Tag Archives: Laurent Binet

“I Don’t Deserve This Award – But Then I Have Arthritis And I Don’t Deserve That Either!”………..My Book Of The Year Awards!……….

……….Jack Benny I hope you noticed the nice mix in the titles for this post – the classic false modesty from the comedian Jack Benny followed by my own unlimited arrogance and vanity in announcing “my book of the year awards!!!!”

In a way though starting this post with Jack Benny is rather appropriate – his first words on Ed Sullivan’s radio show in the US in the early thirties was supposed to have been “This is Jack Benny talking. There will now be a short pause while you sit at home thinking –  ‘who cares?!”.

It just fits perfectly for:-

“This is my Book Of The Year Awards” post and there will now be a gap of at least two lines…

……….while you have a chance to think  – who the hell cares!!!!!

But if you reached this line you must be intrigued, so stick with it till the end  – you won’t be disappointed!

Well…..actually….. you might be disappointed at the end, but I’ll leave a couple more empty lines so I can think “So you’re disappointed! What the hell do I care?!”

And so my awards! I’ve read a lot of good books this year, heard some great music, seen some great gigs – and eaten some lovely pies! So here are my awards for 2012!

1. TV Programme Location of the Year

Waterloo Road
Memories – like the Corridors of My Mind!

The award goes to BBC’s “Waterloo Road” which is now filmed at “Greenock Academy”, my old school in Scotland. It allows me to indulge in spotting familiar walls, corridors and pupil toilets – which instead of impressing my daughter actually bores her rigid!

If you can get over the fact that they moved the school from England to Scotland and took all the kids with them into a sort of cult-cum-boarding unit, then the best of all is that while the BBC have tarted the building up for the fictional school, the quality of the teaching in the fictional school looks just as shite as I remember it being in the real school!!!

2. Book Week Of The Year

Much as I enjoyed the Muriel Spark Reading Week, the award for me goes to the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, which Annabel’s House of Books hosted back in June of this year. I’d not read any of Beryl Bainbridge’s stuff before-hand – I loved it – quirky and sharp and just wonderful. It turned me from a Beryl-virgin to a Beryl-lover almost overnight!

3. The ‘Well Bugger Me I Didn’t Know That!’ Award for 2012

Birdie BowersThanks to book blogs I read quite a bit about the centenary of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1912. And through that I discovered that Birdie Bowers, who accompanied Captain Scott and was one of those who died alongside him at the end, originally came from my home town of Greenock in Scotland. We seem to make little of the connection which is odd to say the least as Greenock isn’t exactly bustling with well known explorers, actors, sportsmen, politicians or well known anythings! Anyway it led me to read a bit about his life – truly amazing man!

4. Best Bit Of Poetry Learned Off By Heart This Year Award

I’ve loved several new collections this year but my favourite was Seamus Heaney’s “Human Chain!”. And from the poem ‘Route 101’ I loved learning the following lines (and love boring people to death reciting them!)

“In a stained front-buttoned shopcoat / Sere brown piped with crimson / Out of the Classics bay into an aisle /  Smelling of dry rot and disinfectant / She emerges, absorbed in her coin count / Eyes front, right hand at work / In the slack marsupial vent / Of her change – pocket, thinking what to charge / For a used copy of Aeneid VI. / Dustbreath bestirred in the cubicle mouth / I inhaled as she slid my purchase / Into a deckle edged brown paper bag”

5. The “Terrific” Award (for books that aren’t my book of the year but came bloody close and so deserve again the accolade of my favourite word!)

Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller and The Museum Of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk were both

Terrific 1

A Thousand Autumns Of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry were both

Terrific 2

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro and 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Books One, Two and Three) were all

Terrific 3

HHhH by Laurent Binet and If This Is A Man by Primo Levi were both

Terrific 4

Heartburn by Norah Ephron and The Art Of Fielding by Chad Harbach were both

Terrific 5

6. The “I’m Really Sorry But I Thought This Was Bloody Awful” Book Of The Year Award

Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Goon Squad”. I just didn’t get it! I guess I’m not clever enough. Sorry Jen!

