Saturday, December 21, 2013

Nothing to Envy

by Barbara Demick
316 pages, 2010

When my wife's book club tackled this title, the bits she read to me were so bizarre I had to read it too. A few examples:

  • The two most famous stores in North Korea are known as Department Store #1 and Department Store #2. It's unclear whether the goods being displayed are actually available for purchase, or whether they are there only for show, to impress foreign visitors.
  • The few visitors permitted in are only allowed to see what the regime wants them to see. They aren't allowed to talk to the citizens, and are generally restricted to the capital city of Pyongyang. But keen observers, like the book's author, can spot what's wrong with the picture. On one visit she watched a troop of soldiers in crisp uniforms approach and lay a wreath at a statue of North Korea's "Eternal President" Kim Il-sung. "When they bowed low as a show of respect, their pants hitched up just enough to reveal that they weren't wearing socks." The country no longer has the means to provide all their soldiers with socks, but does make it a priority to try to impress visitors by putting on these sorts of military displays.
  • The author is a journalist who was trying to get an accurate understanding of North Korea. But because of the country's many restrictions, the only way she could properly assess the country was by interviewing the few who had managed to escape from it. She gave as a gift George Orwell's 1984 to one escapee, who "marveled that George Orwell could have so understood the North Korean brand of totalitarianism."

Journalist Barabara Demick gives us a revealing look at this, the most mysterious country in the world, with biographical accounts of 6 people who used to live there. We all know a bit about North Korea - it is in the news regularly, but even to the most avid article readers among us, this book will be an eye-opener. We get a glimpse at a truly Orwellian world where government is the source of not only material goods, but where it provides life's meaning as well.

While there is nothing graphic – North Korea is a brutal regime, but the author doesn't provide vivid details – the subject matter, and a handful of crudities make this a book best suited for older teens. It is very well written, shocking, and will give readers a better understanding of a people who are in need of prayer.

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