Friday, September 15, 2006

BOOKS: Sometimes Sequels ARE Better

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.

Stuart Little
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.

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.

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.


lazy cow said...

I loved the My Naughty little sister stories (Dorothy Edwards, illustrated by Shirley Hughes)then, and I love her even more now that I am a parent. I adore her best friend Bad Harry, but remember that I was horrified by their behaviour when I was a (goody-goody) child. I can't think offhand of any sequels I prefer to the originals, but I'll mull it over...

Anonymous said...

I think I have to go reread Stuart Little now. I received my copy in a set with Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. SL is, by far, my favorite.

--Deb said...

"A Little Princess" and "Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett. A whole slew of Louisa May Alcott, although "Eight Cousins" and "Jack and Jill" were loved more than "Little Women" (which I appreciated more when I grew up). The Trixie Belden mysteries. Anything about horses, especially Walter Farley, and the "Gypsy from Nowhere" series.

And, I DID look for anything I could find by preferred authors. Which is why I've also read "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "The Lost Prince" by FHB, and esoteric ones like "Among the Flowers" by LMA . . .

doris day said...

I LOVED all the books by Ruth Chew, but especially, the Witch at the Window.... A brother and a sister feed a starling which is actually a witch who did a spell on herself to make her fly but turned herself into a bird instead... the kids find her lair and spellbook. Mayhem ensues.

Dimestore Lipstick said...

Harriet The Spy, The Littles, The Borrowers, Stuart Little, The Secret Garden, Sara Crewe, Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, The Hardy Boys
The Bobbsey Twins.

Can you tell I was obsessed with secrets? And mysteries? And small people?

Deb--Yay Trixie! She is still a favorite, and occasional comfort read. Much love for "Eight Cousins" here, too. (The sequel, "Rose in Bloom", was too preachy for words, though.)

As far as my tastes changing, I still love reading about mysteries and secrets even now.

And as for preferring the sequel, I liked Richard Peck's second Blossom Culp story,"Ghosts I Have Been", better than the original "The Ghost Belonged to Me". An adult fiction example would be Thomas Harris-- "Silence" I think is much superior to "Red Dragon".

Carrie Ann said...

A few summers ago I went to the library and took out every Paula Danziger book I could get my hands on. I would have felt guilty about that, but it only took me three days to read them all. Those three days were a lovely reminder of the solace I took in books during the horrible junior high years.

I also just finished The Giver by Lois Lowry, which was another early teen fave. Next up: Maniac Magee and The Westing Game.

Tamara said...

There is a book "A Dog Called Kitty," about a little boy and his dog that as a kid never failed to make me unconsolable and I re-read it now and again. It's even more sad now. I'm getting a little choked up thinking about it.

JAM said...

I am most definitely making a trip to my parents' house to pack up boxes full of those old favorites now. Wow!
E.B. White, Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Walter Farley, Richard Peck, Lois Lowry, Nancy Drew and The Borrowers...

Add to that Zilpha Keatley Snyder, L.M. Montgomery, Sterling North, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Elizabeth Goudge, Bess Streeter Aldrich, Cynthia Voigt, E. Nesbit, Ellen Raskin....

Okay, weekend project!

Shirky said...

for secrets, mysteries, and little people, I liked 'Through the Hidden Door' by Rosemary Wells (better known for her picture books featuring anthropomorphized rabbits)

I also like alone-in-the-woods lit. Like Hatchet.

JAM said...

Oh, and Madeleine L'Engle.... I keep thinking of more.

I have found that I definitely find different things to appreciate about some of the old favorites -- mostly nuances and details that went straight over my childhood head, that completely change my impression of what a particular story was really about. Now I'm really excited about going back and revisiting some that I know I've not picked up in 20 years...

Shirky said...

also: As an adult I encountered Joan Allen's series featuring Dido Twite. They are terrific, I don't know how I never read them before. Unfortunately, she kept writing them until the end of her life and the consistency declined. But the first five or so are super. They share some quality with the Series of Unfortunate Events. Quite gruesome at times, and fantastical, kids against oily villians.

Anonymous said...

