Allison's Book Bag

Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket

Posted on: June 19, 2011

The Series

“If you do not wish to read a story of tragedy and sadness, this is your very last chance.” However, should you wish to read a book in which tragedy after tragedy befalls about main characters, I encourage you to keep reading my review. For it is my sad duty to tell you dire situations will plague the Baudelaire children, starting with the house fire that robs them of their parents, their home, and happy life. Just remember: You have been warned!

When with trembling hands you turn to the first chapter of the first book which is aptly called The Bad Beginning, you will become acquainted with Violet. She is a fourteen-year-old inventor who ties her long hair up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes. You will also meet Klaus, a twelve-year-old who wears glasses like some of us but who has, I have to tell you, probably read more books than anyone you know. (If you’re like me that equals at least a book a week and more like one per day in my younger years.) The last Baudelaire orphan you will meet is Sunny, an infant who speaks in fragments and who bites. The latter trait is at times surprising useful throughout the series. Then there is Mr. Poe. He is a banker who is kind-hearted, but I am sorry to tell you is also rather dense. (The author never labels him as such, but this is my personal opinion of him. How else can he persist time and time again in disbelieving the orphans when they warn him that a strange new acquaintance is really Count Olaf in disguise?) The final character to make regular appearances throughout every book is aforementioned Count Olaf. He is tall and thin, with unshaven face, shiny eyes, one eyebrow, and the image of a tattoo on his ankle.

Caricature of Snicket by Bret Helquist, for Th...

Image via Wikipedia

Many of you will have figured out by now that I am talking about The Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket (rumored to actually be Daniel Handler, but identified by the non de plume for the rest of this review). One of Snicket’s trademarks is to start the first chapter of every book by warning readers that they are holding a book with terrible tales about miserable children. Another trademark of the series is Snicket’s habit of defining words or idioms and interjecting author commentary. A trademark is a distinctive sign used by an entity, business organization, or in this case an author to identify his books with his audience and to distinguish his series from others.Just as I sometimes find a friend’s quirks fun and other times frustrating, so too I sometimes found Snicket’s style friendly and conversational but other times too cutesy, longwinded, or distracting.

Having set as my goal this week to read one Unfortunate Events book every day, I am happy to report that tales of kidnapping, blackmail, and murder make for a light read. It helps that the average length of the books is about two hundred pages, although they get somewhat longer near the end of the series. It also helps that the language is unadorned. Instead of describing the day as chromatic, leaden, or pewter, Snicket described it as gray. Instead of describing the sky as gloomy or overcast, Snicket simply wrote cloudy. Yet before you think that such diction choices imply amateur writing, I will hasten to share the chilling description of the outside of Count Olaf’s home: “The bricks were stained with soot and grime…. The front door needed to be repainted, and carved in the middle of it was an image of an eye. The entire building sagged to the side, like a crooked tooth.” Would you want to live there? If after my review, you absolutely must read the series, you should avoid reading about the inside of Olaf’s home which is too disgusting for me to describe me. The description I quoted earlier ends with a simile. Figurative language is quirky and plentiful throughout the series. Here is one example: “welcome as a swarm of wasps at a bat mitzvah”.

There are plenty of other fine features I could recommend about the Unfortunate Events series. At the same time he puts readers on the edge of their seat, he also educates: As noted above, he defines words and explains idioms. He also introduces possible new interests such as the study of handwriting, and also analyzes human behavior such as why people have fears. Another nifty feature is that the numerous relatives the orphans meet are unique. How does Snicket manage to sustain such weirdness?

You must decide if you can endure reading miserable stories. You might pick another series, should you prefer happy tales. Should you wish to inflict yourself with torture, you should run (not walk) to your closest library or store.

My rating? Bag it: Carry them with you. Make them a top priority to read.

How would you rate these books?

*

The Individual Books

I must also warn that my review is not done. Here is what you can expect in the first five books of the Unfortunate Events series:

The Bad Beginning: As is inevitable in the best of children’s books, the parents will die. With the adults gone, the three Baudelaire orphans will have all kinds of wonderful and fun adventures. Oh wait! I was thinking of another book. In this one, the orphans will move in with a very mean guardian. However, due to their lively and sweet ways, the orphans will melt the hearts of their strict guardian, make many friends, or somehow change the world. Sorry! Again, I was thinking of another book. In this one, the guardian will become even more despicable but none of the well-meaning adults will believe the children. Life for the orphans grows worse. I am not even sure all of them will be alive at the end.

The Reptile Room: The Baudelaire children are back. (Oops! Did I just spoil the end of the first book?) They move in with a relative. Uncle Monty is a short, chubby herpetologist. Upon their arrival, he serves coconut cake to the children. They soon find out he is heading to Peru and hopes to take them with him to collect snake specimens. He might just be the real thing, unlike that Count Olaf who turned up in The Bad Beginning. Count Olaf claimed to be an uncle but in reality just wanted the Baudelaire inheritance.  Money is the root of all evil. And Count Olaf is evil! Alas, he is also back. If only I could promise you that he would die by the end of this book.

The Wide Window: The Baudelaire children move in with yet another relative. How many exactly do they have? Are there enough to fill the thirteen books in the series? This time their guardian is a woman by the name of Aunt Josephine. She is the opposite of Uncle Monty, who showed up in The Reptile Room and who seemed pretty brave. After all, he collected snakes and traveled to far away countries like Peru. In contrast, Aunt Josephine refuses to use the stove or telephone. They apparently are too dangerous, although living in a house on stilts she somehow deems safe. If you think living with her would be bad, just remember that Count Olaf is always right around the corner.

The Miserable Mill: In The Bad Beginning, Count Olaf subjected the Baudelaire children to the arduous chores of cleaning house and cooking meals. With him out of their lives, they are living with a relative known only as Sir. He is in charge of The Lucky Smells Lumbermill and assigns them the dangerous and daunting tasks of debarking logs, lifting them, and bundling them. They meet Phil, Foreman Flacutuno, Charles, Dr. Orwell, and Shirley. I am not giving anything away when I tell you that three of those people are enemies. If anything I’m spoiling the fun for you by saying that the Baudelaires actually make two friends.  Oh, and one of those enemies is Count Olaf. Would you expect anything different?

The Austere Academy: At long last, and again in the best tradition of children’s books, the three orphans will attend a boarding school. There they meet a rude, violent, filthy girl. They also meet Quagmire twins, who used to be triplets. They also used to have parents but lost them to a fire. Will wonders never cease? For two consecutive books, the Baudelaire children have made friends. This time, their friends are actually their own age. If you thought the suspense about when Count Olaf will appear was terrible enough, two mysteries will develop midway through this book that will have you biting your nails.

It pains me to inform you that one of them will not be solved in this book. Nor will I relieve your anxiety by giving away the mystery in a summary of the next books. You may stalk me or hunt me down, but I will not budge. It is time for you to go the read books for yourself–if you dare.

(If you prefer to cheat, there is a movie that pulls together the events of the first three books into one story. After that, a second movie is rumored to be in the works, but we all know how rumors go.)

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