Tag Archives: World War I

The Last Summer: A Review

Note: I have tried to make this review as spoiler-free as possible, because I think quite a few of you will be interested in reading this book and I don’t want to give anything away!

A grand old English country estate.  A forbidden romance set against the backdrop of World War I.    The blurb for Judith Kinghorn’s The Last Summer intrigued me, and in all honesty, I was hoping to get a Downton Abbey fix.  But what I got was so much more.

Spanning roughly 16 years (1914-1930), The Last Summer is a beautifully written story about the young generation impacted by World War I.  Told through the eyes of Clarissa Granville, we see how the war crashes into her life and those around her, smashing every hope and dream in its path, causing inexplicable loss that sets all Clarissa thought she knew adrift.  But there is one thing that she always comes back to, one true thing that guides her: her love for Tom Cuthbert.

Clarissa meets Tom at her family’s country estate, Deyning.  Tom is the son of the housekeeper, and she is quickly drawn to his quiet intensity, despite their class difference.  The two make a connection that last summer before the First World War begins that cannot be broken, even with the many obstacles they face in the years to come.

I appreciated how the story didn’t stop with the war’s end, allowing the reader to see the long-lasting impact the conflict has on Clarissa and her generation.  Through her, we experience the pain, the loss, and the need to escape from it all.

Through the first-person narrative, the reader develops a very intimate relationship with Clarissa.  Every thought, every hope, every justification is laid out.  She hides nothing from us, but there is much she feels she must conceal from the other characters in the story.

We only see the other main characters through Clarissa’s eyes, but they are well-developed and all play a major role in Clarissa’s life and the decisions she makes.

As a writer, I have huge respect for what Judith Kinghorn was able to accomplish with this novel.  The story is well-crafted, the characters rich, the prose brilliant.  It will take up a permanent place on my bookshelf (yes, I still read real-life, feel-in-your-hands paper books).  If you have an interest in World War I and the period directly following it, societal change, or just a great love story, get thee to the bookstore and pick up a copy of The Last Summer.

Here’s a link to The Last Summer’s GoodReads page.

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Parade’s End

Parade's End

So, I know I’m a little late to the party (since it aired in February), but I had to write a post about the BBC/HBO miniseries Parade’s End, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, and Adelaide Clemens.  The five-part series is adapted from four books written by Ford Madox Ford between 1924 and 1928.  Ford served in the Welsh Regiment during World War I, and used his experience on the Front to bring the conflict to life in his books, which were eventually combined into one volume, entitled Parade’s End.

Tom Stoppard wrote the screenplay for this particular adaptation, and it received a lot of critical acclaim.  So I had high hopes when it finally arrived in my mailbox.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall

Christopher & Sylvia

Parade’s End tells the story of Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch), an intelligent British aristocrat who clings to the old code of moral conduct, even though the world around him is changing at a rapid pace.  The story opens in 1908, on his wedding day to flirtatious socialite Sylvia (Hall), who is two-months pregnant.  He’s not sure if the child is his, but determined to do the honorable thing, he marries her.  The two are complete opposites, both in temperament and the way they view the world.  Sylvia’s destructive actions are motivated by her need to get a reaction out of her stoic husband.  In one scene a frustrated Sylvia lobs a breakfast plate at Christopher’s head as he pencils in corrections to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and he barely flinches.  While Sylvia enters into affairs to try to get her husband to notice her, Christopher’s principles prevent him from consummating his love for the earnest, passionate young suffragette Valentine Wannop (Clemens).

When World War I erupts across Europe, Christopher resigns from his job as a government statistician after he is asked to manipulate the facts.  Honorable principles in tact, he joins the army to fight for the preservation of the old ways he holds dear.  But the chaos of war will cause him to question those beliefs.

Christopher & Valentine

Christopher & Valentine

Christopher Tietjens’s transformation, along with his tumultuous relationship with his wife and longing for the woman he will not allow himself to have made this series enthralling to watch.  There are some subplots that drag a bit (but are nonetheless necessary), and at times this story does move slowly.  But the performances by Cumberbatch and Hall more than make up for it.  And the plot had me wondering to the very end who Christopher would choose to spend his life with.

I also appreciated the series’ treatment of World War I, as it showed not only what was happening on the front lines, but also the inefficiency of the military as Christopher is placed in a post to outfit troops preparing for the trenches.

And despite the gravity of the content, there are actually some surprisingly laugh-out-loud moments scattered throughout the series.  But I will say, though it takes place during the same time period, Downton Abbey this is not.  TIME’s James Poniewozik summed it up well when he wrote: “If Downton is a nostalgic champagne toast to the bygone Edwardian aristocracy, HBO’s five-hour miniseries is more of a cold, bitter drink of scotch at its wake.”

Christopher

With great performances, wonderful cast chemistry, and beautiful cinematography, Parade’s End is a fantastic period piece I highly recommend.

Here’s the trailer (I honestly think I could listen to Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice all day…not that it influenced my review or anything): 

 

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Veteran’s Day: A History

World War I veteran Joseph Ambrose attending the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1982, holding the flag that covered his son’s casket, who was killed in the Korean War.

Today we honor those who have served (and are serving) in our armed forces.  Veteran’s Day was first called Armistice Day both in the US and Britain, as it commemorated the signing of the Armistice that brought World War I to an end (on the 11th hour of November 11, 1918).  In declaring the day a federal holiday, President Woodrow Wilson said:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.

At the close of World War II, a veteran from Alabama named Raymond Weeks wanted to expand Armistice Day to include everyone who had served their country, not just World War I veterans.  He took his proposal to Washington, receiving full support from President Dwight Eisenhower.  The bill was presented to Congress by US Representative Ed Rees, and signed by President Eisenhower in 1954.  An amendment was soon added to rename the holiday, from “Armistice Day” to “Veteran’s Day,” as it’s been known ever since.

