Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid

The science of criminal detection from a writer with expertise and connections in the field.

forensics

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid (The Skeleton Road) expands on her considerable experience with Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime. In it, she studies the fields encompassed by forensic science and the large role that such detailed evidence plays in the modern judicial system.

In writing fiction, McDermid routinely consults professionals in law enforcement and scientific experts; here, she delves into their worlds to examine the history and challenges of their work. Chapters focus on crime and fire scenes, entomology, pathology, toxicology, forensic psychology and anthropology, the courtrooms and legal systems of various countries and more. McDermid visits with experts in each of these fields, exploring their personal and professional experiences, which can include trauma as well as deeply stimulating and important work. She also covers specific criminal cases, ranging from serial killings and rape to common burglary, that illustrate the science in question, and offers impressions of her own.

McDermid is not a perfectly impartial judge of the professions she considers; the tone of Forensics is more admiring than journalistic. She provides a great service in reducing complex science to a narrative easily understood by laypersons, and thereby allows fans of television crime drama and detective novels a heightened appreciation of the genre. Details are often predictably graphic, but never gratuitously so, and should be well within the tolerances of murder-mystery buffs. Forensics is an easy-reading introduction to the science behind criminal detection and a fine companion to fiction like McDermid’s.


This review originally ran in the July 17, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 6 pairs of gloves.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard (audio)

From Dillard’s website:

The Boston Globe called it “a kind of spiritual Strunk & White, a small and brilliant guidebook to the landscape of a writer’s task.

Recalling how I felt about Strunk & White, and my admiration for Dillard, this is promising.

writing lifeThe Writing Life is brief, and very enjoyable. Her voice as read by Tavia Gilbert feels just right for Dillard’s tone, which is knowing, wry, funny, and serious, by turns and often simultaneously (as I believe I noted in my recent teaser).

As fine as this audio version was, however, it left me wishing I’d had more time to peruse and mull. I have already ordered a print version to keep. For one thing: the format is a series of essays, and this format was a little lost on me in audio form. The transitions felt abrupt sometimes. (Perhaps I could have been paying closer attention to signals of transition. A failure of the medium, or of mine? No matter, the point is it didn’t work perfectly for me.) But I let go and just listened. Don’t be fooled by the title: this is neither the story of Dillard’s life as a writer, nor an instruction on how to live it, ourselves. It’s a bunch of musings and meditations. There are pieces of advice, and stories too, mixed in. But it’s a buffet, lots of things at once. It was fabulously enjoyable when allowed to wash over me. Next time, I will study it more closely, in print.

For the Bellingham local in me – and I recommend it to my father for this reason – there are a few wonderful references to this place, including the inspired story of the Bellingham-based stunt pilot. (Other reviewers seem to find this the best chapter of the book. It was certainly among them.) For the place-obsessed me, there were excellent reflections on various places, including islands in the Puget Sound; Roanoke, Virginia; and Cape Cod. About writing, I enjoyed hearing Dillard’s ideas about where to write (“appealing workplaces are to be avoided”) and how to write: I loved the idea that, paradoxically, writers need to live less in order to create the time and isolation necessarily to write about that life which they have somewhat backed away from. There is less firm advice than encouragement – mixed in with discouragement, but of a collegial type.

Reviews out there in the world are mixed, and seem (according to my brief survey) to base their criticism on the idea that this book is made up of wonderful parts, mixed in with less wonderful parts, that fail to make a single, wonderful whole. I guess that might be born out by my struggles with the audio form. But actually, a bunch of wonderful parts is no failure at all, and I was left feeling enchanted. For that matter, I recall that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had uneven effects on me, too – I can hardly believe that I gave it only 6 mushrooms, because I remember it so strongly and positively, but that shows how much I struggled with some parts of it, too. But really, I say again, we could do worse than many thought-provoking and wondersome components, which is what I found here.

It’s Annie Dillard, y’all. It’s good reading. The audio is good listening, although you may struggle to find it cohesive in that form. But that is the big criticism of this book anyway. So read, or listen, don’t worry about cohesion, and enjoy. I did.


Rating: 8 moths to a candle flame.

Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller & Suzanne Paola

tell it slantBrenda Miller and Suzanne Paola are faculty members in at the local university where I live now, and they have written a book about writing creative nonfiction: this was an easy choice for me. Tell It Slant is instructive, and comes in three sections. First, “Unearthing Your Material” is a series of subjects we might write about: the family, spirituality, the arts, nature. These subjects come with brief successful examples of each from established writers like Didion, Dillard and Talese, and writing prompts; we are exhorted to pay attention to scenes, sensory detail, and dialog. The second section is about “The Forms of Creative Nonfiction,” including the personal essay and more experimental forms; it also covers how to do research, and the ethical challenges of the genre. Finally, “Honing Your Craft” discusses what makes for good writing generally, the importance of revision, and writing groups. Each chapter opens with a very brief piece of creative writing by one of the book’s two authors, and these short pieces are the most simply enjoyable part of the reading experience.

This book was published in 2005, and for the most part works as well today as it would have ten years ago: although the examples of successful essays might look a little different now, the examples are still excellent ones. The only section that felt slightly dated was the one concerning research. Or maybe, as a librarian, it just felt a little simplistic to me. The advice to go find yourself an excellent reference librarian to help you along was and remains very fine advice, though!

I think I struggled a little bit with the ordering of the book. It could have used a little more introduction, or maybe beginning with part 2 would have worked better for me, because the subject-oriented part 1 felt rather like jumping right into a laundry list, lacking context. I settled in, though – and part of what helped me to do this was flipping ahead and scanning parts 2 and 3, to see what I had to look forward to. I certainly saw the value of the writing prompts. They won’t all work for every writer, but there are lots to choose from; and responding to a prompt that feels empty is a worthwhile exercise in itself, I grudgingly admit. The list of recommended reading at the back of the book is valuable: of course it would be updated to some advantage today, as I said, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the essays listed here, either. (Also, we are directed to ways to keep up to date with the best contemporary essays being published, including literary magazines and best-of collections.)

The audience for this book is never explicitly defined, but I think it becomes clear that it’s written for creative writers who hope to have their work read and appreciated by the public. There is an emphasis on producing work that is appealing to a larger audience, so that this is not a manual for people who write for therapy, for fun, for a hobby, etc. Rather, Tell It Slant teaches us to write for general readership.

I didn’t discover anything earth-shattering here, although the authors’ very brief pieces at the start of each chapter were good reading. I would keep these writing prompts around as practice opportunities. This is a fine primer, and valuable in that it is specific to the creative nonfiction genre.


Rating: 6 sensory details in memory.

Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word by Matthew Battles

Bibliophiles and historians will be thrilled by this enthusiastic, detailed account of writing throughout history.

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Matthew Battles (Library: An Unquiet History) undertakes a mammoth topic with Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word. Rather than an exhaustive chronicle, however, he has composed an extended meditation, a roaming through the centuries. The result is a collection of narrative examinations of writing as a technology, as a means of wielding power, as artistry and as communication. As Battles quotes it, the Oxford English Dictionary defines a palimpsest as a “writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another.” His imagination is captured by this concept in fact and as metaphor, and Palimpsest is in part a drawn-out consideration of “mind as page” and “page as mind” (the titles of its opening and closing chapters).

Battles’s survey ranges from Mesopotamian cuneiform in the fourth century BCE to early printing, word processing and social media. He explores Thoreau’s views on Confucianism, the clay tablets of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the topology of Chinese hanzi and the fascination with writing in Great Expectations. He is intrigued by the politics of the printing press and various typefaces. Historians, writers, philosophers and anthropologists including Socrates, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emily Dickinson, Ezra Pound and Ralph Waldo Emerson provide context for the philosophical significance of writing. Battles points out that modern computer code is a type of writing as well, “a kind of text that can’t exist on its own. But what other kind of text has ever existed?”

Among other revelations, Palimpsest elucidates the original meaning of “pirated” literature: “not… the unauthorized reproduction of someone else’s work but the use of a printing press without proper license,” and Allen Ginsberg’s modern redefinition of “graffiti,” which originally referred in the Italian to words or ornaments carved in clay forms. How we learn to write changes as our cultural expectations of writing change; thus what Battles calls a “feedback loop” of change in writing technologies perpetuates. In other words, in an increasingly digital age, Battles argues that writing is in flux–as it has been since its beginnings.

Palimpsest returns more than once to an emphasis on writing as art, and Battles’s own writing style is often decorative. The meandering structure of this expansive essay on writing in history, as well as its formal and academic tone, may pose challenges for some readers. However, the reader and writing fan absorbed by writing’s miscellany will find much to love and sink into in Palimpsest.


