on June 29, 2009
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind; William Wordsworth
Rarely does an introductory quote capture the essence of a book as well as Tracy Kidder's choice of the above poem, and rarely does irony reach the intensity of genocide survivor Deogratias' name (Thanks be to God, in Latin).
The star rating system for books can be frustrating and misleading. Does a five star rating mean a new Jane Austen is on the loose? Does a four star rating mean a merely decent read? In the case of Kidder's Strength in What Remains Behind, my four star rating means a fascinating, thought-provoking, big-hit-with-your-book-club read. With serious books, and this is one, sometimes I get the sensation that I've put myself in harness, and in the effort to get the fruits of my labor I will be forced to trudge forward until the job is done. Strength in What Remains Behind is the opposite: once attached to the book by the first few pages, it will draw you wide-eyed and enthralled rapidly towards its conclusion.
Tracy Kidder's book, briefly, is the non-fiction tale of Deogratias. Raised in Burundi (neighbor to Rwanda), Deo lives a nearly idyllic life until the outbreak of ethnic violence in his country replaces Wordsworth's "of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower" with a living hell that makes Dante's Inferno look like a pleasant winter destination resort. Deo, a Tutsi third year medical student, flees Burundi, arriving at age 24 in New York City with $200 in his pocket, the clothes on his back, and his will to survive. Kidder artfully alternates between Deo's fight for survival in the United States and scenes of the genocidal massacres that Deo witnesses in Burundi. Deogratias emerges as a complex and rich personality, more a testament to human resilience than a hero (though certainly not lacking in heroic qualities).
So many books, so little time... What will you get if you devote a few hours of your life to this book? Here's a sampling: a well told tale; repeated examples that support the premise that no matter how ragingly black the night of human behavior, some amongst us will light candles, and fight vigorously to protect that fragile light; a truly fascinating view of New York City's underbelly; and finally, you will get a detailed examination of modern African genocide. Kidder's description of the madness of the violence in Burundi and Rwanda is never pornographically detailed, but is nonetheless devastating. Genocide is an ancient human story, with Antarctica the only continent that has escaped its bloody stain. Kidder's somewhat labored search for the causes of genocide in Burundi and Rwanda may be the weakest part of his book. He cites one authority who claims that genocide in Burundi was caused by fear, as opposed to Rwanda, where it was caused by prejudice. Um.....is there an essential difference between fear and prejudice as root causes of genocide? Experts in primate behavior, including human, suggest that prejudice IS fear, of "the other". And do we truly care about whatever tiresome reason is being used THIS time to justify genocide, rather than about why it happens at all (consider reading Sex and War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism and Offers a Path to a Safer World) for an interesting take on human-on-human violence), or the profound slumber of the developed nations when it occurs outside of their spheres of interest?
Fans of Kidder's also fascinating book Mountains Beyond Mountains will be intrigued by the intersection of the lives of Paul Farmer MD (controversial and hyper-dedicated founder of Partners in Health) and Deogratias that is described in Strength in What Remains.
There is inherent tension in store for the reader of Strength in What Remains, and not just in the suspense of the story itself. The triumph and the tragedy of human behavior are contained between the front and back covers of the book. You, and if you belong to one, your book club, will be stretched between these two poles: Deogratias (Thanks be to God) and the unattributed quote "Tell me God, should I thank you, or forgive you?". May a rich discussion ensue!
Tracy Kidder's latest triumph follows in the footsteps of his masterwork, Mountains Beyond Mountains. The true story of Deogratias from Burundi to New York and beyond is for everybody, not for any particular special interest. The title, Strength in What Remains, is from Wordsworth's romantic "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood". There are many other good reviews if you want to hear more of the particulars, so I want to instead introduce the author to those unacquainted.
Mr. Tracy, like John PcPhee and precious few others, is at the tiny top tier of journalistic authors of books, as opposed to articles of immediacy. Two years he spent listening to Deogratias tell his story and spent in other research. Years ago at the beginning of my technology career I read his "Soul of a New Machine", the story of the skunkworks of Data General Corp. at the dawn of mini-computers and client-server architecture. From then on I learned just to buy whatever he wrote. You teachers might start with his "Among Schoolchildren".
