An Imperialist Writing Policy — How

Now that I’ve explained what an “imperialist writing policy” is, and why it might be useful, here’s how to actually do it.

Compiling Your Curriculum

So you’ve got some reason for enacting an imperialist writing policy—what do you fill it with? What are your imperial holdings? As I said, with Suggest the Empire I initially began with plays I was already aware of—Shakespearean histories. However, Stuff Happens I only learned about by doing some research, looking up contemporary history plays. After finding these materials, I just continued with my life, and kept on the look-out for any books or shows or movies or podcasts that seemed like they could be useful, adding them to my curriculum as I found them.

I’d recommend the same—start with works that you are already aware of, or that you have already been wanting to read. If you have enough, great! If you don’t, it’s time to do some research. This is essentially how I determined what plays to read for Play Time (which was a literal curriculum, since it was an Honors project.) I started by looking at some plays dealing with time which I already wanted to read—We Are Proud to Present …, Strange InterludeTop Girls, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—then did some research. I pretty quickly found out about J.B. Priestly’s time plays, and stumbled upon a review of a few short Beckett plays staged together because of their similar treatments of time. The internet is an incredible thing.

If this seems overwhelming, start with Wikipedia. Look at the external links on the article, look at the references. Look up what resources your local library has, or, if you’re a college student, check out your university library. Find people who are experts in whatever you need to immerse yourself in, and see what they’ve written. See what they recommend. If you personally know anyone who has some experience with the topic, ask them to give you some recommendations—or, if they’re willing to give you their time, ask them questions about the topic and make note of the answers. Sift through your personal library, see if there are any old books you forgot you even had that might be useful (this is exactly how Top Girls made it onto the list for Play Time.) And if you’re really hitting a wall, just start reading whatever you have found. More likely than not (and especially if its non-fiction) that work will lead you to other works. You’ll start to get a sense of what the foundational texts in the field are, which authors keep coming up again and again, which authors have written stuff very similar to (and therefore very useful for) what you’re planning to write.Read More »

An Imperialist Writing Policy — What and Why

A year and a half ago I returned home for the summer break knowing that, whatever else I worked on for the next few months, by the end of the summer I wanted to have finished the rough draft of Suggest the Empire. At that point I’d already been wanting to write this play for a year or two, though I’d previously put it off because I knew it would be massive, strange, and demanding in multiple ways. How did I know this? Well here’s my short description for the play:

A history play about an invented history, exploring the theatrical nature of nationalism and empire.

So yeah. Massive strange demanding. And I had never read or seen a history play (in the Shakespearean sense of the term) back then at the beginning of summer 2016, so I decided that would be a top priority. I determined to read seven of Shakespeare’s histories—Richard IIIRichard IIHenry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V, and Julius Caesar—before beginning to write the play. I also added Stuff Happens by David Hare to my reading list, a history play about the lead up to the Iraq War. These were the works that I felt I had to read before beginning work on STE. Obviously I planned to write other stuff in the mean time, but I wouldn’t start Suggest the Empire until I’d finished those eight plays.

As I progressed into the summer I came across more and more works which I thought could in some way inform the writing of STE—youtube channels like Historia Civilis, documentaries like Secrets of Great British Castles, movies like Waterloo, games like Mount and Blade and Reigns—which I’d add to the list. Some of these I’d already been meaning to get around to, others I stumbled upon and decided to look into because of STE, and others I was already engaged with anyway, just by happenstance—the greatest example being The Absolute at Large. Just by luck, that very summer I was recording an audiobook of The Absolute at Large, a satirical novel which is heavily critical of nationalism and fanaticism. I came to think of this body of plays, movies, books, tv shows, and whatever else, as the product of an imperialist writing policy. I was not solely consuming, and working on, Suggest the Empire, though almost everything I consumed and worked on fed back to that play in some way.

SuggesttheEmpire-c-2The result was that, when it finally came time to write Suggest the Empire, it was a breeze. Over the past months I’d become fluent in the language of empire, of nationalism, of history, of historical drama, and I had no trouble plotting out the story or sketching out the world, or, as I actually wrote the thing, sprinkling in realistic military, cultural, or political details. I’m incredibly proud of Suggest the Empire, and you can now buy the play! Ha ha you fool, I tricked you, this is all just an ad, ho-ho I got you!

