Author, Book review, China, Leslie T. Chang, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Factory Girls’ by Leslie T. Chang


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 320 pages; 2010.

Since the 1990s China has undergone rapid economic development. It’s no exaggeration to say that practically every useful item that we buy in the West — for example, shoes, t-shirts, laptops and mobile phones — was made in a factory somewhere in China. But what of the people who work in those factories? What sort of lives do they lead? How is China’s rise to power affecting them?

Leslie T. Chang, a Chinese American, wrote Factory Girls as a means of exploring these very questions. She says she didn’t want to write about the harsh conditions in the factories, because that had already been done. Instead, she wanted to concentrate on the workers and tell their stories.

Over the course of two years she follows two young women, Min and Chungming, who leave their rural villages — what is known as “going out” — in pursuit of a better life earning a regular wage in a factory. In China, these young women (and men) are “rural migrants”. There are 130 million of them (one-third of which are female), representing “the largest migration in human history, three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe over a century”.

Chang says she specifically wanted the book to focus on women, because they “seemed to have the most to gain in leaving the village but also maybe the most to lose”.

Dongguan, in the south-west, was the logical place to start. It is one of the largest factory cities in China, with a population of almost 7 million people, 2 million of them rural migrants. Some 70 per cent of the workforce is female.

What Chang discovered was surprising. While I won’t go into specific details about Min and Chungming — you need to read the book to discover their ups, downs, successes, failures, and the corruption and dangers to which they are exposed, all of which is gripping stuff — in general the women did not see factory work as we in the West might view it. They saw it as an opportunity to better themselves, to escape their rural lives and to achieve some measure of career success.

They also enjoyed a more fluid job situation than their male counterparts, and were often promoted more quickly. They were more flexible, in terms of fitting in, because they “quickly adopted the clothes, hairstyles and accents of the city”.

But if you are female, rural migration is a double-edged sword:

If migration liberated young women from the village, it also dropped them in a no-man’s land. Most girls in the countryside were married by their early twenties, and a migrant woman who postponed marriage risked closing off that possibility for good. […] Social mobility complicated the search for a husband. Women who had moved up from the assembly line disdained the men back in the village, but city men looked down on them in turn.

Despite Chang’s insistence that she didn’t want to write a book looking at factory conditions, she does provide some interesting pen-portraits of what it is like to work in these places. I found it eye-opening: the factory, no matter what it produces, is pretty much a way of life. Employees sleep in factory dorms, eat in factory cafeterias, are treated in factory hospitals. One factory that Chang visits employees 70,000 people!

Typically, the pay is usually low and the working hours extreme. Privacy is non-existent, as this excerpt describing one of Chang’s visits, explains:

Girls stand in doorways combing their shampooed hair in hand mirrors; girls in shorts and flip-flops lug buckets of water to mop the dormitory floors. Residents of the upper floors lean on bare arms over balcony railings, checking out the goings-on at ground level and calling out to friends many stories below. A pop ballad blasts from a tape deck into the muggy morning. I love you, loving you, as a mouse loves rice. The air smells of laundry hanging out to dry; bleach, detergent, and damp are the perpetual scents of the Yue Yuen factory.

Interestingly, migration, once a last resort, has now become an acceptable, indeed desirable, route to a better life. Chang says today’s migrants are “younger and better educated than their predecessors” and that “they are driven out less by the poverty of the countryside than by the opportunity of the city”.

One of the girls she follows, Min, is able to support herself and her family in the countryside, buying them new things — a TV, furniture and so on — and upgrading their lifestyle in the process. It’s not uncommon for young rural migrants who work hard to buy their parents a bigger, better, more modern house or apartment.

But Factory Girls isn’t just a book about modern China. Chang includes a dual narrative that gives a nod to the past. This narrative focuses on her own Chinese roots, in which she returns to her ancestral village and learns about her family, particularly her grandfather who was assassinated after World War Two. This adds an extra dimension to what is already a superb journalistic endeavour.

This is a book that puts a human face to China’s ongoing economic development, but ultimately the book works because these are human stories that transcend time and place. And you don’t even have to be remotely interested in China to appreciate Chang’s effortless and engaging writing style. Highly recommended.

