stories with happy endings

If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.

The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket. 1999.

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Oh, Lemony Snicket, how did I love thee, back when I was a mere tiddler reading through the non-YA section of my school’s library (and furious because my mother would not give me a note permitting me to read the YA books until I had turned ten). The Bad Beginning, book one of his A Series of Unfortunate Events, doesn’t quite count as a 21st-century children’s novel, but the largest portion of the series was published after 2000 (it ended in 2006 with the splendidly named thirteenth installment, The End), so I am counting it towards my goal of reading through this list. Really, to be a completist, I should read the whole series, but I already did read it, when it came out, and the point of the challenge is primarily to expose myself to new children’s fiction, so The Bad Beginning will suffice.

You may or may not know the premise of the series, which is that three resourceful and much-loved children—Violet, an inventor; Klaus, a reader; and Sunny, the baby, who likes biting—are orphaned in a mysterious house fire. The terms of their parents’ will stipulate they must to be sent to live with a relative, and thus their woeful adventures begin. In The Bad Beginning, the relative who takes them in is the “short-tempered, demanding and bad-smelling” Count Olaf, whose house is covered in pictures of eyes and who is obviously scheming to get hold of the vast fortune that the Baudelaire children will inherit as soon as Violet comes of age. He is, or calls himself, an actor, and concocts a plan that involves marrying Violet, under the guise of her performing an ingenue role in a play that conveniently culminates in a wedding ceremony. The children manage to foil the plot, but Olaf and his associates escape, and their parents’ executor must find a new relative for them to live with. Cue book two…

Today’s tiddlers probably come to the misfortunes of Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire through either the mostly dreadful Jim Carrey movie of 2004 (rescued only by the performance of Jim Carrey, which is excellent), or the more recent Netflix adaptation. This is something of a shame, because Snicket’s style is so inimitable, and such a delight. As with most things loved in childhood, I worried that a revisit as an adult would disappoint; it did not, not in the slightest. From the patently false authorial name and bio (“Lemony Snicket was born in a small town where the inhabitants were suspicious and prone to riot. …He is considered something of an expert by leading authorities.”) to the slightly off-kilter urban layout of wherever it is the Baudelaires live (there’s a meat district and a banking district, but also, unremarked-upon, a sculpture district), to the tone that effortlessly combines world-weariness with a knowledgeable avuncularity, Snicket’s world has lost none of its charm. Part of that is that he, and the book that he’s writing, seems to know its antecedents: numerous asides, and a curious blankness or vagueness to the wider world beyond the direct experiences of the Baudelaire children, make it quite clear that there’s an element of fable, or even allegory, at work.*

*footnote: I would argue that A Series of Unfortunate Events becomes increasingly allegorical as it goes on, at least up to about book seven; the children are dumped with a procession of unsuitable relatives, each of whom personifies a fatal weakness of character that allows Count Olaf to continue menacing them. It’s not dissimilar to medieval allegorical adventures: each failed guardian constitutes an obstacle, or a test. But that’s somewhat outside the remit of this review.

Back to the tone: one of the things this series is famous for is its in-text (and in context) definitions of words. Snicket does this for the first time on page two:

…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley—the word “rickety”, you probably know, here means “unsteady” or “likely to collapse”—alone to the seashore…

It’s such an intelligent way of enriching the text without making it inaccessible that one is surprised by how novel it feels. I can’t think of any children’s book that I read before Snicket that did this, and can’t really think of many after, either. And it’s not just for didactic purposes; quite often it’s funny, either by defying our expectations about what words need clarifying (“…his voice faking—a word which here means feigning—kindness”), or by being outrageously context-specific (again, this happens more often in the later books, and usually takes the form of “translating” Sunny’s non-verbal gurgles).

If The Bad Beginning was no more than some entertaining wordplay (one more I can’t resist: the sham play written to conceal the marriage is supposedly by “Al Funcoot”, which, although this is never actually said, is a delightfully crap anagram of “Count Olaf”), it’d still be fun. But its real power—Snicket’s real power—is that there is menace, handled with a lightness of touch that only enhances the effect. Consider, for example, this moment between one of Olaf’s henchmen and fourteen-year-old Violet:

Nobody paid a bit of attention to the children, except for the bald man, who stopped and stared Violet in the eye.

“You’re a pretty one,” he said, taking her face in his rough hands. “If I were you I would try not to anger Count Olaf, or he might wreck that pretty little face of yours.” Violet shuddered, and the bald man gave a high-pitched giggle and left the room.

The eye contact, the touching of her face—perhaps most of all, that “high-pitched giggle”—it’s terrifying. Snicket is too well aware of his young readers to be quite explicit about the sexual nature of the threat that Olaf poses to Violet, but reading as an adult, it is absolutely clear. More on a child’s level, perhaps, is the fact of Olaf’s unpredictable physical cruelty. He strikes Klaus across the face, knocking him to the floor; he puts Sunny in a birdcage; and once he has the children’s money, he’ll kill them. In many ways he is a cartoonish villain, but always a thoroughly believable one.

The only fault I might ascribe to The Bad Beginning is that it lacks some of the baroque elements of later installments in the series; there’s nothing in it to match the empty lift shaft in The Ersatz Elevator or the terrifying climax of The Miserable Mill. Even the allusions and wordplay are muted in comparison: there is, of course, the fact that the Baudelaires’ executor is named Mr. Poe and his horrible sons are named Edgar and Albert, and that he works at Mulctuary Money Management, but that is about as much as we get. In comparison to later books with characters such as the fashionable Esmé Squalor or the tyrannical headmaster Nero (obsessed with his violin), it’s a little thin. (I suspect I still haven’t worked out all of the references in these books.) But as the first in a long series, it contains all the seeds of later brilliance. Not such a bad beginning, after all.

