2010 Non Fiction Other Prizes

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea Winner of 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction

Five words from the blurb: North Korea, repressive, secretive, survival, stories

Nothing to Envy is a frightening insight into the lives of ordinary people in North Korea. By interviewing those who managed to escape the oppressive regime Barbara Demick has created a comprehensive picture of what life is like for those living under the thumb of a powerful dictator.

More than 2 million North Koreans died during a famine in the 1990s, but their plight was made harder by the fact they could trust very few people. Under constant fear of being reported to authorities each individual had to find their own food, often by committing a crime that, if caught, could have lead to their execution.

It isn’t necessary to know anything about the country in advance as this book explains the situation perfectly, without a hint sensationalisation. Details of the slow decline in living standards are mesmerising in their horror and I think everyone should read this book so they can understand what occurs at the limits of humanity.

I have always been fascinated by North Korea and so I expected to love this book from the very first page. Unfortunately I initially felt a bit overwhelmed – so many people were introduced that I found it hard to keep track of them all and I longed for a bit of emotion to be injected into the statistics.

Luckily things improved quickly and by page fifty I was hooked. I began to recognise each person as their story was continued and it was impossible to not be moved by their increasingly difficult lives.

I thought I had a reasonable idea of what went on in the country, but I was shocked by some of the details of their existence.

North Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul smelling gunk on rooftops to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles.

This book is one of the most important pieces of journalism to be written in recent years and it has just become one my favourite nonfiction titles.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Nothing to Envy is a truly astonishing book. Reading Matters

Readers, even those who don’t often read non-fiction, will find themselves completely absorbed in these stories. Olduvai Reads

The book is fascinating, sad, and frustrating all at the time, which is the best sort of narrative nonfiction. Sophisticated Dorkiness


My UFO is an Optical Illusion!

Yesterday I posted photographs of a strange object in the sky. Through the magic of Twitter I connected with aviation enthusiast @shorsley who explained that the object was a 4 engined aircraft leaving a vapour trail. An optical illusion made it look as though it was travelling straight down when it was in fact flying away from me. The angle of the sun in the sky created big shadows, making the trail appear larger than it was.

Apparently I’m not the only one to get confused over such events. In 2010 people in California witnessed a similar trail and suspected it was a missile being launched from the sea.

It turned out to be just an aeroplane – the optical illusion is explained in this article.

I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t witness a meteorite falling to Earth, but it was beautiful.



What is this?

This has nothing to do with books, but I spotted something very strange in the sky this morning and hoped someone would be able to identify it for me.

I let my dog out into the garden at about 6.30am and noticed something falling from the sky. It appeared to be on fire.

Is it a meteorite?

All ideas gratefully received!

Other Uncategorized

Links I Like

Little, Brown To Publish J.K. Rowling’s First Novel For Adults and speculation suggests that it is a crime novel.

The shortlist for the oddest book title of the year has been revealed.

Collins and Livemocha find the UK’s Most Multilingual Student.

Dear Photograph – A website with photographs and emotional captions.

Book Lamp use their data to answer the question: Do Vampires Get Married More Often Than Werewolves?

Paperus: A new design for Ereaders

Sales of Physical Books Nosedive

Rereading books offers a profound emotional benefit.

New series of My Life in Books to be broadcast on BBC next week.

23 British Publishing Euphemisms Decoded by Industry Experts  

Have a wonderful weekend!

2011 Books in Translation

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé

A Novel Bookstore Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Five words from the blurb: place, books, envy, secret, literary

A Novel Bookstore revolves around a secret committee, established to select the finest books for a new shop. This book shop will not sell new releases, but will only stock books specifically selected by the committee because of their importance and their ability to move and influence the reader.

For as long as literature has existed, suffering, joy, horror and grace, and everything that is great in humankind has produced great novels. These exceptional books are often not very well known, and are in constant danger of being forgotten, and in today’s world, where the number of books being published is considerable, the power of marketing and the cynicism of business have joined forces to keep those extraordinary books indistinguishable from millions of insignificant, not to say pointless books.