Author, Barbara Demick, Book review, Granta, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick


Non-fiction – paperback; Granta Books; 314 pages; 2010.

North Korea is one of those intensely secretive countries that most of us know very little about. Media coverage is virtually non-existent, unless it’s something to do with nuclear weapons, George W. Bush’s “Axis-of-evil, or leader Kim Jong-il, the latter usually covered in a humorous isn’t-he-kooky? kind of way.

But in recent weeks, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has opened its doors to the Western media, albeit in a very controlled way, in order to show the world that Kim Jong-un, the leader’s youngest son, is now the leader-in-waiting. This has provided a brief, but fascinating glimpse of a unique country, where conformity, not individuality, is the guiding principle.

The footage above is the North Korea that the North Korean Government want you to see. But Barbara Demick’s book, Nothing to Envy, which won this year’s BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, is filled with all the stuff they don’t want you to know about.

This is a nation where citizens are encouraged to spy upon one another; where they are forbidden from listening or watching any media other than those run by the state; where every household must keep a portrait of the president on display; where they are so cut off from the rest of the world they truly believe the motto that they have “nothing to envy”.

Demick, an American journalist, was a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, covering both North Korea and South Korea, in 2004. She was based in Soul, but made several trips to the North, and conducted extensive interviews with North Koreans who had defected. It is from these interviews that Demick shapes her book: a non-fiction account of six ordinary citizens living in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

The book has all the hallmarks of a great literary novel, because Demick uses narrative techniques to interweave the individual stories of six main characters living in Chongjin, the nation’s third largest city.

The following description of the North Korean urban environment sets the scene:

There is almost no signage, few motor vehicles. Private ownership of cars is largely illegal, not that anyone can afford them. You seldom even see tractors, only scraggly oxen dragging plows. The houses are simple, utilitarian and monochromatic. There is little that predates the Korean War. Most of the housing stock was built in the 1960s and 1970s from cement block and limestone, doled out to people based on their job and rank. In the cities there are “pigeon coops”, one-room units in low-rise apartment buildings, while in the countryside, people typically live in single-story buildings called “harmonicas”, rows of one-room houses, stuck together like little boxes that make up the chambers of a harmonica. Occasionally, door frames and window sashes are painted a startling turquoise, but mostly everything is whitewashed or gray.

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only colour to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea.

The story initially focuses on two young lovers, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, who kept their relationship secret for six years but did not hold hands until three years later. In a society where sexual relationships outside of marriage are frowned upon and sex-education is non-existent, it took another six years before they shared their first kiss. Mi-Ran says when she eventually fled North Korea she was “twenty-six years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived”.

Further into the story we meet the indomitable Mrs Song, a factory worker, mother of four and model citizen. Two-thirds of the way into the book we are introduced to her oldest daughter, the wayward Oak-hee, who is trapped in a terrible marriage and believes that defection is her only hope of beginning a new life. By this time Mrs Song’s mother-in-law, husband and son have died as a result of the famine that swept through the country in the 1990s.

There are two more characters: Dr Kim, a young medical doctor, and Kim Hyuck, a homeless teenager who grew up in an orphanage when his father abandoned him to marry his second wife. (Hyuck’s mother died unexpectedly when he was just three years old.)

Demick paints each of these characters as incredibly resilient people with strong survival instincts. By tracing their lives over a 20- to 30-year period, she is able to demonstrate how their ingrained behaviour to obey the Communist regime slowly gets worn away, to the point where each comes to realise that the only way out is to flee. Their tales of escape are heart-hammering, and heart-warming, by turn.

Interestingly, Demick explains that defection was very low: only 923 citizens defected from the North to the South in the roughly 50-year period between the end of the Korean War and 1998. But that began to change in the late 1990s, brought about primarily by the famine that swept the country and the growing prosperity of neighbouring China, which became more and more of a temptation to those Koreans grappling to survive with no food, no money and often no employment.

The thing that amazed me most about this book, was less the glimpses of life lived in a Totalitarian society (it’s no exaggeration to say this is George Orwell’s 1984 writ large, the only thing missing seems to be the “two-minutes hate”), but the devastating impact of the nation’s food shortages. According to Demick, this resulted in some 10 per cent of the North Korean population dying of starvation — in 1998 the estimated casualties totalled 600,000 to 2 million.

