Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly blog meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.
This week’s Top Ten (5) Tuesday prompt was to focus on something back to school or learning related. In my opinion, books are always (usually) learning related, but I decided to take a step beyond my regular fantasy/historical fiction reads and focus on the non-fiction books I loved (that still have to do with history of course).
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Genre: Memoir/World War I
Vera Brittain’s memoir is still one of the most powerful books I have ever encountered. Not only is her prose haunting, but as one of Oxford’s first women attendees, she is a pioneer. Brittain is caught in the greatest tragedy of the 20th century–WWI and the decimation of everyone she knew and loved. Hailing from the upper-class, her entire world is turned upside down by the war. Including excerpts from letters to and from her fiance, brother, and friends on the front, as well as from her own journals as a nurse, her memoir brings the gritty reality of the war home–dispelling the shroud of romance that often convolutes modern memories of the Great War. Her fiance wrote poetry to her from the front–and Roland Aubrey Leighton’s “Villanele” has cemented itself as one of my favorite poems of all time.
I cannot stress enough how much of an impact this memoir had on me. I was actually introducted to it by the 2014 movie of the same name starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harrington, which I can’t recommend highly enough. But to truly understand Brittain and the men who lost their lives so pointlessly, you have to open the memoir and read her words for yourself.
The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the 20th Century by David Reynolds
Genre: History/World War I
World War II is often seen as the definitive war of the 20th century. But history is shaped by what came before it, and David Reynolds argues eloquently for the often forgotten effects of the Great War on all that followed in the 20th century. The Great War was a monumental turning point in history. It is the divide between the old world and the new, between monarchies of Kings and Queens, and the modern governments we see today. The Great War brought the rise of communism and fascism, and the fall of optimism, ushering in an age of modern existentialism and questioning. It destroyed an entire generation and paved the way for the clash of ideology that rent the world in the 20th century.
Reynold’s focuses first on how the war was viewed in the following decades, how different generations saw the war through the lens of the history that followed . Then, he explores the effects of the Great War in the world we know today. It is a fascinating look into the way history builds upon itself, underlining that nothing that is happening now is without cause, and that the Great War has cast a shadow far longer than any could have imagined.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
Genre: Memoir/Modern Chinese History
Jung Chang chronicles the heart wrenching tales of three Chinese women, starting first with her grandmother (a concubine to a warlord in pre-revolution China), then her mother (a staunch supporter of Mao during the long march years), then herself (a daughter of the Cultural Revolution). She underlines the role of women throughout 20th century Chinese history, giving voices to the voiceless. She breaks the silence on the horror of the Cultural Revolution and the supposed utopia Mao Ze Dong was fixated on building. She sheds light on a China that was long closed off to the west and depicts the lives of everyday people in a way only someone who lived through it could.
The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim
An absolutely chilling read, The People’s Republic of Amnesia details the historic erasure of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre within China. While China has opened up considerably since Mao’s death in 1976, the government still works to control the knowledge of its population. With some of the tightest internet security in the world and an education system run by the government, China is able to direct what its population knows and what it doesn’t. Lim interviews those who witnessed the event as well as relatives of the deceased, uncovering a grieving mother who is shadowed daily by authorities to keep her from memorializing her son. She shows the infamous photo of Tank Man to university students who react with extreme unease or blind confusion. With unwavering boldness, she delves into just how far the Chinese government is willing to go to maintain its carefully manicured illusion.
As someone who lived in China for two years, I witnessed this censorship first hand when I decided to do a quick Baidu (China’s version of Google) search for Tiananmen 1989. As soon as I pressed search, my browser crashed and all my internet connections dropped. I could not reconnect until I had rebooted my computer.
GI Brides: The Wartime Girls who Crossed the Atlantic for Love by Duncan Barrett and Nuala Calvi
Genre: History/World War II
This was a little known gem that I stumbled upon while reading Jojo Moyes’ Ship of Brides. While I wasn’t impressed with the book, I was intrigued by the content and tracked down this title from Moyes’ list of references. Barrett and Calvi did careful research for this book, quickly dispelling the romance of Moyes’ fiction for the true accounts of hardship and triumph. These women were willing to leave their homes, culture, and everyone they knew to marry the sweethearts they had often known only for a few weeks. Some of the women arrived to find that their husband was nothing like the man they had fallen in love with, while others faced adversity from in-laws and cultural differences. While each story ended differently, I was compelled by the resilience of these women, who set out to a new land with hope for a better life.