Thursday, 26 September 2013

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran ~ Abbey's Bookseller Pick

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran at Abbey's Bookshop 131 York Street, Sydney

ABBEY'S BOOKSELLER PICK ----- I've always enjoyed John Safran's personality, his banter with Father Bob on their Triple J radio show, and his candour in asking what he (and what we) are really thinking and want to know in his TV and radio interviews. He's not shy, he's up for anything and he surprises, which is why he is good talent. But meeting John Safran could go either way. He could be a ranting, attention-hogging opinion-pusher, or he could be the complete opposite of his broadcast persona and be cranky and aloof. With relief we discover John is forthcoming, polite and genial as he goes about signing his first book in the true crime genre.

I was curious as to how this tack in his career path emerged and how it fit with his previous work as professional provocateur, prodding people's core beliefs (primarily religious). John says it all comes down to his curiosity around the influence of family and our upbringing, as to who we are and what we do. So when he was exploring the prejudices around racial beliefs in his TV show, Race Relations, it was obvious to John, as a jewish white man, that one of his first visits would be to a cauldron of racial prejudice, Mississippi, to interview a high-profile white supremacist named Richard Barrett. When John heard news that, a year after their meeting, Barrett had been murdered by a black man, he was drawn to follow the case as fresh details emerged in news reports.

I'm surmising when I proffer that John is always surprised at his own motivations and therefore he willingly shares that surprise with us, to see if we are surprised too. This 'putting it all out there' is as clever as it is revealing. How exactly did this book come about? The first thing in the book is titled Gmails - two pages of John's email correspondence with 'Lally Katz' as the idea of writing a true crime book, and his very first book, firms in his mind.

I ask whether writing true crime leaves you feeling that you are wallowing in the murkiest swamps of the human psyche. He replies that his curiosity keeps him focused around his subject's backgrounds and their family life, and how that accords with John's own biases and preconceptions. He spent eighteen months working on the book, and six months of that in Mississippi. He says that after a while you start to feel some confidence in being able to express your opinions and thoughts.

Being his first book (it surprised me that he hadn't already had tie-in books with his TV or radio shows) John revealed the slightest hint of the nerves that attend anyone putting their writing out into the world for the first time. The book was embargoed until yesterday. No-one had read it. Even John had only just seen the final product. I felt sure that his experience at crafting words 'on air' for a living would work well if he could successfully capture the same energy on paper.

As I glean through the pages, John's preoccupation with the 'Us and Them' mentality emerges in his vibrant and humorous conversational style.

So John Safran is an accidental true crime writer. When asked whether he'll be writing another, he grabs a copy off the stack he has just signed, flips to the last page and points to the last sentence. There, in John's characteristic, quirky phrasing is a call-out to the public to get in touch with him about interesting crimes. And his email address.

John was here yesterday, so that stack of signed copies is available, but it won't be there long. Get in quick.

~ Craig Kirchner

On Twitter you can follow the hashtag #MurderinMississippi and chip in with your thoughts and questions. @johnsafran is happy to answer you. And of course, we invite you to follow @abbeysbookshop too!

UPDATE - BOOK REVIEW - Saturday 12 October 2013

I finished Murder in Mississippi today. I've only read one other true crime story, Peter Corris' Mad Dog which covered a crime from the 30's, which was interesting for the historical context as much as it was about the perpetrator and victims. But nowhere did Corris enter the story himself.

So it's probably safe to say that John Safran's approach to true crime writing is like no other. Safran's style recreates his documentary approach so vividly that I 'see' John leaning in to frame as he explains what has just occurred. Or gripping his hand-held video recorder as he does a 'selfie' to camera. The writing is engaging, with many amusing turns of phrase that paint an interesting picture of what it's like being a 'newbie' sleuth in action.

It's also a really tightly structured book that cleverly reveals all the way through, making it compulsive to read. I found my own assessments of the key people getting tangled at times. That is a big part of this book - different versions and opinions can leave you perplexed as to what the real truth is. Is there an objective truth? How deep do you want to go? Philosophy rears its ugly head. At one point John expresses this struggle, 'In Mississippi, the more layers of the onion I peel, the more I'm standing in a mess of onion'.

