The Staff Book Club enjoys the first meeting of term…

We had our first meeting of the term yesterday and, since we were lucky enough to receive ten copies of The Chilbury ladies’ choir by Jennifer Ryan, together with a bottle of Plymouth gin, angostura bitters, oat butter cookies, and bunting, balloons and messerschmidt aeroplanes from HarperCollins to decorate, we had a party!   We held the party in the Chapel at our King’s Road campus…

Chilbury party

Generally, members of the club enjoyed the book, saying it was a relaxing read: humorous, warm, and a little bit shocking, but then we remembered that Chilbury was right in the firing line from Hitler’s air force, times were desperate and really quite awful, especially when the bomb landed. A couple of members didn’t like the novel and felt it was unrealistic in terms of the events described, and attitudes of the characters.  They believed it to be too saccharine at times and felt that we had lost sight of the choir by the end.  They also felt that the ending was predictable.

This being said, we liked the idea of the story being told in diary, journal and letter entries, and felt that this was an effective way to get across multiple versions of the events, getting a full picture of how each individual saw how the story unfolded.  Telling a story in this way somehow seems to make it feel that we are more intimately involved in it by reading the personal writings of an individual.

We felt that the midwife, Edwina Paltrey, should never be forgiven for her actions, being the cold-hearted, calculating creature that she was.  However harsh her background, and despite the forgiveness she was seeking from her sister by trying to make things right between them, her actions were completely reprehensible!

Elements of the story described rather accurately the class system and attitude towards women which persisted at the time, with particular reference to the Brigadier and his treatment of his daughters and wife.

Some members felt that more could have been made of the choir, and felt that more could have been made of its importance after Hattie and Prim died, but the overwhelming feeling that making the music was a joyous act, unifying all those women, and strengthening their resolve to get through the war in a supportive and caring environment.  One also felt that they had gained in confidence themselves.

Read this novel if you like stories such as Call the midwife…

chilbury

 

 

Christmas reading (1)

We asked all members of staff at school what they read during the Christmas holidays,  We had a good long break and so felt that there were no excuses, everybody reads, so let’s share the reading vibe…

Dr Hundal was the first to reply. His choice was The sense of an ending by Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2011.  Dr Hundal says:

 “[I] enjoyed the story a lot despite the tragedy at the heart of the novel.  I thought the author captured the thoughts and reflections of the central character really well, although I did have my doubts as to why this character had an overwhelming desire to revisit and understand a failed relationship from his distant past.”

I, too, enjoyed this novel shortly after it was the prizewinning entry.  I generally read quite a lot of stories about relationships, mainly by women, so it is refreshing to me to read a literary text on the subject by a man.  I have just discovered that the book has been adapted and made into a film which is due to be released in March 2017, with some of my favourite actors in key roles, Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Emily Mortimer and Harriet Walter to name a few…

Mrs Ferguson, Head of Art, wrote to me about two books which she had enjoyed reading during our time away from school.  Her first choice is Gould’s book of fish by Richard Flanagan.  Mrs Ferguson’s thoughts are:

“Very dark, powerful writing not for the faint hearted.  This is an edited review from The Observer, written by Robert MacFarlane on 26th May 2002:

‘Prison islands are notoriously wordless places. The authoritarian fear that language might get out of control has led to inmates being denied writing materials or even confined to silence. Yet so often this repression of language has resulted eventually in its outpouring. William Buelow Gould, the narrator of Richard Flanagan’s remarkable third novel, stands in this tradition of eloquent internees. The real Gould was a forger and petty thief who, in 1825, was condemned to serve 49 years on Sarah Island, a penal colony off the coast of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). While imprisoned there, he made 26 paintings of different fish. These were gathered into a book which, unlike Gould, escaped Sarah Island and is kept in the State Library of Tasmania.

In Gould’s Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan, a Tasmanian, has given Gould a voice. The book purports to be Gould’s autobiography – what he calls ‘the story of my compost heap of a heart’ – written as he waits for death in a seaside cell. By ventriloquising a historical figure in this way, Flanagan is able to approach issues such as the British genocide of Tasmanian aboriginals (most recently dealt with by Matthew Kneale in his novel English Passengers), the murderous rationalist legacy of the Enlightenment and, above all, the abominations of the British Empire’s penal system.’

