Summary and book reviews of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy

Ordinary Lives in North Korea

By Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy
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  • Hardcover: Dec 2009,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2010,
    336 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance.

Chapter One

If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan, and now China fairly gleam with prosperity. Even from hundreds of miles above, the billboards, the headlights and streetlights, the neon of the fast- food chains appear as tiny white dots signifying people going about their business as twenty-first-century energy consumers. Then, in the middle of it all, an expanse of blackness nearly as large as England. It is baffling how a nation of 23 million people can appear as vacant as the oceans. North Korea is simply a blank.

North Korea faded to black in the early 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea's creakily inefficient economy collapsed. Power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. Hungry...

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Reviews

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This book, a product of years of Demick's travel and research, gives six former North Koreans the rare opportunity to speak for themselves, to tell their uncensored stories to a world hungry for a better understanding of the Korea above the 38th parallel... Many times Demick is successful in drawing her reader into the forbidden world of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), but some tales are so jarring that one has to fight against disbelief and shock to stay connected to the characters. This is the kind of book that is riveting one moment and revolting the next: a fitting description, perhaps, for the country it explores.   (Reviewed by Stacey Brownlie).

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Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

Meticulous reporting reveals life in a country that tries hard to keep its citizens walled in and the rest of the world out.

Library Journal

Recommended for readers interested in North Korea who want to supplement their political studies or simply enjoy the personal approach.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. A fascinating and deeply personal look at the lives of six defectors from the repressive totalitarian regime of the Republic of North Korea...

Los Angeles Times

A piercing account of the daily ordeals faced by ordinary North Koreans.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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.

San Francisco Chronicle

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...

Los Angeles Times, Art Winslow

Demick has woven together life stories of half a dozen defectors that credibly suggest a human rights tragedy of enormous proportion is taking place relatively out of Western public view, while the news headlines (for good reason) focus on North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

San Francisco Chronicle, Bradley K. Martin

Barbara Demick's excellent 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.

Reader Reviews
chetyarbrough.com

Delusion & Deception
Everything to hide, everything to lose, and “Nothing to Envy” summarizes Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea. Demick peels back the edge of a curtain that hides North Korea from the rest of the world. Mrs. Song, Oak-hee, Mi-ran, and Jun-sang ...   Read More

Book W

A Must Read!
This is a "must read" for everyone no matter the age, origin, gender or geographical location. You can't help coming away feeling humble - on so many planes and for so many reasons. I am in awe, witnessing the human spirit through Barbara...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

A Brief History of North Korea
Korea's earliest known history begins around the 4th century B.C. Korea developed into several regions based around walled communities that acted somewhat like states. China controlled some southern parts of Korea, but in the 7th century A.D., one of the states, Silla, was able to drive China out of Korea's borders. As a result, Korea was a single kingdom ruled from within by succeeding dynasties until the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05).

In 1905, Japan began to occupy Korea and later claimed the country as part of its own. Japan's occupation of Korea caused the formation of many political and resistance groups, including the Korean Communist Party. Some Koreans also helped the ...

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