I’ve just finished reading Paris Trout by Pete Dexter, winner of the 1988 National Book Award. It’s a bleak story of a wealthy man without a conscience, who murders a little black girl and abuses his wife, and believes that his money can buy him out of trouble. The tension builds slowly but steadily. There’s a constant hint of a forthcoming cataclysm, but it’s a long time coming. Paris Trout is one of the least likeable fictional characters I’ve come across, but I found the story compulsive and read it over four nights. The shocking ending left me gloomily satisfied.
For a change of tone, I began reading Confessions of a Turtle Wife by Anita Salzberg. Since buying a Kindle I’ve become ruthless with my reading choices. Once I would plod through a paperback because having bought it I felt I should finish it. Now, with 751 titles loaded on the Kindle and the knowledge I will never be able to read them all (particularly as I continue adding to them), if I’m not enjoying them pretty quickly, ping, button pressed, title deleted. Life is too short to finish a book you are not enjoying. Discarded titles lie in a virtual heap all over the floor.
Before getting up this morning, I flicked open the Turtle Wife intending to read the first few paragraphs to see whether it was destined for a ping or not. It was only the insistent moans of Tommy and the clicking of his claws on the tiles an hour later that dragged me downstairs to feed him, by which time I was a quarter of a way through the book and laughing out loud non-stop.
It is the matter of fact, deadpan narrative that makes this such a funny read. As Anita’s new husband Allen the turtleholic acquires ever more turtle-friends, Anita takes it all in her stride. Turtles in the kitchen; turtles in the bath; turtles trundle free-ranging around the apartment laying eggs and small smelly deposits on the carpet. Twenty-gallon tanks and associated maintenance equipment occupy the kitchen shelves. Astroturf is laid in the apartment for the comfort of the turtles. People turn up day and night with unwanted or injured turtles as Allen takes on the job of Turtle Adoption Committee representative for New York.
They visit a man who has more than 1,000 turtles, and whose basement is ‘to turtle people what Canterbury was to Chaucer’s pilgrims,’ and his imperturbable wife ‘the Mother Teresa of turtle wives.’
Going on vacation is always a problem. Some turtles can go with them (yes!), but those left behind need a level of attention that would challenge an Intensive Care Unit. Turtles know what they want and how to get it. Tulip, the Malayan box turtle won’t eat unless she’s wrapped in a towel and sung to while being rocked in a rocking chair for half an hour. It looks as if tiny Omni has been eaten by the cat.
Then there’s the Turtle Roundup and the Turtle Show where eccentric turtle-owners bring their pets in a variety of strange clothing ranging from sombreros to suspenders.
For a turtleholic, nothing is too much trouble to ensure the care and comfort of their charges. ‘… it went everywhere in its own customized traveling bag, complete with indoor-outdoor carpeting, hot water bottle, miniature sleeping bag and mini heating pad.’ One owner played thunderstorm tapes for her box turtle, one bought a miniature Christmas tree each year for hers. And so on.
There’s also the more serious aspect of illicit importation of turtles, their welfare, and the destruction of turtle habitat.
Well, from this you may be able to guess that I am totally hooked on this book! So it’s bye for now while I dive back into the world of turtlemania. And no, I do not plan on getting a turtle, before you ask.
PS. Many years ago I kept two small terrapins. My mother-in-law at the time was highly critical in case the children swallowed one because, she said, there had been a recent report in an Italian newspaper of a child who had swallowed a terrapin that lived in its stomach, and the child was growing up to look like one.