Thursday, December 15, 2011

Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Title: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Author: Barbara Demick
Softcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (December 29, 2009)
ISBN-10: 0385523904
ISBN-13: 978-0385523905

Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times' triumphantly successful Nothing to Envy uncovers a romantically human side of North Korea and her disenchanted citizens. Surrounding six multifarious North Koreans' dramatic, decades-long oral histories are brilliantly told starting from humble, loyal beginnings to eventual controversial defection. This memorable documentation of ordinary citizens and their amazing survival through unspeakable danger and life-altering trauma is requesting only a receptive audience.

The reader gains a truly well-rounded viewpoint of the times from six different perspectives. From the propped-up and powdered Pyongyang façade to the gritty and industrial Chongjin rail yards, this overarching story starts in the homes of many ordinary citizens who survived countless obstacles growing up in the notoriously restrictive The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). Some fortunate few were hand-picked to attend prestigious universities while others had practical duties to provide for their families any way possible. Others still, like homeless children infamously known as "kotjebi" (꽃제비), wondered the streets in packs and stole to survive.

Among the personal anecdotes include a dumbfounded medical physician's practical denial of Kim Il-sung's 1994 death. Also, seemingly regardless of social class and family backgrounds, all eventually felt the squeezing grip of famine sweeping across the country in the late 1990s known as the Arduous March. It was through this increasingly inescapable reality that survival became paramount included any and all options; no matter how illegal or dangerous. Each story's journey is more astonishing than the last. Most satisfying is when the reader finds out what they have been up to since the original manuscript was constructed.

Demick's writing style evokes a pleasantly familiar tone. While reading, I drew respectable comparisons to John Hersey's groundbreaking classic Hiroshima. Lo and behold, Demick was a student of Hersey's which makes Nothing to Envy a successful nod of appreciation to his tutelage. Like Hiroshima, you'll find a similar chronological pacing of alternating narrators as well as develop a personal attachment to the people who tell their remarkable journey in amazing lucidity.

I can recommend this book without reservation as it will obviously appeal to human rights minders, North Korean experts looking for oral history reports, and a handful of academics interested in totalitarian dictatorships, wide-spread economic systems failure, and human trafficking. I also want to earnestly suggest this book for the intimate character-driven narratives that appeal to any and all. You feel for this people. You realize that they are no different than any other ordinary people born into extraordinary circumstances. Some were disillusioned with their government from the get-go while others were staunch supporters of their ideology. For better or for worse, their sincere stories are unabashedly told here.

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For those that can stomach their sadness, you are rewarded with their joys. I was reminded of 2008's 크로싱 (Crossing). For those who have seen it, you have any idea of what to expect.

I applaud Ms. Demick for her well-deserving work.


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