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Archive for the ‘Books & literature’ Category

I’ve been really slack this year and haven’t recorded my diary. I have been reading; not nearly as much as I should! New job has been stressful… ah excuses, excuses!

October 2015:

Crash by Guy Haley

September 2015:

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

August 2015:

Bruges la Morte by Georges Rodenbach

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January 2013:

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

February 2013:

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson

March 2013:

Something Fresh – P G Wodehouse

April 2013:

Around India in 80 Trains – Monisha Rajesh

May 2013:

Shakespeare in his Time – Ivor Brown

As They Slept – Andy Leeks

June 2013:

You Had Me at Hello – Mhairi McFarlane

July 2013:

Winter in Madrid – C J Sansom

August 2013:

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce

The Universe Vs Alex Woods – Gavin Extence

September 2013:

October 2013:

November 2013:

YIPS – Nicola Barker

December 2013:

Pandaemonium – Christopher Brookmyre

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I’ve been on a one-woman mission to try and get my students passionate about reading for some time now. Through showcasing my own passion and love for literature, and talking to students about their interests and hobbies I have slowly been opening up avenues of reading for them which they will hopefully enjoy and stick to. I was thrilled to discover last week that our department have put reading firmly back on the agenda for our year 8 and 9 students specifically in a bid to boost reading ages for all. We’ve been tasked with trialling and reporting back on the effectiveness of a variety of reading strategies with all of our classes but have been given total autonomy on how we approach the task.

I set out with my lower ability year 8 group to stage a series of reading activities based on a short story that I read to them. They took to it considerably well, so bouyed by our success I’m sticking to this strategy with this particular group.

It’s fair to say I was nervous about tackling ‘reading’ with my year 9s. They are reluctant learners at the best of times and the very prospect of asking them to sit quietly with book in hand for half a whole lesson filled me with dread. I was forced to face my fear last week off the back of an IT issue where I lost my planned lesson. “To hell with it,” I mused, and armed myself with my self-made box of books and magazines and walked briskly and purposefully into our classroom. I told them straight up what the plan was, and as I called their names on the register they were to come and select reading material from the box. One by one they all became armed and returned to their seats to fumble and finger through pages of pictures and text.

I told them they had to read for 10 minutes in silence and give their books “a good go”. If after that time they really couldn’t get into it then they could swap it. I took up a book myself and sat in the back corner of the room watching my wristwatch and passively reading. 5 minutes – still quite. 10 minutes – still quiet. 15 minutes later and the room was still reading. I decided to time them; leave my readers undisturbed until they naturally became restless and started to chat to each other. Taking this as my cue I then asked them to talk to their neighbour about what they had read whilst I circulated the room and asked them for their opinion on the lesson. By and large they all said they were happy but would be happier if we could have short bursts of reading segmented by different activities, not unlike the structure I had tested on my year 8s. It was a wonderfully co-operative period and my fears were more than allayed.

Now I have the students on board, but I had more of a struggle with colleagues. I was disappointed to learn that 3 students had been returned to my room empty-handed from the library. The librarian had turned them away because she could register loans due to the aforementioned IT failures – all computers and networks were down. If I’d have been able to leave the room I would have challenged her about this: what’s wrong with a good old-fashioned pen and paper to record loans? Surely it is better to have students with books in hand than not, particularly with our department focus? I’m going to take this up with her when I see her, because I just think it’s sending them the wrong message. And I don’t want to feel like I am once again on a one-woman mission to get our kids reading.

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This being my first book review of the year (and Lord knows I should be getting on with plenty of other work instead of indulging here, but…) I couldn’t let time pass without recording my thoughts on this book.

For the first time in a long time I found myself not wanting a book to finish, and yet I whipped through this one at such a pace even though I was convinced I was taking my time with it.

It explores five topics – or more appropriately overviews – in great detail and with grace. Davidson makes no assumptions about the reader’s prior knowledge.  He doesn’t even make any assumptions about the reader’s interest in the evolution of language and etymology, even though it’s surely a prerequisite of purchasing this type of book. I mean, I know enough people who wouldn’t buy a book on words because they’re just ‘not that into it’. Whatever that means!

The book moves seamlessly through the ages of communication and celebrates every language and communication cornerstone and visionary. Its beauty is that it does not stick to a linear, chronological story-telling of the journey of language but rather ensures that one poignant moment remains connected to another regardless of its time in history. And this is what makes this work so delightful in its telling: it’s surely a reminder that no single event or revolution in language is in fact singular, but rather becomes part of a legacy or the means by which more progress and development can be made.

There is only one short mention of William Tyndale – a man who I became fascinated by through the work of Melvyn Bragg – and Shakespeare is referenced as he should be and no more: this is not a book about the contributions of one man or one era, this is about the shaping of the spoken word from the written symbols and pictograms of old and it’s power and exuberance.  I swooned when I turned the page and saw in full one of my favourite poems of all time ‘Funeral Blues’ by W H Auden, and delighted to learn more about Esperanto and the languages of Ireland before the Hunger.

