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I know, I know, this is my second week-late post in the last . . . period of time, and this week I’m not even giving you any Green-loathing goodness to make you less mad at me. If I had more than 1 regular reader, I’d be really worried you guys were going to come after me all pitchforks-and-torches style.
But it’s not like I was having a great time, okay? On Thursday I finished 6 grad school credits in 6 weeks, which were exactly as riveting as you’d expect —
— started a new job, finished moving into a new house, looked into leasing a car, realized I couldn’t afford to lease a car, cried quietly for several hours, and then gave up on leasing a car.
With all that going on, is it really fair of anyone to ask me to also talk coherently about why Green is the worst of everything?
No. No, it is not. So instead I’m going to review an actual good book, at least in part to prove that I read those sometimes.
Besides, I need some guests for the next blog —
— so I’m waiting on them to get their crap to me. But don’t worry; next week I’ll be more than prepared to talk all about Mr. Psycho’s . . . funeral. Full of crying and eulogies and crap.
It’ll be a blast.
So what am I reviewing? Something I said I’d talk about almost a year ago and never got around to.
Anyway, Shouldn’t You Be in School? is the third book in Lemony Snicket’s new series, All the Wrong Questions. It’s a companion of sorts to his big success, A Series of Unfortunate Events, which was written just long enough ago to grab a new generation of kids, but not long enough for older readers to escape the nostalgia bomb of seeing Snicket on the shelves again.
And luckily for us 90s kids —
— this series is at least as good as you remember the originals being. Better, if you didn’t enjoy the formulaic nature of the first 7 and a tendency to get bloated from 8 through 11. I mean, those aren’t problems All the Wrong Questions escapes, but it’s a series of mystery novels, which tend toward both those things naturally and are therefore easier to ignore/forgive.
After sending three of the most likable protagonists in children’s literature on an endless parade of trauma and abandonment, Daniel Handler, the series’ actual author, decided to also leave his tiny, undeserving Sisyphuses behind to fend for themselves. Instead, All the Wrong Questions turns its attention to the most interesting character, the narrator.
In case you never read ASoUE (and you should, because it’s on par with Harry Potter), the series is about 3 orphans — Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire — whose parents die in a bonfire that happens to be made of their house, and their journey to find a place where they can be taken care of and protected from Count Olaf, a distant relative who wants to steal the fortune they’ve inherited. It involves insane side characters, a strange Englmerica that blends every time period from 1800 to 2000 in a bizarre not-quite-steampunk surreality, and a shadowy organization that is somehow as good as it is nefarious.
Instead of being narrated by any of the main 3 or Omnipotent Voice #6770512, it’s told from the point of view of a man named Lemony Snicket, a member of that shady organization who is in love with a dead woman named Beatrice and tells the story through a series of manuscripts that document his obsessive research on the children. We’re not sure how much time has passed since the events of the story and Snicket’s relating it to us — which adds to the odd sense of “when does this take place, again?” — but the series is peppered with hints about people and events that happened years before the Baudelaires were born, things that happen years after the series ends, and some stuff that doesn’t make any sense until you read the supplementary material, all courtesy of a faceless man behind a typewriter.
It’s a clever way to build the world, and honestly I think the story behind the main plot is more interesting.
It even kind of prepares you for All the Wrong Questions, in that you can miss the full story unless you painstakingly put the pieces together. It’s like a mystery series hidden behind the main one. I really get the feeling that Handler always wanted to be an Agatha Christie, but was just too weird to pull off anything in a normal world, so he created his own insane land to play around in.
Anyway, the series focuses around a young Lemony Snicket, an apprentice for the shadowy organization VFD (Volunteer Fire Department . . . yeah, I don’t really get it, either), as he solves mysteries and puts evildoers in their place, all at the ripe old age of 13. It’s a bit of a by-the-books mystery series in a way that ASoUE wasn’t; there’s no sense that a bigger story is unfolding behind the scenes, because we know all the important stuff won’t happen until Snicket’s an adult. There’s a faceless villain named Hangfire, a missing dad, and a somewhat-creepy girl named Ellington Feint (you gotta love this guy’s nomenclature), but the stories tend to be relatively straightforward.
I must admit, I was kind of disappointed by the lack of grandeur, and it lacks the readability of the other books.
That being said . . . Handler’s become a better writer in the intervening 6 years between the end of ASoUE and the first book, Who Could That Be at This Hour? The pacing is a million times better, the wit is sharper, and the literary references are somehow even more relentless. Anyone who considers themselves well-read will enjoy these books simply to feel smart at all the ones they’re able to pick up, and frustrated at all the ones they can’t.
Character development is a bit tighter, too. Where Violet, Klaus, and Sunny didn’t really develop individual personalities until around the 6th book (and the Quagmires are all the same person), the main kids — Snicket, Feint, journalist named Moxie Mallahan, cab-driving twins Pip and Squeak, the bully Stew Mitchum — are all entertaining and distinctive from the first page. They might be different flavors of kid archetypes, because Snicket loves the hell out of “precocious youngsters,” but they’re fun as hell and there’s little risk of getting them confused.
