Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Two more picture books written by Lemony Snicket

The sub-title of writer Lemony Snicket’s The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming (McSweeney’s Books; 2007) is A Christmas Story but, as the title itself implies, it is as much a Hanukah story as it is a Christmas one. Perhaps more of one. I’m not sure, not having a proper tool with which to measure Christmasness versus Haunkahishness. It’s certainly about both, and the fact that the two overlap.

The latke can’t stop screaming because, after being “fashioned from grated potatoes, chopped onion, beaten eggs, and a dash or two of salt,” he was “slapped into a pan full of olive oil heated to a very high temperature.”

As in the story of the Gingerbread man, the latke suddenly springs to life and goes running out of the house and into the world, only instead of taunting others with how fast he is, the latke is simply screaming in pain.

Artist Lisa Brown provides sharp, simple classy-looking illustrations, with lots of white space around them. Many of the images look as if they might have been re-purposed from nice, expensive Christmas cards. Her latke is a round-ish, golden brown smudge, with a big oval mouth wide open in screaming, arms, legs, eyes, eyebrows and a nose.

His scream is presented as a bit of a break in the narrative which, prior to his first “AAAHHHHHHHH!!!”, consists of blocks of text from Snicket, in his usual voice and using his usual jokes. (The format too is rather Christmas card-like, with images on the left-hand pages and text on the right-hand pages, always separated).

Snicket and Brown repeat the image of the latke and the scream over and over, usually twice. So a two-page of the latke screaming will be followed by an identical two-page spread, only the scream will be lower.I imagine, then, that is a very fun book to read to children.

On the latke’s loud journey, he runs across several almost-as-animated holiday totems—Christmas lights, a candy cane, a pine tree—and stops to talk to each of them (They lack limbs and faces and the ability to move, but they can converse). They introduce and explain themselves, and the latke has to explain a bit about himself—what he is, why he’s screaming—and in the process explains Hanukah.

After each conversation, he runs screaming on to the next one, which, if you ask me, doesn’t seem very realistic. Does the pain really subside so badly that he can stop running and talk normally, only to resume with such intensity he has to run screaming into the night again?

Well, Snicket does write early on that the latke’s screaming and running “may seem like unusual behavior for a potato pancake, but this is a Christmas story, in which things tend to happen that would never occur in real life.”

I’ll take that as an explanation of the coming and going of the pain as well, then.

Snicket wrote another Christmas story book, which is similar in tone, shape and size to this one, called The Lump of Coal. I read it in 2008, but didn’t review it here, and now can’t remember it very well. So I think I’ll reread it.

His book 13 Words (Harper; 2010) is quite a different sort of work all together, with far fewer words, a more dream-like, almost random in conception story (albeit one that is so well edited later as to be elegant) and bigger, brighter, more powerful and prominent art than his other picture books.

While I’ve no knowledge of how exactly the book came about, it reads a bit like a sort of creative writing class exercise, in which a student might pull a number of words from a hat (here, 13 words), and then build a story around them.

This has the look of a children’s book, but the words aren’t exactly the sort that would appear on a second grade spelling test, placing this in that Lemony Snickety realm of kids books for adults, or books for smart parents to read their smart kids.

The 13 words include, among the more simple “bird,” “dog,” “cake,” and “busy,” more highly-syllabic words, like “despondent,” “convertible,” “mezzo-soprano” and, my personal favorite, “haberdashery.”

The story is told through these words, each introduced as “WORD NUMBER (Whatever number it is):”…followed by a brief, declarative sentence that leads to a longer sentence from which an incredibly elaborate, nuanced happy-but-ultimately-sad story emerges.

For example, it begins like this:

The bird sits on the table.

WORD NUMBER 2: Despondent

The bird is despondent.

In fact, she is so sad that she hops off the table to look for something to cheer her up.
And on it goes, for 13 words.

Snicket’s collaborator here is Maira Kalman (more of her work can be seen here; you may recognize her work from many New Yorker covers and some very distinctive-looking children’s books).

Kalman paints, and her paintings are big ones. There is no white space, as in Snicket’s other picture books, as even the blank spaces in the backgrounds of pages are painted, and a warm beige with clearly visible brushstrokes seems to be the closest thing to white space in the book, but most pages have bright colors.

The images are flat, with a rough, almost fauve-like application of paint, but I’m afraid I lack the exact vocabulary to properly to describe it very accurately, being too far removed now from the few art history and aesthetics courses I took on my way to securing a BA in English at the end of the last century.

You know Henri Matisse’s paintings of rooms inside houses, like the one of the red studio or this one? Almost all of the pages look a little like that. Like, maybe the bird’s rooms aren’t in the same house as the one containing Matisse’s red-walled rooms, but perhaps the bird leaves on the same street as Matisse’s house.

The basic story is this: The bird is despondent, and can’t be cheered up with cake, so her friend the dog concocts a plan to help cheer up the bird. And a mezzo-soprano comes over. To give any more detail is to ruin the fun of the book, although it’s worth noting that every page is pretty amazing……particularly the ones in which the dog and the goat (words 4 and 7, respectively) drive the convertible (word 6) to and from the haberdashery, and Kalman depicts the winding road they travel upon in a two-page spread, and shows us the strange sites that one sees on either side of the road.(Above is the right half of one such spread).

Of the handful of picture books of Snicket’s I’ve read, I don’t think this is the best-written, but it may be the overall best, in that its told through a fusion of the words and pictures, and they seem equally important in the delivery of the story and its jokes and charm.

For example, I could imagine The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming or The Lump of Coal or The Composer Is Dead with a different artist providing different art in a different style to accompany the text.

I can’t do that with 13 Words.

Wait, let me take a stab at being clever, and review 13 Words in a manner similar to that in which it is written…

WORD NUMBER 1: Masterpiece.

Lemony Snicket and Maira Kalman’s 13 Words is a masterpiece.


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