I attended my first meeting of our neighborhood book club tonight. I have always had a slight hesitation about attending a reading group because I thought I would shoot my mouth off – though politely, of course – and somehow embarrass myself. But recently, having visited with some groups to talk with them about The Orphanmaster, I saw how much fun people were having talking about books, the very thing that I love. In a group. Rather than just Gil and I sitting around talking about books. Which is fun, too. Still.
So I went. The book for this month, as it happens, depicts North Korea in all its repression and suffering, but manages to pull it off as a relative page turner. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea had journalist Barbara Demick interviewing scores of North Koreans who had escaped to South Korea in the past 10 years or so. It’s gripping from the first page, when she describes how the country goes black at night; there is literally no electrical grid.
Her ability to capture the perfect detail in describing everything from spare, crumbling apartments to bodies decaying in the street to the typical day’s menu is spectacular. Especially the day’s menu – much of the book is about food, getting it, processing it, starving when it’s not available. The people Demick profiles literally eat grass and tree bark to (just barely) survive. But their spiritual starvation is perhaps more profound, as the state exerts its totalitarian stranglehold on personal liberty.
My fellow readers tonight parsed all this carefully, thoughtfully and with a sense of humor – especially when we were temporarily diverted by the subject of Beyonce’s halftime gyrations – and I came away better informed than when I got there. It was a little weird to sit around munching on cashews and guacamole as we talked about scavenging for twigs. Yet I felt a strange sense of wellbeing, too, that this particular author, Barbara Demick, had cut through whatever concertina-wire of red tape she found in order to document this sordid, complicated chapter of life on our planet and had done it admirably. It didn’t cancel out the deprivations/nuclear threat of North Korea, but the fact that she did it offered a different, counter story, that someone was willing and able to research and create such a book. It is a tribute to the human imagination and the powers of empathy.