At the Movies: Literary Adaptations

On the off chance you hadn’t heard, there’s a new Jurassic Park movie out this week…on my way to the library yesterday, I heard a radio add for Jurassic World while driving by a billboard advertisement for Jurassic World, while driving behind a bus that had a Jurassic World ad on its side, so I think I am fairly safe in assuming you have heard of this movie…

And don’t get me wrong…I have no doubt that Jurassic World is indeed a terrific movie.  But there are also a number of other terrific films out there this summer, and a surprising number are based on terrific books.  Plus, movie theaters are among some of the most air-conditioned places in the entire world, so for me, there is nothing like spending a ridiculously hot summer day in the frigid atmosphere of a movie theater, gleefully fighting off frostbite.   And as the days are apparently growing steadily warmer, I thought we might take a look as some adaptations that are garnering positive reviews.

We’ve already discussed Far from the Madding Crowd and Testament of Youth, both seminal works of fiction–and stellar movies, which is a rare feat, indeed.  But here are some other ideas for you to check out, both in the theaters, and here at the library:

meandearlposterMe and Earl and the Dying Girl: Though the title alone calls to mind comparisons to John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Jesse Andrew’s book is a stand-alone hit that captures all the painfully self-conscious, self-questioning self-loathing of adolescence in a way that is both funny and heartwrench, and totally, utterly unique.  The title gives a fair bit of the plot away–seventeen-year-old Greg, who is painfully awkward is a rather endearing way, has an unlikely friend in the chain-smoking Earl, but it is his friendship with Rachel (the ‘Dying Girl’ of the title, who has been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia), forced on him by his mother, that changes them all for the better.  Greg and Earl’s film spoofs are priceless pieces of arch comedy in and of themselves that are sure to translate well to the screen.  Released this week, the film version of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, starring Thomas Mann, is already amassing rave reviews.  You can watch the trailer here.

madamebovaryposterMadame Bovary: Ok, I agree, this is not an adaptation based on a contemporary book.  But I was so surprised to hear that there is an adaptation being made of this enormous, emotional epic that I had to list it here.  Mia Wasikowska has been making a number of literary films of late, from Jane Eyre to the re-invention of Alice in Wonderland,  but none of these heroine are like Emma Bovary, who attempts to escape her monotonous, suffocating society life by having extramarital affairs and living well beyond her financial means.  Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel, published in serial form over the source of 1856 caused an utter scandal in Parisian society, even being attacked by public prosecutors for obscenity.  But since then, Madame Bovary has been established as one of the best–if not the best–novels ever written.  With its hidden patterns and intricate characterizations that would inspire writers from Tolstoy to Henry James, Emma Bovary’s story is not one that will be easy to take to the big screen, but the payoff could be enormous.  You can watch the trailer here, and judge for yourself.

setfiretothestarsposternewSet Fire to the Stars: This is another cheat, as it’s not strictly a literary adaptation, but this film sounded so fascinating I add had to add it here.  Based on a series of actual events, this film is based on the memoir by Professor John Malcolm Brinnin, about his friend (and occasional tormenter) Dylan Thomas.  Brinnin facilitated several of Dylan Thomas’ speaking tours, including the tour on which he died in 1953.  This story, however, is of Dylan’s first visit to Manhattan, and while his final tour might have provided the fodder for some higher drama, this film is garnering some very positive reviews for its cinematography (which harnesses all the dramatic potential of black-and-white, as you can see here), as well as the performances of Celyn Jones as Thomas, and Elijah Wood as Brinnin.  Shirley Henderson also has a supporting role as Shirley Jackson, author of The Lottery, who was apparently one of Brinnin’s neighbors.  Those interested in Thomas’ experiences in the U.S. can check out Brinnin’s memoir, Dylan Thomas in America, as well as the work of Dylan, himself, from his Short Stories to his Poetry, as well as his Letters–and even a sound recording of him reading ‘A Visit To America’, which is seriously incredible.  For a little extra treat, here is an recording of actual Dylan Thomas actually reading ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’.   Just to start your day off on an upbeat note.

So there you have it, beloved patrons–enjoy some popcorn for me, and let us know what films tickled your fancy, as well!

