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.
2 responses to “All This and Guacamole Too”
Once again I feel enlightened and inspired by your blog, Jean.
Having seen something of the world I can tell you that North Korea isn’t such a revelation to me. There are many places on this globe where oppression exists as an acceptable norm.
In Saudi Arabia it is actually illegal for women to drive a vehicle.
In some places in Africa boys are circumcised at puberty. The girls are ‘circumcised’ and their vaginas are sewn closed at about 5 years old to ensure their purity until they are married, when they are ‘opened’ by their husbands.
Let us not forget China, where having more than one child is discouraged, sometimes with forced abortions.
In Iran it is against the law to speak of any religion to anyone, except if that religion is Islam.
In other places in the Middle East we Americans are hated because they think we don’t want to share our prosperity.
Here in America we just don’t get how good we have it. Imagine growing up without the ability to move about the country freely; you have to have permission from governmental authorities to travel, even to the next state. Imagine no public libraries. Imagine a world where only men can own real estate, and women are cherished so much that they are not taught to read because it would ‘corrupt’ them.
We have it good here. Pray you are never forced to find out how good.