Thursday, January 7, 2021

Book 266: The Fly Trap


"People sometimes call me for help in investigating the possibilities. I am a biologist, after all. Their projects are often said to have an environmental dimension—the infallible key to getting grants—so I’m considered a good person to talk to. When we were new out here, I used to say that I was a writer, but all the women on the island felt so sorry for my wife that I started insisting I was a biologist instead. What else could I do? And if you’re a biologist on an island widely known for its rich biosphere, you have to put up with a lot of phone calls from morons. They always seem to assume that I’m a moron myself."

Dates read: October 3-6, 2018

Rating: 7/10

For my dad, it's lizards. For my mom, hearts. For me, my book stockpiling has reached critical mass. Most of us collect something. And the rest of you can Marie Kondo your lives as many times as you like, you'll never convince me that the reason so many of us have so much stuff isn't that there's a primal human urge to gather. For most of us, it's just a side habit. But depending on your line of work, it can literally be your actual job!

If I had to come up with an insect that people collect, I'd get to butterflies, and maybe moths and dragonflies, before running out of ideas. Those are the good ones, right? But Fredrik Sjoberg catches and studies nothing so glamorous. Rather, near his home on a tiny Swedish island, he collects hoverflies. In case you, like me, have no idea what those are, they're large flies that look like bees. In The Fly Trap, he ruminates on a life devoted to an obscure bug, as well as the story of the man, Rene Malaise, who invented the fly trap with which he does most of his work.

Like me when this was announced as a selection for my book club, you might be extremely skeptical about the idea of a book about a guy who collects flies. I was very sure it would be either weird or boring or both. Surprise! It's delightful! Funny and smart! It feels like having a conversation with the slightly odd but very charming person sitting next to you on an airplane...there's a circuitousness to the narrative, with Sjoberg starting on one subject but getting sidetracked into another, but it's carried off with humor and verve. The way the narrative thread keeps looping also ensures that the pace is lively and it doesn't get bogged down anywhere.

There's also, as you realize when you get to the end, surprisingly little about Sjoberg himself. There's a remove to it that feels Scandinavian, very pleasant but ultimately very firmly impersonal. There's a lot about the nature of being a collector, pleasure of focusing your attention on one little small facet of the world and working inside that little niche, the thrills of finding something rare in your chosen field, the loneliness that can come from essentially solitary pursuits. It's thought-provoking in its own way, not in the heavy way that the term is usually used. This is a lightweight little snack of a book, enjoyable but not especially memorable in any way, and I would recommend it. Hey, at least now I know what a hoverfly is!

One year ago, I was reading: Queen of Scots

Two years ago, I was reading: The Winter of the Witch

Three years ago, I was reading: Ghost Wars

Four years ago, I was reading: American Heiress

Five years ago, I was reading: Mr. Splitfoot

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