Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Guest Review: Dark Banquet by Bill Schutt

Forget those imaginary sparkly poseurs who use fangs and the red stuff as a fashion statement. There are real vampires among us--and yes, they suck blood. Really.

Bill Schutt is a Cornell researcher who studies vampire bats. In the first third of his book Dark Banquet (which is all about blood suckers in the animal kingdom), Schutt dispels the myths surrounding these animals of which there are three species living in the New World. He also takes the reader through capturing vampire bats in a creepy abandoned military base in the middle of the Trinidad rain forest to feeding techniques used to maintain the vampire bat colony back in Cornell. The second section is a history of blood science, particularly in the art of bloodletting from ancient to modern times with emphasis on medicinal leeches. For the final section, the blood sucking animal highlighted is something far closer to home--the bed bug. Schutt visits an entomologist who studies bed bugs and feeds them himself! and discusses why it is so difficult to get rid of the critters. Needless to say, it might not be such a good idea to read this part in bed.

Schutt's writing style is very readable with a sense of humor about the bloody subject. For example, in the explanation for the circumstances that led to the evolutionary diversification of vampire bats from the rest of the bat family, one of the three vampire species, Diaemus youngi, is described as a "winged teddy bear" that behaves like a chick in order to trick the chicken into giving up the liquid goods. Leeches were not only depicted as some dark menace plaguing Humphrey Bogart on The African Queen but also as whimsical Tempest Prognosticators in a nineteenth century weather instrument that never really caught on to the public. And the footnotes are not to be missed. In one particularly hilarious one, Norwegian researchers got some leeches drunk and tortured them with garlic. At least in that instance, the folklorish notion that garlic keeps away the vampires is true!

While I understand that going into depth about all sanguivores would be foolhardy--or at the least require several more volumes--I would have liked to see more about some of the animals that were only briefly mentioned. Schutt does go into the fact that mites and ticks are known carriers of disease, but I found that section dissatisfyingly brief. I would have liked more explanation on how these insects metabolized their blood meals, how the microbes that cause disease survive in such a host, and the resulting consequences on the carrier insect's physiology. Much of the anecdotes and sensationalism about people freaking out about bed bugs could have possibly been cut out in favor of adding more science. Then again, this may be my own biases coming into play. I get frustrated when something I'm interested in is mentioned--such as the gut microflora of the vampire bats--but is never followed up.

But despite these shortcomings, I really enjoyed Dark Banquet. Schutt is funny and informative without being condescending. And it is obvious, especially with the first section of the book, that the author has a real love of the subject. As a microbiology student, much of my studies concentrate on the disease and the physiology of the bacteria or viruses that cause the disease. I've been taught that the vectors for those diseases were nothing more than something pesky to be eradicated. But I think this book has given me a new appreciation for the complex biology of the organisms that serve as these vectors--even if not everything was explained to my satisfaction.

I also have to give kudos to whoever designed the book. The red divider pages gave the book real structure and organization. And the inclusion of the illustrations by Patricia Wynne was genius. Wynne's Gorey-esque drawing style beautifully meshed with Schutt's narrative resulting in a truly pleasing reading experience.

Contributed by Sya, who can be found here.

No comments:

Post a Comment