There were a couple of moments when I felt the 'John-ness' jarred against the tragic situation of the people he was discussing. These moments did dissipate (somewhat) with further revelations - although it is telling that John eagerly saved one revelation as his 'PC card', to be played in the event he gets attacked for being inappropriate. As I hope he will, because what good is a John Safran product without controversy?

But those who might condemn Safran for his tactics and modus operandi, can never fault his heart. He has followed his ingrained fascination with those who seek to vilify and categorise humans with a zeal that befits the most ardent white supremacist or religious zealot:

'I've been on a piece of elastic my whole life, being drawn closer and closer, to this meeting in this forest today. There is no one in the world - not one of the seven billion - who would appreciate this bizarre scene more than me.'

~ Craig Kirchner

#MurderinMississippi Hey @JohnSafran I been wonderin', you hear? Has murblestatic Vincent read your book, you know what I'm sayin'?

#MurderinMississippi @JohnSafran Fifteen years from now, I see you and Vincent clubbin' on Bondi. Real talk.

@abbeysbookshop yep, I'm sending out copies to all the Mississippians in the book this week & one is off to Vincent's cell.

@JohnSafran Wow. Do you expect some fiery emails? I expect that is why the book was embargoed. To give you enough time to get new digs! : )

@abbeysbookshop who do you reckon will be angry?

@JohnSafran Well John Moore definitely won't be happy. You made him look like a true politician. Vincent too. But he's a long way away.

@JohnSafran Oh and of course, Richard will be turning in his grave.

Murder in Mississippi by John Safran at Abbey's Bookshop 131 York Street, Sydney

 MURDER IN MISSISSIPPI: The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book.
John Safran

Buy this book at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Friday, 13 September 2013

Notes from Eve Abbey ~ September 2013

Greetings Readers,
I’ve been off the air for a while. I hope you have been reading some good books. Meanwhile I’ve been on a long cruise to such places as Brunei, Shanghai and Guam, I’ve been to hospital to have my thyroid gland removed and I’ve been taking it easy. I’m 83 now so it’s time I did. However, I miss telling you about the books I’ve read, so I plan to do an occasional report.

First some very nice news. The Sydney Peace Prize people will present the 2013 Award to Dr Cynthia Maung who has run a Health Clinic at Mae Tao, near Mai Sariang, just inside the Thai border with Burma since 1989. When daughter Jane Abbey went up there in 1992 to work with the Karen people, the Clinic was already famous. Not only was it providing essential care, it was also training the 'medics' who then returned to their refugee camps able to provide help on the spot. Dr Cynthia’s Clinic is now famous throughout the world. Aung San Suu Kyi and even Hillary Clinton have visited. The Award is great, especially as it seems AusAid will not renew their grant this year? A great shame. Some things may have changed in Burma, but it will be a long time before villagers see any improvement in the standard of their health services. The Award will be at Sydney University on November 7th and Dr Cynthia will give the Peace Prize Lecture at Sydney Town Hall on November 6th. For tickets and information go to

There are several good books in our Asian History section about Burma, including two written by Thant Myint-U, grandson of the famous U Thant who was Secretary General of the United Nations when I was young. These are The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma and more recently Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. Read the latter one and you will be very surprised at what is going on at the edge of the Himalayas.

Another popular book about Burma is Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. This beautifully written book describes his childhood in a Padaung village and later his amazing fortune to receive a scholarship to Cambridge University to study English Literature and to escape the troubles in Burma. The Padaung tribe is famous for their long-necked women – perhaps a practice that is disappearing.

Just now I have been reading an addition to these books. It is called Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma written by Wendy Law-Yone. It is a family memoir and wanders about a bit, but is especially interesting because her indefatigable, ever-optimistic father was the founder of The Nation, the first English-language newspaper in Rangoon in 1978 and closed when the opioniated editor was put in jail. Ed Law-Yone was an idealist, radical, full of hope for Burma and full of confidence in himself. As Editor of The Nation, which became an important political voice, he found himself (or often arranged for himself) to be in important meetings and a familiar of Prime Minister U Nu, as well as the very erratic General Ne Win, who took over the Government as leader of the Junta. Ed worked for the American OSS during the Second World War and made many useful contacts and was heavily involved in the Burmese Government in Exile with U Nu. He was a Gadfly indeed. Wendy’s book is written after she, finally, read the memoir her father had written in five exercise books while he was imprisoned. There is a lot of intriguing background history in this, as well as a loving picture of family life – a family of some importance.

