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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Find More than You Think in Fink

A one-eyed, brown cat. and rhyme so tight a reader is roped into fanciful beliefs, or memories of a past when life and fear seemed huge, simple and quick. I  am sorry regret it took me so long to discover Rick Felty’s writing. The three-book, early reader series about TabCat_Ninjaitha Fink yielded a book each year since 2015. I am overjoyed, now to be caught up. The stories filled me with admiration as a children’s author, and as a reader let me see the world again like a wide-eyed kid. The most recent work, Tabitha Fink: Ninja at Night, proves that a story told well in rhyme can bring a smile and even anticipation to adults. Readers will see the author’s progress through the narratives.

His first book, Tabitha Fink The Cat With One Eye, is less clever in its prose and scenario. In the dedication of his third book, Felty talks about his stories as a “journey of discovery.” That is the most apt description of the way the word play appears in the 45-page work.  

“I am Tabitha Fink, somewhat hard to ignore,” he writes. “with only one eye where some others have more. I’ve still got one tail and four paws on the floor. I am still Tabitha Fink as I have mentioned before.”

The 39-page second book, Tabitha Fink on a Mission to Mars, spins a taleCat_Mars that is more playful. “I am Tabitha Fink on a mission to Mars,” the book says, “where they don’t fly blue planes, and they don’t drive red cars. But I know they do something to travel about so I’m going to Mars , to figure it out.” The adventurous makes the trip in a “cat rocket ship.” She discovers a Martian family and says, “And it turns out they do things like all of us do, with a few minor changes. I
will show them to you.”

I imagined youngsters’ fascinations with those simple unadorned sentences. The words have a blunt feel that hit the mind with a clarity that offers a moment-to-moment I get it! There is a completeness in the main character’s description that ushers listeners and readers into familiarity with the feelings and a desire to almost reach out and pet the furry hero.

Felty, who is an Emmy-winning television producer, writes prose so lyrical that the smooth word play pulls a reader into the tale. At some points wildly alliterative in the Cat_Eyeways of a Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, Tabitha Fink The Ninja at Night has a conflict that appears so trivial. Tabitha’s mouse playmate Bartholomew Blink is stalked by a slew of night terrors – a big furry monster, an evil witch, a dragon, some blue bears, and a smelly troll.  Yes, the problem is simple, but Tabitha’s struggle tugs at the memory. The unique character modeled after his family pet is pushed into the eerie situations that seemed a big deal when I was a kid. I began to recall what it felt like to face fear of the dark. – in the lack of light, and Felty’s cyclops hero confronts her friend’s fright as a ninja with a flashlight.

Tabitha Fink books are the kind of imaginative and fanciful explorations that children scream for at bedtime or story time in school. Felty’s clever use of language and plot sets a pleasant diversion for adults, too. Before I was aware, page after page flipped as I rushed to see the ninja’s deeds. At the last of 68 pages, like Bartholomew the mouse, I was satisfied by the charming conclusion of the darkness dilemma. As many readers, I was only disappointed that I might have to wait another year for more.

 

Not Every Sadness Yields Defeat

The discovery of a new writer is always a thrill. It is like a walk into a meadow in the midst of a thick forest. The experience brings light in unanticipated ways. You know there are more trees on the other side, and it leaves you anxious with thoughts about what comes next. That is it is like to explore Tim I. Gurung’s eighth novel, Old Men Don’t Cry!

The subtitle is A Hong Kong Tale of Sorrowyet don’t be fooled. The words are accurate. There is a great deal of sadness and disappointment in the story of Chan Hong, a Chinese kid with absentee parents who seeks to become a police officer and find fulfillment. At the same time, so many more things come from the novel, that saga is also a tale of triumph. The journey to his goals holds a number of sad twists and turns, yet what Hong traverses teaches readers a lot about what it means to be a man, to love and be hungry for achievement. That spirit is captured best in the title phrase near the novel’s end:

I had promised myself I would not cry anymore. I was too old to cry, and we all know that old men don’t cry. It was not that old men don’t feel pain, yet it is not easy for an old man to cry openly and express his feelings in public….One thing was clear: if there were a next life and I was given a choice, I wanted to repeat the same life again without any changes.

The reader might see such a sentiment and realize that what most adds fulfillment to a man’s life is to be in the sweep of change. That is the other great dimension of the novel. 
Gurung like the late U.S. Novelist James A. Michener. As Michener’s Tales of the South PacificHawaii and Alaska , Gurung’s Old Men Don’t Cry!  sketches out characters against the sweep of a history and evolution of a great society. His prose has the meticulousness of a Robert Ludlum, whose Bourne Trilogy has been the basis for a number of popular films.

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people,” Michener once said, “you might better stay home.” Like the American author, Gurung pulls readers into the  heart  of everyday life so that they experience  each moment in Hong’s life as a period of their own. He grounds the chapters with background on the political and social changes of the nation, and then they play out in the character’s  life. The emergence of China from 1980 to present is revealed in such detail at some points Hong appears to mirror his motherland’s struggles.

Gurung, who was born in Nepal, but raised in Hong Kong, walks readers through the culture and sociology of the land. The author returned to the land of his birth for a few months after he retired from the Gurkhas in 1993, yet returned to the island nation to set up a business. After age 50, he began to write as he had in his youth. He uses those funds to support an educational foundation for youth in Nepal. 

At the same time, his main character, Chan Hong, is thoroughly steeped in a discovery of Chinese culture on and off the mainland.Readers learn about the important holidays such as the celebration of the Lunar New Year, the Ghost Festival and Ching Ming from an angle not open to most Westerners.   At the same time, the author shares the political and social changes that redirects the lives of everyday people in the country.

The author unveils a sensory tour of the land in minute detail, because in some ways he was one of those everyday people. Gurung, as his real-life fathers and uncles, became a Gurkha soldier at age 17. As the novel shows, life in the British military unit was tough. The Nepalese were set into a country within a country in many respects, yet the author shows that for children such as Hong, circumstances were almost no different. His service gave the author a special opportunity to see Hong Kong   ways many of the people who lived there never could. The novel benefits from that exposure as the narrative builds a character who seeks righteousness, yet discovers that the world in which he lives offers many people little hope. He places many of those insights into the mind of the protagonist.

On his move from the small village of Kam Tin, Chan Hong goes to Tokwawan, a larger place, in pursuit of his dream to be a police officer. He meets his goal, yet is not a great success. The main character remains a street cop, because his attitude is not compatible with those who move into the higher ranks. In fact, his constant bids to try to discover, understand and help those he encounters at points diminishes his life. 

His lifelong friends, Eddie Ko and Tsang Adele have broader lives because they get to study in the United States, yet they all end up back in the circumstances they fled. Each of the players in the drama is guided by a trait, and Hong’s is self-sacrifice, which makes him vulnerable in every aspect of his life.
Advertisements on the novel say what Hong sacrifices, “will pain your soul,’ and his sorrows will, “just make you cry.” That is true. At the same time, many of those who read this book will want to cheer for the main character at the end. The novel is a classic tearjerker, but more than that it is a story of emergence for a man and his country. Readers can come away with three thoughts. First – a selfish life is a sad waste. Second, choice more than fate controls what you can do. Lastly, not every sadness yields defeat. 

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.