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May 19, 2011

Book Notes - Amy Stewart ("Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Amy Stewart's last book Wicked Plants was one of my favorite nonfiction books of 2009. With Wicked Bugs she turns her eye to the insect world, and has produced yet another rare book that is as informative as it is enjoyable. Stewart explores both the science and history of dangerous insects with her unique and engaging storytelling flair.

Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:

"Stewart's prose is simple and to the point. She lets the little horrors she describes work in the reader's imagination without any hyperbolic help from her. Guaranteed to cause sympathy itching and other discomfort."

In her own words, here is Amy Stewart's Book Notes music playlist for her book, Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects:

I wanted this playlist to be allegorical, mystical, inscrutable, dark, and dangerous. But—I've confessed this before here on Largehearted Boy—I cannot listen to music and write at the same time. Song lyrics run circles in my brain and drive everything else out. Jazz is impossible; I know all the lyrics even if it's an instrumental version. All music is wordy to me, even when it isn't.

And when I think back to the most intense period of writing for this book—a string of miserably cold, grey fall and winter months two years ago—I just can't come up with a soundtrack. What was I listening to? "Baby, It's Cold Outside?" I don't know. It was a particularly cold winter and I abandoned my drafty attic office and wrote this book in the living room with a blanket wrapped around me and a heater blasting.

So. A playlist? Here's how this one came about. I took a drive across a couple of cow pastures to the home of my beloved local free-form radio station, KHUM. These people will play anything, anytime, but more than that, they cover the news in our small rural community like any old-time radio station should. When a road is closed, when a dog is lost, when an earthquake hits, when the local café gets shut down for health code violations—whatever's going on, KHUM covers it, lavishing upon us all the kind of generous, minute-by-minute coverage that small town life demands. Think Northern Exposure with more surfing. That's KHUM.

So I show up to do an hour on KHUM with music and program director Mike Dronkers. "Mike! I need a Wicked Bugs playlist. Now!"

"I'm on it," he said. "We'll get this done. What have you got so far?"

"Nothing. Well. Fly on the Wall. XTC."

That's all it took. We put the word out to listeners, and an hour later, we had a playlist. Maybe it's cheating, or maybe it's a collective art project. You decide.

XTC: "Fly on the Wall"

From English Settlement, which also brings us the brilliant "Senses Working Overtime." How I love "Fly on the Wall," though. It's impossible to see a fly and not start singing it, isn't it? "I am the fly on the wall / My prying eyes are looking through your bottom drawer. / I just came flying through your door, /You didn't notice that your number had been called."

Menacing! Weird! And it gets weirder. Thank you, KHUM listeners, for contributing.

Mirah and International Spectratone: "Gestation of the Sacred Beetle"

Oh! Oh! An entire album of insect music! With songs like "Emergence of the Primary Larva," "Luminescence" ("I am so ready to glow," sings the luminescent bug) how can you not love this?

Death Cab for Cutie: "Little Fury Bugs"

But that's not why we chose this one. Turns out that Ben Gibbard was stung by a scorpion on tour and played with scorpion venom pounding through his veins. And by the way, contrary to popular belief, the size of the scorpion does not necessarily have anything to do with how venomous it is. A small scorpion can deliver a world of pain, and a large scorpion could let you off easy, but size doesn't always dictate a scorpion's wickedness. Give them all a wide berth.

Wall of Voodoo: "Tsetse Fly"

This is the weirdest song I've ever heard about sleeping sickness. I would recommend the Martin Denny version, but the high-pitched whine of the fly made me and Mike both want to swat at something.

Phish: "Farmhouse"

Cluster flies lay their eggs on earthworms, if you can believe that. These lyrics remind me of something you'd find written on the back of an old postcard. "Welcome, this is our farmhouse. We have cluster flies, alas. This time of year is bad. There is little we can do but swat them."

The Who: "Boris the Spider"

A special shout-out to Jen, who works in our bookstore, for contributing this one. She contributes her own special brand of coolness to everything that goes on there.

Presidents of the United States: "Boll Weevil"

"That bug is just too scary!" Heh. The boll weevil, by the way, just about forced the South right out of the cotton business. That might not have been a bad thing. It forced a lot of farmers to go grow something else, and ultimately they made more money. Monuments have been built to the boll weevil and its destructive-but-ultimately-regenerative power.

Jeffrey Lewis: "Bugs and Flowers"

Oh, this is such a sweet little singable song. You could teach it to your kids. "These flies and insects/Are really weird/Their backs are shiny/Their souls are tiny."

Oingo Boingo: "Insects"

Oh, yeah! From the album Nothing to Fear—and yet! There is everything to fear, isn't there, in the bug world? Or do they make you want to dance dance dance?

Pearl Jam: "Bugs"

Somebody told me that this song was a response to the pressures of fame and the constant buzzing of fans around the band. Think about that when you get to the line, "And now the question is: Do I kill them? Become their friend? Do I eat them?" Yes. You should eat them.

Dave Matthews Band: "Ants Marching"

How could I leave this one off? A peppy little tune about our ant-like existence. Which reminds me of my favorite story in the ant chapter: a team of archeologists exhuming Rwandan gorillas awoke one morning to find driver ants marching through their excavation site. The ants are so powerful that they can take out rats, snakes, scorpions, and cockroaches when they swarm. People vacate villages when the driver ants come. "Just so you know," said one archaeologist to the newest member of her team, "this day is going to suck."

Amy Stewart and Wicked Bugs: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects links:

the author's website
the author's blog
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

The Black Sheep Dances review
Devourer of Books review
Eureka Times-Standard review
Seattle Times review
Show and Tell review
Surprising Science review
Wisconsin State Journal review

Boing Boing interview with the author
Fresh Air interview with the author
KHUM interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Wicked Plants
The Leonard Lopate Show interview with the author
New York Times profile of the author
Weekend Edition interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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