Friday, 30 May 2014

Chapter-by-Chapter: The Bad Beginning, Chapter 3

Welcome to the third chapter review of Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning. As usual, there may be spoilers ahead…

What Happens?
Count Olaf is just as bad as the children were expecting and his house is no better. Each morning he leaves them a long list of chores to be done by the end of the day. One day they are instructed to cook a meal from scratch for Olaf and his entire theatre troupe. The children have no idea how to cook but luckily Justice Strauss stops by and they ask to borrow a cookbook. Justice Strauss invites them to her library and helps them to find a recipe book with the instructions for making Puttanesca.

Thoughts as I read:

As always, the chapter begins with one of Brett Helquist’s gorgeous illustrations. This time it’s an extreme close up on Count Olaf’s eyes and his spectacular monobrow. It’s all bushy and looks a little like a phoenix which I’m sure is unintentional, but also kind of apt considering the fire theme in the series.

This chapter begins with a short treatise about how first impressions can be entirely wrong, first giving the examples of a painting or cheese, but then going on to explain how Klaus wasn’t particularly fond of Sunny when she was born. As the weeks passed he grew to love her. Aww. This, of course, is all set up for the narrator to reveal that the children’s first impressions of Count Olaf were entirely correct; he’s thoroughly unpleasant and his house isn’t very nice either!

Count Olaf has put all three children into one room, with one bed. Obviously no one actually checked the home was suitable for three children before they were handed over to him. Although presumably there are more than two bedrooms in the house because it seems to be quite large. Violet and Klaus are forced to take turns sleeping on the floor and the bed, while Violet uses the curtains to make a little bed for Sunny.

Removing the curtains means that they’re woken up by the sunlight every morning. I’m so glad we swapped out our thin bedroom curtains for much thicker ones. It’s summer now and I’m still woken up by the light coming in but at least it’s not quite as bright as it used to be.

Anyway, enough about me, back to the Baudelaires, who have no toys to amuse themselves with in their bedroom. Count Olaf has kindly provided them with a pile of rocks. I’d throw them at him. Oh, and there’s another painting of an eye on the wall here too. That brings our count up to four…

We get another fakeout as the text tells us ‘But the children knew, as I’m sure you know, that the worst surroundings in the world can be tolerated if the people in them are interesting and kind.’ Perhaps leading the unsuspecting reader to think that Count Olaf isn’t really too bad. Well, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. Olaf is just as bad as the children thought he would be. And he smells.

Luckily he’s not around too much. Each day he leaves the children a list of jobs to do while he’s out or doing mysterious things up his tower. He’s quite a creepy character so I’m not sure I want to know what he gets up to in his tower! There’s another eye here as well (that’s five) because he sign’s the note with an eye. He’s watching them.

The latest note tells the children that they’re to cook dinner for his theatre troupe, signed with yet another eye (six). He also gives them some money to buy the ingredients. I’m kind of surprised that he gave them money, personally if I were the kids I’d take it, even if it wasn’t a lot, and get the hell out of there.

The flaw in this request is that the children don’t know how to cook. They’ve obviously come from a wealthy family and have never had a reason to prepare a meal from scratch before. Plus, they’re only young, they probably don’t even know how to plan and budget a meal for eleven people. Hell, I’m nearly thirty and I’d struggle to cook an unplanned meal for that number of people!

There’s a bittersweet moment here where Violet deplores the fact that all she can cook is toast and Klaus points out that sometimes she can’t even do that! They remember an occasion when she burned the toast she was preparing as a surprise for their parents, who smelled the smoke and rushed down and cooked pancakes instead. Of course, because I’m reading way too much into this, I realise this shows that they didn’t have smoke detectors in the house and also that the fire which took over the Baudelaire mansion must have spread pretty quickly if they hadn’t been able to get out. Just a thought.

Reminiscing about life before Count Olaf brings the children back to thinking about how much they miss their parents and how much they hate Count Olaf. Violet says ‘They would never let us stay in this dreadful place’ and I wonder whether it’s the parents’ fault for not being more specific in their will, or Mr Poe’s fault for not executing it properly, or if perhaps Count Olaf managed to worm his way into the scenario somehow.

