Tidewater Review - November 2010


The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Anne Stinson

Exley by Brock Clarke. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 320 pages. $24.95.
The reader’s reaction to this strange book could easily be “WHOA – it’s that wacko, again.” Brock Clarke made a name for himself with his previous book, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England. Mr. Clarke enjoys messing with the reader’s head.
He’s not very subtle about it, either. Just so the reader knows what he/she’s dealing with, here’s how a letter from a dad to his son appears in the book...
Dear Miller,
Well, I’m in ____ now, with the _____ Division. I wrote ____ because the censors are going to cross out all the names anyway. But I’m doing fine. They have me manning the ____ at _____ and then I get to sleep all _____. There are ____ other guys with me.... And so it goes, rollicking along with holes in the story.
Miller is the kid in the story and his dad is, or maybe has been, in Iraq. Miller’s not a very happy kid – that’s clear early on. You can tell because he’s telling the story most of the time. When he’s not, his psychiatrist is telling the story. Miller has plenty of things to tell the shrink, and he tries to follow doctor’s orders, but the truth is, the therapist is sort of a dork. Miller and his mother call him Dr. Horatio Pahnee.
Miller’s mother is a lawyer, and she cries a lot. She doesn’t think Miller’s dad ever went to Iraq. She thinks he just plain left them. Miller heard them quarreling about somebody they call “K,” and his dad says she’s a girl in the class he teaches at the community college.
Miller doesn’t care about what the problem is. He loves his dad and misses him. He just wants him to be home again. In fact, Miller is sure his dad is back in town at the VA hospital at the local army base.
One other thing – Miller is nine years old and is so intelligent he’s been promoted to the eighth grade. He’s right about his dad. He’s in the VA hospital, all right, and he’s been in a coma nearly the whole two weeks before Miller finds him. The kid is pretty sure his father will get well if only Miller can find Exley, the guy who wrote his father’s favorite book, A Fan’s Notes.
Get it? A book about a book. And apparently it’s a real book that was, no kidding, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, a famous book critic who wrote a biography of Exley’s life. He’s in this book too.
Remember, I warned you that Clarke plays mind games with the reader, didn’t I?
So Miller has a lot of adventures, some of them scary, while he’s trying to locate Exley, and the dopey shrink is such a nerdy loser he fantasizes that he’s in love with Miller’s beautiful mom and, even more ridiculous, that she’s in love with him.
It’s all a whole lot for a nine year old to keep sorted out, but Miller is a terrific kid. Almost nothing turns out the way Miller imagines it, and the phoney Exley is way less of a hero than we hope for. Miller’s mom insists she wants to tell him the truth about the mess the family has ended up in, but Miller insists he doesn’t want to know. She tells him anyway.
Sometimes the truth is not a good idea.

Here are two new books just off the presses for nature lovers. One is about woodland snails, and the other celebrates everybody’s favorites – river otters. First, a special snail.

