Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce

To be honest, I’m not a big reader of historical fiction. Reading Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce, which is set in 1950, was a departure for me, but I was open to it after having read her previous – and in my opinion, profound – book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I was pleased to find the story of Miss Benson an entertaining voyage into friendship, scientific inquiry, grief, post-war trauma, and how far we go to follow our dreams.

Our heroine is Margery Benson, who in 1914 at ten years old fell in love with beetles to help her deal with a personal loss, and became particularly fascinated by the golden beetle of New Caledonia, whose existence has never been proven. However, somewhere along the way she lost hold of her dreams, until she finds herself 46 years old, standing in front of a classroom teaching cookery, confiscating a note that turns out to be a less than flattering caricature of herself. Forced to face the difference between the life she wanted and the life she has, Miss Benson takes a leap of faith and embarks on a self-funded expedition to New Caledonia, determined to find the golden beetle once and for all. But she can’t do it alone. She’ll need an assistant. Enter the perky, flashy, enigmatic, blond-dyed, pink-hat-wearing, deeply unsuitable Enid Pretty, a woman with her own dreams to chase, and who will completely upend Margery Benson’s sense of the world, and herself.

I remain in awe of writers like Joyce who can weave together humor with grief and hardship with friendship to give you an engaging and meaningful tapestry of everyday life. I found this book funny and heartfelt, covering tough topics but not so heavily as to be depressing or off-putting. Also, like in her earlier Harold Fry, Joyce does a good job creating a journey for her characters that is both physical and emotional, and which leaves them forever changed.

This book is recommended for those who like books about female friendship, international travel, and the empowerment of women throughout history.

Cold Reads: Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur

Hot enough for you? Try cooling off with books and movies set in cold climes and cold countries. This week some of our blogging librarians recommend their favorite reads for cooling off.

Set on the coldest continent – high temperatures in Antarctica rarely get above freezing  – Elizabeth Arthur’s lyrical Antarctic Navigation is a heady mix of history, anthropology, environmental responsibility, science, human relationships and feminism all packed into one weighty tome. It’s also the adventure story of a lifetime.

Long fascinated by the lure of Antarctica, Morgan Lamont decides to bring attention the careless destruction of the environment by recreating the Robert Scott’s failed 1910 expedition to the South Pole. She assembles a talented team of scientists and researchers, outfits them with gear and equipment (including sled dogs) and researches Scott’s route and experiences. Even the best laid plans, however, can’t prepare Morgan for the human interactions and entanglements; when tragedy strikes these loyalties and ties are put to the test under the most difficult conditions imaginable.

In addition to the fascinating details of exactly how much work and planning is required to undertake such a mission, there is a lot of reflection on Scott’s historic trip. Scott is considered a hero, especially in England, despite the fact that he failed to be the first to reach the South Pole and ultimately died within a days walk of home camp. His bravery and his dedication to doing the right thing created an iconic figure, something that Morgan examines and tests in her own expedition.

It’s not all philosophy though – there are nail-biting action sequences and many interesting characters in the team Morgan assembles.  Throughout the book, however,  the real star is Antarctica herself – fascinating, distant, ferocious and beautiful, a a haunting land of dreams and sorrows.