Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘How To Do Nothing’ to ‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeA pinch and a punch for the first of the month!

Yes, it’s August 1, which means if you are a horse, it’s time to celebrate your birthday! And if you are a book blogger, it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation, a book meme that runs the first Saturday of every month that is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

Here’s my contribution. For a bit of a change, I’ve decided to focus on narrative non-fiction titles only. As ever, click the pink hyperlinks to read my review of that book in full.

The starting point is:

‘How To Do Nothing’ by Jenny Odell (2020)

I’ve not heard of this non-fiction book before, but it sounds interesting. As much as I like to be productive, I have long argued that it’s important to do absolutely nothing as well… it helps recharge the batteries. But given I haven’t read the book, it’s a bit difficult to know what to link it to next, so I’ve simply gone by the title. Another non-fiction book with “nothing” in the title is…

‘Nothing to Envy’ by Barbara Demick (2010)

This is an award-winning non-fiction book about life in North Korea. Demick, an American journalist, tells the stories of six individual people living in Chongjin, the nation’s third-largest city, and does so in a totally compelling and gripping way. I’ve read many books about life in the world’s most secretive state but this is by far the best because it presents such a marvellous and eye-opening overview, not just of the people, but of its history and oppressive political system.

Another book about North Korea, written by a rare defector, is…

‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John) (2016)

This is an inspiring and harrowing true-life story about escaping North Korea’s brutal regime. Hyeonseo Lee came from a relatively comfortable family, but when her father died, she made a fateful — and terribly naive — decision: to cross the border and visit relatives in China for a few days, thinking she could return without any consequences. She was just 17. Sadly, she was never able to go back.

This is a gripping story about resilience and reinventing yourself. Another book about someone who had to do that to survive is…

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver) (2014)

Dr Munjed Al Muderis is an orthopaedic surgeon based in Australia. He has pioneered techniques for treating soldiers who have lost limbs. But he was once a refugee. This book recounts his perilous journey from Sadaam Hussain’s Iraq, which he fled to escape certain death, to Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of Indonesia, where he claimed asylum. He was later detained at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia for processing, but instead he was given a number and treated like a criminal, effectively kept behind bars for 10 months…

It’s a damning portrait of Australia’s immigration detention system. Another book that is a damning portrait is…

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani (2018)

Winner of Australia’s richest literary prize, this is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who was detained on Manus Island for more than four years. His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment.

Another book about refugees, but in this case from the perspective of trying to help them, is…

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby (2016)

This tells the true story of an optician, his wife and six of their friends who rescued 47 migrants off the coast of Sicily late in the summer of 2013. The migrants had been fleeing Africa and were on a seriously overcrowded boat that capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. At least 300 people drowned.

While the book sometimes labours under its own weight, it does put a very human face on those caught up in rescue efforts and shows the psychological impacts on them. It’s a story that shows two sides of the one coin: the worst of humanity, and the best of it, too.

Another non-fiction book that shows the best and worst of humanity is…

‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’ by John Leake (2007)

This book recounts the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Jack Unterweger, a convicted murderer, who was hailed as Austria’s greatest example of criminal rehabilitation. While serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of a teenage girl, 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 Jack hoodwinked everyone into thinking he had put his criminal past behind him while living a secret life as a serial killer…

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a book about doing nothing, to a story about a writer who did something terrible, linked via life in North Korea, the story of a defector, escape from Iraq, detainment on Manus Island, and saving refugees in Italy.

Have you read any of these books? Care to share your own #6Degrees?

21 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘How To Do Nothing’ to ‘The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life’

  1. As usual I’d forgotten all about it till the posts started landing in my inbox. I shouldn’t have read them, *pout* all my ideas so far have been used…

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    • Oh no! That happened to me last month. This month I remembered, probably because I just had a birthday and was reminded the 1st August was approaching…

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        • Thanks. Yes. Everything’s been open here for weeks. It feels very surreal to be experiencing relative normality here, going to work, being able to go out for a beer or a meal afterwards, all shops open etc and then see what’s happening in Melbourne and keeping in touch with my sister who has to wear a mask whenever she leaves the house etc.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t read a lot of non fiction so my chain will have a different feel to yours! That’s the beauty of this meme though isn’t it! There’s all sorts of different possibilities.

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    • I don’t often put non fiction in my chains, so thought it would be an interesting to try to do a whole chain comprised of NF titles. It was easier than I thought. I mainly read NF that is issues or crime based.

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    • The horse reference is from my days in equestrian journalism: August 1 marks the standardised birthday for every horse in the Southern Hemisphere (it’s January 1 in the Northern Hemisphere). The date is used to put horses in their age grades for races.

      And yes, the Demick is shocking but it’s such a compelling fast-paced read. And it is so memorable.

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    • Thanks Cathy. The Vienna Woods Killer is a must read if you like narrative non-fiction and true crime. I read it years and years ago, but the story has stayed with me. It’s such a great example of a narcissistic serial killer fooling an entire country, and it’s literary elite, into thinking he’d been totally reformed on the basis he could write well and was helpful to police!

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  3. How interesting! I have two books from Korea, albeit South Korea, in my own chain – so Hyenseo Lee’s book was an interesting counterpoint when I read it about a year ago, albeit a harrowing one. I’ll enjoy following up your other choices.

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    • Thanks for your comment Margaret. I seem to have read quite a few fiction books from South Korea recently… one day I might get to visit. I feel the need to explore more of Asia (I’ve been to China and Cambodia), but who knows when international travel will be allowed again.

      Liked by 1 person

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