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. 170 pages, plus a bibliography of sources for more information on gastropods. $18.95.
The author chronicles her relationship with a common woodland snail that accompanied a pot of African violets as a get-well gift from a friend. Her situation was dire – she contracted a virus just before returning from a European trip. After a few days with flu-like symptoms, she developed partial paralysis and was bedridden. Her disease has kept her severely handicapped for 15 years, but the loss has been moderated by observing her snail companion.
She discovered her small visitor the morning after the plant was placed on her bedside table. An envelope beside the flower pot had a little square hole chewed through it, a hole that wasn’t there the previous night. Patient scrutiny revealed a dime-sized shell nearly camouflaged under a violet leaf. At dusk, the snail emerged and traveled down the side of the pot, where it stopped to munch an edge of a newspaper, again eating a perfect square of newsprint.
Worried that a diet of paper and ink were lacking nutritional value, Bailey provided a faded flower, and the snail devoured a whole petal over the course of an hour, to Bailey’s delight.
She read everything she could find about gastropods, which snails are classified. Her caregiver scoured the library for reference material on the little creature’s needs and supplied them. The hours passed more quickly for the writer.
Like the snail, the violet thrived too, and when it was repotted, the snail refused to make its home on fresh potting soil. An emergency trip into nearby woods yielded a cup of forest floor loam, and the new housing was gratefully accepted.
Bailey observed that the snail was a nocturnal explorer, moving down the bedside table on its slime path and leaving silver tracks to mark its treks across the rug and floor.
Eventually, a friend donated a terrarium and helped prepare a more comfortable home for the snail as it flourished and grew. The glass box had forest soil covered with mosses, decaying leaves, little ferns and a mussel shell to hold water. The snail’s favorite meal, incidentally, was a slice of portobello mushroom.
Bailey’s medical condition improved slowly so that she was well enough to sit up for a short time each day and she could move back into her own house without a full-time caregiver. The snail and its terrarium came along with the move and was a boarder for many months, growing and enlarging its shell to match. Now sexually mature, it was time for a family.
The terrarium was an ideal nursery, and the snail was ready for parenthood. No partner? No problem. Snails are hermaphrodites – being both male and female at the same time. Living in isolation from other snails, it self-fertilized, laid eggs and had offspring. Bailey’s chapter on snails’ courtship in larger groups is positively engrossing.
With gratitude for its diversion, Bailey decided to release the father/mother snail and most of its children to their natural habitat in the woods. She kept one baby snail in the terrarium for company. She summarized her feelings with this paragraph at the end of this charming book:
The original snail had been the best of companions; it never asked questions I couldn’t answer, nor did it have expectations I couldn’t fulfill. I had watched it adapt to changed circumstances and persevere. Naturally solitary and slow-paced, it had entertained and taught me, and was beautiful to watch as it glided silently along, leading me through a dark time into a world beyond that of my own species. The snail had been a true mentor; its tiny existence had sustained me.

And for younger readers – Grades K-6:
Saving Squeak: The Otter Tale by Jennifer Keats Curtis. Illustrations by Marcy Dunn Ramsey. 32 pages. $14.99.
What’s not to love about an otter? They swim in our creeks and rivers, surfacing with water drops on their whiskers that sparkle like circles of diamonds. They play like children sliding down muddy banks to splash and return to repeat it again and again. They’re irresistible.
When young Braden found a baby otter in the park, he already knew a little bit about wild animals. He knew he might get bitten if he tried to pick it up. He also knew that it might die if nobody found it and took care of it. He was tempted to beg his parents to let him keep it as a pet, but his mother reminded him that an otter is not the same as a kitten or a puppy. Wild animals can grow up and hurt people.
Braden did the right thing. He called his parents. His mother immediately called Suzanne, a rehabilitator trained to take care of injured or orphaned birds and animals and make them well enough to go back to nature. The grownups wrapped the baby otter in a towel and put it in a box for the ride to Suzanne’s clinic.
Suzanne told Braden that the little otter was about three months old and she would feed him from a baby bottle six times a day to make him strong and healthy. She phoned Braden once a week to report on the otter and sent pictures as it grew. Braden asked her to name it Squeak, the noise it made while it drank from a bottle. Soon Suzanne taught Squeak to swim, and later to catch tiny fish.
Braden was sad to learn that Squeak’s teeth were not healthy enough to chew whole fish, so he could not be released into the wild. Later he was happy to learn that a nearby museum wanted an otter for its exhibit. Best of all, Squeak would have a “brother” named Bubbles, another rescued otter that was about the same age.
Braden visited them at their new home, the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons Island, Maryland. They are fed cut-up fish and are busy playing with toys made for human babies, playing tricks and chasing each other.
Curtis, the author, lives near Annapolis and Ramsey, the illustrator, has her studio on the Chester River in Chestertown. Young readers will learn a lot about the lifestyle of wild otters as well as the happy home for the two rescued otters in this beautiful book.