Just kidding. If you have no interest in reading Suggest the Empire (which you can get on Smashwords or Amazon, or read the first act of free) this post, and the “How” post which will be up next week, should still be useful to any writer (or creator of any kind, I suppose) who wants to design their own imperialist writing policy. This isn’t the Only Way, or the Correct Way, to prepare for a piece of writing, but it is a method that I’ve found useful, which may prove useful for others. Alternately, if you’ve just read, or plan on reading, Suggest the Empire, these two posts should be a good look into my process in preparing for that play. I talk about it some in the afterword, among other things, but here I’ll be breaking down just that specific, preliminary part of creating the play.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, December 2017

Another one! Already! Well, I’ve been reading a lot, and honestly the fact that this is being posted in December has more to do with when I got around to writing it all of it than when I read the books. Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading, more or less around this time:

Tar Baby by Toni Morrison — Tar Baby is one of the most focused books by Morrison. The majority of it takes place in one house, on one island, with a core cast of just six. With long passages of just dialogue, the book often feels like a play. It’s also a break from Morrison’s typical MO in that it spends a lot of time focused on white characters. Those white characters are Valerian and Margaret Street, and the book starts out following them, a husband and wife, Valerian being the heir to his family’s massive candy business, Margaret a beauty queen twenty years her husband’s junior. Now retired, Valerian lives in what was once just his summer home, a manor on the caribbean Isle des Chevaliers, tended to by Sydney and Ondine. Christmas time is nearing, and Jadine Childs is visiting the manor—a successful young black fashion model, raised by Sydney and Ondine, and put through college by a generous sponsorship from Valerian. That’s five of the core cast I’ve just mentioned. The sixth shows up when Margaret finds him hiding in her closet—a black man named Son, a fugitive who jumped ship in the Caribbean and managed to swim to Isle des Chevaliers. Inexplicably, and to Margaret, Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine’s horror, Valerian decides to invite Son to stay with them, as a guest.

The majority of the book is the action that plays out between this major disruption in the house—the disruption of Son’s arrival—and the disruption which occurs around the Christmas dinner (right from the beginning its clear that Christmas dinner is not going to be the perfect gathering that Margaret is planning for.) Watching the reactions of these characters of all different social and racial backgrounds is fascinating, a thorough study in social hierarchy and perceived social status, and what people do when they feel their status is threatened or challenged—and the build up and eventual explosion of all the anxiety and pressure Son’s arrival has caused is masterful. It’s also great to see Morrison flex her considerable dialogue muscles here—dialogue is something she’s terrific with (is there anything she’s not terrific with?), but in this book it’s featured prominently, as the main means of propelling the story along.

A great book to read for Christmas! (jk jk jk i mean its great for anytime but lol this aint rudolph or whatever)Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, November 2017

I’ve been reading all kinds of Toni Morrison and all kinds of mystery books, because those are the two English classes I’m in this semester. So you can expect more Morrison and more mystery in the next What I’ve Been Reading post—but that’s actually What I‘ll Be Reading. Let’s get into the ‘ve Been.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley — This was one of the books in my Mystery/Detective Fiction class, and one of my two favorites that we’ve read so far. My other favorite is Big Little Lies, which I’ll discuss below—the two are sort of tied. Devil in a Blue Dress is Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins mystery, and damn if it doesn’t make me want to read the rest of them. In this book, Easy isn’t yet a PI—he’s just a working-class African-American man who’s moved to Los Angeles in the Second Great Migration, after serving in World War II. A day after being fired from his job, a man approaches him offering money for him to find Daphne Monet, a white woman who often visits black jazz clubs. After some reluctance, Easy takes the job—and spends the remainder of the book trying to work his way out of the dangerous web he’s put himself in.

It doesn’t really have the precision and clarity of a detective story, mainly because at various points Easy doesn’t give a shit about solving any kind of mystery. It’s more like what would happen if an ordinary person wandered into the middle of a hard-boiled detective world, bumping into various rackets and intrigues, but not doggedly pursuing any hidden truth. Easy does end up solving some mysteries, and does so well enough that by the end he decides to become a professional PI, but the plot of the book is really about him trying to survive. To that end, it’s a great book. Well-paced, fun characters painted in many different shades of sinister, and a first-person narrator with lots of attitude.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, September 2017

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell – March is a trilogy of graphic novels co-written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, detailing Lewis’s involvement in the African-American civil rights movement, up to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Powell’s art is gorgeous and expressive. It captures the weight of small interpersonal moments as well as enormous, historical turning points. To borrow a word from Martin Luther King, it dramatizes the movement in a way that is visceral and inspiring.

For the most part, the books do a good job of interweaving narrative and history—partly because John Lewis’s personal narrative is so wrapped up in the historical events of that time. The mixing of scene and summary is effective, not bogging the reader down in prose, nor abandoning the reader without any through-line to grasp onto. Book two may be the weak link of the trilogy, with long sections of historical events in which Lewis didn’t personally play any part. These passages feel a bit dry and distant, without the narrative thrust or intriguing insights that Lewis offers in the other sections. However, I only really noticed this in book two, because the fact is, John Lewis truly was involved in so many important events at the time.