Saturdays @ the South: Food & Books

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I’m not sure what it is about food and books that go so well together, but they’re definitely a complimentary pair. I’d say it’s because it puts two of my favorite things together, but I’m not alone in this thought. There are scads of blogs out there that embrace the book/food pairing by creating recipes from literature, inspired by literature or simply juxtapose food with books. For a brief sampling try: Outlander Kitchen; Yummy Books, Paper/Plates, Paper and Salt, or Food in Literature, all fun blogs with great content and intriguing recipes.

Here at the South Branch, we’ve been acknowledging people’s love of food and books for a while. From our chocolate seminars, to our cooking demonstrations and hosting cookbook authors, there’s hardly a better place to indulge your yearning for food knowledge than here (except, maybe, for the Cookbook Club @ the West Branch). We’ve got some exciting upcoming programs that bring food into the library this summer, so if you’re hankering for an evening out and eager to sample a free program, check out these upcoming morsels:

The Baker Chocolate Company: A Sweet History

Whole Foods Cooking Demonstration

If after that, you craving more books that celebrate food, try some of these titles:

3565439Food: A Love Story: I’ll be honest, I wrote this post largely so I could recommend this book. Jim Gaffigan has the healthiest, unhealthy relationship with food and it’s hysterical; I’m fairly certain he’s a real-life incarnation of Garfield. I’m listening to the audiobook (read by the author) in my car and have gotten some strange looks from other drivers because I’m laughing so hard. That pretty much gets a book an automatic thumbs-up from me. Gaffigan is a self-proclaimed food lover, but NOT a foodie, preferring to have fast food over good food that takes forever to find. You’re likely to find something relatable in this book and you’re more likely to find many things that will tickle your funnybone and possibly awaken a long-suppressed craving for hot dogs. If you, too, believe that “bacon bits are like the fairy dust of food community” do yourself a favor and read this book, immediately.

3578641Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: From Mary Higgins Clark to James Patterson; Sue Grafton to Harlan Coben, mystery writers can’t seem to keep food out of their texts. And why should they? Food is a sensual experience that can drive someone further into a story by stimulating more than just the eyes. It can be a respite from intense drama or help us get to know a character better by learning his/her taste. This book collects some of America’s favorite mystery writers’ recipes: from dishes mentioned in a novel, to a writer’s favorite recipe to make at home. You’ll be hard-pressed not to find something appetizing here. (Murder and mayhem are optional.)

3199507Taste: What You’re Missing: Turns out, we’re missing quite a lot from our everyday experience of taste.  I’m not sure Barb Stuckey’s tome got the popular attention is should have given how many considered it more of an academic book. However, Taste is extremely accessible, enjoyable and even a bit fun! Should you decide to experience some of the concepts the author talks about, she offers some exercises to try them out. (Bonus, they can also double as party games if you’re throwing a party for foodies.) She covers a lot here, but it’s broken down into small doses and the chapters stand alone, so skipping around to what interests you is definitely an option here. I read the whole thing cover-to-cover, though, and found it very enjoyable, so I recommend giving it a try!

2932386Medium Raw: Oh, Tony Bourdain. I’ve gladly followed you from the jungles of Malaysia to the boardwalk of Coney Island and everywhere in-between on TV and in text. The man is insightful, sarcastic and eloquent (if a bit heavy on the f-bombs). While many tout the value of his breakout hit Kitchen Confidential (it is a great book, to be sure) and far too few mention the outstanding, albeit short-lived TV series based on that hit, I find this book to be Bourdain at his blunt, snarky best. He’s not shy about discussing the ways he’s been taken in by trappings of mainstream culture throughout his career, but he’s also brutally honest about what he likes, what he doesn’t like and what he’s tried to stay true to, and this makes Medium Raw not only a tantalizing, but also an enjoyable read as well.

3008568The Belly of Paris: I was hungry pretty much through all 300+ pages of this book. It has: people eating; people talking about food; the author describing food; the business of food; the way that food is a commentary on social status; the way food feeds the drama of the plot (see what I did there?) … Heck, I’m getting hungry just writing about it. If you want a book that is pure indulgence, but still calorie-free, you won’t go wrong here. You may want to have a snack handy, though, just in case.

