23 October 2020

A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes

 While wandering through the stacks a couple of weeks ago, retrieving items to fill holds, this book caught my eye.  A young woman living in Oxford nervously looking forward to owning a colony of bees.....sounded interesting so it was coming home with me.  As a member of staff I don't pay fines but I do feel it's my civic duty to return books on time so my current read was set aside this past week.  Actually, my city's library system has recently stopped charging fines altogether as it can be a barrier to readership for many customers.  Fingers crossed this is a successful project because it's not fun to witness a parent berating an elementary school-aged child about overdue fines when they're hardly in charge of the car keys.  But enough about that.

We should all be so lucky to have friends as lovely and supportive as Helen, the author.  Drawn to learning more about bees through Luke, who looks after hives throughout London, her friends pooled their money to place an order for a colony as a gift.  A decisive move that forces Helen to stop dreaming about owning a hive and start preparing for their arrival in the coming Spring.

Reading stacks of books on the history of beekeeping, Helen shares some interesting facts but it's lightly done.  She also visits the Natural History Museum in Oxford several times to climb onto a platform to watch a colony of bees go about their business behind a glass wall.  To examine bees while static Helen scans the trays of bees collected over decades past but sadly they're impaled by pins.  Did you know that copper pins react with fats inside the bee that over time make them explode?  Or that bees hear through their feet?  And if you cut a length of string representing the kilometers foraging bees fly to make a jar of honey it would wrap around the earth one and a half times.  

Apart from the bee facts, I very much enjoyed Jukes' breezy and very natural writing voice.  Her nervousness when the frame for the bees arrive, and then the colony, is palpable.  Her instinct to nurture the bees goes into overdrive while worrying about the first rain that falls on their 'house' or their first chilly night when the temperature dips.  A blanket thrown over the hive does the trick.  Helen depends on Luke's experience to guide her through various situations as they crop up.  Once she asked him how she would know when there was enough honey for harvest.  If you gently rock the hive you can tell by the weight of it.  Makes sense once you know!

I brought this book home for a closer look but after the first page I couldn't put it down.  Apart from the obvious topic of bees, it's a book that is satisfying, relaxing and intriguing all at the same time.  As soon as I finished the book I sent off a recommendation to a colleague who owns a beehive.  She thanked me and placed a hold on the book.  She also let me know that she checked on her hive last week and the colony had died, something that has happened only twice in her seventeen years of beekeeping.  She's not sure if she will try again in the Spring but I hope Helen's story lifts her spirits.    

13 October 2020

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

There hasn't been much time set aside for reading this past week down to the dwindling warm(ish) days that need to be taken advantage of.  And much less fun was finding out that our furnace doesn't have another winter left in it so we've been researching the next unit to be installed.  At the very least it was a distraction from the endless reporting about rising number of cases of Covid around the world.  But today the sun is shining, the sky is blue without a cloud in sight and it is dry so I'm looking forward to a bit of garden work once this post is done and dusted.

Published in 1926, Lolly Willowes centres around a young woman named Laura.  She was raised in a loving and traditional family with substantial wealth from her family's brewing company located in Somerset.  As was so often the case during this era and in their sphere, Laura's brothers were educated but she was not.  James and Henry have both married and had children, securing the family's legacy.  With society dictating that Laura is edging firmly into a life of spinsterhood, upon her father's death it is assumed she will move in with Caroline and Henry.

"The girls will be delighted" said Caroline.  Laura roused herself.  It was all settled then, and she was going to live in London with Henry, and Caroline his wife, and Fancy and Marion his daughters.  She would become an inmate of the tall house in Apsley Terrace where hitherto she had only been a country sister-in-law on a visit.

Laura is certain the silk and sealskin ladies of London will shy away from welcoming her into their social circle down to her bookish ways.  While enjoying the museums and galleries of London she misses the countryside and time to herself.  Laura isn't particularly close to Caroline and sees her orderly ways as far too meticulous.  A brilliant sentence made me laugh out loud when Laura commented to herself that Caroline's clothes were folded in a purity that disdained even lavender.  

When Henry and Caroline endeavour to find a suitor for Laura they hone in on Mr Arbuthnot, who while searching for a topic of conversation mentions that February was a dangerous month.  Laura strongly agrees, replying that werewolves will venture out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.  She even goes so far as to wonder whether Mr Arbuthnot could indeed be a werewolf himself!  Naturally there is a look of horror on the faces of everyone and no further attempts to play matchmaker are pursued.  

