Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

4.41 of 5 stars 4.41  ·  rating details  ·  24,518 ratings  ·  3,611 reviews
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. "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 J...more
Hardcover, 314 pages
Published December 29th 2009 by Spiegel & Grau
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Nothing to Envy by Barbara DemickEscape from Camp 14 by Blaine HardenThe Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-HwanThe Orphan Master's Son by Adam JohnsonPyongyang by Guy Delisle
Books on North Korea
1st out of 84 books — 299 voters
The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonFreakonomics by Steven D. LevittIn Cold Blood by Truman CapoteA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Best Non-Fiction (non biography)
65th out of 2,830 books — 4,798 voters

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Dec 29, 2011 Shirley rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Shirley by: Sarah Bookbinder
An amazing, unforgettable book about North Korea. Barbara Demick explores the most closed-off society in the world through the stories of six "ordinary" North Koreans who defect to South Korea beginning in the late 1990s. Through their stories, Demick covers a bit of everything (the pathological weirdness that was/is Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il and the cult of worship - and fear of reprisal - that made people cry harder at the former's death than they ever had in their lives, the role of a total...more
There are few books like this written today: concise, well-researched, plainly yet effectively written, and free of hyperbole. This book is a very personal account of six lives in the failed state of North Korea. The level of deprivation and humiliation these people endure is heartbreaking. The book reads more like an outstanding piece of social anthropology than it does cut and dried journalism. The author is to be commended for her ability to get inside both the hearts and minds of the people...more
Will Byrnes
One thread of this riveting National Book Award finalist is a love story. Mi-san is an attractive girl from a family that does not have the right stuff, history-wise, her father having fought for South Korea in the war. They are considered “impure” by the North Korean government and society as a whole. Her prospects are only so-so. Jun-sang is headed to university in Pyongyang to study science. His future includes a good job, a membership in the party and a life of relative privilege. One enchan...more
A physician, possessing numerous years of education and selfless service to her people, comes upon a isolated farm in a dark field at twilight. The doctor is starving, malnourished and ravenous. She seeks crumbs, maybe a scrap of corn to eat. Slowly, she makes her way into a barn, musty with the odor of hay and equipment. She has not seen more than a handful worth of white rice in years. Indeed, white rice is a rare luxury in the world she comes from.

Suddenly, she sees in the dark of the barn a...more
This book was simultaneously a page-turner and hard as hell to read. I had trouble falling asleep last night because of it, and when I did I had some unsettling nightmares. This isn't a book I can read, write an "oh that's nice, that definitely added to my life" type of review and go about my day. This is some seriously skillful nonfiction. It calls to mind being fourteen and reading Wild Swans. There's a similar structure to both works; history of a country to get the big picture, and memoirs o...more
Apr 26, 2014 Louisa rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2013
If you are wanting to know about what goes on inside of North Korea, Barbara Demick, an American journalist has written an insightful and informative book that allows the reader to step inside the mind of a totalitarian government and a handful of people that had to endure stifling oppression.

Barbara Demick speaks to six North Koreans over the span of fifteen years and through them, you get an insight into each of their lives, how the regime has affected them emotionally, how it has affected the...more
On December seventeenth in 2011, Kim Jong-il has died. Known to the world as the supreme leader of the world's most closed society, the "hermit kingdom" which encompasses the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, he has received the posthumous titles of the Eternal General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea and Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission. His death has been mourned by the population in a dramatic and uncontrolled way, with people crying helplessly and expressing t...more
Zöe Yu
This is an incredible book! I rarely cry for books though am a greedy reader. "Nothing to Envy" makes me cry many times. I can't stop reading it.

I never try to understand North Korea, for Chinese people like me, North Korea is ignored. We are proud of our market and economy, meanwhile making jokes of North Korea partner. But I don't know North Korea people live in such a condition in 1990s, when I was a troubled teenager.

Some of the stories sound familiar, yes, it happened in China and CCCP bef...more
Michael Gerald Dealino
If you thought that George Orwell's satires Animal Farm and 1984 are just works of fiction, think again. Look at a map and find North Korea. That's a present-day, real-life Animal Farm.

Barbara Demick's book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, gives us a peek of a spot of hell here on Earth. Based mostly on interviews with 6 North Koreans who defected to South Korea and from the author's own experience, this book takes the reader into an often difficult read of how North Koreans are...more
David Yoon
In the aftermath of the Korean war my mother's brother left an enigmatic note on his pillow before stepping out for school. He never returned and the family lamented his apparent suicide.

