I bought An Obsession with Butterflies despite not being terribly interested in butterflies because I had been so impressed with another book by Russell, Anatomy of a Rose, despite not being terribly interested in flowers. I was not disappointed.

The mimicry or camouflage that works so well against a bird may not work at all against the predatory stinkbug, which has been known to stalk its prey for as long as an hour. Some caterpillars do the obvious. They drop off the leaf and hope for a soft landing. Or they spin out a thread of silk, drop like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, and dangle from the lifeline while they wait for the predator to leave.

Some parasitic wasps wait, too, for their prey to climb back up. Some wasps slowly walk down the silken line. Some wasps slowly reel in that line...

Aieee! Russell's writing can be lovely and lyrical, but this is not a book that forgets just how brutal nature can be. (I have always been horrified by parasitic wasps, and Russell helpfully added some details on them that I had not known before-- details beyond what I'm quoting-- that freaked me the hell out all over again.)

The book is primarily about butterflies themselves, not about human-butterfly interactions, but there are a couple brief but sharply drawn incidents involving the latter: the Great White Butterfly-Hunter musing in his diary over whether he was losing some respect for human life, while his "native bearers" were dropping dead on a hunt; the modern college student, too sedentary to compete with his friends who rushed madly about with butterfly nets, sitting down at his leisure beside a tree and learning the life cycle of a species.

Recommended, as is Anatomy of a Rose, whether or not you care about butterflies or roses.

Monkeyluv (and other essays on our lives as animals) was a big disappointment. I hadn't realized when I Book Mooched it that it was an annotated collection of short articles that had previously appeared in magazines, and so did not go in-depth into anything. Sapolsky's breezy and to me totally unfunny style was annoying, and even the wide-ranging subtitle does not fully indicate just how scattershot the subjects are. Some of his essays touched upon fascinating matters, but inevitably ended just as one would expect the serious analysis to begin.

If you want nature study, Russell's books are better; if you want the complex interactions of humans with science and technology, Atul Gawande's Complications is better; if you want the interaction of the human element with everything that comes to the author's mind as being worth exploring, Malcolm Gladwell is better; actually, a subscription to any pop science magazine would probably also be better, because at least there you know to expect sound-bites and snippets.


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