You Got Me Buggin’

Looking for a summer thriller for the beach? A shiver-inducing read that will keep you up at night? A tale of murder and intrigue? Another reason to hate those mosquitoes swarming your gourd at this very moment?
Look no more.

Peep my latest book review for Portland’s
The Oregonian.

Amy Stewart
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$18.95, 272 pages

“Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.” This is not the colorful marketing slogan for an off-brand Texas hot sauce. It’s pain connoisseur Justin Schmidt’s description of a yellow jacket sting, ranked 2.0 on his Schmidt Sting Pain Index. And it doesn’t actually sound so bad when compared to the “pure, intense, brilliant pain,” of a level 4.0 bullet ant bite, akin to “fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”

Intrigued? Read on.

For every human on Earth there are roughly 200 million insects. “We are seriously outnumbered.” Amy Stewart respects that. She understands that insects do good. She knows they are integral parts of the food chain, that they pollinate the plants we eat and keep soil healthy. She knows we could not live without them. But she didn’t write a book called “Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects” to extol their virtues. She wrote it to chronicle their most dastardly deeds. She wrote it to make you shudder and itch as you learn how the smallest of creatures can decimate forests and crops, collapse cities, thwart armies and inflict horror-movie levels of pain, suffering, festering disease and gruesome death upon millions of humans, while changing and shaping the course of history. She wrote this book to scare the bugs out of you.

Stewart is not an entomologist, but she is a consummate storyteller with a curious mind. Well-researched and written with characteristic wit, whimsy and reverence, “Wicked Bugs” is the perfect companion to her sordid 2009 best-seller, “Wicked Plants.” Accompanied by Briony Morrow-Cribbs’ gorgeous entomological etchings and drawings, the book is arranged in alphabetical order by species, and then divided into five dubious categories: Horrible, Painful, Destructive, Dangerous and Deadly. Each brief chapter offers up some fresh new hell.

And rest assured, there is something for everyone. Hypochondriacs will be pleased to know that those chronic headaches could be caused by a tapeworm curled up like a tumor inside their brains. World War II buffs will be delighted to learn of Japan’s aborted operation “Cherry Blossoms at Night,” which would have released plague-infested fleas over California. Science geeks will chuckle at the image of Darwin stuffing a bombardier beetle into his mouth for safekeeping when his hands were full. Engineers will be impressed by the degree to which termites weakened New Orleans’s levees before Hurricane Katrina.

So this summer as you unpack your picnic basket in a haze of bug spray, just remember that mosquitoes have killed more humans than all wars combined. And for that, they probably deserve a little begrudging respect.  –Kathleen Yale

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