7. The ‘I Love Guy Garvey Of Elbow More Than Anyone Else Does’ Award

Guy GarveyWith apologies to my mate Steve Smith in Thailand, who fancies himself as a big Elbow fan but can’t be taken seriously as he chose to desert Guy and go live the life of Riley on the beaches of Thailand teaching people to dive (get a proper job you old fart!) and with my apologies to Guy Garvey’s girlfriend, the writer Emma Unsworth,  the award for the person who loves Guy Garvey more than anyone else does, goes to – ME!

8. The Album Of The Year

Dead easy – the beautiful, wonderful, gorgeous “Mid Air” by Paul Buchanan – have a quick listen!

9. Gig Of The Year

This is harder – I’ve seen Elbow a couple of times this year but I have to say we were absolutely awe-struck by the magnificent Bruce Springsteen at the Isle of Wight festival – we watched it knee deep in mud and didn’t give a shit! Truly wonderful!


10. Dive Of The Year

Suarez1This is a special category for my partner, my daughter and her family who are all Liverpool fans. The award goes to the Suarez2Olympic medal-winning last gasp effort from Tom Daley!

But for the runner-up you can choose any of half a dozen or more spectacular dives from that muppet Luiz Suarez!

11. Pie Of The Year

MandS pieThere’s nothing to beat Marks and Spencers! They have the gorgeous Twiggy in their ads, the fabulous sound of Dervla Kirwen doing the voiceover for the food commercials and their pies are great. This year my favourite was the individual Steak and Cornish IPA Ale pies – so fantastic if you gave me a choice between Twiggy, Dervla or the pie, it would be the pie every time!!!!!!!!!!!!!

12. Shite Gig But Chilli Con Carne Of The Year Award

We were unfortunate enough to see Coldplay at the Emirates earlier in the year – bloody awful! I should have known. I saw Coldplay when they were starting out, just after the Yellow album was released – they were at a lovely intimate venue at Brixton Academy – and yet they were bloody awful then as well! However we left the gig early and discovered the Chilli of The Year, washed down with Guinness, at a lovely little pub in Finsbury Park!

13. Comeback Of The Year

Roy 1This is a close run thing between two of my favourite men of books – the mercurial genius that is Roy Race, scourge of every team on the planet in his role as Roy Of The Rovers – and the mercurial genius that is Detective Inspector John Rebus, scourge of every criminal and low-life in Edinburgh and it’s environs in Iain Rankin’s novels- and as a Glaswegian it’s my job to say disparaging things about the good folk of Edinburgh! But since I thought Iain Rankin’s ‘Standing In Another Man’s Grave’ was brilliant, the winner for me is John Rebus! Plus as he has won it allows me to have a couple of pints and a couple of whiskies to honour his achievement! If Roy Of The Rovers had won I’d have been forced to go down the park, beat all the kids at “3 and you’re in!” and then do at least 100 on keepie-uppie – and I’m much more of a five beers than a five-a-side man these days!

14. And finally, my Book Of The Year

I’ve read so many that have been terrific but one just noses ahead – not by much, but by enough to be the read of the year for me – the beautiful story of Jack and Mabel in The Snow Girl by Eowyn Ivey.

The Snow Child

Now I’d said earlier in the year that I would choose a book of the year – and in my own version of the Costa Prize, that I’d buy the winning author a coffee. And I’d like to be true to my word – so if Eowyn Ivey ever reads this and fancies collecting this illustrious prize, I’ll meet her any week day by the Cafe Nero coffee stall in Victoria Station – I’m in the queue most mornings around half past seven – the lattes are on me Eowyn!

And having started with the acerbic wit of Jack Benny on awards, I’d like to end with the acerbic wit of my partner. On the day that the New Year Honours were announced she initially amazed me by saying she’d love to be nominated for an award – and when I expressed astonishment as this didn’t fit with her strong principles and said “Really???????????????????” she replied – “Yeah! So I could then tell them to stick their award up their arse!!!!!!” – That’s my girl!

So if Eowyn Ivey tells me where to put my offer of a free latte as my Book Of The Year, I’ll understand completely!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And Over Our Heads The Hollow Seas Closed Up……….


……..These are words from the canto of Ulysses from Dante’s Inferno and they were quoted in the most moving book I’ve ever read, ‘If This Is A Man’ by Primo Levi.

In the ‘Thought For The Day’ slot on the Today Programme on Radio 4 last week I heard someone describe their thoughts and feelings on visiting Auschwitz  concentration camp. A few days later I began to read the magnificent novel HHhH by Laurent Binet, which I reviewed here. The shadow of the concentration camps and the man-made hell on earth to which millions of Jews, and others, were subjected hangs over the novel, a kind of evil that felt like it sat by my shoulder throughout my read of that book – I just couldn’t shake the feeling even though I was immersed in the novel.

