Monday, January 24, 2011

Monday Book Review: ENSLAVED BY DUCKS by Bob Tarte

ENSLAVED BY DUCKS is one of the most delightful books I've ever read. It reminded me of nothing less than the animal 'memoir' classics of Gerald Durrell. Mid-western author Bob Tarte has a dry, self-deprecating wit, a tart wit, and from the outside looking in, he appears to have the patience of Job as well. (With the help of an understandable daily dose of Zoloft.)

Before I say much else, I have to say that I am very fond of tales of odd assortments of animals come to live with humans and the hilarious bedlam that often ensues. So when librarian extraordinaire Nancy Pearl highly recommended ENSLAVED BY DUCKS, I was all for it. Most especially since I have a fondness for ducks and geese, possibly because I've never been enslaved by any. (Does being enslaved by a dog count?)

Anyway, this is the often very touching and generally hilarious story of how a man named Bob left city life in Grand Rapids, Michigan and went to live in the countryside with his wife, Linda. They weren't long settled into their little house in the country when an irascible rabbit named Binky joined the family. Following Binky in rather quick succession there came, one by one (or two) as if to an ark, the oddest assortment of animals and birds you might ever want to meet.

(And no, not a dog among them. Two cats, yes. But no dogs. Just as well, I suppose.)

The resulting book is a gentle testament not only to Bob and Linda Tarte's patience but to their enormous capacity for love and understanding of their fellow feathery and furry creatures. Not to mention that some of the incidents described by Bob are laugh-out-loud funny especially when told with his wry sense of the absurd. I began reading ENSLAVED BY DUCKS one evening and then, to my surprise, simply could not put it down. I just wanted to see what happened next to Bob and Linda and their menagerie.

Here is an excerpt from Bob talking about their newly adopted African grey parrot, Stanley (who was later discovered to be a female and acquired the name, Stanley-Sue):

Bird experts agree that the first step in gaining control over a parrot is convincing it to 'step up' on your hand upon command. Bird experts are easily identified by their scarred hands, and I realized that the road to a better bond with Stanley wouldn't necessarily be painless....I tried calling "Step up, Stanley," from across the room and waited vainly for a raised foot to wave at me. Repeating the experiment a few inches from him resulted in the expected lowered head and threat to bite. And bite he did when I slid my hand closer. After examining my flesh for punctures and finding only a minor indentation, I shelved my usual cowardice and braved a second attempt. Stanley nipped me again but when I refused to withdraw he seemed to sigh with his whole body as he graciously stepped onto my hand. Lifting him to chest level, my exhilaration soured when I realized I had no idea what do do with him now. To make Stanley think my command had been part of a grand plan instead of mere
grandstanding, I took him on a short tour of the living room, pointing out such landmarks as the couch, TV, and coat rack.

Once I became skilled at picking up our parrot, I needed something to do with him. The logical choice was taking him into the living room after dinner to share the entertainment spectacle of Wheel of Fortune with us. Amazingly, the antics of Pat and Vanna failed to divert him.....Though I was delighted by the progress Stanley had made, I had to admit a basic feeling of disappointment as our first year with him ground on. African greys are potentially the best talkers in the bird world, able not only to remember complex phrases, but also to deliver them in tape-recorder-perfect, embarrassing imitations of their owners' voices.....

So I had hopes that Stanley would be a kind of homunculus with whom I could converse, joke, collaborate on crossword puzzles, and conspire against Linda. But his phrase book began and ended with "Big boy, Stanley" and "Hello," which barely opened the door to banter, much less discussions of particle physics.

Living in the house or in close proximity over the years:

Rabbits: Binky, Bertha, Bertie, Rollo and Walter.
Parrots: Ollie, Stanley Sue, Dusty.
Other Birds: Howard, Chester, Elliott, Farley, Rossy, Regie, Sophie, Tillie and Weaver.
Cats: Penny and Agnes.


Ducks: Daphne, Phoebe, Martha, Peggy, Chloe, Blabby and Wing Ding, Stewart, Trevor, Marybelle, Clarra and Gwelda, Hector, Richie and Timmy.
Geese: Liza and Hailey
Turkeys: Hazel and Lizzie. (Plus two nameless others.)

And two extraordinary humans:
Bob Tarte: put-upon author
Linda Tarte: long-suffering wife to unforntunate author

To find out what types of rabbits, birds, ducks, geese, etc (and their various neurosis) invaded Bob and Linda's welcoming house, you have to read the book. Also, check out the ENSLAVED BY DUCKS website for pictures of all the animals and notice of a second book by Bob: FOWL WEATHER. (Which I can't wait to read.)

I will tell you this, once you've read ENSLAVED BY DUCKS you will never look at a duck or a pigeon or a parakeet or a starling or a rabbit or a turkey in the same way again.

This review of ENSLAVED BY DUCKS counts toward my participation in the Dewey Decimal Non-Fiction Challenge which is hosted by The Introverted Reader.


  1. ducks are amazing creatures!
    i'am just illustrating a book full of ducks, in a lake that reserves them a lot of adventures!

