Inspirations from our Biography Collection

For this month’s special display from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, library staff were asked to nominate figures who had inspired them.

See what Steve Biko, RuPaul, Malcolm X, J. K. Rowling, Jimi Hendrix, Lauren Bacall, Tove Jansson, David Attenborough and many others mean to members of staff, learn more about them from their biographies – and see if we have a book about your own inspiring figure in our collection. With around 85,000 titles spanning two centuries of publishing, there is a good chance we do!

Mzu chose: Steve Biko

Bantu Stephen Biko…popularly known as Steve  Biko. Apart from teaching us that democracy is something to fight for, constantly, my inspiration,
Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977), was known for his slogan ‘black is beautiful’, which he
described as meaning ‘you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being.’ He fully understood that the foundation of any true
liberation is self-love.

Fani chose: Helen Keller

I would like to suggest one of my favourite authors, Helen Keller because this woman overcame her  dual disability and managed to live the life that she dreamt without barriers. I love the below words from her: ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world  cannot be seen or even touched- they must be felt  with the heart’.

Katie chose: Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adventurer, polyglot, lover of people and nature, Leigh Fermor  explored the world and wrote about its beauty. His ‘Time of Gifts’  books feature his walking journey from the Hook of Holland to  Constantinople and he has written many delightful books on his  daring exploits and travels.

Nina chose: David Attenborough

The most inspiring man who seems capable of uniting the whole world. People from all over the globe have grown up to the sound of his husky voice telling them about the weird and wonderful things that exist in nature, and many were made aware of dangers that threaten them though watching his programmes. He is a man so universally liked that I have no doubt he would be chosen as the President of the World if such a role existed.

If you’re nearby, do pop into the library and take a look at the display – we’re sure you’ll be inspired too.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Chelsea Library’s special reading events: a recap

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers
who participated in Chelsea Library’s reading events in 2018 and this year. A big
thank you and here’s to many more in 2020!

Our next reading event is on Tuesday 21 January when we will meet Ruth Galloway and read from ‘The Crossing Places’ by Elly Griffiths.

What is so special about Chelsea Library’s reading events? Well, we  read extracts from the books aloud; we share favourite moments and discuss relevant issues and characters. But, if you just want to listen and comment, and do not wish to read, that is fine too. You do not have to be a book club member to join us either. Sometimes readings are linked with a film or a TV series, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hugo’s Les Miserables and Gerald Durrell’s The Durrells.

An Evening with Tolstoy, in September 2018, marked the 190th anniversary of Leo Tolstoy’s birthday. That was our first such event and we focused on ‘Anna Karenina’ We watched a few remarkable moments from film adaptations, and then passionately commented about the right or wrong choices of actors in these films. We read in English, Russian. Italian and Serbian, completely oblivious that one of the guests present was one of Tolstoy’s descendants. Amazing!

In October 2018 we read from the Great War diaries and letters written by female doctors and nurses.

Last December we met to celebrate the 175th anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Since that time, this Ghost story of Christmas has become an irrefutable symbol of Christmas, and Marley and his companions – ghosts of Christmas past, present and future –have become some of the most popular ghosts in literature. So, gathered enthusiastic readers took part in reading my abridged dramatized version of Dickens’ classic and we all had a great time playing Scrooge, Marley, Bob, Tiny Tim … and eating mince pies.

For this December I decided to stay within the supernatural milieu and we read extracts from the ‘Haunted house’. If you have not read it before, it is never too late. Please, read these paragraphs to give you a flavour what you can expect. It is funny, it is witty – Dickens at his best. Serve with mince pies and brandy cream, as we did. Delicious!

“It was a solitary house, standing in a sadly neglected garden: a pretty even square of some two acres. It was a house of about the time of George the Second; as stiff, as cold, as formal, and in as bad taste, as could possibly be desired by the most loyal admirer of the whole quartet of Georges. It was uninhabited, but had, within a year or two, been cheaply repaired to render it habitable; I say cheaply, because the work had been done in a surface manner, and was already decaying as to the paint and plaster, though the colours were fresh.”

After first few weeks of living there the narrator’s state of mind became “so unchristian”. “Whether Master B.’s bell was rung by rats, or mice, or bats, or wind, or what other accidental vibration, or sometimes by one cause, sometimes another, and sometimes by collusion, I don’t know; but, certain it is, that it did ring two nights out of three, until I conceived the happy idea of twisting Master B.’s neck—in other words, breaking his bell short off—and silencing that young gentleman, as to my experience and belief, forever.”

Back to earlier this year and to honour my French readers, I chose Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ for January 2019.

