It might seem odd to review a children’s noir spoof and a satirical collection of contemporary short stories at the same time.  But the similarity of craft and wit displayed by both authors is hard to miss.  These might be the two best books, I’ll read all year.

noir fiction for children
Who could resist noir for kids?

Title:  Who Could That Be at This Hour                                     Author:  Lemony Snicket                                                          Publisher:  Little Brown Books for Young Readers          Publication Date:  10/23/2012                                                 Format:  Hardcover 272 pages                                                      Genre:  Children’s fiction                                   

Overview:  from Barnes and Noble   In a fading town, far from anyone he knew or trusted, a young Lemony Snicket began his apprenticeship in an organization nobody knows about. He began asking questions that shouldn’t have been on his mind. Now he has written an account that should not have been published, in four volumes that shouldn’t be read. This is the first volume.

Rating: If you are expecting a children’s book, this may or may not be the book for you.  It is certainly age-appropriate for a nine-year-old.  It is also an expertly crafted spoof of noir fiction, complete with Duke Ellington references.  It’s a 5 of 5 for The Nashville Reader.

An amazing collection of characters that will leave you the wiser and more hopeful for having known them.
An amazing collection of characters that will leave you the wiser and more hopeful for having known them.

Title:  Tenth of December                                                                                Author:  George Suanders                                                          Publisher:  Random House Publishing Group                Publication Date:  01/08/2013                                                 Format:  Hardcover 272 pages                                                      Genre:  literary fiction–short stories

Rating: 6 out of 5.  I’m not a whole-hearted fan of Youssarian, Vonnegut, Defoe or some other great observers of the human condition and circumstance, but George Saunders‘ writing offers me something a little different.  Something I require in an author’s voice, just to finish the book.  The sound of hope.  If you are in need of a realistic adult voice: its observations on our lives and what we are putting forward for posterity, this is the book for you.  Read it twice!

        

Review:  I may find myself reading these two books again and again all year.  In an inexplicable twist of fate, I read these consecutively and found a commonality in the author’s tone that developed along it’s own trajectory.  If Lemony Snicket is the apprentice fresh from his unusual education, then George Saunders stories are the reports and observations he might make as a wizened adult who understands the mysteries and confluences that bring us to the present.  I found the books to be so compatible in the tone and voice, less because I read them consecutively and more because they are each written in a way that allows the reader to be a conspirator of that mysterious presence in good writing, which frames all Lemony Snicket’s meetings with Ellington Feint in full Duke Ellington marginalia (books in the library with Ellington titles, obscure lyrical references, etc.), that same presence that lets you in on the secret that neither it or you has so very much control over the circumstances that shape parent/child relationships in Saunders’ stories.  Both books to me are about a child’s need to understand his surroundings and exert some control on them to find answers about himself, and an adult’s understanding that the answers to our questions about ourselves are exactly in the center of the dissonance between circumstance and reaction.  To write about anything that philosophical in a meaningful and entertaining way can only be done by master craftsmen.

Thank you gentlemen for allowing my 2013 reading to begin so auspiciously, a word which here means in the best way possible.

For some notes on Snicket’s craftsmanship, please look here at wikia, and here at NPR.  To appreciate George Saunders, please examin your own parent/child relations as thoughtfully as possible.

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