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

 

 

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Drop Everything And Read

Another part of our #worldbookday adventures included DEAR Drop Everything And Read. This initiative involved our teachers spending a few minutes at the beginning or end of lessons talking to their classes about reading and literature, and specifically their own favourites, whether from their childhood or adult days.  We have had some lovely feedback, which I give below:

Mrs Livingston

I chatted with my Year 9 boys and girls about their favourite books – both current and from childhood. [They shared] lots of lovely memories of family members reading certain stories to them, hence why they have remained with them as firm favourites.  I brought in The tiger who came to tea by Judith Kerr as I remember it being read to me as a child and I now read it to my boys.  I took my eldest to see a theatre production of it in London last summer and he was engrossed!  It was his first experience of the theatre and to have a favourite story re-told on stage was lovely to watch.

Mrs M Murray

I have to tell you that I had a letter back from a famous author!  Andrew Martin wrote back to me this week after I had sent him a letter saying how much I enjoyed his book Belles and whistlesI have suggested to the children that they could write fan letters to their favourite authors…

Mr Cruickshanks

I did try to convince my Year 10 boys of the wonders of Bernard Cornwell‘s historical novels, especially The last kingdom series  (as televised by the BBC!).  I tried to sell them on the idea that it was like Game of thrones, only based a little more closely on the real world.  They didn’t seem particularly impressed, but at least I gave it a go!! I happen to know of a year 8 boy who is working his way through these and loving them! (librarian)

Mrs Leonard

I certainly did advertise one of my favourites (A town like Alice – Nevil Shute) to all classes, selling it as one of the books with an excellent strong female lead!  I had the book cover and a synopsis on the board and told them I first read it when I was in Year 8 so it could appeal to them.  Lots of them took phones out and photographed the board so hopefully it might catch on!  For Year 13 French students, I recommended Paris by Edward Rutherfurd as a great fiction/history mixture charting the history of Paris from 0AD to present day with historical accuracy but through fictional characters.  He has also written similar tomes on New York, London and so forth. It was lovely to be able to talk about books together and prompted some good discussions in French and Spanish about favourite books and why.

I send many thanks to my teaching colleagues for these reports – and will try to chase up a few more…

 

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.

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.

11th November ~ Lest we forget

800px-Kollebloemen_-_Red_poppies

I do apologise for the lack of posts lately, we started this academic year in September without a key member of staff who has moved on to another school library, further north.  We have missed her here, personally and professionally, but as a result we have been further stretched than we usually are.  I am happy to say that we have now appointed a new member of our team which will allow me to come back to the blog more frequently.

I am writing on Armistice Day, 11th November, when we remember all those who have fought and died during the World Wars and conflicts since.  Our Library on our Castle Campus is a permanent memorial to those who attended Berkhamsted School prior to World War I, both in the the capacity of student and members of staff, but yesterday we also remembered those from Berkhamsted School who gave their lives in the Second World War, and subsequent conflicts, in a Remembrance service in our School Chapel.

WWI board    WWII board

Within the library, we are are commemorating by thinking about war poetry and books, both fiction and non-fiction as can be seen in our pictures below:

display 1 wwI Books on war display 2 wwI

Amongst our new books, we have three which are notable for their storytelling of the tales of war.  The first two, Eleven eleven by Paul Dowswell and Soldier dog by Sam Angus relate to the first World War.  Dowswell’s novel tells of the closing moments of the war, where a young man who, a few months previously, had still been at school, is going to face the most terrifying ordeal of his life, fighting for survival in a forest whilst searching for German combatants.  Angus’s tale is that of a young lad who is a dog handler.  It is his job to use the dog to carry messages between the trenches, crossing no-man’s land which will save countless lives.  Stanley soon learns, as the fighting escalates and he experiences the true horror of war, that the loyalty of his dog is the only thing he can rely on.  Soldier dog has been included on this year’s Booktrust‘s Bookbuzz list for Year 7 pupils and a good number of our pupils chose it as their book to keep.