That feeling while reading ‘HHhH’, and the words from that “Thought For The Day”, have echoed in my head, and I’m reminded of how I’m drawn to fiction and non-fiction about the Second World War and about the Holocaust in particular. But of course, as well as acknowledging that it holds some moth-to-the-flame appeal to me as a topic for reading, I’ve also been thinking about why.

At the age of 18 I was fortunate enough to visit Auschwitz. This was in 1979, when Poland was still Communist and behind the Iron Curtain. Somehow a group of teachers and youth club leaders I knew persuaded the then Local Authority of Strathclyde Regional Council to lend us tents and a mini-bus to travel around behind the Iron Curtain. God knows what they were thinking of (!) but somehow they agreed to it. After months of preparation and interminable paperwork to secure visas, we spent about 6 weeks touring around East Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The trip was hugely influential for me in so many ways, but none more so than the day we visited Auschwitz near the Polish town of Oswiecim. I recall the entry through those gates, the words above me, watching a documentary of the Holocaust in a small cinema, listening to the commentary in French because there was no English version in those days and quickly realising the language of the commentary was irrelevant as these were images which needed no words, the flowers and candles freshly placed in remembrance against the Execution Wall and the huts converted to long glass cabinets and filled floor to ceiling with hair, and spectacles, and suitcases, and shoes. I can’t describe how it felt now anymore than I could then.

But what affected me more, and what has stayed with me more, was the camp at Birkenau. Auschwitz then had been converted into a monument and museum by the Polish Government whereas Birkenau had been left to lapse into ruin and decay and was all the more chilling and awful as a result. The grass was knee-high, the huts broken down, rotting, with little glass left where the windows had once been and the bunks on which so many had tried to sleep and survive were piled high and haphazard. Somehow this desolate, windswept, and barren place made much more of an impression on me and it has never left me.

When I returned from that trip, I tracked down a copy of Primo Levi’s “If This Is A Man”, the story of his year in Auschwitz and “The Truce” the equally moving story of his nine month struggle to survive after liberation and get back through a war-ravaged Europe to his home in Turin. Reading that book was the beginning of so many books I’ve subsequently read over the years about the Holocaust, those who perpetrated it, those who turned a blind eye to it, those who suffered it and those who survived it. It’s only as I take stock of what I’ve read over the years do I realise how much I’ve read on that subject.

As a teacher I was amazed at the clever, subtle way the Holocaust was handled for children in the books When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr and the magnificent I Am David by Ann Holm, both of which I read to pupils over the years. As a young man  I read the incredibly powerful book Schindler’s Ark, by Thomas Keneally, and watched in awe as it was transferred magnificently to the cinema years later as Schindler’s List.

In recent years I was impressed by The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, and I went on to watch the film of this with my daughter and it made me realise that it had brought much-needed awareness of the Holocaust to a whole new generation of children and young people, in the same way that I Am David had done in previous years.

I read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer and immediately followed it with The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I preferred. My first introduction to the writing of Bernhard Schlink was The Reader. I thought it was such a good book and one that made a very powerful impression on me. I’ve now got the film of The Reader on my Sky + but it’s been there sometime and I’m avoiding watching it. I have a feeling I’m going to be disappointed in the film, despite the fact that I’ve read good reviews of it in several places.

But good as all these books, and several others, have been, none of them have had that profound effect on me that the first reading of Primo Levi did. There was a simplicity about the survival instinct he wrote about and a perfect balance between observation and emotion in his books. Above all they are books of such dignity and gentleness in the midst of a world which was the very opposite. He describes in his afterword to If This Is A Man that his time in Auschwitz was in some respects his “university”  But his latyer reflections on that time are the most powerful and moving. He ends  the afterword thus

“And, finally, I was helped by my determination., which I stubbornly preserved, to recognise always, even in the darkest days, in my companions and in myself, men, not things, and thus avoid that total humiliation and demoralisation which led so many to spiritual shipwreck”

What I Thought Of……..HHhH by Laurent Binet

……….’HHhH’ is one of those books that is so brilliant, it almost makes writing a review of it a bit pointless. Perhaps ‘HHhH is brilliant in every way’ is really all that needs to be said, or read, in a review of it!!

