Sydney Writer’s Festival: John Safran’s ‘Depends What You Mean By Extremist’

The Sydney Writer’s Festival is on right now! 

It was hard deciding which talk to attend; we always complain when there aren’t sufficient options to cater for everyone but I always seem to get overwhelmed when there are too many options. I was flip flopping between Roxanne Gay or John Safran but in the end decided on Safran since I’ve actually read one of his books ‘Murder in Mississippi’.

(I even brought my copy of ‘Murder in Mississippi’ for him to sign, which, by the way, is hilarious I highly recommend it, it’s like a modern day ‘In Cold Blood’.)

It was a beautiful day, it’s Sydney weather at it’s finest (you can even see the Harbour Brdige from behind, so this cannot be more Australian). 

The atmosphere was buzzing and the event was well organised, so for someone that’s as anxious and Type A about punctuality as I am, it made my day way more relaxing.

(Also I’m not going to lie, the demographic was very white, very middle-class and very middle-aged so I felt like a child playing dress-up, but you know what, I enjoy these things and I have every right to be here too.)

The bookstore Gleebooks even partnered up with SWF to be the sole provider of ny books discussed at his festival because that’s how you do business damnit. 

And because there is no point attending a book discussion without actual ownership of the book talk, I succumbed to the event atmosphere and purchased my own copy of ‘Depends What You Mean By Extremist’.

It cost me $35 and because I live off second-hand books, that is a lot of money, but it’s part of the experience. Just like you go to a concert and buy an overpriced t-shirt, you go to a writer’s event and buy their book brand-spanking new.

But what about the actual talk you ask?

Safran rambles before he gets to his point and there were so many times that I wanted him to dig deeper because I felt he was just skimming the surface. He does exactly what I do which is give people him and his dog’s entire life story instead of just answering the question but the topic itself is probably too difficult to to be answered nicely in a few sentences without some context.

I also wanted him to make some neat succinct remark about the nature of extremism and the people it attracts. But the topic is too complex to be wrapped up neatly and even Safran points out that this book is just him recounting his adventure with extremism, it’s hardly an academic essay and he’s just had to accept the cognitive dissonance in the rationale of extremists.

The talk was delivered in typical Safran humour; I liked that he was offended when one of the extremists he interviewed had been arrested by the police and he wasn’t interrogated as a key witness (“The newspaper said the police collect over a hundred statements, which means I didn’t even make the Top 100, even though I loved with the man for a year!” Safran indignantly points out to a laughing audience).

I wish I’d come pre-prepared with some questions but I’ll know for next time. I wonder if I would have had a different experience had I read his book beforehand, like would I have found the talk boring because Safran just reiterates everything he’s written about or would I have been able to get more involved. 

But overall, I loved the event and I’m so glad I dragged myself out of bed for this, I’ll definitely be going again next year!

Sick But Not Reading.

I’ve been stuck at home after being discharged from the hospital for a week and I am so bored.

It’s nothing too serious, but serious enough that I couldn’t go to work for a week and a half, or risk another trip back to the hospital.

You’d think I would have used that time to read, write more, and just be more productive in general, but you know what, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was too depressed and restless to do anything else other than to fidget and feel sorry for myself, which I utterly loathed. 

I hated being like that. I like to feel some kind of control over my fate and my own choices. And I hated the ridiculous state that I’d gotten myself into, which was to constantly feel sorry for myself.

If I hadn’t been bedridden, I’ve been nervously pacing around my house, and if I hadn’t been nervously pacing around the house, I’ve been crying my eyes out. Crying over my job prospects, my health, the pain I’ve caused my own family, and just getting upset at all the closed doors that I kept seeing in my future.

The one good thing that has come out of this health scare is that it’s forced me to reconsider what I really want from my life, as opposed to just ambling about and seeing what life threw at me. I can’t just accept things the way it is and I’m prepared to fight for the things I want.

Just to be clear, I’m still not sure what I want but I feel like I’ve taken some control back over my life, even if it’s just accepting that some things need to change.

I’m a lot calmer and happier than I was last week. I’m still uncertain about my future but there’s less trepidation and more excitement.

I Like Browsing The Books In The Gift Store In Art Galleries.

Art galleries never sell it for any cheaper, mind you, only ever at the retail price, but I adore their selections.

I was at the Art Gallery of NSW to look at the Andy Warhol exhibition and I did the obligatory walk through the gift store. And even though they didn’t have a large variety, they had a very good collection. An indie book store in a hipster town (like Newtown for you Sydneysiders) would be proud of their selection.

I especially love their coffee book selections, the books contain such exquisite photography (even f I don’t understand half of it). 

When I get my own place, I want to have a couple of fashion photography books lying on my coffee table; that is definitely part of the dream.

The Green Mill Murder by Kerry Greenwood

This is the fifth installment of the Phryne Fisher series and to date, I honestly think this is Greenwood’s best one so far. She’s finally found her stride and rhythm.

It seems that Greenwood has a template that she sticks to, yet her stories never feel repetitive. Picking up a Phryne Fisher novel, it looks like I can expect the following:

  • Crimes that require attention to detail to solve, rather than brute force and luck.
  • Realistic assistance from the supporting cast like her loyal maid, Dot.
  • A variety of characters that do not feel repeated in any way.
  • Beautiful descriptions of 1930s fashion and style.
  • Steamy sex scenes conducted by a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid of to get it.

