Friday, 16 May 2014

Chapter-by-Chapter: The Bad Beginning, Chapter 1

So here goes, the first Chapter-by-Chapter review of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning. As I mentioned last week, this is a reread for me, so there are likely to be spoilers as I remember things that are coming up in the future, so tread carefully if you’ve not read these before.

What Happens?
Readers are warned against reading the book as the lives of the Baudelaire children are utterly miserable. It starts at the beach where the children have been permission to go for the day. Each child has a defining characteristic; Violet is an inventor, Klaus reads and baby Sunny likes to bite things. Mr Poe, a friend of their parents, shows up to tell them that their parents have been killed in a fire at their house. The children, now orphans, will have to stay with Mr Poe until suitable arrangements can be made for them.

Thoughts as I read:
I like the dedication ‘To Beatrice – darling, dearest dead.’ I only vaguely remember who Beatrice is and I think she gets a mention in the dedication of each book. I’m resisting the temptation to dig another one or two off my bookcase to check at the moment. I like that in three words the dedication sort of sets the tone for what is to come in the story, and the series come to think of it.

Brett Helquist’s illustrations are fantastic. They’re just simple pencil sketches but there’s so much subtle detail in them. Lots of the pictures foreshadow things to come, I remember looking at the pictures at the end of each book (as I got my hands on them) and trying to figure out what was the clue to the next book. Anyway, this is the first book and it has a picture of a fire engine passing the children as they travel to the beach on the trolley.

I like that the book basically begins by telling the reader not to read it. What better way to guarantee that a child will pick it up and read it?
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 also like the way that certain words are defined. Having read a journal article about the series (when I should have been looking for texts I could use in my EMA) I saw that this is actually heavily criticised by some reviewers. I know that it’s a bit repetitive at times, but as I recall it starts out with kind of arbitrary words being defined but then some of the descriptions are bit more tongue-in-cheek or has some sort of relation to events in the story. Like the pictures, foreshadowing is going to crop up in interesting ways, so keep your eyes peeled!
The children are each described by a particular skills that they have; Violet is an inventor, right-handed and ties her hair up when she’s inventing; Klaus wears glasses and is really smart, he likes to read and has a really good memory for things he’s read; Sunny is just a baby, is very small, has four teeth and speaks in strange unintelligible words which actually mean whole sentences. Obviously some of these are going to become important plot points later.
I remember once before when I read these books I tried to keep track of what Sunny said and what it actually meant. I think it was when I was looking for clues to figure out what would happen in later books. As I’ve been reading this time I’ve been jotting down some of the more notable phrases. This chapter has “Gack” which means ‘Look at that mysterious figure emerging from the fog!’
The children then see a strange figure walking towards them with an apparently square head. I vaguely remember the first time I read this, I wasn’t entirely sure what sort of book I was getting myself into. I’d heard them compared to the Harry Potter series (presumably because it was an ongoing series of books about three children, one of whom wears glasses, because aside from that they don’t really have much in common) and so I was expecting something along the lines of that. This description made me think things were going to be a bit more cartoony, if that makes sense.
But it’s okay, the mysterious figure is only Mr Poe, a friend of the Baudelaire parents. His head looked square because of the hat he was wearing. I like that people’s names often mean things in these books, there are loads of literary references (which I’m trying to avoid looking up because I don’t want to spoil myself for things that at the moment I’ve forgotten are coming up, like the Baudelaire’s surname references Charles Baudelaire). Mr Poe’s name is obviously a reference to Edgar Allan Poe.
The man isn’t much fun to be around (the fictional Poe, not the real one, I can’t comment on what he was like to be around unfortunately) because he spends much of his time having coughing fits.
Sunny says “Odo you!” which presumably means ‘How do you do?’ This isn’t actually defined in the text though so I’m just guessing based on what her siblings said when they met Mr Poe.
Mr Poe really sucks at breaking bad news to people. Why on earth would you just tell three children they had become orphans right there on a beach where they’d been having a day out?! I mean, I get that there’s never going to be a right time or place to tell three children that their parents are dead, but there’s got to be a better way to break it to them. In the shocked silence that follows Mr Poe helpfully tells the children, who are still processing this information, that ‘perished’ means ‘killed’, just in case they were confused on that point.
Not only have the children lost their parents and their home, but that home contained a library full of books. I’m not sure if it’s entirely normal, but I always feel a crushing sense of sadness whenever I hear about a library or book shop or anywhere else with lots of books being damaged in some way. All those poor books. I mean, I obviously feel sad when I hear about people being hurt or killed in unfortunate events as well, but I just thought I’d share that thing about the books. Now I’m thinking it makes me sound a bit strange so I’m just going to pretend I didn’t say anything and move on.
Moving on… I love the line “Although he said he was the executor, Violet felt like Mr. Poe was the executioner. He had simply walked down the beach to them and changed their lives forever.” The linguistics geek in me loves the play on executor/executioner and I can’t help but wonder if there’s some etymological link between the two.
And as if things aren’t bad enough for the Baudelaire kids, now the Baudelaire orphans, they have to stay with Mr Poe until things get worked out.
That’s the end of the first chapter. It’s quite a short chapter but it does the trick of introducing everyone and the first of the titular Series of Unfortunate Events. With their parents out of the way, the children are on their own and their fate is in Mr Poe’s hands. I think it’s fairly obvious that they’re screwed.

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