‘The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating’

book cover of The Sound of a Wild Snail EatingI’ve lost my notes on which LibraryThing user first recommended this book to me, but I owe them my thanks. You might think you will speed through this lovely little (just 120 pages) book, but if you are like me you’ll find yourself deliberately slowing down to savor Bailey’s beautiful prose and gentle but keen insights into the natural world as exemplified by the common woodland snail who takes up residence alongside the author during a year of her bedridden life. Here’s a sample:

Time unused and only endured still vanishes, as if time itself is starving, and each day is swallowed whole, leaving no crumbs, no memory, no trace at all.

The little snail is first brought to Bailey inside a pot of wild violets by a friend. At first, she frets about being responsible for the snail, but it doesn’t take her long to realize that when you are so ill that even sitting up in bed is an impossible task without help, being able to focus attention on something that lives at a similar pace can distract you from your own loneliness and isolation. Along the way, Bailey turns her attention to exploring the changes — physical, mental, emotional — her illness has wrought in her.

When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive.

I’ll be the first to admit that I never gave much thought at all to snails beyond the “fancy restaurant” scene in the movie Pretty Woman, when Julia Roberts sends an escargot flying across the room. Bailey provides a surprising amount of factual data about snails in her little book; you might think it would be too much except that in Bailey’s hands it all turns out to be quite fascinating. One of the first things I did when finishing the book was to fire up Google and check out some images of snails since I don’t think I had ever really looked at one before. They really are quite interesting little creatures.

The final jewels in the book’s crown are the epigrams that open each chapter. Apparently the most astonishing variety of writers have contemplated the snail far more than I ever have. Charles Darwin I expected, but Patricia Highsmith? It turns out the author of the Ripley series of psychological thrillers wrote not one but two short stories about snails! Now that’s trivia you can use to wow your literary friends. I’ll give you that one for free, but only if you promise to make some room on your TBR pile for this lyrical book.

Oh, what a ‘Life’!

bookcover image of Life, by Keith RichardsLast fall, I remember hearing and reading several interviews with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who had just published his autobiography, Life, written with James Fox. It was fascinating to hear him speak in matter-of-fact terms about all of the extraordinary things that have happened in his life — as well as a few that only happened in the minds of fans and the media.

Richards’ written Life doesn’t quite live up to his actual life, though both are filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll, not necessarily in that order. Lots of rock and roll, a bit of sex, and lots and lots of heroin. All sorts of other drugs, too, from uppers to downers to LSD, but mostly heroin — smack to its friends (Life includes an anecdote that may explain how that particular nickname came to be). It’s frankly amazing that a man who took heroin virtually every day for more than a decade (except for his occasional attempts to quit ‘cold turkey’), remembers much of anything at all about the remarkable things that happened to him as a result of being in one of the world’s most famous rock bands of all time. But Life is chock-full of anecdotes about gigs played, songs written, guitar riffs discovered, groupies laid, and arrests both dodged and endured, all told in an amiable style that conjures up a group of friends sitting around trading tall tales.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1972

Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards in 1972. (Photo via Wikipedia)

As might be expected from a fellow whose life played out one gig at a time all over the world, the narrative bounces around a bit, making no serious attempt to a tell a coherent, chronological account once the teenage Richards meets fellow teen Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones begin to take shape. Richards is surprisingly candid about the foibles of his bandmates, past and present, displaying a surprising (to me, anyway) amount of venom toward Brian Jones, one of the original Stones who ended up dead in a swimming pool before the 1960s were over. And Richards makes no secret of the clashes he has had with his fellow Glimmer Twin, Jagger, who seems to have been unprepared to give up any of his control over the band’s business decisions once Richards sobered up and again took an interest in something more than who was supplying the smack at the next tour stop. At the same time, Richards is generous in his praise of Jagger, in particular his natural showmanship as the band’s front man and his value as a songwriting partner. As Richards says in Life, “I love the man dearly; I’m still his mate. But he makes it very difficult to be his friend.”

Richards recounts his many run-ins with law enforcement with a sort of resigned indignation that chooses to emphasize the ways in which various police forces “had it out for him”, basically following him around waiting for him to make a mistake that they could bust him for. He seems not to recognize that it was his own behavior buying and using illegal drugs that led to the arrests, which is odd because he otherwise tells the tale of his rampant drug use quite matter-of-factly, with no excuses or justifications. In the end, he chooses to quit heroin (in 1978, after being arrested in Toronto) for practical and not health reasons:

I’m facing three charges: trafficking, possession and importing. I’m going to be doing some hard fucking time. I’d better get ready. Which is one of the reasons I finally cleaned up. I didn’t want to cold turkey in jail.  … Also, attached to the junk as I was, I was putting myself slowly into a position where it would be impossible to move around the world and work.