Richard Flanagan is another Man Booker Prize winner, not for this novel, but for The narrow road to the deep north in 2014.

Mrs Ferguson’s second offering is Jonathan Coe‘s novel Number 11.  She sent me the following:

‘Number 11’ by Jonathan Coe Very funny, biting social satire. Again, an edited Guardian review by Alex Clark, dated 11 November 2015:

The title of Jonathan Coe’s 11th novel is, of course, the official home of the chancellor of the exchequer. It is also a bus route that makes a complete journey around Birmingham’s outer circle, providing a haven for those who might not want to go home because, for example, they can’t afford to put the heating on. On top of this, it’s the putative lowest level in an obscenely extravagant multi-storey basement planned by a super-rich Chelsea family. “What is the lady of the house going to put there?” asks Rachel, recently appointed tutor to the Gunns’ twin daughters. “Nothing,” replies the harassed project manager, thinking of the palm trees he has to transport to a subterranean swimming pool. “She can’t think of anything she wants it for.”

‘Number 11’ is also a sequel, of sorts, to Coe’s 1994 novel, What a Carve Up!, the monstrously funny satire-cum-farce about the monstrously terrible Winshaw family, whose lust for power took them into virtually every aspect of British life: the media, the arms trade, agriculture and food production, the health service, the art world. Many of them were savagely disposed of at the close of What a Carve Up!, but the dynasty proves to be hydra-headed, its remnants demonstrating here that they are every bit as rapacious and brutal as their predecessors. Their depredations are smoothly updated to reflect a contemporary setting: reality television, the profitable mopping-up after overseas conflict, highly efficient tax avoidance, the exploitation of migrant workers.

Very different works, clearly, show how diverse our reading tastes can be.  I find it so interesting to discover what people like to read, and why they like the books mentioned.  There are more  reading choices to follow…  Please do comment and add your views, they will all be read.

 

 

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!

 

 

Berkhamsted School Staff Book Club, latest meeting notes…

At our last meeting, we discussed three novels, all very different in style and content.  First on our list was the challenge of a male member of the club: ‘Women don’t read John le Carré’, so we read le Carré’s novel A Murder of Quality.  Given that the majority of us are women, we took up the challenge!  On the whole, we enjoyed the novel very much, despite the unattractive group of characters and the dismal time of year when the murder took place.  We felt it was cleverly written, its spare, minimalist prose built up the tension and drama.  It left us wondering whose side is le Carré on…  Smiley is acting in a more detective-like role, but is nonetheless as effective as when he is the spy.

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle was a completely different genre.  Some found it bizarrely compelling, with others not liking it at all.  It was well-written but clearly a reflection of Jackson’s turbulent mind, with the symbiotic relationships between the sisters, and other characters.  The tale portrays small town America in an unfavourable light, however the descriptions of the surroundings of the castle are almost poetic.

Our third novel was The Secret Place by Tana French.  Most readers enjoyed it very much, although the supernatural element to the tale appeared superfluous.  The story revolves around the relationships between girls at an independent girls’ boarding school in Dublin and the murder of a boy from the corresponding boys’ school, on the grounds of the former school.  We are told the story both from the girls’ perspective and that of the young male detective, who is striving to make his mark in the murder squad.  Interesting, strange and holds the attention.

We also discussed other books which we had read over the summer and I include these for your reference as books which you may wish to include on your Christmas lists:

 

  1. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand click here for a link to a website dedicated to this book.  Hilary recommended it and Sarah read it during the break.   Discussion of the novel was very interesting with Patrick and Hilary representing opposing views about Rand and her theories, philosophies and ideas on economics and the workings of the world.  Fascinating stuff!
  2. The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurin – (read in translation from the French). Again,  the book has its own website, click on the book title to go there.  This was a great little book about the positive impact that François Mitterand’s hat has on the lives of four different individuals after they have worn it… A light but entertaining read!
  3. We are all completely besides ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – this was another curious summer read for Beth and me, well-written story, although a bit strange. It’s very different from The Jane Austen book club, one of the author’s previous works.
  4. Shadowlands by William Nicholson: Kafka-esque.
  5. Probably nothing : a diary of not-your-average nine months by Matilda Tristram. A graphic novel written by a woman who had been diagnosed with cancer, about her experiences
  6. Novels by the late P D James
  7. Books by Antonia Senior
  8. Books by Philippa Gregory
  9. Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  10. Books by Gerald Seymour
  11. The house we grew up in by Lisa Jewell
  12. Books by Louis Theroux

We won’t be meeting again until after Christmas – so here’s wishing all the greetings of the season and enjoy the holidays!

