Review: How to be a Victorian

How to be a Victorian, Ruth GoodmanYou know that moment when you think, “I should have been born in a different century!” and then you read a book about that era and it totally decimates your charming, rose-colored ideas about the time? Welcome to How to be a Victorian.

In this 440-page chunkster, author Ruth Goodman shares incredible details on clothing (male/female, child/adult), cooking, manners, work, leisure, and sex. The book begins at the start of the day, with each subsequent chapter taking us through the morning, noon hours, afternoon, and evening.

Nestled alongside these historic details — including sketches and contemporary photos of clothing and art — are Goodman’s personal experiences with living in recreated Victorian conditions.

How to be a Victorian is enlightening, a little gruesome, and totally fascinating.

Complete perfection (almost)

If you love history, this book is for you. Just like The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, How to be a Victorian is a detailed, intimate peek into a great period in world history.

Can you imagine spending half of every day in the kitchen and still suffering from malnutrition your entire life?

What struck me first was the book’s structure: chapter one opens at daybreak on a typical Victorian day, and each subsequent chapter takes us through getting dressed, eating, going to work, relaxing at the end of the day, and finally bedtime. Goodman hops between talking about the upper- and lower-classes, but each chapter is a contained topic; this made it easier to take in the incredible amount of information the book contains.

Most interesting to me were the sections on food and medicine, two areas in which humanity has progressed considerably in less than 200 years. Can you imagine spending half of every day in the kitchen and still suffering from malnutrition your entire life? What about giving your infant opium-based “tonics” to improve her health?

While I thought all these minute details were fantastic, I also appreciated that Goodman’s writing expanded to include information on how the Industrial Revolution affected these personal spheres. Mass production of clothing meant women no longer had to make every piece of clothing by hand; new labor laws let children attend school and gave the working class unprecedented leisure time; the widespread acceptance of germ theory changed hygiene practices forever.

My only complaint is that Goodman doesn’t provide much context for why she chose to live in a recreated Victorian setting, and how she was able to do so. Early in the first chapter she mentions that the longest she’s gone without washing with water is four months, and at some point she just tosses in a casual, “Oh, by the way, I lived like a Victorian for a year.”

It was interesting to read about all the things she did, but she could have prevented some distracted reading by adding context — something as simple as a paragraph introducing her reasons why she did it, when she did it, what gave her the idea, etc.

Overall, though, How to be a Victorian was an amazing read. No matter what kind of history buff you are, there’s something in Goodman’s book that’s guaranteed to fascinate you.

If you could live in any other (past) century, which would you choose?

Like this post? Share it!

Review: Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink

Pilgrims Don't Wear Pink, Stephanie Kate StrohmLibby Kelting has just landed a history aficionado’s dream job: an internship at Maine’s oldest Living History Museum. Adios cell phones and Facebook, hello corsets and baking! Libby knows this is going to be the best summer ever.

Except it’s not. Her roommate is a prissy bitch, a local reporter seems determined to get under her skin, and her crush may not be the Prince Charming she hoped for. Oh, and the museum grounds are haunted.

Will Libby’s summer be smooth sailing, or will it be a complete shipwreck?

Fun and ridiculous

Pilgrims Don’t Wear Pink has all my favorite bookish elements: history, a touch of romance, a certain amount of silliness, and a mystery. How could I not love it?

Libby is a great character. I love that she has a good head on her shoulders, is interested in lots of things, and has a stubborn streak a mile wide.

The setting — a living history museum in a sailing community — gives author Stephanie Kate Strohm a great excuse to share fascinating details about ships, clothing, and cooking. These are some of my favorite parts of the book.

Aside from a plot hole big enough to float a yacht through — who lets two teenagers of the opposite sex live on a boat together? — the book is fun and silly and thoroughly enjoyable. The bad guys are deliciously easy to hate, the good guys are flawed but lovable, and the mystery of what’s haunting the museum…well, you’ll have to get the book to find out.

Like this post? Share it!

Review: No Biking in the House Without a Helmet

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, Melissa GreeneWhile most parents their age are long since done with such things, Melissa and Donny Greene seem to be stuck in a perpetual loop of elementary school plays and soccer games, carpools and graduation ceremonies.

As their four biological children grew, the couple realized they weren’t ready to give up on parenthood. They decided on a whim to research adoption, and over the next several years adopted five more children from Bulgaria and Ethiopia.

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is Melissa Greene’s memoir of her family’s meeting and falling in love with five orphans who changed their lives.

Mind. Blown.

Anyone who gives birth to four children and then proceeds to adopt five more is either a saint or a nutjob.

