Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lemony Snicket

A Series of Unfortunate Events
by Lemony Snicket
Recommended Age: 8+

At this writing, there are ten books in this series of tragic-comic stories about the trials and travails of the three Baudelaire orphans. [EDIT: See below for later additions.] Written by an author whose pen-name is practically a character in itself, this popular series drapes its gleeful description of their hair-raising adventures in a veil of pretend sorrow and weird, unrevealing revelations about Lemony Snicket himself. Black comedy has now been brought down to a grade-school level, full of wry wit, colorful characters, and over-the-top plot twists.

The heroes are two sisters and a brother: 14-year-old Violet, a born inventor; 12-year-old Klaus, the bookworm; and the infant Sunny, who talks in single-syllable sentences and likes to bite things. I couldn't help noticing that Klaus and Sunny were the names of the von Bulows, the couple whose marriage ended in the murder trial made famous by the award-winning movie Reversal of Fortune. Coincidentally, this Klaus and Sunny, not to mention Violet, get their own reversal of fortune one day when their kindly, wealthy parents die in a fire.

Each book follows the Baudelaire orphans from one attempt to make a new life for themselves to another. Tragedy piles upon tragedy as a succession of eccentric relatives try to adopt them and raise them, while the evil Count Olaf dogs their steps. These adventures, stylishly illustrated and bound in a modern parody of Victorian novels, run as follows:

Book the First: The Bad Beginning
After their parents' untimely death, the future of the Baudelaire children lies in the hands of Mr. Poe, a banker and the executor of their parents' will. The family fortune is held in trust until Violet comes of age. Until then, Mr. Poe is supposed to find some relative willing to raise the children. His first pick is Count Olaf, who happens to live in the same city. But Count Olaf is a nasty piece of work, and Mr. Poe is deaf to the children's complaints. Just when they seem trapped in a life of deprivation and cruelty, things get even worse. The Count and his theatrical friends hatch a fiendish plan to trap the children and get their money; and thanks to his combination of guile and threats of violence, it looks as if there may be no stopping him...

Book the Second: The Reptile Room
The Baudelaire children have a brief spate of happiness, living with their eccentric Uncle Monty in a country house filled with snakes. Monty, a.k.a. Dr. Montgomery Montgomery, is a noted herpetologist preparing for an expedition to Peru. The prospects of fun and adventure are suddenly dimmed when Uncle Monty's new assistant turns out to be Count Olaf in disguise. The Count, alias Stephano, is as horrible and greedy as ever, and he'll stop at nothing - even murder - to get the three young heirs under his power. It's another wryly funny, wickedly droll tale of woe, intrigue, and vocabulary-building.

Book the Third: The Wide Window
Violet, Klaus, and Sunny have another go at forging a new and happy family life, but it isn't meant to be. Their new guardian is boring, grammar-obsessed, multi-phobic Aunt Josephine, who lives in a house precariously perched on the edge of a cliff over Lake Lachrymose. Too soon, Count Olaf shows up again in a new disguise: Captain Julio Sham, owner of a sailboat rental business. The next thing they know, the wide window overlooking the lake has been shattered and Aunt Josephine is gone, leaving a weirdly ungrammatical suicide note entrusting the children to Captain Sham's tender mercies. Can the children convince the consistently blockheaded Mr. Poe that something smells rotten? That's the question in this darkly funny, macabre, and goofy story.

Book the Fourth: The Miserable Mill
The Baudelaire children are sent to their most unpleasant guardian yet (not counting Count Olaf) - the owner of the Lucky Smells Lumbermill in the paltry town of Paltryville. His face is always hidden by a cloud of cigar smoke, and he goes by the name "Sir" because no one can pronounce his real name. Not only is Sir a hellish employer, he is an extra-specially-hellish guardian, forcing his wards to toil in the lumbermill in return for a bunk bed to sleep in, a casserole for dinner, and a stick of gum for lunch. Oh yes, and protection from Count Olaf - but in that, Sir does not deliver. Count Olaf has assumed his most ridiculous disguise yet, and with the aid of a hypnotic optometrist named Dr. Orwell and another of his weird henchmen, he makes another grab for the Baudelaire fortune. Three things are certain: (1) there won't be a happy ending for Violet, Sunny, and Klaus; (2) Mr. Poe will be no help at all; and (3) you'll laugh yourself hoarse!

Book the Fifth: The Austere Academy
With no other living relatives forthcoming to take care of the Baudelaire children, Mr. Poe places them in a boarding school called Prufrock Preparatory, whose Latin motto (Memento Mori) means, "Remember you will die." Run by a blithering idiot named Mr. Nero, who thinks he can play a violin but can't, and populated by dreadful teachers, dreadful students, and dreadful rules, this does not turn out to be any happier than other recent times for Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. They are forced to sleep on bales of hay in a shack infested with crabs and drippy fungus, and instead of going to nursery school, Sunny is forced to serve as Mr. Nero's secretary. Even their new friends - the two surviving Quagmire triplets, Duncan and Isadora - prove to be another source of heartbreak when they get tangled up in Count Olaf's newest attempt to get his mitts on the Baudelaire fortune. This time, Olaf is disguised as a turban-wearing gym teacher, Coach Genghis.

