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Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm closer to 3 1/2 stars than 4.

This is a fascinating report on North Korea as we have never been allowed to see it. Although Barbara Demick has only been allowed into the country several times, she did her research and interviewed many defectors to create this historical portrait of the country from the Korean War to the present.

Although it was a very interesting book, I couldn't give it 5 stars because I have been spoiled by reading books like Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks recently, which were such masterful expositions. Compared to these books, which had a narrow, laser-like focus, Demick's subject is so large--the history of Korea?--that it works against her. While the book portends to be a character study, there were too many stories for me to follow, and as the scenes kept changing, I gave up trying to remember who was who. There was also some repetition in events which could have been edited better.

A musing...I also wonder how one can write a balanced report without getting viewpoints on both sides. I don't know in this case that it could even be possible to interview regular North Koreans, but are there some who are satisfied or content? People who have defected are obviously going to have a negative view. It's just something to keep in mind if you read this.

Despite my reservations I would still recommend this book, but just keep in mind that it's not so much about the "ordinary lives" as it is about people within the context of the whole, which is a still a fascinating subject.

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