 

When I had ‘Hamlet’ in mind, the idea was to involve the Danish Embassy and talk about Helsingborg / Elsinore castle. For somebody like me, with English as a second language, the challenge of reading Shakespeare aloud (and not to kill the beauty of the masterpiece in the process) was a daunting prospect. That worry proved to be needless. Everyone present was reading Shakespeare with such ease, as if they were eating Victoria sponge cake and drinking English tea. Fantastic! (The Danish Embassy were too busy to spare anyone, but I had to go to Copenhagen and visit Hamlet’s castle. Could not find anything rotten there.)

Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ followed. We watched extracts from Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation, laughed at Mr Collins, argued as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy did, and even had heated discussion with a Jane Austen-expert who was in attendance. Marvellous!

Our June reading session was dedicated to holidays, to Corfu, to Gerald Durrell and his fantastic book ‘My Family and Other Animals’. Who could blame the Durrells for moving to Corfu after this kind of August in Bournemouth?

“July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky. A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets when the wind caught it. Along the Bournemouth sea-front the beach-huts turned blank wooden faces towards a greeny-grey, frothchained sea that leapt eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore. The gulls had been tumbled inland over the town, and they now drifted above the house-tops on taut wings, whining peevishly. It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone’s endurance.”

So, the Durrells moved to Corfu, in 1935, ‘like a flock of migrating swallows.’ The lush green landscape greeted them on their arrival.

“Halfway up the slope, guarded by a group of tall, slim, cypress-trees, nestled a small strawberry-pink villa, like some exotic fruit lying in the greenery. The cypress-trees undulated gently in the breeze, as if they were busily painting the sky a still brighter blue for our arrival.”

Talking about people and animals we discovered that one of the readers, Emina, featured in Maria Perry’s book ‘Chelsea Chicks’, with a story that involved her very social parrot.

In September 2019 we had a guest speaker, Sir John Nott, who talked about his book ‘Memorable Encounters’, in which he selected twenty famous people who made a distinctive impression on him, from Margaret Thatcher, Enoch Powell, to Robin Day and Ted Hughes.

Sir Nott’s career in politics and business has given him a unique perspective on some of the key events in British public life. The gathered audience were obviously charmed by his witty comments.

In October I was so happy that Simon Brett accepted my invitation and included Chelsea Library in his busy and dynamic schedule. Simon is a renowned author of comedy thrillers, mystery who-done-it novels and has written to date 106 novels. He is best known for his Mrs Pargeter novels, the Fethering series and the Charles Paris detective crime series. In 2014, he was presented with The CWA Diamond Dagger and in 2016, he was awarded with OBE for his services to literature.

Simon talked about his career, his books and characters and we laughed and thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

Here is an extract from ‘Mrs Pargeter’s Principle’, which he read to the audience.
It is just after Sir Normington’s funeral.

“Helena Winthrop, in designer black, did not look prostrated by grief, but then she had been brought up in the upper-class British tradition that any display of emotion was unseemly and embarrassing. Also, her face no longer had the capacity for much change of emotion. Feeling the approach of age, she’d had some work done, which had left her with an expression of permanent surprise at how old she was.
She had acted as hostess at many public events for her husband and appeared to bring the same professionalism to this one as she had to all the others. The absence of Sir Normington on this occasion was not something to which she thought attention should be drawn… though her guests did seem to want to keep talking about him.
Mrs Pargeter, experienced in widowhood, wondered whether Helena Winthrop would fall apart into a weeping mess the minute she got back to her empty Mayfair home, but rather doubted it. Unshakeable stoicism was ingrained into women of Helena’s class. She had spent so long suppressing her emotions, Mrs Pargeter reckoned, that she wouldn’t recognize a genuine one if it bit her on the bum.”

Edited to add this part – Simon sent us this lovely quote  in response to this piece and we thought we’d share it with you.

I greatly enjoyed my visit to read and talk at Chelsea Library. The audience was acute and perceptive, a legacy of the series of events which had been set up to encourage reading in the borough. I remember, when I first started doing library talks, the plea ‘Has anyone got any questions?’ used to be followed by a profound silence and a lot of people looking at their feet. That, I’m glad to say, is no longer the case. The growth of book groups and events, like those set up by Zvezdana Popovic in Chelsea Library, have ensured a much readier and more informed response. As an author, I always find such sessions fascinating, because they always make me question – and sometimes even make changes to – the way I write. So, keep up the good work, Zvezdana.

 

I hope that you have enjoyed sharing this recap from our previous reading events. One of our future events is definitely reserved for the Brontë sisters. Tell me which book (or author) you would like to be included and we’ll go from there.

Once again, best wishes.
God bless us, everyone!