One day in Oradour by Helen Watts is our third new arrival and it is a fictionalised account of the horrific events which took place in Oradour-sur-Glane on Saturday 10th June 1944.  The novel tells the story of Alfred Fournier, whose family had already fled their home town in northern France with the advancement of Nazi soldiers, and how he abides by a plan agreed with his parents and sisters to meet outside the town of Oradour should the soldiers arrive there.  Showing great determination, intelligence and strength of will, Alfred survives the atrocities visited on his town against all odds.

Why not tell us about your favourite exciting war stories?  Perhaps we can get a good discussion started…

eleveneleven soldier dog onedayinoradour

Being a part of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013…

Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2013

For the past few weeks, our reading group has been participating in the first readers’ project connected with the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.   we have enjoyed reading two novels in translation from their original language into English:  Trieste by Daša Drndic and Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas.  Some amongst us had read translated fiction previously in the form of classic literature such as novels by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Zola but it had been a while… We wanted to read modern fiction written by current authors and expand our reading horizons, so we applied to join in the project running alongside the consideration of books in the running for this prize.   The project culminated in our attending a superb Readers’ Day with the other participating groups.

Some of us found it an enriching experience and gained a lot from reading these books (Trieste was voted the prizewinner amongst reading groups on the Readers’ Day), but some of us struggled with the translations of the books themselves – it seemed as though there was a good story to tell but meanings and nuances could often get lost in the transition into English.

Trieste tells the tale of an elderly woman whose son was taken from her during World War II because his father was a Nazi soldier, and how she waits all her life for him to return to her, certain that he will do so.  This story is interspersed with names of those who  perished at the hands of the Nazis and facts about the history of the First World War  and events leading up to the Second.

Dublinesque  is about a publisher at the end of his career having a life crisis but the story is rambling and disjointed. It did not engage me as a reader and felt more about the author dropping in numerous literary quotations and references to music. It also centred a great deal around James Joyce’s Ulysses, and, never having read that, the various plots and subplots around a trip to Ireland rather passed me by.  Not my kind of a book. Sue, a member of our group…

trieste dublinesque

On Saturday 18th May, we visited the Free Word Centre in London to share our interest and ideas with other reading groups, writers, translators and the fantastic organisers of the day.  The programme of events was great.  We listened to a super young Turkish writer talking about how she writes in English but works very closely with her translator when translating into her mother tongue, she doesn’t translate her own books!   We watched interviews with authors and translators about their work, heard a fascinating presentation from journalist Ann Morgan who took a year to read a book from every country in the world (read her blog here) and watched a translation duel!  this consisted of two translators of the Spanish language translating the beginning of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.  We had a wonderful day and all enjoyed it so much!  We should like to thank The Reading Agency, Booktrust, English PEN and the British Centre for Literary Translation for this opportunity.  Needless to say, one of our next books to read will be the official winner of the prize, which was announced on Monday evening:  The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker.

The Detour

World Book Day : celebrations in school, part 2

Welcome to part 2 of our World Book Day celebrations posts.  Today we are focusing on recommendations from our Economics Department here at Berkhamsted School and not one economics- or business-related title amongst them!

They all look like fascinating books and include three great fiction reads, an autobiography, a history book and an inspirational book helping us to rethink how to be successful…  Take your pick from this list:

1.   Mr Cowie has suggested Vanished kingdoms : the history of half-forgotten Europe by Norman Davies.

This sounds like a truly fascinating book about Europe’s lost realms.  Who knows what happened to the lost Empire of Aragon or the kingdoms of Burgundy?  The author also considers which

current nations could disappear or become a distant memory in the future…  An alternative historical read for you…

2.   In the withaak’s shade by Herman Charles Bosman was Mr Pain’s choice.  This book tells the story of a farmer, Oom Schalk, who goes out to the bushveld to look for his cattle.  He decides to rest beneath the withaak tree and look out from his seated position there for his cattle.  While he is at rest, a leopard approaches, sniffs at him and then lies down and goes to sleep at his side!  When he tries to tell others about his experience later, unsurprisingly he is not believed.  I would like to read this story myself…