I hope I’ve persuaded you that food and books are not only a logical pairing, but a mouthwatering one as well. Thank you for putting up with all of my food puns. Till next week, dear readers! I need to find myself a snack…

Five Book Friday

And at last, beloved patrons, we come to our Five Book Friday post, which offers you a brief sampling of our new book buffet, just in time for the weekend.  There is every chance that this weekend might actually permit some outside activities, so before you go out to enjoy the sunshine, be sure to stop by and check out a tale to bring along on your adventures!

3577320Servants of the Storm: Delilah S. Dawson made her name with the Blud novels, a sort of carnie-punk/steam-punk/vampire-ish romance novels that are simply phenomenal.  Her boundless imagination and fearless characterizations are out in full force in this new-to-us young adult novel.  She balances the weird and the numdane beautifully, creating a coming of age story with some shiver-inducing twists and turns.  When Hurricane Josephine ravages Savannah, Georgia, and kill’s Dovey’s best friend, Carly, it doesn’t appear that things can get much worse.  But suddenly, Dovey sees Carly sitting at their favorite cafe…which simply can’t be…unless the storm brought some other things to Savannah.  Things too dreadful to name….And as Dovey puts aside the pills and the advice of those around her, and embraces all the strange sights around her, she realizes that the hurricane was only the beginning.

3629201The Fellowship : the literary lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams: For three decades, Tolkien and Lewis held weekly meetings, either in Lewis’ rooms at Oxford, or in a nearby pub, known as the Inklings.  In these meetings, two of the most lauded British authors of the century, along with their closest friends–Owen Barfield (and linguist and noted philosopher) and Charles Williams (a poet of self-described “supernatural shockers”) discussed literature, poetry, philosophy, and life in general, as friends tend to do.  In their new book, Philip and Carol Zaleski bring readers inside these meetings, charting the odd, enlightening, inspiring, and outrageous ideas discussed among the Inklings, highlighting their genius, but also their humanity.  Fans of Tolkien and Lewis will delight in this all-access pass to their inner thoughts, fear, doubts, and beliefs, but this is also a book about Britain in the twentieth century, and the fundamental changes that it wrought on the people living through it.

3634193The Convictions of John Delahunt: In the course of researching a social history of Merrion Square in Dublin, Andrew Hughes came across the story of John Delahunt, a man who was hanged in 1842 for the murder of a young boy.  The case consumed the Dublin media, not only because of the disturbing nature of the crime, but because it turned out that Delahunt was a paid informant for the British authorities ensconced in Dublin Castle, making the threat he posed to the nationalist-minded public that must more intense.  But rather than write a history of Delahunt, Hughes decided to write a novel, told from Delahunt’s point of view.  In giving a voice to this bogey-man of history, Hughes is able to discuss some fascinating history, and the moral implications of Delahunt’s decisions.  With its defiant characters and heady atmospheric details, this is definitely a book that history buffs and fiction fans alike will savor.

3621517The Storm Murders: I know, I know, the last thing we need is to be reminded of winter at this point, but John Farrow’s formidable detective (hailed as “the Poirot of Quebec), Emil Cinq-Mars always deals in extreme weather conditions, and this case looks like quite a memorable one.  According to the catalog description, this is a locked-room mystery that adds a startling twist….there are no footprints in the snow leading to the murder scene, and no footprints leading away.  Is this merely a case of murder/suicide?  Or could it be that there is something much more sinister afoot?

3598042The Water Knife: Paolo Bacigalupi was a National Book Award finalist for his stunning novel The Windup Girlwhich provided readers with a fully-detailed, and somehow beautiful post-apocalyptic world.  This book looks to continue this tradition, telling the story of a future American southwest that has been ravaged by drought, that has several tongue-in-cheek references to contemporary political culture–and some dire observations about our current commercial practices.  When a new source of water reportedly appears in Phoenix, Angel Valsquez, a spy, assassin, and enforcer for a ruthless water-controlling conglomerate, is sent to investigate.  But what starts as rumors soon becomes a violent hunt for the truth behind an overwhelming conspiracy.  NPR’s All Things Considered described this book as “A noir-ish, cinematic thriller set in the midst of a water war between Las Vegas and Phoenix. . . . Think Chinatown meets Mad Max.”  Which seems like as good a reason to give this book a try as I’ve heard in a while!

