6 Degrees of Separation

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?

5 books, Book lists

5 non-fiction titles for dads (and anyone else for that matter)

5-books-200pixNext Sunday (June 19) it will be Father’s Day in the UK, the perfect opportunity to buy your dad a great book. But what to get him?

Sadly, many retailers don’t have a clue. Their “books for dad” selections are often dull and uninspired, as this tweet by Sam Missingham demonstrates. I replied by saying, “Men reading about men #yawn #predictable”. Anyone would think men never read books by women!

I figured I could do a lot better than the supermarkets and WH Smith when it comes to suggesting what might make a suitable present. So here are just five suggestions. Note they’re all narrative non-fiction and written by women. In my opinion, they are truly great reads — some of them have even won prizes.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — click the title to see my full review:

If he’s interested in geopolitics:  

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick (2010)
Barbara Demick, an American journalist, tells the stories of six ordinary citizens who defected from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is a gripping account of what it is like to reside in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

If he’s interested in crime and the justice system:

This-House-of-Grief

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner (2016)
Australian journalist Helen Garner follows the trial of Robert Farquharson, who was charged with three counts of murder after his car ran off the road and plunged into a dam: all three passengers —  aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned. They were his sons.

If he’s interested in sport:

Night Games UK edition

‘Night Games: A Journey to the Dark Side of Sport’ by Anna Krien (2014)
This book examines the culture of male sport and the shocking attitudes many professional sportsmen hold towards women. While its focus is Australia (much of it follows the rape trial of a young Australian Rules footballer) it’s just as relevant here in the UK and any Western country where sportsmen are hailed as heroes and where sexism and misogyny are rife. (Note I haven’t forgotten the hyperlink; I read it last year but found it too profound to review.)

If he’s interested in the media and journalism:

The Journalist and the Murderer

‘The Journalist and the Murderer’ by Janet Malcolm (1990)
A classic of the narrative non-fiction genre, this book focuses on journalistic ethics. It examines a 1980s lawsuit between a convicted murderer, Jeffrey MacDonald, and a journalist, Joe McGinness, who wrote about the crime. It explores the relationship between journalists and sources and the difficulties which face both parties, and is just as scathing of the legal profession as it is of the media.

If he’s interested in War and the Middle East:

The Weight of a Mustard Seed

‘The Weight of a Mustard Seed’ by Wendell Stevenson (2010)
Written by an American-born British journalist, this book charts the rise and fall of one of Saddam Hussein’s generals, focussing in particular on the notion of moral culpability. It explores what it is like to live under tyrannical rule, albeit from the point of view of Saddam’s inner circle, as well as telling the story of Iraq’s recent bloody history.

Have you read any of these books? Are there any non-fiction titles, written by women, that you think would appeal to men?

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

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

Nothing-to-envy

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.