Archives for posts with tag: religion

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.


Gods+Without+MenI can see why my cover of Gods Without Men sports a blurb from David ‘Cloud Atlas’ Mitchell, both men have crafted novels made up of interlocking stories spanning generations, although Hari Kunzru has joined his stories more conventionally than Mitchell did in Cloud Atlas. All Kunzru’s action is linked by his focal Mojave desert setting, characters from earlier time frames appear decades later and plot points from decades past set up those of the future.

When Gods Without Men opened with a twisted fable from a time when animals were men, about Coyote cooking crystal in an RV in the desert, I knew I was in for a ride. A book so damn cool it hurts.

The story of Jaz and Lisa and their autistic young son, Raj, is what anchors Kunzru’s novel. Their plight is so incredibly, viscerally painful to read. Raj doesn’t speak at all, doesn’t express love and throws violent temper tantrums. It’s left Jaz and Lisa’s marriage in ruins. Their lives are hard enough, between taking care of Raj, and conflict between Jaz’s Indian immigrant family and white, Jewish Lisa, when Raj disappears near the desert rock formation known as the Pinnacles. Somewhat curiously in tandem to Raj’s disappearance is Jaz’s work on Wall Street, right before the global financial crisis in 2008, helping to develop a mysterious predictive trading model.

At the same time British rock star Nicky escapes to the desert to take drugs and have a bit of a mental breakdown, his life briefly intersecting with Jaz’s.

And Iraqi teenager Laila is recruited to take part in a training exercise for the military, preparing American troops for the war in Iraq. In one of the very rare moments of humour, a soldier dressed as an Iraqi insurgent who has lost his dishdasha wears a Little Mermaid beach towel wrapped around his waist instead.

There are appearances by Spanish Conquistadors. Deighton and his wife Eliza turn up in the 1920s Mojave collecting Native American tales, language and history.

In the fifties, sixties and seventies the desert near the Pinnacle Rocks is home to an alien-worshipping cult, whose members are dedicated to assisting the Ashtar Galactic Command. This was a favourite of mine; I always get a kick out of reading about the unusual. Kunzru gives us an alien spin on the counterculture, hippy vibe of the 1960s and seventies.

Gods Without Men is the kind of book where questions are left unanswered, leaving this reader unsettled, and several of the characters unhinged. I guess I was left unsatisfied at the end. Kunzru builds to a crescendo, then nothingness. I’m not naive enough to that a novel like Gods Without Men will finish neatly or happily. It deals with the mystical, the alien and the inexplicable. Many scenes feature a strange glowing boy but this is no science fiction. Kunzru has no obligation to provide answers, no need for logic.

I wouldn’t read Gods Without Men looking for anything as prosaic as beginning, middle or end, it’s snippets or sketches of moments in characters’ lives. Kunzru’s writing and storytelling style starts off pretty conventionally. It felt to me that, as Gods Without Men progresses, his writing becomes more fluid, experimental and freewheeling, almost as if the pressure and insanity of the story were crumbling its very structure. Which brings me back to Cloud Atlas, a book I loved. David Mitchell – fairly conventional storytelling made majestic with an experimental twist. Hari Kunzru – experimental storytelling done a tad too conventionally, making me yearn for a real ending. If only it’d been a little nuttier. Something like Thomas Pynchon. I’ll admit I’ve only read The Crying of Lot 49, a great book that I appreciated for its brevity. A bizarre, pseudo-mystery, with more questions than answers, suits that length.

Gods Without Men is incredibly impressive, with bravura storytelling. Kunzru weaves the characters’ stories deftly and eloquently but I couldn’t see any of them getting a reprieve from their demons. His fourth novel is a strangely readable, epic and detailed tale of religion, worship and madness. You just need to be in the right mood.

