Reading journals, Autumn 2018 (1)

It’s been far too long since we last wrote in this space, life has been so very busy here at Berkhamsted School since the beginning of term and our feet haven’t touched the ground for what seems like months!  However, we are hoping to redress the balance and talk again about one of our favourite topics, which will come as no surprise – books!

We are featuring, during several entries, reviews and recommendations of books read during those heady days of summer, which are exciting, thought provoking, and purely enjoyable reads…

To kick off our reading year, our new Deputy Head (Teaching and Innovation), Mrs Butland, is a self-confessed avid reader and has sent along a long list of books she has read recently. For her Sixth Form Politics classes she recommends:

For a generally great read, she recommends these fantastic books:

In a later message, we received two more recommendations from Mrs Butland and wanted to include these here:

Well, that’s my reading list for the forthcoming half-term holiday, what a fantastic range of material from which to choose…  What’s on your TBR pile?

 

 

 

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Drop Everything And Read (1)

For World Book Day, we asked members of staff to tell us what they would recommend to their classes and each other on World Book Day, Thursday 1st March.  It seems like an age ago now, but to librarians World Book Day happens every day and we like to share, especially when the books are not necessarily on our radar.  It was a snowy day, and the following day, when we hoped to continue the celebrations, our school was closed so unfortunately we weren’t able to share as much as we’d liked…  Here are a selection that we received:

Mr Moore, History teacher said: “I had a great time with my year 8 History class who told me their favourite books. I read the opening of True grit by Charles Portis (my favourite book) and for good measure showed them the trailer to the recent film adaption. Hopefully I have converted a few Year 8’s to trying a western!”

Mr Ottaway, who teaches Economics and is a Head of Sixth Form House at Berkhamsted replied: “I am reading, and have recommended to Economics Society, the following book: The black swan by Nassim Taleb.”

Mr Cowie, Head of Economics, is further increasing his knowledge of twentieth century history, particularly World War II: “… not much reading at present,  but tucking into ‘The War in the West’ Volumes 1 and 2 by James Holland.”

All fascinating titles, and good reading – of this I am certain.  Do let us know what you think.

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Holiday reading (7)

Our seventh post sees a welcome return of the reading of Dr Hundal, another of our lovely biologists, with two titles, again vastly different from each other!  Dr Hundal has sought, this time, to expand his knowledge of another viewpoint of the all-consuming Brexit issue and challenge his own ideas about it with Daniel Hannan‘s book How we invented freedom and why it matters. (Click for a review of the book.)  Dr Hundal says:

“Daniel Hannan is a prominent Eurosceptic and played a key part in the Vote Leave campaign. As someone who is a firm Remainer, I thought it would be a good idea to try and understand the perspective of a Brexiteer.

The book takes a historical look at freedoms, rights and liberty from a very Anglocentric perspective. At times, I found the historical narrative revealing whilst recognising that the perspective is viewed firmly through the lens of ‘English speaking world’.

Nonetheless, Hannan is passionate over his stance and the writing is quite engaging. However, he failed to convince me that Leave is the best option, perhaps, he may persuade you?!”

Clearly, Dr Hundal is still on the Remain side, but it is always good to understand the alternative perspective, if well-written, as opposed to how the issue is portrayed in the popular press!  He is, I feel, more at home with his second choice of book, Sapiens : a brief history of humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. Of this he writes:

“A sweeping historical account of humankind, taking in 100 000 + years in bite-sized, digestible chapters. The science, coupled to the historical narrative, is very good.

I found the concept of how larger populations, which arose as a result of city-living, required a common, shared value system to maintain order fascinating, particularly with regard to the role of myths and religion as the societal glue.

A great read.”

I’m not sure I am quite ready for Daniel Hannan’s book as yet, but at some point I may give it a go.  I think Yuval Noah Harari’s might be quite the thing… What do you think?  it would be good to hear from those who have read either or both of these titles, let’s keep the debate going!

Holiday reading (1)

Happy New Year to all readers everywhere!  We have decided that this is the year to start blogging in earnest again and we have plenty of great books to entertain you!  Apologies for our absence for a while, we have been three people running two busy libraries in a split site school, and now, with an eagerly anticipated new member of staff arriving, we hope to return regularly!