The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion)

Happy New Year to all our Readers!  We very much hope that you enjoyed the Christmas break and were able to relax a little, we needed to after a very hectic end to last term!

Our Reading Group is starting this year with Graeme Simsion’s highly acclaimed book, The Rosie Project. We haven’t had our meeting to discuss the book yet, but I’m already receiving feedback and everyone I’ve spoken with, loved it and couldn’t put it down!  It’s certainly a great book for cheering up our wet and dark January days.  I finished this book today and can concur with the opinions of my colleagues and I felt the need to share it with you!

Professor Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at a university in Melbourne who, as he approaches the age of forty, decides that he would like to be married.  He establishes the Wife Project which is overseen by his best friend Gene (professor of psychology, formerly genetics, at the same university) and Gene’s wife, Claudia, also a psychologist.  Don displays aspects of Aspergers Syndrome, living his life by following a set of strict rules and timings and his Wife Project questionnaire is tailored to find exactly the perfect wife who would share his interests and values.  Fate intervenes and throws Rosie in his path.  Rosie is a young woman so completely different from what Don expects, could she be the one to turn his head in the end?  Rosie is searching for her real father and has come to see Don to seek his help, this being his field of expertise… She knows nothing of the Wife Project.  Don tells his tale in his own inimitable style and gets into some incredible scrapes at work and in pursuit of Rosie’s father.

Graeme Simsion talked about his debut novel in an interview with Mark Lawson on his BBC Radio4 programme Front Row : ‘I am not a psychologist, I didn’t go and read lots of books on Aspergers… People say how much research did you do into Aspergers and I say thirty years in Information Technology!’  I would heartily recommend this book to lighten the winter blues and, for all women out there who think they might match up to Don’s requirements, why not complete the questionnaire in the back of the book? You may be surprised by the results!  You can also enjoy some of the cocktails he learnt to make on his journey to find love.

The_Rosie_Project_jkt

2011 Man Booker Prize shortlisted books now in Castle Library! (part 1)

We have received our copies of the books appearing on the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize, so please come and look for them in Castle Library.

The titles are:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (this year’s winner!):

“Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life. Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The Sense of an Ending is the story of one man coming to terms with the mutable past. Laced with trademark precision, dexterity and insight, it is the work of one of the world’s most distinguished writers.”  http://www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/books/449

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller:

“A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops is a riveting psychological drama that unfolds over the course of one Moscow winter, as a young Englishman’s moral compass is spun by the seductive opportunities revealed to him by a new Russia: a land of hedonism and desperation, corruption and kindness, magical dachas and debauched nightclubs; a place where secrets – and corpses – come to light only when the deep snows start to thaw… Snowdrops is a chilling story of love and moral freefall: of the corruption, by a corrupt society, of a corruptible man. It is taut, intense and has a momentum as irresistible to the reader as the moral danger that first enchants, then threatens to overwhelm, its narrator.”  http://www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/books/460

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch:

“Jaffy Brown is running along a street in London’s East End when he comes face to face with an escaped circus animal. Plucked from the jaws of death by Mr Jamrach – explorer, entrepreneur and collector of the world’s strangest creatures – the two strike up a friendship. Before he knows it, Jaffy finds himself on board a ship bound for the Dutch East Indies, on an unusual commission for Mr Jamrach. His journey – if he survives it – will push faith, love and friendship to their utmost limits.”  http://www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/books/451

 


The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)

On Tuesday 27th September 2011, we held our first staff reading group meeting and our book choice for the inaugural meeting was Howard Jacobson’s 2010 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Finkler Question.  Here’s the synopsis:

“Julian Treslove, a professionally unspectacular former BBC radio producer, and Sam Finkler, a popular Jewish philosopher, writer and television personality, are old school friends. Despite very different lives, they’ve never quite lost touch with each other – or with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik. Both Libor and Finkler are recently widowed, and together with Treslove they share a sweetly painful evening revisiting a time before they had loved and lost. It is that very evening, when Treslove hesitates a moment as he walks home, that he is attacked – and his whole sense of who and what he is slowly and ineluctably changes.”  NielsenBookDataOnline

