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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North…

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009)

by Barbara Demick

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,7021104,189 (4.41)385
  1. 72
    Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (lorax)
    lorax: Pyongyang is an outsider's view of the one part of the country where foreigners are generally permitted; Nothing to Envy is an inside look at ordinary life elsewhere in the country where the situation is even grimmer.
  2. 30
    Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden (Stbalbach, rebeccanyc)
    Stbalbach: Amazing story of escape from a North Korea prison camp.
    rebeccanyc: Demick's book explores the lives of several people who lived in and escaped from North Korea, while Harden's focuses on one individual who was born in and escaped from a North Korean slave labor camp. The two books complement each other.
  3. 20
    Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia's Underground Railroad by Melanie Kirkpatrick (TomWaitsTables)
  4. 10
    Without you, there is no us by Suki Kim (Nickelini)
    Nickelini: Both books are compelling, fascinating reads. Nothing to Envy covers a broad scope, and Without You, There is No Us has a tight focus. They explore the North Korean regime from different angles.
  5. 10
    Kim Il-song's North Korea by Helen-Louise Hunter (wandering_star)
    wandering_star: Credited in Nothing To Envy as one of the sources of info about DPRK.
  6. 00
    Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley of Nepal by Geoff Childs (meggyweg)
  7. 00
    This is Paradise!: My North Korean Childhood by Hyok Kang (justine28)
    justine28: This is Paradise is a first-hand account of North Korean regime and especially the 1990s famine as experienced by a defector. Very similar to the stories gathered by Demick - a journalist. The two books complement each other.
  8. 03
    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (weener)
    weener: One is fiction, one is non-fiction. One is in Latin America, one is in Asia. Both are heartbreaking, deeply affecting tales of life under totalitarianism.

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» See also 385 mentions

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Showing 1-5 of 109 (next | show all)
A really good account of what life is like for many in North Korea. Much of it was so horrific, I couldn't believe that it was actually happening. It seemed more like a dystopian novel, as Becky said. I would recommend it, although parts were quite depressing. ( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
Prior to borrowing this title from the library, I'd had only the vaguest idea of what life appeared to be like in North Korea: urban areas were drab and purely utilitarian, its citizens were indoctrinated to revere their leaders as divine, and the leaders themselves were not only nutty but dangerous. The greater reality, at least by the collective accounts of defectors, is even more strikingly shocking and dismal. The severity of famine, the degree of state surveillance, the ways in which citizens are encouraged to police one another, and the permanent psychological and physical damage being done to generations of Koreans made me want to weep. Barbara Demick has written a powerful, infuriating and heartbreaking book. ( )
1 vote ryner | Aug 7, 2015 |
The hardships of living in a once modern country that no longer has enough reliable electricity to cool its citizen’s home refrigerators or run the now defunct factories where they used to work are more than I could have imagined and heart-rending, but there is at least one advantage. When the sun sets the country goes completely dark, it’s a blank spot on nighttime satellite photos and the starry sky must be amazing to see, which provides cover to young teenage lovers who otherwise would be prevented from meeting by their scared conservative families, their class conscious society, and their frighteningly punitive government.

North Korea is one of the most culturally isolated nations on the planet, which makes this poignant and descriptive book about the personal lives and families of six former residents of Chonhjin, a city in a northern outpost of the country far from what any foreigner would see, a testament to Barbara Demick’s patience, perseverance, and humanity. While working as a journalist in South Korea Demick was able to meet and spend considerable time with of many former residents of that region--her reasoning was that she would be able to verify facts more easily if she talked to people who were all connected to one place--and she’s created a surprisingly complete and moving picture of their lives.

Part of what makes the book so interesting is how varied the six people Demick profiles are. Some lived on the fringes of North Korean society even before the famine and infrastructure breakdown, others were formerly loyal party members only gradually disillusioned by the dysfunction and corruption of their government, and two were teenage lovers who could only meet in darkness.

The North Korean government does not come off well in this book, but neither do the Allied powers who made such a mess of Korea after WWII and then followed it up with the devastating Korean War. Dystopian fiction pales next to the gripping real stories told in Nothing to Envy, but since the people Demick talked with were resourceful during their almost unimaginable difficulties and have all escaped to make new lives in South Korea the book isn’t flatly bleak. ( )
1 vote Jaylia3 | May 23, 2015 |
I thought I knew a little about what life was like in North Korea before reading this. Many years ago I saw photos of a super highway with no cars on it, and a poster advertising the government permitted hairstyles. I had no idea that this was merely scratching the surface, and that most of the country remains in abject poverty. Like the years of the famine in the 1990s (2 million people died - I had no idea), as of 2010 people were still hiking out to the countryside to find grass and weeds to eat, with most people living in a constant state of starvation.

Having finished the book, my head is still trying to get around this, and moreover that the Western world allows this to go on. I wonder would things be different if it was a country rich in oil reserves...

North Korea, the ultimate closed state, was always going to be an interesting read, but I think Barbara Demick did a fantastic job with this book. By taking the lives of 6 defectors, she brought a human narrative to a non-fiction subject, and these 6 people became fascinating real life protagonists, with love stories and personal tragedies.

It's sad there's no happy ending to this book, and that if anything the country is declining further backwards.

4 stars for a fascinating and shocking read. ( )
2 vote AlisonY | May 21, 2015 |
This non-fiction work takes a look at the repressive and dysfunctional North Korean regime of Kim Il-sung and his successor Kim Jong-il through the stories of individual North Korean citizens who ultimately defected to China and South Korea. The stories told by those that survived the economic collapse and subsequent famine are chilling.

I’ve read several works focusing on North Korea, and all face the same hurdle of getting reliable information from such a tightly controlled, xenophobic culture. Indoctrinated at a very young age, citizens literally starve to death while continuing to idolize and worship the very people responsible for the barbaric conditions in which they try to survive. It is the individual stories that help to bring an understanding of how such a thing can happen and provide the most reliable account of what life in North Korea is actually like.

The time frame of these accounts spans approximately 15 years, including the period encompassing the death of Kim il-Sung, the ascension of his son and the disastrous famine that ensued. It ends in about 2009, prior to the death of Kim Jong-il and the current regime. ( )
  santhony | May 6, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 109 (next | show all)
Barbara Demick's book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea opens with a nighttime satellite image of northeast Asia that shows the bright lights of South Korea and China. In the middle of the photograph is a dark spot — a nation of 23 million people that has little electricity.
added by bongiovi | editNPR (Jan 6, 2010)
Nothing to Envy – the title comes from a piece of propaganda aimed at hoodwinking gullible North Korean citizens – is a fascinating work which highlights in the lives of the individuals concerned the triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Elegantly structured and written, Nothing To Envy is a groundbreaking work of literary nonfiction.
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If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light.
[...] she couldn't deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385523912, Paperback)

A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle finalist, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is a remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. 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, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and 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, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:06 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years, a chaotic period that saw the rise to power of Kim Jong Il and the devastation of a famine that killed one-fifth of the population, illustrating what it means to live under the most repressive totalitarian regime today.… (more)

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