May 3, Hardback 338pp.
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder
Conspiracy [2001] – DVD starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci

Hot Rats, it’s Zappa …

The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa.

Not so much a memoir as an appealing opportunity to “say stuff in print about tangential subjects” this book is an absolute hoot.  Forthright,  and by turns and hilarious and serious, Zappa is a brilliant host as he intersperses anecdotes from his life with his views on music, musicians, politics, life in general and rock’n’roll. While I only own one Zappa album (Hot Rats), I have encountered lots over the years, being partial to his jazzy infusions.  What always comes over is that for someone obsessed with sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock’n’roll in his song lyrics, he’s deadly serious about his craft.  I wanted to share a couple of contrasting extracts with you to show the measure of the man (bad language alert!)…

On Conducting an Orchestra:
“From the podium (if the orchestra is playing well), the music sounds so good that if you listen to it, you’ll fuck up. When I’m conducting, I have to force myself not to listen, and think about what I’m doing with my hand and where the cues go.”

In 1975, Zappa ended up in court in London over a thwarted plan to get round the musician’s union rules on pay-scales for recordings with an orchestra, by hiring the Albert Hall for a rehearsal for a concert which was permitted. When one of the orchestra members apparently complained that the lyrics they were playing to were obscene, the concert was cancelled a trial ensued at the Old Bailey. The following excerpt is hilarious (well to me anyway)…

“Q: Then “She painted up her face,” to which objection has been taken. What do you say about that?
A: (Zappa) Well, I think that this is an important piece of material, lyrically.
Q: What is the concept about it?
A: To my knowledge, it is the only song in the repertoire that deals with the subject of a girl who is a groupie.
Q: What is a “groupie“?
A: A “groupie” is a girl who likes people in a rock-and-roll band. She likes them very much.
JUDGE: She likes what very much?
A: She likes “the members” of the band very much.
Q: A sort of fan, like a football fan?
A: Only of “the members.”
Q: Like film stars have fan mails?
A: Yes
JUDGE: I did not gather that. I thought you said that this delt with a girl who was in fact a member of a rock-and-roll band.
Q: No, my Lord.
A: I am sorry: girls who “follow members“.
JUDGE: I.e. a follower?
A: Yes.
Q: A sort of fan.
A: Shall I continue with an analysis of this song?
Q: Please do do.
A: It is the only piece of material that deals with a look of the motivations of the girl. Many groups have done songs about groupies, but coverage of that subject has been superficial and the lyrics to this song represent some kind of landmark in the way in which the subject has been dealt with.
Q: Is it intended as a serious song?
A: Well, I would say it is as serious as anything else I do.”

This was one of those books that had sat in my bookcase for several years, and I only picked it out initially to decide whether to put it in the charity pile. But I started reading and got engrossed. This book’s a keeper! (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa (with Peter Occhiogrosso). Picador pbk, 1989, 352 pages.
Hot Rats CD – 1969

Return to the Dark Tower saga

The Dark Tower #5 – Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Last year I took part in Teresa & Jenny’s Dark Tower readalong at Shelf Love, but I dropped out after book four in the series. I didn’t have the time to get through the increasing page-count then, but was definitely hooked by the genre-busting dystopian western cum SF & fantasy series.

I always intended to return the following summer to read the remaining couple of thousand pages!  However, events prompted me to pick up book five sooner; more of that below.

* * * * *

This is a series of books which you have to begin at the beginning, it would be nigh on impossible to join in successfully partway through, despite the author’s summary at the beginning of each volume.

The Wolves of the Calla introduces a major new character. Pere Callahan is an ex-drunk priest from New York who, like the rest of Roland Deschain’s ka-tet (fate-bound compadres), found his way into Roland’s world when life got too hot in his own.  The ka-tet make his acquaintance as they stop in Calla Bryn Sturgis on their quest to the tower, and we soon find out that he will become essential to the story.

Meanwhile the folks of the Calla are expecting something awful to happen, and  believe that the Gunslingers could be their salvation. Once every generation, the ‘Wolves’ arrive in force and carry away half the children, who return to their families years later as mutant idiots. They can’t let it happen again…

This traditional Western guns-for-hire against the bandits story forms the back-bone to this chunkster, but the real plot developments are in all the other bits. It gets quite complex but holes get filled in and back-stories expanded, and more strands start. Such is King’s skill though that it all hangs together really well. The final battle is everything it should be, and the cliff-hanger coda left me dying to open volume six.  (8.5/10)

* * * * *

Or should I read the new volume 4.5 instead?  

King’s latest novel is another in the Dark Tower series set between books 4 & 5 called The Wind Through the Keyhole.  Jenny and Teresa have already read and reviewed it here.

I only really mention it because I entered a Facebook competition to have my photo (see left) included in the photo montage on the back cover of the UK hardback – and I’m on there – somewhere!

I was sent a link to my exact location – but the link is now broken and I can’t remember where I am (serve me right for not printing it out). You can see the dots in the cover which are the size of everyone’s heads. There are over 7000 on there, so it may take some time with an enlargement and a magnifying glass to find me again if I bother.

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I bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Dark Tower #5 – Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King, Pub Hodder 2003, 771pp.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King, pub Hodder & Stoughton, April 2012, Hardback 352pp

Through the keyhole …

Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About Youby Sam Gosling

I defy any browsing bibliomane not to pick this book up on seeing the arrangements of books and comfy armchair through the keyhole on its cover!