A Novel Bookstore is billed as a mystery because members of the committee receive threats and then suffer violent attacks, but anyone looking for a mystery will be disappointed as this aspect of the book is minor and ultimately disappointing.

The main benefit of this novel is that it recommends a large number books to the reader.

Among the books he wanted for The Good Novel were Dernier amour, by Christian Gailly, which, blown away, he mentioned to me; Sous réserve, a first novel by Hélène Frappat; and, among the foreign novels, short stories by Roberto Bolano. Francesca liked Tristano muore by Antonio Tabucchi, La réfutation majeure, by Pierre Senges, and more than anything, Segalen’s complete Correspondence, published at last.

The main problem, for the English reader, is that most are unavailable in this country. Some books are mentioned briefly, others described at length, but all the ones that intrigued me were impossible to track down.

In a Bengalese novel that I love, The Night on the Shore, the author devotes twelve pages to a description of the preparation of a traditional rich dish for weddings. It’s an unforgettable passage.

This is, perhaps, the point the book is trying to prove. These gems of literature are buried under a sea of averageness and only those with a specialist knowledge will be aware of their existence.

Most blog readers will be familiar with debates about what makes a book important and whether or not readers are wasting their time by reading lighter, more entertaining books, but if you are interested in these discussions you’ll find plenty to hold your attention in this book. I thought the arguments were put across very well, but I had heard all the points before and found reading over 400 pages of them a bit tedious.

This is a book for literature lovers and I’m sure the dream of owning a perfect bookshop will resonate with a lot of people, but although I found some aspects of the literature debate interesting I thought this book was too long for its weak plot.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

While acknowledging that it is highly flawed…I also have to acknowledge that Cossé created a very appealing nook for a book lover to read in for a while. Nonsuch Book

….an engaging read which held my interest, despite the basic implausibility of the story…. A Common Reader 

…it makes me think about what reading means to me, what novels mean to me, what writing means to me. Of Books and Reading

1950s Classics

The Death of Grass by John Christopher

The Death of Grass (Penguin Modern Classics)

Five words from the blurb: virus, deadly, grass, starvation, humanity

The Death of Grass was first published in 1956,  just five years after Day of the Triffids. Both books share similar post apocalyptic themes, but for some strange reason The Death of Grass has faded into obscurity, continually overshadowed by those carnivorous triffids. I think this as a real shame as The Death of Grass is equally good; in fact I think its chillingly realistic premise makes it all the more powerful.

The Death of Grass begins with the discovery of a new virus in Asia. This virus kills all the grass that it comes in contact with, including rice and wheat. As it spreads around the world it leaves populations starving, leading to civil unrest and ultimately chaos and carnage.

The book is set in England and follows one family as they travel across the country towards the safety of their brother’s farm. The situation gradually becomes worse and the family find themselves having to fight for survival.

The amazing thing about this book is that, unlike Day of the Triffids, it hasn’t aged at all. There is nothing within the text to suggest that it was written over fifty years ago and the idea that viruses are a threat to our crops is just as relevant today.

The Government’s reaction to the disaster was particularly scary and, as with Blindness, the speed of the degeneration makes you want to move to the country and start stockpiling straight away.

The valley, which had been so green in the old days, now showed predominately black against the browner hills beyond. The stone walls wound their way up the hillsides, marking boundaries grown meaningless. Once John thought he saw sheep on the hillside, and jumped to his feet to make sure. But they were only white boulders. There could be no sheep here now. The Chung-Li virus had done its work with all-embracing thoroughness.

This is a short book that reminds you about the fragility of human society. I was inspired to read this book after a review from Another Cookie Crumbles. She compared the book to The Road, another powerful glimpse into the breakdown of society. If you enjoyed The Road or Day of the Triffids then I guarantee that you’ll love The Death of Grass.

Highly recommended.