Read What Is the What by Dave Eggers Online


From the bestselling author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, 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,From the bestselling author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, 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.-back cover...

Title : What Is the What
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780307385901
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 538 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

What Is the What Reviews

  • Len
    2018-12-17 01:42

    If you know me at all, you know I read a lot. So I don't take these reviews lightly. Here goes: What is the What is without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read!The story of Valentino Achak Deng, a so-called Lost Boy of the Sudan, is so moving that after reading the book I went to his web site and signed up for information on how I can help the cause. Dave Eggers, who is easily one of my favorite fiction writers, has donated the proceeds of the book to a foundation co-founded by he and Valentino ( writing is brilliant and the story is compelling...but I think what makes the book so great for me is the sheer tragedy of this boy's life and the unbelieveable sense of courage and optimism he showed throughout a life that would have caused most people to simply give up. Valentino's courage is beyond belief. As his story unfolds, it's unimaginable that he could have survived and it's heartbreaking how at each turn things continued to get worse. His survival is a mystery that will never be solved...yet here he is as a young adult doing everything he can to help the world learn from his experience.The book was also a great history lesson about Sudan and Africa in general and gives the reader great insight into the troubles in Darfur today. If the world does not learn from this story then perhaps we are doomed as a species.Finally, though the story is Valentino's, the writing is all Eggers. He could have easily played the story as a straight biography, but instead Eggers weaves Valentino's life together in a beautiful way -- going back and forth between his time in Africa and his new life in Atlanta. And while his life in Africa was indeed a horror, his life in the U.S. is not much better and perhaps the biggest lesson of the book -- we have tried to help these Lost Boys but we are far from perfect and have made many mistakes as a society.It's ironic that this morning I awoke to a front page story in the Arizona Republic about a birthday celebration for Arizona's Lost Boys (there are about 500 Sudanese boys living in the Valley). They all celebrate their birthday on Jan. 1 because they have no idea when they were really born.It's also ironic that I finished this book around the same time as I saw The Kite Runner. When I read The Kite Runner, and even Hosseini's second novel A thousand Splendid Suns, I thought life was terrible for the Afghans -- but Valentino's real story makes the fictional story of the boys in The Kite Runner seem tame by comparison. But together these stories make me feel both lucky to live in America and at the same time ashamed that the world can let things like this happen.As I sat reading Valentino's story on my sofa, I thought here is a boy who has experienced things I couldn't even imagine, while I sit in my 2100 square foot home with a fridge full of food, two cars, a happy and relatively healthy family, casually spending $4 for a cup of coffee and throwing out more food each day than Valentino ate in a month. It reaffirms my political views and teaches me to be thankful for what I have -- and more importantly that I have a profound responsibility as a citizen of the world to help those who are less fortunate. If you think that makes me a bleeding heart liberal than I'm proud to wear that badge.Read this book. It will change your life.