Sunny then says ‘Jook!’ which is one of the few of her phrases not to be defined. It’s either her attempt to say ‘chin up’ like her siblings, or ‘cook’ to remind them of the task set by Count Olaf.

Klaus, ever the bookworm, suggests that a cookbook would tell them how to cook and what they’d need to buy for it. Unsurprisingly there’s no cookbook in the house. Not only are there no cookbooks, there are no books at all. This makes Klaus miserable and I can’t blame him. I hate it when I don’t have anything to read – living in an age of Kindles and Smartphones makes this easier to deal with, but there’s nothing more frustrating than not having a good book when you need one.

They’re interrupted by a knock at the door and they briefly hope that someone might want to visit them. It’s revealed that since their parents died most of their parents’ friends have cut off all contact with the children. On the one hand I think that this makes them very bad friends, on the other hand I can’t help but wonder if maybe Count Olaf is threatening them with something. Perhaps I’m making him more powerful than he actually is and the Baudelaire parents’ friends are just big jerks.

Another eye. The peephole is in the shape of one. That makes seven.

Justice Strauss has popped by to check up on them. At least somebody is. She’s been busy so couldn’t come round soon. I remember when I was first reading these books and trying to work out if everything was a clue… this time around I’ve forgotten so much that I’m still wondering if everything is a clue. Strauss was busy with a case involving ‘a poisonous plant and illegal use of someone’s credit card’ and I’m wondering if either of those two things are going to come back into play later in the story!

Sunny says ‘Yeeka!’ which means ‘How interesting!’ I wonder if that’s like Eureka! Either way Justice Strauss understands Sunny, which I think is a mark of the good guys in this series. I think the good characters understand her and the bad guys don’t, or at least pretend not to.

Sunny shows she likes Justice Strauss by giving her a gentle bite, apparently she bites hard if she doesn’t like someone or if someone tries to give her a bath, hehe.

Justice Strauss asks if there’s anything they want. I think it’s an interesting choice of words here, she says ‘desire’ as opposed to ‘need’. It allows the children to think about things that they really want, which you might be able to argue they don’t necessarily need (like a closet instead of a cardboard box for their clothes). I think this word choice definitely means something. It certainly stuck out at me, but I can’t work out exactly why.

Klaus decides that the one thing they ‘desire’ that they can ask Strauss for is a cookbook. She’s a little surprised at the task they’ve been set, but all the same she invites them round to her house to find a suitable book.

Once again, Justice Strauss’s house is a complete contrast to Count Olaf’s; it’s ‘well-kept’ and smells of flowers. Whereas in my mind Olaf’s house is dark and dingy, Strauss lives in a house which is light and airy. And she has a library, unlike Olaf who doesn’t have a single book to his name, all of Strauss’s books are out on display in a room appointed just for them. Ah.

Justice Strauss gives the children free reign of the library as long as they treat the books well. In the familiar, repetitive refrain the three children each express an interest in a particular type of book; Violet is interested in books on mechanical engineering; Klaus is interested in books about wolves, wanting to learn more about North American wild animals; and Sunny says ‘Book!’ her first actual word in the series, meaning ‘Please don’t forget to pick out a picture book for me.’

The children eventually find a book with a recipe for Puttanesca pasta sauce which seems fairly straightforward to make and so the chapter ends on a bit of a high note. The three Baudelaire children think that perhaps life might just be bearable with Justice Strauss next door, giving them somewhere to escape when things are bad. But as we’re only three chapters into a thirteen book series, I think even someone reading it for the first time will be able to work out that’s unlikely to be the case.

This chapter has seen the story get moving properly. It’s kind of establishing the adults that the children now have in their lives (and the fact that they’re polar opposites of each other). We’re getting to see just how bad Count Olaf can be, which is only setting us up for more bad behaviour from him. But it also shows that the children are quite capable of surviving together, as well as at solving problems as they arise.

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