bioephemera

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Amy Stewart’s new book Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects takes a fairly trivial concept – a collection of historical anecdotes and icky factoids about dangerous insects – and executes it remarkably well. The book is well-written and has a non-cloying sense of humor (“she’s just not that into you,” begins the section relating how female praying mantids eat the males). Briony Morrow-Cribbs lends her insect illustrations (see a NYTimes slideshow of her ink illustrations here), and Anne Winslow’s design plays off the concept of a vintage textbook – more Hogwarts than Harvard, perhaps, but still cute. I love the red-and-crimson cover.


As these snapshots show, there are multiple fonts, brown and black ink, pull-quotes, faux-aged pages, and of course illustrations everywhere:

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At times, the sheer accumulation of design elements becomes almost too much. But the overall effect is playful, nonthreatening, and certainly a fun way to introduce kids (or adults) to entomology. Such a small, durable book (it’s a little larger than a paperback, with an apparently water-resistant board cover) is very conveniently sized for taking to the beach or park in a knapsack – which may explain why the book is coming out now, and not at Halloween. But be aware, the book is not a field guide (as Stewart herself warns in the introduction), and it will not teach you to name or categorize what you find on a nature walk. Rather, it’s the sort of compendium of deliciously gross, morbid factoids that small boys absolutely adore – virtually every body part is bitten, chewed off, or infected with some form of insect at one point or another. Ticks? Check. Tapeworms? Check. Tapeworms in the brain? Check.

A few paragraphs, though, may make some parents blanch. I’m thinking specifically of the banana slugs gnawing one another’s penises off, or “all species of bat bugs participate in a form of lovemaking called traumatic insemination, in which the male bypasses the female’s vagina altogether and pierces her abdomen with his horribly sharp little penis.” That’s biology – no way around it – and it’s neither naughty nor prurient. But one of the benefits of not being a parent myself is not having to decide at what ages my kids get to read about – and ask me to explain – penis-stabbing. (That’s your problem, friends with babies! Ha!)

Anyway, “bad bug romance” aside, the book is teeming with tales of the insect pests that brought down armies, cities, even the French wine industry. It’s entertaining stuff, it flows well, and it’s fairly accurate (which in my experience is unusual for popular-science books). Stewart even make a point of explaining in the introduction that the word “bug” is a misnomer as applied to all insects, for which this biologist thanks her. Maybe one or two people will retain that tidbit, along with the Napoleon anecdotes and the story of the British man who bought a nine-inch exotic centipede to keep as a pet – which promptly escaped to the neighbor’s house. Really? A giant centipede pet?

For a sense of the content, here’s a promotional video Stewart created. In my mind, it doesn’t do the book justice (for one thing, the book has more of a steampunky, turn of the century library flavor than a early-journalism newsreel public health vibe). But the tongue-in-cheek attitude is right on target.

Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon’s Army & Other Diabolical Insects: recommended for all aspiring entomologists old enough to handle icky bug sex, however old that is, in your opinion, because I would not presume to judge or parents will get mad at me.

More:

Read an excerpt here. NPR interview with Stewart here. Boing Boing interview with Stewart here. Also see Stewart’s previous book, Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities, also illustrated by Morrow-Cribbs.