What I’m Reading: Country Childhoods & Cultural Histories

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It seems a bit of an odd shame that for the amount of books I read, let alone the crates stored in old banana boxes under my bed at home, there’s literally nothing to show for it in my books category. By the way of some cheap excuse, for the most part of the year I dread the exhilarating panic of writing essays, speed read through novels to meet the deadline of a seminar, and hunt though endless dusty second hand selves or barter impatiently with other students to grudgingly fork over notes for my reading list; I wonder if becoming an English Lit. student hasn’t somewhat diminished my desire to write about the books I read…

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Still, it would be a certain lie to say that my university years haven’t also made me enjoy reading more (if you’ll excuse the soppy/clichéd/lemming-esque nature of exalting university years). Great tutors, great discussions, great reading lists and historical, cultural and contemporary knowledge – all that jazz. But, I’m no academic (though boy, would it be fun to be that clever), so all I can offer is updates on what I’m reading.

Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie

Taiwan: A New History, Expanded Edition.
Ed. Murray A. Rubinstein. East Gate, 2007.

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1st Edition Cover

Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie

Before I started Cider with Rosie, recommended by a friend – and here I feel compelled to say a recent Oxford graduate as if it validates his authority, how depressing – I knew nothing of the Laurie Lee‘s works and had only heard some gleefully recounted flowery quotes of travel writing and countryside incest; an eclectic and bothersomely intriguing sample of Lee’s writing. Not without some coincidence, I needed something word-based to stem the nausea of  a 12hr flight not long after his recommendation, and found myself idly searching online for his autobiographical trilogy, unconvinced (as I wilfully am when it comes to childhood autobiography –  despite adoring J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Adeline Yen Ma’s Chinese Cinderella…) that I would be sucked in by a rendition of childhood in the English countryside. I can be pret-ty stubborn.

But, Queen of Stubbornness though I may be, it was nearly impossible not to be transfixed by Lee’s oscillating chapters spanning his West England country-side upbringing; I said to a friend – first class honours Film graduate, Queen’s Belfast (just to be fair) – only one chapter in to Cider with Rosie, that it was “One of the best first chapters of writing I’ve read in a long time.” Weaving backwards and forward along his own time line, he carves out bundles of childhood stories in a burningly lucid first person retrospective narrative. Although sparse, his colloquial child’s voice that bursts noisily through the dream-like, wordy narrative prose; while there’s heavy use of metaphor and description that sometimes make the prose border on the weighty side, it’s intuitively original and I love it. There’s no sense of flattery of his childhood self (self-raising as we say in our house), and it’s particularly the blunt depiction of childhood roughness – remorselessly investigative – that strike me as great moments in the novel.

Between his reflection of his childhood self, his dabbling descriptions of the town, its folk and festivals, his mother, head of the family unit strikes me as a wonderful mast-head character for the childhood Laurie to ponder, adore and grudgingly follow. I’d love to have a physical copy of the book as here’s where I’d argue about her centrality in the physical copy (Chapter 7 of 13) – backbone of the book – as perhaps indicative of a child’s life, how the book spans around this matriarchal figure and more, however I feel slightly inhibited by my Kindle still, despite it’s undoubted portability. This debate on physicality of digital vs. paper copy aside, Lee’s words paint a wonderful, arresting rather than childishly enchanting, picture of his Gloucestershire life in Cider with Rosie, pulling elements to crystal clarity in the foreground and hinting backdrops to our own imagination.

As I type Cider with Rosie, I keep coming out with the odd Cider with Laurie; it’s somewhat self-indulgently fitting to close my review this way – the book as a sweating, cider pint pub-listener to the 1959 Laurie Lee as I imagine him, chequer-scarfed, heavy coated and with, of course, a writer’s flickering spectacles. It’s a distinctive, clever and strongly characterised voice which reads quietly to me from those pages. And what a truly excellent read it is.

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Taiwan: A New History

Taiwan: A New History, Expanded Edition. Ed. Murray A. Rubinstein. East Gate, 2007

I’ve ambitiously taken this stonker of a history out of my university library several times without being able to conquer my course reading list in time to read it. However this summer, I contrived a cunning plan by which it has now been bought to ‘intellectually enrich’ my family’s knowledge of their own cultural heritage; it hasn’t left my room yet (thanks Dad!). Now that it’s the summer, I finally have time to read all those books I’ve been wanting to read for a while, and there’s quite a hefty list piled up – unfortunately, the problem is usually acquiring them, fortunately, my friends bought me a Kindle for my 21st and between that and Project Gutenburg, my library of books has exponentially and digitally expanded beyond the banana box confines of my make-shift shelves.

As July came to an end, I began this tome of Taiwanese history, and for a fact book (lol) I’m totally hooked. Now it’s hard to tell whether I can say other people will also be interested in this collection of essays discussing Taiwan’s cultural, political and religious history from the original aboriginal tribes and settling of the 17th century Han Chinese, through Taiwan’s extensive foreign domination and political strife ending with (I’m eagerly awaiting) a critical view of the first elective presidents Lee Teng-Hui and Chen Shui Bian as a culmination of Taiwan’s troubled democratization. However, the typeset and text is accessible, with little heavy reading without topic headlines, tables, maps and illustrations giving some light relief and extensive endnotes for (and hey, don’t knock the importance of layout); Chinese is clearly demarcated in, albeit now slightly worn, pin ying – but who can keep up with the constant changes in romanized pronunciation guides these days, for note-worthy terms and phrases of particular use to the bilingual reader.

I’m not far through enough to give you a conclusion, but stay tuned and I’ll keep you updated!

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Next Week:

As a Taiwanese-Northern Irish mix myself, one of my favourite, and narrowly defined, genres of books to read are  translated Asian bestsellers and those of second generations Chinese, ABCs and BBCs to those in the know (American Born Chinese, and British Born Chinese to those interested!). This week, I’m putting aside As I Walked Out One Morning, Laurie Lee’s autobiographical sequel to Cider with Rosie, for a book proudly proclaimed as shortlisted for Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction ’07:

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. XiaoLu Guo.

See y’all soon!

Happy reading.

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