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

This is an extremely well-researched and thoughtfully presented account of the lives of a group of North Korean defectors that worked with journalist Barbara Demick to tell their stories of survival and escape. Demick has been interviewing North Koreans since 2001, when was stationed in Seoul by the Los Angeles Times; she is now the bureau chief for the paper in Beijing.

These first-hand accounts sometimes read like fiction — you can’t believe the horrors are real. The intertwining stories provide a devastating picture of the harsh realities of life in North Korean “during the chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.”

The six different North Koreans the book follows are from different strata in society, but they all grapple with the struggles of living in an Orwellian society that provides no freedoms, food, or modern amenities. Eventually they all make the dangerous and difficult decision to leave. It is a great vehicle for learning about the history of a country whose future in increasingly important to global political stability.

The author writes with an impressive command of the history and politics of the country and the region. Demick’s reporting on North Korea won the Overseas Press Club award for human rights reporting, the Asia Society’s Osborne Eliott award and the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Award.

I don’t gravitate naturally toward non-fiction, but I really enjoyed Demick’s approach to presenting history. On my list of titles I hope to tackle in the near future is her book on daily life in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War,
Logavina Street: Life and Death in Sarajevo Neighborhood (Demick wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer during that time; this book was also highly acclaimed, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer.

Review by Roberta Jordan, Outreach and Instruction Librarian.

Click here to reserve a copy.


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  • February 13, 2020
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