Nothing to Envy Reviewed | Definitely Worth the Read

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick

  • Published December 29 2009
  • Pages: 338
  • Format: Library Copy (Hardcover)
  • Tags: Nonfiction, History, Politics, Korean History

| Synopsis From the Publisher |

Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a 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.

Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. 

Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects—average North Korean citizens—fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them.


| Book Review |

– Content –

An in-depth look at an isolated country -> One of the things that makes North Korea so fascinating to me, and truly to most people, is that it is so isolated from the rest of the world. It’s also one of the most controlling dictatorships in the world, making it difficult for anyone to really get a glimpse of the real North Korea, the North Korea that every day North Koreans see and experience. One of the things that Demick does with this book is show a bit of the everyday lives of North Koreans. She’s able to do this by piecing together the stories of North Koreans who have successfully defected (something that is quite difficult to accomplish). It’s very eye-opening and it gives the book a story-like quality that will have you on the edge of your seat.

An unflinching look at the poverty and mistreatment of North Korean citizens -> This book was so difficult to put down, mostly because Demick has crafted such a compelling chronicle of the lives of several North Koreans. She interweaves their stories together in a chronological order that shows the country’s early prosperity that quickly gives way to sheer poverty and devastation. Most of the people she follows ultimately feel the effects of starvation, their jobs become non-existent, and they all eventually have to resort to capitalist means in order to survive (methods that are extremely illegal in their country). There were moments that were very difficult to read because death and starvation were being conveyed so starkly and unflinchingly. This book is definitely not for the faint-of-heart.

The journalistic style is top-notch -> I don’t read a lot of journalistic pieces, and I haven’t before read any of Demick’s work, but this book was really fascinating. I had a hard time putting it down, for sure! I loved getting to see such personal glimpses into the lives of these North Koreans, especially since it’s not something that you get to hear about generally. The way Demick has crafted this story, it read very much like a novel. The storytelling is really strong and I felt like I got to know each of the people whose stories Demick tells. I’m really glad I came across this book!

– Literary Value-

Compelling storytelling -> Reading this book, you almost wouldn’t think of it as nonfiction. It reads very much like a work of fiction, following the lives of several North Koreans from their early years to adulthood. I was pulled in right away and wanted to keep reading chapter after chapter because I grew close to these peoples’ stories and wanted to know what happened to them.

Factual information relayed in a helpful and seamless way -> The political and historical backgrounds covered in the book are interspersed and addressed when relevant to the story Demick is currently focused on. It’s done really well and in no part did I feel bored or uninterested. Demick’s writing is just that good. The country’s history meshed so well with the lives being told that it didn’t take me out of the narrative or made the book seem stilted. Demick does an excellent job of giving you the facts you need to know about the country without bogging you down with details.

Honestly, if you’re not really a fan of nonfiction writing because you’re worried about it being dry or dull, I’d recommend this particular book because Demick’s writing really captures you and keeps your attention. As I said early, it reads like a novel, so you’ll feel like you’re being told a story, but one that’s also very informative at the same time.

– Entertainment Factor –

I know I’ve said this before in this post, but one of the main reasons why I enjoyed this book so much is because it feels like a story. Demick’s writing and journalistic skills really make this book a page-turner.

I also have a pre-existing interest in Korean history and North Korea being so isolated and unknown helped make this story that much more compelling to me. I was hooked right away and I read this book really quickly (for me) because I wanted to find out about what happens to each of the people being represented in the book.

– Cover Art –

I like this cover. I think it represents, very well, elements that are commented on in the story. I like that it’s a photograph for a couple of reasons. One reason is that photographs of North Korea and its people are pretty rare, or they’re limited to very specific views, so it’s nice to see an image of North Korean people on the cover of this book, since that’s who this book is about. Another reason is that Demick comments on several important aspects of Korean life in her book that are represented in this image, namely the very large image of the North Korean leader. It also shows a factory, which is one of the places of work for one of the people represented in this book and also that only one of the smokestacks appears to be working, which is another thing that is commented on in the book. The color of this image also relays how drab and colorless North Korea is, for many reasons, most of which is because everything is very regulated and resources are scarce.

All in all, it’s a pretty excellent cover and I really like it.

| My Rating |

Definitely Worth the Read

I’m really glad I came across this book. Not only is it really compelling in its composition, it’s also a really informative book. I learned so much about North Korea, but I also learned about the lives of some of its citizens. Demick’s book is made up of stories she’s crafted from interviews of North Koreans who successfully defected. So, in a way, there is a narrative to this book, following the lives of a few people with varied backgrounds. Demick does a good job of interweaving their stories and facts and qualifiers about North Korean history and politics. Her journalistic skills are impressive and I definitely think the books success is in-part due to her excellent writing skills.

Would I recommend this book?

I definitely would. If you are looking for your next nonfiction book, this one is a great choice. But even if you’re not one to read nonfiction, I’d still recommend it because I think the story-element to this work makes it really accessible. I’d honestly recommend it to anyone.

Thoughts & Thanks

Thank you so much for reading this post. I would love to hear your thoughts on this book if you have read it or even if you haven’t! If you’re considering reading it, let me know what you think, once you do!

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