One-Minute Book Reviews

April 28, 2010

True Stories of Defectors From a Communist State: ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

A foreign correspondent describes life in one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships in a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. By Barbara Demick. Spiegel & Grau, 314 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick adapts the structure that her writing teacher John Hersey used in his great Hiroshima, which tells the stories of six people who survived the bomb that fell on their city. But she makes the form her own in this wonderful book about a half dozen North Koreans who fled the hereditary communist dictatorship of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il.

Demick focuses on the early 1990s and afterward, when North Korea “faded to black” after the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union ceased to prop up its economy. Unable to maintain its power grid, the country lost most of its electricity. People couldn’t watch television, read at night, or go to movies or restaurants. “Even in parts of the showcase capital of Pyongyang,” she says, “you can stroll down the middle of a main street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.”

The Kims tightened their grip to keep residents from learning the extent of their oppression. North Koreans could not use the Internet, watch movies and television programs not made by the state, travel to nearby towns without a permit, or call or write to relatives in South Korea. And during the famine of the 1990s, many could not eat. An estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans died because the regime would not work with governments that might have helped. Many survived by eating grass, corn husks, or ground pine bark.

Demick shows the catastrophic effects of all of it by tracing the lives of four women and two men from the city of Chongjin, all of whom escaped to South Korea by dint of forged passports, bribed border guards, or other cloak-and-dagger efforts. Some of her most moving stories involve the legions of sick, orphaned, or abandoned children whom two of her subjects, a pediatrician and a kindergarten teacher, were powerless to help.

“Facing a food shortage, many North Korean families conducted a brutal triage of their own households – they denied themselves and often elderly grandparents food in order to keep the younger generation alive,” Demick writes. “That strategy produced an unusual number of orphans, as the children were often the last ones left of entire families that had perished.”

Many of the homeless found their way to the train station in Chongjin: “That was where people went when they had nothing left and no place else to go. It wasn’t quite like giving up and lying down by the side of the road. The movement of the trains created an illusion of purpose that kept hope alive against all odds.”

One man told Demick that on some days, the cleaning staff removed as many as 30 bodies from the station. It is far from the worst of the catatastophes described in Nothing to Envy. To get such stories, Demick had to earn great trust from defectors who had grown up under one of the world’s most xenophobic regimes. On the evidence of this book, she deserves every bit of it.

Best line: “North Korea was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals. Each family had to provide a bucketful each week, delivered to a warehouse miles away.” This requirement existed under Kim Il-sung, the communist dictator who led North Korea from 1948–1994.

Worst line: Demick says in the last line of Nothing to Envy that the lives of her subjects “like Korea itself, remain works in progress.” But by the time you get there, you can’t hold the cliché against her.

Recommendation? Go for it, book clubs.

Published: December 2009

Furthermore: Nothing to Envy has made the longlist for the 2010 Samuel Johnson Award for nonfiction and was a National Book Awards nonfiction finalist.

Read an excerpt from Nothing to Envy here.

About the author: Demick is the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in Ridgewood, NJ, and wrote: Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News (@fakebooknews) page on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 30, 2009

Going to the Doctor in Japan – Please Don’t Tip the Proctologist – From T. R. Reid’s ‘The Healing of America’

Filed under: News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:53 pm
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Another memorable quote from T. R. Reid’s elegant indictment of health care in the U.S., The Healing of America (Penguin, 277 pp., $25.95), this one dealing with the high regard that the Japanese have for doctors:

“The high esteem for doctors is reflected in a traditional cultural practice in Japan that is officially frowned on these days but still seems to exist: Patients tend to bring a present for their doctor, ranging from a box of golf balls to a magnum of sake to a tasteful white envelope with the physician’s name brushed on the outside and a packet of cash inside. In the better stationery stores, you can buy a special envelope for this purpose, in soft, thick paper the color of heavy cream with ‘the honorable physician’ written on them in elaborate calligraphy. The tradition dates back to premodern times, when a physician in China or Japan had a Confucian obligation to use his skills to treat people and was not expected to demand a fee. To express their gratitude, patients provided a more-or-less voluntary gratuity. …

“In my doctor’s office in Tokyo, there was a sign on the wall clearly stating that the doctor’s fee for each treatment, and the share of the fee that I had to co-pay, were set by law: HONORABLE PATIENTS ARE RESPECTFULLY REQUESTED TO PAY NO MORE THAN THE FEE, it said. But I sometimes did see a patient, particularly an older one, carrying one of those cream-colored envelopes into the doctor’s office.”

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