Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top 60 Novels of 2000-2009 Countdown, No. 8

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
When the movie came out in 2004, I had the opportunity to interview Daniel Handler. I had read his novel Watch Your Mouth, and he had gone to Wesleyan, so I jumped at the opportunity. It was a good interview; he said that he loved sitting down at the keyboard to write, a quote I should have taken some inspiration from. Anyway, for that interview I jumped into the series; I read The Reptile Room, the second book, first because I bought it at a book fair at Mamie Towles Elementary School in Reno. I very much enjoyed the book, particularly the wordplay, and I began reading the book to Rachel and Olivia (Hannah found them too dark and repetitive). So off we went; eventually I read all 13 books aloud to the kids, sometimes on car trips through California, but mostly at home. I loved doing voices for the characters, and I affected an English accent (kind of like Tim Curry, who read the books on CD, although I've never heard one), to tackle some of the more elaborate asides and definitions.

The books profess to be about loss, abandonment and sadness -- the Baudelaire orphans constantly find things already destroyed or are forced to destroy things their parents cared about as part of the VFD -- but they're really about language. Klaus loves to read and keeps a notebook; Sunny's bursts of erudition grow more and more coherent; and Violet, although the mechanical and inventive one, still uses language to describe her inventions. The narrator, the other constant character in the series, pauses often to define words, expanding kids' vocabularies and spinning bizarre webs of words around the action. Often the plot turns on words -- distorted, inaccurate newspaper stories; an entire hotel constructed as a knowledge classification system; a man labeled a freak because he's "ambidextrous"; or the leader of the island who lies to his subjects and manipulates them with passive-aggressive statements. One particularly entertaining riff went on about the word "lousy" -- I read it aloud while my father visited us in Reno. I remember him growing tired of my brother and I calling everything "lousy," which in this instance means a word my mother used to describe bad stuff, and told us not to use it. Fortunately, he didn't remember. But I did.

The series does threaten to get repetitive -- the orphans are attacked by Count Olaf, the grown-ups ignore or misinterpret them, and then Mr. Poe comes to collect them -- until The Vile Village, when the orphans become fugitives falsely accused of murder. Here's where the series shifts into high gear, leading up to the two best novels in the series -- The Slippery Slope and The Grim Grotto. I suppose I'm looking forward to the new series Handler plans to write, but a part of me wishes that he'd just let the orphans, with Kit Snicket's baby, sail off into the Great Unknown. What I enjoyed most of all was sharing these novels, full of Daniel Handler's abundant love of language (tailor-made for English majors), with my kids.

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