It’s time again for Past, Present and Future, the semi-fortnightly post in which I invite a very special guest over for a chat about books and a bit of time travel.
Just in case you’re new around these parts, here’s how Past, Present and Future works. Every couple of weeks, I ask someone bookish to share with me a little bit about the book they’ve just read and the book they’re reading right now, as well as the book they’re planning to read next. Or, in other words, their past, present and future books.
This edition of Past, Present and Future just happens to be a bit of a Halloween special! Joining me is one of Australia’s biggest names in young adult literature, Rebecca James. Her third novel, Cooper Bartholomew is Dead was released earlier this month.
Somewhat fittingly for Halloween, each of Rebecca’s choices explores the darker side of human nature…
I’ve just finished reading This House of Grief, Helen Garner’s latest non-fiction book. It’s about the trial of Robert Farquharson who drove his three children into a dam on Father’s Day. It’s a bleak book, the subject matter so terrible it’s almost impossible to believe and even harder to understand.
I very much like Helen Garner’s journalistic style. I admire the way she puts herself into the story, showing her own biases, her own sometimes ungenerous thoughts and judgements. It has the effect, I think, of placing the reader right there in the story too, making you question your own prejudices and assumptions. It can be quite confronting. Ultimately, though, I found it an unsatisfying book. Robert Farquharson came across as completely opaque and unknowable and that left me frustrated.
I wanted some answers. I wanted clearer lines between right and wrong and what was true and what was false. I wanted things to be tied up neatly, I wanted to know what really happened and why.
And yet, it’s no doubt unreasonable to expect or want ‘satisfaction’ from such a story. This is real life, not fiction. There are no easy answers or definite conclusions. And I guess that’s the whole point, isn’t it? We can never really know or understand why people do such horrendous things.
I’m currently reading Fatal Vision by Joe McGinniss, about the case of Jeffrey MacDonald who was convicted of murdering his wife and daughters. It’s another true crime book which is an unusual choice for me because, apart from Helen Garner’s books, I very rarely read it.
(I’ve tried several true crime stories in the past and have always given up. It’s altogether too disturbing and it gives me nightmares. Funnily enough, I have no such problem with crime fiction.)
This book stirred up quite a controversy because the author, Joe McGinniss, was initially hired by Jeffrey MacDonald (the accused) to write a book which told his side of the story and argued for his innocence. MacDonald’s plan backfired because in getting to know MacDonald and attending his trial the author became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt. The book is, apparently, ultimately quite condemning.
Fatal Vision is, in a way, linked to the Garner book because I decided to read it after watching a recent interview with Helen Garner on Jennifer Byrne’s book show. During the interview Garner talked about her influences and mentioned a book called The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm. The Journalist and the Murderer is a rumination on the inherent immorality of journalism, and examines, in detail, the dodgy ethics involved with the McGinniss/MacDonald case.
Once I’d decided to read The Journalist and the Murderer I decided I should read Fatal Vision first. I wanted the complete picture, the full story.
I’m fascinated by Malcolm’s premise that every piece of journalism involves an act of betrayal, and if the first line is anything to go by — ‘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’ — it’s going to be an engaging read. I have it all ready to go on my e-reader, I just have to get through the heavy-going, almost 1000 pages of Fatal Vision first.
My reading choices aren’t normally so orderly or structured. I usually skip randomly from one book to the next, picking up whatever takes my fancy. I might read a classic one day, a thriller the next, a chick-lit book the next. It seems strangely serendipitous to be asked to write this piece when my choices are so linked up and planned out. It makes me seem far less chaotic than I actually am!
Rebecca James is the author of Beautiful Malice, Sweet Damage and Cooper Bartholomew is Dead. You should take a look at her blog, lollygag, where she writes about the publishing process, writing and more.
Thank you so much for sharing your reading with me, Rebecca!