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Dogs and cats at Christmas time

As the festive season approaches, thoughts turn to cosy domestic scenes and some of us will be lucky enough to be sharing our festivities with a beloved pet, so we have had a rummage in our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library for memoirs of dog and cat friends – and found a treasure trove which we hope you will enjoy.

True to form, our very special collection reveals its diversity in this as in all other areas – so we meet dogs who are the reliable companions of people with disabilities, the cherished workmates of farmers and shepherds, the dear friends of some of our most familiar celebrities, and dogs who have shared wartime experiences, often with heroic fortitude.

We have memoirs of those whose work is the rescue of dogs and cats from abandonment and cruelty, and those whose have themselves been rescued by their pets from loneliness and despair, pets immortalised in beautiful artwork, pets with all their eccentricities. Curl up with one of these heartwarming stories – perhaps with your own beloved canine or female friend close at hand.

Also in the spirit of festive conviviality, we have dipped into the part of our special collection comprising of oversize books, to peep into some of the family photograph albums of the famous past and present, finding intimate pictures of family life – sometimes recorded by humble amateur snaps and sometimes by great photographers – and a glimpse of Christmases past.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Christmas with Dickens

We have a special reading event at Chelsea Library this Tuesday 3 December, 6.30pm – we will be reading extracts from Charles Dickens’ favourite Christmas stories. Perfect for this time of year along with mince pies, mulled wine, Santa Claus coming to town, enchanted shop windows and more.

“Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail”

“God bless us, every one!”


If this event sounds just the thing to get you into the festive spirit, then come along.  You can book a free place here on Eventbite.

And as a taster, here’s an extract from ‘The Haunted House’ –

Under none of the accredited ghostly circumstances, and environed by none of the conventional ghostly surroundings, did I first make acquaintance with the house which is the subject of this Christmas piece.  I saw it in the daylight, with the sun upon it.  There was no wind, no rain, no lightning, no thunder, no awful or unwonted circumstance, of any kind, to heighten its effect.  More than that: I had come to it direct from a railway station: it was not more than a mile distant from the railway station; and, as I stood outside the house, looking back upon the way I had come, I could see the goods train running smoothly along the embankment in the valley.  I will not say that everything was utterly commonplace, because I doubt if anything can be that, except to utterly commonplace people—and there my vanity steps in; but, I will take it on myself to say that anybody might see the house as I saw it, any fine autumn morning.

The manner of my lighting on it was this.

I was travelling towards London out of the North, intending to stop by the way, to look at the house.  My health required a temporary residence in the country; and a friend of mine who knew that, and who had happened to drive past the house, had written to me to suggest it as a likely place.  I had got into the train at midnight, and had fallen asleep, and had woke up and had sat looking out of window at the brilliant Northern Lights in the sky, and had fallen asleep again, and had woke up again to find the night gone, with the usual discontented conviction on me that I hadn’t been to sleep at all;—upon which question, in the first imbecility of that condition, I am ashamed to believe that I would have done wager by battle with the man who sat opposite me.  That opposite man had had, through the night—as that opposite man always has—several legs too many, and all of them too long.  In addition to this unreasonable conduct (which was only to be expected of him), he had had a pencil and a pocket-book, and had been perpetually listening and taking notes.  It had appeared to me that these aggravating notes related to the jolts and bumps of the carriage, and I should have resigned myself to his taking them, under a general supposition that he was in the civil-engineering way of life, if he had not sat staring straight over my head whenever he listened.  He was a goggle-eyed gentleman of a perplexed aspect, and his demeanour became unbearable.

It was a cold, dead morning (the sun not being up yet), and when I had out-watched the paling light of the fires of the iron country, and the curtain of heavy smoke that hung at once between me and the stars and between me and the day, I turned to my fellow-traveller and said…

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

The fall of the Berlin Wall

This month’s display from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall .

9th November is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall had been the most potent symbol in Europe of the Cold War separation between the Communist USSR and its satellites and allies on the one hand, and the US and its allies on the other.

The evening of the 9th of November 1989 was a decisive point in the ending of this separation, as the Berlin Wall quite suddenly ceased to function as a meaningful barrier in a divided Germany, with people from both sides starting to move freely through checkpoints and literally over the top of the structure.

Our display of books from our special Biography Collection focuses on the key political personalities associated with this uniquely resonant moment, and also memoirs of ordinary people’s lives behind the “Iron Curtain”.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Women’s Prize Shortlist – Part 1

In this series of posts, we will be reviewing the books shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was announced on Monday 29 April.

