The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket

The Miserable Mill begins to change the recipe of these stories. No longer is it required for the children to live with a relative who dies by the end of the book (though someone seems to always die). It was getting a bit tiresome to always have a trail of corpses following behind the children. And, it was becoming a bit laughable. How many relatives can be killed in the series? Do the Baudelaire children have enough relatives that they have never met to satisfy the demands of one dead relative per title?

Anyway, I digress; in this book the children are sent to live with “Sir” who runs the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill. “Sir,” as he is called because no one can pronounce his name, places the children in the dormitory to work with the other mill workers. The three children must forgo breakfast, receive bubblegum for lunch, and a casserole for dinner. All day long, they perform exhausting work that only adults should do. For example, eighteen month old Sunny must strip bark from the trees with her four sharp teeth. To make matters more deplorable, the employees are paid in coupons….

Additionally, the children perk up when they hear that the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill has a library. In this series, a library is always present and represents the ray of hope for the children. Snicket tries to imply that education will be the answer to many or most of life’s problems. As a Christian, I would have to qualify that. Christ is the answer to all problems in life; and it is not just any knowledge of Christ, but an accurate knowledge that makes the difference. General knowledge is critical in life (one of the reasons for this web site is to promote learning), but general learning is always secondary to an accurate knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, for the Baudelaires, the library only contains three books: a history of the town, a history of the mill, and an advanced opthalmologic text. Not much to work with.

Count Olaf does not make much of an appearance in this book. Rather, the evil is performed by the wicked Dr. Orwell – the local eye doctor who loves to hypnotize people. And of course, Dr. Orwell operates her optometry office from a building that looks like the eye tattooed on Olaf’s ankle. As usual, the children escape the clutches of Olaf through reading and learning (and a bit of luck). This story is a bit more absurd than the first three especially when Sunny begins sword fighting with her teeth. Between a diabolical optometrist, a rude foreman, an eternal optimist, and a cruel manager, there are few happy moments in Violet, Klause and Sunny’s lives in this story. But somehow, you enjoy this book all the same. As always, if you haven’t read this series yet, start reading. They don’t take long and are quite delightful.

The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde

I have recently finished reading The Fourth Bear, the latest Jasper Fforde novel and the second in the Nursery Crime series. While I don’t find that the Nursery Crime quite live up to the imaginitive possibilities latent in the Thursday Next novels, they’re still quite inventive and do a fantastic job of blending reality and the realms of literature.

I thought this second installment actually better than the first; it took me quite a while to get interested in The Big Over Easy. I think the thread of the character of the Gingerbreadman as psychotic serial killer (he has a much more prominent role in TFB) gave it some continuity; I think my perception was that there were just too many different things going on in TBOE. Or perhaps I have a subconscious preoccupation with death (see my interest in Death as an anthropomorphic personification in the Terry Pratchett novels) that seeks every possible means to show itself.

The best thing about Fforde’s novels are the highly creative allusions to varying works of literature. I particularly enjoyed Dorian Gray as a used-car salesman who sold Inspector Jack Spratt (the head of Nursery Crime) an Austin Allegra with a painting of the car in the trunk. In TFB, Fforde begins to branch out from Mother Goose rhymes and brings in characters from fables, mythology, and even includes Punch and Judy from the commedia dell’arte, which gives him the freedom to stretch out in new and unexpected directions.

Fforde also demonstrates his creativity with the introductory paragraph to each chapter. In TFB, they are excerpts from The Bumper Book of Berkshire Records, which introduces the theme or subject of each chapter in a fresh, unique, and surprising way. It is an idea developed in the Thursday Next books and adds a fantastic dimension and incredible nuance to the thread of the novels.

So Fforde’s next book returns to the Thursday Next Chronicles in The War of the Words, to be released in August 2007. I am certainly looking forward to it . . . .