Greenwod has established everything she needs to for a solid and reliable series; we know all her key supporting characters, and we have a realistic understanding of her star detective’s capabilities, so now we can finally focus on Miss Fisher’s ingenuity and her adventures.

She has found the perfect blend between realism and fantasy. Greenwood understands that this world she’s created is essentially a fantasy world; one where rich socialites with gumption and good sense can pursue careers they would never have been able to in the 1920s.

Yet none of her characters are cartoonish or flat; they almost seem rooted in someone real that Greenwood has encountered in her legal career. From the controlling matriarch her murky motives that Phryne never truly understands, to the vivacious buxom singer that hits Phryne right in the ego, there is never a character that gives me a sense of déjà vu.

This novel seamlessly blends two crimes together but doesn’t make the story feel disjointed or crowded. And the story ends on a realistic note, one that doesn’t make Phryne feel like an all-knowing persona with no vulnerabilities, and again, this helps grounds the series.

If all her installments are roughly this quality, I can see why the Phryne Fisher series has lasted as long as it has.


On Another Note

I think once I polish off about ten installments, I’ll start watching the ABC ‘Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries’ series. I don’t want to give myself any spoilers but I’m honestly not waiting till I catch up to all 20+ books.

I also have five unread books in this series so I’m debating whether I should independently review them or do a joint one since I worry I might be writing about the same issues in each one.

Catch Me If You Can by Frank W. Abagnale

This was an enlightening read. Not only in the behaviour of a conman but in his exploits.

The memoir details his youth and his exploits as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, but most importantly, as a cheque forger. It spans over his entire career before ending at his final escape, right before he’s caught for the final time.

It’s a fast-paced, adventurous read. If I didn’t know it was based on true events, I would have thought it was a highly entertaining but very improbable story. If this autobiography had gone on for any longer, the boasting would have gotten tiring but it ends at exactly the right place. Abagnale knows how to control his story for the audience and when to end it before it goes too far, and I expect nothing less from one of the most daring American con artists.

Abagnale thinks highly of himself. Like, really thinks he’s the bee’s knees. He even admits in the opening paragraph that “Modesty is not one of my virtues”. But even from the most damning critic, you can’t deny that he was a bright, talented, young man with a desire for wealth and beautiful women. Here was a man who could understand medical journals, pass the bar exam and teach himself the inner workings of a bank, all before the age of 21. Abagnale was, for all intents and purposes, a force of nature.

And like any arrogant young man, Abagnale humble-brags. For example, he points out his own inexperience and lack of contacts in counterfeiting but quickly points out in the next paragraph that this autonomy prevented the police from finding him for years since they didn’t know anyone who knew him. He also emphasised that he “shunned any place that smacked of being a criminal haunt”, like he was above the common riff raff.

But there is absolutely no doubt that he knows his stuff, and whilst his crimes are unbelievable, his knowledge and character make it believable that he could have committed all of this. Abagnale takes care to outline the detail behind his crimes, like discussing the serial numbers on each cheque, almost as if to remind his audience that he didn’t just coast by on his good looks and personality.

His writing style is not that of a trained author though, but I don’t think a ghost writer was in play, or at the very least, Abagnale wrote 99% his autobiography himself, and it’s because too much of his personality shines through. The writing feels a little cheesy at times but I feel like that’s part of the charm; Frank never downplays his confidence or his intelligence and I can see why so many people fell for his act. For example, he refers to himself as the “Prince of Philanderers” which is a title even Don Juan would not have called himself. But it works.

He even drops little gems of wisdom that, if written by any other author would have made me roll my eyes but really fits in with his charm. When explaining to his audience how he can get away with the occasional mistake in his forgers, or con experienced colleagues into forgiving his mistakes, he explains:

… A thrift-shop dress is usually mistaken for high fashion when it’s revealed under a mink coat.

There were two additions to the memoir that I liked: a third person recount of what happened to Frank after his final escape and an interview with Stan Redding. Abagnale writes his adventures as nothing more than hijinks that spiralled into something out of control, and that he never intended to let it get so far. But these two elements grounds his memoirs, so it’s reads less like Abagnale is bragging about his wonderful brain and I was reminded that the events weren’t charming antics of a young man, but rather a criminal act.

It’s fascinating and audacious and everything you expect a conman to be. I highly recommend this.


On Another Note

I watched the movie before I read the autobiography so I was surprised by some of the events written because, shockingly, Spielberg has to make a few concessions to cram a 300 page book into a two hour movie. For example:

  • The portrayal of his parents greatly deviated from the movie, for example, Movie!Dad was a conman who encouraged Frank to pursue a life of crime as a means of revenge against the US Government vs. Book!Dad who was, by Frank’s accounts, an upstanding man.
  • Amy Adam’s character, Brenda Strong, was comprised of several of Frank’s girlfriends and is a much, much more sympathetic character.
  • Spielberg really played up Abagnale’s tragic past and just how big of an impact the divorce had on him. Even by Frank’s own admission

But I’m glad the main events were actually rooted in truth like Abagnale’s encounter with a high-class call girl and swanning into Miami airport with a bunch of women. Those were my favourite cons in the movie and I’m happy they weren’t exaggerated. Spielberg did the autobiography justice.