Book Reviews: Killer Smarts, Or Dribbling On The Serpent

September 22, 2016



The Innocent Killer by Michael Griesbach                                                                                  8

Think & Eat Yourself Smart by Caroline Leaf                                                                             6

The Road To Little Dribbling: More Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson                      6

The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones                                                                                        4


Griesbach, a practicing prosecuting attorney in the American criminal justice system, writes a case study account of one of that country’s most controversial trials in recent years – that of Steven Avery, who spent 18 years in jail for a crime he did not commit and was the inspiration behind the Making A Murderer television series. Griesbach knows the courthouse culture, the moods, the insinuations and the tricks being played out, all of these up against the strict legal code and constitution.  A man is convicted, sent to jail and spends years incarcerated on very flimsy evidence, then released after a number of  re-trial attempts as DNA proves him not guilty. “Truth is stranger than fiction” is a cliché, but in this real-life drama, it happens to be true. The Innocent Killer explores legal and criminal minds, the dubious value of eye-witness accounts, human failure and neglect, proof  and counter-proof argumentation, jury dilemmas,  and the trauma and lifelong sense of guilt experienced by those who sent the accused to prison.  Griesbach writes in a clear non-legalese style that makes the story entertaining and at the same time gives the reader an open window into American jurisprudence. He entwine legal storytelling with human tragedy and drama that changes the lives of many people. Great reading. – DB


Think & Eat Yourself Smart deals with dietary issues, including processed food and drink, eating habits, staple foods and their nourishment values and ends with food preparation tips and a number of recipes.  The content approaches eating habits from a spiritual angle, postulating that eating, mental and bodily health are closely connected. The disturbing message is that the food industry aims at profit making, and aiming its fast food products at children, working moms, people too pressed for time to sit down to enjoy a proper meal at leisure.  Food and agricultural research is predominantly sponsored and conducted by the industry itself, which paints a highly improbable picture, seeing that the donor is the hand that feeds the research labs.  Food additives and genetical modification are areas in which independent research is really needed. A serious message is that behind obesity lurks a raft of deadly diseases including diabetes, kidney failure, heart disease, arthritis and many others. Obesity can be seen as a national health indicator and it indicates nothing good. The concluding message is, “do not eat yourself and your children to death”. Read this book and educate yourself about that wonderful pastime of eating a good meal. – DB


Though Bill Bryson, an American by birth, now lives in the UK, The Road To Little Dribbling marks his first literary visit to Britain since Notes From A Small Island, arguably the book on which his reputation was built and probably his most widely read title. They say you can never go back home, and that truism feels, well, true as you navigate, with Bryson, routes and locations he didn’t cover in the earlier book, as well as some visits to familiar settings. Bryson is too smart and naturally funny to ever write anything that’s simply boring, but it’s possible to detect the odd trace of fatigue in his writing. This is not fatigue in the laziness sense, but rather in that Bill Bryson is tiring – just maybe – of having to be Bill Bryson. In the recent (and rather dull) film version of A Walk In The Woods, there’s a running gag in which Bryson’s companion muses about how the author will reproduce their adventures in the book and Bryson replies, repeatedly, “There’s not going to be a book”. It’s feasible that he’d like that to be an option in his life in general – to just go somewhere or do something and not have the weight of the expectation of not only having to write a book, but another best-seller, to follow. The delightful title and the gorgeous whimsy of the cover art recall the big-eyed wonder that permeated Notes From A Small Island, and which converted millions of readers into fellow believers, as charmed as Bryson was by their initial interactions with the English and their Englishness, though probably less forgiving than he once that superficial allure had worn off. Here, the magic is gone. Bryson himself is still charming, but his new persona is, by choice, more “grumpy old man” than “endearing knowledge-seeker”. Perhaps he went to all the best bits of Britain on his initial trip, but Bryson seems to spend a lot of time tramping along ugly highways and haunting decrepit high streets in ever-emptier villages in this volume. That is certainly part of the point of writing the book – to record the differences in what he observed in 1995 (when Notes… was first published) and his experiences 20 years later. As a writer, he is aware that his relative crabbiness doesn’t necessarily make for his best work – after all, lines like “But we have had enough bitching about assaults on the landscape for one chapter already…” made it into the published manuscript. He even suggests that there’s not as much to catch his interest now as there was then, saying: “Looking back now, I really do think Britain had attained something approaching perfection just around the time of my arrival” (before going on to discount that opinion). Still, for all that this is a more aggressive Bryson – in his current style, in the language he uses – there remains that inspiring inability to remain disinterested in the world around him, and The Road To Little Dribbling is still, though not his best or anywhere near his funniest book, a robust reminder of the value of that sort of outlook. – BD


Subtitled The Bible Retold As Science, The Serpent’s Promise feels, at first, like the hobby-horse of a professed atheist wanting to underline the veracity of his perspectives versus what he considers to be, at best, storytelling with a tinge of historical value. He starts each of his sections here – they have titles such as The Playing Fields Of Eden, On To Methusela and The Leper’s Bell – in that vein, but runs out of steam very quickly (every time). This doesn’t take away from the book fulfilling a worthwhile function as a journey through a number of popular science niches including climate change, infectious disease and genetics, as Jones is a capable compiler of interesting geological, medical, meteorological and historical facts. But the premise of the book – that readers might have the foundations of their faith shaken or, conversely, their understanding of cold, clinical science muddied – is rendered completely irrelevant by its contents. The promise of constant humour (as suggested by the shoutlines on the cover) is also false, with Jones writing in a readable, approachable way, but hardly threatening Bill Bryson as a writer who can combine scholarship and wit in a memorable way. The lack of delivery on a promise is what makes The Serpent’s Promise a less than memorable experience. Because of the way it’s presented, it’s impossible to read it without constantly expecting some existential conflict. That would not necessarily be a good selling point in its own right, but the expectations of it being there not being met is off-putting and at least allowing for the possibility of being engaged on some level would have made the whole project more interesting. – BD