In short I would argue, as I sit here so Englishly in my pyjamas on a Satuerday morning sipping tea and smoking a cigarette, that this book is not merely for those who have an interest in the English language and it’s perilous and at times tyrannical past, but rather this is a book for anyone who enjoys fairytales, languages of the world and their people, poetry and lyrics and their importance in our lives, and above all else communication. Davidson never strays far from his belief that communication is the single most significant part of being human. The single most important part of evolution and what makes us different from one culture to another. I am envious of Davidson’s research: the trips he has made, discussions held with people I will probably never have the pleasure of meeting, and documents he has had contact with in the making of this book but I am grateful that he has created a piece of art which is accessible to all and which has left me with a burning desire to continue my discovery of language and communication.

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A continuation of my book diary.

January 2012:

A Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

The Memory Cage – Ruth Eastham

Planet Word – J P Davidson

February 2012:

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman

March 2012:

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

April 2012:

Lady Windermere’s Fan – Oscar Wilde

The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

May 2012:

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

The Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

An Inspector Calls – J.B. Priestley

June 2012:

When God Was a Rabbit – Sarah Winman

Face – Benjamin Zephaniah

The Ruby and the Smoke – Philip Pullman

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane – Kate DiCamillo

Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools – Victoria Twead

July 2012:

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Understudy – David Nicholls

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Washington Irving

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

Holes – Louis Sachar

August 2012:

Skellig – David Almond

Kensuke’s Kingdom – Michael Morpurgo

September 2012:

Private Peaceful – Michael Morpurgo

Cirque du Freak – Darren Shan

Touching the Void – Joe Simpson

October 2012:

Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

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I picked this book up on eBay while searching for books about the history of the English language – a subject I am curious about but realise that I have a limited knowledge of.  In an effort to learn more, and having read the reviews of this book, I decided to start my journey here, with Melvyn.

At times a little hard to follow because of his need to list great swathes of words when he discusses origin, the rest of the time this book is an absolute joy for anyone who has a passion for the English language, its origin and indeed our own past.

Westbury White Horse

Bragg credits Alfred the Great for saving English from being lost in time when he defeated the Danes at Ethandun.  A warm feeling of pride and elation passed through me as read about Alfred’s efforts, for I grew up in the shadows of the hills of Ethandun, or as it is now known Edington.  I always felt a strong sense of national pride and identity having grown up surrounded by stark reminders of such a rich and varied past; icons of previous feats such as the Westbury White Horse, Stonehenge and Farleigh Castle were no more than a 20-minute drive from my back yard and heavily influenced both my imagination and passion for history as a child.

Bragg has cleverly cast the English language as the main protagonist in this adventure, and as such invites his readers to see the depth of personality and history that It has: really see the perils It has faced through the ages and feel relief that we can now enjoy a language that has become so deliciously saturated with offerings from other shores.

How lucky are we that groups of people over time have felt so strongly about the preservation of Olde English that they have risked their very lives to protect it?  How unique are we that still today so many local dialects and accents have survived on such a relatively small geographical space?

In short, The Adventure of English delivers one of the most engaging real-life adventures I have ever read.  It’s a biography of a most diverse and inspiring lexicon, and Bragg’s passion breathes life into every single anecdote.

I had the pleasure of meeting Bragg after his talk at this year’s Hay Festival where he discussed with vitality and vigour the impact of the King James Bible on the way we write and speak today. I wanted to thank him for renewing my delight in the English language, and thank him for cementing my love of the place I grew up. I didn’t get chance; I came over all star-struck and barely managed to thank him for his talk.  A charming and peaceful man who so eloquently gave me a desire to learn and keep learning; to give thanks for the spectrum of words we can now employ and to try my very best at all times to use them to their fullest and greatest effect.

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To say that I was excited about my first visit to the Hay Festival would be an understatement. I have been following Hay on Facebook for a couple of years now and had always intended to go. This year, I began following them on Twitter, and in celebration of turning 30 this week I thought: what a fantastic way to celebrate my coming of age by attending the Hay Literary Festival.

I booked my camping at the Wye Meadow Campsite, which turned out to be a delightful little spot which plays host to festival goers and then returns to a simple field for the next 5o weeks of the year until it reopens its gates once again. They provide everything you need – ample space on your pitch to park your car and camp; more than adequate shower and toilet facilities; close proximity to the festival site; breakfast and coffee vans; a warm, Welsh welcome and fantastic value for money.

I had chosen the closing two days of the festival for being close to my birthday and, once I was sure I had a place to stay, I began flicking through the extensive programme looking for events I could attend. I initially earmarked a great long list of things I wanted to attend, and then added up my ticket total and began the scaling back to within my budget. A sad state of affairs, but much like the poor souls vying for tickets to Olympic events, I had to only book what I could realistically afford, and sadly at the moment that wasn’t a great deal! I booked nearly £60 worth of tickets for me and my boyfriend who had only agreed to come to keep me company, it’s not really his thing. Bless him for letting me drag him along!

As the weekend approached, I began to get more and more excited whilst watching the tweets and following the Hay Festival blogger, and by the time the day arrived – a beautiful and hot sunny Friday afternoon – I was keen to get on the road, cross the Bridge and set up camp.

