A True Story
Algonquin: 190 pp., $18.95
We seek metaphors. When we find them in the natural world, we feel better about things, perhaps because we see ourselves as part of something larger. "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating" has much in common with memoirs of prisoners who find comfort in the company of a spider or a plant outside the bars.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey, 34, returned from a trip to Switzerland with a mysterious and debilitating flu. Hospitalized for months, she was told that recovery would take years. A friend gave her a pot of field violets with a snail. Bedridden, Bailey watched the snail for hours each day. She fed it Portobello mushrooms, heard the snail eating. She watched it journey up and down the pot. "As the months drifted by," she writes, "it was hard to remember why the endless details of a healthy life and a good job had seemed so critical." Life was condensed into a room, the companionship of another creature and visits from friends, whose energy astonishes Bailey ("They were so careless with it"). "There is a certain depth of illness that is piercing in its isolation," she writes. "The only rule of existence is uncertainty." Trapped in her studio apartment, Bailey finds enormous comfort in the snail, in its insistence on life (her snail lays eggs that become 118 baby snails).
Bailey's illness lasted two decades, although the snail didn't make it that long. Learning about the snail, thinking about its life cycle, its shape led Bailey down many paths. This curiosity drew her forward and slowly out of her illness. "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 Hare With Amber Eyes
A Family's Century of Art and Loss
Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 354 pp., $26
Edmund de Waal, a well-known potter, is the fifth generation to inherit his family's collection of 264 netsuke, Japanese miniature ivory carvings collected by his great-great grandfather, banking magnate Charles Ephrussi. The netsuke, smuggled out of Vienna during the Nazi occupation by one of the family's maids, are all that remains of an extensive art collection. De Waal was on an internship in Japan in 1991 when he first heard the story of the netsuke from his 84-year-old great uncle, Iggie, who lived there. It was Uncle Iggie who bequeathed the collection to de Waal, who carries the tiny figures around London in his pockets: "You work your fingers round the smoothness and stoniness of the ivory… . They are always asymmetric, I think with pleasure. Like my favorite Japanese tea-bowls, you cannot understand the whole from a part." The netsuke teach De Waal a great deal about his family, their lives during and after the war, his own creative legacy and the lives of the artists who made the miniatures. Talisman is too light a word — the netsuke carry a greater power: "It is not just that things carry stories with them," he writes. "Stories are a kind of thing, too … a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed."
Growing Up Jung
Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks
W.W. Norton: 262 pp., $23.95
Poor Micah Toub spent his childhood trying to invent dreams that his father, a Jungian analyst, would find interesting. His mother was also a Jungian analyst and Toub was encouraged to swim in the collective unconscious. He was often left home alone while his parents, deep in the New Age, went on vision quests. Lust and aggression were explored ad nauseam around the dinner table. All of this is extremely funny, but there is much to learn here about Jungian therapy, the process of individuation and the perils of writing about one's parents. Toub, as an adult, finds good advice in Jung's writing: " 'Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead,' he wrote, a drama queen after my own heart."
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.