Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Review: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick

Not having been born in North Korea is something new to add to my list of things I am grateful for. Who knew? North Korea has been like a little black box to me. I feel like I've come at these stories of what life is like there from different points of view over the years. The standard spooky and indistinct newspaper articles, or maybe they just seemed indistinct because I was too young to fully understand them. Then, in high school, there was the sizeable South Korean population, some with recent ties to the country. I learned first-hand how offensive it could be to ask a Korean, "are you from North or South Korea?" Later, in college, the Koreas came up again in the context of Japanese history classes (aka, Why Koreans Hate Us So Much).

I had a Korean roommate for a year and taught English to Koreans in Moscow. And most of the people whose spoken English abilities I evaluate for my job are - you guessed it - Korean.

But it was bits and pieces and hearsay all jumbled together and I could never get a sense of what was really going on in North Korea. There was the goofy but terrifying dictator, those ubiquitous shiny tracksuits, the 7-0 loss to Portugal at the most recent World Cup. Refugees climbing embassy walls in China, magic cell phones, a legendary DMZ. North Korea is like the last remaining enigma on earth, at least as far as countries go.

Nothing to Envy cuts right to the chase and illuminates what has, until now, been a very murky picture for me. I would say it's an incredible story in the literal sense of the word (i.e., unbelievable) but unfortunately, it's true.

At first I thought the title was a little smug for a book about a downtrodden, oppressed nation. I wasn't really planning on becoming jealous of North Koreans, thanks, but can we not even give them a chance? But it turns out the title comes from a North Korean Communist anthem, and the people who have no reason to envy others are meant to be the North Koreans:

Uri Abogi, our father [Kim Jong-il], we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Workers' Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid.
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy.

Read this book, and find out why the above lyrics should bring bitter tears to your eyes.

Now I want to read Logavina Street, by the same author. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer back in the 90s but it is now apparently out of print. How does that even happen to a finalist for the Pulitzer? I hope Nothing to Envy will spur Logavina Street's re-release so I can get my hands on a copy.

As an aside: a guy who I worked with for a couple of years in Provo disappeared in China's Yunnan province in 2004. His family conducted a very thorough investigation and came to the conclusion that it was possible and maybe even likely that he was (and remains) detained by Chinese authorities on suspicion of aiding North Korean refugees on their path to South Korea (this guy spoke Chinese and Korean and had lived in South Korea as a missionary). Before I read this book, I didn't really understand how that explanation could fit his situation. Now, I think it is a very strong possibility. That he was detained as such, I mean. I do not believe he actually WAS aiding North Korean refugees. After reading this book, I am haunted more than ever by his unexplained disappearance and I would like to believe that sometime soon, this mystery can be solved.


Liz Johnson said...

I am SO reading this one... and maybe I'll use it for my book club pick in a couple of months. Wow. I have always had a foggy view of North Korea, too, and I'm excited to clear that up.

I never knew that it is offensive to ask somebody which Korea they're from. Can you shed some light on why?

Bridget said...

I only made the mistake once, and the reaction from the South Korean was horror that he would ever be mistaken for a North Korean. Maybe it was just him.

Myrna said...

Thanks for the tips for some good reading. I have requested Logavina Street through inter-library loan. (142 libraries have it--that is not many for a Pulitzer prize-winner). You can buy it used on Abe books, pretty pricey--this link is to the cheapest one. (From Nancy's mom)

Susanne said...

Sounds interesting! I'll have to look for it.Thanks for the recommendation and please let us know if the mystery of your former coworker is ever solved.

Susanne said...

Fantastic! My public library has it! :)

Merkley Jiating said...

That sounds like a depressing book and yet I am intrigued. Weird story about that guy you used to work with.

I have lived in Mesa, Denver, Provo, Akron, Ithaca, and Allentown. Not many places, and none of them have bad winters (compared to Ithaca). But I do feel like people stay inside all winter. Maybe I will change my mind about this now that we live in Winston Court.

Craig said...

Sounds like a book I would like. My library has the book and the audio CD. Sweet!!

It doesn't have Logavina Street. If I like this book I'll do an interlibrary search for it.

Susanne said...

I am reading this one So interesting. Very sad. Makes me grateful, but also makes me feel responsible for doing something.

Glad you recommended this - thanks!


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