Ravensbrück by Sarah Helm: Pretty much without a doubt, my favorite non-fiction book of the year was Sarah Helm’s Ravensbrück. It’s rare for me to feel emotional about non-fiction, but in this case I was totally invested, to the point of tears. Helm’s account of the women in the Ravensbrück camp is astoundingly detailed, but never loses sight of the fact that she is talking about real people. By both providing personal accounts and giving them context, she allows both immediacy and understanding of complexities. (When this person was speaking, and to whom, for instance.) It’s a truly impressive book, but even more so, it bears witness to the women who wanted nothing more than to tell the world what happened there.
How to be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman: There are a number of books about daily life in the Victorian era, but Goodman is able to give her personal experiences with various daily chores and routines. Because of this, and her thoughtful understanding of the Victorian worldview and life, it stands pretty far above any similar book I’ve ever read. She is clear about where the Victorian methods make sense and where they were disastrous. All in all, I felt this did a good job of neither sentimentalizing nor condemning, but attempting to make sense of Victorian daily life.
Village of Secrets by Caroline Moorehead: I found Moorehead’s examination of the very complex history of the Vivarais Plateau during World War II to be fascinating on several levels. First, she takes a great look at the myths and stories we tell about it, and where they come from. Second, she delves into the actual records and eyewitness accounts with great scholarship. In the end, what she presents is a much richer, more human, and in a way more understandable account of the village of Le Chambon and the other villages on the Plateau. I didn’t see it as denigrating; in fact, it seemed to honor the actual character of the people involved. And I’m still thinking about the way history twists into myth.
The Bletchley Girls by Tessa Dunlop: This fits nicely into the themes I’ve been talking about already in this post. Dunlop looks at the young women (some of them really girls) who worked at, or in connection with, the Bletchley Park project. As Dunlop weaves their stories together, it becomes clear that the idea of the idealistic and brilliant code breakers is over-done; that many of the girls who worked there found their work drudgery; and that some of them did not feel that it changed their lives significantly. On the other hand, for others, it opened a new sense of possibilities, or the chance to develop life-long friendships.
Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth: I’ve loved this show a lot, so I thought I should read Worth’s original memoir. It’s interesting to encounter the originals of stories I already knew–and it reinforced my sense that the writers had done an excellent job of crafting a narrative that hews pretty close to Worth’s own words but has a structure that works for TV. While I do like the tv show more as a narrative, I also appreciated Worth’s perspective and experiences.