Demick painstakingly reveals the desperate acts so many people had to carry out to find food. It makes for harrowing reading at times. I particularly felt for schoolteacher Mi-ran, who watches her young students wasting away in front of her eyes, knowing there is nothing she can do to save them from starvation.

The resulting collapse of the socialist food distribution system led to highly illegal business enterprises being set up, mainly in the form of food vendors such as butchers and bakers. Mrs Song, ever-resourceful, set up a flourishing trade in home-baked cookies. It says so much about her undying spirit, and her desire to keep forging ahead despite extremely adverse circumstances, that you begin to wonder if she’s really true and not just figment of Demick’s imagination.

The book is so jam-packed with intriguing facts that I couldn’t even begin to list them all here, although several stick in my mind:

  • electricity is in such short supply that the lights are switched off every evening, plunging the whole of North Korea into darkness (this Google image illustrates it perfectly);
  • medical doctors are supposed to act selflessly by donating their own blood for transfusions and their own skin for grafts, as well as growing their own cotton to make bandages;
  • religion is forbidden because everyone must devote themselves to the cult of Kim Jong-il and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea; and
  • most North Korean clothes are made from a unique fabric called Vinalon, which is made from limestone and anthracite.

Nothing to Envy is a truly astonishing book, and this review cannot do it the justice it deserves. If you’re intrigued by a nation that fell off the map of the developed world and want to know how ordinary citizens have endured extraordinary circumstances, then this book should not be missed. It’s definitely been the highlight of my reading year so far.

Australia, Author, Book review, Chloe Hooper, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, Vintage

‘The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island’ by Chloe Hooper


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 272 pages; 2010.

In late April this year I read Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary non-fiction book, The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island, and found it deeply disturbing in a way I could not quite put my finger on. Over the weeks to follow I tried to review it but kept hitting a wall; I could just not formulate my thoughts in any coherent way.

Since then, I’ve thought about it on and off, wondering why I was having so much trouble writing about the book. It was only when Simon, from Savidge Reads, asked me whether I’d read it yet (he’d seen the thumbnail picture in my “Reviews coming soon” menu bar) that I had to confess I couldn’t bring myself to review it because it made me feel horribly ashamed to be Australian. And that, my friends, is the stumbling block I hadn’t realised when I first struggled to review this book some three months ago.

In telling the real life story of the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody, Hooper reveals the dark underbelly — where black man is pitted against white man, and vice versa — of my homeland. It is not a pleasant read, nor even a satisfying one (particularly as the conclusion of the subsequent court case left much to be desired), but it’s certainly a thought-provoking book that sheds light on some painful paradoxes in modern day Australia.

If nothing else, The Tall Man reveals how Australia is not one nation united but a series of regions diametrically opposed to one another. I’m not necessarily referring to white versus black, but to the cultural gap between those that live in the North (the tropics and sub-tropics) and those that live in the South (mainly NSW and Victoria). (I have lived on both sides of the North/South divide, and can testify that the two opposing “cultures” do very much exist. Early in this book, Hooper meets a Northern cabbie who says he can detect a Southerner easily, because “they’re fuckwits”. Charming.)

Of course there are other divisions too, between the cities and the outback, between the West coast and the eastern seaboard, between Tasmania and the mainland. But the division which Hooper’s book really hones in on is the one between the haves and the have nots, and never is this more apparent than in Aboriginal communities which often become “impoverished ghettos of alcoholism, petrol sniffing, brutality, arrests and early deaths”.

Palm Island — don’t let the idyllic-sounding name fool you — is one of those places. Situated off the Far North Queensland coast, it was set up by the State Government in 1916 as a place to house Aboriginals. This was all thanks to the 1897 Aboriginal Protection Act, which made all Aboriginals in Queensland, whether full blood or “half-castes”, as wards of the state. The Palm Island Mission became the dumping ground for these people, somewhere they could be looked after and controlled. But, as Hooper points out, it’s isolation meant that it became “increasingly authoritarian — a kind of tropical gulag”.