The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket

In continuing this series, I noticed a major difference between the books and the movie. The movie laid the groundwork for a sequel and began developing a subplot of secret societies locked in mortal conflict. As the movie covered the first three stories in this series, I assumed that I would find the beginnings of this plot in The Reptile Room or even in The Wide Window. So far, there hasn’t been any indication of secret orders dedicated to good or evil in the books. Judging from prufrock’s review of the final book here, I suspect that I will soon find this secret world of intrigue in later books. We shall see…

Usually, when a movie is adapted from a book, the movie does little justice to the book (though there is a trend toward a more accurate representation in recent years). The movie covered The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window. In writing the script, the authors did an excellent job of remaining true to the books while turning the serial stories into a stand alone plot (that allowed for but didn’t necessitate a sequel). When you consider the literary devices used to tie the books together for the movie and the changes that had to be made to formulate the movie, I would argue that the scriptwriters did a fantastic job and should be awarded for their skill. But enough of that….

The Wide Window features a bit more of the same, which is not to say that it is boring, just not quite as fresh and unique as the first two were. It became a bit predictable (though I am probably biased by having seen the movie first). I must say though that I thought that Aunt Josephine was an interesting character.

Aunt Josephine fears everything to the point that she has almost stopped living. She prohibits the children from touching the glass doorknobs, turning on the radiators or the stove, and will not let them near the refrigerator, near the dreadful lake Lacrimose with its deadly leeches and most of all, she fears the dreaded evil Realtor. Any one of those could lead to an accident which would be dreadful. The ironic part is that Josephine lives high above the lake in a house that overhangs the lake. Her house has a massive window (i.e. the wide window) overlooking the fearsome lake. The one positive of Josephine is her love of grammar. She passionately adores anything regarding grammar. Snicket uses her love of grammar to encourage the reader to appreciate the English language more. In a desperate attempt to give the children a secret message, Josephine uses grammatical inconsistencies and errors to tell the children where she is hiding from Captain Sham (Count Olaf).

Hinds’ Feet On High Places by Hannah Hurnard

Written as an allegory, Hinds’ Feet on High Places is the story of a girl named Much-Afraid who is in the service of the Chief Shepherd. She lives in the Valley of Humiliation, but longs to escape and go to the High Places. A member of the Family of Fearings, Much-Afraid is an orphan surrounded by relatives such as her Aunt Dismal Forebodings and cousins Gloomy, Spiteful, and the bullying Craven Fear. They habitually mistreat her because of their hatred of the Chief Shepherd, trying to drive her from his employment. The final straw comes with their demands that she marry Craven Fear.

Much-Afraid pours out her plight to the Shepherd one evening and he offers her a chance to go to the High Places and tells her to make preparations. He asks if she is willing to be transformed, for no member of the Fearing family can go as they are. Before she can go she must allow the seed of Love to be planted in her heart. Shaped like a thorn, its entry into the heart is painful at first, but it makes possible the necessary transformation. Much-Afraid agrees after some quavering and is then sent home to prepare for her journey and warned to be ready for the Shepherd’s signal.

The story continues, chronicling the starting of her journey and the meeting of her two companions, sisters named Sorrow and Suffering. Her failures along the way are many and she despairs of reaching the High Places. Craven Fear dogs their steps and new enemies – Self-Pity, Bitterness, and Pride – attack in the Forest of Danger. Resentment assaults her in the mists and she begins to doubt the goodness of the Shepherd. Was it all a cruel trick?

The nature of an allegory makes many of the lessons in this story obvious, though no less meaningful or potent. Hinds’ Feet On High Places is not unlike Pilgrim’s Progress in this regard. Presented as it is, the story may be easily read by adults or to children. Beautifully integrated into the storytelling are passages from the Canticles – the Song of Solomon – in the form of the Shepherd’s speech and in the songs sung, while the title and desire of Much-Afraid come from Psalm 18:33 and Habakkuk 3:19: “The Lord God maketh my feet like hinds’ feet, and setteth me upon mine High Places.”

Hannah Hurnard overcame a fear of people and faltering speech and answered God’s call to the mission field. She was a missionary to both Jews and Arabs in the Holy Lands from 1932 until the early fifties, serving as a medical assistant. After Israel became a state in 1948, she turned more to writing and speaking abroad. She is best known for Hinds’ Feet On High Places, which is now regarded as a classic among Christian works.