Cider With Rosie (review)

Cider With Rosie
Laurie Lee
Open Road Media

When I opened the email last month, it was clear I’d missed out. According to Amazon’s Daily Deal blurb Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie was “an instant classic when it was first published in 1959 [and] one of the most endearing and evocative portraits of youth in all of literature”.  Now because I worked for several years in a book store, I’m at Cider With Rosieleast familiar with many more titles and authors than I’ve read.  So one would think I’d at least heard of this Laurie Lee who “learned to look at life with a painter’s eye and a poet’s heart—qualities of vision that, decades later, would make him one of England’s most cherished authors”.

Of course, I had to remedy this oversight, so one-click order I did and was soon settled into a memoir of one of England’s beloved sons I hadn’t even known existed. But after the first chapter, I admit I didn’t know if it was love or hate.

Three-year-old Laurie sits on the floor of his new home amidst the chaos of moving a family of seven into a new cottage in the village of Slad.  Little Laurie was surrounded by “glass fishes, china dogs, shepherds and shepherdesses, bronze horsemen, stopped clocks, barometers, and photographs of bearded men”. His sisters and mother bustle in and out of the house; his brothers help unload the handcart. Lee’s prose was over-rich, I thought—awash in adjectives and adverbs; drowning in lists. I almost put the memoir aside.

But after another chapter, Lee grew on me. His rich narrative seemed to mirror the lush countryside and the hub-bub that was his home. I settled into those lists and that descriptive prose. Like this: “That kitchen, worn by our boots and lives, was scruffy, warm, and low, whose fuss of furniture seemed never the same but was shuffled each day” and this: “These were the … rocks of our submarine life, each object worn smooth by our constant nuzzling, or encrusted by lively barnacles, relics of birthdays and dead relations, wrecks of furniture long since foundered …” It’s definitely not my style and not what I’d usually choose, but I’m happy I did.

Cider With Rosie let me peek into a world that no longer exists—grannies who lived as neighbors for decades, yet

Rosebank Cottage, Slad
Rosebank Cottage, Slad

never spoke; sisters who decorated their hats with bits and bobs; a picnic caravanned to a just perfect spot in the woods; a school teacher quick to smack boys upside the head; sleeping five to a room in quilt-deep beds; a bottle of shared cider and a stolen kiss under a field wagon.

Lee went on to write two more memoirs of his life and a few books of poetry. I was able to find a wonderful interview with Lee on the BBC—his recollections follow the book closely—which makes a great companion listen.

Cider With Rosie should probably be read when the time is just right, like a hazy summer afternoon or a blustery winter night … or anytime, really, when the edges of the world outside become blurred and you could oh-so-easily fade into the English countryside.

 

A Million Miles In a Thousand Years (review)

A Million Miles In a Thousand Years
Donald Miller
Nelson Publishing

Most people assume that as a teacher, I’m the one who instructs. And it’s kind of implicit in the teacher-student relationship, I agree. But as I move into my twenty-third year of teaching (good heavens!), I find that dynamic is often flipped, and it’s my students who share their wisdom with me.A million miles in a thousand years

During one of my Advanced Placement students’  Socratic Seminars this year, one of the students, Matt, remarked, “Donald Miller once said your life is a story” (this in a discussion of death and dying) and I was intrigued. I’d never heard of this Donald Miller fellow, and who was he that a sixteen-year-old would quote him?–about ‘story’, no less.

After a quick Google search,  A Million Miles In a Thousand Years  popped up and the subtitle “What I learned while editing my life” spoke to my heart. It didn’t take me past reading the author’s introduction to decide I needed the Kindle edition delivered post haste to my reader

The book goes like this.

Miller gained some fame after his first book Blue Like Jazz, and there was interest in a film based on the memoir, even though since writing Blue, he was stuck and had no motivation for much of anything but watching TV.  As Miller and the film makers began writing the screen play, they broke it to him not-so-gently: his life was too boring to be a film. While Miller himself wanted his life to be an “easy story …  [he knew that] nobody really remembers easy stories. Characters have to face their greatest fears with courage. That’s what makes a story good.”  Artistic license was necessary to make the memoir appeal to filmgoers who would want that good story—in the same way, Miller himself begins to re-write his own reality to follow more closely “the essence of a story”. Try putting these on your Life’s “To Do” list: reunite with a long-lost father, ask the girl out, hike to Machu Picchu, cycle across country. Life got interesting real fast.

This is a journey that, at its heart, is spiritual—but with a small “s”. While Miller is a Christian, there’s nothing holier-than-thou here, which is refreshing. But what an incredible vision of God he has here:If I have a hope, it’s that God sat over the dark nothing and wrote you and me, specifically, into the story, and put us in with the sunset and the rainstorm as though to say, Enjoy your place in my story, and you can create within it even as I have created you.

And this:There is a knowing I feel that guides me toward better stories, toward being a better character. I believe there is a writer outside ourselves, plotting a better story for us, interacting with us, even, and whispering a better story into our consciousness.

While much of the book is focused on the author’s own transformation, he also introduces us to other “characters” he has met who epitomize living a good story. Talk about inspiration, dear reader! My only reservation is that I found myself most moved by the first two or three sections of the book– the ones where Miller confronts that his tendency to let life happen to him; as he checks off his “To Do” list, the narrative becomes a bit less compelling. Overall, I think Miller’s story metaphor will especially resonate with readers, but is a great read for anyone who wants to live more deliberately.

