St Martin’s Griffin, $22.99, ISBN 978-0-312-31823-9
Okay, I am fudging a bit on the theme of the TBR Challenge this month, as this is a book I normally do not review, as opposed to a book I don’t normally read. But I am down with the flu, and between coughing fits that prevent me from having even a little decent sleep and tiresome lethargy and listlessness, I want to read something that is full of pain and misery. Bitten fits the bill – it is a book about dangerous animals and insects that can kill with their bites and stings, or, in cases where the bites or stings by themselves don’t normally kill, the parasites or germs they carry probably will.
Basically, the author, who’s a physician in internal medicine and infectious diseases, spends each chapter on a different kind of potential threat. She outlines the nature of the threat, goes into a bit about the whys and hows of things, and drops in a few tragic cases of people who died from the bites or stings of the threat highlighted in that chapter. Everything is backed by sound science, and there is no call for mass paranoia or culling. If anything, what this one teaches us is that, no matter how urbanized our lives can be these days, nature can and will still inflict a nasty surprise if we are not careful. Or more accurately, plain out of luck, most of it time.
Now, I have a medical background, so I don’t find this book as frightening as some readers may do. But the author’s descriptions of the pain and misery can get… detailed… at times, so it may not be wise to read this during a camping trip. Many of the things here – the fire ants, the poisonous spiders and snakes and even sea cones (hello, Australia!), et cetera – are stuff I’m familiar with, and I’ve also come across similar tragic cases as those described by the author, so the impact is a bit lessened. But there are some things that are not-so-familiar to me, such as Komodo dragons and elephant seals (really), so there is plenty of reason to keep turning the pages.
It can be argued that the focus of kids and elderly dying from all these bites and stings may feel exploitative and sensationalist, but there is a reason for that. Children are often incapable of expressing to adults that there is something wrong with them, and some will not report a sting or bite, so often, parents only realize something is wrong when the kid is showing advanced stage symptoms. As for the elderly, they may experience much reduced sense of touch, so they may not realize that – in a case I came across once upon a time – maggots have moved into one ear and made themselves very comfortable there; they may not experience normal pain because of impaired nerve functions that come with natural aging. Sometimes, they may not be able to call for help because they have dementia, they have lost their ability to speak. etc. When we also factor in overworked caretakers or even negligent ones, there is a tragedy waiting to happen here. I personally like the fact that the author include such cases because, hopefully, it will galvanize her readers to be more aware of the risks of such bites and stings to their children and more elderly family members.
This book often veers into “This is bad, this is dangerous, this is horrible!” territory but it also gives the readers some comfort in despite all the horrible feels. The author highlights protective measures that readers can apply whenever applicable, so it’s not all gloom and doom, surrender to the inevitable and die here.
Another nice aspect of the book is how the author highlights the cooperation and drive of doctors in investigating and discovering the cures for such bites and stings. It is not always obvious what causes the bite or sting, and sometimes, there may be an epidermic of cases due to some kind of infestation. The author shares the stories how doctors work together, often across borders, and I like this too. I may be biased on this, but I always feel that the medical profession often gets a bad rep for being mercenary, money-grubby heartless sorts in cahoots with the evil pharmaceutical industry, when often the bad rep comes from terrible legislature and policies that doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have little control over. Not that the bad rep is completely undeserved – I can go on a rant for hours on how targeted therapies and biosimilars that could have saved so many lives, but are instead restricted to only those few that can afford the prices – but a lot of time, it’s just misplaced. Not to mention, much of the hate is stoked by people from the alternative medication industry that have their personal interests in seeing the evil big pharmaceutical companies discredited as much as possible – they want to sell their own products, after all.
Oh dear, I’ve gone off topic. Anyway, back to this book, it’s an illuminating read. I won’t know whether it is entertaining, considering the subject matter, and also, the author writes like a, well, doctor. On the bright side, she doesn’t overload the book with vague and inscrutable medical jargon. And while Bitten is readable, it can be on the dry side. You can argue that a nonfiction isn’t meant to entertain, but I’d say that there is nothing wrong with an entertaining nonfiction either. This is a book meant for the public, not just medical students, after all. I’d personally recommend reading this book chapter by chapter, as opposed to trying to read the whole thing in one sitting, if you are not into the author’s writing style. The information here is worth the effort, I feel.