Circe by Madeline Miller

In this retelling of Circe’s story, Miller takes us into the world of ancient Greece from a female viewpoint.  Most commonly known as the enchantress who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs and him into her lover, Circe comes to life in this gripping and well-told tale.  She still turns men who displease her into pigs, but the story adds flesh to her bones and turns her from a female stereotype, into a goddess with a lot of earthly humanity.

Starting life in the court of her father, Helios the Sun God, Circe discovers that she can use flowers to transform people.  When she innocently admits her magical powers to her father, he banishes her to the island of Aeaea.  On her island, Circe lives in a house filled with everything she needs, surrounded by trees and beaches, alone except for the lions that live with her and the creatures of the woods.  She is visited by several interesting characters such as Medea and Odysseus, which feels like having access to secret stories and conversations. The island is both a great freedom and a prison for Circe and we see her, over the few thousand years of the story, struggle with her fate and isolation, grow into her power, fall in love and watch those she has loved die.

There is a lot of debate about whether it is right to retrospectively empower ancient characters.  Circe is three dimensional and flawed.  She stays true to herself despite her isolation, and does not resort to the power games of the male dominated world of the gods, but she is also not afraid to use her power.  She serves men graciously when it suits her but is not afraid to use her powers when it doesn’t.

This is an engrossing novel that is difficult to put down.  A review says it should be read in one sitting.  Quite long to be read all at once, but a great holiday read or for a time when you can dedicate a few hours at a time to it.

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Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Set in London in 2008 following the election of Barak Obama, two couples are in crisis.  In an interview with the author on the Women’s Prize website, the author says that she wanted to write a story about how marriage effects both men and women and she does this very well, letting all the characters be both likeable and flawed.  The novel covers a lot of ground including motherhood, modern relationships, race, identity, home, ancestral and historical ties, but does so with a deft hand, bringing all these layers together and weaving them around each other.

Through the novel, she takes us into the routine, day-to-day family life and transforms it with her colourful, rhythmic writing.  She really takes time to tell the story, bringing small details to life, while keeping a steady ebb and flow to the pace of the melodic writing.  Music features throughout, bringing us closer to the characters, who they are and what they are going through emotionally.  The couples weave in and out of each other’s lives, physically and emotionally, and the past weaves into the present with memories of the early days of their relationships and references to parents, grandparents and distant countries of origin.

London features vividly throughout with many references to Chrystal Palace both now and historically, the 176 bus route lined with chicken shops, a wedding in Greenwich, shopping at Selfridges and bridges over the Thames.  The city is brought to life, its colours, intensity, its moods and its history, and it looms large even though ultimately it is the backdrop to the slower, subtler journey of the characters.  I found the book funny, engaging and incredibly moving and I enjoyed the feeling of being told a story, the music references and all the layers that Evans creates from the ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people.

Watch this space as the winner will be announced Wednesday 5 June.

Fiona,
Library Customer Service Officer, Brompton Library

A world of writers from the Biography Collection

As we look forward to celebrating World Book Night on Tuesday 23 April, this month’s Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library brings together biographies of great twentieth century writers in languages other than English. There are a couple of exceptions, such as Han Suyin who wrote in English but whose autobiographical works are considered some of the greatest records of modern Chinese history and Wole Soyinka whose Anglophone work is pivotal to African literature.

Including many winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, this is a parade of some of world literature’s greatest voices, some of whom waited many years to be translated into English. Some are household names, some less well known outside their own continents; all open worlds of artistic beauty and cultural insight, and their biographies allow us to follow the experiences of how great writers develop in very different cultures and environments.

In a departure from our usual displays, which include only books from our Biography Collection, we have this month included some of the fiction by these writers alongside their biographies and memoirs, in the hope readers will discover some less familiar gems.  From Chile’s Isabel Allende to Austria’s Stefan Zweig, including Finland’s Tove Jansson (better known as an artist, her exquisite short stories were not available in English until decades after she wrote them); India’s Rabindranath Tagore, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, Japan’s Junichuro Tanizaki, Isaac Bashevis Singer who brought his native Yiddish from Poland to the US and became the custodian of a vanished culture and many, many more, discover a world of writers on our shelves.

Happy World Book night from us to you all, happy reading!

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Brompton Graphic Novel Reading Group- The Bad doctor

Hello and welcome to the Brompton Library Graphic Novel Reading Group.

For the next session, Monday 8 April, 6:30pm, we will be discussing Doctor Ian Williams’ illustrated anecdotes of The Bad Doctor.

