Book Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Throughout this blog I’ve tried to address the many sides to travel, good bad and ugly, and I hope I’ve made a point of acknowledging that many of the best travel experiences you can have aren’t going to be 100% positive or smooth or easy (I hope I’ve also made clear that those experiences will almost always seem more positive, smoother, and easier (not to mention more glamorous) once they’re behind you).

I am not going to say that I always travel to learn, to put myself outside of my comfort zone and experience new people and places, because often when I go on a trip my #1 objective is to have a good time and experience something new, nothing more (example: Oktoberfest!). But still, the more I travel, the more I am interested in forcing myself into situations that I know will be awkward or unnerving or completely alien to me, because those experiences always make the most powerful memories (examples: Albania! Couchsurfing!). Those experiences can also be the most helpful in bringing you face to face with your stereotypes and assumptions about different people and places. It’s easy to assume that you know about a place because you’ve read about it repeatedly in the news or because you make assumptions of what you would be like if you lived there. There’s nothing like seeing a country in real life or talking to real live humans with a completely different worldview than you to make you realize just how different some places are from what you know and are comfortable with–and how similar some things can be, even in the most distant corners of the globe. I haven’t been able to travel nearly as much as I’d like to in my life due to a lack of vacation time and money, but even getting a little bit beyond your border has the potential to expose you to things that you never knew existed. Looking at yourself and your country from a distance is a remarkably revelatory thing.

But back to those restrictions of time and money. Those can be a problem if you’re hoping to broaden your horizons by zooming across continents to connect with foreign cultures. I get the opportunity to do that maybe once a year, and I must say I squandered my valuable cultural connection time last year on a Mexican beach resort and Oktoberfest….buuuut I will also say that those trips were totally worth their weight in vacation days and I don’t regret them at all!

So 2011 was not my year for meaningful, enlightening travel. It was however, the year of the kindle. I will wax poetic on the many wonderful features of my kindle at a later time, but let’s just say that it has allowed me to get a lot more reading in, and there were a number of books that I read over the past year that allowed me to travel vicariously through their narratives and characters to some of those exotic locales that I missed in 2011.

One of the more exotic (or less, depending on how you define exotic) locations to which I decided to pay a literary visit was North Korea, via Barbara Demick’s non-fictional Nothing to Envy. I’ve always wondered about North Korea, mainly because the place seems SO DAMN WEIRD. How can a country be so backward, especially when surrounded by some of the most quickly advancing societies in the world? How can one leader be so controlling? How can people who are clearly being wronged be so devoted to such a strange little man? How can the entire country just seem so crazy? I feel like most accounts of North Korea come from a very American perspective, or maybe more accurately a very non-North Korean perspective. Coming from a place as open as the States, it’s hard to imagine the kind of control that a truly dictatorial, completely closed government can exert on its people. It’s hard to imagine all the things that we take for granted in a wealthy, capitalist society, and it’s especially hard to imagine what it would be like if all of our sources of information were cut off and controlled by a government that only wanted us to see, learn, and experience certain things. Accounts of the country typically focus on the eccentricities of the recently departed Kim Jong-il or the absolutely ridiculous (but admittedly amazing) performances of the Arirang Festival. What’s refreshing about Demick’s book is that it tells the story of North Korea from a new perspective, from the point of view of ordinary North Koreans. These people weren’t all party members, didn’t all live in Pyongyang, and they weren’t groomed by the regime to tell a certain story. The result is a collection of sincere, captivating stories of normal lives in a decidedly abnormal place. The six stories woven together by Demick together create a rather compelling narrative that I really couldn’t put down. It lacks some of the elements of your typical page-turner, but the stories are so revealing of what life is like above the DMZ, and the topic so typically unexplored, that I plowed through the book, emerging with a new fascination for North Korea. The passing of Kim Jong-il a few weeks back makes this book rather timely and even more interesting. I highly recommend it for anyone looking to broaden their horizons on an empty wallet.

And for those of you looking for a bit more information on North Korean, check out the following photo essays on life in the country.

Rare visions of Rural North Korea

Exposing North Korea

8 Amazing North Korea Photo Essays

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

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