Welcome to my blog. If you're addicted to books, like I am, then you've come to the right place. I mostly write about books and my experiences reading them. These are very personal book reviews. (If you can even call them book reviews...) I’m a true believer that none of us lives in a vacuum. When you read a book, watch a movie, listen to a song, etc., you absorb that art form into your life experience, and it changes you. But you also change it, because no two people see anything the same way. The way I interpret a novel may be totally different from the way you will. It’s still the same novel, but the meaning for each of us is unique. Once you express that meaning, it changes the art. So these posts are about how these books fit into my life. I’d love to hear how they fit into yours. Please make comment and share your experience.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review of Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Product DetailsConfession time---When I’m reading a book, I skip ahead.  And sometimes I read the end early.  It’s really a shameful trait for a reader.  I don’t always do it, but if some plot twist happens mid-book,  and I’m particularly worried about one of my favorite characters, I’ll skim ahead until I know they’re okay again.  I just can’t stand waiting to find out.  It’s a very bad habit. My dad scolds me all the time.  So do other book lovers who must have more patience than I.  With Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, however, I was able to read straight through, front to back, not because it wasn’t filled with intense parts, but because of the way the author structured it.  He didn’t follow the main character’s life chronologically.  Kidder skipped back and forth between his character’s childhood and young adult years in Africa, and then his later life in the US, so I knew he’d be okay in the end, because I’d already read about him 10 years later.   I found this structure a very comforting way to deal with a very intense, sometimes scary and disturbing story
This is the true (non-fiction) story of Deogratias (Deo).  You follow him from his childhood, herding cows in Burundi, through his medical school training in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, into the outbreak of civil unrest and genocide in that country.  He wanders through the Burundian and Rwandan countryside as a refugee for a time and then escapes to the US, where he works delivering groceries and sleeping in Central Park.  Eventually he finds friends to help him go to college (at Columbia!) and then medical school at Dartmouth.  There are no spoilers here, since Kidder jumps from time to time, you already know all these things about Deo as his story evolves. 
I love to encounter a story (either fiction or non-fiction) that brings a big historical or world news event out of the headlines and into the life of a single person or family. Intellectually, I knew about the genocide in Rwanda (though not in Burundi) and I knew it was horrible, but having heard only bits and pieces, I could still retain a sense of detachment.  But once that Hutu/Tutsi conflict had Deo’s name and face and experience plastered all over it, I felt it in a whole other place.    
In the second part of the book, Kidder switches from a third person narrative to first person, as he inserts himself into Deo’s tale as chronicler.  At first this switch really bothered me.  I couldn’t move past the change, but I found the reflection that this change enabled brought about the more thought-provoking parts of the book.  Kidder details his interviews with the people that helped Deo along the way and his and Deo’s return trips to Burundi. 
As a spiritual, but non-religious person, I am always intrigued by theological ramblings.  There were a few parts in the 2nd part of the novel that really had my wheels turning.  At one point, Kidder and Sharon, one of Deo’s friends and benefactors, speculate on the role of God when trying to understand how something like genocide can happen.  How do we understand suffering if God exists?  Kidder’s thoughts mirror my own in that I can’t understand how someone can say “God helped me” or “God spared me” when so many others aren’t helped or spared; is he really choosing one over another?  Sharon’s answer to this is an all-loving and inclusive God—He loves for every moment of every one’s existence.  Evil exists but that’s not God’s will. 
Deo’s own reconciliation of this came down to the free will argument.  God gives us free will and intelligence and then he lets us be.  “And I think He’s been sleeping too much,”  Deo says.  This is so fascinating to me.  It’s something I’ve thought so many times when hearing about wars and conflict and genocide.  I just came across another “absent Gods” reference in some completely fictional books, The Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold that also really intrigued me.  In these speculative fiction books, the Gods were absent because of a betrayal by the people.  When the people tried to take the Gods into themselves, they created an Evil in that act, and the Gods abandoned them.  It rings true in real life.  People create evil, God doesn’t.  Perhaps that’s why people don’t feel God’s presence in evil acts, but they do in the salvation from them. 
Another part I really loved is when Deo was explaining how after all the killing and destruction and heartbreak he could befriend and help the Hutus, who often had been responsible for killing Tutsis like Deo.  He spoke not of forgiveness, but of flexibility, of not setting your thoughts in stone and realizing that uncertainty and hardship are not necessarily bad things if you learn something and survive it.  He was giving them all the benefit of the doubt.  I could mull on this stuff for days. 
One part that resonated in my own life was when Kidder talked of how Deo transformed when they arrived in Burundi.   He had known him as a refugee, a stranger living in a country not his own, and therefore, never quite comfortable.  Once in his own country, Deo took charge of their situation, and as kidder said, he “had become a size larger.”  Not to reduce the Kidder/Deo relationship to a filial one, I’ve been on both sides of this.  As an exchange student, I felt the pride of being my parents’ tour guide in a foreign country where they didn’t speak the language and didn’t know the city.  I knew where to go. I knew how to take care of them and it was truly the first time I felt like an adult; the first time I felt capable and self-sufficient.  Even though I’d been doing it by myself for six months already, when my parents came and were dependent on me, suddenly that responsibility made me acknowledge that growth in myself.  As a parent, when I watch my child demonstrate some knowledge or capability that they couldn’t do before, I feel that that pride from the opposite end and they grow larger in my eyes, too. (Although I keep telling them to stop growing so I can savor the now for a little while longer…)
This is a really beautifully written and constructed book.   I found the telling of Deo’s story to be gripping, scary, heart wrenching, and heartwarming.  It kept me coming back page after page.  I enjoyed re-visiting the story from the perspective of the author and the people that helped Deo in his new life in the US.  And I loved mulling over all the philosophical bits scattered throughout.  I know this story will be with me for a long time.
Here’s my ratings: 
Overall rating—9
Check my Rating System Key if my ratings don't make sense to you yet.  :)

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