Ms. Demick's book is a lovely work of narrative nonfiction, one that follows the lives of six ordinary North Koreans, including a female doctor, a pair of star-crossed lovers, a factory worker and an orphan. It's a book that offers extensive evidence of the author's deep knowledge of this country while keeping its sights firmly on individual stories and human details.
Dwight Garner - New York Times
As a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Demick discovered that the country isn't illuminated any further by traveling there. So she decided to penetrate North Korea's closed society by interviewing the people who had gotten out, the defectors, with splendid results.... Nothing to Envy conveys the emotional riptides and overall disintegration of stopped factories, unpaid salaries and piled-up corpses.
Stephen Kotkin - Washington Post
Excellent new book is one of only a few that have made full use of the testimony of North Korean refugees and defectors. A delightful, easy-to-read work of literary nonfiction, it humanizes a downtrodden, long-suffering people whose individual lives, hopes and dreams are so little known abroad that North Koreans are often compared to robots.... The tale of the star-crossed lovers, Jun-sang and Mi-ran, is so charming as to have inspired reports that Hollywood might be interested.
San Francisco Chronicle
There’s a simple way to determine how well a journalist has reported a story, internalized the details, seized control of the narrative and produced good work. When you read the result, you forget the journalist is there. Barbara Demick, the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau chief, has aced that test in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a clear-eyed and deeply reported look at one of the world’s most dismal places.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
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.
For most Americans, North Korea, one of the last Communist dictatorships, is a totalitarian menace but socially a great blank space. Demick, a Los Angeles Times reporter based first in Seoul and now in Beijing, fills this void with well-rounded life stories based on seven years of interviews with individuals who escaped to South Korea or China. Mi-ran, for instance, as the daughter of a political outcast, could meet with her young man only after dark, when they would take advantage of the complete absence of electric lights to walk for miles and miles unobserved—without, however, going even so far as to hold hands. She could not let him know of her plans to leave for fear that the authorities would hold him responsible or that he would need to inform on her to protect his family. This and other life stories form a welcome portrait of "ordinary" lives in an extraordinary society. VERDICT Recommended for readers interested in North Korea who want to supplement their political studies or simply enjoy the personal approach. —Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
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
A detailed, grim portrait of daily life under the repressive North Korean dictatorship, where schoolchildren are taught to sing anthems in praise of their leader asserting that they "have nothing to envy in this world." Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Demick bases her account on seven years of interviews with North Koreans who escaped to South Korea. She focuses on individuals whose stories began in the 1990s and continue to the present, including Mi-ran, a lower-class girl who became a teacher; Jun-sang, a university student who eventually got a glimpse of outside life through books, radio and television; Mrs. Song, a middle-aged true believer, and her defiant daughter Oak-hee; Dr. Kim, an idealistic female physician; and Kim Hyuck, an orphan boy surviving alone on the streets. Along with their personal stories, Demick includes background information on the Korean War and the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. The author also examines the great famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s. She paints a stark, vivid picture of reality in an industrial city with no electricity and almost no industry, where workers no longer get paid, men are conscripted into military service for ten years, grass, bark and corn husks are considered food, and death by starvation is all too common. In one unforgettable scene, Dr. Kim, having crossed a river into China, sees that dogs in China eat better than human beings in North Korea. In addition to the physical hardships is the psychological stress of living under a rigid totalitarian government where a chance wrong word overheard and reported by a neighbor can mean imprisonment or death. Demick shows the state of mind of each of her subjects, what their daily life was like, how they coped and eventually how each escaped. She also reveals her subjects struggling, sometimes unsuccessfully, to adapt to life in South Korea. Meticulous reporting reveals life in a country that tries hard to keep its citizens walled in and the rest of the world out.
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