And that’s what’s terrific about these books—they aren’t just a third-person, documentarian presentation of history—they’re the story of a man who was at the heart of the movement, and who ended up straddling the lines of multiple factions within it. What I found most fascinating was not just the external conflict against people like Alabama Governor George Wallace or Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, but the internal conflict of the civil rights movement. Lewis was one of the earliest members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and over the course of the books, we see it change, growing much larger, becoming more impatient, and we see Lewis pushed further and further out of it. There’s also the internal conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties, as they struggle to reconstruct their agendas around the civil rights movement, and make massive shifts toward becoming the parties we see today.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The End

When I was a kid, I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now I’ve reread all thirteen books. This final post is about The End, book 13. This post will contain spoilers for The End and probably other books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, then to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “I would drop this [review] at once, so THE END does not finish you.”

The_End
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

Finally, we arrive at The End. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are at sea with Count Olaf, and a massive storm shipwrecks them on an island. Pretty soon they encounter the inhabitants of the island, an easygoing colony of castaways, lead by the “facilitator” Ishmael. Count Olaf is forbidden from entering the colony, and while the colony is undoubtedly dull and unambitious, it seems the Baudelaires have finally found a place where they can be safe. Of course, it turns out the island is full of as many mysteries and confusing conflicts as the world the Baudelaires left behind, and the siblings come to realize that they can never really escape these issues.

The End is also the end. (Surprise.) It is Book the Last, and it knows it. Where The Penultimate Peril felt climactic in terms of surface-level story elements—bringing together characters from all throughout the series, putting the Baudelaires in the middle of a direct conflict between the two factions of VFD—The End feels climactic in terms of theme. The book is exploding with meaningful imagery, literary and biblical allusions, thematic discourse, and symbolic scenes. I’m only going to talk about some of them though, the ones that interest me, but there’s all sorts of overlap, so hopefully I’ll be able to cover all the main threads by doing this.

STTTTTTUUUUUUUUUUFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!

“What’s the deal with all this super specific junk in the general store?”—that’s the note I made when this motif first cropped up in The Hostile Hospital. In the opening of that book, the Baudelaires are in a general store waiting for a telegram, and multiple times Handler lists out in hyper-specific detail the items surrounding them, none of which seem to fit with each other:

“They were surrounded by nylon rope, floor wax, soup bowls, window curtains, wooden rocking horses, top hats, fyber-optic cable, pink lipstick, dried apricots, magnifying glasses, black umbrellas, slender paintbrushes, French horns, and each other, but as the Baudelaire orphans sat and waited for a reply to their telegram, they only felt more and more alone.” (18-19)

Is this a comment on materialism? Something about greed maybe? I had a hunch about what it could be, but Handler didn’t distinctly make the connection, so I just continued to note the motif whenever it popped up. In The Grim Grotto, when the Baudelaires are in the grotto, they each list out all the worthless items they’ve found while searching for the Sugar Bowl. Again, it’s hard to tell if Handler is just having fun or actually doing something.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Penultimate Peril

A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorite series when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books, and today I’m talking about the second-to-last one: The Penultimate PerilThis post will contain spoilers for book 12 and all the books preceding it, so if you do not want plot information given away then, to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “allow me to recommend that you put this next-to-last [review] down first, and find something else to read next at last.”

ThePenultimatePeril
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

The Penultimate Peril is the penultimate book in Unfortunate Events, and it finds the Baudelaires at the Hotel Denouement, a hotel organized by the Dewey decimal system (for example, there are teachers staying in room number 371, the number for schools and school activities in Dewey Decimal Classification.) The Hotel Denouement is the last safe place for VFD, and the secret organization will be meeting there in just two days. The Baudelaires, disguised as concierges, spy on the hotel guests, hoping to discover whether or not the safety of the hotel has been compromised, and whether or not they should give a signal to call off the meeting.

I Won’t Tell You When You’re Older

The Penultimate Peril is full of cameos from characters introduced and exited earlier in the series and one of the characters to return is Sir—known as Sir because his actual name is unpronounceable. Other than his callous attitude toward the workers in his lumber mill, Sir’s defining characteristic is the cloud of cigar smoke that is forever swirling around his head, completely obscuring his face. When I first discussed Sir, I wrote about how he’s a model for what’s to come later in the series—these mysteries that are never solved, secrets that only exist as secrets. Since I’ve finished rereading Unfortunate Events, I’ve been poking around looking at reviews of the series. I’ve seen complaints that not all of the big mysteries were resolved, which makes the last few books kind of disappointing. To those people I would say:

You are less discerning readers than an eight-year-old.