 

Happy reading, and happy Friday!  Don’t forget the sunscreen!

“Two magicians shall appear in England…” A Magical If/Then Post

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A number of patrons have come in recently talking about the TV adaptation of Susannah Clarke’s masterful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell that will be airing on BBC America this Saturday.  I have to admit, I have yet to tackle this 900+ page meisterwerk (oddly, the new paperback edition seems more intimidating than the hardcover!), but this is a book that readers, critics, and other writers are all praising unequivocally.  The book picked up the TImes book of the year award in 2005, as well as the Hugo Award for best novel, and the British book awards newcomer of the year award.  Astro City writer Kurt Busiek has been singing the praises of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for a while, and is apparently quite pleased with the results (though we both agree that attempting to cover this amount of book in 6 episodes seems pretty ambitious…). Neil Gaiman, whose opinion should be considered in all manners, literary and otherwise, said that Susannah Clarke’s work was “Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years.”

And now, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are set to make their television debut.   Bertie Carvel, who has made quite a name for himself on the London stage, and appeared in the film adaptation of Les Miserables as Bamatabois, is set to play Jonathan Strange, and Eddie Marsan, who played Inspector Lestrade in the recent Sherlock Holmes films starring Robert Downey, Jr., is lined up to play Mr. Norrell.  Critics already have lovely things to say about this adaptation…so let’s give this a try, beloved patrons, shall we?

And in the meantime, here are a few items to get you in the mood for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell…..

If you liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Then check out:

1973523Perdido Street Station: I have a crazy little reader crush on China Mieville’s work….his writing is so inviting and the imaginative details be puts into creating his worlds are so alluring that by the time you realize what a completely bizarre, borderline insane book you have started, it’s just too late.  The world outside his story just seems too dull and too predictable.  And then you finish it, and just need more.  This book itself is set in New Curazon, a squalid city full of humans, ‘re-mades’, and an enormous cast of other, even stranger people, are ruled by a ruthless Parliament and controlled by a brutal army.  But when New Curazon’s most brilliant scientist is approached by the Garuda–a fantastic half-bird, half-man–with a bizarre and fascinating challenge, he has no choice but to accept, and no idea what fate has in story for him.  I realize, even in typing this, how bizarre this story sounds, but if you told me to read a book about two magicians unite forces to defeat Napoleon, I wouldn’t question you so.  So be sure to check out China Mieville’s remarkable, explosively creative, addictive novel soon.

2717096Neverwhere: Some library sites recommend Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as a co-read piece with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell…my only recommendation to you is to read All The Things that Neil Gaiman has written.  The man is a genius, and all of his stories are transporting, inspiring, and, usually, genuinely terrifying in a way that is utterly unique and unforgettable.  Like JS&MN, Neverwhere takes a world that readers think they know and reinvents it.  In this novel, young businessman Richard Mayhew follows a young woman pursued by assassins into the London Underground…and discovers a world of saints, angels, knights, and demons; the people who have fallen through the cracks.  Neverwhere is a fast-paced, exhilarating, haunting novel that will linger long after the cover has finally closed.  And, like JS&MN, this book was also turned into a BBC mini-series that you can check out, as well!

824986The Quincunx: Like JS&MN, Charles Palliser’s epic novel is set in the 19th century, and features the kind of rich details and detailed narrative that readers will savor.  In this weighty tome, which has received a number of comparisons to Dickens, as well as to Susannah Clarke, five families form a sort of five-point key that young, pitifully poor John Mellamphy must unlock in order to save his family.  Though not a quick read, or necessarily an easy one, readers who delve into The Quincunx will have the chance to travel not only to another place, but another time, and will carry the memories of that journey for some time to come.

3579925The Paper Magician:  Though certainly not as dense as JS&MN, Charlie Holmberg’s debut features two Victorian magicians who must join forces in order to defend their world.  In this case, however, the protagonist is Cecily Twill, a young woman who graduated top of her class at a school for the magically inclined–but even she doesn’t have the power to fix her broken heart.  And despite her dreams to work with metal, Cecily is assigned to apprentice under a paper magician.  Nothing seems to make sense–until her tutor is capture, and Cecily realizes she will risk anything to get him back.  There is a light-hearted charm to Holmberg’s story that makes it easy to fall into the world of her story, and readers who enjoy this book will be delighted to know that there are two more books in Cecily’s story to enjoy!