End of the Year Book Tag

I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?

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I’ve just started Nino Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life (for Brilka), which is a good 944 pages long and takes in all of the changes that the twentieth century brought to Russia, Georgia and the Caucasus. I’d be surprised if I can’t finish it by the end of the month, let alone the end of the year, although its enormity makes it not very portable…

II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?

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I always read a Dickens in the winter, but haven’t previously had an autumn reading tradition. That may change given that I just finished M.R. James’s Collected Ghost Stories and found them perfect atmospheric reads. They’re not terribly scary while you’re reading, but this is deceptive: two days later, I can’t stop thinking about them. I’ve also found Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, narrated by Stephen Fry, excellent audio companions to the turning of the season.

III. Is there a release you are still waiting for? 

Good heavens, no. Not in 2019, anyway. There’s one book coming out in November that I have a proof of and may yet read (Unknown Male by Nicolas Obregon), but it’s not essential.

IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.

Just from my current library stack: Paradise by Toni Morrison, The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, Wed Wabbit by Lissa Evans. Also, on my bedside bookshelf: Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart, The Need For Roots by Simone Weil, and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Plus the thirty-six books on my “home” TBR, although those are certainly not going to get read by the end of 2019.

V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?

Probably, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m actually kind of sad because although 2019 has been, thus far, an extremely good reading year, I haven’t had the kind of mind-electrifying experience with a book that made 2018 such a pleasure. (It was Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, in case you’re wondering.) I’ve read lots of great stuff–which I will write about in December, because goddammit, we’re six weeks out from New Year’s Eve, it’s much too early to start doing personal roundups–but so far nothing arresting.

VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?

Heh. Aren’t I always making reading plans?

In 2020, I would like to continue:

  • reading my way through this crowd-sourced list of the 21st century’s best children’s books
  • reading my way, slowly, through Women’s Prize and Arthur C Clarke Award winners
  • using my local public library a lot more
  • reading backlist paperbacks and classics, including rereads

I want to read everything, you know. Really, I don’t understand–not on any meaningful emotional level–why I can’t.

just after midnight

The monster showed up just after midnight. As they do.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness. 2011.

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I am trying to read my way through this list, for reasons that combine professional interest (I’m now Children’s Subscriptions Coordinator at work, you may acclaim me) with the simple curiosity of the lifelong, but now grown-up, bookworm. The undisputed number one book on the list is A Monster Calls, and it makes sense, doesn’t it, to start with the best?

A monster—a Green Man-type walking yew tree, the earth on two legs—calls on pre-teen Conor O’Malley at 12:07 one night. He isn’t afraid of it. Or rather, he is, but he’s not as afraid of it as he is of the other thing, which is the dream that he keeps having. The dream involves his mum, but he can’t even bring himself to think about it when he’s awake. His mum is dying. Everyone at school knows this, because his best friend has told them all. His father is in America with his new family and seems content to use them as an excuse to stay there; his grandmother, not at all a stereotypical sort, is a hard-nosed estate agent whose attempts to do right by her family are constantly butting up against her own brusqueness and rigidity. Conor is alone, until the monster comes. And the monster wants to tell him a story. Three, actually.

Conor—thank God—reacts like a normal child to this, which is to say that he can’t understand what’s meant to be so scary about that. (It reminded me of a delightfully sarcastic tweet, which I can’t find now, in response to the recently released The Secret Commonwealth: “Mum! Philip Pullman’s at the door! He’s bangin’ on about the power of storytelling again!”) The scarier thing, as far as Conor’s concerned, is the bargain that the monster drives: after three stories, it’ll be Conor’s turn to tell one. If he manages, the monster will leave; if he refuses, or if he can’t, the monster will eat him. There’s only one story he can tell–the story of what happens in his dream every night–and he doesn’t want to tell it. But he has a respite, for now, while the monster goes first.

The stories Conor is told are like fairytales, in that their characters and dynamics are similar: there is a foolish king whose second marriage is to an evil witch, a cruelly slaughtered bride, a misanthropic healer, a proud man humbled by grief. Where the monster, and Ness, differ from familiar tales is that the person we suppose to be good, the protagonist with whom our sympathies are designed to lie, is shown each time to be compromised. What they want to achieve is not necessarily good or right. Nor is this a simplistic flipping of heroes and villains: the “bad” characters don’t turn out to be angels. In the monster’s first story, the murderer of the bride turns out not to be the witchy queen, but the queen is most definitely a witch, and a powerful, dangerous one at that. She’s allowed to escape the violent retribution of the villagers not because she’s a good person, but simply because she isn’t a killer.

I have to confess that I, like Conor, was initially very skeptical of the monster’s stories, but by the end of the first one, the effect was clear: to introduce the idea of grey-area morality. And Conor needs this, because his mother is about to die, and although no one in his life has told him, it will be the moment he enters adulthood, and to enter adulthood is to enter a realm where nothing is any longer definitely good or definitely bad. The story the monster wants him to tell is the acknowledgment of his own loss of innocence: he must confess that a part of him actually wants his mother to die, to put a stop to her pain and his own.

The story is moving, and movingly told, on its own, but it’s Jim Kay’s illustrations that lend a real air of wildness, of uncharted territory both physical and emotional, to the book. He might be better known for his illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books, but his stark, brambly pen-and-ink drawings that encroach on nearly every page of A Monster Calls are exquisitely well suited to the text. This is my favourite spread:

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A thoroughly unpatronizing dissection of grief and growing up, and an excellent start to the project. The best children’s book of the last twenty years? Quite possibly.