3.   Mr Fung shared his book of the moment with his classes and this was Bear Grylls‘s autobiography, Mud, Sweat and Tears.  Grylls tells of his early life when his father taught him to sail and love the outdoor life and how he was later inspired to take up the most strenuous of challenges that a human can put him/herself through.  He describes how an horrific accident which led to his back being broken in three places nearly paralysed him, threatening  the achievement of the most basic of  functions, let alone continuing to pursue adventures and explore the natural world…

4.   Mr Foster’s offering is Catch 22 by Joseph Heller.  A satirical indictment of military madness and stupidity, and the desire of the ordinary man to survive it is how one reviewer on Nielsen Bookdata Online  describes this novel.  Although I haven’t yet read the book myself, I feel that it is one that I must.  Captain Yossarian is a bombardier in the Army Air Forces whose job is to bomb enemy positions in Italy and France, he turns his mission into one of survival.

5.  Mr Medaris has recommended two titles to his students this year.  The first, Every man dies alone by Hans Fallada, is a fictional story based on the true to life experiences of a husband and his wife, who, acting alone, became part of the German Resistance by writing postcards describing the appalling activities of  the Nazi-led German Government during the Second World War.  The story tells how the couple were eventually discovered, denounced, arrested, tried and executed.  This book was one of the first anti-Nazi German novels to be published after the end of the war, the author dying not long after its completion, prior to the date of publication.  I feel that this is an important book of the mid-twentieth century, another to add to the ever-growing list of books to read…

Mr Medaris’s second choice is Geoff Colvin‘s text Talent is overrated :  What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.  This text provides an argument that talent alone is not enough to be really successful, one needs to understand the concept of deliberate practice.  Colvin maintains that if you take this route, with dedicated practice and perseverance which is honed over time, you will be following in the footsteps of world-renowned successful people such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Winston Churchill and Tiger Woods, to name but three.  Read the book to glean so much more!

vanishedkingdoms inthewithaak mudsweatandtears catch22 everyman talentisoverrated

Holiday reading…

Just back from a family holiday and I’m pleased to say that I’ve managed to read five books so far this summer!  They were a varied group of books and I hope you like some, if not all, please let me know what you think!

It was lovely to begin the summer break, after the madness which always ends the school year, with Katie Fforde‘s Summer of Love. The paperback copy’s blurb has the following to say:

‘Sian Bishop has left the hustle and bustle of the city behind and has thrown herself into a new life in the country. With her young son, her picture-postcard garden and her small thriving business, she’s happy and very busy. She is not – repeat not – looking for love.  And then, one glorious summer evening, Gus Beresford arrives.  One-time explorer, full-time heart-breaker, Gus is ridiculously exciting, wonderfully glamorous – and, Sian tells herself, completely wrong for a romantically cautious single woman like her.  But she and Gus have met before. And, despite Sian’s best intentions, it isn’t long before she’s falling for him all over again …’

Katie Fforde leads us through Sian’s struggles with her emotions and her common sense, it’s a funny and lighthearted read and got me into my reading frame of mind.

Following on from this, came Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. This proved such a contrast and reminded me of William Boyd’s style of writing.  I thoroughly enjoyed Barnes’s storytelling, his use of language skilfully portraying the dusty atmosphere of reminiscence over events from Tony Webster‘s past, and the realisation of how past events reveal the difference in their meaning to the individuals concerned.   Tony, the narrator, tells the history of his relationship with three of his classmates from school and how, after they finish school, they begin to drift apart, except that one of his friends appears to be seeing Tony’s ex-girlfriend.  The repercussions of this new relationship are far-reaching and their impact is not felt until the closing chapters of the book.  It’s well-written and truly deserving of it’s winning of the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

Vita Sackville-West‘s novel, All Passion Spent was my third book.  I cannot get over how much I enjoyed this missive, superbly written with careful choice of just the right words, Sackville-West’s delightful story of Lady Slane, her life, her love for her husband, her travels abroad with him (based, no doubt, on Sackville-West’s voyages with her husband, Harold Nicolson, when he was employed as an ambassador for the United Kingdom) opens new horizons and views on the lives of those who did travel like this during Britain’s Imperial days of the nineteenth century.  Sackville-West explores the position of the wife of an important statesman, appearing to assume a role in the background of her household, much loved by her husband however, but much misunderstood by her children as a result.  Her children are perplexed and confused as to why she chooses to live an independent life after the death of her husband when she is 88 years old, but she makes it clear that she wishes to live out the rest of her days as quietly as possible, to share them with her maid Genoux and a few select visitors who are entertaining.  It is a witty tale and I’ve been struck by one thing Lady Slane feels towards the end of her story:

“… [she felt herself] wondering why, at the end of one’s life, one should ever trouble to read anything but Shakespeare; or for the matter of that, at the beginning of one’s life either, since he seemed to have understood both exuberance and maturity.”

