The Wasp That Brainwashed The Caterpillar by Matt Simon

the-wasp-that-brainwashed-the-caterpillarsI love books about the awesome weirdness of nature, so I was super excited to read this one, in which Matt Simon explores some of the most ingenious and unreliable  strategies creatures–from wasps to birds to salamanders to fish–have evolved to survive.

I read this on audio, because it’s the sort of nonfiction that I generally love to listen to, but it ended up being a bad format for the book (for me, at least). I probably should have given up and switched to print, because in the end, despite the fascinating subject matter, I didn’t love it.

Simon does not go into much detail about each creature he describes. It’s more of an encyclopedia, with short entires describing the various evolutionary strategies of some of the strangest and most fascinating of the world’s species. In some cases, Simon simply gives a few sentences about a creature, simply stating its name and the crazy thing it does. In other cases, he goes into more depth, but throughout, it felt like a very surface-level book. He goes into the science, but not deeply.

It was a bit jarring on audio. It didn’t seem like there was any organization to the chapters, or any particular structure to the way he grouped species together. He seemed to jump from talking about reproduction to predation to camouflage, somewhat haphazardly. There were also various short interjections that appeared to come out of nowhere, stories about scientists, or his own life, or a species totally unrelated to the one he’d just been talking about.

I got so frustrated that I looked up the physical version of the book, and found that all these interjections were boxed sidebars in the text. The whole thing made a lot more sense in print, and I think it would have been much more enjoyable to digest the information that way. There were also beautiful illustrations, which were lacking in the audio version.

I also found the humor a bit…meh. It might work for some, but for me it just felt forced. None of his jokes were actually funny, and it just distracted me from the incredible creatures he was talking about.

Overall, I don’t recommend the audio of this, and if you’re really into the science, it probably won’t satisfy. I’d recommend Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer, Dr. Tatianna’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson, or Winter World by Bernd Heinrich, all of which explore the sheer diversity and astounding resourcefulness of the natural world, but in more depth.

That said–the creatures Simon describes in this book are simply incredible. From a fungus that turns ants into zombies that do its bidding to a toad that incubates her eggs under her skin, from which they literally explore, fully formed–it’s mind-boggling. Despite the flat humor and disjointed flow, I found myself drawn in by the creatures themselves. As a book to keep around and pick up when you need a reminder that there is so much more to the natural world than we’ll ever understand–and how truly wonderful that is–this one’s a winner.

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