Book Review – Nothing to Envy

By | November 11, 2013

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a fascinating book on a topic that I previously knew almost nothing about. Barbara Demick very much deserved the National Book Award Finalist award.

I first found out about this book when I went to the Goodreads office in San Francisco for a talk on their recommendation engine. On top of a great explanation of recommendation engines and some cool anecdotes about how they tuned their recommender algorithms, I walked away with a recommendation for this great book. The engineer giving the presentation said it was his goal to get as many people as possible to read Nothing to Envy.

Demick’s early reporting on North Korea was thwarted when she realized that she wouldn’t be able to have any meaningful conversations with citizens, due to the oversight of her North Korean minders. So, she painstakingly interviewed North Korean defectors and fact-checked their stories. Demick did an amazing job of turning those interviews into riveting stories of the soul-crushing poverty, totalitarianism and terror that still reigns in North Korea. The North Korean famine in the mid 90’s very likely resulted in more deaths than the Great Famine in Ireland.

On a related note, one of my cousins very recently traveled to South Korea and was able to go to the Joint Security Area. She wrote that, “to visit that area, we had to board a special military bus, ride on roads surrounded by mine fields and anti-tank obstacles rigged with C-4 explosives, wear visitor ID badges, and line up single file when walking about.” While standing near armed South Korea guards, a North Korean soldier only a few hundred feet away stared at them through binoculars. Another North Korean peaked through a window and photographed them. Given the sad stories in Nothing to Envy of poverty, even amongst the North Koreans, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a film camera for which film has long since not been available.

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