The adoption process Greene describes in the first several chapters is both daunting and heartrending. An absurd percentage of kids adopted from overseas have mental and/or physical problems, and the business that has sprung up around helping people evaluate kids is chilling.

Then there’s the travel, the paperwork, and taking a child who doesn’t speak English from the only home he or she has ever known and figuring out how to raise them. I can’t imagine how challenging the process must be, and Greene did it five times.

Good book, but not great

I enjoyed Greene’s book, but I don’t think I’m her target audience. I’m not interested in having children, and have a hard time understanding Greene’s need to have so much chaos in her life.

No Biking in the House Without a Helmet covers so many topics, so many kids, and so many stories that I had trouble keeping things straight and staying interested. It opened my eyes on the overseas adoption process, but at just over 350 page was too long and unfocused for me to stay invested the entire time.

It’s a good book…just not necessarily for me.

Like this post? Share it!

Review: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, Caitlin DoughtyWorking in a crematory is not a job many people would consider. But for a recent graduate with a degree in medieval history and a love of the macabre, it’s the perfect career.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory is Caitlin Doughty’s memoir about her years in the funeral industry, and catalogues her growing uncertainties with Americans’ cultural practices and feelings surrounding death.

An honest look at a tough topic

In many ways I consider myself extremely fortunate to have little experience with death. Even Doughty — who is most famous for her Ask a Mortician web series — discusses the discomfort it gives her.

On the other hand, I agree with Doughty’s philosophy of openness and frank discussion. As humans we fear what we don’t know, and the only way to learn more about death is to talk about it, write about it, and read about it.

Knowledge is the only weapon we can use to empower ourselves to leave this world on our own terms.

Chronicling a transformation

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes wasn’t exactly what I expected. I thought I’d read about exactly what happens during a cremation and embalming, and how more and more people consider the funeral industry to be a rip-off.

I did read these things, but I also got a firsthand look at Doughty’s transformation from pie-eyed recent grad to horrified first-timer to detached crematory operator to budding death activist. In fact, I wanted more of this — I wanted to know more about how she founded the Order of the Good Death, and what her future plans are.

Let’s talk about death!

Death is one of the three no-no topics of discussion at parties (the other two being death and politics), and like Doughty I think this needs to change. We have to be honest with ourselves and others, especially when it’s about how we wish our own remains to be treated.

So, deathlings, go forth and talk about death with your partners, parents, and friends. And definitely check out the Order of the Good Death and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes!

Like this post? Share it!

Review: The Intern’s Handbook

The Intern's Handbook, Shane KuhnIf you work a company that hires interns, think carefully: can you remember their names? Probably not. And why should you? Interns are there to fetch coffee, deliver packages, and do all the grunt work no self-respecting salaried employee would.

And that’s just the way they like it. An invisible intern is ignored, underestimated — and deadly.

Welcome to HR, Inc., a “placement agency” that sends assassins-for-hire to take high-profile executives who have stuck their noses where they don’t belong. The Intern’s Handbook is a field guide to this cat-and-mouse world written by its stealthiest inhabitant: John Lago.

The book you’re holding is part how-to, part confessional of John’s final mission at HR, Inc. He’s going against some truly dangerous people, including a sexy FBI agent named Alice who’s trying to take down his target. Will John prevail, or will his final mission mean his death?

Wonderfully done

The Intern’s Handbook promises to be a thriller, and it more than delivers. It’s perfectly paced, filled with unexpected twists that kept me on my toes, and has the perfect amount of action, snark, and witty banter.

John’s a boy in man’s clothing, a sociopath trying to end up a good person. The novel’s first person perspective puts you right in the middle of his messed-up mind, and it’s fun seeing how that mind ticks.

I still didn’t like it (SPOILERS)

Like most readers, I generally only dislike a book when it’s poorly written or structured, or is a genre that I don’t enjoy. Shane Kuhn’s novel has the distinction of being one of the few books I’ve read that is genuinely perfectly executed…that I ended up not liking. And it’s all because of those last few chapters.

I’m a happy endings kind of gal. Although many would consider John’s survival and discovery of his true parentage a happy thing, I find Bob and Alice’s trickery and betrayal too much to swallow. I know it’s all set up to prove that Bob is your basic asshole, but I feel like that’s something I already knew — why go to such extreme lengths to restate the point?

In the end, I just want the characters in the books I read to be happy. The Intern’s Handbook does end on a bit of an optimistic note, but I get the feeling that John spends the rest of his life adrift, rich, but purposeless and friendless. What kind of life is that?

I would still recommend this book to thriller fans, but be prepared for an unexpected — and somewhat unfinished — ending.

What do you think of happy endings? Do you need them to enjoy a book, or can you take ‘em or leave ‘em?

Like this post? Share it!