When Aboriginals were granted equal rights in 1967, it remained a segregated community, and today it is not much different. Home to 2,500 people, Palm Island is one of the largest Aboriginal communities in Australia. The only white faces in the street belong to the teachers, nurses and police who work there. (When Hooper arrives for the first time she feels “incandescently white”.) But it’s a long way from anywhere: two hours by ferry from Townsville, on the mainland, or a 15-minute flight on a small, chartered plane.

For those who don’t know the case on which the book is based, let me provide a short thumbnail portrait. On Friday November 19, 2004, Cameron Doomadgee, a 36-year-old aboriginal man living on Palm Island is arrested for swearing at a white police officer. He is thrown into the back of a divisional van and transported to the police station. There’s a scuffle and a punch thrown when he is escorted from the van to his cell. Later, just 45-minutes after his arrest, Doomadgee is found dead, a black eye the only tell-tale sign of violence.

The police claim Doomadgee tripped on a step and that he must have died of an unseen head injury arising from that accident. But the autopsy revealed that he had four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and a liver almost cleaved in two, injuries consistent with a serious car accident. As Hooper states, “his internal injuries were so severe that even with instant medical attention he would not have survived”.

A second pathology report discovered further bruising on Doomadgee’s right eye and eyelid, his forehead, the back of his head, the upper part of his back, along the right side of his jaw and on his right and left hands, suggesting he had been kicked while lying down.

Of course, police deny any wrongdoing, and so an inquest is held. The man responsible for policing the island is the “tall man” of the title: Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, who has won much respect for being a firm and fair cop. But did Hurley snap that day and lose his temper?

Hooper sketches an interesting portrait of a man, just 36 years old and in charge of six white policeman and an Aboriginal liaison officer, who had risen fast up the ranks because he’d been happy to be stationed in remote areas, or as Hooper puts it:

He had become a creature of the Deep North, a specialist in places on the edges of so-called civilisation, Aboriginal communities and frontier towns in Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria, places were the streets, the days shimmered as if you were in a kind of fever — all of it, with its edge of menace, like some brilliant hallucination.

It seems completely at odds with Hurley’s character as a fine, upstanding and highly respected policeman for him to be blamed for Doomadgee’s death. The island had more than its fair share of problems (according to this wikipedia entry there is “an extreme level of theft, domestic violence, sexual assaults against children and abject drunkenness” brought about by “boredom, aimlessness, lack of education, absence of role models and a complete loss of self-worth”), but by all accounts Hurley had won the respect of the locals.

But following Doomadgee’s “unexplained” death, the police were obviously worried about the outfall in the local community — fifteen extra cops were brought in. When news broke about the first autopsy a riot ensued; the police station was burned to the ground. Hooper describes it in such a way you feel for the officers, trapped behind a barricade, fearing for their lives. One cop called Command, begging the Army to be flown in to rescue them.

The early chapters explain the circumstances of Doomadgee’s death and give us an insight into Hurley’s reputation; Hooper then turns to tracing the convoluted justice system — the investigation, the inquest, the submissions, the findings, the trial, the verdict — which Doomadgee’s family find themselves caught up in. The court room scenes are particularly tense and emotional. The games played by lawyers, by police, by those seeking to protect Hurley’s reputation at all costs do not go unnoticed by Hooper’s perceptive eye. This is court-room drama writ large. It’s deeply affecting without being sentimental.

If there is anything positive to come out of this terrible story it is Hooper’s own tale about her developing friendship with Doomadgee’s family. Effectively she is “adopted” by his sisters, accepted as one of their own. When you realise that Hooper, “like most middle-class suburbanites, grew up without ever seeing an Aborigine, except on the news”, this seems the perfect example of how it is possible for two races to get along with each other in the most extreme and distressing of circumstances.

The Tall Man is not your average “true crime” book. It’s a sociological, psychological, legal and political drama. In telling the story of the first police officer to be tried for an Aboriginal death in custody, Hooper also tells a peculiar Australian story of a nation divided. We may never know what really happened in that police station, but we know that the destructive forces of white settlement will continue to impact on its native inhabitants and that Palm Island will remain a paradox in the sun. My feelings about the book are summed up nicely by Hooper’s last line:

I had wanted to know more about my country and now I did – now I knew more than I wanted to.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Iraq, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel, Wendell Steavenson

‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Steavenson


Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

When it comes to non-fiction I seem to have made a career out of reading books that explore moral culpability*, and this book, which explores the life and times of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, is no exception.

