Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Good Talk

Daniel Menaker believes that "Curiosity is the basis of good conversation." And he should know. After all, he's an expert now that he has written a book called A GOOD TALK: THE STORY AND SKILL OF CONVERSATION. Menaker is a former editor from The New Yorker Magazine and Random House, where he edited Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Strout, among others. Menaker is also an accomplished author himself, who has written a novel (The Treatment) and two wonderful collections of  short stories (Friends and Relations and The Old Left). In addition, he was the host of Title Page TV, an on-line program featuring in-depth discussions of books and authors, which was pulled after it ran out of funding. Drats!

The act of conversation is minimalized every day thanks to technologies like email, text messaging and Twitter.  But Menaker's book offers an exploration of conversation as an art form. It is a smart, witty and very insightful account of the history of conversation, and Menaker also offers advice and strategies for how to talk to people you don't know very well. Topics include how to deal with bores, interruptions, name-dropping, repetition, ordering in restaurants and topics of discussion to avoid. Menaker even offers transcripts of actual conversations he has had and then distills them to discover hidden meanings, agendas, and glaring faux pas. As an inquisitive person and a writer who is fascinated by dialogue and how people communicate with each other (things said vs. things not said), it was a fascinating and entertaining read. Be sure to tune in to the video on Mr. Menaker's website, where he undertakes to promote the book via a very clever interview - with himself!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Strength in What Remains

You never know just who might be bagging your groceries at the food store . . . Such is the case with the central character in the latest book by Tracy Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains), a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has carved out his own niche in the creative nonfiction genre. Kidder is a gifted writer who crafts well-plotted, page-turners about real people in the throes of real life events. In STRENGTH IN WHAT REMAINS, he tells the story of Deo, a young man who is in the midst of his medical education when he suddenly finds himself caught up in the genocide that infiltrates his homeland of Burundi (Africa).

A violent, tribal war between the Hutus and the minority Tutsis, forces Deo (a Tutsi) to be swept away from his family. On the run, he escapes death while witnessing graphic and horrific evils. With $200 in his pocket, Deo gets himself on a plane bound for New York (he thinks he's actually going to Belgium) where a cast of strangers, who appear more like angels of providence, begin to help him make a new life in America.

There is a baggage handler at Kennedy Airport who assists Deo through immigration and helps him navigate around New York City. Deo lands a job bagging groceries (working for a boss who is a demeaning tyrant), while he camps out in abandoned buildings in Harlem and later in Central Park. One day, while delivering groceries, he meets an ex-contemplative nun who, after learning of Deo's plight, takes him on as her quest. She sets out to find Deo a proper home and enlists the help of a couple (middle-aged intellectuals) who let Deo camp out in the library of their apartment in SoHo. For the next seven years, it is through the generosity of this couple and the persistent effort of the ex-nun, that Deo is able to return to pursuing his education, studying at Columbia and later, Harvard.

The story is told in a parallel structure. Scenes from Deo's life in New York are intercut with scenes from Deo's harrowing experience amid the terrors of the Burundi genocide. In the last third of the book, the author himself joins the action in Deo's quest to raise money to create (from the ground up, literally) a public health system to aid folks in contemporary Burundi.

It's an extraordinary story.  But for me, I wondered where and how Deo derived his inner strength. His name Deo or Deogratias translates to "Thanks be to God." Before the genocide and even after all the horrors Deo witnessed, what were his core beliefs? What was the level of his spirituality?  

The two paragraphs below (page 186) are beautifully rendered, and they offer the only glimpse of insight to shed light on this point:
Before we left, Deo wanted to visit some of his favorite extracurricular spots: the benches overlooking Harlem on Morningside Drive and the Riverside Church and finally St. John the Divine, the immense unfinished Gothic cathedral in Morningside Heights...We sat down in a pew some distance from the grand altar. There seemed to be a service in progress up there, but we were seated too far away to hear it. "It really blows my mind," said Deo. "The first time I was here I was taking art (at the university) and I said, 'God, if the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is better than this . . . " He laughed. "I mean, just look at it."

We were surrounded by towering columns. The place was vast, dark, and mysterious. We talked quietly. I had the impression it was in this place and in his other sanctuaries that Deo had reconciled his experience of genocide with his belief in God. He liked to frame his solution jocularly: "I do believe in God. I do believe in God. I think God has given so much power to people, and intelligence, and said, 'Well, you are on your own. Maybe I'm tired, I need a nap. You are mature. Why don't you look after yourselves?" Deo would pause, then say, "And I think He's been sleeping too much."
Kidder makes the case that Deo, a student of philosophy, believes in action more than reflection. But did it ever cross Deo's mind or did he ever consciously recognize positive forces greater than himself at work - forces that saved him, opened doors of opportunity and ultimately enabled him to achieve his goals and give back to those in his homeland?