  • Sergei
    2018-11-29 02:41

    It takes a certain and rare kind of writer to make a story about civil war, genocide, and a refugee crisis boring and unreadable; that writer, specifically, is Dave Eggers. It's not that I don't understand the purpose that this book serves - just as we import the Third World's raw resources to fuel our own material greed, so must we import their tragedies to break up the monotony of our lives. My question is - can't we get better books to do it?First of all, the voice is terrible. At points it reads like a parody of an American trying to imitate an African (oh, wait, it is, although Dave Eggers has probably at least met some, so I don't know what his excuse is). Take the very first sentence: "I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door." What, did the Sudanese civil war rob fake-Deng of the ability to use pronouns? The language is stilted and formal in a very amateurish way, not at all the way a young man talks, and for no good reason.Second, why is it that going through a capital-T Tragedy means that none of the characters are allowed to have personalities? This happens all the time in fiction about genocide. No one is allowed to be cowardly, or funny, or petty, or squabbling - everyone must be stoic and long-suffering, because they are Noble Victims, and that is how Noble Victims are supposed to act (in real life, many people who go through tragedy tend to develop dark, savage senses of humor, but you wouldn't know that from reading this). After all, you can only be a nuanced and articulated character if you grew up in the suburbs of America, preferably with an unhappy childhood and a substance abuse problem in college. Third, Eggers' writing is just flat and boring. Take, for instance, Eggers describing an air raid:"But the plane returned a few minutes later, and soon after, there was a whistle. Dut screamed to us that we needed to run but did not tell us where. We ran in a hundred directions and two boys chose the wrong direction. They ran for the shelter of a large tree and this is where the bomb struck."That's it? One of the most intense and terrifying things that can happen to you in life, and this is the treatment it gets? The plane returned and soon there was a whistle? Eggers writes like he just wants to get it over with. Which I don't exactly blame him for. There is a bit of unintentional humor - when, in the present story, Deng tells Americans that he's from Sudan, but not Darfur, they quickly lose interest, because Americans only care about the foreign trouble spots that are hip to care about. Dumb, trendy Americans! But the real joke, of course, is that concurrent with the Sudanese civil war was/is the one in the Congo, which dwarfs the Sudanese conflict in horror, body count, and anything else you can think of. But Eggers, along with the rest of the world, doesn't care, because it's messy and complicated, whereas in Sudan you have Good Guys and Bad Guys. Much easier to understand - and much easier to sell books about.All that having been said, Eggers is a genius; just not a literary genius. He is a genius for pulling the ultimate bait and switch: take someone else's story and then become the hero of it. Because that is who the hero is here, Dave Eggers, even though he doesn't appear once in the actual plot. After all, young Valentino's story would have remained untold - if it were not for the Deus Ex Maquina of Dave Eggers, who tells it like no one else can. Remember Eggers' first book, "A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius?" That title wasn't cutesy and ironic, it was literal. That's what Eggers wanted to write, and now he's given you one. So what if the heartbreak is someone else's? If you think I'm being too harsh, then ask yourself this: why didn't Eggers just write a nonfiction book, or a straight up biography of Deng? At points, I'm tempted to think that it's because he couldn't be bothered to do some basic research (i.e., the repeated references to "Darfurians"; "Darfur" means "The Land of the Fur," the Fur being the people that live there, so this is sort of like referring to Polish people as "The People From The Land of the Polish." Also, the 1997 death of Princess Diana for some reason seems to come in the plot well after the 1998 African embassy bombings). The answer is that Eggers needs to hide behind someone else's genuine suffering, because that defuses any criticism of his own lifeless, droning prose. Insult Eggers, and you're insulting the sanctity of the Sudanese Lost Boys' pain and suffering. Point out the platitudes that Eggers shovels out in lieu of the real questions, which generally do not have easy answers or any answers at all, and you're heartless and callow. It's not a hard shell game that Eggers plays here - but there is none better at it than him.

  • Jeff
    2018-12-14 02:50

    “Valentino, I just don’t know what God has against you”. These words were directed at the subject of this novel/biography and are pretty much a motif that runs throughout most of this book.This is one man’s true story of the Lost Boys of the Sudan. Valentino Achak Deng, at age seven, and thousands of boys just like him, endured all manner of hardship as they fled their homes as civil war (beginning in 1983) devastated their country. Their journey from refugee camp to refugee camp is fraught with the most horrific events you could imagine. This book is a testament to not only how cruel man can be to his fellow man, but also to Deng’s faith and perseverance. Calling this book sad or heartbreaking seems trite. Repeating a litany of hardships these boys endured would render them trivial. It’s inconceivable for me to imagine my own son at age seven (seven!?!) making this type of journey. There is also a parallel story of Deng’s robbery and assault while in this county. With everything this man has experienced, Deng was able to transcend these events and find purpose and meaning in his life.Although it says “novel” on the spine, as Dave Egger’s subject states, his earlier life had to be “fictionalized” to condense the story and fold characters into one another for narrative flow.This is not a book to read in order to be “entertained” but as an eye-opener or wake up call to what can go wrong in this world and a rallying cry to do something about it. Proceeds of the sale of this book go towards funding of a nonprofit organization to increase access to education in South Sudan. This is the web site: website also has a reader’s guide to the book.

