This is a book that’s getting the buzz, insect and otherwise (winning "The Best Books 2006 National Book Award,” sponsored by USA Book News, for Travel/Essay). From the cover photo depicting the author with a Peruvian whip-scorpion crawling across his eye to the final chapter in which the author wrestles a hippo in Zimbabwe, it’s all action.
There are lots of ways to write a travel book. Cool Creatures, Hot Planet hops right in, with Marty Essen and his patient, intrepid wife, Deb, departing from the Missoula International Airport and flying to Belize. They feed, rather than stomp on, a spider they encounter in the hotel bathroom. These are two folks who like nature. You can just tell.
The book has a light-hearted feel throughout. With the device of triple asterisks, Marty spares the squeamish reader from his undignified butt-slide on Swiss ice and rueful decision to retreat, failing to conquer the Matterhorn. “No-one wants to read that wimpy emotional stuff anyway,” Marty opines. “In fact, I just read it myself and had to break three computer keyboards just to get my testosterone level back up to normal.” But Marty isn’t usually so stand-offish – he ventures into Zimbabwe even though President Bush labeled it an “outpost of oppression” and thinks nothing of jumping out of his vehicle to run – and howl - with wolves in the Yukon.
His wife, whom he characterizes as a late sleeper, nonetheless deserves kudos, too, as she not only accompanies him from Victoria Falls to Lima to the Arctic Circle in a pretty good humor but also mostly holds the camera while her husband plays with venomous snakes and exotic insects, some of
which bite him.
Among the critters Marty boldly encounters are tiger leeches, Bornean gibbons, poisonous stinging trees, rhinoceros beetles, coral snakes, rock pythons, painted dogs, and the afore-mentioned scorpions. There is a photo section, but none of the pix are nearly big enough, a shame since the quality is excellent. But how can you fully appreciate a panorama of Victoria Falls from the air compressed to the same size as a photo of a stick insect?
Marty expresses his political views without embarrassment, and though he didn’t visit the Middle East or any other war-zone, he felt that just by being good Americans he and Deb were helping to promote a softer image of the U.S. at a time when the Iraq invasion was at the boil. Whether or not this is so, it certainly gives the reader with a clear vision of how much cultural resistance Americans have to overcome when visiting foreign countries, even relatively neutral or friendly ones like Spain, where they discover that “only a small percentage of Americans venture beyond Spain’s large cities and coasts.”
The book is perfect for armchair naturalists, and it might spur someone on to shake the lint off their slippers and get moving on a trek of their own.