I can’t take away anyone’s reading experience—I don’t think anyone is wrong to say that they were disappointed. I would, however, defend Daniel Handler vigorously from anyone who thinks he dropped the ball. Handler does a lot to signal that these big secrets will never be clarified a hundred percent, and rereading Penultimate Peril, I remember that the sequence with Sir was when I, as an eight-year-old, realized that there were certain things that the thirteenth book still would not divulge. The scene is farcical in the way it conceals Sir’s face. Klaus is spying on Sir and his partner Charles, and he escorts the two to a sauna. Sir orders Klaus to hold his cigar while he goes into the sauna. Francis of 2005 was so excited about this—finally, we get to see Sir’s face! What if he’s actually another character under that smoke? What if he’s a relative of another character? But then, “Sir handed Klaus the cigar and strode into the sauna before the cloud of smoke around his head could clear.” (109) And it was at that moment that I realized that we would never find out what the Sugar Bowl is.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Grim Grotto

As a kid, A Series of Unfortunate Events was one of my favorite series, and I’ve been rereading all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing my favorite book of the series, book the eleventh, The Grim Grotto.

Grimgrotto.jpg
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In The Grim Grotto, the Baudelaire orphans join the crew of the Queequeg, a VFD submarine run by Captain Widdershins and his stepdaughter Fiona. The Baudelaires join the Queequeg in its mission to find the Sugar Bowl before Count Olaf does, eventually identifying its location as the Gorgonian Grotto, an underwater cave that contains a lethal, parasitic species of fungus.

Having at this point reread the whole series, I can say that this book is my favorite. The mood and atmosphere is deeply unsettling, there’s lots of great character revelations and development, and the plot is as good as they come—with the Baudelaires actually being proactive instead of reactive, for the first time in the whole series. So, in this post I’m just going to explain exactly why I love this book so much.

Staring Blindly

First off, the mood. I won’t reiterate everything I said about mood in my post on The Ersatz Elevator, but I will retread some of that ground, because The Grim Grotto is doing the same sort of thing. The mood in book 11 is similar to that in book 6, and both are achieved through similar means—they inspire dread by keeping the reader in the dark on the dangers surrounding the characters. In Ersatz Elevator there’s the darkness of the empty elevator shaft, and in Grim Grotto there’s the darkness of the ocean, and the narrow passage leading into the Gorgonian Grotto. While The Ersatz Elevator still outdoes this book in the omnipresent atmosphere of dread, Grim Grotto is a near second, with the oppressive feeling of a cold, dark, unknown world surrounding the Queequeg at all times. The most prominent example of this is what is referred to in a later book as “The Great Unknown”—a gargantuan serpentine shape, larger than the Queequeg and even Count Olaf’s own enormous submarine, which shows up on the Queequeg’s sonar as a question mark. Whatever it is, it’s something that terrifies volunteers and villains alike, and the best view the Baudelaires ever get of it is after nightfall, and “They could not even tell, just as I will not tell, if it was some horrifying mechanical device, such as a submarine, or some ghastly creature of the sea.” (311)Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Slippery Slope

A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. Today I’m writing about The Slippery Slope, the tenth book in the series, as well as meaninglessness and morality.

Slipperyslope
Photo courtesy of HarperCollins

The Slippery Slope is set in the Mortmain Mountains, a chilly range of odd, squarish mountains, home to snow gnats, bears, and the VFD headquarters. The Baudelaire orphans are separated, with Sunny being kidnapped by Count Olaf and taken to the summit of Mount Fraught, and Violet and Klaus left for dead along the road up the mountains. Sunny is forced to cook for and clean up after Count Olaf and his troupe, who are planning to destroy the headquarters of VFD. At the same time, Violet and Klaus are searching for the headquarters, and hoping to rescue their baby sister.

The Slippery Slope is the first book where the reader starts to get some broad ideas of what VFD is, and why so many villains and heroes alike seem involved in it. It also has some incredibly clumsy grappling with morality and what separates good people from bad people. But, to paraphrase a Fernald’s remarks in The Grim Grotto (which does a much better job of handling these themes), books aren’t either good or bad, “they’re like chef’s salads, with good things and bad things chopped and mixed together” (223). And Slippery Slope is actually mostly good, so while I will get to the fumbled themes, I’m going to highlight some other parts where it sticks the landing wonderfully. First off:

Xylophone

After being attacked by a swarm of snow gnats, Violet and Klaus take refuge in a cave, and find a group of Snow Scouts camping there. The Snow Scouts quickly welcome Violet and Klaus into their troop, and recite the Snow Scout Alphabet Pledge:

“Snow Scouts … are accommodating, basic, calm, darling, emblematic, frisky, grinning, human, innocent, jumping, kept, limited, meek, nap-loving, official, pretty, quarantined, recent, scheduled, tidy, understandable, victorious, wholesome, xylophone, young, and zippered — every morning, every afternoon, every night, and all day long!” (71)

The pledge recurs throughout the book, sometimes as the Snow Scouts recite it and other times just in reference to its absurdity—however the most pertinent commentary on it comes immediately after the scouts first recite it, when Snicket writes that, “Like many pledges, the Snow Scout Alphabet pledge had not made much sense” (71).Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Carnivorous Carnival

I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events when I read it as a kid, and now I’m rereading and re-loving all thirteen books. Today’s post is about The Carnivorous Carnival, the ninth book of the series. This post will contain spoilers for book 9 and some of the books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, then in the words of Lemony Snicket, “your time might be better filled with something more palatable, such as eating your vegetables, or feeding them to someone else.”