As usual, after the Christmas holidays, we asked our well-read members of staff to provide recommendations for the New Year and so we’ll highlight these over a few posts, and would welcome any comments you may have…

The first reflects the holiday readings of our illustrious Head of Economics, Mr Cowie.  He has suggested both fiction and non-fiction and begins with Peter May’s series of books known as The Lewis Trilogy which comprises The blackhouse, The Lewis man and The chessman.  Of these novels, Mr Cowie says:

“Set on the Island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – three detective novels. Quite dark in terms of the plots and brilliant descriptions of the locality. It always seems to be raining!”

The stories’ central character is Fin Macleod, born and bred on the island, who returns after a time spent working a Detective Inspector in Edinburgh, and finds himself caught up in investigating crimes on the island which take him back into his past and then on into his present…

Mr Cowie’s second and third choices reflect his interest in current affairs and history.  The first of these is entitled The Germans and Europe by Peter Millar.  Mr Cowie’s thoughts invite further investigation by new readers:

“Of interest to the few Germanophiles around. Written from and about 9 German cities – of which 3 are no longer in Germany.” 

“Based on a lifetime living in and reporting on Germany and Central Europe, award-winning journalist and author Peter Millar tackles the fascinating and complex story of the people at the heart of our continent. Focusing on nine cities (only six of which are in the Germany of today) he takes us on a zigzag ride back through time via the fall of the Berlin Wall through the horrors of two world wars, the patchwork states of the Middle Ages, to the splendour of Charlemagne and the fall of Rome, with side swipes at everything on the way, from Henry VIII to the Spanish Empire…  Not just a book about Germany but about Europe as a whole and how we got where we are today, and where we might be tomorrow.” (Nielsen Bookdata Online, accessed 23 January 2018).

Finally, we encounter Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution by John Morrill.  Of this, Mr Cowie says:

“The French are always boasting about their ridiculous revolution but ours came first and was far superior. Why it is not taught in the 6th form I shall never understand.”

“John Morrill has been at the forefront of modern attempts to explain the origins, nature and consequences of the English Revolution. These twenty essays — seven either specially written or reproduced from generally inaccessible sources — illustrate the main scholarly debates to which he has so richly contributed: the tension between national and provincial politics; the idea of the English Revolution as “the last of the European Wars of Religion”; its British dimension; and its political sociology. Taken together, they offer a remarkably coherent account of the period as a whole.” (Nielsen Bookdata Online, accessed 23 January 2018).

With such an interesting collection of books for reading during the holidays, I think this takes care of my reading list for next summer!  I believe that I’ll need more than the shorter period we had for these winter days.  If you are a reader of crime novels and interested in well-written history books, here’s a ready-made selection for you.  Do write to us with more suggestions and comments on these, if you have read them as well.

Christmas reading (3)

Mrs Grant, our Safety and Environment Manager, was the next person to write to me, telling of the book she read during our Christmas break.  She read the début novel of writer Geoffrey GudgionSaxon’s Bane, and says:

  “I read ‘Saxon’s Bane’, by Geoffrey Gudgion.  He is a local author who came and spoke at our WI, although I sadly missed his visit!  I loved the book. It seemed to have everything: historical interest, village politics, suspense, death, adventure and mystery, with the themes of good vs evil, the Church vs paganism and even a bit of a love story running through it.  I always think the best way to judge a book is whether you actually care about the characters and if you find yourself wondering what they are doing whilst you are not reading the book. Geoffrey Gudgion has achieved this: when I finished Saxon’s Bane I felt I knew them so well I wanted to go and find the fictional village and have a drink and chat with them all.”

I like the way Mrs Grant talks of the way in which she views a book, and then subsequently was able to put her ideas into practice with this one.  A good endorsement, I think.  In a later message, she told me that this wouldn’t usually have fitted with her preferred reading style or genre,which should encourage us all to break out of our comfort zone once in a while, something which we are always advising students to do!

Mr Petty, our Head of Sixth Form, was the next reader to write to me. He had just finished Stephen Graubard’s book The Presidents : the transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama.  This book was published in 2009, when the author was 85.  Mr Petty says this about it:

“Over the holidays I very much enjoyed re-reading ‘The Presidents:  the Transformation of the American Presidency from Theodore Roosevelt to Barack Obama’ by Stephen Graubard.  I thought it was a good time to remind myself of some of the brilliant, bold, brave, and frankly bonkers people who have occupied the White House, and this is a masterful book with which to do this.  This wonderful survey – there around 40 pages on each featured President – reminds one how there are limits to how far each President can change the USA, but also brought to mind how greatly I had under-appreciated two presidents in particular.  They are not exactly unsung heroes, but Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson are simply fascinating figures who knew what they wanted, and were unlikely to be thwarted in their very different ambitions.  I’d heartily recommend this work, even if one simply dips in to it to read about one or two presidents.”

