There's a short story by A.S. Byatt that still makes my blood chill in my veins when I think about it.
A wealthy middle-aged woman is on business trip to a major Asian city with her CEO husband, along with a contingent of his colleagues and their wives. While the men are sequestered in conferences and meetings, the wives are squired around the city by tour guides. While many of the women have buddied up for the tours, the main character is shy and something of a loner. At one point, the tour bus full of women is taken to a huge shopping mall. The woman gets separated from the group, and no one seems to notice. Confused and lost, she tries to enlist people's help, but no one speaks English. She either loses her purse or it is stolen, she's not sure. Increasingly disoriented and bedraggled as the hours pass, she is eventually taken for a beggar woman. When she finally encounters a policeman or some such authority figure, who speaks some English, she is so flustered that he assumes she is a crazy woman.
At the end of the story, the woman is left, alone, muttering, wandering the mall. What eventually happens to her is a dark mystery that I don't like to think about any more often than I have to.
Fiction is a sweet-tongued mistress who will slit your throat with the sharpest turn of phrase, the most devastating knife twist of plot. This is why fiction must always be approached cautiously: you never know when she's going to jump out at you with a dagger in her teeth. And this is why when the going gets tough, the tough read kiddie lit.
by E.B. White (#28)
The Great Gynecological Debate surrounding Stuart Little had pretty much the effect you'd expect: I found myself needing to read this book for the first time in -- good lord -- twenty-five years. And you know what? I liked it much more this time around. In fact, I think I like it more than Charlotte's Web.
Sure, Charlotte's Web is a tighter story, with a neatly resolved ending. And yeah, it still makes me cry. But there's something so clever, so grown-up, about Stuart Little, including the fact that it ends inconclusively, with Stuart driving off into the sunset in search of his friend. Just like real life!
And yes. He definitely is a mouse-child born of a human vagina. Beyond a doubt.
Return to Gone-Away
by Elizabeth Enright (#29)
This is a sequel to Enright's earlier, and perhaps better-known, story, Gone-Away Lake, about three children who discover a long-forgotten lake populated by a half-dozen or so empty mansions. These houses served as summer homes to wealthy families decades earlier, before the lake dried up and people's fortunes changed. The houses have been abandoned by all of their owners except for two, an elderly brother and sister who fell on hard times and returned to their childhood homes.
While Gone-Away Lake contains plenty of adventures of the sort that fans of Enright's writing have come to expect, I've found that I prefer the sequel. In it, the children's parents buy one of the houses to use as their own summer home. There are a few adventures, but essentially this book is a series of anecdotes about home renovations. As a kid, I'm not sure how I would've felt about the chapter where they discover a bunch of valuable early-American antiques in the attic, but I know that as an adult, I almost squealed with glee. I also found myself far too overly invested in the mother's choice of paint colour for the living room.
The Long Secret
by Louise Fitzhugh (#30)
I've lost count of the number of times I've declared my huge love of Harriet the Spy, so I won't go into that again. What's surprising, then, is that for all these years I've managed to not read Fitzhugh's sort-of sequel to Harriet.
The Long Secret takes place during the summer vacation after the school year documented in Harriet. Interestingly, we learn that Harriet and Beth Ellen (the pretty, pathologically shy girl in Harriet's class) are always best friends during the summers that their families spend in Montauk. The story, presented mostly from Beth Ellen's point of view, is remarkably sensitively told. We get a portrait of a young girl struggling with issues of family and self-esteem and faith, but the story never degenerates to the level of an after-school special. Honestly, you have to read it yourself to get what I'm talking about, but as an adult, I have to sort of admit that I think I prefer The Long Secret to Harriet the Spy. Don't hate on me, Harriet lovers! My world has gone topsy-turvy!
It's funny that as a kid, I had all these favourite novels, but I rarely took the time to seek out other books by these writers, instead relying on happenstance to let them fall in my hands. I think I need to dig through my childhood favourites and do some searching for new reading material.
So what were your favourite books as a kid? And have you found, like me, that your tastes have changed as an adult?
Apparently, my face was made for blogging and for radio. I'll be on CBC Radio One's Definitely Not the Opera tomorrow (Saturday, September 16th) some time between 2:00 and 3:00 pm. I'll be reviewing this year's Man Booker Prize contenders -- and predicting the winner! -- despite the fact that I haven't read any of the titles on the shortlist. What's my secret? You're going to have to tune in to find out.