A Sip and aTrip Takes You into a Dream

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Travel Memoir

Many Americans have made their peace with the “gotta get ahead” pace of daily life. In fact, often urbanites and sophisticates in the United States wear the burden of their busyness or over commitment as a gold star. Yet, some dream about how life might be in a smaller place with a slower pace. The biggest dreamers imagine themselves abroad – Italy, France, Africa, or China. The speculation touches the part of the soul that whispers, “What is more?”

There is something innately romantic about the idea of going to Provence, a storied region in the southern France that makes most people sigh who yearn for wine, cheese and conviviality, combined with beautiful vistas, and a slower pace of life. Keith Van Sickle’s One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence responds to the hunger like a four course dinner. I had the same positive reaction to Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, and more ever more to former fashion editor Karen Wheeler’s Tout Sweet series.

The author, a tech consultant who made his bones in Silicon Valley, gets a taste of life outside the “run, run” daily pace in the United States during a work assignment in Europe. Van Sickle and wife Val went to Neuchatel in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. “We lived in a village so small that the streets did not have names and the cows outnumbered the people,” he offers. That is a sample of the wit, clarity, insight and personality in the prose that makes the work an even more attractive read.

One of the interesting dimensions of the work is the author’s spirit. He does not glamourize life in Provence, but rather lays out the ups and downs of the adventure in breezy snippets. Most of the chapters are short yet filled with insight. Readers will enjoy the challenge as he and  Val struggle to learn a new language, and find ways to let go of common U.S. practices. For example:

We were in St.-Remy and stopped at one of our favorite restaurants for lunch. I went to the restroom, a one-room affair used by both men and women, and had to wait in line behind four ladies.

When I finally made it to the restroom I was surprised to find the toilet seat up. Even after four ladies! I told Val about this and she said it was common, that even when there was a separate ladies room, women would often leave the seat up after they were done. Apparently it’s a French custom.

Readers will be quickly impressed by the way Van Sickle gives wings to words. His sentences tend to be tight, which allows him to pack a lot of detail, meaning and humor into a small space. Rather than a “and the next day” narrative, the 192-page book is more about “and then there was the time,” which helps to quickly carry the reader through the story. For example, I loved a tale he told from his first days in France in a three-paragraph chapter:

Soon after we arrived, we went for a hike around the Etang de Berre, a bay so large that it’s almost an inland sea. We sat on a bench to eat our lunch and a poodle came up to me, looking for a handout.

I had finished my sandwich and was eating an apple. I figured that since Lucca liked apples this poodle would too, so I tossed him a piece.

Obviously, I had not counted on the refined palates of French dogs. He sniffed the apple and gave me a withering look. Then he turned his back, heisted his leg over the apple, and trotted away.

Van Sickle rolls out the adventure of his adjustment to Provence with a similar candor, which in the end develops a voice that bids the reader to relate to the author more as a friend than an adventurer. Most readers will read the last word in the book and wish they could hear one more tale. One Sip at a Time ends, yet the author offers Francophones, dreamers, travel-lovers, as well as those who might want to try a similar adventure, a chance to continue the relationship through a blog where he share insights into France and the adventure that is life.

One Sip at a Time reminds readers of when travel memoirs were a major entertainment source, and the urge to travel was more tightly tied to discovery. The reader gains insight into how one struggles to fit into another culture. At the same time, Keith and Val show readers that an effort can capture a dream. Readers who might want to move to the French countryside can make it, One Sip at a Time.

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Stanley Stirs School Excitement and Memories

Stanley at School
By Linda Bailey
Kids Can Press
Published: Aug. 1 2015
ISBN: 1771380969

The calendar has changed faster than the weather outside my window. As the first beams of gray daylight make it possible to see more than shadows moving down the street, I see the

high school students on the way to timely meet attendance on the first day of school. In an hour or so, the elementary school kids will follow. Like clockwork, every school day, I watch the faces as young people of all sizes move past me. Some are on foot. Some ride bikes. Book bags are on their backs. I barely still remember when I was one of them. Full disclosure – I liked school from the first day of kindergarten to college. I cannot fully recall everything that happened on the first day of school in those years. Memories grow faint, but the sense of curiosity and anticipation never fade. Those elements are guaranteed to stir some of the same feelings in those who read, or listen, to the fast-paced action in award-winning Canadian author Linda Bailey’s delightful picture book, Stanley at School.

Anyone who thinks that praise is just hype should give the 32-page work a read. I won’t share much of the story, because you really have to hear the tale for yourself. In fact, the way the author uses words is the first remarkable aspect of the book. First, let me be candid.

When I first saw the title and read the description for this work, I was intrigued yet unimpressed. Several authors have written read-aloud books about dogs (or other animals and creatures) going to school. A standout is Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat’s tale of how Charlie the Ranch Dog makes it in a classroom. Several audience polls rate in slightly higher than Norman Bidwell’s classic Clifford’s First School Day. On its face, Stanley at School, seemed too close in theme and content to Constance McGeorge’s nicely written, Boomer Goes to School, published in 2012. That is why it pays to look beyond the cover.

Stanley at School is a romp in language and art. Bailey repeats key words at pivotal parts in the narrative to poke the readers attention. The way the writer sort of seeps words drop by drop to the point cinches along the action. That breeds a gentle tension:

‘What do we do now?’ asked Alice.
But she already knew the answer. All the dogs knew. They had to wait outside.
‘Don’t you ever get tired of waiting?’ asked Stanley. ‘Wait outside the library. Wait outside the coffee shop. Wait outside the bakery.’
And that is when Stanley got an idea. A big idea. A bold idea! An idea so daring it made his fur stand up.

Happy but embarrassed to admit I was right there in the conversation with those dogs. More than that, award-winning Illustrator Bill Slavin’s vibrant drawings make the scene more believable. His image of the closed school doors up a long flight of stairs not only gives the reader an insight into a dog’s vantage point. I could imagine how a three- or four-foot child might similarly see the setting.

Parents who want to slake the interest of a preschooler, or ease the jitters of someone in kindergarten, will find Stanley a great resource. Even readers like me, who have not answered the school bell for a half century will smile, laugh and at some points guffaw, at the tightly woven tale. Those familiar with Bailey’s five earlier Stanley books will attest, the goofy, yet adventurous character strikes something beautiful in the core of many people. Bailey, who is head over heels for her Golden Retriever Sophie, asserts that Stanley is “the dog I would love to be.” That spirit also infuses the narrative, you will see.

It is obvious that I enjoyed the experience, but some of the pictures seemed out of sync with the text. In a couple places the text came on a page after the drawing. I read an e-book, and even went into two-page mode to see if the alignment changed. It did not. I was distracted. Nonetheless, a clever narrator, can hold the image in order for a child. Well, let Stanley at School take you back to that first day when you thought the worst nightmare lay behind a school door.