Tag Archives: second world war

Nourishment – good, old fashioned….

I was given this book at a poetry slam a year or two ago but it’s sat on my shelves for ages – at the bottom, where the hardbacks live and where I never look. When I drew it out, I realised the cover was lovely, so I went for it.

Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment is the story of Tory Pace who, shortly after the start of World War II and the departure of her husband, finds her mother, who is known to everyone (including her late husband) simply as ‘Mrs Head’, living with her.

With her children evacuated to the Cotswolds and husband Donald off as a serving soldier, it’s just weary Tory and bossy Mrs Head in the house, and the relationship at first is fraught. Then then the previously meek Donald is captured by the Germans and begins to write stern requests for filthy letters from his mousy wife – Tory is shocked, as is Mrs Head when Tory shows her Donald’s letters. But the requests slowly seem to unlock something in Tory and they trigger a chain of events that is tragic, funny and completely engaging. I went six extra stops on the tube without realising whilst reading Nourishment. I couldn’t put it down.

Woodward’s writing is so simple and so spare that no word is ever wasted – not one page of this book was dull, it never dragged. So I was a fan of the writing but, more than that, I was a fan of the fact that Woodward is a man who can really write a woman. Even some excellent writers fail in this respect but Tory Pace is flesh-and-blood real – so is Mrs Head, who I became incredibly fond of as the book went on. No one-dimensional bossy, clucky old widow, she too has the secrets, the glorious little quirks that make Tory so compelling. For me, amongst all the other wonderful aspects of this book, the best was this relationship that shrank, grew and changed between mother and daughter. (Not only a man who can write women then, but a man who can write that monumentally nuanced thing: the mother-daughter relationship. Gerard Woodward: I bow to you.)

Above all, Nourishment feels like a real old fashioned story – both absorbing and otherworldly whilst still dealing with all that is breathtakingly mundane. I loved the fact that the book conjured up the world of the English wartime stiff upper lip, the speedy passions conceived under the looming threat of bombs, the gelatine-eating no-nonsense attitude of the old days. Woodward’s writing is unadorned to the point of being plain, and yet it’s always quietly eloquent – the perfect word is always chosen. Isn’t that the hardest and most important job of the writer: to find the perfect words to express the things we all understand when we hear them? Gerard Woodward is magnificent at this. He has written a story that is so perfectly crafted that it is seamless. Nourishment is funny and sad, thoughtful and escapist – I will definitely be seeking out more books by its author.

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Band of Brothers – a word from the brave

Usually I read the book and then watch the film. This time I did things topsy-turvy. Thanks to my history-obsessed boyfriend, I became a massive fan of the incomparable TV series Band of Brothers long before I read Stephen Ambrose’s book. Which was better? That’s the real question.

I feel like a massive traitor but for once I have to say that I preferred the series to the book. Don’t get me wrong – the book inspired the series and the series is pretty faithful to the book; but for me the big difference was how easy it was to appreciate what it was like for soldiers in snowy, surrounded Bastogne or anywhere bullets were whistling an inch-gap from their helmets, perhaps even burying themselves in the body of the much-loved comrade crouching beside them.

Whilst the series gripped me instantly with its portrayal of the hardships, strength and courage of the men of Easy Company, the book took longer to get going. On the page, the details of drills, training, hierarchy and strategy seemed drier, the human elements of them harder to appreciate.

I have to say at this point that this is entirely my own personal perspective – my boyfriend found that the detail given in the book added a great deal to his understanding of the challenges the men faced and a valuable background to the topic as a whole. I certainly wouldn’t want to put anyone off what is still a fantastic book by my admission that it wasn’t all entirely my cup of tea.

I did also find that my enjoyment of the book grew and grew as it progressed. Once everyone had been introduced, once the scene had been set, once the nitty-gritty details had all been set down, the stories of the men emerged and the scope of the book enlarged. It was wonderful to hear the men speak in their own words, through numerous diary entries and letters to loved ones, as well as in later life in a series of in-depth interviews with Ambrose.

At the beginning of each of the TV episodes, the real men being dramatised on screen give little soundbites, but the book expands on this and has them speak in their own words far more frequently. The book delves more into the men’s thoughts and fears in their quiet moments and takes you to certain places that the series does not.

Read the book and then watch the series – that would be my advice. Steep yourself in the facts and the raw narrative and feel the reality of what the men of Easy Company undertook during the war…then settle down in front of the TV and prepare to be blown away by the horrifying and thrilling visual spectacle of it all.

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The Ship of Brides – just sweet enough

As you can well imagine, I bought this book because I liked the cover. True to form, my cover-sense was spot on.

Jojo Moyes takes us back to 1946. The war has ended, leaving thousands of women without the foreign husbands they married during wartime. Four women board the soon-to-be decommissioned warship the Victoria – spoilt daddy’s-girl Avice, enigmatic nurse Frances, warm-hearted farm girl Margaret and gobby sixteen-year old Jean. These four young women are to share a cabin deep in the bowels of a huge metal beast with a crew-full of sweaty marines and engineers. It made me feel claustrophobic just thinking about it.

Most of these women have never left their homes or their families before. Some are painfully young like Jean, some are pregnant like Margaret. All of them are voyaging into the unknown under the watchful, melancholy eye of Captain Highfield, a man who has seen the worst of battle and who faces the end of the war with trepidation as he ponders on the seeming impossibility of life on dry land.

What awaits the women on the other side of the ocean? Often a husband married in haste, an unknown mother-in-law and a life that is completely foreign to them. For some, the dreaded telegram halfway across the ocean: Not Wanted. Do Not Come.

For her part, Jojo Moyes handles these women’s lives carefully. The book could have easily strayed into sentimentality but I thought it stayed on the right side of moving. You really get the sense of how terrifying it must have been, voyaging into the virtual unknown like that – especially when Australia was so much further away than it is today – many of the women had to accept that they may never see their families again.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot since I highly recommend this book. The characters and their stories are page-turning stuff. Perfect for bed, bus, beach or bath, The Ship of Brides is bittersweet and charming. Jojo Moyes really brings the women of the Victoria to life.

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