The Memory Book (Rowan Coleman)

I very much enjoyed reading local author (to Berkhamsted), Rowan Coleman’s latest novel, The Memory Book, recently.  I was lucky enough to have a little time around New Year and so read it in a couple of days!

The novel tells the story of a woman who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease in her forties, and how her teenage and toddler daughters, together with her new husband and mother manage the disease and their own feelings as they watch Claire gradually descend into a state when little makes sense to her any more.  To make the most of Claire’s diminishing number of days of lucidity, they decide to start writing in a book of memories, mainly filled by Claire’s own memories of her life and experiences, but also those of her husband, Greg, elder daughter, Caitlin and mother, Ruth.  At times, it seems as though the only person who truly understands Claire is toddler Esther.  The story is eloquently told and, as a reader, one gets  a sense of all the emotions felt by each member of the family and those with whom Claire is in touch outside the home.  Memories are not only recorded, they are are created, and forge new feelings of connection between the main characters.  There are many wonderful, yet poignant, moments, which are often punctuated with a good sense of humour.  The novel ends on an upbeat level with the promise of new beginnings… Read it and enjoy!

memory book

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Shakespearean actor comes to School and makes us think…

On Monday 4th February, 2013, we welcomed Shakespearean actor and author, Ben Crystal, on his return to Berkhamsted.  Ben has visited us twice before and his talk to our Year 9 pupils never fails to disappoint.  This year, we arranged for him to speak with our girls first and then our boys, which was fascinating as both audiences reacted quite differently to what they heard.

Ben began by simply reading Hamlet‘s speech where he meets his father’s ghost without much expression and then, suddenly, he demonstrated the power of acting out Shakespeare’s words as compared with reading them straight out of the book.  He challenged his audience to think, for example, about the simple meaning of the word ‘Oh’!  We found that by differing expressions of this word through the use of various contexts and emotions, such a simple exclamation can have so much significance in so many ways.  This warmed up the audience and got them engaged!

Ben then asked his audience what they knew of William Shakespeare:  the man, his life, the period in which he lived and his theatre.  We established that the playwright was very much a man of his time, his writing was political and this was reflected in his plays, as well as his taking inspiration from his own experiences of life.  We also understood that there is a quality about Shakespeare’s writing that transcends his own age and how we could relate to his work today.  We thought about the typical theatre of his day, and considered how the Globe Theatre as it stands on the left bank of the river Thames today might be compared with the original.  Ben explained who would have sat where in the theatre and what they would have seen of the play, where was the best place to be seen if you wanted to be, and were able to pay the top ticket price, and the fact that the actors would have walked about in the yard, the place in front of the stage where those with the cheapest tickets would stand.  He also explained how the audience would have interacted directly with the actors, each performance would then by slightly different from the previous one.  Each member of the audience would have a different relationship with the character on-stage and audiences were more emotionally engaged than perhaps they are today.

Ben then went on to talk with our students about Macbeth, the play they are studying this year.  They quickly established the essence of the play:  the Scottish Warrior returns from battle, meets three witches who tell him he will kill the King and he must tell his wife, they will become King and Queen, they go mad and then die!   Again, we reflected how this was a play very much of its time – 80% of the audience would have been illiterate, many believed in witchcraft and the new King James I was a leader in the campaign to stop the European Witch Craze.  He felt too many were dying (60,000-120,000 died from being accused of being a witch).  This play was seen as a scary play with the three witches appearing in the first scene!  It was topical and nightmarish.  Ben reminded us that the subject, the killing of the King, was also a subject which filled the citizens with horror at the time, with the gunpowder plot against King James, political uncertainty led to much fear and confusion.

Finally we considered Shakespeare’s language.  We thought about the fact that he made up more than 1,000 words, words that we still use and understand today, as well as how these words were used to convey their meaning.  The children were able to discuss how his use of iambic pentameter reflects the pattern and rhythm of human speech.  Ben explained that this set Shakespeare apart from other poets and writers of the time.  By using very human-sounding poetry, Shakespeare explored what it is to be human.  He asks us the question:  What would we do in this situation/circumstance?

Ben concluded by telling us all about Original Pronunciation and about how the actors in Shakespeare’s times would have delivered their lines with a mixture of dialects and accents from all over the English-speaking world.  He demonstrated this wonderfully by reciting one speech twice: firstly as we are more accustomed to hear it today using our modern Received Pronunciation and secondly using Original Pronunciation.  Our students felt encouraged to compare the two and discuss how they felt about each.

All in all, we had a superb morning and I believe that all students thoroughly enjoyed themselves and left the halls feeling they now had a new perspective on an author they had previously thought of as tedious and difficult!  We should like to express our thanks to Ben, a superb actor!

Ben Crystal 1 Ben Crystal 2

World Book Day 2012: Celebrations in School, part 1

Here in Berkhamsted we celebrated World Book Day yesterday, Thursday 1st March, by participating in DEAR (Drop Everything And Read).  We asked our teaching colleagues to share a favourite or current book with their classes, read an extract perhaps, and talk with students about why they are passionate about reading and what it means to them.  We also asked non-teaching staff to share with us what they like to read and, similarly, to tell us why they enjoy it as a pastime.  We have had some lovely responses so far and I’m hoping that more will get in touch.  Please read what we’ve written and let us know what you think…

Let’s begin with Mrs Ferguson, Head of Art :

“I spoke to Year 11 boys, Year 13 artists and Year 10 boys about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I explained where my own love of reading sprang from – influenced by my mother (an avid reader) and a wonderful A-level English course, leading onto an English degree (I think some were quite surprised by this last fact!). I went on to talk about how I quite often discover new writers through their short stories and then go on to reading novels by the same writer, although with Marquez this was the other way round; the first book I read by him was Love in the Time of Cholera. I gave them a bit of biographical context and then the extract that I read out was from The Third Resignation – an early piece very much in the magical realist style and describing the first-hand experiences of a boy who is a living corpse kept by his family in a coffin. Judging from their faces, all the pupils I read this out to were suitably transfixed by what is a magnificently sensual evocation of a waking nightmare!”

Next we talked with Mrs Bailey, PA to the Head of Girls and Mrs Koulouris, one of our librarians:

“Just finished Me Before You Jojo Moyes! Fantastic book…  Heart-wrenching, believable story line.  If you don’t cry over this you haven’t got a heart”.  Mrs Koulouris says that they didn’t cry over the same parts of the story but nonetheless both equally enjoyed it.  She has just started Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers which is another lovely story.

Thirdly, Mr Binnie, a Chemistry teacher, contacted us saying:

“I read my Year 7 science class a small section of Stephen Hawking’s book The Grand Design. The passage included reference to multi universes existing which they found fascinating.  They had loads of questions and asked about aliens, evolution and all sorts of stuff. I had an exciting practical prepared for them which they always enjoy so I asked them after 20 minutes of discussion whether they wanted to do the practical. About 75% wanted to continue with the discussion so we did and there were about 5 hands up at all times in the lesson and we talked about all aspects of science.

We did this for the whole hour lesson and they really enjoyed it and I did too.”

I find it so refreshing that teachers and staff from all areas have been in touch to talk about the pleasure gained from reading, whether it be fiction or non-fiction; books, newspapers or magazines, and the fact that staff and pupils alike borrow many books from here, is extremely satisfying!