Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wakai Writer's Celebrate Reading Pick: TESTAMENT OF YOUTH by Very Brittain

Today we welcome Wakai Writer as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Wakai Writer is a twenty-one year old college student and writer. One of his first memories is of reading a Disney book about Goofy, and he apparently started writing in the 1st grade—or at least so claims a ring-bound story with his name on its hand-drawn cover. Nowadays he reads mostly to satisfy the whims of English professors and writes high fantasy to satisfy his inner dreamer. He's also in the midst of surviving his second publishing internship and his first taste of life in New York City.

I started reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain almost at random, because I was skating through a class on World War I Literature without doing most of the reading (I like to call it triage), and I thought I should try to get through at least one of the longer works that had been assigned. It was thick, it was memoir, it was difficult to find, and it was heinously expensive when I did find it. I did not begin it with great enthusiasm.

I was quickly shocked, however, to find that not only did I enjoy it, but that in almost every section I found a passage that seemed like it had been written for me to read at exactly the moment I read it. The book is the memoir of a woman who began World War I as an idealistic student at Oxford and ended it a jaded war nurse in London with a heart broken by fate more times than it seems anyone could endure. It is a story of high drama and romance that the best plotter in the world could envy, and to top it all off it comes couched in language that makes me drool as a writer. I never doggy-ear pages (I've always considered it disrespectful to books), but I doggy-eared six in Testament of Youth because there were that many quotes that I wanted to be able to go back and re-read at a moment's notice.

But I didn't love the book for its drama, its romance, or its incredible writing. I loved it because I saw in Vera Brittain a person separated from me by generation, nationality, and gender who had nevertheless gone through many of the same emotional struggles that I was going through, and who years later was able to write candidly about them without an ounce of despondency because she had refused to let them define her life. I have never felt so linked to someone so different from me. Her strength became my strength, and her wisdom, bought at such a high price, has been invaluable to me. At its heart, Testament of Youth is a book about surviving devastating change, and it is the best on the subject I have ever come across.

I wish I could say how it has changed my life, but I just finished it a matter of weeks ago, and I'm only slowly beginning to apprehend what reading it has done for me. The best I can say now is that it was an unlooked for source of hope during some of my darkest hours, awoke in me an interest in non-fiction that had been sleeping for years, and restored beyond all expectation my faith in books assigned by English professors.


JES said...

Another one I had never heard of but it sounds wonderful. (And if anyone is interested in a little taste, it's available on Google Books.)

...restored beyond all expectation my faith in books assigned by English professors.

Oh, I do hope you let the professor know your response -- they probably NEVER hear that kind of feedback (other than from the teacher's pets in their classes, which you don't sound like either here in this post or on your blog).

Froog said...

Ah, a great choice. I haven't read this since I was a kid. You make me want to go back and look at it again.

The reason why I read it as a kid was that the BBC made a TV mini-series of it in the late '70s or early '80s which was absolutely spellbinding (and had a very beautiful actress named Cheryl Campbell playing Vera). I wonder if that's available on DVD. It's not often that a film or TV programme actually makes me want to go out and read the original book, but this was one of them. And the book was even better. It was fascinating to get a woman's perspective on The Great War; at school it was always just Owen and Graves and Sassoon.

Vera's daughter, Shirley Williams, was a prominent politician in the UK.

I too loved your line about restoring your faith in reading lists. Are you going to give some more of that professor's recommendations a try now? When I was teaching in high school, I really did my very best to assign books that the kids might actually enjoy.

Froog said...

Reflecting there on my experiences as a teacher (and an examiner), I was suddenly reminded of some books that I rather powerfully don't like. Graham Greene's Brighton Rock would be well up there, for me.

Perhaps after the success of 'Celebrate Reading' Month, Moonie will allow us an opportunity to spill our bile about 'Overrated Books' or 'Nasty Books' or 'Books We Love To HATE'??

moonrat said...

I dunno, Froog. I'm just so full of happy vibes and love for everyone in the world that I would have nothing to post. But I'll think about it.

Did everyone like the featured guest posts, I wonder? It was an awesome month for me! All the pressure was off. But perhaps too much pressure on others.

Wakai Writer said...

Glad you guys liked my pick. :-)

As far as my professor goes, yeah, I went out of my way to let her know she did a great job with the class, and I hung onto the reading list as well. Over time I plan to work my way through the rest of the books on it that I skipped---who knows what other gems I might find. :-)

Bernita said...

I don't think a writer could ask for a higher compliment than the one you have given.