Laura is weary of the responsibility of overseeing the day to day details of running her brother's home and being chief childminder.  When a recurring bout of autumnal fever surges once again coupled with the desperate need for her own space, Laura approaches her brother for her share of their inheritance.  She is furious when he tells her that he has invested it in what he was sure was a sound investment.  It wasn't and now half of Laura's capital has been lost.  More than the loss of the money, Laura has had enough of not being consulted, treated as a child, and being taken advantage of. 

Now at the mature age of forty-seven, Laura is more determined than ever to live her life independently.  Henry is ordered to collect whatever value is left in the investment which Laura then uses to take a room at Mrs Leak's cottage in a village called Great Mop located in the Chiltern Hills.  The village has the usual complement of citizens: clerks, gardeners, a pub landlord, a veteran officer, a dressmaker, and clergy.  

Just as Laura is feeling comfortable in her new surroundings and shedding the invisible shackles to her previous life, her nephew Titus appears at the cottage.  Arriving from Bloomsbury he has plans for a future at the family's brewery but the reader knows he's also very okay with an easy life.  In other words, letting his Aunt look after him.  Laura feels the shackles tightening once again but don't worry, she has a plan.  The only snag is that it involves the Devil.

Now....things do get a bit strange in the third part of the book but it's a fun sort of strange.  The villagers come out for a Sabbath gathering and lose their inhibitions.  The Devil himself joins Laura for a chat while they sit on the grass (he's in human form rather than the pitchfork sort of Devil).  But Sylvia Townsend Warner expresses quite eloquently through Laura's character what it is to be a woman tied to endless restrictions because of her sex.  

One doesn't become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run round being helpful either, a district visitor on a broomstick.  It's to escape all that - to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others....

By the end of the book Laura mentions the Devil's unjudging gaze and indifferent ownership.  A startling statement implying that her relationship with the Devil is more open and free than one she could ever have with a man.  Or indeed, as a single woman in society.  

A fun read for any time of year but this slightly witchy tale is especially perfect during October.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  Moonlight Dance by Emma Childs

28 September 2020

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

 A book that was bought simply because it's mentioned often enough on literary podcasts and book blogs to make me curious.  It's not that I've been consciously avoiding West's work but for some reason her books simply haven't piqued my curiousity enough to send me running for a copy.   During my last visit to a second-hand shop it was on the shelf so this is a self-imposed homework assignment to find out just what is I've been missing.

Set during the Edwardian era, the story begins with Papa accepting yet another helping hand from a kind benefactor.  This time it's Mr Murpurgo offering him the job of editing a small suburban newspaper.  Papa speaks about his new position with a sneer while his wife props him up by gently agreeing that the job is beneath him.  But, as it turns out, the family's rocky economic situation is down to his gambling and risky stock ventures.  

Told from the viewpoint of Rose, the second born of the Aubreys four children, her father means the world to her despite his shortcomings.  As an innocent child she's been shielded from the details of her father's indulgence and negligence.  Her parents, Piers and Clare, met in Ceylon and married in South Africa where all four children were born, but constant financial trouble has kept them on the move.  From South Africa to Edinburgh and now London.

My early thoughts on Rose's Papa were fairly neutral until her mother visits a home they had sublet to another family.  The expensive furniture inherited from Mamma's Aunt Clara is missing.  Rose offers to run and notify the police but after a quick word with a neighbour, Mamma gently protects Rose from the truth.  Papa has sold it knowing how much it meant to Clare.  It was also the last bit of their possessions with any sort of connection to an elegant lifestyle.  My neutral view of Papa ended then and there and I chose a sweary word to describe him in my notebook.

Through her childhood memories and inexperienced understanding of the world, Rose describes her family's world of genteel poverty.  Her mother hides the hole in her veil with a strategically placed knot, clothes are worn until they're nearly falling apart and meals are simple and spare.  But great importance is placed on knowing the names of artists, speaking French and above all to play the piano and violin with great skill.  The family has an immense love for each other that transcends the need for niceties.  It's the simple pleasures that hold the dearest memories.  Rose's adult self bemoans the fact that children today (1956) have missed out on the beauty of gaslight....

'We three went down the steep stairs to the kitchen and I stood on the chair and lit the gas.  It was more poetic than electric light, and I am sorry that so many children of today never see it.  Over the gas-jet, inside the inverted glass bell, was a thing called an incandescent mantle, which, when you delicately turned on the tap in the gas-bracket and held a lit match over it, glimmered with a pale unsteady whiteness , like a little man risen from the dead.....' 

Speaking of raising from the dead, Rose and her mother visit Constance and her daughter Rosamund,  relations living in a down at heel area of London.  Within minutes of entering the house objects start flying from the shelves and through the window.  The scene struck me as over the top and unbelievable but the way the young girls accepted such eerie goings-on and went about cuddling Rosamund's rabbits felt authentic.  If their mothers hadn't run out of the house screaming with fright then everything must be okay.  Rose was more shocked by the fact they had relations too poor to have any hired help.  Even in their state of constant penury the Aubreys have their beloved Kate to run the kitchen and help with the cleaning.

