Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Musings: Nothing to Envy - Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy - Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Gosh, I love my followers.  Without you guys, I'd never have heard about Barbara Demick's excellent book Nothing to Envy:  Ordinary Lives in North Korea, and my life would have been the lesser for it.

Earlier this year, I read Guy DeLisle's Pyongyang and didn't really enjoy it because DeLisle came off as an angry and frustrated tour guide to take us through the country.  Almost everyone in the comments of that post mentioned Demick's book, and so when I saw it on my visit to Powell's Books in Portland, OR, I didn't think twice about getting it.

And while I still think that DeLisle was harsh in his assessment of the North Korean people, I can understand now where his frustration and anger stem from, especially when you learn about the number of North Koreans that have died of starvation over the past decade or two.

Barbara Demick worked in Seoul for the LA Times as a reporter and while she was there, she interviewed many North Korean defectors.  What she learned was truly chilling and sad.

In some ways, you almost want to laugh at the things you hear about North Korea and their almost cultish way of life.  The belief that the Grand Marshall Kim Il-sung was born under an auspicious double rainbow near a sacred mountain when almost everyone knows that he was born somewhere completely different.  That when he died, a thousand birds descended to take his body straight to heaven.  That he led fantastically successful military maneuvers against enemies and won every battle against overwhelming odds.  That he is an agricultural/astrophysics/military/operations/government genius.  It's ludicrous on so many levels, and perhaps it would be funny if the North Koreans had a way to prove him wrong, to understand that there are other sides to the story, other opinions.  But they don't.  And so anyone who doesn't quite fit in, who doesn't believe heart and soul in the Communist regime, feels completely isolated and terrified of being turned in.  And they so often are.  North Korea has work camps and spies and police and military enough to make anyone think twice about rising up against those in power.

Demick presents all of these facts in her book, but unlike DeLisle, she has obvious sympathy for the people whose stories she shares.  And the people are wonderful, too.  We meet people who were born defiant and never fit into the North Korean way of life.  We meet people who fully bought into Kim Il-sung's doctrines until their own lives fell completely apart.  And their stories are so moving and so personal that it's impossible not to become deeply absorbed in this book.  Demick shows us a population of highly inventive, determined people who want to live their best life.  They are downtrodden, hungry, and disillusioned, but they also bounce back from so many setbacks.  Reading their stories here really humanizes North Koreans and makes it clear that, just like the rest of the world, they have individual hopes and dreams that they want to accomplish, too.  A beautiful book with a lot of heart.

27 comments:

  1. I just picked this up at the library after reading Adam Johnson's book The Orphan Master'sSon. I would definitely recommend that book if you are interested in the absurdities and tragedies of North Korean life.

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    1. Oh, thank you! I've heard about it vaguely but don't know much about it. I'll look into it for sure.

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  2. I think they are in the position of having to appear that they believe these things in order to survive, which is sad. I also want to read more about North Korea, and after I get through listening to The Orphan Master's Son, I am going to see if my library has this one. It's incredible to me that in this day and age, this type of existence is still going on. Very nice review today, Aarti. You shoot straight from the hip, and I am glad to see it.

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    1. I clearly need to read The Orphan Master's Son!

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  3. I do think it would be interesting, but I would get annoyed too. I get that they are brainwashed but still

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    1. I think when you read this book, you won't feel so annoyed, but just sad. It is so sad how stubborn the leadership is, to the point where millions of people starve to death.

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  4. I own a copy of this book, like you other bloggers have recommended it to me. I'm glad it was what you hoped it would be and I'm looking forward to reading it myself.

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    1. Looking forward to seeing your thoughts on it!

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  5. A friend gave me this book to read and it wasn't my kind of thing but I took it along one night when I had a lot of waiting to do ... and couldn't put it down. Yes, such a beautiful book. Such tender and lovely stories. And no, it's not just about them being brainwashed. Its about their deeply entrenched culture and about war and about famine. Its about surviving a situation which is woven through with powerful and complex strands of choice and necessity. I would hope anyone who had an opinion on North Korea could get an insight into their lives as this book provides.

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    1. Your comment was better than my review! Thanks for that :-)

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  6. Were you in the travel section at Powell's? That's one of my favorite places ever. :-D

    I've never thought of reading anything about Korea, but you all have made it sound so good. Hey, maybe I need to visit Powell's, too!

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    1. Haha, I don't know that this is much of a travelogue ;-) It was in the world history section, I think? I don't know. I used an app to find it.

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  7. Non-fiction is not normally my thing, but after hearing so many positive reviews of this one, it is definitely on my list of books to read. I remember you review of Pyongyang, so I am glad to you felt this book had better balance. I think there are a lot of ways to highlight issues and atrocities in a country without coming off as a whiny crybaby!

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    1. Yes, it was so much better than Pyongyang! Though I liked DeLisle's Burma Chronicles.

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  8. Sounds like this is THE book to read about North Korea. But every time I learn more details about that country, it makes me sadder and more upset. Nice to hear she has compassion for the people are have to live that way of life.

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    1. Yes, she presents the stories wonderfully.

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  9. I know almost nothing about North Korea and this sounds like a good place to start.

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    1. Absolutely! She gives a lot of introductory information, too.

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  10. I thought this was a fantastic book. The stories were interesting, the information astounding, and I feel like I learned SO much about North Korea. I've followed it up with Escape from Camp 14, a non-fiction book about a young man who is one of the only people to escape a North Korean work camp

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    1. Oh, wow - should look into that one, too!

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  11. I loved this book! I'm glad you enjoyed it. Whenever I read about North Korea I think about who I would be if I grew up there... would I be one of the naive ones who believed everything they said (very possibly) or would I feel oppressed and want more (maybe).

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    1. I think I'd be easily brain-washed, too, at least when young. Not sure I'd believe so strongly while I was starving and freezing, though.

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  12. I am glad you liked this. I have been thinking about reading it, but haven't got around to it yet. I also have heard good things about The Baker's Daughter. (Marg reviewed it today. You might want to read her review. The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader.)

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  13. Korea couldn't be further from the locale of my writing, but when you describe the situation there, it reminds me of the "double life" that many citizens had to live in Communist Czechoslovakia. My hero, Vaclav Havel, started a revolution by quietly suggesting that people simply stop telling lies and pretending in their daily lives.

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  14. Oh I'm so happy you enjoyed this book. It's been on my queue for a bit, but I haven't had enough motivation to bump it up. With your enthusiasm for it, I'll have to now make it my next nonfiction pick.

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  15. I've often wondered what it would be like to live in North Korea. The extreme social control (how terrible that you can't trust anyone!) must be terrible, when hardly anything contrary to the Communist reign "leaks out" of the country. The last wonderful book I read that touched this subject was The Ginseng Hunter, but that was more of an atmospheric impression.
    I'll have to add this one to my to-read list!

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  16. I bought this for my dad and plan to read it next time I visit home. I've heard so many incredible things about this book. North Korea is one of those countries where you hear a lot of rumours but rarely get the truth. I remember hearing a lot about rumoured kidnappings in Japan. I think it's only been in the last few years that N. Korea admitted kidnapping these people so that they could train spies. So sad.

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