But of course that kind of brevity may not do justice to a novel as good as this and more selfishly and more importantly, what the hell’s the use of a blog about books I read, if I can’t write more than one sentence!!!!

From the front cover to the last page, everything about this is book is clever, different and memorable, and for all the right reasons. It tells the story of the attempted assassination of Himmler’s right hand man, Reinhard Heydrich, by members of the Czech resistance in 1942. Of course “right hand man” doesn’t give you a sense of just how evil and integral Heydrich was within the Nazi heirarchy so perhaps his nicknames will. This man was variously known as ‘the Blond Beast’, ‘the Hangman Of Prague’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’,  and from Hitler himself ‘The Man With The Iron Heart’. The title of the novel refers to Heydrich’s influence and power being frequently described through the chilling phrase “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich” which in German is ‘Himmler’s Hirn heisst Heydrich” (HHhH).

The story follows the rise of Heydrich through the ranks till he reaches the peak of being Himmler’s number two, envied, feared, depended upon, and mistrusted, all in equal measure, by Heydrich, by other high ranking Nazi’s and by those under his command. His appointment as Protector of Bohemia and Moravia gives Heydrich carte blanche to rule ruthlessly, mercilessly and with real cunning, over this Czech part of the Nazi conquered territories.

With the Czech resistance almost neutered, the President in exile needs a way to reinvigorate the Resistance, make the Allies sit up and notice the Czechs, and to strike a blow at the heart of the German occupation in their country. And so Operation Anthropoid is born, which sees Czech parachutists sent on a daring mission to assassinate Heydrich in Prague. The book intersperses the mission of the parachutists, Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, with the machinations of Heydrich and the Nazi hierarchy in their rule over much of Europe and inevitably in their treatment of the Jewish population in those countries. I won’t go any further on the details of the plot save to say it would be an incredible story of bravery, tragedy and betrayal if it was the production of a fertile imagination – when you then consider that this is historical fact, it is a privilege to read it.

What makes HHhH so special is that it is not only a fantastic read in terms of plot, characterisation, and setting, but it’s also brilliantly written – in fact I’ve never read anything quite like it. And because I’ve never read anything like it before, I’m struggling to get across just what makes the way it’s structured so special. It’s in many ways a work of non-fiction as it’s meticulously researched and yet it’s written in the form of a novel. But what makes this book so memorable, is that it goes way beyond simply telling the heroic tale of the parachutists and the awful, tragic aftermath of their actions. It takes historical fiction as a genre and the structure, feel and tone of historical fiction and simply turns it on its head! One of the inevitable tensions in historical fiction is the balance between fact and imagination and connnected to that, the extent to which the fictional aspects do justice to the factual events. What Laurent Binet does with this tension, is to take that internal dialogue and debate that he’s gone through as the author and put in into the novel. Consequently over 257 very short chapters (there are no page numbers) he not only explores Heydrich, Kubis and Gabcik but he describes the research, he sets out the uncertainties over imagined dialogues and thoughts of the characters, and he masterfully personalises all of this with his own thoughts, fears, anxieties and views about the book and about the characters as he writes it.

Having read that back I’m not sure it accurately conveys what Binet does in this book  – perhaps my description with this excerpt added will convey it better.


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. Me, I’m stuck not only with Colonel Moravec, the brave head of Czech secret services in London, but with the heroic Moravec family who are part of the internal Resistance and with Emanuel Moravec, the infamous collaborationist minister…………”


Goebbels’s Diary, February 6th 1942:

Gregory gave me a report on the Protectorate. The atmosphere is very good. Heydrich has worked brilliantly. He has shown such prudence and political intelligence that there is no more talk of crisis. Heydrich wanted to replace Gregory with an SS-Fuhrer. I don’t agree. Gregory has an excellent knowledge of the Protectorate and the Czech population and Heydrich’s staff is not always very intelligent. Above all it does not show much leadership. That’s why I keep faith with Gregory

Sorry, I don’t have the faintest idea who this Gregory could be. And just so my falsely offhand tone doesn’t give you the wrong idea: I have tried to find out!”

The best way I can describe it is to say that this isn’t non-fiction but it isn’t a historical fiction novel either. So I’ll settle for describing it as the first non-fiction novel I’ve ever read!