The author, an American born British journalist, never met the subject of her book, Kamel Sachet, but she brings him to life by interviewing an extensive cast of colleagues, family and associates. What emerges is a man conflicted by loyalty to his country and loyalty to his own individual faith, and, in turn, his conscience.

Using the techniques of literary fiction, Steavenson weaves a narrative that jumps backwards and forwards in time as she traces Sachet’s rise to power — and his later fall from grace. But, of course, she cannot tell Sachet’s story without also telling the story of Iraq, and, in particular, its recent bloody history, from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Often in this telling there are so many different battles and violent incidents recounted that it’s hard to keep track of exactly which war Steavenson is making reference to, until it becomes clear that it doesn’t really matter: this is a country with a bloody history and never more so under Saddam Hussein’s rule. (In fact, Saddam’s soldiers were in a lose-lose situation: they could be killed in battle, but if they lost a battle they could be executed under military order. It was up to them to decide which was the easier way to die.)

The book also explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, and how the all-pervasive fear turns good upstanding citizens into quivering wrecks who make poor moral judgements.

I’d like to argue that The Weight of a Mustard Seed is a sympathetic portrait of a man who chose to carry out Saddam’s orders instead of quietly resisting them, but I’m not so sure that is the case. While Steavenson develops a close friendship with Sachet’s wife and children, she refrains from making any overt judgement about the man. Ultimately it is up to you, the reader, to determine exactly how you feel about him. All I know is that I came to the end of this book feeling such a deeply profound wave of sadness, even writing this tears me up.

This is a powerful, well-written and moving account of the legacy left by Saddam Hussein and the American invasion of Iraq. Anyone interested in the so-called War on Terror will find plenty here to intrigue, outrage and shame you.

* Some of my favourite non-fiction books include Gitta Sereny’s incredibly powerful biography of Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, and Sereny’s equally compelling book on Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, Into That Darkness. I can also recommend Sereny’s The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered (can you tell I love Gitta Sereny?), Blake Morrison’s As If (about the Bulger murder trial) and Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (about murderer Gary Gilmore’s wish to be executed for his crimes). And that’s just for starters…

Author, Book review, essays, George Orwell, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher

‘Books v. cigarettes’ by George Orwell


Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 144 pages; 2008.

Books v. cigarettes is a small collection of essays by George Orwell brought together as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas Series 3. The title of the book comes from an essay of the same name in which Orwell considers how much money he spends on his two vices, reading and smoking. This particular essay, first published in the Tribune on 8 February 1946, will resonate with book lovers the world over, because how many of us have foregone some other pleasure (or necessity) in favour of a good book?

To prove that reading is not an expensive hobby out of the reach of ordinary citizens, Orwell counts all the books he owns (this sounds remarkably like what I have done in recent weeks, tackling my TBR piles) and adds up their total price to work out how much money he has spent on reading over a 15-year period. He discovers he has some 900 books and that it has cost him a little more than £11 per year.

He also includes his newspaper and periodicals intake, which is quite impressive: £8 per year on “two daily papers, one evening paper, two Sunday papers, one weekly review and one or two monthly magazines”.  (I suspect if Orwell was around today he’d be a complete internet junkie, reading all the news sites, book blogs, Twitter feeds and so on.)

He also spends roughly £6 per year on library subscriptions and cheap paperbacks, chiefly Penguins, “which one buys and then loses or throws away”.

All up, he estimates reading costs him £25 per year, which, according to this calculator, is the equivalent of £648 in today’s money. By comparison, he spends £20 a year on cigarettes and beer.

In the grand scheme of things, he thinks this is quite reasonable, though he points out that it is difficult to establish “any relationship between the price of books and the value one gets out of them”.

His second essay, Bookshop Memories, recalls his time spent working in a second-hand bookshop. His observations are both slightly snobby (“I doubt whether 10 per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one”) and acutely funny:

Many of the people who came to us were of the kind who would be a nuisance anywhere but have special opportunities in a bookshop. For example, the dear old lady who ‘wants a book for an invalid’ (a very common demand, that), and the other dear old lady who read such a nice book in 1897 and wonders whether you can find her a copy. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the title or the author’s name or what the book was about, but she does remember that it had a red cover.