Toward the end of Life, Richards talks about the side project he started in 1987, the X-Pensive Winos (tellingly, he did it in spiteful retaliation to Jagger’s going off on a solo project; I think Richards would otherwise have been happy to confine his musical output to the Stones for the rest of his life). As I read this segment of the book, I realized I had never listened to any of Richards’ non-Stones music; I have a built-in prejudice against vanity projects that never measure up to the original. Still, for the sake of learning more about Richards, I fired up Spotify and checked out a “best of’ compilation that was released in 2010, Vintage Vinos. I was stunned to realize despite my reservations that I loved it — it’s got the same kind of bluesy rock vibe that is so appealing to me about the early Stones’ material. It’s well worth checking out.

In the end, Keith Richards’ Life is entertaining enough, and a valuable insight into how some of the Rolling Stones’ greatest records were made, but it inevitably pales in comparison both with the actual life lived by Richards and the mythical tales that have been so often told about him: having his blood changed in Switzerland, snorting his dead father’s ashes along with “a line of bump” (cocaine). It certainly wasn’t one of those starstruck autobiographies that leave you saying, “Celebrities! They’re just like us,” that’s for sure.

REVIEW: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid

Here’s how I rate Bill Bryson’s books: One star for each embarrassing episode of inadvertent bursts of out-loud laughter in a public place. I found The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid to be a four-star, thoroughly embarrassing read.

Bryson made his name as a travel humorist. (The first book of his that I read, Notes From a Small Island, also earned four snorts — I mean, stars.) That book documented his valedictory tour of Great Britain, where he had lived and worked as a journalist for a couple of decades, just before he brought his family back to his native United States. He also has documented his travels in Australia, the American Midwest, and a trek up the Appalachian Trail, all of which were reliably amusing if not entirely gut-busting. Along the way, Bryson also penned several books about the English language, Shakespeare, and the history of the modern house, bringing his trademark whimsy and fascination with the small details of history to each.

In The Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson looks back, chronicling his nearly idyllic childhood growing up in 1950s Des Moines, Iowa. Some of my friends find Bryson’s humor to be occasionally mean-spirited, and it’s true that he has a knack for skewering the least-attractive personality traits of some of the self-important blowhards he meets in his travels. Perhaps it’s the softening effects of time, but there was relatively little savagery on display in Thunderbolt Kid. Oh, he still finds ways to point out the ridiculous aspects of some of his childhood nemeses, but the punches are pulled somewhat, leaving the reader with all of the humor and little of the discomfort.

I read a comment from another LibraryThing reader who speculated that only those who had grown up in 1950s America might appreciate The Thunderbolt Kid. I don’t think that’s true, necessarily; I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s but I still found much to enjoy in Bryson’s memoir. I recommend this book to any fan of Bryson’s or of coming-of-age stories, or anyone who enjoys having to apologize to the other riders on the city bus for bursting out in surprised guffaws while reading silently to oneself.

REVIEW: Running the Books

Avi Steinberg is leading a pretty aimless life, writing obituaries for a newspaper, when he takes an abrupt detour and becomes a prison librarian. Throughout the first half of the book, Steinberg portrays himself as a real naïf about prison life. He is fascinated by the ways that inmates find of skirting the restrictions on their interpersonal communications, and he allows some of them, master manipulators who can sense his inexperience the way a dog senses fear, to con him into giving them more freedoms and privileges in the prison library than are permitted by the strict rules.

Steinberg nicely portrays his growing savvy as the book progresses, and an encounter with a former inmate out in the “real world” serves as a stark reminder that even the most charming, intelligent pimp is still a pimp. Overall, however, the book was entertaining without being compelling. A couple of long interruptions in my reading did not leave me clamoring to get back to it, although I did eventually.

REVIEW: Composed

I have a strange sort of (one-way) relationship with the musical Cash family. The first album I ever bought with my own money was Johnny Cash’s A Thing Called Love when I was 10 years old. The first concert I ever attended was a free concert in 1974 by Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, at the baseball stadium in Davenport, Iowa. The first album I ever checked out at the library was Rosanne Cash’s Seven Year Ache in 1981. The first concert I ever reviewed professionally was Johnny Cash again, this time in 1987 at the Masonic Temple in Davenport. Four years later, the Man in Black was one of the first celebrities I ever interviewed in person.

So what I’m saying is that I’m a big fan of both Johnny and his supremely talented daughter, Rosanne. For that reason, I was eager to read Rosanne’s memoir, Composed. I knew from listening to her songs that she is an intelligent, thoughtful writer, perhaps not the stereotype most people have of a country singer-songwriter. In that sense, Composed did not disappoint. Cash is candid without being indiscreet; you won’t read any dirt about her first husband, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, or get the nitty-gritty on the collapse of their marriage. But while she is respectful of other people’s privacy, she does not hesitate to share her own actions and reactions. In particular, the chapter where she chronicles all of the losses she experienced over the course of a year — her mother, her stepsister, her stepmother June Carter Cash, and of course her father — is a harrowing portrait of grief.

It’s not surprising that a writer like Rosanne Cash would write such an emotionally open memoir, but Composed is also a first-rate look at her musical career and the stories behind each of her albums, and some of her most well-known songs. The combination added up to a fascinating portrait of an artist throughout her life.