Saturday, March 5, 2011

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

So, if the weather has got you down?  And you've got cabin fever and you want a book that will take you away to a magical imaginary wonderland of the mind?  This might not be the book for you.

On the other hand, no matter how bad your life sucks right now, there is no effing way it sucks as bad as it does for North Koreans. 

Pros:  It may be a bit of a bummer, but this book is fascinating. 

For example: 
  • North Koreans are required to have two state-issued portraits on their walls, one of Kim Jong-il (the crazy guy currently in charge) and one of Kim Il-Sung (his crazy dead dad).  No other wall hangings are allowed.  Also issued by the state is a special dusting cloth for use on the portraits each day.  Dusting police come by periodically to make sure you're not slacking on your portrait tidiness.
  • Doctors are expected to donate their own blood and skin to their patients.  And they do.
  • There is no electricity.  At all.  They still have the aging infrastructure, and they turn on the lights when visitors come to Pyongyang (the only place visitors are ever allowed to see).  But nighttime satellite photos show a totally black void over the whole country.  They can't afford power.
I could go on and on.  You guys.  It's crazy.

Cons:  It's just so sad.  1984 does not have a patch on North Korea.  It's been a while since I read that book, but as I recall Big Brother at least provided the spied upon with enough food to eat.  The Dear Leader has let MILLIONS of North Koreans starve to death. 

Each person profiled in the book tells their story in chronological order, but you know all along that they've managed to defect (otherwise, Demick wouldn't be able to talk to them).  You hope that they are now living in a land of unicorns and rainbows, but that's not exactly the case.  As Demick points out, it's hard for most of us to figure out what to wear every day, and what to be when we grow up.  It's a hell of a lot harder when you're an adult who never even imagined the possibility of being allowed to make those decisions.

Recommended for: I'm really interested to hear what fans of dystopic science fiction think of the real thing.  I'd talk it up to high school students.


  1. This sounds amazing. How did you find it?

  2. Actually, it was recommended by a podcast I listen to a lot:

  3. Oh, I used to listen to that. I got out of the habit of podcasts.

  4. Reading it now. Fascinating. And I really knew very little about Korea's history which is set out very nicely for background info.....

  5. I'm glad you're enjoying it! I'll be interested to hear what you think.

  6. I like it so far. Gives a lot of good history. I didn't realize how the Korean war was an aftermath of WWII.