Sunday, June 24, 2012

Auditorium Speaker Series: John Irving and Teens Making a Difference

 The first speaker of the day was John Irving. I was kind of surprised to find that he was quite funny. I don't know why I was surprised. I just wasn't expecting it. He was a very engaging speaker. He spoke about how for him, the plot of a book is just as important, if not more important, then the characters themselves. He never starts writing a book until he knows what the end will be, and he lets the reader know what's coming. It's the small details that keep the reader reading. The plot is the engine that drives the story, you know something is coming that's not pleasant.

John Irving's new book is called In One Person and is about a bisexual man in his 70s. He read us part of the beginning. He's an excellent reader. I'd like him to do the audio book version himself. I would totally get it. The section he read was the main character, Billy, reflecting on when he was 13 and had his first crushes on both his mother's new boyfriend and the local librarian, who is a transsexual woman. A favorite line was the librarian Ms. Frost telling Billy, "Never trust a man with a lunatic wife in the attic. Or anyone named Heathcliff." Words to live by.

John Irving answered a few questions, one of which was "why are you so hard on mothers?" The evil mothers in his books do not reflect his own mother in any way, but there are some passages in the new book that do, in particular the passages that deal with Billy reflecting on how close and loving his mother was when he was young, but less so as he got older.

John Irving ended his talk with some words of wisdom: The worst advice came from Hemingway - Write what you know. Snore! Be like Herman Melville - Woe is he who seeks to please rather than appall.

A bit later in the day, I went to Teens Making a Difference where two very impressive teens talked about the work they'd done. The first was William Kamkwamba of Malawi. He is the co-writer of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. He spoke about how in his community everyone is a farmer. If there's drought or the prices or gas or seeds go up, life can be extremely difficult. In Malawi, it cost money to go to high school, and because of a drought, William's family could not send him to school. William did not want to be a farmer, and he knew the only way out of that was through education. He began studying on his own at the library so he wouldn't be too far behind his peers.

William became interested in science books, and one day read a book about windmills and how they could provide water. Here was a solution to the problem, so William decided to build one. Everyone thought he was crazy. People asked if he was on weed. His mother was concerned that onto one would ever marry him. Ultimately, William did build a windmill, although it was one that generated electricity, not water.

I very much enjoyed hearing William talk. He was funny and genuine. He is currently at Dartmouth and plans to return to Malawi and continue to help his community.

The second teen to speak was Talia Leman. When she was ten, she decided she was going to raise a million dollars for Hurricane Katrina relief by trick-or-treating for money rather than candy. She had a website that was seen by a talk show that had her and her brother on and children all across the country joined Talia's effort. In the end, ten million dollars was pledge toward Katrina relief.

Talia now runs a non-profit organization called RandomKid where organization back kid's ideas to better the world. I really liked the work that Talia was doing, but she spoke in platitudes which grew tiring. But she is a teenager, so I can't be too hard on her for using cliches.

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