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What Is the What by Dave Eggers
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What Is the What (2006)

by Dave Eggers

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5,023138899 (4.17)203
21st century (28) Africa (276) American (35) autobiography (39) biographical fiction (22) biography (115) Civil War (38) Darfur (26) Ethiopia (28) fiction (448) genocide (53) historical fiction (37) immigrants (28) immigration (36) Kenya (28) literature (34) lost boys (127) McSweeney's (39) memoir (101) non-fiction (104) novel (71) own (27) read (47) refugees (145) signed (22) Sudan (350) to-read (108) unread (42) USA (30) war (101)
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Showing 1-5 of 129 (next | show all)
An excellent read. This is the story of young Valentino Achak Deng, a boy who left Southern Sudan when war broke out in his home town of Mariel Bai. He literally had to run for his life as he watched people all around him being killed by soldiers, eaten by lions or starving from hunger and thirst as he and others made their way on foot to Ethiopia and later were relocated to a refugee camp in Kenya. Although this was a novel, it was told in first person by Dave Eggers and is based on a true story. ( )
  SqueakyChu | Jun 11, 2014 |
lost boys of Sudan ( )
  lindaspangler | Apr 24, 2014 |
The kind of book that confirmed for me that readers (this seems to be an occupational hazard, or at least quirk) have different phases and there are different times that things should be read. I picked this book up in the summer intending to read it and get it out of my life (i.e. off my shelves; they groan with the weight of unread books) and couldn't even begin to find my way into the story. I put it down and only just picked it back up again this week, and I'm already halfway through it.

I'm still leery of Eggers' appropriation/adaptation? of the Lost Boys' story though it does raise the interesting question of who gets to say what, especially when certain voices (like those of well-regarded award-winning and admittedly very talented young authors) might speak louder than others, and are therefore able to speak to a larger audience than perhaps the more authentic voices. Knee-jerk reaction against subtitling the book "The Autobiography..." but for those post-post-modernists out there, well, I can understand the complicating/compromising of What It Means To Use Certain Terms.

But I'm enjoying it, to say the least, even if I find Achak a little more westernized? liberally left-winged? than I can believe. The story, elle va. ( )
  50MinuteMermaid | Nov 14, 2013 |
The worst book I have ever read. What's wrong with everyone? You can have sympathy for refugees and not like the book. If you like this book you obviously have no taste. This assault on the English language and the reader's attention is rated higher than 1984. Go figure. The author is not even African. Ah!! ( )
  SpaceyAcey | Sep 23, 2013 |
I did wind up loving this, but it took some time. This is a novel--and non-fiction. As put in the Preface, the book is the "soulful account" of the life of Valentine Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" of the Sudan from the time he was separated from his family in Marial Bai to the thirteen years he spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to his "encounters with vibrant Western cultures, in Atlanta and elsewhere." Many an author would have just chosen to call it a biography and in the tradition of Truman Capote, make up many details, claim the license of"creative non-fiction" and call it a day. Eggers did something a bit different. Eggers at first planned a conventional biography, but as I read in an article afterwards, he kept feeling his own voice got in the way. So after discussing it with Deng, what he wrote instead was a "novel" based on his life--one that allows for the liberties and dramatizations of fiction, but firmly based on his experiences and attempting to capture his voice. I prefer that choice, mixing non-fiction with fiction and calling it a novel, than doing the same and claiming it as non-fiction, but it did still leave me with questions at times about what really happened.

At first I didn't think this was succeeding very well. Eggers tells the story by weaving in the story, told past tense, of Deng's life as a refugee in Africa and an immigrant in America with his present in America, told present tense, beginning with him being assaulted and robbed in his own apartment. He mentally tells his story to the people dealing with him in that present--from the robbers to the police officer to the emergency room receptionist to the clients of the gym where he works. And, considering the present he's experiencing, the voice at first came across to me as rather whiny and self-pitying. Plus, his voice came across to me at first as rather formal and stilted--not inappropriate really to someone for whom English was a second language, but I faced it with a little skepticism not at that point knowing Eggers' process. Was this the voice of someone from Sudan? Or what Eggers thought one would speak like? I even at one point wondered if the preface itself was fictional. But no, I looked it up and Deng is a real person, who really went through the experiences in this book, and eventually I let go of my mistrust and let myself be drawn in and allow myself to care, and by the end I cared a lot. I also, especially given the beginning, feared this would be only a litany of horror and misery. But despite the tragedy, I found the story ultimately upbeat. Maybe it's because despite all the terrible things people do to each other, I couldn't help but be struck with the stories of incredible generosity along the way--from Sudanese, Kenyans, a Japanese relief worker, and Americans. The story is not completely bleak, even if much is heart-breaking; there was enough that was heart-warming to not make this too depressing a read. It's amazing just how resilient we humans can be.

And you do learn a lot along the way--about Sudan, about refugee camps where people are "penned up like cattle" for decades and yet find a way to have some sort of life--and sometimes escape. About a part of Africa where slavery lives on. About people exploiting refugees ("Aid bait") refugees exploiting the system ("recycling"), about bride prices and forced marriages and boy soldiers and "What is the What." That last refers to a Dinka myth. I'll leave you to find out about it in the book. Which I certainly hope you will read. Hey, sales to go to a foundation for education of Sudanese children--so all good. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Aug 15, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 129 (next | show all)
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I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.
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"They can come in different shapes and guises, but always wars come in increments. I am convinced there are steps, and that once these events are set into motion, they are virtually impossible to reverse."
"I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run."
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307385906, Paperback)

New York Times Notable Book
New York Times Bestseller


What Is the What
is the epic novel based on the life of Valentino Achak Deng who, along with thousands of other children —the so-called Lost Boys—was forced to leave his village in Sudan at the age of seven and trek hundreds of miles by foot, pursued by militias, government bombers, and wild animals, crossing the deserts of three countries to find freedom. When he finally is resettled in the United States, he finds a life full of promise, but also heartache and myriad new challenges. Moving, suspenseful, and unexpectedly funny, What Is the What is an astonishing novel that illuminates the lives of millions through one extraordinary man.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:56:16 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A biographical novel traces the story of Valentino Achak Deng, who as a boy was separated from his family when his village in southern Sudan was attacked, and became one of the estimated 17,000 "lost boys of Sudan" before relocating from a Kenyan refugee camp to Atlanta in 2001.… (more)

» see all 6 descriptions

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