Monday, October 30, 2017

Dickens and Christmas, by Lucinda Hawksley. Pen and Sword History, 2017

Lucinda Hawksley is a direct descendant of Charles Dickens, so she is uniquely placed to write about his life. Her book relates an abbreviated biography of Dickens, with emphasis on how he himself celebrated Christmas, how England in general celebrated, and his works of fiction about Christmas.

A Christmas Carol is the one piece by Dickens that nearly everyone in the English speaking world knows. Even if they have never read it, pretty much everyone has seen one or more of the many film, TV, or cartoon versions. Everyone associates Dickens with Christmas, even more than they associate him with orphans and grim poverty. That didn’t start recently; it started as soon as he published Carol. He wrote four more Christmas stories, which cemented his position as the king of Christmas. The people of England came to expect his Christmas stories, which became a huge burden on him. He wanted to write other books, books that shined a light on the horrors of poverty. He solved the problem by creating a monthly magazine, and hired others to write stories for the Christmas edition.

Hawksley tells Dicken’s story in calm prose, and doesn’t spare him from examination. His childhood poverty, his perpetual money problems (most of them created by his large family), his marital problems, are all examined. I found it a very interesting look into his life. I also liked that the author related how the celebration of Christmas was changing, due both to the Industrial Revolution and Prince Albert’s bringing German customs over to England. Hawksley weaves all the strands together well. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received my copy of this book free from Net Galley in return for an honest review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley. Bloomsbury, 2015

 Thaniel Steepleton is a telegrapher at the home office, spending his working hours in a former broom closet, listening to the machines that have their wire tentacles all over Westminster. It’s a boring life. Then one night a bomb threat comes through, set for May. When he goes ‘home’- a Spartan room in a boarding house-he discovers his door open and a velvet box tied with ribbon and addressed to himself. In it is a fancy pocket watch of the finest work. Realizing it’s his birthday, he assumes his sister has been there and left it. When he sends a telegram to her in Scotland and she replies that of course she’s home and hasn’t been to London, the mystery begins.

Six months after this, he’s in a pub when the watch starts sounding an alarm. He goes outside to try and shut off the noise- and narrowly escapes an explosion. Obviously whoever gave him the watch knew when the explosion was set to happen. Thaniel is set by his superior to find where the watch came from, and then shadow him. So he ends up renting a room from the Japanese watchmaker who admits he made the watch. Keita Mori, a lonely man from Japan, doesn’t just make watches. He does all sorts of clockwork- his pet is a clockwork octopus that is supposed to act randomly- but keeps ending up hiding in Thaniel’s dresser drawer, stealing his socks.

Meanwhile, another narrative strand involves Grace Carrow, who is studying physics at Oxford, and has to dress as a man to gain entrance to the library. Her best friend is also from Japan, a dandy from a royal house. She has an inheritance, but her father won’t let her have it- until she marries. Which she doesn’t want to do.

Even more strands appear. I have to admit I was totally confused at several points. There is a supernatural element, making it even harder to figure out. But it all comes out in the end. It’s a steampunk story, a Victorian mystery, and a love story. It was totally engrossing, with a wonderfully created atmosphere, and great details- clockwork fireflies? Yes, please! The characters could have been filled out better; for as much page time as Thaniel gets, we don’t know much about his interests are or even how he spent his spare time before the novel starts! Still, five stars. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

This did not influence my review.  

The American Way of Death Revisited, by Jessica Mitford. Vintage Books, 1998 originally published 1963

When Jessica Mitford first wrote this expose, it was a shocking book. That was in 1963; I read the updated 1998 version. Sadly, she died just as they were finishing up the book. I would have loved to have read what she thought about the funeral industry today!

While Mitford is careful to point out that there are honest and caring funeral professionals, she takes aim at the ones who are in it strictly for the money. While *any* business is in it for money, people seeking funeral services are in a very vulnerable position; they are both emotionally wrung out and racing against the clock to get things done. Few people are in the position to shop around, so when a funeral professional engages in some of the practices advocated in some of the professional magazines, they are very apt to get away with them. Strategic placement of less expensive coffins (“Caskets” these days) so they look cheaper than they are, provoking guilt feelings if the family doesn’t buy the most expensive everything, lying about laws concerning embalming, burial vaults, and more are all on the menu. And as more and more family owned funeral parlors get bought up by mega-corporations, which own not just the funeral parlor but the cemetery and the flower shop, choices are disappearing.

What makes this peculiarly American? In 1998, America was about the only place where open casket funerals were common. Having the corpse in view, there was a great opportunity to sell the family on embalming, cosmetics, clothing, and a fancy coffin interior, all of which are unneeded if we’re not looking at Uncle John or Aunt Edith. Embalming was nearly unheard of in other countries. (Mortuaries have been known to lie and tell families that embalming was required by law. It wasn’t. Anywhere.) Having a big funeral at the mortuary, with lots of flowers, was mostly an American thing. Cremation was not in big use, although it’s gotten much more used today. (That was another selling point: they wanted to sell a place in the cemetery to bury the ashes in, so they said that if the ashes were scattered, there would be no place for the family to visit the loved one)

The book is well researched. Mitford managed to get hold of lots of professional magazine, went to funeral profession conferences, and talked with many both in the industry and close to it. The story is horrifying, but Mitford’s wit is biting and the book is an amusing read. She is even handed where it’s called for. I feel it’s a very important book, one that should be read early in life, before one is likely to have to deal with the industry, so that one doesn’t end up railroaded into spending every penny giving Grandpa the send-off the mortuary feels he deserves, marble angles, super mattress in the coffin, shoes for in the coffin advertised as ‘comfortable’, and all. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- Amazon will give me a few cents. 

This did not influence my review.