Tuesday, February 13, 2018

MISS BURMA




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Miss Burma, Charmaine Craig, Grove Press, 2017, 355 pp
 
 
This astounding novel was such a worthwhile read. All I knew of Burma, now called Myanmar, was that in recent years it has been ruled by an oppressive military junta, closed off from the world. My clearest impression was of the time in 2004 when the country refused any foreign aid after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Just the other day they were in the news as the genocide of minorities continues there.
 
So what happened in that poor tortured country? Charmaine Craig is the daughter of Louisa Benson, who rose to fame in Burma and the world when she began winning beauty contests and eventually became a contestant for the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant. This novel is the story of the author's mother and her grandparents, but it is also a history of Burma from WWII onward.

I call the book astounding because of the way it entwines the personal lives of her family with the tumultuous political upheavals of their country. It covers colonial abuse and then neglect by the British Empire, bitter enmity between ethnic groups as well as intermarriage between the groups, and the horrific human rights abuses that have gone on. The incredible bravery and resistance of the author's mother and grandmother and their fight for freedom as members of the Karen people, the most despised minority of Burma, makes that political history come alive.

It is a lot to take in. Love between husband and wife, parents and children, siblings, is almost impossible to maintain in such situations. The suffering of these people challenged my imagination. The question is, aside from the right and need for people to tell their stories, do you want to read and know about it if you are one of the more privileged members of the human race. As a reader, that is your choice and you have the right to choose.

At this point in history it often seems that mankind will never change. The powerful will always suppress the weak and nearly always win. The news will either upset or soothe, depending on the outlets we choose to read. Reading historical novels like this, especially when based on real people, inspires me. Sometimes the apparent weak are stronger than it appears and that urge for freedom and justice does have an impact.


(Miss Burma is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

8 comments:

  1. I had started this novel but then put it down: perhaps my mind was distracted & needed more focus on the foreignness. It sounds like I need to return to it from your review.

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    1. It did have a rough entry. All becomes clear after a while but yes, focus is needed at the beginning.

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  2. Burma/Myanmar seems such a tragic place in so many ways, especially for minorities who live there. It's interesting that the woman who came to represent the country on an international stage was a member of the Karen minority and the story of her family's struggle for survival and acceptance, intertwined with the history of the country, sounds like a compelling idea for a historical novel. Apparently it lived up to that promise for you.

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    1. Yes it did. It was on the National Book Award long list and in my opinion should have been a finalist.

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  3. It sounds like a challenging read subject-wise, but I wouldn't mind reading it to know about the political/social issues addressed in this book.

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    1. While I was reading it I thought those issues would appeal to you Carmen. Even on those issues I felt it went deeper than what one can find reading the news.

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  4. Miss Burma is on my reading wishlist. I really enjoyed reading your review of this novel and it is a novel I still want to read as some point.

    I finished reading and reviewing Roxane Gay's novel, An Untamed State, today. It is the first thing I've read by Roxane Gay and I can fully appreciate and understand all of the accolades given to her as a writer. An Untamed State 'is a novel of privilege in the face of crushing poverty, and of the lawless anger that corrupt governments produce.'

    So, feel like Miss Burma will touch upon some of themes discussed in An Untamed State.

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    1. Thank you. I have Untamed State coming up soon in my lists. So glad you got to read her. I can see that there will for sure be parallels between Untamed State and Miss Burma.

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