Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

May I confess something?  I only picked this book up last month for three reasons: (1) it was published by Algonquin, one of my favorite publishing houses, and (2) it looked short enough for me to read while on the train to BEA, thus bumping my monthly reading up by one notch, and (3) it's non fiction, and I like to make sure I read at least one nonfiction book each month.  So yeah, basically I was reading this book to make my stats look better.  I'm a little bit ashamed because it was *really* good, and despite all of my cunning, I did not finish it in the month of May, so it's going towards my June stats anyway.  Since June is the month I take my summer vacation, it's the last month in the year in which my reading stats need any boosting whatsoever.  So I reckon it just serves me right.

Anyway, this delightful bit of nonfiction by Elisabeth Tova Bailey was far more interesting than I bargained for.  On a vacation in Italy, the author encounters a virulent strain of influenza that wreaks havoc on her body and her immune system.  Very soon after returning home she becomes bedridden, then hospitalized.  Somehow her mitochondria become compromised (I'm sure I'm not the only reader who envisioned Madeleine L'Engle's A Wind in the Door at this point) and she needs to move out of her farmhouse and into a studio apartment where she needs extensive daily care, if not quite round-the-clock care.  

It's at this point in her life that a friend brings her a snail she found when rambling in the woods, and against all odds, this snail becomes Bailey's constant companion.  She follows its movements avidly and researches with just as much gusto what the proper care and feeding of a snail might entail.  I was surprised just how engaging this narrative would be--just as surprised, in fact, as I was about how interesting these molluscs, these gastropods (from the Latin for mouth-foot) could be. 

As Bailey learns to deal with her circumscribed life, she observes this single snail, eventually  creating a terrarium for it.  The snail is frequently her only diversion in the long hours of daylight she spends alone, and at night she devotes countless hours to imagining its inner life.  Each chapter is punctuated with excerpts from naturalists like E. O. Wilson, and poets like Elizabeth Bishop, who were all fascinated by the common snail.  Along the way I learned a lot of natural history, such as found on page 87: 
"Three and a half billion years ago, when life on earth began, the snail and I shared a common ancestor, some kind of simple worm that over time evolved into two animal groups.  The protostomes, which in the embryotic stage develop a mouth first and then an anus, branched off into gastropods...And the Deuterostomes, which develop the same characteristics, though somewhat embarrassingly in reverse order, anus first and then a mouth, branched off into mammals, including Homo sapiens."
Other interesting facts I gleaned include the new development in colonoscopies, which mimics the movement of the snail to increase the patient's comfort, to develop a  small robot that "can travel snail-like through the mucus-coated intestines of humans."  And did you know that snails have over 2,500 teeth?  (Tell me you didn't know-this was the first fact in the book that completely astonished me!)  Yes, they have 80 or more rows of teeth with 33 teeth per row.  With that many teeth, it's no wonder how Bailey came up with the title of this book!

And yet sometimes the narrative would take a poignant turn.  It's easy to forget that Bailey was an invalid during the course of this book, unable to leave her bed even to walk to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of water.  It's a wonder she didn't become more melancholy that she did.  One of her thoughts that rather pierced my heart: 
There is a certain depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation; the only rule of existence is uncertainty, and the only movement is the passage of time.  One cannot bear to live through another loss of function, and sometimes friends and family cannot bear to watch.  An unspoken, unbridgeable divide may widen.  Even if you are still who you were, you cannot actually fully be who you are.  Sometimes the people you know well withdraw, and then even the person you know as yourself begins to change (131).
If that is not a clear reason for despair, I do not know what is, and yet I never got the feeling that Bailey despaired of much.  Her fortitude, derived almost entirely from the snail, according to this narrative, is something to behold.  Clearly there is far more to this book than I initially imagined.   I would encourage anyone with an interest in good, literary narrative non-fiction to take a look at it, too.

NB: The publisher sent me a finished hardcover copy of this book last year when it was published, but I am just now getting around to reading it. As of this writing I do not know when it is slated for a paperback release. 

~Emily Crowe

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