I asked Michelle Richmond to share with us the best books she read this year. Michelle is the author of The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress and Dream of the Blue Room. She also keeps a blog, Sans Serif. She put together a really great post for us.
The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson – “Kind readers,” this novel begins. “Strange readers. We begin again.” And so I began this book, again, for probably the fifth or sixth time. Like Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, The Death of a Beekeeper is a book I return to every couple of years when I am in need of something quiet and beautiful. The protagonist is one Lars Lennart Westin, who once taught at “the local elementary school in Ennora on the northern shore of the lake.” By the time this narrative comes into our hands, Westin is dead, but during the writing of the three notebooks that comprise the novel, he is very much alive. The Yellow Notebook is concerned with beekeeping and household expenses; the Blue Notebook is a commonplace book of sorts, containing “newspaper clippings, excerpts from Westin’s readings, and his own stories;” the Damaged Notebook contains telephone numbers and brief notes about the progression of Westin’s cancer.
The physical and mental impact of pain, the intricate lives of bees, the frozen landscape of North Vastmanland, and the mysterious workings of a fictional galaxy called Aldebaran are detailed in equal and exquisite measure. I admire the gentle precision of Gustafsson’s prose, the author’s eye for odd and interesting trivia, the novel’s meditative nature. This is a book of ephemera that cannot be easily categorized, a book of lists. For example, page 106 features a “Table of art forms according to their level of difficulty.” Art form number one (the least difficult) is eroticism; at the other end of the spectrum is artillery (number 28). The art of the novel (number 8) is, according to our protagonist, less difficult than squash, weight lifting, high trapeze, bicycle acrobatics, and the building of fountains, but slightly more difficult than surfing and significantly more difficult than poetry, which weighs in at a humble 3.
Also on my list for the year: Here is Where We Meet by John Berger; A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator by Ludvic Vaculik; Writing in Restaurants by David Mamet; Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz; Total Fears by Bohumil Hrabal; and Summertime Waltz by Nina Payne and Gabi Swiatkowska (illustrator), which I’ve been reading to my son Oscar.
As always, some of my most rewarding reading experiences have been stories and essays found unexpectedly in magazines big and small, most notably a gorgeous exploration of the secret lives of New Orleans’s hardy termites, published in Harper’s pre-Katrina. (The essay by Duncan Murrell warned of the devastating effects of the termite infestation on the city’s historic buildings. Interestingly, the flooding may have saved the city from the worst the termites had to offer).
Which brings us back, sort of, to The Moviegoer, that most perfect of books: “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”