Carnivorous_Carnival
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In The Carnivorous Carnival, the Baudelaires arrive at a rundown carnival in the hinterlands, where Count Olaf is consulting the fortune-teller Madame Lulu to learn the location of the Baudelaires, and whether or not one of their parents survived the fire. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny disguise themselves as carnival freaks, and try to discover how Madame Lulu knows so much about the Baudelaires, and perhaps pre-empt Count Olaf’s next move. Count Olaf also helps Madame Lulu by trying to raise the popularity of the carnival, letting one of his henchmen direct the freak show and make sure the freaks are properly humiliating themselves, and installing a pit of lions.

The book is sparkling with amusing, vibrant characters, from the mysterious Madame Lulu to Kevin, whose big, freakish, shameful quality is that he is ambidextrous (“Is that why you traveled out here to the hinter-lands, so you could stare at somebody who can write his name with either his left hand or his right?”—hilarious. [66]) It’s strikes the perfect tone for a book about a carnival—colorful, eccentric, and with a strong undercurrent of sadness and danger. It also provides a great opportunity for me to talk about:

#FakeNews

In my post about The Vile Village I explained the differences between the books in the first half of the series, and the books in the second. Another difference, which I didn’t mention then, is the nature of the unfortunate events. In the first half, the unfortunate event at the end of every installment is Count Olaf getting away. This is continued into the second half, but also combined with the the Baudelaires repeatedly failing to uncover the mysteries of VFD, and more and more misinformation about them spreading with each book.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, March 2017

Plays and comics! I’ve been reading a bunch of plays and comics lately. I’m in a playwriting class, and I’m reading a bunch of plays for a project for another class, and the comics I’m reading because they’re light and I really can’t squeeze in too much extra reading given all the Lemony Snicket books I’m reading, not to mention short stories and essays and poems for another class—anyway, here are some of the plays and comics that have really been stand-out terrific, and worth writing about:

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee – This is a play about a man who is cheating on his wife with a goat.

Hahaha, lololol, such fun.

Really, the brilliance of this play is that it is both as ridiculous as that description and as real as the chair I’m seated in (I’m seated in a chair of the real variety, by the way.) And the super-brilliance of the play is the fact that it doesn’t just violently switch tracks between isn’t-this-absurd-you’re-in-love-with-a-goat and what-are-the-real-and-tragic-implications-of-doing-such-a-thing, it runs the two modes simultaneously. I was constantly bursting out laughing and constantly taking sharp inhales throughout reading this play. I reacted to it in the same way I react to horribly-absurd/absurdly-horrible real world events. I have to laugh at the absurdity, but I can’t get away from the horrible reality of it because it’s something that actually happened, in the world I live in.

Albee’s great accomplishment here is that he never lets the audience put distance between themselves and the work. The characters continually make choices, adopt lines of conversation, that ring so true that you can’t just think, well it’s just a silly play.

And the play was written by Edward Albee, so it’s crackling with his wit and dynamic character interactions.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Hostile Hospital

When I was a kid, I adored A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now I’m rereading through all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing book 8, The Hostile Hospital. This post will contain spoilers for book 8 and some of the books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, in the words of Lemony Snicket, “this [review] is something best left on the ground, where you undoubtedly found it.”

Hostile_hospital
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In this eighth installment of Unfortunate Events, the Baudelaire orphans find themselves at Heimlich Hospital, a half-constructed hospital in the middle of nowhere, which inexplicably contains a massive library of records. The Baudelaires manage to get jobs filing paperwork in the library of records, all the while hoping to find some information on the mysterious organization VFD, or the murky circumstances surrounding the destruction of their home and the death of their parents. The treacherous Count Olaf has also arrived at the hospital, though for what purpose the Baudelaires do not know.

Reading to the Rescue!