This review originally ran in the July 10, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 4 radicals.*

*For my personal reaction to his style, although the quality of writing and research are sure to please other readers.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

writing life

Annie Dillard is wonderful. I am glad to be back with her funny, wise but slight self-deprecating voice – and about writing this time! Wonderful. Check out these words of “comfort” to writers disappointed with their slow pace of production.

It takes years to write a book. Between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. One American writer has written a dozen major books over six decades. He wrote one of those books, a perfect novel, in three months. He speaks of it still with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books? Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks. He claimed he knocked it off in his spare time from a 12-hour-a-day job performing manual labor. There are other examples from other continents and centuries, just as albinos, assassins, saints, big people and little people show up from time to time in large populations. Out of a human population of four and a half billion, perhaps 20 people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc du Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.

This, I feel, is a great example of her voice: funny and filled with factoids while simultaneously being entirely serious, and empathetic. Of course I am enjoying this audio edition. Strangely, since I mention voice, the voice doing the reading is not Dillard’s. I guess I don’t know what her literal voice sounds like, but the reader here is suiting me fine.

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris

dakotaContinuing in my series of not-new-but-still-important creative nonfiction readings (see The Kiss and The Liars’ Club)… Kathleen Norris’s essay collection, Dakota, is brilliant. I see somewhat where it is dated, discussing for example economic depression and agricultural crisis – because, if anything, things are worse now. But her astute ideas and conclusions are brilliant and in many ways timeless.

You saw my teaser earlier this week, so you know I am impressed. Norris, a poet, of course writes beautifully; it’s worth reading her words for their language alone. But I was really drawn in by the ideas behind them. As her subtitle notes, she is concerned with spirituality and geography. As you might have noted by now about me, I am not attracted to spiritual musings, but I was won over by the geography (in so many senses) and the sense of place which is at the heart of this collection. And I found myself on board for a certain amount of spirituality as well.

My favorite parts of the book were those that characterize place: the physical, biological, climactic characteristics that make “Dakota,” the unique region of both western North and South Dakota that Norris calls home, as well as the cultural and human characteristics of this scarcely populated area. I love thinking about and learning what is definitive about place, in both those senses: the natural, physical, extra-human as well as the human, and the idea of their interconnectedness. (Dakota would doubtless look a little different without people – Las Vegas certainly would – but there is no possibility, I think, of people without place.)

“The Holy Use of Gossip” taught me how gossip can be a good thing, or rather, taught me to recognize as “gossip” (originating, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from God + sibling) the talking about each other we do in my close group of friends: when we share with each other that one of us is having a bad day, has suffered a loss, needs our help. This is well-intentioned and positive sharing that I’m glad we do. “Gatsby on the Plains” explores how community can lift its members up, or cut itself off from help: Norris writes that

…disconnecting from change does not recapture the past. It loses the future.

Intermittent “Weather Reports” read like short, poetic journal entries of real, specific days, in between more formal essays. They are often not strictly reports on the weather, unless we expand our definitions of weather, which we may well be intended to do.

She writes a good bit about community, how it is formed and how it can be both good and bad for itself. Norris came (back) to Dakota as an adult: her grandparents were of that place, and when she inherited their home there, she and her husband moved in. She is both from there (because the communities knew her grandparents) and not (because she grew up elsewhere, and came in as a traveled, educated, artistic outsider), which made for some interesting challenges for her and her new neighbors. Her 2001 introduction to this edition of the 1993 book discusses her adopted community’s reaction to her work, her publicization of Dakota: in a word, there was both pride and anxiety, but the fact that she stuck around eventually earned her a more thorough local membership.

On the subject of community, I am intrigued by her repeated conflation of the desert, the plains, and even the ocean that once covered this region, with the monastery. She spends quite a few pages throughout comparing the sense of quiet, of great distances increasing mutual support, and contrasting some of the ways in which these communities work. For example, I appreciated the idea (in “Where I Am” – naturally one of my favorite essays) that the monastery is different from small plains towns in that the former has a formal text or rulebook that they agree to live by: in the case of Norris’s central example, Saint Benedict’s Rule, which guides Benedictine monasteries. The small towns often find conflict because they are not all working from one central, agreed upon set of rules or values or ethics.

