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Stranger than Fiction

2012 February 23

In lieu of a Fashion Book feature today, I thought I would write briefly about the last two books I’ve read, both of them nonfiction. Neither of them lend themselves to creating outfits for the characters as they are both particularly intense in terms of subject matter.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy is a fascinating look at North Korea, a country very few of us will ever visit or understand. Demick first began interviewing North Koreans for the Los Angeles Times and became gripped by the singularly harrowing experiences of a people completely subjugated by a cruel and nearsighted dictatorship. Her book weaves the stories of several average North Korean citizens–their daily lives in North Korea, their struggles and heartbreak, and their eventual defection to freedom in South Korea. I was completely enthralled with the book not only for Demick’s gifted storytelling, but the way she intertwines history with the personal stories of the characters. I knew frightfully little about the Korean War and the resultant split between the two countries, and even less about North Korea under communism. I found the book so informative and engaging, and beautifully written. I would highly recommend it.

Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx    

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc




In contrast, Random Family tells the story of ordinary people in New York City in the 80s and 90s–a time and place very familiar, but rarely seen from this angle, so intimately. LeBlanc spent more than ten years observing a “family” in the Bronx, retelling their daily lives in gripping detail. We meet Jessica as a teenager in 1984. Within 15 pages of the book’s opening, she has given birth to three children by two different drug dealers. Coco is Jessica’s brother Cesar’s love, beginning at age 13. The book  follows Jessica and Coco, from the streets of the Bronx, through motherhood, prison, abusive relationships, homelessness, drug use, extreme poverty, and extreme love. The book reads like an urban epic, everyone twisted and intertwined in each others’ lives and fates. A chance hook up easily (and often) becomes a baby, a neighbor becomes a permanent houseguest, a daughter becomes the parent figure, the drug dealer becomes the inmate. Though it’s clear that LeBlanc is present during the family’s most intimate trials, she never editorializes or inserts herself into the action, rendering the book very close to a novel. But the chilling thing is that it’s most definitely not fiction. The truth is harder to swallow than any kind of urban myth, but man, is it fascinating to read.


Has anyone read any good nonfiction lately? What are your favorites?




2 Responses Post a comment
  1. February 23, 2012

    I LOVED Random Family. It’s intense, but I couldn’t stop reading, and I’m amazed at how much access she gained to these people’s lives.

    I’d never heard of the North Korea book, but it sounds really interesting! Thanks for giving me an idea for something new to read.

  2. February 24, 2012

    Both of those sound really interesting, may have to pick them up!

    An (intense) nonfiction book I read recently was Train in Winter, which was about 230 women who were part of the French Resistance and sent to concentration camps (only 49 of them survived). It’s a little hard to get through, partly because the book covers so many people it’s hard to keep track of them. However, it was really interesting, horrific at times, but a good read.

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