This quote made me laugh out loud because I spent six years working in bookshops and used to get vague requests like this all the time!

Books v. cigarettes also includes a wonderful essay about reviewing books and another on the state of literature, which will appeal to bibliophiles. The rest of this slim volume tackles other non-bookish subjects: patriotism, the relationship between doctors and patients, and Orwell’s childhood memoirs spent at an exclusive boarding school for which he obtained a scholarship.

All up, this is a perfect, effortless read, highly personable and quite bookish, if you like that sort of thing.

Author, Book review, Granta, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ by Janet Malcolm


Non-fiction – paperback; Granta Books; 163 pages; 2004.

Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer famously caused an outcry within the media when it was first published as a two-part article in The New Yorker in 1989. Its oft-quoted opening sentence — “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible” — seemed to lay down the gauntlet, calling the ethics of journalism into question.

But Janet Malcolm is a journalist herself and so the book must not be condemned on the basis of this first line, nor should it be viewed as summing up the author’s views. Indeed, it becomes clear upon reading The Journalist and the Murderer that Malcolm has mixed views about her profession, which I’m sure is true of most journalists today, myself included.

What this book really examines is the relationship between journalists and sources in the context of non-fiction books and the difficulties which face both parties. While the journalist must remain impartial in order to render the truth, he must do whatever he can to convince his subject to be frank and open with him. Meanwhile, the source must come to trust the journalist enough to share his or her most intimate secrets. Such unspoken rules are fraught with difficulty, because what happens if the journalist writes something that upsets the source but which he knows is correct and truthful? Most journalists would say that they are only doing their job – and that’s the view I take, too.

But what if the situation was slightly more complicated, and the journalist agreed to write a book about the source and was given unparalleled access to him and his closest family, friends and colleagues? The dynamic might change, a close friendship might result, but surely the journalist still has a job to do and is honour-bound to remain objective and to write events as he sees them? After all he’s not in the business of writing flattering, gratifying portraits (unless, of course, that’s the “truth”), because he’s not a publicist but a journalist.

Tricky, isn’t it? And even more so if the source doesn’t quite understand the rules of the game and mistakes the journalist’s so-called friendship for a genuine intimacy, when it’s essentially a means to an end: the journalist has wooed the source in order to extract information. Interestingly, Malcolm calls sources “victims” but she also points out that far too many “victims” are willing ones.

Something seems to happen to people when they meet a journalist, and what happens is exactly the opposite of what one would expect. One would think that extreme wariness and caution would be the order of the day, but in fact childish trust and impetuosity are far more common. The journalistic encounter seems to have the same negative effect on a subject as the psychoanalytic encounter. The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her. Of course the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.

Malcolm really gets to the heart of this very thorny issue by examining the famous lawsuit between a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, and a journalist, Joe McGinness, who wrote about the crime.

MacDonald, a United States Army doctor, was accused of murdering his pregnant wife and their two infant daughters in 1970. Before the case had come to trial, McGinness, a hugely successful non-fiction writer, had secured MacDonald’s co-operation in turning his story into a book on the condition that he would have complete editorial freedom. He also made arrangements to sit in on the trial, was given full access to McDonald’s legal team and even lived with defense counsel and the accused during proceedings.

The book was published under the title Fatal Vision in 1983 (admittedly I read it when I was in my late teens) and turned into a TV mini-series starring Karl Malden in 1984 (I think I probably watched that too, but I couldn’t be sure). MacDonald’s misguided belief that the book would exonerate him in the eyes of the public did not come to pass. Instead, Fatal Vision states that MacDonald’s guilty verdict is the correct outcome, describing him as a “womaniser” and “pathological narcissist”. It even goes so far as to purport a motive for the crime: MacDonald killed his family in a fit of psychotic rage caused by amphetamine use.

A writ claiming McGinness had breached his contract was duly served, and it is this case, later settled out of court following a mistrial, which Malcolm dissects using actual court transcripts and her own behind-the-scenes interviews in The Journalist and The Murderer. It is absolutely fascinating reading, if only to see the duplicit lengths that a journalist will go to to get his story. And it would seem that the “morally indefensible” act to which she refers in her opening sentence is not about journalism per se but to McGinness’s betrayal of his source: pretending that he believed MacDonald was innocent long after he became convinced of his guilt.

