Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The (sometimes guilty) Reading Pleasures of Series

When I was a child, I read basically everything I could get my hands on, and that included series, like the Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and all of Alfred Payson Terhune. Terhune was the author of Lad, A Dog, Lad of Sunnybank, and a seemingly endless supply of books about dogs, usually with sad endings. Whe I was 10, a neighbor brought over a box of old Bobbsey Twin books while I was recovering from a mysterious virus. I read them all -- old fashioned stories and language. Another favorite series of my sister and I was Cherry Ames. Cherry was a nurse who had a new job in each book, and of course an adventure or mystery to solve. She also had two boyfriends, one a doctor and one a pilot. What a fabulous life!

My 4th grade students love series, too. At the end of nearly every read-aloud book, someone will ask, "Is there a sequel?" Usually not, but I understand the desire to stay with those characters and see what happens next. But, there are lots of new series for kids to fall in love with today. Harry Potter, of course, but also The Mysterious Benedict Society, all of the Rick Riordan novels, Chasing Vermeer, and many, many more.

I still love series, mostly mystery series. I enjoy the mystery part, picking up the clues and trying to figure out the solution, but even more, I enjoy the characters. A mystery author has many books in which to develop her characters and I notice that there are series that start out with a rather one-dimensional main character who develops into a complex person over the course of several books.

I started my attachment to mysteries with Sherlock Holmes, then Agatha Christie and the Lord Peter Whimsy novels. I was hooked on British mysteries for awhile and hunted down Marjorie Allingham and her Albert Campion series and Josephine Tey's series featuring detective Alan Grant, know for his "flair." I read Tony Hillerman's mysteries set in the Southwest with Navajo detectives. A number of my favorites feature detectives with a special gift for the mystical or unexplainable. One of these is an obscure mystery writer, Timothy Holme, whose detective is Italian and seems to see things from past centuries. Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs also has a special connection with intuition and the mystical. But now this is turning into a list of mysteries that I love!

The series I am thinking about today is Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody mysteries. These stories are set in the late 19th to early 20th century in Egypt and England. Amelia and her husband, the dashing Emerson, are archeologists in the golden are of Egyptian archeology. Peters includes lots of interesting factual information about ancient Egypt and archeology. She also includes an homage to the swashbuckling romantic novels of authors like Ryder Haggard.

I had all of the books and was waiting for the next one, when I belatedly learned that Elizabeth Peters had passed away. Well, I thought, the last novel, The Tomb of the Golden Bird, did have a final ring to it, with many of the characters finding resolution to relationships and life paths. It was not a bad place to end, leaving the characters in their beloved Egypt, never growing any older. Then, this summer I found out that a new Amelia Peabody novel was out! Peters had begun it before her death and a close friend, who is also an author, had completed it. Would this novel take the characters forward? Would that be a good thing?

I bought the book -- in hardcover! I couldn't wait. As it turns out, this new novel goes back in time. The Tomb of the Golden Bird takes place in 1922 with much of the action revolving around the discovery of King Tut's tomb. The new novel, The Painted Queen, takes place in 1911. I have so far read the introductions to the book, which explain the process of finishing it. And so I learned that Peters did indeed intend that The Tomb of the Golden Bird would conclude the story of the Emersons, leaving readers to imagine them happily excavating in Egypt. It's rather like Sherlock Holmes, who supposedly retired to Surrey to raise bees (though a number of authors have recalled him from his pastoral life).

I'm looking forward to reading The Painted Queen and revisiting these lively characters once more in a new story.

But aren't we lucky that we can always reread our favorite books?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Block Party!

On Saturday our street held its first ever block party and it was great!

We have lived here since 1979, but we only know a few of our neighbors. People come home, drive into their garages and shut the door. And in the winter here in Chicagoland people mainly stay inside unless they're shoveling snow. So when we got the flyer on our front door, I responded right away, with the idea that we could at least go for a little while and see how it went.

This being 2017, the flyer directed us to go online to a site where the organizers had put in information and a way to sign up to come and bring things for the party. And that way they got everyone's email and could communicate electronically.

So on Saturday evening, my husband and I walked across the street to the cul-de-sac where tables and lawn chairs were already set up and a bouncy house was going strong in one of the yards. Everyone had name tags with first names and house numbers. We talked with many neighbors -- everyone was eager to connect with other families. We found out that there are a ton of families with young children on the street. There are also a fair number of retirees. One older couple lives right across the street from their children and grandchildren -- lucky people! One couple is one of the first residents of the street. Other people have lived here only a few years.

We heard the story of the house fire that led to gutting and enlarging one house. We heard about another house that has an awesome kitchen that is practically professional. Our neighbor across the street has a rock band (they practice elsewhere!) and has opened shows for bigger names. We have teachers, engineers, veterans, a realtor, a tailor, and lots more. It was a little like opening a mystery box and seeing unexpected, heart-warming surprises pop out.

In thinking back, I was reminded of an episode of the old TV show, That Girl, starring Marlo Thomas as a young woman trying to make it in NYC. In that episode, she is invited onto a game show and is completely stumped when she has to answer questions about her neighbors. In an effort to do better when she is invited back the next week, she holds a party in her apartment to get to know her New York neighbors and, of course, complications ensue. But, when she arrives back at the game show prepared to talk about her neighbors, she is instead asked about her old neighbors from her childhood neighborhood in Brewster, New York. She then totally nails it, sweeping the competition.

I don't know if I remember enough about my childhood neighborhoods to win a game show, but I do remember that growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, we kids roamed the street, playing at each others' houses, riding bikes, and running in and out of each others' houses. Our parents all knew each other, too. We didn't have block parties, but everyone talked to each other. People spent more time outside and so they saw each other. It was a wonderful way to grow up.

So many things have changed since those days that I think for most of us there's no going back. But a block party is a happy reminder that we can connect and enjoy each others' company.