2411850The Illusionist:  Based on the sensational, and delightfully unsettling short story, “Eisenheim, the illusionist” by Steven Millhauser (which you can read in the collection The Barnam Museum), this is a stunningly beautiful movie about Eisenheim, the inscrutable and subversive magician whose powers threaten to destabilize the whole of the Habsburg Monarchy.  Though the film plays very fast and loose with history (particularly in its treatment of Crown Prince Rudolf, who was, in reality, a pretty awesome guy), the story that sustains it is so good that it’s still worth watching, especially for the crafty final twist that makes the ending its own kind of magic trick.

Happy reading!

Wednesdays at the West: Bringing Together Books, Tea and Readers

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Last Tuesday, a group of tea and book lovers gathered at the West Branch Library for what quickly turned into a literary tea party.  It was the first meeting of Literatea, a new monthly event that allows readers to sample different loose leaf teas and chat about books.

First, the tea.  This month’s tea selection was Earl Grey Creme.  Adding a touch of vanilla to the traditional Earl Grey tea lends a nice, creamy taste to this British favorite.  The ladies and gentlemen of Literatea give this tea an enthusiastic endorsement, both for its flavor and its delightful and welcoming aroma.

To learn a bit more about Earl Grey Creme, check out the Literatea June Newsletter, which also includes all the staff recommended titles for the month of June, some news from the literary world and five books that pair especially nicely with our tea selection of the month.

As our tea party progressed, things got even more interesting as the talk turned to the titles that the bibliophile library patrons suggested.  Some of the new and new-to-us titles mentioned include:

pemberleyDeath Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James, featuring Jane Austen’s much loved characters from Pride and Prejudice.

 

onceuponatimeinrussiaOnce Upon a Time in Russia by Ben Mezrich, is the latest novel from this prolific, but not always well known author.

 

 

palaceoftreasonPalace of Treason by Jason Matthews is another new release attracting the attention of our readers.

 

 

troublewiththetruthThe Trouble with the Truth by Edna Robinson is a tale with an interesting backstory of its own.  Robinson’s novel was originally accepted for publication in 1960, but was never released because its publishers believed it shared too much in common with To Kill a Mockingbird (also released that year).  Robinson’s daughter was determined to see it in print and managed to have it published after her mother’s death.

truthaccordingtousThe Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows is causing significant excitement amongst fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (and really, who isn’t a fan?),  since Barrows was one of that charming book’s co-authors.

 

inthewoodsIn the Woods by Tana French gets accolades from self-described fans of “creepy” fiction.

 

 

Then our discussion turned towards some perennial favorites.

no1Anything by Alexander McCall Smith, especially the books in the The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

 

 

companyholmesIn the Company of Sherlock Holmes, which is a collection of short stories written by authors who took their inspiration from Sir Arthur’s legendary character.

 

extraordinarythingsThe Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.  Is there anything more intriguing than a book that no one can agree on?  Even those who love Alice Hoffman couldn’t agree on whether to love or hate this one.

shoemakers

 

Less controversial and much loved is anything by Adriana Trigiani, including The Shoemaker’s Wife and The Supreme Macaroni Company

 

essentialingredients

 

If you’re a fan of literature that makes you hungry, even as it feeds your mind and soul, our book lovers suggest checking out The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister

 

delicious

 

If you still can’t get enough books about food, including some tempting recipes (not Weight Watchers approved), our readers suggest you take a look at Delicious by Ruth Reichl, a fictional tale, and also the author’s food related memoirs, Garlic and Sapphires and Tender of the Bone.

forgottengardenOur bibliophiles final suggestion for June was The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton.  And if you love it, keep an eye out for Morton’s newest release due out in September.

 

 

The next Literatea event will be Tuesday, July 7th at 10am.  Feel free to join us in person for even more from the world of books and tea.

