Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In which I review a book that was not for me on every level

The kid-lit thing is usually Alice's beat, but when The Mysterious Benedict Society was on Kindle sale for 99¢ I couldn't say no. Ironically, the first time I came across the book was when I picked it up at a Goodwill, where it was also 99¢. FATE.

I know I'm wildly inconsistent as far as warning you about spoilers, but I want to discuss some of the "secrets" of this book, so if you want to find out what's so mysterious about Benedict for yourself, you might want to skip this post.

Not THAT mysterious Benedict! (I crack myself up)

The Mysterious Benedict Society seems to have been produced for the precocious "smart kids" of elementary schools everywhere. Its heroes are a group of misunderstood gifted children with various special abilities. In a world where the vast majority of adults and children are being brainwashed via TV and (quaintly enough) radio, only clever Reynie, acrobatic Kate, stubborn Constance, and Sticky, who remembers almost everything he's ever come across, can save humanity from a mad scientist.

I liked the four members of the Society, and I thought the book did a good job of highlighting their various strengths without being too tidy about the diversity factor. I did not guess Constance's secret strength until it was revealed at the very end. The children's sad backgrounds were well-done too, I thought, and when Kate was reunited with her father I may have been a little choked up.

There was a lot about the book that felt sort of homey and classic to me; surely the "adults don't pay attention to kids or give them their due" business is about the hoariest chestnut in the box (or wherever hoary chestnuts would hang out). When I was a kid, I got to join Gifted classes (when I attended schools that had them), and our Weekly Readers always featured kids who'd done amazing things and got to meet the president or whatever. The 90s were really into celebrating overachieving kids; so much so that I actually thought I was sort of a slacker because I wasn't on track to graduate college at 16. So, personally, the idea that all adults are dumb clods who don't pay attention to kids never rang true with me; but apparently it's still going strong.

Going a little further down the "I'm an old curmudgeon" trail, I was struck by the way much of the dialogue in this book sounds like it was written for a sitcom.
"A canary in a coal mine?" Constance mumbled without looking up.
     Sticky failed to notice Reynie's warning look. "Oh yes-- miners used to bring canaries with them to gauge oxygen levels in the mine. If the canary died, they knew the oxygen was running out and they'd better get out of there."
     "If the canary died?" Constance repeated.
     Sticky looked suddenly regretful.
     "That was perhaps an unfortunate comparison," Reynie said.
"Whatever happened to asking?" Sticky said. "Whatever happened to please?"
Maybe this particular aspect only struck me because it's been all 19th century, all the time around here lately; but I stand by my reaction that this is rather ironic given that TV is one of the villains of the book.

So overall, I thought the book was fun if decidedly part of the books-for-the-smart-kids genre. But I can't say that I would whole-heartedly recommend it for any child of my acquaintance and that's because of a bewildering moral hole in the center of the story. I feel like an awful bore just writing that sentence but it must be done. I would not buy this book as a gift or recommend it to a child.

I know what you're thinking, and I do not care
 The book sort of sits on the line between sci-fi and fantasy, in that the villain uses some sort of crazy machine to broadcast subliminal messages, but only those who have an unusual love of the truth can resist them. At one point in the story, our heroes, who are embedded as spies, are instructed to cheat in order to get ahead and penetrate the secret organization faster. Reynie rightly struggles with this; he even wonders whether the message could be a fake. Later, when he has cheated and lied even further, he wonders whether he really can have such an "unusual love of the truth" after all. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and... nothing. The kids accomplish their mission, they go home, and they're all rewarded with family reunions; cheating and lying were apparently the right things to do. On a purely functional level, it's pretty bizarre that the author would raise these (really rather thorny) moral issues and hint at how they could affect the plot in very promising ways (I was especially intrigued by the possibility that the cheating instruction could be phoney). Going further, I think it's baloney to endow "unusual love of the truth" with near-magical qualities and then write off any possible negative effects of cheating and lying on that love of the truth. "Love of the truth" therefore appears to be some kind of inherent quality, possibly linked to intelligence or possibly just genetic, and unaffected by actual actions or choices made. That's problematic for me, particularly in a book where, again, "love of the truth" is being upheld as a heroic trait.

I have one last minor quibble.
That morning, as they'd said their good-byes over breakfast, Mr Benedict had pointed out that if they said "Binnud Academy" aloud, it would remind them his thoughts were with them always.
Okay, I have said "Binnud Academy" aloud about twenty times and I don't get it. It... has... some of the same sounds as "Benedict"? If you hate me for panning this book you are welcome to go ahead and think I'm a moron now. I was also unimpressed by "Ledroptha Curtain" as a villain's name. "Let drop the curtain" is almost painfully clumsy -- the author should have just named him "Percy Glyde". Much more repellant.


  1. I LOVED THIS BOOK SO HARD. But I understand your thing about the cheating aspect. That's one of the things I'll grant Series of Unfortunate Events -- there's a really great part towards the end where the Baudelaire children are going to kidnap one of the villains in order to get what they want, and then they're like " are we different from the people we're calling evil then?" So they find another way.

    Ewwww Percy Glyde.

    1. I've only read the first Series of Unfortunate Events (I think) but now I approve of them.

  2. What if "Binnud" is supposed to be pronounced the Spanish way? Then it would be "Be Nude Academy." Ewwwww, Benedict.