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.

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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.

Berkhamsted School Christmas Reads (4)

Mrs Koulouris, an avid reader and our school Archivist, has sent me reviews of the books which she read over the holidays.  She starts with Takashi Hiraide’s novel The Guest Cat:

“A quirky Japanese tale about a little white cat called ‘Chibi’ and the effect she has on a married couple.”  Nielsen Bookdata Online has the following to add about this story: “A couple in their thirties live in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo. They work at home as freelance writers. They no longer have very much to say to one another. One day a cat invites itself into their small kitchen. She is a beautiful creature. She leaves, but the next day comes again, and then again and again. New, small joys accompany the cat; the days have more light and colour. Life suddenly seems to have more promise for the husband and wife; they go walking together, talk and share stories of the cat and its little ways, play in the nearby Garden. But then something happens that will change everything again. The Guest Cat is an exceptionally moving and beautiful novel about the nature of life and the way it feels to live it.”  It sounds enchanting!

We follow this with a review of Mark Mills’s tale, Waiting for Doggo.  Mrs Koulouris writes:

“Clara dumps boyfriend Dan, leaving Doggo, an ‘ugly mutt’ for him to look after. This story tells of the relationship between Dan and Doggo. A good little read, even if you’re not a dog lover.”  Two to contrast and compare, I feel.

Thirdly, we learn how Mrs Koulouris feels about A game with dice by Michael Arnold, which has a personal resonance for her:

“The Nazis are invading Poland and a small boy and his Mother escape through Italy to the safety of an Aunt and Uncle in Baghdad ….. so begins the story of a boy who has a friend in King Faisal II, boards at schools in Cairo and Alexandria,completes his secondary education at Berkhamsted School in the 40s/50s, changes his name and does his National Service with the British Army. I thoroughly enjoyed this story, the boy had the freedom and adventures that seldom exist now. It also had special significance for me, as he started at Berkhamsted School in the same year as my Father and I was reading about people that Dad has talked about on numerous occasions.

(There is a follow up book  – Their Manners Noted).”  A must for all Berkhamstedians…

Finally, Mrs Koulouris tells us of her special Christmas book, The Christmas Miracle by Jonathan Toomey:

“Each Christmas I set out to buy an illustrated Christmas story. This year I bought ‘Snow’ by Walter de la Mare.  One of my favourites though is ‘The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey’ which is beautifully illustrated by P.J.Lynch and I read it again for the umpteenth time at Christmas. Once I’d read that and watched my two favourite films, my Christmas had started.”  Fantastic stuff!

Berkhamsted School Christmas Reads (3)

And now to part 3 of our Christmas Reads series…  Mr Cowie, Head of Economics at Berkhamsted, has given me his thoughts on books which he enjoyed over the Christmas break.  He begins by giving an impression of Neil McGregor’s latest book Germany : Memories of a Nation which has been serialised on BBC Radio 4 recently. Please click here for more information about the programmes, most enjoyable!  Mr Cowie says:

“A book of the excellent exhibition at the British Museum. A history of Germany through 70 or so artefacts – a Guttenburg Bible, a ceramic rhino based on a print by Durer, various metal drinking vessels demonstrating a very high quality of craftsmanship, a VW Beetle, a gate from Treblinka, etc. No military artefacts which was a blessing – an attempt to alter our views of the country in Europe with which we have most in common.”  For further news on the exhibition, please click here.

Secondly, Mr Cowie reflects on Matthew Engel’s book, Engel’s England, 39 counties, 1 capital, 1 man : “a trip around England with impressions of each county. And he lit a candle in each cathedral in memory of his son.”  This sounds extremely interesting with more details provided by Neilsen Bookdata Online: “Every county is fascinating, the product of a millennium or more of history: still a unique slice of a nation that has not quite lost its ancient diversity. He finds the well-dressers of Derbyshire and the pyromaniacs of Sussex; the Hindus and huntsmen of Leicestershire; the goddess-worshippers of Somerset. He tracks down the real Lancashire, hedonistic Essex, and the most mysterious house in Middlesex. In Durham he goes straight from choral evensong to the dog track. As he seeks out the essence of each county – from Yorkshire’s broad acres to the microdot of Rutland – Engel always finds the unexpected . Engel’s England is a totally original look at a confused country: a guidebook for people who don’t think they need a guidebook. It is always quirky, sometimes poignant and often extremely funny.”

