On Cowbirds, Kudzu, Hornworms, and Other Scourges
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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 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 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)

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-55821-635-9
Page count: 228pp
Publisher: Lyons Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999