For my fourth choice of reading matter, I chose a non-fiction title: Life With The Lid Off by Nicola Hodgkinson.  The author tells of how her life was turned upside down when her husband left her and her young family to pursue a life with someone new but she tells it in such a way that shows no bitterness and often her sense of humour shone through, making me laugh out loud.  She shows how life in this new situation can be survived and only briefly touches on the pain she has suffered, and hardships and difficulties she  faced in coming to terms with her new situation.  Hodgkinson talks about her purchase of a gypsy caravan and how she bought a cottage on the Suffolk coast, gradually integrating herself and her family into the small local community.  I loved it!  Both this title and All Passion Spent will be forming part of our Mood Boosting Book Week in school in October.

My last completed book for the time being is Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress Another fabulous book!  I loved her easy style which relayed a fascinating take on World War II from the perspective of three women: a young American journalist as she reports from London to a broadcaster based in the States about the Blitz and its effects on London’s citizens, the new wife of a doctor who feels compelled to travel to London to assist with casualties of the Blitz and the postmistress, who runs the post office in the small town in Cape Cod, also home to the doctor and his wife.  Blake weaves her story around the lives of these three women and shows how they all come together in the end.  Her prose passionately reflects the feelings, fears and hopes of these women.

I’m currently reading and enjoying Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News.  Unfortunately I saw the film first but sufficiently long ago not to spoil the enjoyment of the book so far…

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (Agatha Christie)

At our Reading Group meeting yesterday evening, held seasonally in a local hostelry, we discussed Agatha Christie’s novel Hercule Poirot’s Christmas.  It was another lively evening and very enjoyable, most of the group members warmed to this tale of murder mystery set during the Christmas period and it was a light-hearted book to read before we finish for the holidays.  Interestingly, our group was divided into readers who turned the pages needing to find out what was going to happen next and trying to work out ‘whodunnit’ and those who simply let the text place them in context, not worried about who was the perpetrator of the crime or how they did it.  We enjoyed the writing as a product of its time, written and published in the late 1930s, with reference to the Spanish Civil War and the threat of the impending breakout of  World War II.

Berkhamsted School plays host to two really good authors for children, part 2: Paul Dowswell

Paul Dowswell, a children’s author, spoke to Year 7 and Year 8 boys on the  research he carried out to assist him in his writing of his historical novel Auslander.  Set against the backdrop of Hitler and the Second World War, Paul examined what it was like for the Germans who were against Hitler’s regime and against Nazism.  He captures  the essence of their fear whilst highlighting the true bravery and courage shown by  German individuals . It’s a superb novel suitable for both children and adults alike.

Within the presentation Paul spoke to the boys on what German life was like under Hitler. The control he exercised across all areas of life including babies’ first books, the family unit, a doll’s house, children’s games and political postcards: all examples of primary sources which he came across whilst carrying out his research in Berlin . The slides in the photos hone in on specific examples of the control, manipulation and propaganda which was cloaked across Germany.  Although the boys are not specifically focussing on this period of History they did impress Paul with their knowledge  and their engagement during the event was a joy to the eyes.

From Fact to Fiction

We invited Paul in specifically to fit in with a forthcoming Library research project embedded in their scheme of work.  Year 8 will be involved in carrying out a History research project on Elizabethan life. Although this author does not write about the Elizabethans he does very successfully include historical facts into a wonderful and thrilling story and it is this which is the key, as we want our boys to do something similar. When the project lessons  begin next term, we will be able to look back and discuss his process of research, sources he used and finally how he uses those facts in his story. We hope that this will help the boys when they come to write their own historical diaries.