Mr. Kidder is the selfless writer. He does not choose topics to sell books. He has no ideological drum (or horse) to beat. He is not attracted to fads or celebrity, power or the rich. Those are left for the sycophantic, the mediocre, those unencumbered by talent and skill. He uses some sort of dowsing rod for profundity. He is also something of a phenomenologist, letting the truth bubble up from his uncompromising observation of people and circumstances. He does not editorialize or advocate. He does not pretend to understand more than he can show. But he introduces you to all the best people, besides his central figures, taking time to capture them fully.
In "Strength in what Remains, Mr. Kidder appreciates that he is is taking us places we do not know. So he includes all things of importance from different points of view. He himself does not appear until Part II, where he is finally comfortable explaining himself and his approach. He has a good historical section and five pages of sources. Here we meet again the sainted star of an earlier landmark opus, Mountains Beyond Mountains, the redoubtable Dr. Paul Farmer of Haiti and Harvard (Kidder's alma mater). Also, cameo appearances by Chaucer, Hanna Arendt, Primo Levi and St. Benedict.
It is instructive to point out that nowhere does Mr. Kidder mention his earlier book. He refuses to hawk his own stuff. He describes the episodes of Deogratias and Farmer without any mention of his own connections. He merely mentions Deogratias, Deo as called by others, at the library encountering a work called Infections and Inequalities. Deo must meet the author, I instantly recalled from the prior book. Sure enough, there is the great doctor himself, scourge of the self-absorbed. I almost want to say read Mountains Beyond Mountains first because you will wish you had, once you do. Besides, these monumental gifts do not last long. This is the kind at 3:00 a.m. where you are saying "Just one more chapter, dear" when finally a shovel turns out your lights. When I came to, I found her with the book, "just one more chapter, dearest".
I close with a short anecdote he tells of an Auschwitz survivor, who when asked about the blue numerals tattooed on his forearm replies that he always had trouble remembering his phone number. This book is an antidote to the bloated, grasping self-obsession which has infested our America.
With so many fine, worthy books we are showing each other in these pages, competing for our limited time, do not let these pass unconsidered.
on July 22, 2009
This is the story of Deo, a survivor of the Tutsi-Hutu genocide in Burundi and Rwanda and how he fared after escaping to America. Even though he was a medical student in Burundi, he started life in America as a homeless person living in New York's Central Park, who made a subsistence living delivering groceries. Through a series of almost miraculous encounters, he was able to lift himself up, graduate from Columbia University, and build a medical clinic in his native Burundi. Deo's is a life still in progress, and although his clinic is a triumph, we know he still has great things ahead of him.
This is to some extent a sequel to Kidder's earier book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, about Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health. Farmer is one of the people who Deo meets, and Deo begins working with PIH.
Kidder's writing is very vivid and immediate, and is told from Deo's point of view, so you feel as if you are traveling and experiencing all this with Deo. In particular you feel that he's not much better off as a homeless person in America than he was on the run in Africa, except that in America no one is trying to kill him.
On the other hand, because events are presented out of sequence, the vivid writing does not build much tension--the narrative starts in 2006 with Deo's return to Burundi, so we know that he has survived all the events that are detailed later and has prospered in his new country.
In Kidder's earlier book The Soul of a New Machine, the action was presented chronologically, and the book was always a cliff-hanger: you never knew until the end whether the team would succeed. In the present book the narrative tension is not in the arc of the story (which we know almost from the beginning) but in the anticipation of learning further, possibly horrifying, details about the kinds of lives most of us know nothing about.
I remember listening to NPR's in-depth reports about the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi. Horrified, I turned off the radio, but I couldn't turn off my imagination. Even though I admire other books by Kidder, I wasn't sure I was up to reading this one. I'm glad I took the chance.
