Archives for category: book review

The+Greatest+Show+on+EarthRichard Dawkins is one of the world’s most famous atheists. These days he is arguably more widely known for his book The God Delusion than for his science writing. Given the topic of The Greatest Show on Earth (the undeniable evidence supporting evolution) there is some mention of religion. But of the religious people in the world, those that deny evolutionary theory are a very particular subset – creationists. Here, they are the target of Dawkins’ frustration and incredulity. He points out that the likes of the Pope are not creationists, they incorporate their belief in God, in a creator, with evolution; God didn’t create the world all at once, with dinosaurs living amongst humans, he set everything up and then let evolution do its work. It’s not hard for anyone (religious and atheist) to see that creationists are ridiculous, so Dawkins is on fairly uncontroversial ground.

Who is Dawkins’ audience here? He writes as if he’s hoping he turns some creationists, if you’re already on board with evolution why do you need an overview of the evidence in its favour? But The Greatest Show on Earth isn’t for creationists really; he’s far too rude to get any of them on side in the extremely unlikely event any of them actually read his book. And it’s probably not for people with vast scientific knowledge. I read it because I have a decent grasp of evolution from high school science but thought a Dawkins-guided overview would be entertaining and fill any gaps, which it did. So, I guess there’s his audience – non-creationists who are interested in evolution but don’t know much about it.

Dawkins explains everything step by step, sparing no detail. The Greatest Show on Earth is designed to be able to be read by anyone with a curious mind no matter how lacking their background knowledge – he explains the structure of atoms in order to explain exactly how carbon dating works. Dawkins briefly writes about regression analysis so his reader will better understand an evolution experiment involving bacteria. I’ve studied both those topics in the past so it wasn’t new. I didn’t mind the refresher, but for someone well versed in things like that it might get a bit tedious.

Dawkins’ personality leaps off the page, making The Greatest Show on Earth a nice hybrid of entertaining reading and reasoned, analytical thought. I listened to his interview with creationist Wendy Wright (of which he includes extracts of in this book) and Dawkins writes exactly like he talks. It’s a kind of conversational erudition, with a propensity for reusing favourite words like ‘beautiful’ (‘a beautiful example of…’) that I found quite endearing. And his explanations are so elegant. Dawkins’ hairpin thought experiment has stayed with me. It perfectly explains, using the visual of a hairpin bend, why while a series of intermediate animals do connect a rabbit to a leopard it does not follow that there need be (indeed there should not be) a ‘rabbipard’. I won’t try to sum up Dawkins’ explanation, I couldn’t do it justice, but suffice it to say it created the perfect visual.

There’s an awful lot of stopping along the way to spend time on extracurricular pieces of trivia, so I wouldn’t recommend The Greatest Show on Earth to those readers irritated by completely irrelevant asides. I quite enjoyed it but it gives the book a slightly scatterbrained structure that might offend the sensibilities of those more scientifically minded than myself. Dawkins may not hit his targets with laser-like accuracy but his writing has an effortless quality that I can’t help but find engaging.

Dawkins’ enthusiasm for his subject is palpable. Yes, he’s trying to point out how idiotic creationists are for disbelieving evolution (part of his enthusiasm can’t help but come from delighting in making them look bad) but Dawkins is clearly a huge fan of evolution. Evolution is an elegant and wondrous answer to the mystery of life on Earth, and it frustrates him deeply that not everyone can see that.

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friday-the-infautations-mainSomething has happened that hasn’t happened to me in a long time. I didn’t finish a book. I’m normally persistent to a fault. I just lost momentum with The Infatuations. And then there was nothing compelling me to pick it up again. Perhaps I’ll try again later, when I’m in a more existential mood.

Here’s what happened:

When I read a novel I like things to happen. When I first heard about The Infatuations I wasn’t sure it would be right for me. Yes, it’s about a murder and the mystery surrounding that murder, which seemed promising. But it’s philosophical, a cerebral meditation on death and love. All which means, to my mind, The Infatuations would be absolutely brilliant or very dull.

At almost a hundred pages in not much has happened – Miguel has been murdered, Maria has met his widow, Luisa, and that’s about it. However, that summary doesn’t really do justice to Marías’ wonderful command of language, tone and mood. I feel the electric crackle of potential in the air but I’m getting a little bored.

His characters have unusual, extremely erudite conversations. They give too much of themselves without actually knowing someone.

(Goes off, reads some more.)

A character has just quoted from and recounted the plot of a Balzac novel (a novelist who also has the ability to be wonderfully boring). I’m officially done.

The Stranger Beside MeThe Stranger Beside Me was recommended to me by a friend during a discussion of the true crime genre. I’d read In Cold Blood and found it compelling and fascinating. I had also recently finished Poe Ballantine’s wonderful pseudo-true crime/memoir, Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere. It’s a genre I feel strangely drawn to. So, despite it feeling almost illicit, I thought I’d give The Stranger Beside Me a go. Prior to reading I knew of Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer, but none of the details.

