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Despicable Species: On Cowbirds, Kudzu, Hornworms, and Other Scourges
     

Despicable Species: On Cowbirds, Kudzu, Hornworms, and Other Scourges

by Janet Lembke, Joe Nutt (Illustrator)
 
In fourteen gloriously revelatory essays, Lembke ponders some of the most loathsome creatures on the planet. But for every creature's nasty reputation, there is a silver lining, which Lembke brings to our attention with dazzlingly researched bits of history, science, and culture. These beautifully written pieces are graced with fantastic allusions to Greek and Roman

Overview

In fourteen gloriously revelatory essays, Lembke ponders some of the most loathsome creatures on the planet. But for every creature's nasty reputation, there is a silver lining, which Lembke brings to our attention with dazzlingly researched bits of history, science, and culture. These beautifully written pieces are graced with fantastic allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, Shakespeare, and classical music - as well as downright hilarious personal anecdotes. It is proof of the symbiosis of all living things, and of the undeniable truth that we are all stuck with one another on this small and fragile planet. All lovers of nature and lovers of natural storytellers will love Despicable Species. (6 x 9, 232 pages, illustrations)

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The questions that begin this likable book are straightforward enough: "How do we deal with the bad stuff? With all those disgusting, sickening, despicable, repellently alien lives that impinge on ours?" As Lembke (Shake Them 'Simmons Down, etc.) shows in her portraits of species that many people find abhorrent, the answers are much more complex. Writing with wit and insight, and drawing on her background as a linguist specializing in Greek and Latin, Lembke discusses the roles that kudzu, centipedes, horseflies, opossums, hornworms and fruit flies play in both natural ecosystems and human affairs. Not surprisingly, many of our most despised species have redeeming qualities. Centipedes eat cockroaches, starch made from kudzu is a culinary delight and the moths into which hornworms transform themselves "are not just beautiful but in some measure astonishing." While ably demonstrating the ecological interconnectedness of living things, Lembke also makes it clear that it is unlikely that whole ecosystems will collapse if any one of these species were to be lost. In her final chapter, she makes the case that, given the destruction humans have wrought throughout the world, they ought to be on her list. Lembke's classificatory scheme is idiosyncratic and may surprise many. She declares that starlings, squirrels, cowbirds and fungi are despicable, but she ignores chiggers, leeches, mosquitoes and the retrovirus responsible for AIDS. Nonetheless, when taken as the piece of natural history writing it is intended to be rather than a definitive catalogue of repulsive creatures, her book is both enjoyable and edifying, itself quite the opposite of despicable. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Writer and naturalist Janet Lembke offers 14 essays in which she discusses various despised species of rodent, bird, insect, fungus, microbe, and plant, musing on the ways in which they inconvenience and annoy us, even while simply doing their best to thrive and reproduce, much as does. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
In this volume, despicableness is an anthropomorphic judgment wielded with a broad brush by an erudite naturalist. The highly personal rendition vilifies species encountered near abodes on Ossabaw Island, Georgia, and the river Neuse, North Carolina, as well as other species suggested by family and friends. Sandburs, starlings, cowbirds, kudzu, fungi, possum, and flies are addressed with scientific care in a simultaneously classical and rustic context. Although the poison pen purports to persecute the pests presented, the picture that emerges has a palliative effect and provides a perspective that allows a deeper understanding of the organisms and ourselves. Comments on "the flinch factor" and "products that could cure us of mortality" make this work most interesting. In true naturalist fashion, the text is more of an aloof observation than biased pontification. Scientific names are routinely translated from their Greek and Latin roots. The relatives of pests are often examined to try to understand why the pest is so pestiferous. The politics of kudzu is briefly reviewed in a lucid presentation of how erosion control can conflict with maintaining the rights-of-way of utilities. Phylogeny, ontogeny, taxonomy, theory, fact, fable, and society are loosely interwoven in an entertaining way for each pest addressed. This book is a fun and insightful read. Highly Recommended, Grades 5-6. REVIEWER: Dr. Marvin K. Harris (Texas A&M University)
Kirkus Reviews
Lembke's (Shake Them 'Simmons Down, 1996) rogues' gallery of hateful creatures—from fruit flies to sandburs—considered in their biological, mythological, literary, and aesthetic aspects to bevel our fear and loathing. "Despicable" may be a bit harsh for a few of the dozen-odd species that Lembke scrutinizes here. Can one really despise a mushroom, even if it's called the Death Angel? Or the pathetic opossum? That merry prankster the gray squirrel, though he may raid our feeders, or the "small, swart, pushy" European starling, a bird with an eye for glitter and theft? Yes, they do have their faults, artfully catalogued by Lembke, though perhaps her other hate-objects are more understandable, things that rouse our ancestral timorousness like dark shadows and sudden unexpected movements. Some we abhor for the pain they inflict (the deerfly and the horsefly certainly qualify); others for behavior we find ethically repugnant, like the brown-headed cowbirds' dump-and-run tactic with their own offspring (which raises the question of how a cowbird knows its identity if the first face it sees isn't its parent). The evil flutter of a centipede is enough to send a shudder up any spine, and some living things display an aggressiveness, a tenaciousness that feels like a threat: ask a Southerner about creeping kudzu (see the vine insinuate itself into the lines of a James Dickey poem and possess it) or a Northerner about the zebra mussel, or anyone about the admittedly colorful loosestrife. And for truly ghastly survival strategies, Lembke urges readers to consider the pesky fruit fly, which takes decapitation in stride: "How do they stay alive without heads? Their nervous systemkicks in and directs them to follow normal routines in such matters as standing upright and grooming. Headless, they can live for days if they're kept moist and don't fly away." A polished, subjective gathering of detestables; every reader should be able to find one evil customer to abominate. (line drawings)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781585741991
Publisher:
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
10/28/2001
Pages:
232
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

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