Austria, Author, Book review, Granta, John Leake, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’ by John Leake


Non-fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 347 pages; 2007.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and no more so than in the case of Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer hailed as Austria’s greatest example of criminal rehabilitation. While serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of 18-year-old Margaret Schäfer in 1976, Jack developed a flair for writing poetry, fiction and non-fiction. His work was so well received he became the darling of the literary elite who campaigned, successfully, for his early release in 1990.

But despite his apparent reform, everything was not quite as it seemed. When four prostitutes disappeared from Vienna’s red light district in the first year of Jack’s release he was one of the first to write about the crimes. He ingratiated himself with the local police chief and interviewed many of the city’s street workers for articles that were published in the press.

Capitalising on new found celebrity, Jack then went to California to research a magazine article about crime in LA. He accompanied  police on their patrols of the city’s red light districts. During the time of his visit three prostitutes were brutally murdered. Their deaths, in which they had been beaten, tied up and strangled, bore striking resemblances to the deaths of the Viennese prostitutes.

This book by American journalist John Leake traces Jack’s life and the painstaking lengths that police on two continents undertook to charge him with the murder of 11 women. It is an absolutely fascinating story about one man’s ability to hoodwink society into thinking he had put his criminal past behind him while living a secret life as a serial killer. What emerges is a portrait of a sociopath who was so careful and clever at carrying out these despicable crimes that it took police many years of hard work to catch him.

The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life is creepy and spine-chilling in places, with so many twists and turns in the narrative that it seems almost too unreal, too fantastical to be true, but Leake never resorts to sensationalism or cheap literary tricks. The tone of this thoroughly researched book (Leake had privileged access to Jack’s diaries and interviewed all the major players) is restrained but never dull. It’s a well plotted, cleverly crafted investigative piece of non-fiction that had me enthralled from the first page to the satisfying — and wholly unexpected — conclusion on the last.

Author, Book review, Ebury Press, London, memoir, Non-fiction, Piers Morgan, Publisher, Setting

‘The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade’ by Piers Morgan


Non fiction – paperback; Ebury Press; 484 pages; 2005.

I confess that I have never been much of a Piers Morgan fan, after all he’s a (former) tabloid editor and I don’t have that much respect for tabloid newspapers. But now that I’ve read Morgan’s memoirs, which chart his meteoric rise from showbiz reporter to editor of a national newspaper, the Rupert Murdoch-owned News of the World, at the tender age of 28, I have a new-found respect for the man.

Despite the obvious arrogance and his tendency towards egomania, he is a formidable and hugely talented editor who has similar editorial values as my own, something I would never have realised without reading this book. (I also admire his fierce anti-war stance.) I came away from The Insider full of admiration (his ingenious ideas for front covers, particularly on The Mirror, astound me with their brilliance) and appreciation.

Written in diary form, this difficult-to-put-down book, covers all the major events of the past decade, including Tony Blair becoming Prime Minister, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers and the outbreak of war in Iraq. Similarly, it is filled with massive personalities from George Michael to Victoria Beckham, Paula Yates to Paul McCartney — and (rather indiscreetly) reveals tidbits of their lives you would never read about anywhere else.

More importantly, this book gives an intriguing glimpse into how the Fourth Estate operates, and often co-operates, with Government, Royalty and Celebrity. The power games and tawdry struggles will have you gasping with shock one minute, killing yourself laughing the next.

And it also demonstrates how newspaper staff often pull out all the stops to deliver the big news stories of the day while us mere mortals lead a dull nine-to-five existence. Mind you, Morgan pulls no punches in describing not only the adrenalin rush of his job, but the fierce (and sometimes violent) rivalry between other editors and newspapers in the fight to stay on top in such a cutthroat business.

While The Insider has a particularly British slant, it’s a brilliant, fast-paced and entertaining read no matter where you come from. Shocking, scandalous and utterly compulsive, I loved this book. If you are interested in pop culture and/or the media you would be well advised to get your hands on a copy as soon as you possibly can — you won’t be disappointed.