Monday, October 26, 2009

Dark Banquet by Bill Schutt

One of the points Bill Schutt makes in his book Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures is that there is much we don't know about sanguivores, or creatures that feed on blood. They are small and rare, shrouded in misconceptions, but also remarkable in the beauty of their evolutions. Schutt, a bat biologist, proves to be an ideal guide in demystifying lives of sanguivores and explaining their impact on our lives.

Beginning with vampire bats, Schutt explores the world of sanguivores, which also includes leeches, ticks, chiggers, bed bugs, and candiru. Among the many things I learned from reading Dark Banquet are that there are three species of vampire bats, the leech Hirudo medicinalis actually received FDA approval as a medical device (not to mention probably much more than I ever wanted to know about the historical uses of leeches), and there is a species of candiru known as Vendellia wieneri. More seriously, these sanguivores evolved for a reason. In describing how each feeds, reproduces, and interacts with their ecosystem, Schutt also explains why they are so important. Many people think the various sanguivores are scary and/or dangerous, but Schutt elucidates why this should not be the case.

Schutt does assume some degree of scientific literacy among readers. Not as much as I thought, say, Carl Zimmer's Microcosm requires, but definitely more than something like Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. (Which is not a knock on Bryson, since I enjoyed his book.) While passionate about his subject, Schutt does not take himself too seriously, writing with ease and humor. (Schutt also uses parenthetical asides even more often than I do, she adds parenthetically.) The illustrations by Patricia Wynne illuminate Schutt's text as well as often providing additional humor.

Dark Banquet has a mostly a North American and European focus, but then, the narrative begins with a discussion of vampire bats, which are only found in Mexico, Central America, South America, and two Caribbean islands. Still, I can't help but wish there was more information about medicine and beliefs about blood in other parts of the world, particularly in Part Two, which takes a closer look at blood itself.

Overall, though, this is a sometimes disgusting (okay, so this is a personal judgment coming from someone who admittedly doesn't like the sight of blood, but how else to describe some parts, like p. 163?), always fascinating glimpse at a few species who don't receive the appreciation Schutt demonstrates they deserve.

If any of this sounds interesting, in addition to reading Dark Banquet, I highly recommend visiting Schutt's website. There you'll find basic information about and color pictures of the creatures described in the book, as well as extras, including a section on blood recipes. Bon app├ętit.

Book source: public library.

Cross-posted at The YA YA YAs.


A Bookshelf Monstrosity said...

I like nonfiction authors who don't take themselves too seriously and who include a dose of humor with their fact. I think I can handle the gross factor-except for perhaps the leeches :) Thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

A Paperback Writer said...

Okay, THIS I have to have.

Trisha said...

Glad I could share this with everyone. Hope you both enjoy it.

Also, A Bookshelf Monstrosity, you probably should skip p. 163. Parts of the leech chapter were really interesting and not gross. Other parts, really interesting and very gross.