I was sick last weekend. In fact on Saturday for most of the day I was too sick to read. But on Sunday I got to do one of my favorite things–start and finish a book in one day. “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick is included in the nonfiction portion of this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. Full of people’s stories, it reads quickly.
“Nothing to Envy” chronicles the journey of several North Korean people who defected out of the country, all of them from the area around Chongjin, a northern industrial city. Demick uses them as examples of the many ways in which life is difficult in North Korea.
Their stories typically begin with a life that while difficult is predictable and seems safe. As the Communist world changed in the late 1980’s, the aid that the North Korean government received from other governments also changed or stopped completely. Eventually, factories didn’t function. People had no work. They had no way to receive food. There was no food. The descriptions of people’s resourcefulness in finding something to eat on the one hand, and the agony of starving on the other, will stay with me from this book.
I’ve had many conversations with people about why we read “difficult” books. I’d describe this as “difficult” even though most of the stories are remarkably hopeful. I’d say that for those of us who have grown up in the United States in the midst of peace and (at least relative) prosperity, we need to be aware of how different life can be. I’ll recommend this to readers who want to know about the world and to those who look for the stories behind what we see on the news. There’s also an appeal to the stories of people who have suffered and prevailed, and that is the power behind “Nothing to Envy.”
I also recently finished a title from the fiction portion of the list, “Nashville Chrome” by Rick Bass. This novel is based on the life of The Browns, a family musical group from the late 1950s and 1960s. Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie Brown grew up in hardscrabble Arkansas, their father a lumber miller. That life was a hard one, with accidents in the mill amputating fingers, hands, and worse. Their father functioned with just one leg.
But the children had a remarkable gift for singing the kinds of tight harmonies that some country songs are known for. People could not believe how they could sing. Chet Atkins took up producing their records, and he made the most of their distinctive sound. Eventually, though their gift remained, their audience waned, and they broke up their singing group.
Bass tells this story in bits and pieces, moving through times and places. Bass often waxes into poetic prose about their sound, their surroundings, the sense of the people. But largely he works through Maxine, the oldest. He frames it with many scenes of an elderly Maxine, still grasping for success, still believing in a comeback.
I tend to prefer a nonfiction book that straightforwardly tells about people, over biographical fiction. I feel the same way about biopic movies–just give me a documentary, please. But in this case, Bass does a great job with the material. While he bases the novel clearly on these people’s lives, he adds so much, goes so deeply into their hearts and minds, shapes their stories into one coherent piece, that he creates a whole new thing.
I’ll recommend this to people who are interested in music, to those who are patient through ample description, and to those who can stand to see a good thing come to an end.