Cartoonist and Dr Ian Williams takes his stethoscope to Dr Iwan James, a rural GP in need of more than a little care himself. Incontinent old ladies, men with eagle tattoos, traumatised widowers, Iwan’s patients cause him both empathy and dismay, further complicated by his feelings for his practise partners: unrequited longing for Dr Lois Pritchard and frustration at the antics of Dr Robert Smith, who will use any means to make Iwan look bad in his presence. Iwan’s cycling trips with his friend and mentor, Arthur, provide some welcome relief for him.

BadDoctor1

“The territory of doctor as patient has been visited before, but Dr. Williams’s iteration and its resolution are as subtle and thought provoking as the best of them, with the always worthwhile message that the roles into which humans sort themselves are as mutable as the rituals they accept and reject, and the calls for help they choose to hear or not.” -The New York Times

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“Replete with sometimes delicate, sometimes explicit observations about the foibles of human nature and the bureaucracy of healthcare, The Bad Doctor combines wickedly black humour with subtle characterisation that never fails to engage the audience’s empathy.” -Broken Frontier          

If you have any other suggestions for the reading list, then please let me know and we’ll try our best to accommodate. So far we have the following for consideration:

  • Casandra Darke
  • Cry Havoc
  • Full Metal Alchemist
  • Barakamon
  • Hellblaizer
  • V for Vendetta
  • Jaco the Galactic Patrolman
  • The Legend of Wonder Woman
  • The Flintstones Vol. 2: Bedrock Bedlam
  • Uncanny X-Force Vol. 1: Apocalypse Solution
  • My Brother’s Husband, Volume 1
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

The reading group takes place on the second Monday evening of every month. There may be a pub quiz afterwards if you want to join in!

See you there! Bring snacks.

David Bushell
Library Customer Services Officer
Brompton Library

Barn Burning – a short story from The Elephant Vanishes written by Haruki Murakami 

A married man meets a young girl who works as an advertising model and studies pantomime.  They meet sometimes and go out for meals and he enjoys talking to her.  One day her father dies and she asks him to look after her cat while she travels to Africa.

When she returns, she has a new boyfriend in tow, a rich young man with a European sports car.  The girl and the boyfriend turn up at his house with lunch one afternoon and, after a few drinks, the young man admits to enjoying burning barns, an admission that creates an obsession in the older man.

True to his style, the story is simple with many subtle complexities and ambiguities.

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Burning – a film directed by Lee Chang-Dong

In the film, the main character, now called Jongsu, is no longer an older married man but a recent graduate with no money or parental support, trying to make his way as a writer.  Making him younger, adds a coming of age element that is reminiscent of Murakami’s other work such as Norwegian Wood.  The relationship between Jongsu and Hai-mae is more developed and her Americanised boyfriend Ben, now a Jongsu’s peer, becomes his rival.

The location of the story has moved from Tokyo to Seoul and Paju, the small town where Jongsu grew up.  Barns are now greenhouses, more appropriate to the South Korean countryside, and propaganda messages can be heard coming over the border from North Korea.  At one point there is news coverage of Trump talking about America in the background, making the film relevant and contemporary, while keeping and expanding on the important elements of the story and paying a lot of respect to Murakami.

Chang-Dong has taken the story and turned it into an unsettling and mysterious film that builds into a gripping thriller.

Beautifully shot and acted with a great soundtrack.

Inspirational female authors – International Women’s Day 2019

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today, 8 March, is a date to celebrate the social, economic, political and cultural achievements of women. It all began over a century ago and today it is observed all over the world. It is also a day to reflect on improving gender equality and for 2019 the theme is #BalanceforBetter.

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At Brompton library, we have been celebrating the literary achievement of women with a series of book reviews. Since International Women’s Day in 2018, I have been doing regular reviews of books by inspirational female authors. In total I have read eleven books by eleven amazing female writers. It is hard to pick a favourite because the books are all so different and written in different styles.

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I loved some of the books because of their subject matter or the worlds they created. There are the feminist dystopias of The Power, The Water Cure and Red Clocks which comment on gender equality in our own society. There is Helen Dunmore’s novel that explores how a female writer from the eighteenth century could be completely forgotten by history. Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood’s novels reimagine classic myths and fairy tales from a feminist perspective.

I found some of the books inspirational because of their authors. Such as Zadie Smith, who was published at a young age and has gone on to win many literary awards or Toni Morrison, who was the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Then there is Malala Yousafzai, who almost lost her life standing up for women’s rights.

Because the books are from different eras, it made me reflect on the journey of women’s rights. Roxane Gay’s essays are a funny and insightful look into the struggles of being a modern feminist, whereas Emily Bronte, who had to publish Wuthering Heights under a male pseudonym, is a reminder of how far we’ve come.

I hope you have been as inspired as me by these great reads! And I’m sure you can think of many more inspirational female authors to add to this list.