A Series of Unfortunate Events: 3 and 4

I figured I would continue with this series since I’m on a roll! The Wide Window is the last book I read in the series the first time around, and I don’t like it is much as the other two, probably because it’s hard to like the Baudelaires’ phobic grammarian Aunt Josephine. The fatal Lachrymose Leeches are a creative twist, though.

I moved on to The Miserable Mill. Lemony Snicket devotes the first three pages to explaining why the first sentence (“The Baudelaire orphans looked out the grimy window of the train and gazed at the gloomy blackness of the Finite Forest, wondering if their lives would ever get any better.) is a good indication that the book will indeed be an unhappy one. Let it never be said that this series suffers from false advertising. After their banker Mr. Poe drops them off at the factory their new temporary caretaker owns, they are forced to work long hours and live in the barren barracks. And Klaus suffers from hypnosis. [Which made me think of something when I was reading this that I now can’t remember. I think it was that I recently watched something involving hypnosis.]

This is the first book where you get a sense of a sinister larger picture, in that the eye from Olaf’s tattoo is also present in a few places around town. The movie of the first three books also hinted at this. I’m intrigued to know were this is going.

I don’t think I mentioned before the author’s penchant for big words, which he then explains. It’s especially funny when his definition is based on context rather than denotation. Here are a few for example:

  • “…so far each home had been a catastrophe, a word which here means ‘an utter disaster involving tragedy, deception, and Count Olaf.'”
  • “‘…we could do a forgery,’ Klaus said, using a word which here means ‘write something yourself and pretend that someone else wrote it.'”
  • “… Count Olaf and his nefarious assistants–the word ‘nefarious’ here means ‘Baudelaire-hating’…”
  • “…his voice faking–a word which here means ‘feigning’–kindness.”

Even though Count Olaf has so far always managed to escape, the books end on a slightly upbeat note because the orphans realize that they still have each other, and things could always be worse. Nevertheless, I think I need to take a short break from the series. Despite having grown up with Roald Dahl I’m in the mood for something a bit sunnier for now.

Published in: on July 27, 2012 at 6:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Girl Who Played Go

“My brother, after my first battle the only thing I now worship is the sun, a star that represents death’s constancy. Beware of the moon, which reflects our world of beauty. It waxes and wanes, it is treacherous and ephemeral. We will all die someday. Only our nation will live on.” (–the soldier in a letter to his brother)

I know that I’ve seen The Girl Who Played Go at the library before, as well as the other novel by Shan Sa; they are small books (size, not length), almost square in shape. My policy is usually that if I find a book a second time it means I should give it a try.

The Girl Who Played Go is set in 1936 in a small town in Manchuria, China, which was occupied by the Japanese at that time. It is told in alternating chapters by two unnamed narrators, a sixteen-year-old Chinese school girl and a Japanese soldier. This is never made explicit, but the first switch is blatantly obvious, and after that you just expect it every for each new chapter. I didn’t feel like I got to know the soldier very well. He is a bit of a cynic and doesn’t seem to believe in much except fighting for honor. He gets caught up in the glory of war but still has a small streak of fear in him.

The girl comes through the pages much more easily. Her town is affected little by the occupation. She goes to school with her friends, and plays Go most days at the tables set up in the Square. It is unusual for a girl to play, but she learned at a young age from her cousin, and he encouraged her because she showed exceptional talent. One day she meets two young university students who are both interested in her, named Min and Jing. The two are best friends but opposites, and she is not sure who she is more attracted to. The girl doesn’t have a lot of models of love in her life, because marrying for love was not the norm at the time. Her parents don’t openly show affection to each other, her sister’s husband is unfaithful, and her best friend has an arranged marriage waiting for her at the end of the school term. Though timid at first, she recklessly rushes forward with a relationship that she’s not quite equipped to handle.

Eventually some of the Manchurians, especially the student crowd, start staging revolts. The soldier knows Mandarin and Go from his childhood nurse, and is ordered to spend time in the Square posing as a Chinese traveler in the hopes of overhearing information. He ends up with the girl as a partner, and their lives become intertwined over the next few weeks as they play their game. He has mixed feelings about posing as the enemy, while she has much else to occupy her mind. Both Min and Jing are involved in the revolution, and she is worried for their safety. The uneasy peace cannot last, and when the parties actually clash all hell breaks loose.