Book the Sixth: The Ersatz Elevator
The plot thickens as Violet, Klaus, and Sunny are sent to live only a few blocks from where the Baudelaire mansion burned down, taking their parents with it. Their new address is the penthouse apartment of the very-high-rise building at 667 Dark Ave., and their new guardians are Jerome and Esmé Squalor. He's a nice but cowardly guy who hates arguing, so he generally gives other people their way. As the sixth most important financial adviser in town, she's a cold, fickle creature who only thinks about money and what is "in." And once again, Count Olaf strikes at the weak point, pretending to be Gunther, a barely-English-speaking expert on "in"-ness, while he prepares to use the upcoming "In Auction" to further his nefarious plans. As usual, Mr. Poe is useless, their guardians are as ersatz as the elevator in their building, and the children are helpless to prevent Count Olaf getting away with the captive Quagmire triplets in his clutches.

Book the Seventh: The Vile Village
The Quagmire triplets' single desperate clue leads the Baudelaire children to become the wards of the weird town of VFD, whose name has something to do with the vast murder of crows that migrate from one end of it to the other every day. As the silly aphorism goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." In this case, the village handyman does most of the raising, while the children rush about doing chores for everyone else. But soon, another vile scheme by Count Olaf and his followers leads to the orphans spending Klaus' 13th birthday in the town jail, waiting to be burned at the stake the next day. The story ends with another daring escape by the evil Count, a.k.a. the flashy Detective Dupin, a one-way ride on a hot-air balloon that not all the orphans get aboard, and Sunny's first steps!

Book the Eighth: The Hostile Hospital
As the curtain rises, the Baudelaires are still on the run from the Village of Fowl Devotees, falsely accused of murder, and the objects of a manhunt. Things have gotten so desperate that they don't even try to get placed in another home; after sending a fruitless telegram to Mr. Poe, they hitch a ride to the half-finished Heimlich Hospital and pretend to be volunteers. Their filing job in the Records Library leads them to make a possibly life-changing discovery about the fire that supposedly killed their parents; but before they can do anything about it, Count Olaf and his henchmen have discovered them! Forced to use disguises, deception, and tricks to escape from a grisly operating theatre and a burning Ward for People with Nasty Rashes, and still pursued by a mob that believes they are both murderers and arsonists, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny make their escape by the unlikeliest and scariest means possible - hiding in the trunk of Count Olaf's car.

Book the Ninth: The Carniverous Carnival
The Baudelaire orphans' ride in Olaf's bullet-hole-ridden trunk ends at the Caligari Carnival, where fortune-teller Madame Lulu has been feeding Olaf information about where he will find the orphans next. Disguising themselves as circus freaks, the children try to learn more about the fate of their parents, the meaning of VFD, and other nagging mysteries. But soon, a pride of hungry lions is pacing around in a pit, waiting for a live person to be thrown to them for the amusement of the crowd (people love watching violence and sloppy eating, don't you know). And as Olaf and his associates work at increasingly complex cross purposes, the children are faced with moral decisions that trouble their sleep. To quote Esmé Squalor: "If you don't choose the wicked thing, what in the world will you do?" The story ends with one of the series' most hair-raising cliffhangers, as we draw inexorably closer to solving the mystery.

Book the Tenth: The Slippery Slope
The mystery of V.F.D. deepens as Violet and Klaus track the kidnappers of their sister Sunny - namely, Count Olaf and his henchpeople - to the highest peak of a frozen mountain range. There, the two groups converge with a pair of villains so terrible that they make Count Olaf tremble, a silly Snow Scout troop populated by some familiar faces, and the surprising survivor of a terrible fire. We also learn of a schism, long ago, in a secret organization that may or may not be a Volunteer Fire Department - a schism that seems to have something to do with a stolen sugar bowl - and a series of dreadful fires that were set to cover up even more dastardly deeds. The decision between being a hero or a villain reaches its climax for the Baudelaires, and, as the tale ends, heroes and villains alike are racing to reach the "last safe place," wherever that may be. I am told to expect up to thirteen books in this series. I’ll be your Robbie-on-the-Spot when the next one comes out!


Book the Eleventh: The Grim Grotto.
Yes, dear readers, I know it was released, and (as promised) I read it within the first week it was out. The tragic tale of the Baudelaire orphans continues to what may (or may not) be a turning point. The opening of the story finds them where Book the Tenth left off: floating down the Stricken Stream in a broken toboggan. Soon, they are drafted into the crew of a leaky submarine; exposed to an underwater cave full of deadly mushrooms; captured by a suddenly Captain Nemo-like Count Olaf; betrayed by a new friend, telegrammed by an old friend; subjected to such horrors as Esmé Squalor in an octopus suit and Carmelita Spats’ “tap-dancing ballerina fairy princess veterinarian dance recital”; teased by secret codes; menaced by giant, horrid things in the sea; and forced to flee back to where it all began, all to find a mysterious sugar bowl before Count Olaf does. They do not know why it’s important, but they must make it to the Last Safe Place before the villains burn it to the ground. It’s a tale so filled with shocking betrayals, awful dangers, and perplexing mysteries, that maybe you would rather read something safe and boring about the water cycle.