Finally, he ruminates on The English and their history by Robert Tombs: “One for the history department, some of whom seem to be under the impression that America matters. It does not – England does, and this book explains why. Proper history.”  I agree!  I do feel the need to read more about the history of our land, and the latter two books, are a must.

the english and their history Engel's England Germany memories

World Book Day 2014: celebrations in school (1)

One week has already passed since we celebrated World Book Day in school and we thought we would share with our readers the books which our great teachers have discussed with their students in class on the day.  We followed the Drop Everything And Read initiative, whereby the teacher talked to their classes about a favourite book, or one which means a lot to them, and then this was followed a conversation about reading in general.  Here are some of the responses:

Mr Cowie, head of our Economics Department, recommended Leviathan – The Rise of Britain as a World Power by David Scott.  He says:

“How did an insignificant, rain-swept set of islands in the North Atlantic become the greatest power first in Europe and then in the world? Splendid stuff – proper history!”

leviathan

Mme Shipton wrote to say:

“I read a passage from Le Petit Prince [by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry] in French. Some girls were also keen to read out loud and invited to do so.  It was an enjoyable experience”.

le petit prince

In co-curricular club at lunch-time, historian Mr Bridle talked to his pupils about John Donne’s poem No Man is an Island :

“We were talking about why human rights abuses overseas should matter to us”.

john donne

English teacher, Mrs Tomlin, had an interesting idea:

“I read an extract from The Book Thief  [by Markus Zusak] to my classes and they had to guess whose perspective it was written from. Once they looked at the clues, many pupils guessed that it was Death. This has created intrigue as to how it can be made into a film. Some pupils even debated whether we were supposed to feel sympathy for Death!”

book thiefInspiring reads there, I think…  Our next entry will tell of our other library exploits during the day.

World Book Day : celebrations in school, part 5

English: The Diary of Samuel Pepys Esquire, F.R.S.
English: The Diary of Samuel Pepys Esquire, F.R.S. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We have three more selections for you from our Drop Everything And Read series of posts on this blog.  Three more recommendations  reflect some older texts for you to consider.

Mr Pett read from Samuel Pepys‘ writings:  “I talked about an abridged version of the Diary of Samuel Pepys, focusing on how 17th century middle classes would enjoy themselves eating, drinking and going to executions.”

Painting of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls
Painting of Samuel Pepys by John Hayls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr Harker chose an equally dark tale:  “I read 3 of my groups a scene from Bram Stoker’s Dracula – the one where Jonathan Harker cuts himself shaving and Dracula goes crazy.  I told them the three things I liked about it were the language (e.g. salutations, from the Latin verb to greet, saluto, the fact that it was an epistolary novel (from the Latin word for a letter, epistula), and that the main character shared my name!  They seemed to enjoy the extract.”

Dracula
Dracula (Photo credit: Ben Templesmith)
English: Bram Stoker (1847-1912), novelist bor...
English: Bram Stoker (1847-1912), novelist born in Ireland, author of “Dracula” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally, Mr Moseley told me how he’d enjoyed a novel of William Golding‘s:  “I spoke to my students about one of the books I am reading at the moment The Spire by William Golding and we had a discussion about the book and how Golding uses symbolism in all his novels.”

Cover of "The Spire"
Cover of The Spire

I hope that you have enjoyed this series of blogposts and would welcome any comments about similar projects which you have undertaken, or about the books, poetry and literature featured here.