Although Kidder's book is the story of genocide and the mad rush to survive, it's also a moving character study of Deo's family and life in Burundi and of his life living on the fringes of New York's immigrant population. The story of his arrival in New York City with $200 and a firm conviction that French is the universal language is an amazing journey, one which opens readers' eyes to the people it's all too easy to overlook as they do the jobs no one else wants.
Years ago I heard Kurt Vonnegut speak, and I'll never forget him saying that good fiction mirrors real life in that it is impossible to know the ramifications of individual actions in advance. Miss the bus? A Bad Thing in most fiction, but in real life the missed bus might prevent a tragedy. The story of Deo's survival would have been an excellent illustration of his thesis -- small actions, done differently, would almost certainly have led to his death. Had some people not decided to go good in the face of evil it is hard to imagine him living long enough to even reach the United States. Once in the United States, the kindness of strangers, coupled with his own talents and fierce determination, were awe-inspiring.
For whimps like me, I will mention that the structure of the book made it a bit easier to read about Deo's past than I had feared. The story is not told chronologically, so there is some small relief -- bits of horror interspersed by other narrative. The second part of the book is less intense, but moving, as we share Deo's return.
Deo's story deserves to be heard. How wonderful that Tracy Kidder is alive to tell it.
I just finished this book late last night. It took me only a couple of days to read it and after reading the harrowing journey of Deo, an African forced to flee his homeland, I am still reeling from the story. Like most Americans, I can not imagine life in other countries where one is slaughtered just because you're a member of a different tribe. Nor can I imagine how difficult it would be to go to school, let alone be in medical school, or even to get medical care. Life is vastly different from my corner of the world to other remote parts of the world. I am woefully ignorant and this book has enlightened me just a little bit more of my ignorance.
This book is a must-read for all serious readers. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking (which is my favorite kind of book to read). It is inspirational as well. This story is more than about a young man's fight for survival, it is about his home-coming as well, to build a clinic in his homeland in the midst of the fighting that has just stopped. Throughout this book, I can definitely relate to Deo's confusion as to why people are being slaughtered simply because of their tribal heritage. Who is exactly the Tutsi and who is the Hutus? Does it matter to the common folks caught in the middle of the genocide? Did it matter to Deo?
Deo is not from Rwanda, but is from the neighboring country Burundi. This book starts out with Deo's journey to New York City, a land so far removed from his country and the war that is ravaging his homeland. He started out as a delivery man for a grocery store, delivering groceries to the richest part of NYC. It was a totally alien world for Deo and I am ashamed to say, definitely the most unfriendliest world for him. One day he met a former nun, who eventually opened the doors for Deo to go back to school, and finding friends among the New Yorkers who can help his cause. This book also dives into his childhood, where he grew up on a mountain with his family, where he went to school and eventually making it to be a medical student. He was getting ready to do rounds when the attacks began. This book tells of his tale in getting out and trying to get back home ... and the confusion he felt, the numbness of watching a baby at its dead mother's breast, seeing hundreds of people being slaughtered, his brief time at the refugee camps, ... and more. This book cannot make the reader experience exactly what Deo felt but it did a good job of trying. The genocide of Rwanda and Burundi is now more real in my mind and it is awful. It makes the war in Sudan and Dafur have a more human face to it ... it is just no words to describe the atrocities of war.
This is not a bitter book. Deo is far from being a bitter man. Instead of just living in America and becoming a doctor (so far, in this advanced reader's guide), he put his medical studies on hold and went home to build a medical clinic there, with the help of his friends and co-workers. Deo took Kidder on a tour of his flight as well as a tour of his homeland of where he grew up, his first school and medical school and more ... Kidder did a great job of describing it from Western eyes and conveying the grace that makes Deo a memorable person. Instead of being bitter, Deo is human and graceful and honest.