Book The Twelfth: The Penultimate Peril
If you never pitied the poor Baudelaire orphans before, you should pity them now. In their twelfth misadventure, Violet, Sunny, and Klaus find themselves in the Last Safe Place, also known as the Hotel Denouement – where the rooms are arranged according to the Dewey Decimal System, and where all the surviving characters (good and bad) from the previous eleven books have gathered for a final reckoning. But who will be calling the shots - the bad guys or the good guys? Count Olaf and his fiendish, fire-starting cadre, or the V.F.D. volunteers who are fighting for justice? And when most of the people in the hotel are in between — and when some of the people who are on one side or the other are hard to tell apart — and when the three orphans are sent in undercover without really knowing what they are looking for or how they are going to recognize it — there seems to be little hope that the Last Safe Place will be safe for much longer. But even more alarmingly, the children find themselves doubting more and more which side they are on. Are they good or evil? Are they volunteers or villains? The decisions they make at the climax of this next-to-last book will haunt you until the big finish in Book the Thirteenth, for now they are fighting not just for their fortune or their lives, but for their souls as well.

Book the Thirteenth: The End
The woeful adventures of the Beaudelaire orphans come to an end in this story, in which Violet, Klaus, Sunny, and their nemesis Count Olaf are shipwrecked on a nameless isle, an isle where lost things eventually wash ashore, and where a community of castaways live in an apparently idyllic escape from the problems of the world. But actually, everyone in the community has secrets, and a mutiny is brewing, and Count Olaf is stirring up trouble, and even the Beaudelaires themselves bring conflict to this seeming paradise. With the one day a year approaching when escape from the island is possible, and with new information about the late Beaudelaire parents coming to the surface, and with a diving helmet full of deadly fungus and an armed harpoon gun arriving on the island, there’s no predicting what kind of end the orphans’ unfortunate events will come to. Only, it will have something to do with an injured woman who is about to give birth, and with some bitter apples, and with an incredibly deadly viper, as Count Olaf’s evil plans and the children’s sufferings come to their touching, vocabulary-building, and often darkly funny culmination. Also, look out for a surprise bonus after the end of the thirteenth chapter of the thirteenth book!

UPDATE: I enjoyed the movie based on the first three books in this series.

Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography
by Lemony Snicket
Recommended Age: Who's asking?

Aided and abetted by the rather less elusive author Daniel Handler, the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events brings us this weird, disturbing, practically incomprehensible collection of background photos and documents relating to the VFD, the Baudelaire orphans, the Quagmire triplets, the Daily Punctilio, Esmé Squalor, and of course, Count Olaf. Complete with coded messages from classic children’s books, interesting chapter titles that have been crossed out by hand and replaced with cryptic questions, and an atmosphere that veers sickeningly from slapstick comedy to brooding paranoia, I think the publisher’s warning from the back cover about sums it up:
“Our advice to you is that you find a book that answers less upsetting questions than this one...[such as] “Aren’t ponies adorable?”
What do you really need to know about Lemony Snicket anyway? As a child he was kidnapped (or recruited) by a secret organization, in a manner damaging to the ankles. Through snippets of folk-song, B-movie screenplays, the minutes of meetings, and sundry scraps of newsprint and personal letters, the portrait of the author that emerges is at least as vague and insubstantial as the picture of him in your head, before you opened this book. But along the way you may enjoy some clues about what is really behind all the unfortunate events in the Baudelaire orphans’ lives.

Or maybe “enjoy” is not the right word. After reading this book, you may jump whenever you hear a bell ring, and the sight of a lone cow may strike you as suspicious. Take all the passing references to Lemony Snicket’s personal life from the Baudelaire orphans’ books, multiply their weirdness by the square-root of umpteen, and expand them to fill an entire book, and you have Lemony Snicket’s Unauthorized Autobiography. This is not exactly a recommendation... but then, when has Lemony Snicket ever recommended that you read one of his books? And who am I to gainsay him?

No, really... who am I?

EDIT: Lemony Snicket, whose name is actually Daniel Handler, has also published an "anti-inspirational" book titled Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid; some Unfortunate Events companion books such as The Beatrice Letters, The Notorious Notations, and The Puzzling Puzzles. children's picture books such as The Latke Who Wouldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story and The Lump of Coal, and the upcoming novel The Composer Is Dead. The Unfortunate Events books are now being reissued in paperback with optional titles, such as "...or Murder!" and "...or Disappearance!" They are also available in a confusing array of omnibus editions.

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