Ann Rule is a former police officer turned true crime writer. She first met a young Ted Bundy when they were working for a suicide hotline together. Ann was already writing true crime stories for magazines but had yet to have a book published. Bundy’s crimes proved to be her big break. As news broke of a serial murderer on the loose, Ann was commissioned to write a book detailing the case. Then, as Ted Bundy became the prime suspect, she found herself in the guilt-ridden/fortuitous position of writing about her close friend. As for details of Bundy’s crimes, if you’re as ignorant as I was, suffice it to say he rapes and brutally murders a number of young women, in several states across America.

I had a feeling The Stranger Beside Me would be slightly trashy (especially given the ‘I was friends with a serial killer’ angle) but it’s really very measured. I’d say it’s not really narrative non-fiction. Rule is all about the facts. She tells the story from her own perspective and the perspective of the missing girls, but only details their lives leading up to their murders. Rule doesn’t go in for recreating grisly scenes that no one was witness to. But she is all about the facts, and those facts, even plainly told, are plenty grisly.

Here’s a taste of Rule’s minutiae-filled style:

The old frame duplex at 431 Dunwoody Street was approximately eight blocks from the Chi Omega House, closer as the crow flies. Two-tenths of a mile. It was typical of many of the twenties-vintage structures bordering the campus proper which had been turned into rental housing – nothing fancy, but adequate. There were two “shotgun” apartments at 431 Dunwoody. Debbie Ciccarelli and Nancy Young lived in A, and Cheryl Thomas lived in B. Each apartment opened onto a common screened front porch with a single door, but the duplexes had separate entries – entries leading into a living room, a bedroom, and, in the rear, a kitchen. They shared a central wall, and when the place had been remodelled into two units, nobody had been much concerned with insulation against noise.

Despite Ann Rule’s friendship with one of America’s most notorious serial killers I’d say that the fictional style of In Cold Blood makes it the more terrifying and salacious. I’m not really sold on The Stranger Beside Me’s artistic merit (the writing is fairly workmanlike), but it is fascinating to get an inside look at how law enforcement works and there’s no denying Ann Rule had a unique view of the proceedings.

Not only was Ted Bundy renowned for his good looks, he was intelligent and exceptionally charming. However, I found his writing (of which Rule includes many, perhaps too many, extracts) so pompous and overly earnest it’s hard to believe that every person he met wasn’t simultaneously creeped out and irritated by him. Even Rule’s most generous descriptions of her caring friend Ted don’t sound like anyone I’d want to befriend. But it was this supposedly undeniable charisma that allowed Ted Bundy to escape from police custody twice. Despite the realisation that Bundy must be guilty of the crimes he was suspected of, authorities didn’t take him seriously as a dangerous criminal. His guards were seemingly able to compartmentalise the theoretical ‘Ted’ who murdered women and the smart, friendly man in their jail.

Despite Rule’s inclusion of excerpts from Ted’s letters, poems and his conversations with her, I wouldn’t say her aim is to get inside the mind of a killer. She makes little judgement, instead focusing on her own conflicting thoughts about Ted’s guilt and comments on Ted’s mental state in the moment – depressed or withdrawn or angry or eager to get justice. After Rule has recounted Bundy’s final trial in Florida she tries her hand at analysing why Ted murdered all those women. Perhaps he has antisocial personality disorder or is a sociopath, or maybe he is symbolically killing Stephanie (the rich, beautiful girl who rejected him) over and over.

The Stranger Beside Me has various ‘endings’ tacked on to the original. The first edition ends in 1980, then 1986 (when it looks as if Bundy will finally be executed), then 1989, a 2000 update, and my copy begins with a 2008 addition. It all gets a bit tired. The extra information isn’t that necessary. From a narrative standpoint The Stranger Beside Me could have benefitted from a simple postscript mentioning when Bundy was finally executed and a portion detailing his confession. In her various add-ons Rule writes at length of accounts of women who believe they had a close encounter with Ted Bundy, even though she admits herself that, while these women may have had reason to fear for their lives, in many cases the perpetrator was unlikely to have been Bundy. And so, I ask, if these incidents are unlikely to have anything to do with the case, why are they in the book?

The Stranger Beside Me is worthwhile because of its strange and devastating subject matter but, at least in this early point of her book career, I don’t know that Ann Rule was much of a writer. Rule was trying so very hard for the ‘you can never really know a person slant’ that she spends the majority of the book vacillating between ‘the evidence says Ted must be guilty’ and ‘the man I knew couldn’t possibly be guilty of such heinous crimes’. Sometimes it felt like calculated naivety for Rule to think that a friend would be unable to hide their true nature. Her relationship with Ted Bundy gave her insights other writers lacked but I can’t help but feel if Ann Rule had been able to remove herself somewhat from the narrative she could have done more with such potent material.