Another book I read was Hard Times: A Runaway’s Adventures in the Americas by Jack Mercer published by Transit Lounge (who seem to do some unusual, and very good, books). In the spirit of A.B.Facey’s A Fortunate Life, this is the true story of a young Australian country kid who in the early 1900’s ran away from an abusive step-father who owned a country pub. He found himself on a sailing ship to Chile where he worked on a huge estancia, found himself shipwrecked and adrift in Argentina, then on the streets of New York. But luck favoured him and he eventually became a businessman who finally returned with his wife and family to Australia in the 1930’s as the General Manager of an American trading company. The manuscript was rescued by his grandson and a good thing too. Like Facey, with almost no education, this modest man was able to write beautiful, simple prose, able to enjoy simple pleasures, and to include fascinating details such as how much he was paid and what he did and how much things cost in those days. The description of the shipwreck and rescue is marvellous.

Another interesting and unusual book is Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady. Ostensibly this is about one of the first, and most notorious, divorce case of the 19th century. Did you know that prior to 1857 a special Act of Parliament had to be passed to ratify a divorce? Of course only the rich and powerful could afford this. Mrs Robinson’s disgrace is mostly to be found in the very effusive diary she kept after meeting a most charming man, unfortunately married, and much younger. But Mrs Robinson, a very intelligent woman, unhappily married to a businessman, set about living another life through her diary which became the chief evidence in the divorce case. This was at a time when such diaries were often the basis of popular novels. However, the book becomes more than this and covers a great deal about unsatisfied female desire, and the yearning for learning. Remember all those Virago books written by Victorian women exploring Egypt and other places? They were supposed to be “ill” and on a voyage to recuperate, but really they were running away from boring lives!

I really enjoyed Ramona Koval’s By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life. For many years, Ramona presented The Book Show on ABC Radio National. In her book she talks about some of the many books she has read and describes their influence at various times in her life. Her time capsule coincides with mine. If I haven’t read all those books, I have certainly sold them! It was a delight to read and she provides a very useful and interesting list of books at the back.

I plan to see Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Sydney Theatre Company, but will read the play first. Such complicated word play needs a bit of background. Of course I found a copy on the shelves at Abbey’s in a paperback that also contained three of his numerous other plays – Jumpers, Travesties and Arcadia. There were collections of his other plays as well. I suspect I enjoyed Stoppard better first time around.

A reminder: If you want to know price and availability for any books I have mentioned, just click on the title to see more information and maybe reviews about the title.

Keep well! Eve

Buy these books at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Cairo by Chris Womersley ~ Abbey's Bookseller Pick

Cairo by Chris Womersley at Abbey's Bookshop 131 York Street, Sydney

ABBEY'S BOOKSELLER PICK ----- When Tom escapes the suffocating dullness of the small Victorian town where he has grown up and moves into the 'Cairo' apartment building in Melbourne's bohemian Fitzroy he feels that at last his real life is beginning.

The streets are alive with promise, the cafes and pubs filled with interesting people. Instead of enrolling at the University he feels his education would be better here, amongst the artists, the free thinkers that inhabit the suburb and indeed his own apartment building.

He has soon met Max and his wife, the desirable and lovely Sally. Alcoholic James too, and the desperate heroin users Greta and Edward in their vast warehouse, painters both.

Life is good, an endless round of drinks, parties, a little work washing up in a cafe. But then Tom gets involved, not against his will, in a scheme to steal a famous and controversial painting from the State Art Gallery.

This is a wonderfully compelling story, based, I'm told on a true theft. The atmosphere of Fitzroy is captured with great skill and the characters and their foibles are real. A book to read in a couple of intense sittings.

~ Peter Smith (Author of the bestselling children's book, Monsieur Albert Rides to Glory)

You can listen online to Chris Womersley discuss his novel with Daniel Browning here on ABC Books and Arts Daily.

Chris Womersley

Buy this book at Abbey's (131 York Street Sydney) ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers

Abbey's ~ An Aladdin's cave for readers