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