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?




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.



Reading about reading…


Usually, in a book blog, we write about books which we have read, but today I wanted to write about books that I would like to read and which are already on my to-read pile…

The first of these is a book written by Philip Davis, Professor of Psychological Sciences at Liverpool University.  His book Reading and the Reader discusses how literary reading can influence our emotions and the way we see the world.  I first came across Professor Davis whilst watching a television programme on BBC1 a few years ago, when he was talking about the impact that reading classic literature has on the human brain with particular mention of the words used by William Shakespeare in his plays.  I remember how he was enthusiastic about the use of the word ‘godded’ and how its emphasis was far greater than more common usage of the English language at the time.  I next read his work whilst reading for my master’s dissertation about bibliotherapy and his involvement with The Reader Organisation, established by his wife, Dr Jane Davis, which has inspired me greatly in the years since writing for my MA in 2010.  I am keen to begin reading Professor Davis’s book…

Next on my list is Belinda Jack’s volume, The Woman Reader.  I am intrigued to discover more about the history of women’s reading and whether women’s reading habits really do differ from those attributed to men.  I would like to know how the reading experience differs between genders and whether it actually is different…  Following the reading of this book, it would be interesting to conduct a little research of my own amongst colleagues and students!

Finally, this has also been on my reading list for a little while; Book was there : reading in electronic times by Andrew Piper, a teacher of German and European Literature at McGill University.  In this book, he discusses how the act of reading is changing, and how new reading technologies are altering our relationship with reading.  I actually have in my possession a physical version of this book, so shall report back as soon as I have read it, and tell you exactly how we need to proceed with our reading in the future!

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

Mood Boosting Week, 19-23 November 2012

Earlier in the year, we were inspired by The Reading Agency’s Mood Boosting Books initiative to provide a new collection for our students and staff.  We consulted The Reading Agency’s website and obtained their flyers containing two lists of books:  one reflecting books chosen by young people and the other detailing books recommended by older people.  These recommendations are based on books which readers have identified as having lifted their spirits and are definitely not self-help books.  There are some fabulous books on each list.  We obtained two copies of each of the young people’s books and one of each of the books offered by older people, took them to the staff rooms on both sites of our school and then to both libraries and much interest was shown.  mood_boosting_header

Click here to go to the page to find out a lot more about the initiative and here to find more information about reading groups (why not join a reading group for tea/wine, cake and book chat, all of which go well together!) :

reading groups for everyone

It’s so easy to forget how reading can transport you into another world, whether to forget about your worries for a while or to seek reassurance about the decisions you are facing, but, whatever the reason, we mustn’t forget that reading truly does give pleasure…

Read Vita Sackville-West‘s All Passion Spent and Annie Proulx‘s Bird Cloud from the list for older people and Michelle Magorian‘s novel Goodnight Mister Tom and Lia’s Guide to Winning the Lottery by Keren David from the list for young people…

all-passion-spent bird-cloud-by-annie-proulx Goodnight Mr Tom lia

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

It has just occurred to me that I hadn’t written a blog entry for quite some time, the end of term was so busy with many other things, and so I have decided to write a couple of entries with more time on my hands!  I hope that you enjoy them…

Our last reading group meeting of term took place on Thursday 22nd June, when we  met, principally, to discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never let me go We had a very good insight from those of us who had managed to read it and, whilst we others couldn’t participate in discussion of the novel, I, for one, am now inspired to read it and consider it in the light of what was said.  For our readers of the book, it was an excellent read, though the subject matter was so harrowing and extremely sad.  The author is a superb writer and is truly a master of his craft so skilful that the harsh truth behind the story is made easier for us to bear by the astonishing contrast of the gentle descriptions of place and landscape and use of language, as if the author is trying to protect us from the reality of this story. We then went on to talk about how we’d enjoyed other novels by Ishiguro namely The Remains of the Day; A Pale View of Hills; An Artist of the Floating World.

Great House (Nicole Krauss)

Cover of "Great House: A Novel"
Cover of Great House: A Novel

At our Reading Group meeting on Tuesday 13th March, we discussed Nicole Krauss‘s latest novel Great House.

We had another lovely meeting  after school which, (I think!), was enjoyed by all.  I was the only person who confessed to liking the book which I have yet to finish, but we still had a lively debate about how each individual story tied in with all the others to make a whole.  We felt that we almost needed a notebook to hand during our reading of this book in order that we could record all the details as we went along and thereby remember and make the connections!  Even though most said that they didn’t like it, we still talked for a good amount of time about this book.  I had chosen it, having loved Krauss’s first book (The History of Love), as I’d wanted to read it a while ago, but I’ll open the floor for everyone to choose in the future!  Some of us felt that with this book and The Finkler Question from our first meeting,  we were on the outside looking in on this world that we do not belong to.  This said, there did seem to be a consensus that whilst the book appeared self-indulgent, it was well-written and the author has skilfully employed the English language to tell her story.

Krauss’s novel tells the tale of a desk, which passes through the homes of various people at different periods of the twentieth century.  It crosses continents as we follow its journey from Budapest to London, from there to Chile, then to New York and finally to Israel and in travelling this journey with the desk, we learn how the lives of those in whose care it lies, intertwine and connect. I feel that it is a great piece of writing but the wonderful thing about Reading Group meetings is the sharing of ideas and how we can each add to the discussion with our own interpretations.