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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea Paperback – September 21, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A fascinating and deeply personal look at the lives of six defectors from the repressive totalitarian regime of the Republic of North Korea, in which Demick, an L.A. Times staffer and former Seoul bureau chief, draws out details of daily life that would not otherwise be known to Western eyes because of the near-complete media censorship north of the arbitrary border drawn after Japan's surrender ending WWII. As she reveals, ordinary life in North Korea by the 1990s became a parade of horrors, where famine killed millions, manufacturing and trade virtually ceased, salaries went unpaid, medical care failed, and people became accustomed to stepping over dead bodies lying in the streets. Her terrifying depiction of North Korea from the night sky, where the entire area is blacked out from failure of the electrical grid, contrasts vividly with the propaganda on the ground below urging the country's worker-citizens to believe that they are the envy of the world. Thorough interviews recall the tremendous difficulty of daily life under the regime, as these six characters reveal the emotional and cultural turmoil that finally caused each to make the dangerous choice to leave. As Demick weaves their stories together with the hidden history of the country's descent into chaos, she skillfully re-creates these captivating and moving personal journeys. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In spite of the strict restrictions on foreign press, award-winning journalist Demick caught telling glimpses of just how surreal and mournful life is in North Korea. Her chilling impressions of a dreary, muffled, and depleted land are juxtaposed with a uniquely to-the-point history of how North Korea became an industrialized Communist nation supported by the Soviet Union and China and ruled by Kim Il Sung, then collapsed catastrophically into poverty, darkness, and starvation under the dictator’s son, Kim Jong Il. Demick’s bracing chronicle of the horrific consequences of decades of brutality provide the context for the wrenching life stories of North Korean defectors who confided in Demick. Mi-ran explains that even though her “tainted blood” (her father was a South Korean POW) kept her apart from the man she loved, she managed to become a teacher, only to watch her starving students waste away. Dr. Kim Ki-eum could do nothing to help her dying patients. Mrs. Song, a model citizen, was finally forced to face cruel facts. Strongly written and gracefully structured, Demick’s potent blend of personal narratives and piercing journalism vividly and evocatively portrays courageous individuals and a tyrannized state within a saga of unfathomable suffering punctuated by faint glimmers of hope. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (September 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385523912
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385523912
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,155 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,543 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Barbara Demick is Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and author of Nothing to Envy:Ordinary Lives in North Korea.The book won the U.K.'s top non-fiction prize, the Samuel Johnson award, in 2010 and was a finalist for both the National Book Awards and a National Book Critics Circle Awards. Demick's earlier book, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood is to be republished in 2012 by Granta.




Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

395 of 406 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on December 26, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As Barbara Demick says in her epilogue, North Korea is something of a mystery. How has it avoided the collapse that experts have been predicting for 15 or more years? How has it been so successful at keeping citizens ignorant of the outside world and the outside world ignorant of its machinations? And, because of these successes at insulation, is it even possible to understand what life is like in North Korea?

Fortunately, Nohing to Envy gives us a "yes" answer to this last question; here is a book where we hear the stories of six North Korean defectors. In interweaving chapters, Demick reconstructs these tales of struggle with the skill of a novelist (and anyone not told that this is a work of journalism may be forgiven for thinking it a dystopian novel a la 1984 (Signet Classics) or We (Modern Library Classics)).

Dr. Kim is a medical doctor, devoted to the Workers party; Mrs. Song is a wife forced to find any way she can to feed her family, including daughter Oak-Hee in increasingly dismal times; Kim Hyuck is a boy whose father gave him to a state orphanage rather than have a son he couldn't support; Jun-Sang and Mi-Ran are secretly boyfriend and girlfriend, each with private reservations about, and struggles with, North Korea that remain private for fear of governmental repurcussions.
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165 of 174 people found the following review helpful By John K. VINE VOICE on December 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I find myself fascinated by the lives of North Koreans: So completely different from ours in the first world. What is most fascinating is that they don't even know what they're missing, indoctrinated virtually from birth that the U.S. is evil and their Dear Leader is a god. This book is for people like me, that want to know more about what it's really like to live there, day by day. The book is full of little details like the very modest housing, the lack of heat in the wintertime everywhere, and how rations worked before they were cut off; to say nothing of the many ways to avoid starvation or watching what you say all the time for fear of being reported to the authorities for the North Korean equivalent of blasphemy.

The book follows six people through their lives in the DPRK in the 1990's, including the huge famine which occurred at that time; and, ultimately, their decisions to defect (a foregone conclusion since otherwise their stories would not be told). I found myself fascinated by them, especially how each figures out that their country's leadership has let them down. The author even managed to fit in a love story which, far from being hokey, is especially riveting due to the circumstances. The book is well-written and easy to read, the only mar being occasional repeated information which is easy to overlook.

I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface with this review. If reading this makes you want to know more, you won't be disappointed by the book.
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205 of 225 people found the following review helpful By Gaetan Lion on December 30, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This is a gripping book. The six defectors interviewed by Demick describe North Korea as a totalitarian state in a post-apocalypse condition. That's why the visions of Orwell and McCarthy come to mind.

North Korea suffered two tragedies. The first one was the split of the Korean peninsula at the end of WWII and Stalin installing a like-minded dictator at its helm, Kim Il-sung. The latter eradicates religion and replaces it by his own cult of personality. In achieving a God status in his country, he bests Stalin, Hitler and Fidel Castro. Upon his death in the early nineties, many North Koreans will commit suicides. And, North Koreans will believe (through intense political propaganda) that if they cry enough Kim Il-sung will come back from the dead. The son of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il will succeed him as a son of God.

North Korea's second tragedy was the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the latter collapsed it interrupted its assistance in food and oil. North Korea did not have enough fuel on its own to maintain its electrical grid. On the first page of the first chapter you see a picture of the Korean peninsula at night. South Korea is full of bright spots (urban areas lit by electricity). But, North Korea is pitch dark! In the post Soviet Union era, North Korea suffers shortages of electricity, running water, and food. Millions have already died of starvation. People are not paid. They are compensated by food rations. But, if you don't work you don't eat. The ones who don't receive food attempt to survive by milling bark, grasses, shrubs, leaves.

The majority of the country still suffers from malnutrition. Millions more would die if not for foreign assistance.
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52 of 59 people found the following review helpful By Duffman on December 16, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I find North Korea fascinating so have read quite a bit on it, but expect that even a reader with no more background than enjoying the Kim Jong Il puppet in "Team America: World Police" would find this book accessible and worthwhile. Drawing on extensive interviews from those who have escaped North Korea, Remick provides rare, very human insights on life in this bizarre nation, rather than discussing the geopolitical issues in great detail. Having recently re-read "1984", I was struck by how this book shows the stunning parallels between the world Orwell feared could emerge from totalitarianism ideology and an actual 21C society. Little wonder "1984" was the favourite novel of one of the defectors in "Nothing to Envy".
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