Nothing to Envy

Although I enjoy reading many genres, fiction is my favorite. I love to be transported to another neighborhood, city, state, country, continent, or world.  Nonetheless, I was talking with a friend about global affairs, when she recommended a non-fiction book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Before reading the book, I wanted to learn about the author, Barbara Demick. Enter Wikipedia.

Barbara Demick is a Yale graduate, an American journalist, and was correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer in Eastern Europe from 1993 to 1997. During that time, she produced a series of articles which followed life on one Sarajevo street over the course of the war in Bosnia. The series won numerous awards.  Demick was stationed in the Middle East for the newspaper from 1997 to 2001. In 2001, she moved to the Los Angeles Times and became the Times’s first bureau chief in Korea. Demick reported extensively on human rights in North Korea, interviewing large numbers of refugees in China and South Korea. She focused on economic and social changes inside North Korea, including North Korean women sold into marriages in China. I was more than impressed with Demick’s background, so I hunkered down with Nothing to Envy.

As I began reading Demick’s book, I found myself with plenty to envy: Demick’s writing represents well-researched work about lives from a secretive country, with many personal details of daily life in North Korea. While presenting facts of the hardships North Koreans have faced, Demick also gives examples of several bright moments. Based on testimonies of six defectors living in South Korea and China, Demick provides insight into the lives of ordinary North Koreans. She highlights fond memories of one of the main characters, “Mi-ran,” and her courtship during power-outages and lack of electricity that were a common occurrence.

“Dr. Kim” is another featured character, one who considers herself a loyalist to North Korean socialism. As a doctor in a nation that has people suffering from the effects of chronic hunger and a lack of even basic medicine, “Her hospital became so strapped that it remained unheated, bandages were fashioned from cut-up bedding, and beer bottles substituted for IV pouches.” Upon escaping to China in order to avoid imminent starvation, Dr. Kim experiences a simple revelation: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

Demick’s book presents stories of romantic relationships, personal conflicts, triumphs and despair—amidst a ruthless regime. These accounts help readers to comprehend the enormity of devastating facts: two million deaths due to famine; 200,000 people currently imprisoned in labor camps.

In 2010, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. The book was also a finalist for the U.S.’s most prestigious literary prize, the National Book Award, and for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Written in the captivating style as Demick’s book, non-fiction has moved up on my preferred list of genres.

-Francine Pappadis Friedman

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