My attitude towards Piers Aubrey shifted slightly when he boldly comes to the aid of a woman unfairly sentenced to hang for a murder.  Although, his eldest daughter realizes he was willing to be imprisoned for exposing the judge for impartiality.  Honourable perhaps but not when justice would come at the expense of his own family.  I won't say anymore about that storyline but considering The Fountain Overflows is loosely based on West's own family I need to find out whether this association with a murder trial is fact or fiction.

 I very much enjoyed this book, the only niggle being that it could have been edited down by a handful of pages.  But just when my interest waivered slightly an incident would develop that reeled me back in.  My favourite moment was in the form of a twist coming right at the end.  There were many times when I wanted to shake Clare Aubrey for not only accepting her husband's behaviour to the detriment of the family but glorifying him to the children.  In actual fact, Mamma's eyes were opened more than I gave her credit for.

A fascinating first-hand look at life within an Edwardian family with its hardships and joys.  At times loving and charming there are also moments of prejudice and cruelty.  While trying to find a piece of artwork to accompany this post there were oh so many that fall under the heading of 'twee'.  They didn't feel appropriate here.  One last note, I found it interesting that West would write a thinly-veiled story of her family's hardships but reject her son for doing the same thing with his book Heritage.  Oh the world of writers!

Dame Rebecca West
(1892 - 1983)

11 September 2020

Hamnet & Judith by Maggie O'Farrell

 I was thrilled to learn that Maggie O'Farrell has won this year's Women's Prize for Fiction.   With less than a handful of pages to read before finishing I wholeheartedly agreed with the panel's decision.  Hilary Mantel's The Mirror & the Light was a brilliant contender but O'Farrell's characters are now firmly rooted in my reading memory.  And she reduced me to tears not once (as many have been) but twice.

The story begins with Hamnet coming down the stairs, as many children will do, by leaping over the last few rungs.  

   'It is a close, windless day in late summer, and the downstairs room is slashed by long strips of light.  The sun glowers at him from outside, the windows latticed slabs of yellow set into the plaster.'

Hamnet's twin sister lies in bed upstairs, feverish with lumps forming on her neck.  In searching for someone to tell, he's sidetracked by things that catch his eye while going from room to room.  It's a clever device to paint a picture of his surroundings.  His mother is actually a mile away tending to her bees.  Hamnet has been warned to steer clear of his grandfather but he's not sure why.  

The villagers come to the house and ask for his mother when they need a cure for one ailment or another.  This doesn't make her very popular with the doctor.  Agnes knows that tying a toad to someone's belly won't be as effective as her herbs and tinctures but she also understands the need to hide her disapproval.  Hamnet's father is away in London.  The reader is aware that he's none other than the playwright William Shakespeare, but O'Farrell's focus is Agnes and her story.

Agnes has a level of intuition that lands her with a reputation for being something of a witch.  She meets the eye of men while talking to them and carries a kestrel on her arm.  An instant attraction between Will and Agnes while tutoring her step-siblings causes friction between both families, largely due to unscrupulous business dealings in the past.

So what is it that makes this book stand out from others on the shelf?  An obvious place to start is the plague.  Watching for signs of fever, being in quarantine, restrictions on travel or escape to less populated places are relevant and all too familiar today.  Also, during this pandemic I've become a fan of nature writing and podcasts as a way of diluting so much bad news.  O'Farrell's description of bees in skeps and rolling meadows, drying fruit, the earthy feeling of walking on composted leaves in the forest or pressing lavender between your palms are sublime.   Beauty contrasting with grief.  And the writing is so lyrical you'll find yourself going over lines twice....

'The heat from the fire is so great that Agnes's cheeks have scarlet spots upon them; strands of hair have escaped from her coif to write themselves in damp scribbles on her neck.'

A friend mentioned going to the bookstore the other day so I recommended Hamnet & Judith.  When I mentioned the connection with Shakespeare there was a slight change in her level of interest.  We have our very own Stratford here in Ontario but depending where your tastes lie it's either relevant for the playwright and the wonderful theatre there, or for being Justin Bieber's hometown.  I wonder if our somewhat weaker connection to Shakespeare is why the publisher felt the need to change the title?  

 In any case, Hamnet & Judith is a brilliant read.   My suggestion is that you read it before it's discussed to death on radio programs and articles and too many details are revealed.  I loved it....and the twenty-something young lady ringing up my purchase at the bookstore swooned while telling me she loved it too.  Just buy it. 

Title and artist unknown