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Review: ‘Winged Obsession’ by Jessica Speart

Review: ‘Winged Obsession’ by Jessica Speart post image

Title: Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler
Author: Jessica Speart
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2011 (Paperback 2012)
Acquired: From the publisher for review consideration
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: A novice U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent tries to take down the Indiana Jones/Hannibal Lecter of the illegal bug smuggling world.

Analogy Review: The Orchid Thief : The Wire :: Winged Obsession : White Collar

“[Book] collecting is as obsession, a disease, an addiction, a fascination, an absurdity, a fate. It is not a hobby. Those who do it must do it.” — Jeanette Winterson

Long Review: I don’t think there’s any way to read Winged Obsession and not constantly compare it to The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean’s 1998 look into the world of the illegal orchid trade. Like The Orchid Thief, Winged Obsession explores a subculture of well-respected activity — in this case, bug collecting — to try and understand what would make a participant make the leap from collector to criminal.

The difference between the two books, however, is that Winged Obsession seems to revel in the drama and entertainment of this story, really playing up the fun of the cat-and-mouse chase toward the criminal in the moments when The Orchid Thief would have stepped back towards a more subtle conclusion. If I had to compare each book to a favorite crime drama, The Orchid Thief is like David Simon’s ode to Baltimore, The Wire, while Winged Obsession takes it’s cue from USA Network’s eye candy, White Collar. I love both, but for very different reasons.

The hero of Winged Obsession is novice U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent Ed Newcomer, who finds himself on the trail of the flamboyant kingpin of butterfly smugglers, Yoshi Kojima. Newcomer befriends Kojima by posing as a novice butterfly collector. For whatever reason, Kojima grabs on to Newcomer’s undercover identity and pulls him further and further into his butterfly smuggling operation through short face-to-face meetings and extensive  Skype conversations filled with awkward sexual advances from Kojima to Newcomer. It’s a strange game of back and forth over multi-million dollar endangered species.

Winged Obsession is Jessica Speart’s first foray into book-length nonfiction. She’s primarily known as a mystery writer, with some background writing about the environment for magazines, which I think makes her the perfect author for this story. Speart clearly understands both the science and legal facets of this tale, and has the fiction writer’s talent for storytelling, even when giving the necessary background information for the story:

Butterflies are beautiful, ethereal creatures. They’re fluttering tapestries of color, magically moving canvases, and tiny aerial dancers. … Butterflies are everything we seemingly long to be, young and exquisite forever. …

However, the real life of butterflies isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They’re beset by creepy predators, eaten by birds, chased by humans, squashed on windshields of cars and caught in their grilled. Only 2 percent of the eggs laid by a female butterfly ever make it to adulthood. Perhaps because of this, many of them also have a dark side, along with rap sheets that can seem unbelievable.

Butterfly society is filled with various forms of brutality, from cannibalism and cyanide-poisoning to molestation of minors and outright rape. They have more in common with humans than we might like to admit. Their actions can read like a tragic Shakespearean play. They’re Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus, and King Lear all rolled into one big chrysalis.

Don’t let the rather generic title dissuade you from this book. Winged Obsession is a finely-researched and well-crafted tale that doesn’t shy away from the fun and discomfort that can be found in the strangest of criminal cases.

Other Reviews:

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Steph May 3, 2012, 8:09 am

    I started to read this a while back, but I found the writing a bit clunky so didn’t make it very far. I think maybe my expectations for this one just weren’t right, so maybe, having read your review, I’d be in a better position to appreciate it. This is one of those tales that just seems too crazy to be true… just the way I like my non-fiction! 😉

    • Kim May 13, 2012, 4:15 pm

      I wasn’t sure quite what to think going in, but after I got into the story I liked it a lot — more for the entertainment of the story, not necessarily for the writing or style. I hope you can get back into it.

  • Amused May 3, 2012, 12:06 pm

    What an interesting facet to talk about for a non fiction book. I am so intrigued by this!

    • Kim May 13, 2012, 4:16 pm

      It is such a weird topic, and really just gets weirder and weirder as the book goes on. It’s unbelievable.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) May 3, 2012, 2:02 pm

    This sounds fascinating to me!

    • Kim May 13, 2012, 4:17 pm

      it was fascinating, parts in an “I can’t stop looking at this trainwreck!” sort of way.

  • Christy (A Good Stopping Point) May 3, 2012, 8:05 pm

    I think I heard about “Winged Obsession” on NPR’s animal-focused radio program (forget what it’s called at the moment) a number of months ago. Thanks for reminding me about it because hearing the author describe it, it sounded very interesting. And I liked your comparision to the Orchid Thief and then the comparisons to The Wire and White Collar (although I haven’t ever seen White Collar).

    • Kim May 13, 2012, 4:18 pm

      I love White Collar, but for very different reasons than I love The Wire. I just felt like this book had some of the over-the-top, high crime style of White Collar that I love.