The adults are great, too, though they’re just as incompetent, corrupt, and useless as one would expect. Handler follows in Roald Dahl’s footsteps in seeming to like children far more than adults, and nearly every grown-up is the cause for all problems. It was delightfully subversive to read as a kid, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t account for at least some of the books’ popularity.
In Shouldn’t You Be in School?, Snicket’s mentor, a vain and idiotic woman named S. Theodora Marks (what does the S stand for? No idea, but there’s a brilliant running joke related to it that I won’t spoil here) actually proves herself to be weaker and more vulnerable than any of the children.
It’s not a new plot device for adults failing at the moment they’re needed most, but I’ve always loved the fact that Handler never gives children anything but the utmost respect — and with that, hard responsibilities and painful circumstances, without cushioning the blow for characters or readers. There are moral questions without answers, unexplained references, and the kinds of quandaries where there are no good ways out.
John Green, take note: that is how you don’t talk down to kids.
Some people might find his cleverness annoying, because there’s always a bit of self-satisfaction inherent in cleverness that separates it from intelligence or wit, and I know more than a few people who chafed at his apparent disdain for those who don’t read. I can understand that; Snicket’s heroes are librarians, and the noblest pursuit in the world is sitting down with a good book and gathering information. Libraries appear in every conceivable form and represent pure, safe places that are in danger of cruelty and wickedness and above all apathy (hint: the fire is always a metaphor).
So obviously I love it, but I could see why that kind of cleverness could get annoying quick.
But what makes it work so well is how, despite the bleakness that permeates all of his books, there is an intense joy that comes through the pages, an open invitation. Handler doesn’t explain things to children because he wants them to figure it out; he invites his readers to join in on the cleverness, not to feel better than other people, but to fall in love with reading by making it so damn fun. He throws in large, complex words and gives definitions that are about 80% right, 15% ridiculous, and 5% surprisingly poignant:
Having an aura of menace is like having a pet weasel, because you rarely meet someone who has one, and when you do it makes you want to hide under the coffee table. An aura of menace is simply a distinct feeling of evil that accompanies the arrival of certain people, and very few individuals are evil enough to produce an aura of menace that is very strong.
The expression “brace yourself,” as I’m sure you know, does not mean to take some metal wiring and rivets and other orthodontic materials and apply them to your own teeth in order to straighten them. The expression simply means “get ready for something that will probably be very difficult.”
The word “briskly” here means “quickly, so as to get the Baudelaire children to leave the house.”
Out of all the words in the English language, the word “set” has the most definitions, and if you open a good dictionary and read the word’s long, long entry, you will begin to think that “set” is hardly a word at all, only a sound that means something different depending on who is saying it. If a group of jazz musicians says “set,” for instance, they are probably referring to the songs they are planning to play at a club that evening, assuming it doesn’t burn down. If the owner of a restraunt uses the word “set,” the might mean a group of matching wineglasses, or a bunch of waitresses who look exactly alike. A librarian will say “set” to refer to a collection of books that are all by the same author or about the same subject, and an Egyptologist will use the word “set” to refer to the ancient god of evil, although he does not come up very often in conversation.
Man, I feel like I’ve said so much without actually talking about anything in particular. But honestly . . . there’s just not that much to say. There’s a mystery involving arson, framing, and kidnapped children, but I can’t exactly go through that without giving major plot points away.
And again, the most interesting parts of these books is the stuff happening around the mystery: the character interactions, the shout-outs to ASoUE, the literary references, trying to figure out the rules to this universe. Each book in the series is an episodic mystery, a sort of monster-of-the-week with an overarching story that’s developing too slowly to really count, but they’re a lot of fun.
Sorry this wasn’t super funny, but that’s why I don’t often do reviews . . . or at least, don’t talk about things I like, because there just isn’t that much comedy to be found in gushing.
In any case, you can probably tell if you’d enjoy this series or not, but in case you’re still on the fence: just do it. You’ll probably learn something.
ETA: The Netflix trailer for ASoUE just dropped. What do I think of it?
It looks like it could be one of the best adaptations of a book ever.
Is that a bold claim to make on a 30-second video where we see none of the principal cast? Absolutely. But this is a series made up entirely of hidden faces and truth hidden in the shadows, and the fact that this teaser manages to capture the whimsical yet menacing atmosphere of the novels already puts it well beyond the disastrous movie. There are so many clever references packed into these few seconds that you have to watch it about 10 times to fully appreciate it, and it looks like they’re fully embracing the strange steampunk world without going over-the-top Goth like the film did.
But really, it’s the fact that it looks creepy as hell that’s going to make it incredible — and if we’re lucky, monstrously successful. Because as much as I enjoyed the Potter craze and the Fowl craze and that weird series with cats that was huge in middle school . . . these books went way too far under the radar, and deserve another spot in the limelight.
Just . . . no Jim Carrey, please. There’s only so much heartbreak I can stand.