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Burmese Lessons: A true love story Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 18, 2010

4.1 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Weaving a poignant personal love story within a larger cultural tapestry of Myanmar circa 1996, Canadian poet, memoirist, and novelist Connelly (The Lizard Cage) delivers a lyrical look at a country in the throes of a deeply pernicious military dictatorship. Although she is based in Greece, Connelly's various trips to Burma and Thailand are sponsored by PEN Canada in order to gather information on Burmese political prisoners such as short story author Ma Thida; consequently, Connelly, then in her late 20s, is easily accepted within Burmese artistic circles, gets caught up in violent street demonstrations, and even interviews the revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, now under strict house arrest. At a Christmas party, she meets and falls for Maung, a sexy Burmese revolutionary leader who shares his not uncommon story of becoming politicized after the unrest of 1988 and being forced underground. However, she comes to the wrenching realization that her lover belongs to the national struggle for Burmese democracy, and not to her. Connelly writes eloquently of having given her heart to Asia, yet her portrait is dated as the country has changed much since then, considering the recent devastation by Cyclone Nargis, well chronicled in Emma Larkin's Everything Is Broken. (May)
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Finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction!

“Karen Connelly’s passionate and poetic memoir begins with her arrival in Burma in 1996 at the age of 27. Brash, naïve and bubbling with confidence, she is enchanted by the country, but also determined to ‘catch at least a glimpse of the truth—something beyond the beautiful images that are so readily available to the foreign eye’ . . . . Burmese Lessons is an intimate account of a country, a relationship and a man—all three of which remain elusive.”
The New York Times Book Review

Burmese Lessons is a polished, literary memoir that includes, along the way, an account Burma's turbulent history. . . . Ms. Connelly is a hugely engaging writer. Burma itself—as Ms. Connelly well knows—is rather more complicated than one difficult love affair.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Connelly isn't a hard-nosed journalistic observer. She’s intelligent and curious, also emotional, self-deprecating, openhearted. When she meets Maung, a handsome Burmese dissident, at a Christmas party in Chiang Mai, she begins a passionate and complicated cross-cultural romance. We know things can't end well, but we're with Connelly all the way on this journey. There's no resisting.”

"[A] heartbreaking romance set among the temples and verdure of Southeast Asia."
The Seattle Times

"A generous dollop of poetic chick lit combines surprisingly well with criticism of Burma's half-century of bloody dictatorship in Canadian Karen Connelly's Burmese Lessons."
San Francisco Chronicle

“A sensually acute writer, Connelly describes the lush pleasures of losing oneself in a romantic, foreign place, but also details the bitter act of renunciation involved in realizing that her lover belonged not to her but to the larger struggle for Burmese democracy.”

“Karen Connelly has given her heart to Asia. I bow in gratitude to this writer whose love story is personal and political — and true.”
—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace

Burmese Lessons is a tour de force. At once beautiful literature, an intimate account of a moving journey, a nuanced portrait of another country, a complex yet quietly honest reportage, this book is also a page turner. It will, I believe, become a classic in the new genre that mixes personal memory with public events.”
—Susan Griffin, author of A Chorus of Stones and Wrestling with the Angel of Democracy

"Weaving a poignant personal love story within a larger cultural tapestry of Myanmar circa 1996, Canadian poet, memoirist, and novelist Connelly delivers a lyrical look at a country in the throes of a deeply pernicious military dictatorship.... Connelly writes eloquently of having given her heart to Asia."
Publishers Weekly

"Putting both her safety and heart on the line, Connelly renders deft passages on sexual longing and satiation that help anchor the book’s harsh sociopolitical themes. Burmese Lessons examines Burma’s tumultuous climate and nuanced cultural ethos with colorful prose and gritty self-reflection.
Kirkus Reviews

"Treading the boundary between romance and politics, Connelly presents an evocative account of passionately living the revolution, shedding light on those who give everything to the cause, and those who love them. Piercing and raw."

Burmese Lessons shows us more than a place, or a person in a place: it shows us a way to be in the world: open, seeing, breathing, awake.... In virtually every encounter, Connelly shows us that there is no escaping the political: the reach of the regime is pervasive and poisonous. The political is there in the personal.... This is the greatest lesson in Burmese Lessons, and the most important moment: the realization that the whole history of Burma is reflected in every individual life. The small story is the Bigger Picture.”
—Literary Review of Canada

"Haunting and poetic.... Connelly fans will be enthralled."
Quill & Quire

“The recounting, re-imagining, of Connelly’s immersion in the mid-90s [in Burma and Thailand] reveals a brave, even foolhardy, idealistic, beautiful young woman utterly seduced, co-opted, transformed by Burmese culture….”
Globe and Mail

"Connelly compels admiration for her brave intrusions into dangerous and awkward situations, and above all for her candour."
National Post


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese; 1 edition (May 18, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385528000
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385528009
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,093,496 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Live2Cruise VINE VOICE on July 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Reading this book was a sometimes difficult, but profound experience. Karen Connelly brings to life her experiences in Burma and Thailand, and illuminates the Burmese struggle for independence from a military regime, in this memoir/ love story.

