Glimpse at lives in secretive North Korea wins UK’s lucrative Samuel Johnson nonfiction prize

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Book about secretive NKorea wins UK literary prize

LONDON — A book that gives a rare glimpse of everyday life inside one of the world’s most secretive states won Britain’s leading nonfiction book prize Thursday.

Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea” was named winner of the 20,000 pound ($30,000) Samuel Johnson award at a ceremony in London.

Demick, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed North Korean defectors and drew on smuggled photographs and videos to tell the story of six residents of the totalitarian Communist state, including a pair of clandestine lovers, a homeless boy and a patriotic factory worker with a rebellious daughter.

Demick said the book arose from a desire to find the truth behind North Korea’s forbidding facade.

“As a reader I’ve always been interested in dystopian novels like ‘Nineteen Eighty-four,” and North Korea seemed to be the real thing,” she said, referring to a George Orwell novel.

“I used to look at the photos of these masses of people marching in step and wonder ‘what are they thinking?’” she told The Associated Press by telephone from Beijing, where she is based. “I wanted to get inside their heads. I care about these characters and I wanted to reawaken the world to their plight.”

Journalist Evan Davis, who chaired the judging panel, said Demick’s book was a gripping and moving account of a country “all too easily comically typecast by massive parades of coordinated flag-wavers.”

Jonathan Ruppin of the Foyles book store chain, said Demick’s book was “a brave piece of reportage which highlights both our common human feelings and the diversity of human experience.”

Named in honor of the 18th-century essayist and lexicographer, the Samuel Johnson Prize is open to English-language books in the areas of current affairs, history, politics, science, sport, travel, biography, autobiography and the arts.

Demick beat five other finalists on topics ranging from mathematics — “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland,” by Alex Bellos — to the Wall Street crisis, recounted in “Too Big to Fail” by Andrew Ross Sorkin.

The other runners-up were Luke Jennings’ fishing memoir “Blood Knots”; Jenny Uglow’s study of King Charles II, “A Gambling Man”; and “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human,” by Richard Wrangham.



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