After reading this review, I immediately ordered a copy and sent it to my daughter who is studying American politics as a module of her first degree at Birmingham University.  We have been much more interested in the politics of the USA since our visit to Washington DC last summer, and enjoyed visiting the fantastic museums as well as Capitol Hill and the Library of Congress.  We were fortunate enough to attend a session in the House of Represenatives, which brought everything so much more alive for us.

School projects and the Library: part 2

As mentioned in our previous post, we are also working on a History project with our Year 7 students.  For the past few weeks,they have been learning about life in a Medieval castle and are now in a position to carry out some research into how people lived during the Middle Ages, their task being to write a diary entry for a date to be selected by them during the period between 1066 and 1485, but for the date that they choose,  their writing must be historically accurate!

They have to assume the character of one of the following: a Lord or nobleman, Lady or noblewoman, squire or knight, a cook or an armourer; they then choose a special event to write about: a joust, a banquet or feast, a wedding or a festival.  Finally, they should incorporate daily routines from the life of their chosen character such as mealtimes and food, schooling and education, work and leisure, and clothes.  That’s a pretty detailed piece of writing, and, as well as this, they have to draw a plan of a castle with a key to the various parts and themselves in character.

Our part in this is to help them use books, yes, real books (!) within the library space, and guide them to use specific websites which have been carefully selected for content and which are guaranteed (as far as possible) to be available.  We then help them to start creating their own bibliography, listing books and websites used, in the correct order and format.  We explain concepts such as key words, contents and index pages, and glossaries, and emphasize the need to credit the work that other people have done, and which they use as inspiration.  So far, these classes are proceeding well and we feel that our approach has made it as easy for them as can be, especially given the ground they are required to cover.  The final project is to be printed or written on parchment paper, to encourage an authentic feel!  In past years, we have received tea-stained copies with burnt edges, pages tied together with raffia… Lovely!

If any of our readers are carrying out similar project work, we would love to hear from you. Sharing good practice is one of our goals.

Berkhamsted_Castle

This is a photograph of our very own castle here in Berkhamsted. It was begun in 1066 and became a very important castle in its day, as William the Conqueror visited and received the submission of England here after the Battle of Hastings.  Past occupants have included Thomas Becket and Geoffrey Chaucer.  To discover more, click here.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons; originally submitted to Flickr by Anne Thorniley.

 

Berkhamsted School Staff Book Club meets again…

We had a lively and interesting meeting last Tuesday (17th May), and discussed two books Katherine Webb’s The legacy and Father’s Day by Simon van Booy.

the legacyGenerally we all enjoyed the books to some extent, but had more to say individually.  Katherine Webb’s novel was felt to have been well-written and a good read, with plenty of plot and storyline, however some felt that the ending needed a clearer definition: there were interesting threads which we as readers knew to be part of the story but the protagonist seemed to feel satisfied that they were not brought together for her; of course, this is purely the preference of two of the readers.  Some members of the group felt that this fact made it more realistic because in life, things aren’t always resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but we others, whilst recognising this, felt that here, somehow, it would have made for a better ending for everything to be tied up.  The characterisation was good and the settings were interesting.  Our thanks go to HarperCollins for a copy to review.

Father's Day

Father’s Day was generally liked very much.  For a novel whose story involves travelling between the past and the present, generally we felt that this was done seamlessly with items signifying  good or important memories invoking events from the past between the two protagonists.  The story was told simply and not  sentimentally, we felt, although one member of the group disagreed.  The back story was intriguing and provided a good deal to question and talk about. The characters were likeable and interesting, with their story, whilst dramatic in itself, told calmly and almost gently. We should like to say thank you to One World Publications for the advance copy.

As usual, we then had a discussion of books which we’d recently read and enjoyed, please see the list below:

Missing, presumed – Susie Steiner

My map of you – Isabelle Broom

Maestra – L S Hilton

You sent me a letter – Lucy Dawson

The boy on the wooden box – Leon Leyson

Am I normal yet? – Holly Bourne

The storyteller – Jodi Picoult

Faces in the smoke – Josef Perl

The girl on the train – Paula Hawkins

Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

All the light we cannot see – Anthony Doerr

A book which looks absolutely fascinating and which I would love to read this summer is A life discarded by Alexander Masters (author of Stuart : a life backwards).  He found some diaries in a skip outside a house which was being cleared in Cambridge, and which were written by one hand spanning five decades.  Apparently they reveal an ordinary life lived but one which is, at times, shocking, poignant, and hilarious…

If you have read any of these fantastic novels, please do get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

Finally, we hope, as a group, to see the long-awaited film adaptation of a favourite book of ours, Jojo Moyes’s Me before you, which is out on general release in cinemas from Friday 3rd June…Check out this blog for a review!

