Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#37 [2014/CBR5] "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick

Like most people, I find history and politics more palatable when they focus on specific people rather than the sweeping ideas and dates of textbooks. Obviously, you need a balance, but if you look only at the big picture, you miss the innumerable tragedies and triumphs that are more relatable. This is one of the strengths of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010) by Barbara Demick.

Demick gives us a look into North Korea during the famine of the 1990's through the lives of six North Korean citizens living in the isolated northern region--far from the tourist-approved Pyongyang. There is a rebellious daughter; a homeless boy; an ambitious student, a young school teacher, a patriotic doctor, and a loyal mother. As communism falls around the world, North Korea loses its much needed subsidies and support, and the economy falls apart. By 1998, an estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans had died as a result of the famine, as much as 10% of the population.

My very extensive knowledge of North Korea includes some documentary that I saw sometime in the past ten years that I can't remember, and that's about it. I know North Koreans are fed a lot of propaganda and Kim Jong-un is unreasonable. When I hear about Pyongyang, I think of the Where the Hell is Matt 2012? video. So, in many ways, this was a very eye-opening book, especially considering how recent these events took place. I was graduating from high school when some of these people were fighting for their lives or being thrown into prison. The paranoia, especially, made me appreciate the Freedom of Speech that we enjoy here in the U.S. One thoughtless comment and you could find yourself in a labor camp.

The stranglehold that the state holds over the people is also noteworthy. People were forced to work for no pay and there was no food to hand out anymore. Yet, they are still technically not allowed to work for themselves. It's intriguing that North Korea was the only communist regime to stay wholly intact, despite its frightful circumstances and increased globalization. On the whole, this was a fascinating book that taught me a lot about North Korea and what some of their lives were like.

Because we have such detailed information about the lives of these six people, we know going into the book that these people survived and managed to get out of North Korea. Some of my favorite parts of this book was when they made it out of North Korea and realized how different reality is than what they were told. Their challenges in adapting to South Korea were also fascinating.

Despite the fact that I really liked this book, I did find myself consistently wishing for a little more context. For whatever reason, I often felt disconnected from what was happening--like the people I was reading about weren't fully fleshed out. I think more pictures would have helped, although I'm sure my reading this on my Kindle, and squinting at those stunted pictures didn't help. However, I didn't see any pictures of the main characters until near the end of the book. In addition, the pictures of North Korea were few and far between with little explanation. I was also wanting something more of a psychological explanation for how growing up in the isolated North Korea with constant propaganda would keep a country from rising up, despite their circumstances. This may be an unfair criticism considering how little information there is on North Korea, but I got the sense that Demick had access to a lot more information than was in the book. When comparing this book to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I felt like I understood and knew the people in Demick's book less well.

Finally, I have a couple nitpicky criticisms. There were a couple of sentences that I thought were sloppy and distracting. I guess I have higher standards for non-fiction because I want to learn, and I want to be able to trust that what the author is telling me is true. First, on page 81: "Kim Il-sung also discouraged early marriages, giving a 'special instruction' in 1971 that men should marry at twenty and women should marry at twenty-eight." Considering that North Korea was a conservative, patriarchal society I found it odd that women would be ordered to marry later than men--especially when there was no explanation from the author. So, I'm left to wonder if it's a typo or if it's true. Also, this sentence on p. 100 doesn't make sense, "Those who were too overwrought to stand upright would support the others by their elbows." These issues did make me wonder how carefully the rest of the book was put together.

1 comment:

denesteak said...

I've heard amazing things about this book and I am eager to check it out, even though I'm really not a book non-fiction reader. But I do tend to appreciate books written by journalists rather than by historians or researchers, since reporters tend to make the subject matter a bit for relateable. Thanks for reviewing!