In bits and pieces, we get the history of Burma and the revolutionary dissidents, as well as an overview of the various rebel groups, representatives, and artists/ writers who have been imprisoned and tortured by the regime for their efforts at shedding light on the brutalities occurring in their homeland. Connelly interviews several of these people throughout the course of the novel. She has an insider's view into the underground in which the dissidents move; she soon realizes, however, that she is naive as to the delicate workings and history of this world in ways she did not realize.

She meets Maung, a leader of one of the dissident groups, who has pledged his life to the cause. The two fall in love, and for the majority of the novel, the story moves back and forth from the larger scope of the Burmese struggle to the more intimate world of Karen and Maung's budding love.

The writing is diamond-like, hard and brilliant, and spares nothing. Scenes of torture and brutality are described unflinchingly; there is nothing watered down here. This is what makes it effective at what the author intended-- to bring Burma to life, to expose the effects of a military regime on ordinary people, to juxtapose a passionate, sweet love affair with the bitter realities of living in refugee jungle camps, malaria, war, and death.

The one shortcoming, for me, was that this relentless honesty carried into the very intimate relationship between Karen and Maung.
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I am a big fan of Connelly's "Touch the Dragon" (or, by its other title, "Dream of a Thousand Lives") and so I was happy to see she'd written another memoir. This book is deeply, intimately personal, and at times I admit I squirmed during the descriptions of Connelly's sexual relationship with her Burmese lover. However, I think by telling her story in such a close, subjective way she has given us (the readers) a visceral experience of what it's like to be a person caught up in political and personal currents that are overwhelming and dangerous. I learned a lot about Burma and its brutally sad recent history--I would have loved the book if it had been "just" a political account of the Burmese resistance fighters because Connelly is such a vivid, gripping writer--and, more surprisingly, I learned a lot about what it means to be a privileged Westerner whose relationship to the rest of the world is always complicated and fraught with shame, fascination, and envy. (Just before I read "Burmese Lessons" I finished "The Places In Between" by Rory Stewart; it's similar to Connelly's book in that it details a Westerner's immersion in a troubled Asian country--Afghanistan, in Stewart's case; I liked Stewart's memoir very much, but he never explored his interior life and its reaction to the turbulent world around him. I hate to stereotype, but it was a very male account in its focus on movement and historical details. He did bond with a wonderful dog on his journey; it's the one thing that elevates his story into something touching and human. Connelly's book is not stereotypically female [I'm getting in trouble here!]; it's androgynous in that it embraces the internal and external world with gusto and humor and poignant sadness). I write too much. I loved this book. I look forward to more from Karen Connelly!
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By toronto on October 12, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
As with other reviewers, my response is complicated. The first half of the book was un-put-downable -- Burma in the 1990s -- but then something sagged in her writing when she moves into the love story, which I found not that compelling. I was alas reminded of Woody Allen's Bananas: falling in love with a hot revolutionary leader. More to the point, the love story underscored the uneasiness about the whole narrative of this white chick with her Canadian passport swanning around Burma and the camps. A passport out of it all gives you, whether you like it or not, a magic escape machine that everyone else around you doesn't have. You are just different. Obviously Connelly was not your ordinary tourist: she paid her dues, and was where the action was in very difficult times. And she talks a lot about the ambivalence of her role. But there is something not likeable about her in the end, a kind of narcissism that one feels should have been rubbed away in the face of the hard lives everyone around her is leading. Maybe Connelly knows this: it is, after all, a portrayal of her younger, more naive, self. I would have liked an introduction or epilogue where she criticizes or at least reflects on this. In the meantime, as the book went on, I became more and more irritated with her naivete. On the other hand, Burmese Lessons is among the best portrayals of what that kind of journalistic/vagabond life is in SouthEast Asia I can think of, having had some experience of it myself. I was constantly reminded of the sordid trashheaped villages of the poor, the endless waiting around for officialdom, and the strange mixture of saintliness and sniping that is the whole international NGO milieu. I would recommend it to anyone who thinks that that kind of life is liberating and glamorous.
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