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Book Review of: Riddled with Life

Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites
That Make Us Who We Are

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Review of Riddled with Life, by Marlene Zuk (Hardcover, 2007)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

My life began with a years-long struggle against life-draining parasites (I refer to viruses and bacteria, not members of Congress). Unlike most kids, I spent most of my first decade making my parents wonder if I'd see another birthday. As you might suspect, this book is very interesting to me on a personal level.

And that brings us to the question of whether this book would be interesting to you. If you have spent much of your life fighting off one disease after another, then obviously yes. But what if you're the typical person who had the usual childhood illnesses and occasionally gets a cold? You take all of the precautions, and you even use antibacterial soaps. If that's the case, then this book is even more applicable to you than it is to me.

Zuk tackles one myth after another, to help the reader gain valuable perspective. I haven't seen any negative reviews of this book so far, but invariably someone will cherry-pick excerpts and argue that Zuk is contradicting herself. Zuk says our bodies and environments are so full of bacteria and other parasites that obsessing over getting rid of them is rather pointless and probably harms us. But she also talks about the benefits of sanitation and hygienic practices.

So, is she trying to have it both ways? This is like asking if it makes sense to get both rest and exercise, which are two seemingly contradictory activities. In fact, they are complementary activities. You need a balance of each.

Balance is exactly what Zuk brings to the discussion of parasites. She gives the example of installing an antibacterial welcome mat for the "safety" of your baby. This might make a parent feel good, but serves no other purpose. But such an act isn't necessarily harmless--it can tilt the balance of the bacterial population such that the baby encounters only superbugs. This type of problem exists on many fronts, and Zuk makes a fascinating exploration of them.

Not all bacteria are bad, and Zuk is quite clear about this. The harsh chemicals that saved my life on several occasions (while also running up large medical bills) destroyed more than the harmful bugs. One of the side effects was the inability to digest foods like nuts--the little nut parts would go straight through, exiting in exactly the condition I swallowed them (sharp edges and all).

You can simulate the feeling of passing undigested nuts (with their tiny sharp edges) by using 60 grit sandpaper on your rear end. I don't recommend that you stop and do it right now, but if you're so inclined then that's fine. Most of us can simply appreciate the concept and understand the point being made. It's also true some folks get an approximation of this from the cheap paper provided by their employer....

It took many years to correct just this one side effect from killing bugs. In my case, the initial problem was a necessary side effect of a life-saving measure. But today, people are indiscriminately applying harsh chemicals and creating all kinds of unpleasant and presumably unintended consequences. And not just for themselves. Nuking every little critter isn't a wise strategy. In fact, many of those little critters may be your ticket to health.

I was born with an immune deficiency and still have it. Yes, I keep my home very clean. But Zuk would be proud of me because I work in the soil, gardening with bare hands. As a little kid, I also spent a lot of time playing in the dirt. I needed something in that prairie soil, and apparently I got it. I haven't been sick now since 1971--even with my immune deficiency. Bacteria. You can't live with 'em and you can't live without 'em. (Note my wellness isn't just from playing in the dirt. See for info).

Now that I've addressed the major sticking point of this book (the only good bug is a dead bug--not true!), I want to comment on Zuk's writing style. She laces her prose with a subtle humor that immediately reminded me of some friends in New Zealand. Now I can get in big trouble for saying this, but Aussies and Kiwis are similar in many ways. I wasn't surprised when she revealed that she had spent considerable time in Australia.

So, what's really in this book? Lots of amazing facts, for sure. It has 11 chapters, extensive references, and a thorough index. Good insights, thought-provoking questions, interesting anecdotes, and a crisp writing style sprinkled with humor all work together to make it both useful and enjoyable.

This book addresses several complex topics, and presents them in a manner that allows the layman to follow along and understand. It's hard to pick out just one topic and address it properly, so I'll just name a few topics. If you read the book, you'll enjoy Zuk's explanations. Topics include:

  • Testosterone poisoning.
  • Why roosters have red combs.
  • The upside of eating worms.
  • Why not completing a medication protocol even though you now feel fine is a bad idea.
  • Why you can't possibly make yourself sick by violating some of today's commonly accepted rules of hygiene.
  • Health products that are a complete rip-off (and why).
  • The evolutionary interaction between parasites and their hosts.

And, everyone's favorite topic. I speak, of course, of sex. Each of four chapters is devoted to a different aspect of the this topic, and other chapters also cover it in some way or another. Yes, even sex has been influenced heavily by bugs. In fact, bugs may be the very reason for it. Who woulda thunk? Maybe we should establish Thank A Bacterium Day.

Bacteria and viruses are intertwined with us, and Zuk makes a good case for the concept that our bodies are what they are because of the critters rather than in spite of them. But, it doesn't stop there. Zuk also presents strong evidence that our very minds are influenced by parasites (thus explaining the US Tax Code). The final chapter of the book and Zuk's closing remark may well reshape your view of the world and other people in it.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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