Review: ‘How is it possible to read Howard Jacobson and not lose oneself in admiration for the music of his language, the power of his characterisation and the penetration of his insight? … The Finkler Question is further proof, if any was needed, of Jacobson’s mastery of humour’ The Times Wonderful … Jacobson is seriously on form’ Evening Standard ‘There are few writers who exhibit the same unawed respect for language or such a relentless commitment to re-examining even the most seemingly unobjectionable of received wisdoms’ Daily Telegraph ‘Full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer’ Observer NielsenBookDataOnline

Whilst no member of the group doubted Jacobson’s skill in engaging the reader with his prose, generally the group consensus was that the book’s protagonist, Julian Treslove, was a weak, insignificant man who showed very few redeeming elements to his character and that he was a self-obsessed character whom nobody in the group could like!  He was clearly in love with the idea of being and becoming Jewish without being willing to make the commitment to convert to Judaism and seemed to want simply to become absorbed into Jewish culture…  Despite the fact that nobody stood out as liking the book, we nonetheless had a good talk and went on to think about the nature of literary prizes and what the judges look for in deciding upon a winner.

may contain nuts (John O’Farrell)

Mrs Koulouris recommended this title to Mrs Maxted for her third book to read over the holidays and found it in the school library.   It is a funny book and, gasping incredulously, she was gripped until the end!  O’Farrell writes convincingly as a woman, which is never an easy proposition for a writer, but one successfully accomplished here.

“Alice never imagined that she would end up like this. Is she the only mother who feels so permanently panic-stricken at the terrors of the modern world – or is it normal to sit up in bed all night popping bubble wrap? She worries that too much gluten and dairy may be hindering her children’s mental arithmetic. She frets that there are too many cars on the road to let them out of the 4×4. Finally she resolves to take control and tackle her biggest worry of all: her daughter is definitely not going to fail that crucial secondary school entrance exam. Because Alice has decided to take the test in her place…  With his trademark comic eye for detail, John O’Farrell has produced a funny and provocative book that will make you laugh, cry and vow never to become that sort of parent.”  NielsenBookDataOnline

If you have read this novel, do you agree that the author has written convincingly as a woman?  Interesting subject…

Mr Pett’s book choice for World Book Day

On Thursday 4th March, 2010, World Book Day, we asked teachers to talk to their classes about their favourite books or books they are currently enjoying.   Mr Pett chose three books to share with his classes.  The first being Laurence Sterne’s ‘The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’:

‘Laurence Sterne’s great masterpiece of bawdy humour and rich satire defies any attempt to categorize it. Part novel, part digression, its gloriously disordered narrative interweaves the birth and life of the unfortunate ‘hero’ Tristram Shandy, the eccentric philosophy of his father Walter, the amours and military obsessions of Uncle Toby, and a host of other characters.’  Amazon

His second recommendation was Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’:

‘This collection of Poe’s best stories contains all the terrifying and bewildering tales that characterize his work. As well as the Gothic horror of such famous stories as The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Premature Burial and The Tell-Tale Heart, all of Poe’ s Auguste Dupin stories are included. These are the first modern detective stories and include The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget and The Purloined Letter.’   Amazon

And, finally, Mr Pett shared ‘Happyslapped By A Jellyfish’ by Karl Pilkington:

‘A collection of hilarious and compelling insights and anecdotes, diary entries, poems, ‘true’ facts and cartoons on travel from Karl Pilkington, unlikely star of the Ricky Gervais Show, the world’s most successful podcast – now in paperback. This is the travel book for people who don’t particularly like travelling, it’s Karl Pilkington, star of The Ricky Gervais Podcast Show, with a suitcase, occasionally with his passport, more often with a bemused suspicion of anything vaguely exotic, and an observant eye for the disappointments, tedium, general weirdness and absurdities of being a tourist abroad and at home.   From staring at Mount Vesuvius in case it erupts and the horrors of a Lanzarote nudist beach to the curiosities to be seen in the world’s weirdest museum. Told with his inimitable deadpan humour, Pilkington’s stories are interspersed with fond reflections on life back in England, from Salford joy riders to what his girlfriend’s mum and dad have for dinner on a Thursday (it’s chops and veg. in case you’re wondering).’   Nielsen Bookdata