Card Catalog Display: Self Help

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Self-help books sometimes get an undeserved bad rep, making readers feel embarrassed for reading one and causing people to not want to check them out. Personally, I think we should put this negative perception to rest. No matter the reason – divorce, grief, trauma, illnesses both physical and mental– everyone feels lost and in need of advice at some point or another. And sometimes it really feels like no one gets it.

Here is where books come in! (Don’t they always save the day?)

The authors on our card catalog display carry all different types of experience: some have degrees affirming that their advice is helpful and constructive, others have the life experience and relativity you need, and many just want to offer inspiration or courage to readers by recounting their own struggles and triumphs. There are also CD’s recommended for meditation and audiobooks.

mindfulwaythroughdepressionThe Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States, and we consistently see advertisements for pills and treatments to cure depression. But these authors offer a different approach: mindfulness. With a supplemental CD, this book offers anyone who suffers from depression methods to cope and exercises to find internal peace. Sharon Salzberg, author of various books on seeking happiness, describes this book as “an invaluable resource not only for those who suffer from depression, but for anyone familiar with the downward spiral of negative thinking and self-doubt. The authors of this book explore the reasons for depression and give us guidance and support, along with useful tools to find a way through it.”

To anyone who struggles with depression or suicidal thoughts: you don’t have to do this alone. Call the suicide hotline at 1-800-273-TALK  or visit their website if you ever need someone to talk to.

 

practicallyperefectPractically Perfect in Every Way by Jennifer Niesslein

For two years, Jennifer Niesslein – a successful magazine editor and parent – tried various self-help books and methods to see which, if any, made her feel more fulfilled. Niesslein didn’t just read the books, she really dedicated herself to these programs (much more wholeheartedly than I can safely say I would assert myself).  She attempted everything from feng-shui-ing her home, to following the advice of Dr. Laura Schlessinger and Dr. Phil, to Dale Carnegie and “Dear Abby,” to Oprah and Cosmo magazine. Her writing is thoughtful and funny, covering topics such as finances, marriage, parenting, health, spirituality while making readers laugh and think. If you’re unsure where to start, Practically Perfect offers second-hand insight into some of the most well known self-help methods, so you can try a taste through Niesslein’s experiences to decide which sounds right for you.

 

palmerThe Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

Indie musician Amanda Palmer’s best-selling book is the memoir of an eclectic artist’s journey towards success. A continuation of the inspirational TED talk Palmer gave in 2013, this book teaches readers that it is okay, even advisable, to ask for help. “Whether it’s in the arts, at work, or in our relationships, we often resist asking not only because we’re afraid of rejection but also because we don’t even think we deserve what we’re asking for,” Palmer explains. But this isn’t your typical self-help book. Palmer details her younger days as a statuesque street performer in Harvard Square dressed as a white-faced bride – her first experience in the art of asking others for help – as well as some other quirky jobs she held prior to her success in music: stripper, ice cream shop attendant, and dominatrix. She goes onto explain how she ditched her major record label and asked her fans for help in kick starting her own album, which soon became Kickstarter’s most successful music launch to date. This book will not give you a day by day “happiness” regimen, but Palmer’s personal tone and wild stories will continue to inspire and motivate you long after you’ve finished reading.

 

At the Movies: Testament of Youth

Testament-of-Youth-Poster

As part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, the British Film Institute has released a new adaptation of Vera Brittain’s classic memoir, Testament of Youth.  The film details Brittain’s early life, from her experiences as one of the first women admitted to Oxford University, to her engagement to her brother’s best friend Roland Leighton, to her war experience as a nurse in the First World War, and her grief at the death of her brother, her fiancé, and two of her closest friends in that war.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will come out and say it: I really don’t like Testament of Youth, especially compared to some of the other First World War memoirs listed below.  This is primarily because, whenever anyone teaches or discusses this book, they focus on the men in Brittain’s life who died, and not Brittain herself.  We never get to hear much about Vera Brittain’s own war experiences, or how she herself changed (apart from the loss of the men in her life).  Essentially, this book is used to perpetuate the idea that women in the First World War (and in war, in general), are passive, which is a terrible fallacy.