 

 

Christmas reading at Berkhamsted (5)

Mr Cowie, Head of Economics, is an avid reader and has written to me about three books which he read over the Christmas holidays.  I should like to share them with you here.  The books cover various periods in British history, and focus on very different subjects.  I have also read one of these, the first mentioned below.

It is renowned author and journalist Ben MacIntyre‘s telling of the story of one of the country’s most intriguing spies of World War II, Eddie Chapman.  Here’s what Mr Cowie has to say about Agent Zigzag : a true story of Nazi espionage, love and betrayal :

“The tale of a WW2 double-agent called Eddie Chapman. A total cad but not a complete and utter rotter – in fact, something of a hero.”

I would wholeheartedly agree with the second sentence here.  Chapman’s story could not have been dreamt up by the most inventive or imaginative of novelists, however, I am sure that it would inspire authors of the spy genre. From his humble beginnings of a petty crook from one of the poorer areas of London, Eddie discovered, as a young man, that he had a talent for learning languages quickly and soon found himself attracting the attention of German soldiers in Jersey at the time of occupation… It’s a great story.

The second volume offered by Mr Cowie is something completely different. Mod : from Bebop to Britpop by Richard Weight shows the story of the Mod, his music, style and mode of transport from his origin right up to his more modern equivalent in the time of Britpop.  Mr Cowie says:

“A history of Mod culture – British and working class – from the late 50s, through Swinging London, Northern Soul, the late-70s revival, and Britpop. Short for ‘modernists’ (obv) and interested in black American music, French film, and Italian fashion.”

For those of us who are at a certain stage in our lives, this book will educate about, and remind us of, popular culture prevalent when we were growing up, a great recommendation.

Finally, he recommends John Darwin’s book, Unfinished empire : the global expansion of Britain:

“an intelligent and nuanced study”.

A writer for Nielsen Bookdata Online has this to say about it, and, I must say, it sounds like an important chronicle of the history of the British empire:

” This is a both controversial and comprehensive historical analysis of how the British Empire worked, from Wolfson Prize-winning author and historian John Darwin. The British Empire shaped the world in countless ways: repopulating continents, carving out nations, imposing its own language, technology and values. For perhaps two centuries its expansion and final collapse were the single largest determinant of historical events, and it remains surrounded by myth, misconception and controversy today. John Darwin’s provocative and richly enjoyable book shows how diverse, contradictory and in many ways chaotic the British Empire really was, controlled by interests that were often at loggerheads, and as much driven on by others’ weaknesses as by its own strength.”

We welcome any comments or thoughts you may have about any of the books featured here, so please do contact us and start a discussion.

Christmas reading at Berkhamsted (4)

This, the fourth episode in our Christmas reading journey, sees three more, very different books read by Dr Hundal, Head of a Sixth Form House and biologist, and me.  Dr Hundal’s chosen novel is entitled Butcher’s Crossing, and was written by John Williams in 1960.  Williams’s book Stoner enjoyed renewed success in 2013, forty eight years after it was written, perhaps Butcher’s Crossing will too, some fifty five years later!  Dr Hundal says:

“A terrific read which is set in the 1870s. It is written with a simple but engaging descriptive prose. The story’s central character is a young East Coast man going out West in search of adventure. After teaming up to hunt down one of the largest buffalo herds remaining, he finds he has taken on more than he bargained for.  The tension between the main characters is at the heart of the book. I enjoyed the wonderful description of the wide, open and, at times, mountainous wilderness. Well recommended.”

The book was reviewed in The Guardian newspaper on 7th January 2014 by Nicholas Lezard and, he, too, was impressed by the novel. Click here to read more.

The two books which I spent my holidays reading are Jane Austen’s timeless Persuasion and Matt Haig’s current and most recently published Reasons for living.  Both were read with different expectations.