  2. Yes, they are. And funny too. Remember the duck in the movie, BABE? (Duck or goose can't remember which.)

    Are you an illustrator, Martha? Would the book be available in this country?

  3. i am a painter and an illustrator! well, i am afraid the book will be in greece only but when it's ready i will send you the link to see it! i would like that very much!!!!
    in my blog you can see a lot of my paintings and illustations!
    this is the pirate of the orande trees

  4. the author quietly suggests that animals are little packets of alien intelligence fully inhabiting their own world, which is worth tapping into.

    I go along with that. They let us into their world. They have no choice but to be in ours.

  5. Martha: I'll have to check your blog more closely. Can't wait to see the book link! I posted that painting of the little library with red chair and table (that you did) onto my Facebook page. Everyone loved it.

  6. Dave, yes I definitely agree. I can't wait to read Bob Tarte's second book, FOWL WEATHER. Did you see the bunnies? Binky's bad temper made me laugh, I have to say.

  7. Yvette, thanks so much for the very generous review of my book "Enslaved by Ducks." I can't tell you how much I appreciate the kind words. Look for a new book from me in 2012 about our six cats called "The Funnel of Happiness." - Bob Tarte, author, "Enslaved by Ducks" and "Fowl Weather"

  8. Robert: So now it's six cats? Well, why should I be surprised? Thanks so much Robert, for dropping by and leaving a comment. I loved your book - well, you knew that. :)

    It was a pleasure to read and review. I'm looking forward to your next book and your next one after that...!

  9. Thanks, Yvette. I am writing a new book, now that you mention it. It's about birding. And I don't know why Google shows me as 'Robert'... Gotta fix that. Anyway, the actual cat population is five right now, but at our peak it was six. That's nothing compared to my sister Joan's twelve cats!

    - Bob Tarte, author, "Enslaved by Ducks," "Fowl Weather," and the forthcoming "The Funnel of Happiness."

  10. Robert: 12 cats? Oh my goodness! Well, in truth, my late mom at one time had about 5 or 6, can't remember exactly, so I guess it's the kind of thing that can happen to anyone. Ha!

    Your books are definitely on my ever-growing TBR list, Robert. :)

  11. Just added this to my tbr list--thanks! I do love animal books as long as I don't have to suffer through pages of "saying goodbye" at the end. Have you read any of James Herriott's books? Those are my favorite animal memoirs!

  12. Hi Jen: You're welcome. I loved this book. There are some bittersweet moments, but you have to expect that with animal non-fiction. But they're few and far between. Mostly it's a hoot.

    I love James Herriot, I used to watch the series once upon a time. Loved it. Don't think I ever read the books though. I'll have to add them to by TBR list. Have you read any of Gerald Durrell's animal memoirs? They are fabulous and I recommend them highly.

  13. Yvette,

    What's your favorite Gerald Durrell book? I've got two... "My Family and Other Animals" and "Birds, Beasts, and Relatives." I love these sweet reminiscences of his childhood on Corfu.

    - Bob Tarte

  14. Honestly, Bob, I can't remember any titles. I read Gerald Durrell in the 70's or early 80's. My 'old lady' memory just won't work with me some days. I checked the NY Public Library but the only titles that rang a bell are THE OVERLOADED ARK, A BEVY OF BEASTS, MENAGERIE MANOR, BEASTS IN MY BELFRY and ARK ON THE MOVE.
    They rang a bell, but that's about it. I only have a general good feeling about these books and remember their gentleness and good humor. I am probably a life long animal lover because of my mom and Gerald Durrell, oh and BAMBI. I did see the pbs film based on MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS just last year some time. LOVED it. And I see a book I think I'm going to get for my granddaughter: THE AMATEUR NATURALIST (when she's older of course and by then I'll probably be reading her your books. :)

    Your book, Bob, triggered the Durrell emotional memory more than anything else.

    Now that I think on it, maybe it's time for me to read Durrell again. I see there's a biography too. I've jotted down some titles.

  15. Yvette, My wife Linda is reading "Beasts in My Belfry" for about the third time, and we were just talking about "The Overloaded Ark" this morning (and the Fon of Bafut). I like Durrell's early books better than the later ones, but they're all good. - Bob Tarte

  16. Bob: I hope you don't think me a hypocrite for relying merely on emotional memory - sometimes -when I recommend a book or author.

    I think emotions left behind by a book are just as valid and often mean more than specific chapter and verse memory. Know what I mean?
    It's all good far as I'm concerned. :)

  17. I forget almost everything that I read in an amazingly short span of time. I only remember the Durrell books because I re-read the Corfu trilogy within the past year. Emotional memory can be superior to reality anyway, or at least more satisfying. Hey! If you're on Facebook, look for me, okay? - Bob Tarte

  18. Bob: Hate to tell you this, but it only gets worse as you get older. Wait and see. Ha! Bob I tried to find you on Facebook and was defeated by the new set up Facebook has to find friends. SO FRUSTRATING. Just about blew my stack. Anyway. Maybe you can find me: yvette banek or yvette santiago banek. Good luck! ;)


Your comment will appear after I take a look.