Most of the books I read I enjoy. Several of them are so good, they get the accolade of being pronounced to my family as “TERRIFIC!” and this one word is accompanied by a theatrical but symbolic closing of the book for the last time to signify ‘the end’, signify that I loved it and give the hint that it’s time to put the kettle on! However sometimes I read a book where even “TERRIFIC” isn’t enough to do it justice. These books get the accolade of being pronounced as “THAT’S ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS I’VE READ FOR SOME TIME!” (although as my partner often points out “you said that last week too!”).

But this is even a step beyond my usual enjoyment of books and my typical hyperbole about them.

HHhH is simply one of the best books I have ever read and I can’t recommend it highly enough – if you only ever take a recommendation on a book from me once in your life, make it this one! You’ll be glad you did!

‘Buying Books Would Be A Good Thing If One Could Also Buy The Time To Read Them In!’………

………..These words of Alfred Schopenhauer certainly rang true for me over the weekend as I unpacked several packages of books which were delivered or collected at the end of last week! I had that gloriously familiar yet scary feeling of excitement at the thought of reading to come, mixed in with getting my fix from the smell, and shape and feel of books to which I think I’m addicted, and topped off with a slight panic at the thought of “when the hell will I find the time to read all these!?”

The first bundle of joy brought the books I need for The Readers Summer Book Club. I had three of the eight titles already but now I have them all, I’m really looking forward to both reading each of them and to reading what other people think of each of them. By definition reading is a pretty solitary past time and so something like the Summer Book Club gives me the sense of being connected through the book I read to others, doing the same solitary thing, at broadly the same time, and for exactly the same purpose, that I am. It all kicks off with Glen Duncan’s ‘The Last Werewolf’ on May 28th.

The second delivery was a few books that I’d got on the basis of recommendations from elsewhere. Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture The Castle’ had been reviewed so positively on several of the blogs I read, that I almost felt I’d be missing out if I didn’t read it! Similarly I’ve read positive reviews on other blogs of Jeffrey Eugenides ‘The Marriage Plot’, and Anne Enwright’s ‘The Forgotten Waltz’ which was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize. One night driving home I flicked through radio stations and found Simon Mayo on Radio 2 waxing lyrical about Chad Harbach’s ‘The Art Of Fielding’. At that point it was the first time I’d heard of it, but of course since then I couldn’t fail to spot that it’s everywhere. I think it was advertised in virtually every tube station I was in over the weekend! The package was a bit of a mix for it also included John Lawton’s ‘A Lily Of The Field’. He’s new to me as a writer but it was recommended by a friend who’s read all of the Inspector Troy series (I think the one I’ve just collected is about the seventh or eighth!) so I’m both looking forward to it and also hoping I’ll have found a new detective so that I can then go back and read through all the other Troy books!

On Friday I picked up my copy of HhhH by Laurent Binet, which I’d first heard of being recommended on CathyReadsBooks (though I can’t remember if it was in her actual blog or through her Twitter feed). It tells the story of the mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia in 1942. Since that initial but overwhelmingly positive recommendation, I’ve read of several others who essentially all said, in metaphorical twenty-foot high capital letters BUY IT AND READ IT! I generally love fiction set around WW2 and that along with the many enthusiastic reviews was more than enough to convince me so I did buy it and I’m about to start it later today!

Lastly I picked up the last of a set of books about or by my national poet, the genius that was Robert Burns. My parents had kindly given me money to buy whatever books about him I could find for my 50th birthday and having spent some time looking I finally ordered them recently, some new to me and others replacing second-hand dog-eared copies of books I’ve had for donkeys years!. So, probably over the summer itself, I’m looking forward to spending time with Robert, his Merry Muses of Caledonia and his Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect, with side orders of biographies and studies of the Scottish Bard by Robert Crawford, Donald Smith and Patrick Scott Hogg!

And as I read all things Robert, I’ll be listening to Eddie Reader sing the “Songs of Robert Burns Live” in the background! And when it gets to the song ‘Willie Stewart’ I’ll stop reading and sing along at the top of my voice!!! (partly because it’s a wonderful bawdy celebration of male friendship and partly because Willie Stewart is my Dad’s name!)

And I might wash down all that patriotism with another wallow in watching ‘Braveheart’! (though at this point my family may well leave me for this is where common sense departs and rabid Scottish mutterings about the “Daughters of Longshanks” begin!)