Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Burmese Lessons – Karen Connelly

Before we get into the next book, I just have to share the happy turn-of-events that shaped my morning.

Background situation:  My Keurig broke this weekend.  Just all of a sudden, wouldn’t turn on.  No lights, no sounds, no NOTHING.  [Cue abject mourning.]  So today, embarrassed, and at the behest of my push-the-envelope father, I walked into Bed, Bath, and Beyond with my dirty, broken Keurig, sans box, packaging, and receipt. 

Me (placing grubby appliance on counter):  This doesn’t work anymore.  I got it for a gift less than a year ago, and all of a sudden it doesn’t come on.  My mother-in-law bought it here.  [She totally bought it at Costco.]

Bedraggled yet benevolent sales associate:  Well, when was the last time you cleaned it?

Me:  Uh.  Never.

BYBSA:  Yeah.  You need to descale it every three months.

Me:  Oh.  What is this descaling, of which you speak?  Can you show me what I need to buy?

BYBSA:  Sure.  [Hands me $6 product.]

Me (reading $6 product box):  Um.  I think your machine has to actually turn on to use this.  Mine won’t turn on.

BYBSA:  You totally waited too long to descale it.  It’s broken now.  You broke it.

Me:  Oh.

BYBSA:  So, here’s a new one.  We’ll exchange it.  But next time, just descale it.

***Glitter and exploding rainbows***

Me:  [. . .]  Wow.  Thanks.  [Pays for $6 product, gets brand-new $200 Keurig for free, races giddily from store before senior manager can thwart exchange.]

Isn’t that the best morning ever?  So everyone needs to shop Bed, Bath, and Beyond right away.  Go give them some of your money.  They’re going to probably need it, since they’re giving out free Keurigs to every yahoo off the street.

Switching gears.  You with me, friends?  The book.  (How’s that for a transition?  I know.  It sucks.)

Burmese Lessons is a memoir, and it takes place in the late ‘90s in Burma and Thailand, during Connelly’s trek through the jungles of Southeast Asia to interview Burmese freedom fighters for a series of articles about the difficult political situation at the time.  (Some background:  Burma, or Myanmar, was and is ruled by a military junta and is considered to be among the worst civil rights violators in recent history.)  These interviews, along with her sizzling affair with a Burmese civil rights leader (yes in-deedy, there are some good sex scenes), ended up being the foundation for this book, which was published in 2010.

I have mixed feelings overall about memoirs.  Sometimes I love them.  I always love getting to peer into someone else’s life.  I’m a voyeur, which is why Facebook is LIKE A DRUG TO ME.  Chances are, if you’re my Facebook friend, I’ve stalked your pictures.  All of them, repeatedly.  Sorry about that, I can’t help myself.  So I do enjoy memoirs for this reason:  they invite and allow (and even require) me to be nosy.  The memoir genre depends on the audience overstepping boundaries of propriety and manners, and the reader gets it all – the grotesque, the squish, the shame, and the grit. 

But on the other hand, the writing of a memoir is intrinsically an egocentric task.  The memoirist runs the risk of coming off as mildly self-involved (at best) or whiny and narcissistic (at worst).  The problem here was that I feel like Connelly was closer to the latter, overall.  One issue was that she was 28 when she conducted her research and began the writing of the book.  A friend of mine recently said, “Don’t you have to be at least 35 to write a memoir?  Otherwise, you’re not grown-up enough to take seriously.”  At the risk of sounding ageist, I sorta agree.  Admittedly, this was part of the theme of the narrative – growing up, learning to live in the world as an adult, the casting off of an immature worldview –but Connelly was just plain irritating at times.  Also?  I felt like she was overly concerned with her whiteness.  Her awareness of the differences between “first-world” and developing countries seems as though it would be socially and globally conscious, a good thing.  But in the case of this book, Connelly’s preoccupation with her Western (spoiled) attitude, her overly apologetic approach toward the developing world, her “white guilt” – these recognitions came across as self-congratulatory.  To me it seemed false, like she was overly pleased with the realization of her privileges in the world.  I would’ve preferred for her to own her identity as a Westerner and QUIT APOLOGIZING ALREADY.  She chose to go to Asia, she chose to stay, and she chose to tell this story.  Again, this could be because Connelly was attempting to recreate her 28-year-old self – but in my opinion, her younger self just wasn’t that interesting.  Burma, on the other hand, is fabulously interesting.  Scandal and civil rights violations, house arrests and political prisoners, information control and military police opening fire on their own people:  these are everyday issues there.  I understand that the book was Connelly’s attempt to use her own experience to connect to the reader in order to inform the world about the Burmese situation, and I applaud her for this goal.  It’s a very good one.  But I guess I wanted less Connelly, more Burma. 