As an artist, Norris finds that she benefits immensely from the immensity of space in the plains. And she’s got some great stories to tell about sharing art and poetry with her new communities.

I find that prairie people are receptive to a broad range of contemporary poetry, although they’d be unlikely to cross town to attend a poetry reading at a college, were there a college in the vicinity. Their appreciation of the poems I’ve read aloud – from a broad spectrum of contemporary American poets – has given me a new understanding of the communal role of poets, a role poets have mostly abandoned by closeting themselves in academia. Surprises await poets who venture out into the larger community.

I love this idea, that poets (and by extension, many formally educated or academic folks) have quarantined themselves with those like them, and are both failing to share what they have and – more so – failing to learn from others, by locking the doors to the ivory tower.

In a strange counterpoint to this sentiment, though, I found Norris occasionally off-puttingly snobbish about the reading of books: that more prairie people should do it, that they shouldn’t consider themselves well-educated or wise without doing it. Now, don’t get me wrong: clearly I love reading books and find a great deal of value in doing so, and I think books have a lot to offer everyone and everyone should read more. But I also think that people can be very intelligent, wise, and valuable without formal reading; I think that the same prescriptions don’t work for all of us, and I think it’s a shame if she’s found (for example) a great oral storytelling tradition and then laments the lack of book reading. It makes her sound snotty in a way that the rest of the book does not. I like her better than this.

I think it’s just a moment of weakness or misstep, though, because in fact she returns to this subject with more sensitivity in “Status: Or, Should Farmers Read Plato?”

I know as well as anyone that a lot of book learning doesn’t make a person wise (sometimes it simply legitimizes stupidity), but I can’t help but connect the fact that so many Dakotans have been denied access to their culture with the fact that they don’t trust that their own stories are worth much.

The fact of their inhibited access to their own culture and stories is perhaps the best argument for lack of book-reading as a major problem. And she goes on to contemplate what difference it makes to a pig farmer to miss out on Plato, and what Tolstoy and the Brontes can bring to a small-town waitress. I like the nuanced discussion there.

Dakota gets more and more spiritual in its subject matter as it progresses, so that I struggled more toward the end. Discussion of monastic retreats, and Norris’s relationship with the religious communities of Dakota, were often interesting to me; they are in some ways further discussion of community ideals, and I am more or less on board with the spirituality of nature, of relating to wind and sky and plant life. But occasionally there was too much God for my personal tastes. When I encounter the idea of monasteries, and other writers’ productive experiences there, I have found myself tempted sometimes to consider the same; but then I realize what I really need is to just go camping alone.

I found a lot to love and a lot to continue to consider here: about place, about inheritance, about storytelling and relating to one another, about community and about definitions of spirituality. I love Norris’s writing. Although I struggled here and there, or perhaps because I did, this beautiful and thought-provoking book will stay with me and, I think, continue to guide me.


Rating: 8 readings.

The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba by Brin-Jonathan Butler

An amateur boxer’s love affair with Cuba.

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Brin-Jonathan Butler first traveled to Cuba as a teenager, hoping “to find a boxing trainer and to meet the guy from The Old Man and the Sea.” He accomplished both goals and over the years that followed made repeated trips, seeking Cuban boxing, baseball and literary heroes, as well as the mysteries of the sequestered island. Eventually, Butler’s fixation on Cuba inspired a forthcoming documentary, Split Decision, about Cuban athletes’ difficult choices between staying and leaving. In The Domino Diaries, he confesses that the project was partly an excuse to stay, having become “homesick for a place [he] wasn’t born to.” His memoir further unravels the relationship he’s formed with this nation.

His escapades make for fine writing and include a tryst with Fidel Castro’s granddaughter and an interview with boxing legend Teófilo Stevenson that results in Butler’s being banned from Cuba. The Domino Diaries is a memoir of boxing heroes and political strife, a study of Castro’s legacies and Cuba’s “Special Period” of economic crisis, and an ode to the grace, joy and sadness of Cuban culture; it is also the personal story of Butler’s own traumas and his mother’s escape from Hungarian communist rule. These threads necessitate some meandering, but the resulting musing tone Butler employs is elegiac and quite effective. Rather than an exhaustive survey of the large and thorny topic of Cuba’s economy, politics and culture, Butler’s memoir is a rambling exploration, appealingly written in a distinctive voice and peppered with wisdoms phrased with lovely wit.


This review originally ran in the June 26, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 cigars.
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