One of the greatest aspects of Unfortunate Events, which is especially great to find in children’s literature, is the dramatization of reading. Throughout the series, literature and language is used to thwart villains, crack secret codes, and gain an advantage against the Baudelaires’ antagonists. Certainly, plenty of fiction involves characters reading or studying things—Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer immediately jump to mind—but in those cases, reading is just a means to deliver knowledge upon which to take some other action (magic, fighting, confronting another character.) In ASOUE, reading is presented in a much more dynamic way, and it often is the action itself. There’s no scene in Harry Potter where the reader feels tension wondering whether or not the characters will fail to read, but there are multiple such scenes in A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The reason I bring this up with this book is that The Hostile Hospital contains more Reading to the Rescue!TM than any other book—it is consistently the way the Baudelaires pursue their goals, and attempt to save themselves from the schemes of others. Not only does the book prominently feature reading and language, it also presents multiple facets of these activities, instead of just the typical studying that every book in the series contains.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Vile Village

A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. Today I’m discussing the seventh book, The Vile Village. This post will contain spoilers for book seven and all the books preceding it, so if you do not want plot information given away then, in the words of Lemony Snicket, “you may prefer to do some other solemn and sacred thing, such as reading another [review] instead.”

vile_village
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

The Vile Village is a turning point in A Series of Unfortunate Events. It falls in the exact middle of the thirteen-part series, and narratively speaking, it has one foot in the first half of the series and one foot in the second half. Just like all the previous books, the Baudelaire orphans are sent to live with a new guardian—in this case, an entire village standing in as a guardian, the Village of Fowl Devotees. VFD is governed by the Council of Elders, a group of old townspeople who have generated thousands of rules that must be strictly obeyed. And, the same as the last five books, Count Olaf shows up in disguise to steal the Baudelaires’ inheritance. The book ratchets up the stakes and the tension of all the previous books, in addition to having all the usual dark creativity, verbal gymnastics, and intriguing mysteries.

So, what separates this book from all the books of the first half?

Half and Half

Before I answer that question, I should first explain what I mean by “first half” and “second half.” This is a deeply ingrained framework in my head for understanding A Series of Unfortunate Events. The first half is books 1-6, and kind of book 7. The second half is books 8-13, and kind of book 7. The reason that book 7 doesn’t fall firmly into either category isn’t just because of the imperfect math—it’s because it shares characteristics with both halves. So hopefully I can take this opportunity both to highlight the transitional nature of The Vile Village and delineate the characteristics of the first and second half.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Ersatz Elevator

A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. In today’s post I review the sixth, The Ersatz Elevator, and talk about mood, darkness, and architecture.

the_ersatz_elevator
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In the sixth installment of Unfortunate Events the Baudelaires return to the city to stay with their new guardians Jerome and Esmé Squalor. The Squalors are obscenely wealthy, and they live in a penthouse on the 66th floor of an apartment building. Esmé is a financial advisor obsessed with fashion, and she constantly discusses which items are “in” and which are “out,” while her husband Jerome is exceedingly kind, but also exceedingly non-confrontational. While the book follows similar plot beats to the previous five, it also alters the formula in a significant way. In this book, not only are the Baudelaires trying to outsmart Count Olaf, who is back to steal their inheritance, they’re also delving into the secret surrounding their parents, the fire that destroyed their home, and Count Olaf himself.

Moody

What this book does better than any other ASOUE book I’ve reread so far (and at this point I’ve reread through book nine) is mood. Of course, all the books have a very distinct style, and Snicket has a distinctly macabre, dry tone—but, at least the way I’m using it here, that’s different than mood. When I say mood, I mean the overall feeling that a book evokes in its reader. Some books evoke wonder, some evoke excitement, and some evoke dread. A Series of Unfortunate Events is the kind of series that has a mood of dread about it, and The Ersatz Elevator has it in spades. In no other book is this feeling that something is terribly wrong so all-encompassing, so pervasive throughout the whole novel. Of course, there are sources of dread in all the books, because the reader knows even before they begin that, whatever the circumstances, this is not going to be the happy home where Violet, Klaus, and Sunny will spend the rest of their childhoods. In The Reptile Room, the narrator mentions early on that Uncle Monty will die later in the book. In The Wide Window, the precarious location of Aunt Josephine’s house on the edge of a cliff instantly inspires anxiety.

The key with dread is to strike a balance between what the reader knows and what they don’t know. If the reader knows too much, then they can anticipate what horrible events are going to happen. If they know too little, then they won’t even realize that there’s any threat of danger. It’s the difference between knowing that your ex is going to come over to get their things at 1:00 pm (some dread), knowing your ex is going to come over some time during the day (maximum dread), and not knowing your ex is going to come over (no dread.) In most of the books, Handler errs on the side of letting the reader know more, displaying the awful machinations which will eventually be set into motion. This has its own benefits (it helps with world-building and character development and is just generally intriguing) but it does cut down on the feeling that something bad could arise from any corner at any time.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, February 2017

It’s been awhile since I did one of these, partly because I’ve been reading more short stories than novels, partly because I’ve been reading A Series of Unfortunate Events. So, other than those books, here’s what I’ve been reading:

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan – This novel is a family epic, which surveys the lives of two families of Vietnamese immigrants—the Truongs and the Vos. The families are linked by the marriage of Tuyet Vo and Sanh Truong, but there is plenty of bad blood between them, revealed throughout the book. Cherry Truong is the daughter of Tuyet and Sanh, and the main character of the story—though really, the book is an ensemble work.

