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Strength in What Remains [Hardcover]

Tracy Kidder
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

25 Aug 2009
Tracy Kidder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and author of the bestsellers The Soul of a New Machine, House, and the enduring classic Mountains Beyond Mountains, has been described by the Baltimore Sun as the “master of the non-fiction narrative.” In this new book, Kidder gives us the superb story of a hero for our time. Strength in What Remains is a wonderfully written, inspiring account of one man’s remarkable American journey and of the ordinary people who helped him–a brilliant testament to the power of will and of second chances.

Deo arrives in America from Burundi in search of a new life. Having survived a civil war and genocide, plagued by horrific dreams, he lands at JFK airport with two hundred dollars, no English, and no contacts. He ekes out a precarious existence delivering groceries, living in Central Park, and learning English by reading dictionaries in bookstores. Then Deo begins to meet the strangers who will change his life, pointing him eventually in the direction of Columbia University, medical school, and a life devoted to healing. Kidder breaks new ground in telling this unforgettable story as he travels with Deo back over a turbulent life in search of meaning and forgiveness.

An extraordinary writer, Tracy Kidder once again shows us what it means to be fully human by telling a story about the heroism inherent in ordinary people, a story about a life based on hope.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 277 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (NY); First Edition First Printing edition (25 Aug 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400066212
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400066216
  • Product Dimensions: 2.3 x 16.5 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,682,307 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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`A riveting, cogent account of ethnic catastrophe and migrant survival that seemingly places the reader right inside Deo's soul' --Metro

`An inspirational story' --The Times

`A fascinating, uplifting book' -- Irish Examiner

`A remarkable feat' -- Catholic Herald --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

'Tracy Kidder may have just written his finest work ... one of the truly stunning books I've read this year' New York Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unforgettable, amazing story 2 July 2010
I have given this book five stars and it deserves them. This is a true story written by a skilful writer who crafts relity in to a style that has the flow of a fictional read - where the author has the privilege of being able to choose where his story goes.

Tracy Kidder has breathed magic in to this tale of Deo - who amazingly found his way out of genocide to the brutality of a New York that has no time for the displaced and damaged seeking refuge from horror or war. Deo did not want pity nor did he want charity, he wanted to be a Doctor so that he could help his homeland.

Unlike the other reviewer, I think the way Tracy Kidder moved from Deo's present to his past was a creative judgement - you never left the struggle that he had experienced for long because he kept returning to it - I think this was because he wanted to show us that Deo lived with this memory of genocide every day, he never slept because it haunted him so much. Kidder kept the subtle horror of this human devastation ticking constantly. So I think it works perfectly - in an almost film-like quality.

I also think Kidder wanted to touch you with the soul of these people - in news coverage you never understand the family/community/personality aspect of these war ravaged zones but Deo's story brought these home to you. They are people with aspirations and family love exists there just as here.

Deo is my hero for he returned to help those that had not escaped. He did struggle with his memories but he triumphed over the struggle of being ruined by them. Every page of this book shows how amazing life can be, people you meet along the way, random acts of kindness, books that you read, these all had impacts on Deo's own story of survival. Do read it - you will be educated, you will be charmed, you will be saddened at human cruelty but you will be inspired. Kidder deserves an award for writing this book, everyone should read it.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
"And as day was about to dawn, Paul implored them all to take food, saying, 'Today is the fourteenth day you have waited and continued without food, and eaten nothing. Therefore I urge you to take nourishment, for this is for your survival, since not a hair will fall from the head of any of you.' And when he had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat." -- Acts 27:33-35

Deogratias is someone you won't forget. His story brings painfully home the inhumanity of modern genocide as well as it does the uncaring of many Americans to those who arrive on these shores after having barely survived horrors elsewhere. His story and his life deserve more than five stars.

I graded the book down because I found the structure of this book to be annoying. The book opens with a scene from a trip that Mr. Kidder and Deogratias took to Burundi in 2006. Then the book launches into describing the tail end of Deogratias' escape from Burundi where he boards a plane there to begin a trip to New York and continues with his story through becoming a grocery delivery person in Manhattan who sleeps out at night in Central Park and is in despair. Next, the book jumps back to his growing up in Burundi. From there, the book jumps forward into the next stage of his life in New York when he meets a friend who helps, Sharon McKenna, and what ensues there. The book next jumps back to cover Deogratias' education through third year of medical school in Burundi, as well as explaining a little about the animosities between the hard-to-distinguish Hutus and Tutsis there. Then you go to New York again as Deogratias begins his studies at Columbia.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.3 out of 5 stars  184 reviews
369 of 385 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Splendor in the Blood-stained Grass 29 Jun 2009
By Daniel Murphy - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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. 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!
94 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Catharsis for us and the renewal of strength 30 July 2009
By Aceto - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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.
140 of 156 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Low-key account of genocide and recovery 22 July 2009
By Allen Stenger - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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.
37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Paying It Forward 12 July 2009
By SandyCB - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Incredible Journey to Life 27 Jun 2009
By Busy Mom - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
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.

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