You shared some pretty incredible wisdom, Matt. Thank you.

The Lady In the Van (review)

The Lady in the Van
Alan Bennett

After I read Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader (review link here) I do what all readers do, I assume—I ran to get my hands on another of the author’s works. The library had a copy of a two-fer: The Clothes They Stood Up In (another novella) and The Lady In The Van (a non-fiction narrative); both pieces center around how the stuff in our lives can entrap us. The novella is about a couple who returns from a night out to find their flat bare, stripped of everything right down to the toilet paper and curtain rings. Now the Ransomes are a proper English couple, and LadyVanmuch of their life is spent keeping up appearances—but Mrs. Ransome finds that in shedding her possessions (albeit unwillingly), she gains a new sense of freedom and independence.

The book’s companion piece is the non-fiction The Lady in the Van.  Miss Mary Shepherd is a homeless (sort-of) elderly woman forced to move the van-which-was-her-home from spot-to-spot only to park at last on the writer’s street. Concerned for her safety, Bennett invites her to park in his yard—presumably for a short time. But days became weeks became months and we watch the relationship between the writer and Miss Shepherd develop with a kind of tumultous tenderness that changed them both. This is a story about mental illness and community and one would assume the story’s focus would be the Crazy Lady. And to some extent it is, of course. But it’s also a story (and I would contend it’s the real story here) about how reaching out to others often transforms us more than it does those we “help”.

The Lady in the Van was a 1999 theatrical production in London and is now a film to be released sometime this year  starring the inimitable Maggie Smith, who also starred in the original play. I had no idea this was in the making until my husband shared a film trailer he thought I’d like. “Of course I like it,” I said after watching, “ Considering I read the book several years ago.”

There’s little of Maggie Smith’s work that I haven’t adored and from what I can see in the trailer, she’s made for The Lady in the Van. I think you might agree.

Wait, Wait … I’m not done yet! (review)

I drink my morning coffee with Steve Innskeep, my drive home is accompanied by Here and Now’s Robin Young, and I fix dinner or grade papers to the sound of Robert Siegal and Melissa Block. It’s not that I have a seriously packed social calendar, though. Rather, those are the NPR program hosts that make up  the soundtrack of my life.

Wait wait I'm not done yetAnd how can I forget the years I spent with Noah Adams or Linda Wertheimer or Susan Stamberg? Or the dulcet tones of Carl Kasell, who anchored the news on Morning Edition for nearly thirty years.

Carl Kasell has written a memoir titled Wait, Wait … I’m Not Done Yet, a reference to his second NPR career as Peter Sagal’s sidekick on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the news quiz show. (Would it surprise you if I told you the book was a membership drive giveaway?)

Kasell’s book went down as smoothly as his reading of the news, but was decidedly more homespun in nature. The memoir covers his childhood, college days, early career, and, of course, his time at NPR—Kasell’s own memories are alternated with reflections of his co-workers, friends, and family members. The tone is warm and conversational. In fact, the almost folksy nature of the memoir was at first a little off-putting (I guess I was expecting something a little more weighty and NPR-ish), but I quickly settled into a long chat with good friends.

So many good stories and tidbits here. Kasell’s high school drama teacher? Andy Griffith (Who knew?!) Kasell’s lovely Italian bride Clara and their young family. His desolation after her death.  One of his college interns? Katie Couric. Kasell’s serendipitous seating at a wedding  reception with a lovely woman, now his wife Mary Ann. The tenor of the NPR newsroom on 9-11. And his (again!) meteoric rise to fame (at least in NPR land) as Peter Sagal’s co-host on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

I’m thinking this book might be a little too much of an inside story for anyone who isn’t an NPR listener. But for those of you who are, it’s like a pleasant visit with dear friends, catching up on old times and I was sorry to see it end.

As in, “Wait, wait, don’t go yet!”

Love what you do: Ray Bradbury

I’ve had a quiet love affair with Ray Bradbury for some time now. I actually think I love the man more than his books—or is it that I love his books because I adore the man? What’s odd is the faRay Bradburyct that I don’t really like science fiction. I mean, Star Trek Next Generation is fine, but anything else … not so much. But Dandelion Wine and Martian Chronicles hooked me, and his short story “The Smile” reeled me in. I’m currently reading Zen in the Art of Writing which shines with typical Bradbury enthusiasm about his craft.

A few years ago I stumbled upon a few (surreptitious, I’m sure) cell phone videos of Bradbury on YouTube—he was a frequent speaker at Comic Con and on college campuses even in his last years–and I was over the moon all over again: a spunky, life-loving, sometimes profane old guy who was a champion of the power of the written word.

I show this National Endowment for the Arts video to my high school students every year, hoping against hope that they, too, will fall in love. And they do find him endearing–because who can’t resist a cute old man who says to the film crew, “I want a close up of the cat, now,” (did you also notice the canary yellow cat tie?) and (lover that he is) re-reads Tender is the Night every time he visits Paris?

Bradbury died in 2012; his last appearance at Comic Con was only two years before. By all accounts he was frail and tired—but he was with his people, passionate to the end. So “the things that you do should be things that you love–things that you love should be things that you do.” I’ll try, Mr. Bradbury. I’ll try.