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Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

by Kim on February 9, 2011 · 28 comments

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Title: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Author: Barbara Demick
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2009
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★★★

One Sentence Summary: Demick uses extensive interviews with North Korean defectors to write about what life is like in the most closed-off country in the world.

One Sentence Review: Nothing to Envy is a book that’s hard to read and hard to put down because of how well Demick is able to construct what life is like in North Korea.

Why I Read It: Nothing to Envy got on my radar because it was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in nonfiction, but I chose to read it because Demick is a journalist and I’m fascinated by nonfiction stories that are almost impossible to tell.

Long Review: For a country that is in the news every other day, it’s startling how little anyone actually knows about North Korea. I’ve always felt like a relatively educated person, one who keeps up on world events enough to have a passing knowledge of what’s going on. But I have to say, almost everything in Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy was new to me, and I’m left feeling shocked at how well the North Korean government has pulled the wool over the eyes of the world.

Demick wrote this book while she was working as a journalist covering the Koreas. As a reporter, Demick had relatively unlimited access to South Korea, but was rarely allowed in North Korea, and certainly not without an escort. As her frustration with not being able to report on half of a country continued, Demick came in contact with members of a small but growing community — residents of North Korea who had escaped and defected to South Korea. Through the stories of six of these escapees, plus her own limited exposure to North Korea, Demick tries to show what life is like for ordinary people living in an unordinary country.

The first part of the book gives a brief history of North and South Korea, a history I was woefully ignorant of. I was surprised to learn that, in reality, there isn’t anything genetically different about people from North or South Korea — the divide between the countries is an artificial construct put in place after WWII (I knew that part). Whether a citizen ended up in the North or South after the big divide was a matter of luck, and since then the two countries have moved further and further apart.

In the year’s since, the Communist policies of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, the current leader, have driven the country into poverty. A famine brought on by these policies killed one-fifth of the entire population. Although capitalism is outlawed, a black market has emerged to let people survive. North Koreans are taught to obey their leaders at all costs, yet terrible government policies led to a system in which only people who disobey can survive.

Can you tell the book made me angry?

What makes these facts stick in my memory is how well Demick tells the stories of the defectors she interviewed. She follows them from faithful North Korean citizens through the events that forced them to escape. And she covers a wide range of people — two young lovers who separately defect without being able to tell each other, a North Korean housewife and her rebellious daughter, an orphan who begged on the streets, and a female doctor. Through their stories, the regime’s decisions take on an emotional weight a book on just policy wouldn’t have.

When I think about the North Korea that Demick describes, it reminds me a bit of a car crash — you don’t want to see it, but once you get a glimpse it’s hard to turn away. The book is fascinating, sad, and frustrating all at the time, which is the best sort of narrative nonfiction.

Other Reviews: Lotus Reads | Vulpes Libris | A Striped Armchair |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Trisha February 9, 2011 at 7:08 am

It’s so hard to read books like this for me. I get so very frustrated by what I consider the illogical way certain countries are run. Most get upset by the emotional suffering – and I do too – but what frustrates me is the lack of reason for the systematic abuse of populations. This sounds really intriguing, but I wonder if it’s just too frustrating for me.

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Kim February 9, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Trisha: The way North Korea is governed is totally illogical. I suppose there is a sort of logic to it — Kim Il-sung is the Supreme Leader and should be obeyed at all costs, but that logic makes no sense in the real world, nor is it flexible enough to deal with the serious problems the country is facing. reading about that was frustrating for me, but I think also really important.

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Coffee and a Book Chick February 9, 2011 at 7:34 am

Yes, this is definitely a book that would also make me incredibly angry. Ad you’re right – not many people know about North Korea and the horrors that the country has to suffer through under the oppressive leadership. It’s absolutely horrifying.

Great review – I don’t know if I can pick this one up? I might need to flip through the pages to see if I can handle it.

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Kim February 9, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Coffee and a Book Chick — There are definitely a lot of sad and maddening parts to this book, as I suppose there are all all books about government regimes that neglect their citizens. In some ways, it doesn’t surprise me how little is known about North Korea, since they’re so secretive, but in other ways I think it’s deliberate ignorance (at least on my part, not seeking out more information in the past).

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Christina February 9, 2011 at 8:30 am

I added this book to my TBR list after reading Eva’s review. I’m sure it will make incredibly angry, but I feel like it’s also important to read.

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Kim February 9, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Christina — I think it’s important too. Given how little is known about everyday life in North Korea, anything about it is good to learn from.

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Steph February 9, 2011 at 9:19 am

I have been wanting to read this book for AGES and have requested it at my local library… but I am beginning to suspect they may just never get the book. :( I could totally see Tony really enjoying it too because he has a particular fascination with North Korea.

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Kim February 9, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Steph: That’s a bummer, I wonder why they wouldn’t get it? It’s been well-awarded and recognized in the mainstream book press. I think it’s out in paperback already, too.

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nomadreader (Carrie) February 9, 2011 at 10:02 am

This one sounds absolutely fascinating. I prefer fiction to non-fiction, and as much as I would love to read a contemporary novel set in North Korea, I haven’t run into any. I’m adding it to my list!

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Kim February 9, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Carrie — This reads a lot like a novel in many sections because Demick is profiling the different people she interviews. There are some more dry informational sections, but a lot of it is just good narrative journalism.

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Christy (A Good Stopping Point) February 12, 2011 at 10:26 pm

I know of a mystery/thriller set in North Korea: A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church. Church is a pseudonym for a Western intelligence officer who has spent a lot of time in Korea. To be honest, I was hoping it would be a bit more illuminating on North Korea than I felt it was, but it was still interesting.

I know Nothing to Envy is a book I want to get my hands on in the near future.

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Kim February 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Christy: Thanks for the recommendation. It’s interesting an intelligence officer would write a thriller set where he worked, I think.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) February 9, 2011 at 12:46 pm

I can see why the book made you angry! Just thinking about what’s going on in North Korea scares me. This sounds like a must read.

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Kim February 9, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Kathy: It scares me too. The leadership has such a lock down on citizens that they can’t seem to do anything, but the regime is also unwilling to work with other countries. I’m really curious to read a book about foreign relations with North Korea after reading this.

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Ash February 9, 2011 at 6:03 pm

You convinced me to read this book in the first paragraph. I’ve wanted to learn more about Korea ever since I went to Europe and everyone else seemed to know everything about their history and stood by wondering what the hell I was missing. Thanks!

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Kim February 9, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Ash: That’s really interesting. I wonder if we don’t know much about it because of the way the education system here works — we have the Korean War, and since North Korea was the enemy there, we don’t learn about it much in school.

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Esme February 10, 2011 at 12:05 am

This sounds like an interesting book-I must admit that I am not that informed on Korea at all.

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Kim Ukura February 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Esme: I thought I knew about North Korea, but I really don’t know much of anything at all. I found the book very interesting, I hope you get a chance to read it!

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Kailana February 10, 2011 at 1:09 pm

This sounds interesting. It is a subject I know very little about, so I should look into it at some point.

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Kim February 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Kailana: I hope you are able to read the book. I liked the way Demick was able to write a lot about the history of North Korea and the current politics while still having a strong narrative.

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Maphead February 11, 2011 at 9:04 pm

This book has been near the top of my TBR for about a year. Thanks to your review I want to read it even more. Thanks !

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Kim February 13, 2011 at 12:57 pm

Maphead: I hope you are able to move it up soon. I really enjoyed this book, and definitely want to get a copy of my own for my collection.

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