Each chapter is told from a different perspective, giving a broad scope of the families, and their lives as immigrants—one family in Paris, the other in Orange County, California. Every character is intriguingly flawed, and watching them interact, and seeing how small conflicts beget bigger conflicts is fascinating. The scope of the book is satisfyingly large, and all the backstories of the characters memorable. The book doesn’t have much of a coherent through-line, and I felt Cherry’s arc was a little rushed, but I still enjoyed it overall.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Austere Academy

A Series of Unfortunate Events is one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid, and I’m rereading through all thirteen books. In today’s post I review the fifth, The Austere Academy.

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Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

The Austere Academy is a departure from the first four books. Instead of having a guardian, the Baudelaire orphans are sent to live in Prufrock Preparatory, a boarding school. The closest thing they have to a guardian is Vice Principal Nero, a cruel, pompous man who is a terrible violinist, and who enforces strict rules with harsh punishments in the school. While the book has almost all the trappings of the previous four (Count Olaf in disguise, scheme to steal the Baudelaire fortune, horrible circumstances) it also introduces two new characters that will continue to be important in the following books—Isadora and Duncan Quagmire. Isadora and Duncan are siblings, two of three triplets, whose third sibling and parents have died in a fire. They make a unique addition to the series, first in that they are kids, and second in that they actually befriend and help the Baudelaires.

Soup!

This book gives me a great opportunity to discuss something I’ve been wanting to write about throughout this series—psychological realism. I had trouble posturing what I wanted to say about it, but this book provides a great example of what I mean, and the kind of straightforward simplistic psychology that children’s lit usually engages in. First, what I mean by psychological realism:

Students are forbidden from entering the administrative building, with the punishment being having to eat their next meal without silverware. However, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire have to walk to the administrative building to tell Nero about their suspicions about Count Olaf.  On the way there, Klaus starts snickering.

“I just realized something,” Klaus said. “We’re going to the administrative building without an appointment. We’ll have to eat our meals without silverware.”

“There’s nothing funny about that!” Violet said. “What if they serve oatmeal for breakfast? We’ll have to scoop it up with our hands.”

“Oot,” Sunny said, which meant “Trust me, it’s not that difficult,” and at that the Baudelaire sisters joined their brother in laughter. …

“Or fried eggs!” Violet said. “What if they serve runny fried eggs?”

“Or pancakes, covered in syrup!” Klaus said.

“Soup!” Sunny shrieked, and they all broke out in laughter again. (85)

The reason this sequence is great is that, for most of the book, the emotions of the Baudelaires are static. They will react to some change in circumstances or piece of news, positive or negative, and then remain in that emotional track until another such event. So, the most straightforward way to plot this would be as follows: Orphans go to talk to Nero—Orphans are apprehensive—Orphans arrive and begin to talk to Nero—Orphans are determined/frustrated—Orphans are turned away—Orphans are disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with this, and the books move quick so there’s necessarily little time for twists in the tracks. Still, Daniel Handler finds places to put in these little moments where the orphans break from their emotional track, not because of some external development, but because of their own internal psyche. The above sequence gives the reader a window into the minds of Klaus, Violet, and Sunny, to show how they’re coping with these horrible situations by laughing at them.

Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Miserable Mill

With the TV adaptation released as of this very Friday the thirteenth, I’m rereading one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid—A Series of Unfortunate Events. Today’s post brings us up to fourth book in the series, and the last book adapted in the Netflix show—The Miserable Mill. This post contains spoilers for the first four books of ASOUE, so as Lemony Snicket would say, “if you prefer [reviews] that [don’t give away plot information], please feel free to make another selection.”

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Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

The fourth installment of Unfortunate Events tells of the Baudelaire orphans’ stay at the Lucky Smells Lumbermill. Instead of living in a house, the Baudelaires have to live in a bunkhouse for the mill’s employees. Their new guardian offers them a “good deal”—in exchange for his providing them food, housing, and protection from Count Olaf, they will work in his mill. The orphans really have no choice in whether or not to take the deal, and they are forced to work in terrible conditions. While they uphold their end of the deal, their guardian is unable to protect them from Count Olaf, who once again returns in disguise and attempts to steal the Baudelaires’ inheritance.

Some Gripes

The writing of the book is as superbly dark, imaginative, and humorous as the previous three, but there’s less interesting character work, and less intriguing plotting. The new characters introduced in the book are one-note, and the Baudelaires themselves are inactive throughout most of the book. For the majority of the story, things happen to the orphans, rather than them taking initiative and trying to outsmart Olaf, or uncover his plot, the way they usually do. This isn’t actually a problem, as I’ll explain later, but it does make the book a slower read than most of Snicket’s books.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window

With the TV adaptation’s release just two days from now, I’m rereading one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid—A Series of Unfortunate Events. Today’s post covers book three, The Wide Window.

