Self-proclaimed bibliophile, culture nut and nerdfighter. English lit. and linguistics geek. Future career in publishing.
Note: The review below was taken directly from my Goodreads account.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a mix of tales about life in North Korea relayed by six North Korean defectors currently living in South Korea as told by a journalist, Demick.
This book isn't the first time I've encountered glimpses into North Korean life (I've seen the Vice documentary), but it is the first time that I've fully understood the restrictiveness and oppressiveness of the regime. It's also the first time that I got any background knowledge of North Korea before its economic collapse. I've previously studied Asian history, but only in the specific niche of Asian-Canadian history, so it was a huge shock to me when Demick wrote about North Korea being more economically sufficient than South Korea during the 1960s. They had modern(ish) homes, they had electricity and worked in factories. TVs and radios existed (albeit only tuned into Workers' Party and the regime's programming). It's such a stark contrast when we look at satellite photos of North Korea now where it looks like a wasteland, a dark zone, like it's stuck so far in the past.
I found that the most impressive part of these stories (which are woven together expertly by Demick to make a narrative that is both biography and history, and all together humanizing) was that everyone managed to survive and believe the propaganda that was fed to them. Of course, the six people that this book follows become increasingly disillusioned with the regime and the famine, among many other things, drives them to defect.
A very good and well-researched book into what life in North Korea is like: over-run with famine, a terrible class system they claim to reject in favour of communism, God-like reverence for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and people forced to go to jobs that haven't paid them since the economic collapse. A terrible, haunting portrait, but with a bittersweet end; these people made it to South Korea and enjoy a freer, happier (but not completely happy -- not when half of the family is on the other side of the DMZ or lost to labour camps) life. This is not the book to delve into the Kim regime itself: how it got into power, its economic and social policies, etc., but it does a good job of creating a tangible, believable reason for the mythology surrounding the family.