"From the Mixed Up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler", "Where the Red Fern Grows" and "No Flying in the House" were my childhood faves. When I was young-young, I also liked "Tea time for Frances" and the Amelia Bedelia series.

Doppelsis said...

I would have to say our taste in books has changed. We used to read Harlequin romance novels. I know you remember. Now are you going to be woman enough to admit it? Each one of you has probably done it.

Anonymous said...

Oooooooh! Now this is a topic that gets me all a twitter-pated!
Holla out to "Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler", also the Ruth Chew books (because I'm a sucker for tiny witches who love left-over coffee grounds). L.M. Montgomery and her Anne-girl (but "Emily of New Moon" was waaay too goody-goody), "The Phantom Tollbooth", Roald Dahl and his uncanny knack to know what kids are thinking, "Black Beauty", Laura Ingalls' books, C.S. Lewis, "Choose Your Own Adventure", ALL the Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys and Trixie Beldens, Frances Hodgson Burnett, "A Wrinkle in Time" series and all of M. L'Engle's books, "A Wizard of Earthsea" and anything with magic, faeries, dragons, etc.
I could go on all day. I go through the children's section of the library and it's like visiting old friends. Maybe I should go back and re-read with the terribly adult perspective I have gained . . .

Anonymous said...

I read a hell of a lot of Boxcar Children books, but can only remember gleaning three things:
1) You can knock on the individual bricks on a wall to determine which one is a hollowed out cubby hiding valuable papers.
2) You can determine whether a house has a secret room by measuring the outside of the house and comparing it to measurements of the inside.
3) You can name a dog, Watch, then shave a big 'W' in it's back on a lark, and every time someone writes a book about your family, they will inevitably mention that you did this, meaning that you will eventually need counseling.

I also read Pat the Bunny and The Diary of Anne Frank even though I wanted to read My Teacher is an Alien instead.

Anonymous said...

That AS Byatt short story reminds me a bit of Paul Bowles Sheltering Sky with the desert replaced by the shopping mall (hmmm ....)
As for children's books, Raoul Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - once a chocaholic always a chocaholic

Claire said...

Wow, so many great kids books. I may have to revisit 'Charlotte's Web' over the weekend.

That Byatt story sounds terrifying.

Anonymous said...

I actually always loved the other sequel to Harriet the Spy, Sport. Harriet plays a minor role in it, as it's mostly about Sport, but I always thought it was a lot funnier than Harriet the Spy.

katherine m. miller said...

I was such a tomboy. I loved My Side of the Mountain and the Hardy Boys (actually, my third grade teacher and I had a dare about reading Nancy Drew. Then she gave me Nancy Drew #1 as a graduation present. It engrossed me to no end--what with Nancy's becoming tan-cotton suits and the robbers locking her in a closet in the cabin she broke into. God, I love that book). Oh, and Harry Potter. I was ten when the first book came out.

The Giver and Little Women, though, ended up more indicative of my reading tastes now.

Melissa said...

I am very familiar with my favorite childhood books, because I still read them. Every time I go to my local used bookstore I haunt the young adult section.

Besides the obvious (the Little House and Anne of Green Gables series), I love(d) anything by Ellen Raskin ("The Westing Game"), Ellen Conford ("Dear Lovey Hart, I Am Desperate"), Norma Klein ("Mom, the Wolfman, & Me"), and Norma Fox Mazer ("Dear Bill, Remember Me? and Other Stories"). I also enjoyed the "Meet the Austin" series from Madeleine L'Engle.

I too was a huge Trixie Belden fan, although those haven't held up as well--exactly how many times are we supposed to sit through descriptions of Trixie's sandy curls and Honey's pageboy?

Anonymous said...

Have you read "Nobody's family is going to Change" by Louise Fitzhugh. It is an astonishing book, not at all what I expected. I read it when I was in my early 20s, and think it's my favourite Louise Fitzhugh

Tammy said...

Maia, I have! It is an amazing book. Fitzhugh blows me away with her ability to deliver harsh truths in kids' books without being heavyhanded or movie-of-the-week-ish. I wish she'd written more.