This is not to say that Testament of Youth is not a good book, or a good learning tool.  It is a stunningly beautiful piece of writing, and a heartrending story of loss.  But Vera Brittain was so much more than the sum of the men she knew.  An active suffragette and pacifist, she became so popular as a spokeswoman for the Peace Pledge Union that the German Army was under orders to arrest her immediately, should the invasion of England ever take place.

Fortunately, this adaptation of Testament of Youth does take on Brittain’s active role in the growing anti-war movement, and her own wartime experiences, using her letters and diaries to flesh out the sights and sounds of her hospital days far more than her memoir does.  It’s a timely reminder that this war, especially, was a generational one, that affected men and women in equal, and often unspeakable, measure.

To learn more about women’s involvement in the First World War, check out some of these titles:

1717131Not So Quiet…: Evadne Price was an Australian journalist and popular romance author who was requested to write a comedic parody  All Quiet On The Western Front (seriously?).  Infuriated at the disrespect of the publisher, Price yelled, “What you want is someone who will write the women’s story of the war!”.  And, being a reasonable man in the end, her publisher agreed to commission that manuscript instead.  Price borrowed a diary from a FANY (First Aid Yeoman Infantry–a division of women ambulance drivers and front-line medics, and considered among the most difficult jobs for anyone to hold during the war), and wrote Not So Quiet under the name Helen Zenna Smith.  Most reviewers at the time considered the subject matter and tone too ‘unladylike’ for the general reading public, but it is precisely because the descriptions of war wounds, psychological injuries, shelling, and the filthy conditions of warfare are so graphic that this book is so powerful.  Though Smithie does have a fiancé serving in the Army, he is mentioned only once or twice in the course of the story; instead, the focus is on the relationships between the nurses and the FANYs, and how the war specifically changed the women who served at the front.


2430825The Blood of Our Sons: Men, Women, and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship During the Great War:
Nicoletta Gullace’s book deals with a fascinating, and terribly under-studied part of history–the work of British suffragettes during the First World War, and their continued advocacy for the vote through war work and participation.  She shows how suffragette’s lobbied for full citizenship not only by supporting the war, but by denigrating men who were not ‘doing their bit’, arguing that they were more entitled to vote than men who never fought in France.  A wonderfully readable, insightful work, Gullace also looks at how the war itself was a gendered event that pitted men against men in the goal of saving women, making war a moral imperative, as well as a national endeavor.

3576026No Man’s Land: Fiction From a World at War, 1914-1918: This terrific collection features a number of the authors whose work we don’t have individually.  For instance, check out the selection from The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden.  Borden was a wealthy college graduate from Chicago, and married to a millionaire when the First World War broke out.  When the Red Cross refused her application to work as a nurse (because she was married), Borden declared that she would fund a hospital all by herself, and demanded full control over the hiring and firing of all staff.  She served in the hospital (which was stationed near the front lines in France, near the site of the Battle of the Somme) for the duration of the war, often working 18-20 hour days.  The Forbidden Zone is a collection of her experiences, written during her scanty breaks, detailing the world of her hospital and the bizarre environment of life behind the lines, including women shopping at a street market with the sounds of gunfire in the background.  Borden was a gifted and empathetic writer, and her work alone makes this collection a stellar one.

2357816Her Privates We: This is my favorite memoir of the First World War, and while it tells the story of a soldier (and thus, isn’t necessarily and ‘alternative’ view of the First World War), it does so in a way that no other memoir manages to do.  Frederic Manning was an Australian of Irish descent who was traumatized by his war experience.  He continued to fight only out of love and respect for the men in his battalion, and each time he received a promotion for bravery or service, he promptly committed some transgression (drunkenness, staying out past curfew, etc.,) in order to get demoted again, and return to the men and to the trenches.  His book is a memorial to those men, describing them all in their mundane and wonderful individuality, making this book unexpectedly funny, bizarre, touching, and utterly heartbreaking.  Manning doesn’t sugar-coat anything, presenting soldiers as they were (and not as the public wished to believe they were).  Thus, his book is full of obscenities and rude slang, and after the first printing, the book only appeared in an edited form, with all the ‘bad words’ judiciously removed.  This anniversary printing offers readers the chance to see the startling honesty of his work in all its original power.

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass