Lemony Snicket A

the title says it all

“When my workday is over, and I have closed my notebook, hidden my pen, and sawed holes in my rented canoe so that it cannot be found, I often like to spend the evening in conversation with my few surviving friends. Sometimes we discuss literature. Sometimes we discuss the people who are trying to destroy us, and if there is any hope of escaping from them. And sometimes we discuss frightening and troublesome animals that live nearby, and this topic always leads to much disagreement over which part of a frightening and troublesome beast is the most frightening and troublesome.” – Lemony Snicket, The Carnivorous Carnival (A Series of Unfortunate Events)


ren’t we all having this conversation, really, in one form or another every day with our few surviving friends?

The Three and I are listening to this now, the ninth book in A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. (The author’s name isn’t really Lemony Snicket; it’s Daniel Handler. Play along, won’t you?) And if you saw the Jim Carrey film, a mash-up of all 13 titles in the franchise, I’m sorry to tell you, you were cheated. You simply haven’t lived until you’ve heard the perennial misadventures of the tragic Baudelaire orphans recounted with relish by actor Tim Curry.

It’s been months since we started listening to the winding tale of woe that begins with the fiery death of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire’s parents. We checked the first one out of the library at the beginning of the summer. We took one of the volumes on our trip to the beach in June. We can only listen to it when all three children and myself are in the car at once, Daddy be damned. If one of our members is absent, the audiobook cannot advance. This is a hard and fast rule.

Where to begin with what we like about these tales of woe? They are wickedly funny. When orphans are forced to work in a lumber mill and given only a stick of chewing gum for lunch (The Miserable Mill) it is too darkly hilarious to be tragic. The villainous Count Olaf is vain and self-deceptive, a caricature who, though dangerous, is still laughable.

The author’s love of language comes through in every volume, too, and I can only hope The Three are getting as big a kick out his in-context definitions as I am. (Snicket’s definition of déjà vu in the first half of The Carnivorous Carnival is inspired.)

And then there is the truth upon which this fantastic fiction is grounded: that life can be inexplicably, unremittingly hard, but that we can choose to be good people in the face of adversity and hold fast to the good people around us as we make our way through it.

In an online exchange I had when we were at about book five-ish or so (The Austere Academy), I heard friends’ criticisms of the books for the first time. One complained that many of the author’s inspired ideas never seemed to be executed quite as elegantly as they might have been. Another said the repetition from one book to another became too much, forcing them to abandon the series altogether.

Sometimes the plot would seem to develop unevenly—but over the course of 13 books, I’m not sure how anyone could have managed better, really. And in truth, Mr. Snicket does repeat himself from tome to tome. There is a spiraling of ideas and language that could become tedious. But I accepted this early on, however, as a device used by the author to keep younger readers tethered to what might otherwise become a daunting reading challenge.

It’s hard to criticize much about a story when it’s read to you by Tim Curry, though. With the exception of books three through five (read by the author), it is Curry’s smart, expressive voice that takes you from low point to low point. He might be one of the few voice talents working that could have listeners sincerely hoping things won’t ever get better for the poor Beaudelaires.

(The recommended age for this series is nine to twelve years, but six-year-old Peaches wept upon discovering that we had wrongly reserved the audiocassette rather than the CD version of book nine and would have to wait another week to listen to it. Do with that anecdote what you will.)