Persuasion is my favourite of Austen’s novels, and thinking that I would have the time to do it justice, I began to read.  Having read so many modern novels of various genres lately and not reading the great classics for a good few years, I found it took a little time for my brain to settle and focus on the language, manners and expressions.  I had thought that I would be able to slip into it again, and the fact that I didn’t, and felt that I had to engage my brain physically to do so, made me think that this could  be an excellent brain exercise! I was justly rewarded and reminded of what a great novel it is.  I have recently seen an article which considers Persuasion the poorest of Austen’s work but I’m sure I don’t agree.  Perhaps I am not viewing it critically and just enjoying the story, the setting and language.  That’s good enough for me!  It’s a wonderful novel about true friendship, the nature of families, love, and the way life turns out – not so different from many modern novels but also a commentary on its time, where making good marriages did count for some. we learn how a man could establish himself as a naval officer and earn the respect and wealth which goes with hard work, and, interestingly, become rich through being a captain in times of war.  Give me a Captain Wentworth any day!

I chose my next book having read a review somewhere (I really must start making notes of where I read such things!), and felt the need to take a look at Matt Haig‘s book to understand exactly what he went through as a young man of 24 who found himself extremely depressed with very little hope about what the future may bring. He tells how he came through his darkest times and discusses how mindfulness has become a key part of his recovery.  The more I learn of this idea, the more I like, and can see how beneficial it can be.  I had heard of Haig as an author of children’s and young adult fiction, and wanted to know more about him.  I truly appreciated this book and learned more from it than I have from other sources, produced by clinicians.  It is an honest account of how he has come through and taught me a few things:

“That’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety.  It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything…”

His list of reasons for staying alive halfway through the book makes so much sense to me, even as a non-sufferer. This book helps those who love people who are.

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts, if you have read any of these books, do let me know!

Christmas reading at Berkhamsted (1)

Welcome to the first Berkhamsted School Library post of 2016!  Over the next few posts, we will be looking at books which were read by members of staff at Berkhamsted who were finally able to put aside reports, sporting fixtures, outdoor education and many other activities which take place during the school term, in the Christmas holidays, to enjoy a book.  I hope that you find these posts entertaining and that they inspire you to pick up a volume or two!

We will begin with our Vice Principal of Education: Mr Bond’s choice (he was the first off the mark to send in his book!).  The book is entitled The bone clocks by David Mitchell.  Mr Bond says:

“It’s an intriguing book that weaves a fascinating narrative across a 60 year (from the 1980s to 2040s) period with a supernatural theme interwoven through it as well. It’s main strength (in my opinion) is its depth of characterisation – the individuals are richly portrayed throughout.”

The book certainly received great reviews from the broadsheets and, indeed, Mrs Redman, (Head of a Sixth Form House), whose personal choice follows this, says that she also loved it.

Mrs Redman decided to read My Àntonia by Willa Cather.  She says:

“I read My Ántonia, a beautifully-observed account of the fortunes of a young immigrant to Nebraska at the end of the 20th Century as seen through the romantic eyes of a young boy who grows up on the neighbouring farm.  Her early life is one of seemingly unending drudgery in a bleak, unforgiving landscape, but Jim only sees how strong, confident and lovely Ántonia becomes as a result.  It is a glimpse at a frontier world which shows how identities are shaped not only by the harsh realities of the present and dreams for a better future but, most importantly, by our heritage.  Read it for the vivid descriptions of the Nebraskan scenery alone.”

One of a very different nature, I imagine, but as well-written, I am sure.

The final book in this post is a recommendation from Mr Petty, our Head of Sixth Form.  As a historian, this book provides not only a deeper insight into his subject but also a keen personal interest. Mr Petty reports:

 “One of the books I particularly enjoyed over the break was Robert Dallek’s JFK:  An Unfinished Life.  This is such an accomplished biography which covers the key moments in American History c.1930-1963 with panache, rigour and insight – the sections on the Cuban Missiles Crisis and Kennedy’s election to the Senate, and then the Presidency, are particularly riveting. Two surprises for me from the book:  being made aware of how long-established the Kennedys were as a major force in north-eastern American politics, such that they long preceded JFK’s father, Joseph, who is often assumed to be the man who brought them to fame and fortune; and just how entrenched the Kennedy administration was in the deepening crisis in Vietnam, despite escaping censure from historians for the growing problems there.  Dallek is fair-minded, and ranks Kennedy as a potentially great President.  Even though the reader knows the ultimately tragic outcome of this astonishing narrative, one is still somehow shocked and enthralled by the unfolding of the assassination.  A superb account of a remarkable life.”

Three great books, which I am sure will engender debate and further reading.  Have any of you read them?  Please do get in touch and share your thoughts, we would love to hear from you.