A half century later a list of names is published in Koreas' national paper. Part of the warming relations between North and South Korea, it offered the chance for families separated by the border to connect. So far nearly 20 thousand Koreans have participated in face-to-face meetings. My uncle's name is there...more
May 25, 2014 Caroline rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Caroline by: Shelley
Shelves: 5-star-books
North and South Korea at night

Marvellous. I would say a must read.

This book has several threads....

Firstly it discusses the general idiosyncrasies of life in North Korea under the guru gaze of Kim il-sung and then Kim Jong-il. Think Gulliver's Travels mixed with Alice in Wonderland, then give it a good shake.... I could hardly believe what I was reading. It's another world, and not in a good way.

Secondly, it follows the lives of several people who ultimately defect to South Korea. These people give us great insight into l...more
"It is not easy for somebody who has escaped a totalitarian country to live in the free world. Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities. Choosing where to live, what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to choices. It can be utterly paralyzing for people who've had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives."

These are the stories of North Korean defectors: people who risked everyth...more
Nov 15, 2012 Mariel rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: sometimes I feel the rats got a better deal than I do
Recommended to Mariel by: the skid marks are replies
"Some see the truth the proof only when the liar dies." - rapper C Ray Walz

"If you kill the head vampire then all half vampires return to normal." - Corey Haim in The Lost Boys. If only that were true, my brother.

"Why doesn't the government just leave us alone to live our lives?" (Women at the market were said to grumble this. They were bad ass women because they were illegally making money on the black market AND criticizing the government. In public, no less!)

Korea was free from thirty-five y...more
The Holy Terror
Some links I've come across that are helping me understand and digest this book better:

Vice on Youtube:
Inside North Korea
North Korea Film Madness
North Korean Labor Camps

The Big Picture - A Glimpse of North Korea - August/September, 2011
Seeing, Hearing and Speaking No Evil: On the Propaganda Tour in North Korea - July, 2012
"North Korea Experts Can See a Lot in a Hemline" - July, 2012
The Big Picture - Revealing More of North Korea - September, 2012
Photostream on Flickr I discover...more
I really want to gush and rave about how much I loved reading this book. This is one of my favorite types of books -- highly gripping non-fiction, a book with the double delight of being both difficult to put down and educational, so I didn't feel guilty reading just a few more pages when there were, as always, a million other things to do.

It feels so heartless, though. How can I juxtapose my self-indulgent joy at finding a great book with the heartrending plight of the North Koreans as describ...more
Stacey (prettybooks)
I'm not too sure how it started, but my mother is on a North Korea kick at the moment, reading books such as Escape from Camp 14. She asked me to find her a new one to read and after some research, I came across Nothing to Envy. After reading a few reviews saying that interviews were written as a narrative, and that it was a compelling account of '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' and...more
Apr 27, 2011 Jessica rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: all
Shelves: geography
I am grateful to my local librarian who keeps stocking the new fiction and nonfiction shelves with exactly the books I've been wanting to read...

This is as eye-opening, amazing, as I'd thought it would be: a fascinating window into a little-known regime...Demick follows six individuals, each of whom eventually escapes, and we see them from childhood on into adulthood and defection. The horrors of the 'most repressive regime in the world' are legion and the chronic undernourishment of its citizen...more
This is what school children sing in North Korea:

Our father, 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 in this world.

These are some of the few propaganda slogans written everywhere in North Korea:

WE WILL DO...more
This was an extremely well written book about the ills that are experienced by those who live in North Korea. Operating under a regime that would make "big brother" proud, these poor people suffer from inhumane living, working, and survival elements that make those of us use to freedom and free choice cringe. The author, Miss Demick, follows the lives of six people whose lives are so controlled that they are not even permitted to embrace in public. Living under a dictatorship, the only other tha...more
Stephanie Sun
This would make a fantastic book club book. Since it's sourced entirely from oral accounts taken from defectors in South Korea, it operates in a quasi-safe space (such as Kakutani might call liminal) in that you know at least a few of the people whose lives you are following will emerge from the nightmare at some point. Wanting to know the how and why (and whether or not Mi-ran and Jung-san will end up together if you are a total girl like me) creates a not small amount of tension that Demick pa...more
North Korea is ten times crazier, more fucked up, more cartoonish, backward, pitiful, regressed, frozen in time, and culturally maladjusted than you've heard. It's almost like a perfect sociological petri dish: What happens when one tiny south Asian country effectively seals all of its borders (from some pretty major Communist and later nominally democratic countries like China, Russia, and South Korea), installs the very definition of a cult of personality dictator, crushes any hint of capitali...more
I have a confession to make. For the last two days, despite an intimidating to-do list, I haven't gotten a lot done. Dishes piled up out of the sink and over the kitchen, laundry languished in the basement, my living room became a snuggie-strewn battlefield. Studying, what studying? Since I downloaded the Kindle version of Nothing to Envy, I really haven't done much besides read it.

