June 14, 2007


Yet Another NASTYbook: MiniNasties. By Barry Yourgrau. HarperCollins. $12.99.

A Series of Unfortunate Events: No. 1, The Bad Beginning; No. 2, The Reptile Room. By Lemony Snicket. Illustrations by Brett Helquist. HarperTrophy. $6.99 each.

      Barry Yourgrau has gone back to his twisted little roots with his second book of twisted little stories – and third NASTYbook in all. Clearly using Lemony Snicket as a model (Snicket is even quoted in a promotional blurb on the cover of Yet Another NASTYbook), Yourgrau fashions tales of genial rottenness in which fairly bad things happen in moderately shuddery ways to completely interchangeable people. What Yourgrau does well is create short-short stories on this model (his second NASTYbook, a novel, wasn’t quite up to the level of his first book or this new one). Yourgrau likes to make readers work a bit to get through some of his tales: one is in teeny-tiny type (it’s about keeping a mosquito as a pet), one needs to be read by holding it up to a mirror, and a couple are written in the form of bad poetry. Yourgrau is also a shameless padder: the two longest stories here are lengthy merely because he uses only a couple of sentences per page. Still, Yourgrau has his moments – plenty of them. There’s the tale of the super-bubble gum that lets a boy float away – but he’ll need more of it to get down safely – but the gum seller has substituted ordinary gum for some of the super-bubble. There’s the tale of the kidnapping squirrels and the revenge of the granny and the witch. There’s a vampire’s confrontation with a psychiatrist. There’s the sad tale of pickled peppermint pineapple soda. And there’s a lot more – even a tale told in small type along the bottom of the book’s first few pages. There are 56 stories in all, every one a mini, and enough of them nasties to provide plenty of sort-of-gruesome fun.

      Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler) does do the nasty bit better, though. You can see how well he does it in the new paperback editions of the first two tales from A Series of Unfortunate Events. This paperback series actually gives readers more (Snicket) for less (money): each book contains a supplement called The Cornucopian Cavalcade, in which there is a bad-advice column by Snicket, a comic-book-style adventure series featuring really irritating young detectives called “The Spoily Brats,” plus serialized stories, make-believe ads and more. This supplementary material itself is almost worth the price of the paperbacks – but of course, the real reason for buying the books is to replace the much-thumbed, tear-besmirched, too-often-read hardcover originals. The tale of the Baudelaire orphans is all here, book by book, in all its (in)glory. The Bad Beginning explains how Violet, Klaus and Sunny become orphans, introduces bumbling Mr. Poe (the banker who must find them a new home until they come into their sizable inheritance), and provides the first glimpse of the evil, money-hungry, unibrowed Count Olaf. The Reptile Room features the Baudelaires’ stay with uncle Montgomery Montgomery and his unsavory unibrowed assistant (guess who?). The paperbacks’ new illustrations, by Brett Helquist (who also illustrated the hardcover series), fit the stories wonderfully well. And if you have ever wondered just where Lemony Snicket got some of his ideas for his offbeat books – well, just check out the work (part of the cornucopian supplement) by Stephen Leacock, which was originally published in a volume called Nonsense Novels in 1911. Aha! It’s all Leacock’s fault! (Quick – send Snicket’s royalties to Leacock’s estate!)

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