(An aside:  I totally get the hypocrisy, here, as well.  I’m complaining about the narcissism of someone’s memoir on my BLOG, for heaven’s sake, which could be the most narcissistic medium available.  Thank you for putting up with me.)

However, I don’t want to make it look like I didn’t enjoy the book.  I did, overall – I’m just hypercritical here of Connelly, as a writer.  Probably the best thing about it was that it imparts information into the mainstream, so readers will know what is happening on the other side of our world.  We don’t know much about Burma.  It’s a closed country, so that’s the whole point – the junta controls all information dissemination.  Many (educated!) people I’ve talked to about the book don’t know where the country is, and don’t realize that it has two names.  Personally, the only things I knew about Burma previously came from Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish from Drowning, and from the documentary Burma VJ.  (Have you seen this?  It is one of the only documentaries to have “escaped” Burma and be released in the West.  If you haven’t seen it, do so.  It’s an education.)  So on this more important front, I’d say that Connelly absolutely succeeds.   

In other news, I just started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and so far am loving it, so I need to go read.  Thanks, Emily, for the recommendation!


  1. 1. Assuming a different Emily than me recommended that, right?? I haven't heard of it :)
    2. I think I can not read this book! I'm already irritated with this chick just from reading this post. Weird, right? Although, form the amount of whining going on in my house right now, ONE MORE WHINY WORD might send me to the nuthouse.

    I'm out- fill me in on Burma next time we're out so I don't sound like a complete moron. OK? xoxoxo

    P.S. You're SO brave to do that return. I totally wouldn't have had the guts...

    1. Yes, different Emily. I was going to link to her blog, but she took it down for a few days. And about not having the guts, I totally don't believe you. Do we or do we not smuggle wine bladders to the movies?

  2. 1.One of my favorite things about this blog post is the fact that Emily used bullet point communication. (She is one of us Sarah...)
    2.I liked the way you explained why she was so annoying and apologetic. Your description reminds me of Undress me in the Temple of Heaven.
    4.I have done similar shenanigans with equally agreeable results. (Bed Bath and Beyond not Burma)
    5.The documentary made my blood run cold.
    6.Great job!

    1. * Bullet points are the best mode of communication, ever.

      * Even if unnecessary.

  3. 1. Um, hello, The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao was me (and I believe that is my book, or actually Alex's). It's good, huh?
    2. I want to read the book! I'd love to learn more about Burma and I'm curious to see if I think Connelly is self-absorbed too.
    3. I kinda like reading self-absorbed writing, like your blog. jk
    4. I would never have thought to return the Keurig, and if I did, it would have sat in my car for months on end because I never get around to returns/exchanges for some reason.
    5. Another great post! I believe I skipped your last one because I hadn't read the book, but I'm going to get it.

    1. Oscar Wao was you? It's actually a book I got from the library. It's great so far. My blogger-friend recently recommended it as well! Also, I think that you would enjoy the book, with your background in anthropology - it is really interesting from that perspective.

  4. well, maybe I didn't actually recommend it to you, but we read it a while ago and loved it. I was thinking Connelly sounds a bit like an anthropologist doing early fieldwork.

  5. laughing out loud at your Keurig story....Andy got a kick out of it too.
    I love reading your blog but then feel guilty that I haven't read anything but my People and US Weekly in the last 3 months.
    Love you

    1. Oh, so happy. I love hearing that someone laughed out loud. Makes me happy and twinkly.

  6. Hey sarah! I love your blog! But you lost me at burmese freedom fighters ;) It's been way too long since we discussed books together! I've actually read oscar wao. Curious to hear what you think! Congrats on the new keurig!

    1. Katy, just FYI your pic totally comes up, so your blogger profile is working, no problem! Thanks for reading!