It's rare that I find nonfiction books this riveting, but there's something special about journalist Barbara Demick...more
Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont
It was in March 1999 that Dr Kim left the fatherland. She couldn’t take any more. She had already given up paediatric medicine because she could no longer bear to look into the eyes of the starving children. She switched to pure research, which at least allowed her to get away from the dying, from people she was completely unable to help. But the doctors were starving too; more time was spent in foraging for food than medical work.

Kim dropped in weight to eighty pounds; her breasts shrivelled a...more
This is an incredible work of narrative reporting. It’s also a vital document that gives voice to the citizens of a nation that’s committed probably the worst repression of free will in modern history--a nation that keeps its people believing they have “nothing to envy” and that things are much worse in the rest of the world. It’s assembled from a series of interviews with a handful of North Koreans who defected to South Korea at enormous risk, and their stories give a deeply human dimension to...more
I can't begin to count how many times I've read some news about North Korea and gone, "wtf are they thinking...?"

This book is a collection of the personal stories of N Korean defectors. And they are such ordinary people, caught up in such terrible circumstances.

We read books like these to get a better understanding of the failed state. Wtf WERE they thinking?
But I get the feeling the people interviewed in this book don't know either, what went so wrong in North Korea. Perhaps because these are...more
Paul Cheney
North Korea has been a closed society since the end of the Korean war, And whilst South Korea has gone from a dictatorship in the 1970’s to a full democracy now, North Korea has maintained its position as a 1950's communist totalitarian state.

Under the leadership, and I use the word hesitantly, of Kim Il-sung then Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un the country has made little progress. As other communist states have fallen or transformed themselves, the North Koreans have become ever more cruel and...more
Beata Bowen
I'm leaning towards 2.5 stars, because I was frustrated with Demick's writing and her own personal bias. At the same time, I found the stories fascinating and heartbreaking and that alone makes this book more than just "okay".

I've heard the argument that Demick is not biased in her assessment; she's just reporting. But a real investigative reporter would elaborate on North Korea's history and reasons for the crisis (saying that communism is the cause of starvation in North Korea is like saying t...more
Timothy Hallinan
This is an extraordinary book, nonfiction that reads like a novel, a study of a handful of defectors from North Korea whose intertwined experiences present a compelling picture of life among the less-privileged classes (which is almost everyone) in the Kims' workers paradise. Ms. Demick has a novelist's eye and, fortunately, a gift for understatement; this is a book in which several people sit by helplessly while their loved ones literally starve to death. May all three of the Kims, including th...more
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
I do not typically read nonfiction* in my free time. I am all about stories, and I think of nonfiction as good for you but rather dry. Judging by this one, that’s a bad assumption.

[* Yes, I am counting this for my world fiction challenge. I make exceptions.]

Nothing to Envy was written by an American journalist who interviewed hundreds of North Korean defectors; six of their stories form the backbone of the book, woven together with big-picture background and factual information. The result is a...more
Apr 25, 2010 Jessica rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Jessica by: BC3- Jason
I really enjoyed this book. I was suprised at how much I didn't know about the history of North Korea. Reading about the famine and kindergardeners that were dying from hunger was very hard...sobering. And I thought it was very interesting that even when the main people portrayed in the book made it to South Korea, their lives were still hard. Transitioning to a modern society and leaving behind their loved ones. The author did an amazing job at capturing all the emotions as their lives progress...more
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  • The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
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  • The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Revised and Updated Edition)
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Barbara Demick is an American journalist. She is currently Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (Andrews & McMeel, 1996). Her next book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, was published by Spiegel & Grau/Random House in December 2009 and Granta Books in 2010.

Demick was correspondent for t...more
More about Barbara Demick...
Logavina Street: Life And Death In A Sarajevo Neighborhood Die Kinogänger von Chongjin - Eine nordkoreanische Liebesgeschichte The Handsomest Man in cuba

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“North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung's divinity. Who could possibly resist?” 12 likes
“North Korean defectors often find it hard to settle down. It is not easy for somebody who’s escaped a totalitarian country to live in the free world. Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities. Choosing where to live, what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to making choices; it can be utterly paralyzing for people who’ve had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives.” 12 likes
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