Quick Review: If I Stay and Nothing to Envy

It’s been a few months since I reviewed two books in one quick review post. The only way I could think to connect these two is that they’re both for Adam @ Roof Beam Reader’s TBR Pile Challenge. These are my fourth and fifth reads for that challenge.

  •  Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
    • Rating: ★★★ [ratings guide]
    • Ugh, why am I reading books about North Korea? Okay, it’s only the second book I’ve read, but man, they are so bleak and unbelievable, in the sense that is so difficult for me to comprehend that this is happening in the world I live in, right now. That makes reading about it a different experiences from reading about WWII atrocities. It raises so many how questions: How can people be okay with this, how can someone want to rule a country like this, how can we let this happen, how do you rate a book like this; how do you react to it? Especially when there is so little you can do. I had basically the same reaction upon finishing Escape from Camp 14 (thankfully, Demick’s book is a slightly easier read because of her more general subject matter.)
    • Early in the book I thought there were too many details and characterizations that Demick possibly couldn’t know and that she had  to be using a lot of artistic license. I wondered where she got all her information from. I’m not sure why I was critical of this point at the start of this book – I know it must be the case for many non-fiction books that tell people’s stories. Gradually I settled into the narrative style and it didn’t irk me after the first few chapters.
    • A large part of this story is grounded around the change from Kim Il-Sung to Kim Jong-Il. I wonder how much of the story is out of date – or, perhaps more accurately, what has changed since Kim Jong-un took over.
    • I’d recommend reading Nothing to Envy before Escape from Camp 14, because that book has a narrower focus on one particular life within North Korea.
  • If I Stay by Gayle
    • Rating: ★★½ [ratings guide]
    • I messaged my sister immediately upon finishing this book. I wrote, “Wow I just finished reading If I Stay and I was wholly underwhelmed. It felt like a writing experiment, not a novel. I couldn’t believe it was so short!! My ebook said 217 pages but the story finished at 167. I read it in one sitting. It had some good moments but it ain’t no John Green 😛 /immediate reaction.” Let me expand on two points:
      • Emotional depths – I expected some moving tale on the level of a John Green story, from the way people talk about this book. Because it’s centered on teenage romance, however, I couldn’t get into it (although I appreciated how realistic Adam and Mia’s relationship was). I’ve never been into teen romances, even when I was a teen. It’s not that I think they’re invalid; they’re just not interesting to me. (Green’s novels appeal to me in spite of any ‘romances’ within them). Overall, I didn’t find the story that sad. It is sad…but not an emotional tearjerker.  I thought it was more intellectually interesting for me, given the discussion of life and death that it explores. There are some very good moments that gave me a swell of emotion and paused my reading (for example, Mia’s comment about her mom and dad on page 28 or her thoughts on Mr. Dunlap on page 86).
      • Shortness – This ties into the point above. The story’s shortness surprised me. I think I would have appreciated it a lot more if it was a short story or a novella, with most of the flashbacks cut out and the boyfriend storyline minimized, distilled so it’s just ruminations on life after death.
    • The information dump in the first three pages almost turned me off this one. My interest kept me going and thankfully, the story gets started right after that.
    • What’s up with the parents? They were too unbelievable for me; they never felt real. I get that that super-cool parents do exist, but these were almost like caricatures of some teen’s ideal mom and dad. 

Have you read any books about North Korea? What did you think of If I Stay (am I off base about the parents?)?