Morning arrived, delivering another dose of glorious sunshine and a sausage bap with a cup of tea, and off to the festival site to launch myself into the intellectual soup of things I probably wouldn’t understand.

A gentle start then? No. Jon Snow interviewing the Director General of CERN, Prof. Rolf Heuer, about the Large Hadron Collider. I was anxious. I know roughly what is going on in Geneva, I know absolutely nothing of the science. But Jon Snow exercised his fabulously honed interviewing skills, pitched his question at the lowest common denominator, and what resulted was an understandable insight into the magnificent goings-on at CERN. I learned more about the LHC in this hour than I have tried to assimilate from the bits of reading I’ve done since the experiments began. Heuer has an amazing grasp of ‘laymen’s terms’ and his analogies were perfect in opening up this complex scientific world for those with a general interest. For a first session, it set the bar extremely high, and I felt alive and awakened.

We next saw Marcus Brigstocke talk to festival director Peter Florence about his new book ‘God Collar’. It was a passionate and personal account of a time in his life which has resulted in his writing this book. He was funny, entertaining, self-aware and honest, and it produced an emotional session.

I later journeyed to the biggest auditorium on site, the Barclays Wealth stage (a name I have issue with, but there we go), to watch Melvyn Bragg talk about his new book ‘The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible 1611-2011‘. It became my highlight of the weekend; I barely blinked or breathed throughout the entire hour. I surprised myself by largely keeping up, aided by the fact I am currently reading his ‘Adventure of English’ and by my interest in the topic and my thirst to discover more about this book and the effect it’s had on life as we know it for the past 400 years.

I queued for his book signing, and felt like a cheapskate for not handing over a pristine and freshly-bought copy of the new book for him to sign, and then got into a right dither when my time came to say ‘hello’ to this enigmatic and intimidatingly knowledgeable Lord.

I had planned to thank him for giving me another reason to be proud of the place I grew up, Edington in Wiltshire – I had always felt proud of this little village’s contribution to history with Alfred’s victory over the Danes taking place here, but according to Bragg Alfred the Great did more for the English language in this battle than anyone else in history by ensuring it was a victory for the English language as well as for the English people. Did I manage to get this out to him in an intelligible and calm fashion? Did I heck as like, I bumbled over my words whilst handing over my sweaty little beaten-up copy of ‘Adventure…’ and desperately tried to give what would come across as genuine gratitude for his lecture and for his books, and for his contribution to my passion for the English language on a whole.

It kick-started a rather emotional moment for me: I became quite overwhelmed by the day and shed a little tear of joy. For me, my first day at the Hay Festival signified the coming together of 30 years’ reading, thinking, writing, dreaming and believing, and culminated in me accepting that I had been paddling in the small pool of my own thoughts and ambitions my whole life and I had suddenly been released into a wide and deep ocean of knowledge. I felt stupid, I felt like I was 12 years old again, but I had a renewed sense of happiness with my continued pursuit of knowledge, happy and comfortable that I didn’t need to know everything; to want to get to know stuff and to appreciate those who do is half the battle won.

All the threads of my interest – literature, history, politics, philosophy, etymology, science, religion – were all housed here and presented en masse by the great and the good, and it felt enlightening, in the truest and purest and most personal way.

A satisfactory first day at Hay then!

Sunday was much quieter for me and indeed I noticed for the festival as a whole.

We attended the Early Edition session, which left me a little cold to be honest. It was all very highbrow and pretentious, and while they might have been deliberately putting it on a bit for effect, it came off as intentional, and Carrie Quinlan’s assertion that people who watch TV programmes put out by chewing-gum channel ITV2 should not allowed to attend Hay Festival I found pretty ignorant for someone who reports to be so smart and sharp. To indulge in and enjoy a plethora of various media and mediums is the very essence of becoming a well-rounded, sociable, entertained and informed person. To think that people should be bracketed and pigeon-holed by the programmes they watch, the papers they read, or the folk they associate with has always gone against my grain. I may have come from a working-class background, and I may have been raised on frozen food, but I still enjoy books, and whilst I went to a university of low to medium reputation, I still went, I was the first person in my family to do so, and yes I am proud of my £20,000 sub-standard education. Yes, I have read Dante’s Divine Comedy. And yes, I do watch Celebrity Juice. So am I or am I not allowed at Hay, Carrie?

I finished my Hay adventure with Roy Strong talking through the themes of his new book, ‘Visions of England’. A face-paced and super-packed finale to my weekend bringing together all the threads of the weekend into a neatly packaged talk about the English idyl and national identity as reflected by the works of artists and writers such as Constable and Wordsworth, underpinned by imagery of our monarch 50 years ago and more recently.

Much of the empirical pride and pursuits we once had have been lost, and all that is left is out notion of ‘countryside’. Beautiful and inspiring as it is, and for me, this little girl from the little village in the West Country who grew up surrounded by reminders of our past such as the Westbury White Horse, Stonehenge and Farleigh Castle, this was the perfect ending to my perfect inaugural weekend at the mind-blowingly, eye-poppingly fantastical Hay Festival 2011.

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