This is definitely a reading that is worthwhile. It is written thoughtfully and Deo's voice comes through loud and clear. His sorrow, confusion and wonder all come through in Kidder's words. It is definitely an unforgettable book and one that I will recommend to everyone. I hope the finished version is just as wonderful as this advanced reader's copy is. One cannot put this book down and not be moved by the story. It is an incredible journey, one not to be forgotten.
on November 3, 2009
Fans of Tracy Kidder's incredible "Moutains beyond Mountains" are likely to be attracted to this book. It tells the harrowing story of Deogratias, a medical student from Burundi, caught up in the horrifying Rwandan genocide of 1994. After a mind-bending six-month escape, he finds himself in New York City, practically penniless, and not speaking the language. With the help of his incredible inner strength and the fortuitous help of some generous souls, he finds work, enters college and begins work on his medical degree.
But "Strength" is not a feel-good story about happy endings in spite of difficult beginnings. The subtitle, "A story a rembrance and forgiveness" is only half right. Deo is trapped in his terrible memories and struggles over years to come to terms with them. But forgiveness? If forgiveness is the ability to work alongside your people's killers without murdering them in return, I suppose the book is about forgivenss. But the word never comes from Deo himself.
Deo is an extraordinarily intelligent and resilient man. But it's hard to feel that his story is enough to fill this book. Kidder is a gifted writer, but even he seems to struggle. About 2/3 of the way through the book, he inserts himself into the story, as he accompanies Deo on a tour the sites of his youthful trauma. Kidder shares his impressions of people that he spoke about through Deo's eyes in the first half of the book. But the one thing that could bring unity to the book, a glimpse of Deo's inner life, is nearly absent from the writing. Kidder watches Deo from the outside, but cannot inhabit him, and seems not to want to. This is a major shortcoming, especially for such an important topic.
In the end, the book is neither about Rwanda, nor about Deo's struggele to become a doctor, nor about living poor in New York, nor about the mindset of genocidal killers. It is not about much beyond a telling, from a safe remove, of one man's story. But in glimpses, it is a book about the pain that must be carried following an absurd encounter with death and horror. And it is about the few human beings who are humane and generous enough to extend a hand to a fellow sufferer. It is about the never-dying face of ethnic violence in central Africa. Aspiring to be paean to the human spirit, "Strength in What Remains" chronicles the daily dilemma of surviving in a world tilted toward death.
You can see the fundamental problem with this book just by looking at the cover. What are the largest words on the cover? Right: Tracy Kidder, the author. The title is in much smaller type. And the person whose story this is is entirely missing. Invisible.
Tracy Kidder is a skillful writer, a Pulitzer prize winner, as the cover will also inform you. But he is not African, and he did not survive the genocide in Burundi or the dangers on the streets of New York. This is not his story to tell.
The person whose story this is is named Deo Gratias. To hear Kidder's telling of the story, one might think that Deo is some sort of idiot savant. He speaks fluent French as well as his native language, and he is a medical student in Burundi. But when horrendous violence breaks out in his country, forcing him to flee for his life, Kidder imagines Deo's thoughts as if the man has no idea what he's doing. He mistakes Moscow for New York, and arrives in the United States finally almost by accident. He roams the city helplessly for a while, but before you know it, he has been accepted into Columbia University, an Ivy league university. Gee, maybe he's not as naive as Kidder seems to imagine he is.
While Kidder's writing can be haunting and evocative, he also makes rather inexplicable choices in how to tell this story. The first half of the book is called Flights, and it tells Deo's story in the third person omniscient, as if he were a character in a novel whose thought Kidder can know from within. Then in the second half of the book, called Gusimbura, a Burundian word that means something like "Forget" or "Don't remind me," Kidder tells the story in first person, including himself as he travels with Deo to the places in the story. As other have mentioned, this part of the book is far more awkward than the first part.
To make the book even more disjointed, the first half is not presented in chronological order, but jumps back and forth for no apparent reason: The trip from Burundi to New York in 1994 is told first, followed by a detailed narrative taking place in New York in 1994. Then we flash back to the 1970s in Burundi, back to the United States in 1994 for 3 chapters, then Burundi 1976-1993. Then we jump to New York 1993-2000, Africa 1993-1994, and then it is 2003 and the author and his subject are in Boston. I understand the usual plan of starting a story at an exciting scene and then going back to the beginning and leading back up again to that climactic moment. But this book jumps and jars the reader over and over again, making it very difficult to keep track of how a man who arrives speaking no English manages to find his way to a top university, and how much time was involved.