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Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

“Book the third” of A Series of Unfortunate Events finds the Baudelaire orphans arriving at the house of their new guardian, Aunt Josephine. Aunt Josephine’s house is perched on the edge of a cliff (all but the foyer of the house is held up solely by stilts) above Lake Lachrymose, a lake filled with man-eating leeches. As always, Count Olaf shows up in disguise and concocts a plan to steal the Baudelaires’ inheritance. The book is full of Handler’s dark, gothic creativity, and the plot twists and turns in unpredictable and riveting ways. As I write this, I’ve already reread through book six of Unfortunate Events, and The Wide Window is probably my favorite of the early books.

That Leaves You with a Rattle

In my previous posts I’ve talked about how each of the main characters is somewhat defined by their particular skills—Violet invents, Klaus reads, and Sunny bites—and about how the story can sometimes feel contrived because of the way the orphans end up being presented with situations that require their specific skills. The Wide Window manages to subvert this trend to great effect. When the Baudelaires come to their new home, their Aunt Josephine presents each of them with a present. Violet is given a doll, Klaus a train set, and Sunny a rattle. The fact that the items are so incongruous with the orphans’ skills and interests subverts the reader’s expectations, and this subversion really accentuates the awkwardness of the situation. It’s a smack of reality after the perfect (at least before Count Olaf showed up) life that they had with their previous guardian. But the subversion continues.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room

With the TV adaptation just around the corner, I’m rereading one of my favorite book series from when I was a kid—A Series of Unfortunate Events. Today’s post regards book two, The Reptile Room, and it does contain spoilers for that book. As Lemony Snicket would say, if you don’t want plot information given away, “you are free to put this [review] back on the shelf and seek something lighter.”

And Speaking of Spoilers …

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Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

In this book, the Baudelaire orphans go to live with another distant relative, “Uncle” Monty, who studies snakes. Right as the orphans arrive, Uncle Monty is planning a scientific expedition to Peru, and he wants the orphans to come along. Eventually Count Olaf shows up disguised as Monty’s assistant, and schemes to steal their children’s inheritance once again—a scheme made easier by the death of Uncle Monty.

What’s interesting about this book is that it reveals the death of Uncle Monty as early as page 28—and not in some hint or euphemism, the narrator explicitly states, “It is Uncle Monty, unfortunately, who will be dead.” Mentioning this so far up front is important because it lets the readers know that, even though the main characters are having a good time in their new home, misfortune will strike again.

It also softens the blow of Uncle Monty’s death. The death of the caretaker is more disturbing than anything in the first book, because the children actually see his corpse (compare this to Harry Potter, wherein there’re no corpses until book four, more than halfway through the series.) It’s also more shocking to the reader than anything in The Bad Beginning, because unlike the parents who die in the first book, we actually get a chance to see Dr. Montgomery and get to know him before he dies. So knowing that it’s going to happen ahead of time takes some of the edge off the murder. It’s important to do that because this is only the second book of the series, and the first book where the guardian isn’t Count Olaf—the reader can’t have very clear expectations of how “unfortunate” these books will get, so the death of Uncle Monty establishes the tone, and severity of misfortune, for the entire series.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning

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Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

I’ve been wanting to reread A Series of Unfortunate Events for a while, and with the Netflix series premiering in just a week and change, now seems like a good time. So, leading up to Friday the 13th, I’ll be posting reviews of the first four books—the ones covered in the TV series. I could stop there, but as soon as I started reading the first one I was hooked, and I could easier stop drinking coffee than stop reading these books at this point. So I’ll keep posting reviews after that, I don’t know how often, but at least weekly.

The Only Series That Matters

I’ll start by explaining, why this series? Between the ages of six and ten, I read a lot of YA and middle grade books, and a lot of book series—The Underland Chronicles, The Inheritance Cycle, Magic Treehouse, the Alex Rider books, the Alfred Kropp books, GoosebumpsAnimorphsCaptain UnderpantsThe Spiderwick Chronicles, and others. Some of these series I read all the way through, others I didn’t. But as far as I was concerned, A Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter were the only series that mattered. There were no other books that I reread so often as the books in those series. They were the two pillars of children’s literature for me. Looking back on all the books I read as a kid, those are the only series I’m still interested in rereading—and, although Harry Potter was my favorite when I was a kid, Unfortunate Events is the series I now care about rereading most. The books introduced me to so many concepts, phrases, quotes, and words which have stuck with me to this day. Molotov cocktails, Friedrich Nietzsche, mob psychology, waxing and waning—but I’m getting ahead of myself. The point is, the series looms large in my childhood, and hopefully these posts will explain why, as well as illuminate other matters I find interesting along the way.Read More »