Tag Archives: capitalism

Book review: ‘Nothing to Envy | Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

nothingtoenvy

Photo courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Mi-ran and Jun-sang had known each other for 13 years and dated for nine. After three years, they began to cautiously hold hands under the cover of darkness once they’d walked a safe enough distance out of town. After six years, Jun-sang mustered up the courage to give Mi-ran an awkward kiss on the cheek, which she quickly rebuffed out of fear and shock.

When Mi-ran escaped with her family to South Korea, she couldn’t risk saying goodbye to Jun-sang. When he showed up one morning to find her family missing, he realized he’d been too late — too late to share with her the capitalist books he’d secretly been reading at university, the South Korean television signals he could faintly pick up at home and his hidden dream of running away with her to Seoul. She was already gone.

The two young lovers are the heart of Barbara Demick’s book, ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,’ which profiles six North Korean defectors hailing from an industrial town in the northeastern part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

‘Nothing to Envy’ is an enthralling read — a kind of novelization that follows its subjects through a fifteen-year period. From the death of Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine of the 1990s, ‘Nothing to Envy’ shows North Korea from the perspective of average citizens, far away from the carefully-constructed capital city Pyongyang and the state’s propaganda-filled press releases.

The book provides a quick but excellent background on how North Korea came to be what it is today. One of the book’s most memorable stories is the biography of Mi-ran’s father, which serves to explain her family’s low social status and “tainted blood.” A once popular and confident young man from a Southern farming area, Tae-woo was taken as a prisoner of war by the North and essentially trapped on the opposite side of the peninsula when a power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the drawing of an arbitrary border across the map along the 38th parallel.

“Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were ‘shrimp among whales,’ crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers,” Demick writes.

IMG_20150628_160720

South Korea on the left and North Korea on the right, as seen from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

‘Nothing to Envy’ follows its subjects as Kim Il-sung takes control of the DPRK with promises of an idyllic Communist state and, for the first few years, delivers on them. Then, readers see these people struggle to keep the faith after Kim Jong-il rises to power and the country’s economic crisis begins, resulting in the famine that ultimately killed around 3.5 million North Koreans.

Eventually, each of the subjects experiences a life-altering moment of final disillusionment which leads them to leave their country and, often, many loved ones, established careers and educations behind. For Jun-sang, the epiphany finally came when he was able to configure his television to pick up South Korean signals that told him news of the world and, for the first time, honest coverage of North Korea.

“Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick writes. “North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.”

However, the defectors’ difficulties don’t end once they reach Seoul. The initial euphoria they experience often is short-lived, as they have to struggle to acclimate to modern society and start their lives over from scratch. Work experience and university degrees from the DPRK are useless, so the North Korean doctors and intellectuals we’ve gotten to know over the course of the book find themselves taking jobs as nannies and fast food delivery drivers.

‘Nothing to Envy’ concludes with an epilogue bringing the reader up-to-date with North Korea, briefly examining the first years of Kim Jong-un’s reign as Supreme Leader.

It’s an amazingly moving book, and it paints such a vivid picture of life inside North Korea for the past few decades. Not only is ‘Nothing to Envy’ a good primer on the Korean War and the politics surrounding it, but the personal stories within are so poignant they will stay with you long after reading.

The book’s conclusion is realistic and, therefore, inconclusive. The totalitarian regime in North Korea has already endured longer than anyone expected and continues to this day. Although many North Koreans manage to escape, so many are still living lives not unlike those depicted in the book — some are better off and some worse. And their stories are going untold.

‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’
Barbara Demick
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Politics
Pages: 336
Grade: A

Click here to read about my visit to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

Book review: Sophia Amoruso, ‘#GIRLBOSS’

girlboss

Photo courtesy of Portfolio/Penguin.

Sophia Amoruso has a really impressive story. She chose hitch-hiking and shoplifting instead of college and still managed to turn her eBay shop into a multi-million dollar online business. As the founder and CEO of Nasty Gal (a well-known fashion retailer), she grew the business to its current success without ever even borrowing money. That’s amazing. I’m awed and jealous.

But her book, “#GIRLBOSS,” which purports to teach young women about succeeding in business, says a whole lot of nothing. It’s neither truly a memoir nor a self-help book. She touches on many things briefly and delves deeply into none of them. With such an interesting life story, I was expecting Sophia to give useful, thorough advice from her personal experiences, but I was super let down.

Here’s where Sophia first lost me: it’s on page 14, where she writes, “#GIRLBOSS is a feminist book, and Nasty Gal is a feminist company in the sense that I encourage you, as a girl, to be who you want and do what you want. But I’m not here calling us ‘womyn’ and blaming men for any of my struggles along the way.” She goes on to ask, “Is 2014 a new era of feminism where we don’t have to talk about it? I don’t know, but I want to pretend that it is.”

Noooo. It’s so, so exhausting to have successful women with the opportunity to reach a large audience of young people continue to perpetuate the idea that feminism is about sitting around blaming men for your struggles. Misogyny, sexism and patriarchy are real problems that exist in the world and impact so many aspects of our lives — especially in business. And Sophia really doesn’t talk about this at all in the book, despite making a clear distinction between “girlbosses” and plain ol’ “bosses” right off the bat.

Sophia goes on to touch on her pro-anarchy, anti-capitalism phase (hence the shoplifting) that has long passed, as she now specifically mentions cruising around in a Porsche wearing Prada shoes. It would have been interesting to see her write more critically on capitalism now that it’s working in her favor, or at least to have a more detailed explanation of her shift in morals. She sidesteps this topic with a measly parenthetical, writing, “I believed that capitalism was the source of all greed, inequality, and destruction in the world. I thought that big corporations were running the world (which I now know they do) and by supporting them, I was condoning their evil ways (which is true, but a girl’s gotta put gas in her car).”

In addition to a lack of detail regarding her personal philosophies, Sophia’s business advice also comes up short.

I, personally, suck at networking. This was one of the topics I was most eager to see addressed by a self-made female CEO. Sophia addresses networking in a half-page endorsement for connecting with others on LinkedIn and, on the very last page, acknowledges her father for “teaching me to negotiate like a monster” without sharing any of this negotiating expertise anywhere within the book.

I was sincerely hoping for some useful tips on making a deal or establishing business contacts or calling in a favor or drawing up a contract. Instead, Sophia devotes the majority of this chapter to giving advice on interviewing for entry-level positions like, “We can’t all be Shakespeare, but spend some time on your cover letter and have someone else look it over to make sure it reads well… Spell-check exists for a reason; use it, but don’t rely on it.” Yeah, Sophia, we know.

As evidenced by the book’s Twitter-ready title and Sophia’s tendency to directly address the readers as hashtag-girlbosses throughout, she was clearly unconcerned about the book’s longevity. It’s more of a marketing tool for her clothing business; she didn’t really care at all to give any substantial advice to women in the workplace or female business-leaders. Certainly nothing that could hold up over time or be used for reference in the future.

She did, however, provide pages upon pages of pseudo-inspirational one-liners in less than 140 characters each: “Compete with yourself, not with others. Judge yourself on what is your personal best and you’ll accomplish more than you could ever have imagined. Life stops for no one, so keep moving. Stay awake and stay alive. There’s no AutoCorrect in life — think before texting the universe.”

The paragraph just keeps going like that! What the hell is that last one even supposed to mean?

Altogether, “#GIRLBOSS” was such an overwhelming disappointment with very little to take away from it. Sophia’s remarkable accomplishments speak for themselves. She should have let them.

‘#GIRLBOSS’
Sophia Amoruso
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Genre: Nonfiction, Business
Pages: 256
Grade: D