What bothered me most about the whole story was the fact that it is being filtered through Tracy Kidder's mind and imagination. If Deo Gratias is smart enough to graduate from Columbia University and study at Dartmouth Medical School, one assumes he could also write his story himself, if he chose to do so. Since his French is perhaps more fluent than his English, he could certainly write his life story in French, and it could be translated into English. And then instead of Kidder describing how Deo gazes off into the distance, remembering and forgetting, Deo could show us what is actually haunting his mind.
As for this story being uplifting....well maybe my powers of uplift are defective, but to me it's uplifting the way Holocaust memoirs are uplifting: one is stunned at the depths to which human beings, particularly in large groups, can sink, and perhaps relieved to know that in spite of it all, an individual can manage to survive and recover from the horror. But the bitter truth is that human beings can behave worse than any animals.
on August 30, 2009
Genocide is hard to grasp in the large view. It almost becomes impersonal--so and so many Jews, Armenians, Rwandans etc. In telling the story of one man's horror, the reality of the experiences hits home. If you read this book, be prepared for some horrendous imagery that will stick with you for a long time. Many of the scenes are vivid enough to live on in your dreams. I won't recount them here. You need a strong stomach and a stable personal base for some of them.
One thing we know about trauma, is that transcending it requires some measure of repair, of doing for others, of trying to make sure this does not happen again. Trauma is transformed--eventually and with great pain--into effective action to make the world a bit better. And this is Deo's story--the story of one remarkable man's survival and his later transformative work.
I found the first part of this book, where Deo's story is told, to be captivating; the Victor Frankl of the Ruwanda/Burundi genocide. I was a bit less pleased with the second part of the book where the author talks about his own travels with Deo and Deo's eventual work in Burundi. I wanted to hear that story again through Deo's words, not Tracy Kidder's. I found Tracy Kidder writing about Deo a bit jarring.
Overall the book is mesmerizing.
on July 9, 2009
I'm not certain what I expected when I ordered this book. I knew that Tracy Kidder was a fine writer having read excerpts of his work in magazines. However, I had never been really 'grabbed" enough previously to read one of his books in toto. Amazon Vine gave me a great opportunity to discover this powerful writer.
Kidder has an astonishing way of describing the horror which Deo escaped. Yet, the book is more...much more...than the story of genocide. This is the story of every immigrant who left his country to escape persecution, violence, starvation..and the story of the shattering adjustment that immigrants have to make to survive in a new culture and country. This is the story of everyone who has experienced a trauma which shakes their belief in humanity and their own ability to survive...how victims forge forward, how they seek help or help comes to them, how their upbringing and spiritual beliefs give them the strength to reclaim their lives.
There is a Deo everywhere...the guy who barely speaks enough English to give you change when he delivers your pizza, the stooped woman who empties your office trash, the faceless men who manicure our lawns, the families who go through the garbages in affluent neighborhoods in hopes of finding shoes for their kids.
I hope that we can now look at each of them as Kidder looked at Deo. Each one of these is a hero and we should honor them.
Such an inspiring story of an African man's triumph over adversity, hatred and humanity's imperfections! Trouble is it should have been much more inspiring. If you've read this far you know the story's outline so I won't resummarize. The book is well written and the story will hold you transfixed--at least for the first two thirds of its pages. Then with an abrupt change of focus from the indomitable Deogratias to his New York benefactors and then to the author himself, the narrative loses its drive. The circumstances suddenly go from vivid to vague, and the context of Deogratias' return to Burundi is reduced to a series of events more relevant to the writer more than the subject--or even contemporary Africa. The ending arrives as a virtual anticlimax: more a celebration of childhood nostalgia than the summation of a powerfully told story of a truly heroic victory of the human spirit. It's by no means a bad book, it's just poorly organized and reads like something rushed too hastily into print.