The Secret Life of BeesFourteen year-old Lily lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her father, T. Ray and her only friend, a black servant named Rosaleen. Lily has grown up being told by her bitter, cold-hearted father that she accidentally killed her mother when she was four. One afternoon, when she accompanies Rosaleen to register to vote, Rosaleen gets arrested and beaten. Lily and Rosaleen become fugitives from justice, travelling to Tiburon, South Carolina in the hopes of uncovering the mystery surrounding Lily’s mother. While in Tiburon they find sanctuary with the three beekeeping Boatwright sisters – austere June, wise August and child-like, sensitive May.

I’d say The Secret Life of Bees is definitely one of the more feminine books I’ve read. I had a feeling it would be too sweet for me. I always like a bit of grit in my books. And it is full of warmth and heart, about the bonds between women, redemption, and finding family in unexpected places. It’s also charming and uplifting. But The Secret Life of Bees is spirited, tenacious and eccentric enough that I won’t hold that against it. Sue Monk Kidd’s writing is lush and evocative. Every scene feels like it’s bathed in an eerie golden glow. Yet her writing can also be surprisingly harsh: ‘The wall brought to my mind the bleeding slabs of meat Rosaleen used to cook, the gashes she made up and down them, stuffing them with pieces of wild, bitter garlic.’ I’m always looking for that contrast in the novels I read – hope sitting alongside loss, violence seen against beauty.

Even though The Secret Life of Bees is Lily’s story it does touch on the civil rights movement and racial tension in the South – there’s the animosity and violence Rosaleen experiences while registering to vote, the integration of the schools, Zach’s arrest, the reaction of the Tiburon townspeople to Lily living in a house with black women. Lily learns about racism from the experiences of the Boatwright sisters, Rosaleen and her new friend Zach, challenging her view of the world. Zach wants to go to college, so automatically Lily suggests he could get a football scholarship. He says what he really wants is to be a lawyer. Lily replies that that’s fine but

‘I’ve just never heard of a Negro lawyer, that’s all. You’ve got to hear of these things before you can imagine them.’

‘Bullshit. You gotta imagine what’s never been.’

Lily’s voice is so strong I feel like I could almost hear her speak. I couldn’t help thinking of the stark contrast to lifeless Marina in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. There’s so much character and life in Lily and that’s a big part of why The Secret Life of Bees works. Lily is a great heroine – tough, not afraid to break the rules, smart, and sassy: ‘I should’ve been in my room right then crying my eyeballs out, and here I was having the stupidest conversation of my life.’

Kidd’s novel was frustrating at times. Lily desperately wants to ask the Boatwright sisters whether they knew her mother but she doesn’t. Over and over again she gets close to asking, guessing what the answer might be, but she keeps losing her nerve. Now, that’s understandable, Lily’s young and confused but it was hard to see her keep chickening out.

The Secret Life of Bees is heavy on the spirituality. Prior to this novel Sue Monk Kidd wrote two memoirs detailing her spiritual journey from Christianity to a more feminine spirituality. And her experience in suffusing Christianity with the sacred feminine shows in The Secret Life of Bees. Not being a religious person myself, I didn’t love the focus on spirituality. But I responded to the way the women felt free to take the parts of Christianity that worked for them, that made them feel connected to God and nature, and blended them with something new. There’s something almost magical about the faith the women create for themselves – their ceremonies involving the statue of Our Lady in Chains, coating the statue in honey, placing their hand on her heart, chanting.

The Secret Life of Bees has a mystical feel in general; it’s a lot like a grown-up fairy tale. There’s good versus evil (T. Ray), finding sanctuary with strange fairy godmother-types (the Boatwright sisters), and the final confrontation with evil and ‘vanquishing’ of the creature. In the past I’ve been critical when characters’ actions neatly fit a plot archetype but don’t feel genuine (Mister Pip) but here Kidd handles it well (aside from some frustration at Lily not just asking straight-out about her mother). The characters still feel real. If you’re in the mood for a warm, funny, sad book about civil rights, spirituality, sisterhood, and growing up then you can’t go past The Secret Life of Bees.