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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‘Is that… Apple?’: The Chilli and Apple Con-Carne

This recipe comes from a mixture of  wild culinary upbringing, and a strong sense of student fugality ie. I bought a huge £1 bag of apples, and had to do something with them. Needless to say, the housemates were horrified.

I feel like cooking style like this should come with an explanation. Delia Smith, the fabulous lady she is, was a constant presence in my house growing up. She helped me learn to read (as I dictated her recipes to my Dad, and he quickly learned not to trust what I said), she was there with me as I wreaked havoc (serious the-oven-is-on-fire havoc) in the kitchen, and supplied me with staple culinary skills that keep me alive and sane at university. Delia’s emphasis on precision was tempered by my Dad’s sense of absolute wild abandon in the kitchen, the supermarket, in foraging; Delia’s Britishness, by my Mum’s exquisite and traditional Chinese style. On our cookery book shelf at home, well protected by the thick paper covering my Dad and I sello-taped on to prevent further damage, is a wedding present from my Grandparents to my parents in 1991: Delia’s Complete Cookery Course. I’m patiently waiting to passed on Delia’s Cookery Book, stains and all, when I get married.

Apple

Let me know if you have any interesting variations on the usual ol’ Chilli!

Ingredients:
2 value tins of plum tomatoes
1 value tin of kidney beans
1 small onion (finely chopped)
1 tbs tomato puree
a quick shake of dried chilli flakes
500g mince beef/stewing beef
3 small apples cored and cubed
splash of apple juice
1 tbs honey
100ml red wine (optional)

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1. Put everything but the beef into a large pot.

2. Fry the beef lightly (just seal the stewing beef) and add to pot.

3. Bring to boil, then simmer for approximately 2 hrs.

Yum.

“Cooking is rarely an automatic instinct, we have to learn as we go.”

-Delia Smith, Complete Illustrated Cookery Course (Classic Ed.). Introduction, p.7.

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Cheeky Chocolate + Banana Slice

Not exactly what Ms. Mary Berry would call an even bake, but lush all the same…

I learnt to bake with my Grandma in her kitchen. I’d help make mess; she’d let me lick the bowl. She’s started to forget her recipes, but I’m still using them. When I get home, I’ll teach the old recipe – “two, two, two and one”* – to her again, and no doubt, her work will still turn out to be better than mine.

Ingredients

500g plain chocolate
500g milk chocolate  – ½ chopped into small pieces
75g margarine
2 tablespoons olive oil
125g caster sugar
125g self-raising flour
2 eggs
1 tsp baking powder
1 tbsp coca (or hot chocolate) powder
2 medium bananas, peeled and mashed

Pre-heat oven to 180º

1. Melt plain chocolate and half the milk chocolate in a bain-marie.

2. Add margarine, olive oil, eggs and sugar to a bowl and mix.

3. Sift flour, baking powder, hot chocolate powder into a bowl.

4. Add banana, melted and chopped chocolate and mix thoroughly.

5. Put in a 10x25cm loaf tin* and into the oven for aprox. 1hr.

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*Remember to margarine the tin and greaseproof paper the bottom!

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* ratio of sugar, eggs, flour and butter

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Beijing, TUESC: Forbidden City

Forbidden City

It’s a predictably hot day when Emma, Ellie and I chose to visit one of Beijing’s most coveted set of historical buildings: The Forbidden City.

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Rivulets of sweat run happily down my back, my umbrella is up, Chinese-style, and my back-pack of water feels a lot heavier than a litre of water duly should, but nothing can overshadow the sheer scale of the endless courtyards, alleys and royal buildings in the elaborate 15th century complex of beautiful, painted-wood roofing. As we file in under a huge portrait of President Mao, we’re battling with the people towards a small dark tunnel: the entrance to the city itself. It’s hard to believe, given the addition of thousands of tourists, whistles, tour-group speakers and jiggling flags, that this entire area was once a secluded, palace of secrecy and royalty.

Instead of talking the main bee-line up the middle of the complex, we soon veer off to shaded side roads, back alleys of the servants and noticeably less crowded; from these bubbles of quiet. we observing the vast cobbled courtyard space into which the bottleneck of tourists tumble ant-like, and sweating, admiring their hundreds in a space once reserved for ceremonial events and special dignitaries.

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The contents of the exhibitions here are definitely undermined by the misty glass-cum-plastic that divides the sticky fingers and foreheads from what is possibly antique furniture – though it’s hard to tell in the dim rooms, a stark contrast from the blinding sun outside.

Having visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei, which houses many of the original artefacts from the Forbidden City, evacuated after a long trek across the country of China over to the small Formosan Island by Chiang Kai Chek and his followers following the Civil War in China, it is not hard to see that the two heritage sites offer very different experiences. In my opinion, The Forbidden City demonstrates the sheer vastness of the architecture and demonstrates the immense power of space and place in politics and society, whereas for the contents and details of the internal wealth, art and culture, it is best to look to the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

However the souvenir shops and exhibitions in the Forbidden City offer excellent air-conned relief from the scorching morning sun.

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Chinese Chat

As a last anecdote of the day, a man in his late fifties, thin as a bean pole and wearing heavily clothes as sun-bleached as his skin is tanned, calls out to me with a flash of white teeth and astoundingly well-accented English.

It’s hard to displace the shock of the apparent incongruity of his appearance and his Oxford-style English within the wall of the Forbidden City, and his alarming tendency to peer very closely into my face when speaking knocks me straight out of my historical reverie. But while his enthusiasm to converse with us definitely straddles the border with frightening, it’s an excellent example of the curiosity of being a tourist in China; the people may stare without prejudice, and converse with mild prejudice (rightly assuming the majority of us cannot speak Mandarin), but they for the most part, are purely curious: being foreign in China is certainly an oddity in a way that is no longer common in England.

Considering the vast scale of the country, its tendency to umbrella its many ethnic diversities as a community of one country (in contrast to the emphasised individualism of the West) and it’s relative youth in terms of international tourism and wide-spread immigration it is hardly surprising that two English girls, and one half Northern Irish, half Taiwanese Mandarin-speaking girl (to be precise) can cause a small amount of fuss.

Interestingly, once most people discover I can speak Mandarin, they are suitably unnerved and back off.

It’s the real foreigners that they want photos with.

😉

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