I’m sure that you, like me, sniff out the bookcases as soon as you go in someone’s house. If they do have lots of books, I believe you can get a feel for their owner(s), and even the most  dedicated library user will have some evidence of their bookish loves.

Snoop is, of course, about much more than bookshelves.  Gosling is an English-born Professor of Psychology in Texas, and his speciality is a kind of benign psychological profiling by looking at peoples’ possessions.  In particular, he researches into correlations between the big five personality traits: Conscientiousness, Openness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, and the stuff we own and how we treat and display it.

Initially, he recruited and trained a team of ‘snoopers’ and set them to work on volunteer students’ rooms. He ended up later on national television comparing the rooms of TV news anchormen. In between, there is loads of psychological discussion of the subject and case studies (all American).

Gosling is an entertaining teacher – his writing is straight-forward and free from jargon.  It’s also witty, and being a Brit, he is self-deprecating – we gradually get a picture of him too from his descriptions of his own stuff, (no TV – Shock!).

I was entertained, but was I transformed into a super-snooper?  For a man who  has spent his professional career trying to read peoples’ posessions, Gosling has largely proved how inexact it all really is!

  • You can only really deduce information about conscientiousness (how tidy you are) and openness (generally evidenced by a wide range of books, music, etc). You can tell tidy from tidied.
  • Stereotypes are useful initially, but be prepared to dump them – there are too many exceptions to the rule.
  • Popular musical tastes are largely irrelevant.
  • How can you tell whether the ‘you’ through the things you display is the real one?
  • You can be wrong-tracked as a snooper by stuff not belonging to the snoopee, just left behind or being looked after.
  • As a snooper, you need to be familiar with the cultural mores and brand awareness of the snoopee to get the most information out of it.  There’s no point in looking at someone’s music and film collections or make-up bag if you haven’t heard of the artists or brands.

I quite like pop science books, so I enjoyed dipping into this one. I haven’t learned much, and it certainly won’t stop me from snooping at other people’s bookcases, which I find usually give a clear indication of intellectual pursuits!  (6.5/10)

Do you enjoy snooping around other peoples’ bookcases?  Bet you do!

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About Youby Sam Gosling, pub 2009 by Profile Books, 288 pages.

A Beryl Bibliography – part two

Following on from last week’s post highlighting Beryl’s earlier novels, here is a brief survey of her later novels and other works to help you choose which books, if any, you’d like to read if you join in with Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week in mid-June. Once more, clicking on a book title will take you to the most readily copies available on Amazon UK via my affiliate link, (they’ll return to the bottom of future posts).

We left the bibliography in Part One in the mid 1980s, after Beryl’s first historical novel proper, something she was to continue with great success in some of her later novels…

* * * * *

Filthy Lucre(1946, pub 1986).  We start off part two though with a piece of Juvenalia written when she was a teenager.  Subtitled The tragedy of Ernest Ledwhistle and Richard Soleway: A story. I’ve not been able to find out anything about the plot, but have ordered a copy of this novella!

An Awfully Big Adventure(1989)  A third shortlisting for the Booker Prize.  Set in 1950 and following the rehearsals for a Christmas production of Peter Pan, this novel follows the coming of age of young Asst Stage Manager Stella, and her relationships with the director Meredith, and the actor playing Hook. A bittersweet tale of innocence and loss. It was made into a rather good movie with Alan Rickman and Hugh Grant (sadly only available on DVD at over-inflated prices).  I loved this book when I read it ages ago, and will re-read for BBRW.

The Birthday Boys(1991) Bainbridge tells the story of Scott’s final push to the South Pole. The five men each take a turn in telling the story, each putting their stamp on the narrative. Masterful – I loved it (review here).

Every Man For Himself(1996) Winner of the Whitbread Novel Prize, and Beryl’s fourth Booker shortlisting.  It tells the fateful story of the Titanic through the eyes of Morgan, a rich young man related to the ship’s owner.  In concentrating on the first class characters, it paints a portrait of an insular group with an impressive array of vices.

Master Georgie (1998) Gaining a final fifth Booker shortlisting, this novel won the posthumous Booker ‘Best of Beryl’. It follows the story of a Liverpudlian doctor who heads for the Crimea for some excitement. His story is narrated by three different voices of those associated with him: an orphan devoted to her Master Georgie; his scholarly brother-in-law; and a street urchin who becomes George’s lover.

According to Queeney(2001)  Beryl brings the last years of great wit Samuel Johnson to life as see through the eyes of Queeney, the first born daughter of his mistress. We meet many other famous names of the period and explore Johnson’s relationship with his friend and benefactor Mrs Thrale.

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress(2011) Beryl’s last novel returns to the late 1960s after Martin Luther King’s assassination. It follows the story of Rose and a man called Washington Harold who travel across the USA in search of a man called Dr Wheeler – each having a need to find him – one benign, one less so.

* * * * *

Two collections of short stories are available. Mum and Mr. Armitage: Selected Stories from 1985 – a collection of twelve tales that tend to be unsettling in their conclusions; and Collected Storiesfrom 1994. Later editions of this include Filthy Lucre amongst other additions.

* * * * *

And finally, briefly – on to Beryl’s non-fiction:

Apart from the odd inclusion in other anthologies, that’s it!  I’ve invested in a copies of everything above that I didn’t already have and as soon as they’ve all arrived, I tempt you further with a photo of my stack!


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