Wednesday, February 18, 2009

In over my head again: Music to wring tears from stars

Normally I will leave the book reviews to people who know about such things. To me that means Catherine and Ken. But just yesterday, in my travels, I was introduced to a new British author that I am in the process of exploring, and I wanted to share the discovery with you. Mostly this is for Americans because the British and Irish already know about him.

Let me back up a bit for my new readers who have only followed me on this blog (I have other blogs which are currently in suspension that I will later return to.) One of my other blogs is called "BritishSpeak: One American's Quest To Understand British English." (If you were puzzled why there are so many British and SAfrican followers to this current blog, now you know why.) I used it to gather information about how UK culture differs from U.S. culture. One of the things I learned about was that the UK has a few good authors. Heh. Some so popular I was ashamed I had never heard of them. Like Enid Blighton, for example. Today, I want to add Laurie Lee to that list of authors I want to pursue.

It was my friend Soubriquet, as is often the case, who turned me on to Mr. Lee, and, in particular, his book "Cider With Rosie." The "gear-gritter/spoke-poker" had a mention and quote on his blog yesterday when I was surfing. I am about to steal the quote he posted from the book. See if you are as captivated by Lee's powers of description as I was:

" 'It's cider,' she said. 'You ain't to drink it though. Not much of it, any rate.' Huge and squat, the jar lay on the grass like an unexploded bomb. We lifted it up, unscrewed the stopper, and smelt the whiff of fermented apples. I held the jar to my mouth and rolled my eyes sideways, like a beast at a water-hole. 'Go on,' said Rosie. I took a deep breath ...

"Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time, wine of wild orchards, of russet summer, of plump red apples, and Rosie's burning cheeks. Never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again ..."
Cider with Rosie, 1959 )

I am simply cativated by how Lee sucks you right into the story, how he turns you into a witness to events rather than simply a reader. Listen to a couple of his character descriptions:

"We call out a greeting to Granny Trill in her tiny cottage filled with the smells of dry linen, tea caddies and the sweeter tang of old flesh, who always seemed to be chewing, sliding her folded gums together in a daylong ruminative cud. I took this to be a trick of age, a kind of slowed-up but protracted feasting."

And how suddenly Lee can make the tears well up inside you, even if you have just been laughing:

"... the death of Hannah and Joseph Brown, grown feeble and infirm, separated by well-meaning authorities in the Workhouse because they can no longer take care of themselves, and who quickly die of old age and fright, because they have never been apart before."

It never fails: just when I start to think I am learning how to write, I come across someone like Laurie Lee and I fall into utter despair again. Despair because I know I can never, no matter how hard I try or how enthusiastic I am about my subject, come close to people like Laurie Lee, the poet who tried his hand at prose in "Cider With Rosie."

Gustave Flaubert, in his "Madam Bovery" described perfectly how frustrated I feel right now:

"Human speech is like a cracked pot on which we beat out rhythms for bears to dance to when we are striving to make music that will wring tears from stars."

And by the way, if you haven't read Madam Bovery since you were young, you really need to read it again when you are older. Trust me.


  1. I haven't read Cider with Rosie for many a long year. I must try it again. And YOU reading a FRENCH author? Well, I'll be blowed. I loved Madame Bovary. It's been a long time since I read that too.

  2. Madam Bovery? I thought it was Mamie's Ovary. That's very different. I might reconsider.

  3. Sigh. And there I was thinking we were going to have a sensible conversation. :)

  4. What? Have I ever done anything to lead you to believe such a thing would be possible? What would be the fun in that??

  5. I've heard that Laurie Lee is really good, and I keep saying I will read Cider With Rosie...So far I have an unbeatable record in procrastinating over this. But now, who knows?

    Mamie's Ovary sounds like the title of a very naughty Victorian yellowback novel.

  6. Hey Lidian. I have ordered the book. So far I have only read excerpts from various reviews I have found here and there. Plus some of his bio.

    You must explain the term "yellowback" to me, and also why I have never heard of it since I am so up on most hip things. :)

  7. There's a blog award waiting for you HERE!

  8. Excellent. New authors.
    I once did a paper in which I compared Emma Bovary with Lady Macbeth called "Lady or the Tramp?" I got an A. I couldn't write anything like that now if my life depended on it.

  9. I'm glad to see I've led you to discover a great writer. Laurie Lee, in between writing books and poetry, was employed by the british government in the planning and active stages of the Festival of Britain, a celebration that was held to usher in a new era after the second world war. Lee held the title of "Curator of Eccentricities", which is a job I covet.
    I read "Cider With Rosie" whilst learning to be a teacher. For students on teaching practice, each morning at six-thirty we would board a bus, and travel on a winding route through the Cotswold hills, stopping at every little village school, to drop students off one or two at a time.
    Teaching in those schools introduced you to village life, taking children on walks to discuss local history, geography, flora and fauna, a different pace.
    I learned as much as my students. I grew up as a country boy, my relatives were mostly farming folk, though from a different part of England. The children loved to compare their local dialect words with mine.
    Although the visits those schools were supposed to be work, for me they were a passport to another world.
    I sometimes wonder how my life might have panned out if I had accepted the offer of a job in my first teaching-practice school, on my leaving college.

  10. @Janet - I have Soubriquet to thank for that. Well, not for Enid, but the other one. :) I highly recommend you read his blog. (Try not to ask him a question though. :) Kidding Soub.

    I love the "Lady and the Tramp". I loved that movie.

  11. @Soubriquet - Curator of Eccentricities. Yes. You would do well at that. :)

    I find the bits and pieces of your life that you choose to throw my way fascinating. I think you should consider formal memoirs. I'm not kidding. And apologies if you have already published them. I will just add you to the list of famous British authors I never heard of. But you should.

    Descartes made a comment to a recent post to this blog about an author (Robert A Heinlein) who wrote about "what if" scenarios - if other roads had been taken, or if certain things had happened differently. Another author I should know but don't. I think I will follow up on him too.



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