Miss Burma

Unknown  In the same vein as Pachinko, Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma opens a pandora’s box of history and misery most do not know.  Just as in Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Craig uses a family saga to reveal the horrors endured and the resiliency and courage that helped them survive and thrive, but, in this case, the family is her own.  Based on her mother, a real Miss Burma, and her mother’s parents, a disparate couple of differing languages and culture, Craig imagines the conversations and the motivations of her ancestors, a part of a group of people who still fight to be recognized as human.

Although I am only halfway through the book (this is the slowest I have ever read a book), its impact has triggered my curiosity.  A good friend and fellow reader sent me links and I discovered more as I looked for confirmation of the story, even the existence of this group of indigenous people from Myanmar/Burma.  I discovered about 10,000 Karen who had been forced to immigrate, many to Minnesota in the United States.  A more recent article (November, 2017) used the recent exposure of the treatment of the Rohingya, another minority ethnic group in Myanmar, to reflect back on the similar Karen plight detailed in Craig’s story with “reports of human rights violations, including murder, sexual violence and … the destruction and burning of homes and property…”  A recent executive order by the American President has stopped the immigration of Karen spouses and children of refugees who came within the past two years.

Recognizing the name Aung San in the novel, I was surprised that General Aung San, the father of the current leader of Burma’s independence movement, Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, was written as not the saintly national hero often depicted – as is his daughter – but a ruthless, conniving politician, choosing the expedient path to power.

Craig’s story exposes yet another horror of inhumanity in the world.  Like Pachinko, Miss Burma offers hope through today’s successful generations, and confirms a history that serves not only as a caution but also as reminder to learn and not be forgotten.

The storyline is complicated but well outlined in Emma Larkin’s review for the New York Times, Bringing One of Burma’s Lost Histories to Life.

I continue to read this wordy and sometimes disjointed narrative, learning as I read, and urged on by Larkin’s encouragement:

“If at times the doling out of history lessons feels a tad heavy-handed, with characters occasionally succumbing to soliloquy or unlikely moments of narrative self-awareness, it is ultimately forgivable: The context in which “Miss Burma” is set is not part of a common well of knowledge. By resurrecting voices that are seldom heard on a wider stage, Craig’s novel rescues Benny from his own foretelling of oblivion and brings one of Burma’s many lost histories to vivid life.”

Related Review:  Pachinko

Note:  I finally finished Miss Burma – not at all as engaging as Pachinko.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

9781594203985_p0_v4_s192x300 Although Zadie Smith’s Swing Time tells the story of two London friends – girls from the hood who grow up together, one with talent, the other with ambition – Guardian reviewer Taiye Selasi  clearly identified Smith’s theme but it’s taking me awhile to digest it:

“Our narrator seeks above all a place where she belongs. That place is what a best friend, even an estranged one, can be, especially for a woman. Its comforts cannot be underestimated, not least in a life of great change. Like all of Smith’s novels, Swing Time has brilliant things to say about race, class, and gender, but its most poignant comment is perhaps this. Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?”

Tracey, with an absent father and an angry mother, is the talented dancer and rebel. “She wears flashy clothes, has lots of boyfriends and takes a lot of drugs.” The unnamed narrator is the good girl, who goes to college and eventually gets a job with Aimee, the celebrity stereotype.

I am still reading – about halfway through.  Smith uses the current popular writing style of alternating chapters from present to past, with the foundation of the girls’ lives offering rationale for their decisions later in life. I am finding the past more palatable and I like to linger over the stories of the best friends’ younger selves.  The chapters detailing Aimee’s much publicized efforts to build a school in an unnamed African country have been wearing.

This is probably a book I should have consumed in one swallow, but the holidays with time-consuming rituals distracted me.  The initial references to Fred Astaire movies and dance routines (hence the title) were also appropriate for the swinging back and forth in the girls’ lives but can make following the story difficult, and the narrator’s angst a little too heavy.

To help get me on track, I found the New York Times review by Holly Bass

Zadie’s Smith New Novel Takes on Dance, Fame, and Friendship

On the other hand, maybe I’ve read enough…

The Hollow Land

Although a recent review of Jane Gardam’s  The Hollow Land promised a new Unknownpaperback version of her children’s book, I found the 1981 hardback in my library. I was rewarded with a picture of a young Gardam on the back cover – quite different from the recent pictures I’ve seen of the 86-year-old, but still familiar.

The pages are yellowed and spotted, but the stories are as wonderful as Meg Wolitzer promised in her New York Times review.

In 1981, Gardam had already been nominated for the Booker Prize, had written three novels, and four children’s books. The Hollow Land won the Whitbread prize and her Old Filth, the book that led to her rediscovery in America, was decades in the future.

The nine stories center around the friendship of two boys, Harry Bateman, a city dweller from London and Bell Teasdale, from the Cumbria hillside where the book gets it name. Harry’s family rents a summer house on the Teasdale farm.  From the beginning, the differences between the city and country cultures almost stop the action with a misunderstanding between the families.  But the mothers resolve the issue, and the beat goes on. Secret hideaways, scary tall-tales around the fire, and daily adventures connect the stories, yet the down-home flavor of the dialogue and the British colloquialisms can be daunting and sometimes interrupt the action.  But this is Jane Gardam, and for readers who stick with the stories, Gardam beautifully reveals the world through the eyes of a child,

Related Review: New York Times Review of The Hollow Land