Sunday, July 13, 2008


Tracy Kidder and Paul Farmer
For the past month, driving on the road and in town, I've been listening to the CD version of Tracy Kidder's Mountains Beyond Mountains. It's an extended profile of the incredible Paul Farmer, a Harvard M.D. who specializes in infectious diseases and has made a career out of combatting MDR (Multiple-Drug Resistant) TB and AIDS, problems that often co-exist, especially in the developing world. He spends much of his time at a clinic he founded on Haiti's central plateau, but Partners in Health (PIH), the organization he helped start up, has outposts in Peru, Siberia, Rwanda and other locations. Farmer's background in anthropology (an undergrad degree from Duke) and his abiding interest in the cultural roots of medical issues gives him a unique perspective on some of the world's most intractable health problems. It helps too that he has seemingly unlimited energy and a mind like a steel trap. It's hard to overstate the impact his ideas and practices have had on the world health scene. For the book, Kidder follows his usual modus operandi, shadowing his subject and engaging in what is often called "immersion research." This includes flying all over the world with Farmer, observing him in action in almost every conceivable venue, which takes in a lot; Farmer is in great demand as a consultant and speaker.
I've read every book Kidder has written since his Pulitzer Prize-winning Soul of a New Machine (1981), a fascinating account of the seemingly boring process of building a new computer. My favorite is House (1985), a detailed account of the contruction of a house in Massachusetts, with an emphasis on the builders, the owners, and the architect. Kidder's work, like that of John McPhee, suggests that nearly anything can be made interesting when it's given painstaking and creative attention. In the case of Mountains Beyond Mountains he was dealing with an inherently interesting subject, the amazing Paul Farmer, as well as others in his circle like Ophelia Dahl and Jim Yong Kim.
One difference between this and Kidder's previous journalsm is the author's stance. Kidder makes himself a character, something he avoided in previous books, so that we are aware of his struggle to keep up with the tireless Farmer as he treks up a mountain to visit a patient. Kidder followed this 2003 book with a memoir, My Detachment, an account of his service in Vietnam--and there too he obviously revealed much of himself. According to this recent interview, Kidder is still in touch with Farmer and is pleased that his book has played a role in publicizing the doctor's work.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ishmael Beah's A LONG WAY GONE

Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier is a gripping, harrowing account of the author's coming of age as a teenage military recruit in war-torn Sierra Leone. He tells about how he and several friends left home at age 12 to visit the village of Mattru Jong 16 miles away. While there, word comes that Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels have attacked their hometown, killing many people. When they attempt to return, they see people fleeing the area and are first exposed to the brutality directed toward civilians. Beah never again sees his family members, and this marks the beginning of a long ordeal. Eventually, he and his friends are forced to fight with the Sierra Leone army. They go through a grueling whirlwind training and are issued AK-47s. A couple of the boys aren't even strong enough to hold their weapons up to fire them. Beah is lucky enough to survive in the catastrophic environment, and he reports his own implication in acts of extreme violence and cruelty. The soldiers are given drugs to desensitize them and are in other ways enured to the brutality that surrounds them. Finally, he is fortunate enough to be saved by a United Nations group that is in Sierra Leone trying to prevent the recruitment of underaged fighters. He is flown to New York to speak at the UN about his life, and ultimately he's able to return to the U.S. where he eventually attends Oberlin College. He now lives in New York and speaks on behalf of children affected by war.

His book (begun under the guidance of Oberlin professor Dan Chaon) is engagingly written, containing an astonishing amount of detail about events in Sierra Leone. Occasionally, there is a sort of sophomoric naivete in the language, which actually seems to fit the voice of the former boy soldier. Here's a typical passage:

The villages that we captured and turned into our bases as we went along and the forests that we slept in became my home. My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed. The extent of my thoughts didn't go much beyond that. We had been fighting for over two years, and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen.

The leanness, even bluntness, of the writing serves well to convey the life he lived, despite the cliches ("as if my heart had frozen") that sometimes creep in. The language suggests a tension between boyish wonder or matter-of-factness and the horrors that he experiences.

There were certain passages, such as when he is shot three times in the same foot, that raise for me some questions about credibility. So I was not surprised to find that others have questioned various elements of his story. No one doubts that he was a boy soldier and experienced extreme horrors. But a group of reporters from The Australian (a Rupert Murdoch publication) have called into question some aspects of his tale, as Gabriel Sherman reports in SLATE. There is some evidence that he was a soldier only two months, not the two years that he mentions above. The factual questions have created a vitriolic debate between the publisher (Farrar Strauss and Giroux) and the reporters. Even Beah's English prof from Oberlin has entered the fray. None of this is to minimize the impact of his story. There is no doubt that he directly experienced war in a way that few can imagine. And at least the book doesn't raise the more severe sorts of credibility issues that have come up with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces or, more recently Margaret Seltzer's concocted "memoir" of gang life in L.A.

A Long Way Gone comes out in paperback in August, so I'm tempted to make it a last-minute choice for my Literary Nonfiction class in the fall.
Judith Thurman writes in The New Yorker about prehistoric cave art
L.A. Times review of Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation
On Poetry Daily, two poems by David Wagoner that make me want to buy his latest book

Friday, July 04, 2008

Achebe, teaching, violinists, poetry, music

Chinua Achebe, winner of the 2007 Man Booker International Prize
Beginning to think about and plan for my fall courses, I returned the other day to Ken Bain's study of outstanding college and university teachers, What the Best College Teachers Do, published by Harvard University Press. In a nutshell, the best teachers maintain an intellectual interest in their subjects and convey that interest to their students, inviting them to join a professional conversation. They plan their courses based upon what student outcomes they want to produce, so in a sense they begin at the imagined end of the course. Whatever method they use in teaching (lecture, discussion, workshop, etc.), they establish a "natural critical learning environment", urging students to continuously ask questions and construct meaning for themselves, rather than being handed knowledge on a platter to be digested and forgotten. Good teachers assess student mental models and preconceptions and attempt to improve on those models, making them more accurate. They convey facts, but always in relation to problems, issues, larger concerns. They engender instrinsic motivation for learning, not extrinsic. They observe and think carefully about student learning types/modes and try to accomodate to those. Finally, they maintain high, though not unreasonable, expectations for students. Much of this is good common sense, but it's easy to lose track of these principles.

Yesterday I had lunch with my friend Claudia, former newspaperwoman and now an English/journalism teacher at a local college. I gave her a copy of Bain's book--a meager repayment for all the review copies of books she's given me over the years.