I read The Austere Academy and The Ersatz Elevator this summer, and sort of “rediscovered” the fact whilst flipping through past entries in my reading journal this morning. I’m fond of this series by Lemony Snicket. It’s absurdly humorous (literally), it’s clever and well-written, and goodness knows how it’s wringing my heart with each sequential installment. I’m still on the hunt for a (preferably second-hand) copy of the next book, The Vile Village. So far, none has showed up in my usual haunts, but I’m not discouraged. And yes, I’m aware that I could just walk the three extra blocks to the public library and secure a temporary copy there. But where’s the fun in collecting a series after the fact, when you’re done reading all the books? (Very anti-climactic, no?) I’ll re-visit this series time after time – I’m fairly certain of it – but there’s nothing quite like reading the book for the first time, and knowing that the copy you’re reading belongs to you.
A brief explanation of the series thus far:
A Series of Unfortunate Events is the story of Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire – siblings, whose parents were mysteriously killed in a fire that also destroyed their home. As if that was not miserable enough, they are also being hunted by a nefarious man called Count Olaf, who will do anything and everything to get his hands on the children’s fortune. As the Baudelaires shuffle from one incompetent guardian to the next, they must rely on each other and their wits to outsmart the scheming Olaf, who is never too far behind.
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Proceed with caution – POSSIBLE SPOILERS.
In The Austere Academy, the Baudelaires are enrolled into Prufrock Preparatory School. As they attempt to adjust to their new environment, they cross paths with several unsavory individuals: Vice Principal Nero, a mean-spirited megalomaniac who seems to run the school despite his title; Carmelita Spats, a fellow student and a bully with an unfortunate penchant for inconsiderate nicknames; and of course, Count Olaf, who has snuck into Prufrock Prep posing as a gym teacher named Coach Ghengis. As the Baudelaires wrack their brains for a way to unmask him, they befriend two of the three Quagmire triplets, Isadora and Duncan, who are also students at Prufrock Prep as well as orphans who lost their parents in a fire. The orphans take to each other like hand to a glove, and pool together their cleverness and resources to help save the Baudelaires from Olaf’s latest scheme.
“Mr. Poe said to come right to Vice Principal Nero’s office,” the man mimicked in a high, shrieky voice. “Well, come in, come in, I don’t have all afternoon.”
The adults in this installment are particularly unsavory. Mr. Poe is an idiot, and Vice Principal Nero is obnoxious, delusional, and a fool. Nothing needs to be said about Count Olaf, who is as usual conniving, cunning, and insufferable. Nero’s treatment of the Baudelaires and their friends, the Quagmires – the constant mocking, the unfair and illogical rules, the putting them up in an uninhabitable shack with drippy mold and snap-happy crabs – particularly irked me. Perhaps I’m growing weary of the adults, whose daftness and regular incompetence are a running joke and theme in this series. And by weary, I don’t mean, “Oh my gosh, here we go again. CAN WE TRY SOMETHING DIFFERENT, SNICKET?” But weary in the sense that the emotional burden I have for the Baudelaires is growing heavier and heavier. Or perhaps Nero’s attitude towards the children, which I’ve seen similarly manifest in several adult-child relationships in my experience, touches a personal nerve. And because of that, I see little humor in it.
For Beatrice – You will always be in my heart, in my mind, and in your grave.
But that isn’t to say that I didn’t find this book funny. The series’ brand of humor – dark comedy spiced with the absurd – knows how to tickle my funny bone, and The Austere Academy did have some funny moments. Like this:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the man announced in a loud voice, “Vice Principal Nero!”
There was a pause, and the three children looked all around the tiny room, wondering where Nero had been hiding all this time. Then they looked back at the man with the pigtails, who was holding both hands up in the air, his violin and bow almost touching the ceiling, and they realized that the man he had just introduced so grandly was himself. Nero paused for a moment and looked down at the Baudelaires.
“It is tradition,” he said sternly, “to applaud when a genius has been introduced.”
When you listen to a piece of classical music, it is often amusing to try and guess what inspired the composer to write those particular notes. Sometimes a composer will be inspired by nature and will write a symphony imitating the sounds of birds and trees. Other times a composer will be inspired by the city and will write a concerto imitating the sounds of traffic and sidewalks. In the case of this sonata, Nero had apparently been inspired by somebody beating up a cat, because the music was loud and screechy and made it quite easy to talk during the performance.
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All said, I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the books in this series. I get the feeling that this book was setting up a lot for future events – especially with regards to the Quagmires, and Carmelita Spats whose presence in this book seemed too purposeful not to have some sort of significance later on in the series. We shall see!
Post on The Ersatz Elevator to follow. In the meantime…
Readers – What is your opinion on dark humor? Is it something that’s up your alley, or something you consider distasteful? And why?