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Is This My All-Time Favourite Book?

In addition to the hand-washing, mask-wearing and vaccinations, the long 2020-21 period of coping with the Covid-19 pandemic has meant a great deal of self-imposed isolating at home or staying local. But all’s not lost. Aside from the healthy daily neighborhood walks (keeping one’s distance, mind you, from others), Amazon Prime movies and tv series has proven to be a lifesaver. In a time when families could not congregate together in any fashion, that service, along with Disney and Netflix has turned out to be essential .

Recently, we discovered Acorn TV, a subset of Amazon, (unfortunately for yet another monthly fee!). As fans of British crime series, we were drawn to subscribing to that service provider by the wealth of such content. Our choice of Acorn actually originated with Netflix’s Shetland series (BBC), then gravitating to the Vera series (ITV) on Amazon because it has the same author (crime writer Anne Cleeves).

For both series, Ms. Cleeves (and the producers of the tv programs) have managed to come up with the perfect set of crime stories – a sense of place and local color (Shetland Islands for one, Northumberland county for the other), all beautifully filmed, strong and sympathetic lead characters (the two Detective Inspectors with great backstories: one male, DI Jimmy Perez; one female, DI Vera Stanhope), an excellent supporting cast (kudos to the casting directors), a grisly murder (or two or more), a realistic, believable storyline with several potential perpetrators, the real killer only to be revealed at the last possible moment. Since both programs have gone on for many seasons and been renewed several times, we can’t be alone in our conclusions.

But talking about tv crime series is not the reason for this post today.

Yesterday, in searching for something different, we came across the BBC movie Cider With Rosie, adapted from the book of the same name by British author, Laurie Lee. The book – one of my all-time favorites (not just me but a huge segment of the British population) – was first published in 1959 (The Hogarth Press, London; illustrations by John Ward). My mother, who first introduced me to the author, passed on to me her dog-eared paperback when she downsized from her house (along with so many other books). After a while, that copy began to fall apart, so I splurged and purchased a first edition at a local used-book store.

The version on Amazon is the third adaptation for television, the second by the BBC. In my opinion, the production does the book justice. Still, it’s a challenging story to adapt. The book’s strength rests primarily in its evocative and lyrical descriptions rather than action and pithy dialogue. That being said, the conversations certainly capture the time – the decade beginning with the last year of World War 1 – and the place – Slad, a small Cotswold village in the county of Gloucestershire.

Much of the place remains the same to this day, even some of the locations in the book. The official Cotswold website even mentions a five-mile Laurie Lee Wildlife Way and a three-hectare Laurie Lee Woodland to explore. Really, I can’t wait to check them out. For more detail see the following.

In a most gentle and personal fashion, the book documents the end of an era in English county society, an end brought about by social change, 20th century transportation and new industry (for you fans of PBS, think Downton Abbey, although we’re talking of rural society and the lower middle classes).

Apart from one incident (a deserter in a time of war), nothing dramatic really happens in the book – it is a picture of rural England, the passing of the seasons and years, the little details that one recalls in later life that resonate. His description of summer and winter is especially evocative. Although I don’t have the space here to go on at length, let me quote a few sentences (p. 182, the chapter entitled “Winter and Summer” of my volume):

“Mr. Jones’s pond was bubbling with life, and covered with great white lilies – they poured from their leaves like candle-fat, ran molten, then cooled off on the water. Moorhens plopped, and dab-chicks scooted, insects rowed and skated. New-hatched frogs hopped about like flies, lizards gulped in the grass. The lane itself was crusted with cow-dung, hard baked and smelling good.”

And here, where Mr. Lee describes their cottage (p. 74-75, The Kitchen):

“With our Mother, then, we made eight in that cottage and disposed of its three large floors…The roof was so thin that rain and bats filtered through, and you could hear a bird land on the tiles. Mother and Tony shared a bedroom below; Jack, Harold and I the other. But the house, since its building, had been so patched and parcelleled that it was now almost impossible to get to one’s room without first passing through someone else’s. So each night saw a procession of pallid ghosts, sleepily seeking their beds, till the candle-snuffed darkness laid us out in rows, filed away in our allotted sheets, while snores and whistles shook the old house like a roundabout getting up steam.”

He goes on to talk about their common room, the kitchen where they spent their waking life and growing years (p. 75-76):

“That kitchen, worn by our boots and lives, was scruffy, warm and low, whose fuss of furniture seemed never the same but was shuffled around each day. A black grate crackled with coal and beech-twigs; towels toasted on the guard; the mantel was littered with fine old china, horse brasses and freak potatoes. On the floor were strips of muddy matting, the windows were choked with plants, the walls supported stopped clocks and calendars, and smoky fungus ran over the ceiling. There were also six tables of different sizes, some armchairs gapingly stuffed, boxes, stools and unravelling baskets, books and papers on every chair, a sofa for the cats, a harmonium for coats, and a piano for dust and photographs. These were the shapes of our kitchen landscape, the rocks of our submarine life, each object worn smooth by constant nuzzling, or encrusted by lively barnacles, relics of birthdays and dead relations, wrecks of furniture long since foundered, all silted deep by mother’s newspapers which the years piled round on the floor.”

There are so many examples like these ones, and I find it really hard to hold off from quoting more. Lee went on to write two more books in this examination of his life (As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment Of War), which talk about his adulthood and trips to Spain before and during the Spanish Civil War. I would recommend all three to any reader who is interested in everyday life in the period between the two world wars and who loves understated yet beautiful writing.

For those interested, courtesy of The Poetry Archive (a British Not-For-Profit devoted to producing, acquiring and preserving recordings of poets reading their own work out loud), here is a link to Laurie Lee reading two of his poems, April Rise and Apples.

This past week my granddaughter asked me what my favorite work of fiction was. That’s a huge question and I was not able to answer her, certainly without more reflection. Cider With Rosie is certainly my favorite memoir; that’s a given. Is it my all-time favorite book? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’m going to leave that topic for another post.

In a recent post (Aug. 19, 2021) on Tor.com, Molly Templeton speaks about comfort reads.

“It’s been a year for comfort reads. There are so many lists of books like a hug, books like a warm blanket, books like a hot cup of cocoa (with your preferred variety of milk). They’re really good books of a certain kind—books where there may be drama, but things work out; where people are kind and problems are manageable; where the laughs are rich and meaning is found in unexpected, welcoming places.”

Now, it’s clear from the rest of her post she’s not thinking of a book like Cider With Rosie. Ms. Templeton likes sad witches, questionable behavior, darkness, bittersweet endings and rawness. In other words, something quite different.

But I really like the term “comfort reads”. It’s one I’d easily apply to Laurie Lee’s satisfying works.

(Cover photo by Magda V on Unsplash)

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