From Publishers 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 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
Lembkes (Shake Them 'Simmons Down, 1996) rogues gallery of hateful creaturesfrom fruit flies to sandbursconsidered 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 its 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 isnt 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 system kicks in and directs them to follow normal routines in such matters as standing upright and grooming. Headless, they can live for days if theyre kept moist and dont fly away. A polished, subjective gathering of detestables; every reader should be able to find one evil customer to abominate. (line drawings) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.