A Christmas Corral, written and illustrated by Lucas T. Antoniak (CreateSpace/Amazon Digital Services, 2016).
This picture book, based on A Christmas Carol, casts Scrooge as a surly sheep who's the bane of the barnyard. (His first name now is, of course, Ebaaanezer.) Antoniak takes quite a few liberties with the story, as you would expect, but his humorous narrative and delightful illustrations capture the spirit of the classic. My favorite part: the drawing of Tiny Tim, who sports an enormous wool Afro. Lots of fun for younger readers.
As its title suggests, Lucinda Dickens Hawksley's newest book about her great-great-great-grandfather,Charles Dickens and His Circle, focuses less on the man himself than on the people around him. One might call it a biography of relationships, rather than a biography of a person. It's an interesting and helpful approach, broadening the usual picture we get of Dickens by giving a vivid portrait of his world and the people in it instead of simply retelling the major events of his life. Hawksley's preface suggests that writing her biography of Dickens's daughter Katey several years ago helped draw her attention to the different facets of her ancestor's personality and how they were brought out by his relationships: "Researching Dickens as a father -- and he was an indulgent and loving father, compared to most Victorian images of the paterfamilias -- was vastly different from studying Dickens the writer." Understanding this made Hawksley a perfect candidate to contribute a volume on Dickens to the National Portrait Gallery Companions series, all of which take a similar approach to their famous subjects (a complete list is available here).
Poemsby Charles Dickens (Alma Classics Ltd., 2013 edition).
This is a reprinted edition of a collection first published in 1903, "edited with commentaries by F. G. Kitton." It consists mostly of song lyrics and light verse taken from Dickens's plays, librettos, and books, along with a few "political squibs" and one or two poems written for friends. Kitton's commentaries are interesting and informative, although rather limited in scope -- one can't help wishing that as long as Alma Classics was reprinting the volume, they could have added some updated material on the poems, along with the new biographical sketch at the end.
As for the poems themselves, they are, well, average. The rhyme and meter are fine, the word choices are fine, and the political poems in particular are flavored with the biting wit that social and political issues tended to bring out in Dickens. But it's deeply ironic that, for a writer whose prose was often so lyrical and beautiful as to seem downright poetic, Dickens proved to be merely adequate at the task of writing actual poems. Despite the occasional flashes of cleverness or insight, there's little here that is truly inspiring or memorable. The collection is worth reading for the Dickens completist, but ultimately it has to be admitted that, as a poet, Dickens was one heck of a novelist.
Stephen Jarvis's Death and Mr. Pickwickis not quite like any other novel I've ever read. I'll explain why in a moment.
First, I need to tell you something about the characters and plot. The novel gives a fictionalized account of the life of Robert Seymour, the first illustrator of The Pickwick Papers. Written in a rambling and episodic style, like Pickwick itself, Jarvis's book thoroughly examines not just Seymour's life, but also the myriad of influences on his life and work -- the world he grew up in, the artists whose work he saw and the writers whose work inspired his own art, his employers and relatives and friends. In particularly minute detail, he recounts everything in Seymour's life and work (for instance, a habit of drawing plump men, an interest in fishing, a meeting with a particularly gullible person) that might have any relation to anything in Pickwick.
There's a reason for this. Jarvis is trying to make the case that Pickwick really belongs to Seymour and not to Dickens. He gives us long passages with Seymour imagining the story and carefully plotting each detail of his pictures for it -- the fact that an author will be needed to provide words to go with the illustrations is almost an afterthought. And once that author is found -- 24-year-old Charles Dickens, fresh off the success of Sketches by Boz -- he will spoil everything for Seymour.
The New York Times ran a review late last week of Stephen Jarvis's novel on the creation of Pickwick. Reviewer Michael Upchurch writes:
"Jarvis echoes Dickens’s own narrative strategies by packing 'Death and Mr. Pickwick' with numerous digressions, flashbacks and tales within tales (many of them recastings of episodes found in 'The Pickwick Papers'). But Jarvis’s approach to digression is often more suffocatingly mechanical than zestily harebrained. Immediately upon being introduced, his characters, however minor, have their backgrounds explained. Most of these plodding flashbacks bring the central story to a halt."
I'm not yet to the halfway point of Death and Mr. Pickwick, so I'm not ready to write my own review. I will say only that so far, Upchurch's impressions strike me as pretty accurate.