Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Sound of a Wild Snail eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This is a gem of a book. By that I mean it sparkles, has depth and great value. It is a splendid mixture of natural history, philosophy, literature and poetry, all conveyed in a deeply personal way by the author. No matter what I write, I won’t be able to do it justice.
Expanded from an essay, this little book has its roots in the author becoming very ill on her way home from Europe. Back in America, she is hospitalized with severe symptoms that doctors cannot find the causes of. Eventually, they figure out it’s a rare auto-immune disease that leaves her so weak she can’t even sit up. After a number of relapses, she begins to recuperate, a process that takes many months. A friend brings her a woodland snail found on a hike, which ends up in a terrarium on a stand by her bed. This creature gives her focus and companionship over the long, fitful period of trying to stabilize her health.
Never named or anthropomorphized, the snail proves a fascinating subject. As the author watches the snail eat portobello mushrooms & egg shells, she muses on the life cycle, slime variations and the unusual mating habits of the many kinds of gastropods. In her wonder at nature’s minutae, her writing reminded me of Anne Dillard’s in Pilgrim At Tinker’s Creek, one of my favorite books.
Quite naturally, she considers her own mortality and the sociological and personal effects of sickness. It’s a realistic account of living with a chronic illness, yet without self-pity or melodrama. A strong philosophical undercurrent runs through the narrative, but especially on this topic. “Those of us with illnesses are the holders of the silent fears of those with good health.”
Throughout the entire book are quotes and snippets of poetry, from Classical Literature to modern mystery stories. Like raisins in scones, they add a richness to an already wonderful treat. I had no idea snails had been written of so widely or in so many different ways. And the detailed pencil drawings by Kathy Bray provides a nice counterpoint to all of the words.
From the whimsical title to the last hopeful page, this is a thought provoking little volume. Do not let the small size fool you; like the snail, there are worlds beyond imagining within.

Algonquin books of Chapel Hill 2010 190 pp. ISBN 978-1-56512-606-0

Jackie has drawn snails, but none so pleasing as the ones in this book.

11 comments on “The Sound of a Wild Snail eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

  1. Rosyb
    May 14, 2012

    “From the whimsical title to the last hopeful page, this is a thought provoking little volume. Do not let the small size fool you; like the snail, there are worlds beyond imagining within.” What a wonderful last line.

    This is one for me!

  2. Moira
    May 14, 2012

    And for me. What a totally intriguing-sounding book. Great review, Jacks …

  3. kirstyjane
    May 14, 2012

    This sounds like a real little gem! And what a superb review. Thank you, comrade J.

  4. Hilary
    May 14, 2012

    I am utterly snail-phobic, but if anything could make me change my mind, it’s your lovely review of this beautiful little book, Jackie.

  5. Annie
    May 14, 2012

    I found this little book a while ago, and agree with everything you say. It is utterly charming.

  6. Christine Harding
    May 15, 2012

    Snails are really interesting, and when you look at them closely they are unexpectedly beautiful. The book sounds enchanting.

  7. kateinbrussels
    May 15, 2012

    It does sound enchanting, but I found Annie Dillard’s Tinker Creek book very irritating: I gave up in the end because it made me want to shout at the author. So if this one is like that …

  8. Jackie
    May 15, 2012

    Oh dear. Kate, I was mainly referring to the fact that this book & “..Tinker’s Creek” both focused on the little things in nature, not their writing style, which is somewhat different. So maybe shouting won’t be required? 😉

  9. Elisabeth Tova Bailey
    May 17, 2012

    Jackie: Thank you for the wonderful review of my Wild Snail book. I loved the “like raisins in scones” description and read it aloud to a friend! Reading the above comments from your followers about wanting to shout at authors made me laugh out loud! Please let me know if the Wild Snail makes anyone want to shout at me. P.S.: This is a note from the author. I couldn’t resist! Even though it is too late at night. Now off to bed I go. ~ETB

  10. Jackie
    May 18, 2012

    Thank you for your extremely kind comment, Ms. Bailey. It’s always a thrill when an author stops by and an especially big one when it’s a book I like as much as I did “..Wild Snail…”. I hope things are going better for you these days.

  11. Elisabeth Tova Bailey
    May 19, 2012

    Thanks Jackie: I always worry about being intrusive if I respond to reader’s comments posted on a blog. I really enjoy reading the varied responses that happen naturally to abook. Blog reviews are wonderful because they are more diverse and personal then media reviews and I enjoy the extra character that through as a result. With all best wishes, ETB

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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