President Eisenhower signing the amendment changing the name of Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day.

Thank you to all of the veterans who have served our country and dedicated their lives to keeping us safe.  On this day (and on many other days), I think about my father, who served in our Air Force, and my two grandfathers, both gone now, who fought in World War II.  I think about the courage they showed in their willingness to sacrifice everything for the love of our country.  And I admire them greatly for it.

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Propaganda Posters of World War I

While the United States did not enter the First World War until 1917, they produced more war propaganda posters than all the other belligerent countries combined: 20 million copies of approximately 2,500 different posters.  The United States’s Publicity Bureau quickly learned that propaganda posters worked as “a silent and powerful recruiter.”

Posters were an excellent way to disseminate news and information in an era before radios were commonplace in homes.  The images were effective, and one did not have to be literate to understand their meaning.

Harry A. Garfield, the head of the wartime United States Fuel Administration, spoke of posters’ ability to get the word out to people:

“I can get the authority to write a column or a page about fuel—but I cannot make everybody or even anybody read it. But if I can get a striking drawing with or without a legend of a few lines, everyone who runs by must see it.”

Some of the most successful poster artists came from magazine and book publishing, which makes sense, as they had been trained to create artwork that was evocative.  And that was the point of propaganda posters–to appeal to one’s emotions and give one cause for immediate action.

Below is a selection of war propaganda posters found in the digital “North Carolinians and the Great War” project by UNC Chapel Hill’s Documenting the American South program.  These posters were widely distributed in North Carolina, and throughout the United States.  You can see the full collection here.

Source: American Posters of the Great War by Dr. Libby Chenault

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Last Dispatches

The Harry Ransom Center (a research library and museum at the University of Austin in Texas) is putting together what looks like a wonderful exhibit to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I.  The new exhibit will tell the story of the war through letters and diaries from soldiers, among other primary resources.  The museum gave The Daily Beast website a look at the final letters from famous English writers, which is posted on their website (visit it here: Last Letters from World War I Literary Heroes).

Seeing these last letters in the soldiers’ own handwriting humanizes the war in a way that nothing else can.

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Birdsong: Part II

I’m a bit behind posting my thoughts on part II of Birdsong.  The conclusion of the series did not disappoint.  I know that there have been some mixed reviews about this adaptation, but I felt the production was solid throughout and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the main complaints has been the flashbacks to Stephen’s life before the war threaded in throughout his wartime experience.  But as I said before, I think this only strengthened the story.  The horrors of the war are so vividly depicted that the viewer needs a chance to escape to a time before the nightmare began, just as it is likely the soldiers would have done when things became too much to bear.

Stephen going over the top during the Somme Offensive

Birdsong portrays the First World War very well, hitting all of the major notes that made this war so devastating, including the horrendous loss of life during the Somme Offensive.  I don’t want to write too much in the event some of you have not seen it, but I strongly urge you to watch it online on PBS while it is still available.

There’s also a good interview with Eddie Redmayne about his role as Stephen Wraysford which you can read here.

Jack Firebrace & Stephen Wraysford

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Birdsong: Part I

Written in 1993 by Sebastian Faulks, Birdsong is considered a classic of modern English literature.  It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford, a troubled young man who falls deeply in love with a married Frenchwoman named Isabelle Azaire in 1910.  The book follows Wraysford into the trenches during World War I, and through his eyes the reader experiences some of the major battles fought on the Western Front.  Millions of copies of Birdsong have been sold worldwide and it is regularly voted one of Britain’s favorite novels.  It is considered so significant, in fact, that it is required reading in British schools.

All that being said, I’ve tried picking the book up twice, and have twice failed to finish it.  It’s a tough read.  I breezed through Part I, the portion focusing on the love/lust relationship that develops between Stephen and Isabelle.  But at the beginning of Part II I was suddenly plunged 45 feet below No Man’s Land into a claustrophobic earthen tunnel with Jack Firebrace, a completely new character that had nothing to do with Part I.  The stark contrast between a forbidden love affair  in the lush Amiens countryside and the gritty, depressing conditions of the Great War was a very jarring adjustment.  I put the book down again, time passed, and it went back on the shelf.

Jack Firebrace listening for enemy tunnelers

Then last night the first of the two-part miniseries based on the book aired on PBS.  I tuned in because I was curious how Birdsong would adapt to the screen.  After all, it’s taken Working Title 13 years to get it there since buying the film rights to the book.  And I have to say, I was very impressed.  Unlike the novel, which progresses in chronological order, this adaptation chose to intersperse the pre-war love story scenes as flashbacks Stephen Wraysford has during the war.  The film weaves between the light and the dark, contrasting the young Wraysford and the hardened soldier he turns out to be, leaving the viewer wondering what caused such a transformation in his character.  In the book we already know by the end of Part I, but the series lets the two stories play out simultaneously, so the viewer is left guessing what happens both in the past and present.

Stephen and Isabelle steal a moment alone together.

The cinematography is beautiful, the actors’ performances solid (Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Wraysford while Clemence Poesy plays Isabelle Azaire), and the war scenes bring the bitter reality of the First World War home (a much grittier portrayal than what you’ll find on Downton Abbey).  I look forward to seeing how it wraps up next week.  This adaptation inspired me to take the book off the shelf.  Maybe the third try’s the charm.

Wraysford at the Front

Be sure to check out this interesting article about the filming (and why it took 13 years to get it on the screen).

See my thoughts on Part II here.

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