I was expecting all the angst of Summer of My German Soldier, which my mom loves and I hate, but it’s surprisingly much different. The best way I can describe this is that it would make a very good opera. The love/war themes of the plot, and the inevitable ending, have all the dramatics that you would find on stage, though belied by the matter-of-fact prose. Every surrounding character in the female narrator’s life is primed for tragedy—her sister, her best friend, her cousin Lu. She herself starts out as a day-to-day normal girl, but soon falls into the trap of tragedy as well (which the jacket does hint at). I could see this having a similar impact on stage as Miss Saigon. Maybe this is just because I’ve been on an opera kick lately, though; I’ve been listening to a CD of the classics and keep having to stop and look up all the plots. This one definitely fits in with all the rest.

I didn’t know anything about the game Go before reading this, and still don’t, but it pretty much comes across as chess on steroids. I also realized that I know hardly anything about Chinese and Japanese history (well, really all of Asia), other than when it overlaps with our own. For example, I’ve heard of the movie The Manchurian Candidate but never knew it referred to a place. Why does Western Europe get all the focus post-Middle Ages? I guess there is so much information that the curriculum has to pick and choose.

This is my first book in translation this year (and also in a long time). The author is from China, but actually moved to France when she was 18, and this book was first published in French.

Published in: on July 21, 2012 at 9:15 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Great Airport Mystery

I was getting rid of a beat-up version of The Great Airport Mystery and decided to read through it first. It’s been a long time since I’ve read one of the classic Hardy Boys books. This is one of the revised texts from the 60s, but it’s still a very different feel from the Casefiles or Undercover Brothers series.

The book starts when Frank and Joe’s car is hit by a low-flying small plane. When they regain consciousness and look for a landing site, however, it seems to have disappeared. That night, Mr. Hardy asks them to take undercover summer jobs at the factory for Stanwide Mining Equipment Company. Small electronic parts containing platinum have gone missing from several recent shipments. The company has also gotten a ghostly message from the pilot of a mining expedition in the Caribbean that crashed. Of course everything turns out to be connected, but before the culprits are caught the Hardys will get their camera stolen, survive a hand grenade, and fly to the Caribbean and Montana. And Chet will impersonate a ghost.

I loved the passage below for the fact that Frank carries an emergency detective kit (and uses it later on when he needs an envelope to hold a clue). Would this trick actually work in real life, though? I guess Bayport must not get much traffic.

‘When Zimm comes out,’ he told Biff, ‘you take the car and follow him. I want to question the shop owner.’

‘But when will we join up?’ his friend asked.

Frank reached into his pocket and took out an emergency detective kit. From it he extracted a packet containing small pieces of vivid red paper, and handed it to Biff.

‘As you drive,’ he told him, ‘drop some of this paper every few seconds. That will leave a trail I can follow later.’

‘But what if I run out of paper?’ Biff asked.

‘If you have to follow Zimm that far,’ said Frank, ‘stay with him and find out where he goes. Then retrace your route. I’ll be following the trail on foot as far as it takes me.’

Luckily, he doesn’t run out. The trail leads to a residential street about a mile away, and Frank is able to follow on foot before a breeze threatens to blow the papers away. He then sends Biff to buy sandwiches, milk, and ice cream for their stakeout. Life is never dull when you’re a lackey for the Hardy Boys!

Published in: on July 20, 2012 at 10:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Series of Unfortunate Events: 1 and 2

I am notoriously bad at not finishing series. I stop, restart and read farther, and stop again. Part of me doesn’t want to say goodbye to characters I like, and part of me just gets distracted by other books. There’s another part, though, that hates loose ends, and I’m determined to cross some of these books off my list once and for all. The Year of the Reread seems the perfect time for that.

If you are interested in stories with happy endings,, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.

I can vividly recall the first time I heard of A Series of Unfortunate Events. My mom had dropped off her car in town for an inspection, so we walked to the library for some books and brought them back. I happened to find the first two books in this series. They were the only ones available, so I must have been around twelve at the time. I think I finished both before the car was done (I’m a quick reader). I know I read the third book at a later date, but not the other ten. My brother did buy and read the whole series, so I’m borrowing his to finally find out the rest of the story.

If you’re not familiar with the series, the premise is that Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny Baudelaire have a very unfortunate life. In The Bad Beginning, an unexplained fire destroys their house and kills their parents. They cannot touch the family fortune until Violet turns 21, so in the meantime they are sent to live with their previously-unknown uncle Olaf. His only goals in life are to hang out with his acting troupe, make the children miserable, and scheme up ways to get his hands on their money. They foil his plans in the first book, and move onto herpetologist Uncle Monty in The Reptile Room, but things take a turn for the worse when Count Olaf turns up in disguise.

