This is a review — a word which here means, “an excuse to write about a book that I like” — for the book, Poison for Breakfast. This book was written by Daniel Handler, who sometimes calls himself Lemony Snicket when he’s writing books. He mostly uses straightforward language, and when he doesn’t, he likes to define the words he’s using, as I just did, above.
Poison for Breakfast is a book that takes its time getting where it’s going, but it does get there. So I’m going to take my time getting where I’m going in this review. I’ll start by talking about music and books.
How I’ve Felt About Music
I first recall really paying attention to music, beginning to realize that I might have opinions about music, in middle school. Those opinions were mainly whether I liked a particular song or not. For some music lovers, there is a particular genre they fall in love with, and it becomes a lifelong passion. I had no conception of genre, at first. That came sometime later.
When I did develop opinions about genre, they were mostly vague and negative ones, influenced, if not outright parroting, my parents’ tastes. I recall “hating” techno, rap, and country music, or at least saying that I did.
As I grew into an adult, I made it a point of pride to seek out opinions and ideas that challenge or conflict with my own beliefs, whether that be in politics, religion, or music. I’ve been an adult for many years now (a shocking number, when I stop to think about it), and I’ve sought to listen to a wide variety of music. Luckily, we live in a world where there are still a few independent radio stations and innumerable streaming services, not to mention Bandcamp, YouTube, and all the other places where artists can make their work available to the world without much interference.
I’ve learned that there is no genre of music I truly dislike. The trick is to find a single song that I can appreciate. From there, I always find more. Rather than genres that I “hate,” it turns out I just have genres where I’m pickier.
A Little Cognitive Dissonance
From a very young age, I’ve been attracted to genre fiction. I loved books about aliens when I was a child. Around the time I was discovering opinions about music, my mother’s co-worker introduced me to The Lord of the Rings, and from there I was thoroughly hooked on fantasy as well as sci-fi.
As I grew and my tastes in music expanded, so did my tastes in literature. Once again, all it takes is finding one book to serve as a gateway into a new genre. While I once may have eschewed non-fiction or romance, I’ve discovered a love of all sorts of non-fiction in recent years, and a few romances too (even if they do have a sci-fi bent).
I just talked about how I like to keep an open mind and expand my interests. It might seem absurd then, that I would shy away from any genre of literature. But the absurdity of it doesn’t make it any less true.
Literary fiction, which oddly has become as much a closed-off genre as sci-fi or fantasy, has long left a bitter taste in my mouth. Since this is a label more controversial than most genre labels, I’ll provide my own controversial definition: “fiction that is more interested in playing with words than in telling a compelling story.” This is a definition that encompasses quite a lot of “traditional” Lit-Fic, while also allowing something like Vandermeer’s Dead Astronauts, which many people might exclude, to perhaps straddle the border.
I might trace my early dislikes in music to my parents tastes, but I have a harder time tracing my literary dislikes. I’m sure it didn’t help that school foisted onto me some of these lit-fic “masterpieces,” like Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby, without adequate context and certainly before I was mature enough to appreciate much about them. I have gone back to a few of these books in recent years, and discovered that they at least have something to offer, even if I didn’t fall in love with all of them.
Writing a review of a book that barely mentions the book itself is considered bad form by many people. With this in mind, and having now taken a leisurely drive around the metaphorical block, let’s return to where we started this somewhat strained music/literature metaphor.
This is one of those books that, by my own definition, qualifies as literary fiction. And I enjoyed it quite a lot. Not only that, but what I enjoyed most was the words, rather than the story. I enjoyed it because it was literary fiction.
One could argue (with good supporting evidence) that this book does have a plot. It begins with Snicket, the narrator, who is told by anonymous note that he has eaten poison for breakfast. He spends the rest of the book trying to solve this mystery, though his methods mostly involve meandering around town and becoming lost in thought. It’s a tiny plot, but also a tiny book. This little bit of story is just enough to let the book focus on what it really wants to do, which is play with words.
Poison for Breakfast is so full of delightful sentences that I started marking the bits I liked with little scraps of paper. By the time I finished, there was a nice, thick ruffle of scraps sticking out. The book is full of anecdotes and asides that seem like non sequiturs until you read a bit further and find that they’re referenced again and again; linguistic winks and nods, like inside jokes with the reader. It wraps back around on itself. It pulls disparate threads together and twists them into delightful and surprising shapes.
There are motifs, like sets of rules that turn out to really only be one rule from a certain point of view, or that a good story must be bewildering, or the contents of the narrator’s breakfast, left-justified like poetry with each individual food on its own line:
a piece of toast
one sliced pear,
and one egg perfectly prepared
And there is death. This is a book that mentions brutal prison camps; and death by starvation, and old age, and of course, poison.
Winks and Nods
A book about being poisoned might not sound like a child-friendly book. And perhaps it isn’t. Like Snicket’s other books, this is a book that observes the world with a child-like wonder, and discusses it with mostly simple and straightforward language. It’s a book that seems to understand a child’s perspective. It is more of a child-understanding book. It feels like the sort of conversation you might have been lucky enough to have as a child, with an adult who spoke seriously and honestly, and didn’t sugar-coat the truth or dumb-down the complicated. An adult who understood how to speak with children as equals.
By virtue of being both author and narrator, Snicket places himself where he can freely talk about his love of language and literature, and the books, poems, songs, and ideas he likes, while also illustrating that joy in his own words.
The second-to-last chapter takes all the little callbacks, the little winks and nods, and ties them all together in a neat little bundle. It’s the big reveal at the end of the magic show. And in the final chapter, Snicket sets to work writing the story you are in the midst of reading, making the whole thing feel like the cycle of chicken and egg (which is itself another repeated motif from earlier in the book).
Poison or Antidote?
Poison for Breakfast reminded me that I can love literary fiction, even if it’s not the first section I visit in the book store. As an added bonus, this is a book ostensibly for children, so I will get to enjoy it a second time when I read it to mine. With any luck, they won’t spend years thinking that they dislike whole categories of things when they are, in fact, just a little bit picky.