The books are dark, but blatantly so, and the misfortunes of children are so extreme as to be almost humorous. Though bad things happen, it’s sort of like Hansel and Gretel about to be eaten by a witch or Cinderella made to scrub floors. What really makes these books work is the writing style of “Lemony Snicket.” The author has created this mysterious persona complete with  a shadowing profile and dedications to the dead Beatrice. He claims that he has been entrusted with these true stories to make the plight of the Baudelaires known to the public, acting as an omniscient Had They But Known narrator. It’s great.

The books are also surprisingly educational, kind of like, “Hey, kids, listen to this.” For example, in the second book he gives the following paragraph, after an explanation of what dramatic irony means:

As you and I listen to Uncle Monty tell the three Baudelaire orphans that no harm will ever come to them in the Reptile Room, we should be experiencing the strange feeling that accompanies the arrival of dramatic irony. This feeling is not unlike the sinking in one’s stomach when one is in an elevator that suddenly goes down, or when you are snug in bed and your closet door suddenly creaks open to reveal the person who has been hiding there. For no matter how safe or happy the three children felt, no matter how comforting Uncle Monty’s words were, you and I know that soon Uncle Monty will be dead and the Baudelaires will be miserable once again.

He is so upfront and matter-of-fact about the tragedies in the book that they cease to be traumatic. It’s almost like in the Addams Family, how the macabre and off-kilter are presented as normal. I can’t wait to have kids someday so  I can read these to them.

Also, random note: the orphans look through a cookbook and decide to cook puttanesca when Count Olaf asks for a dinner party. I’d never heard of this until Cornelia called it her comfort food in Belong to Me. I also realized I was entirely wrong in assuming that capers were some sort of sea food, as Snicket explains that they are flower buds from a shrub. See what I mean about these being educational?

Published in: on July 15, 2012 at 6:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Eyre Affair

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that a good high school friend and I first bonded over books our freshman year, and The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde was one of them. In fact, she made me first read Jane Eyre itself so that I would fully appreciate it.

I never read the fifth and sixth of the series, and since it’s been awhile the year of the reread seemed the perfect time to start at the beginning again.  Now with the perspective of looking back, I can see the seeds of things in later books and almost appreciate the humor even more.

I’m never quite sure how to describe this series to anyone I recommend it to, let alone on here. Literary sci-fi doesn’t quite do it justice. Basically it’s set in an alternate universe where the Crimean War is still going on in the 1980s, cloned dodos exist as pets, Shakespeare is the equivalent of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and the different divisions of an organization called Spec-Ops keep everything running smoothly.

the eyre affairCrimean veteran Thursday Next is a member of SO-27, literary detection. Most of the time her job involves tracking forgers, and she doesn’t mind the quiet, especially after a failed attempt to bring notorious criminal Acheron Hades to justice. (Hades, by the way, maintains that he is not mad, just “differently moraled,” and feels required to live up to his name.) Something more sinister is brewing, however, beginning with the theft of the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit and the appearance of what seems to be the corpse of one of its characters. Thursday’s inventor uncle Mycroft has developed a machine that allows one to jump into the pages of any literary work. Unfortunately, the machine is stolen, and someone is now holding Jane Eyre hostage. It’s up to Thursday to rescue her, in between dealing with her time-traveling father and her ex-fiance’s upcoming nuptials.

There are so many inside jokes in the book, some I remember and some I didn’t pick up on until now. The official website is an essential enhancement of the experience that I spent a lot of time exploring when I first read the books. Here are some of my favorite things I noticed this time around:

  • The airship Thursday recalls traveling on is called the Ruritania. Ten years ago I would not have known what that referred to, but I’ve been meaning to read The Prisoner of Zenda for a while now.
  • The Will-Speak machines are still one of my favorite quirks. They are left-overs from the 20s and 30s, featuring a mannequin that will recite a snippet of Shakespeare when you insert a coin. Few remain in operation, due to disrepair and vandalism by fans of Bacon.
  • Spike, the operative from SO-17 (Vampire and Werewolf Disposal Operations) has the last name Stoker. Thankfully Twilight was not around in 1985 (or when this was published, 2001).
  • Thursday’s mother is convinced that her husband, a time-traveling fugitive who can only remain in the present momentarily, is having an affair with Emma Hamilton.
  • Each chapter begins with a fictitious quotation, usually from a fictitious book. Some are from the Thursday Next biographies, written by Millon De Floss (as in the George Eliot book) looking back on the events happening now. We will actually meet him later on in the series.

There’s so much more, but as I got further in the book I kept forgetting to bookmark things. Basically, if you like books and humor, and can accept things that are a bit out of the ordinary, then this is worth reading.

Published in: on July 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm  Leave a Comment