  • Paul Bryant
    2018-11-20 19:03

    TOO MUCH, AND NOT ENOUGH : A PARADOX With her open and confident sexuality, she was the constant igniter of everything flammable within usHmm, if this Sudanese refugee & now American Valentine Achak Deng can turn a phrase like that, how come he needs Dave Eggars to shape his book and cop the byline? Okay, maybe he can't, maybe those delightful sentences are pure Dave. So what about this:"I had feared for a long time that secretly Tabitha was well versed in the ways of love and that the moment we were alone she would want to move too quickly."Now this sounds like the authentic voice of an African trying to speak of delicate matters in his second language to me, and comes off as horribly stilted, but understandably so. Okay, so no Dave Eggars there, that's pure Valentine. Now since it's the clunky uber-sincere stilted voice which tells 98% of this long tale, why is this book not bylined like all those celeb autobiographies - "by Valentine Achak Deng, as told to Dave Eggars". Does this matter much? Well, at the point where the ventriloquism starts to creep you out, yes it does.As everyone knows, this is a long catalogue of ghastly horrors suffered in Africa interspersed with a long catalogue of banal indignities suffered in Atlanta: "As we swam across the river I saw a crocodile swim by with a boy I knew slightly in its mouth... I was unfulfilled being the receptionist at a gym and I deeply regretted not being accepted by the Jesuit college of my choice... when I woke up I found my closest friend had died in the night...I gradually realised my girlfriend was playing fast and loose with other gentlemen..." etc etc. This flipfloppery clashed dissonantly in my ears like an untuned church bell, but nevertheless is it not profoundly human? As soon as the crocodile lets you go you start bitching about how his fangs ruined your only good Hugo Boss shirt. In Art Spiegelman's brilliant memoir "Maus" - another tale of horror told to someone who then tells it to us - the difficulties of Art's relationship with his survivor father loom just as large in the book as the atrocities of Auschwitz. Is this tastelessness? No, it's life as she is lived. I mean, is there a God? Do you think this jacket, or the other one? But would God allow such evil just for the sake of human free will, I mean, does that justify all this agony? So are you saying the brown shoes? Really?WHY THIS AND WHY NOT THAT?Three stars, not four or five? Well, there were so many aspects covered, great swathes of I confess tedious detail I could have done without, and yet so many other things not included - why this, why that? How? And of course, what? (Or more likely in this book WHAT??!!) And yet it was very compelling. Valentine is indeed a modern Ancient Mariner compelled to stop us wedding guests and fix us with a powerful gaze so that we have to hear his dreadful over-politely-phrased tale to the end.It would take a whole long essay to discuss the politics of this intensely political book. Was the airlift of the Lost Boys to America a "failed experiment"? Can the West ever really do anything about these decades-long conflicts in Africa? And further - is one lot of humans (here, the Sudanese Arabs) really wholly evil and another group (here the Sudanese Dinka) complete and utter innocent victims? Is this Valentine Achak Deng's whole story, or as I suspect do we now need another 537 pages of footnotes giving us all the context that's missing from this almost essential but extremely frustrating book?

  • Rachel
    2018-11-23 22:55

    GREAT STORY, NOT-SO-GREAT BOOK! This took me THREE MONTHS to finish!!! I did read other books in the meantime, but believe me, I wouldn't have dragged my feet on this one if the storytelling hadn't been so TERRIBLY AWFUL!Examples of STORIES told particularly badly ....a) The drama teacher Miss Gladys and the Dominicsb) The romance between Achak and Tabithac) Life at Kakumad) The story of Maria, the girl who called him Sleepere) The walk from Pinyudo to Kakumaf) The play times with Achak and the Royal Girls of Pinyudog) Achak's trip to the hospitalh) Achak's job at the fitness clubi) Achak's attempts to go to college in Americaj) The night when the Sudanese were invited to the basketball gameAND MANY MORE .... Some of the above should have been interesting stories, but they were written in such a matter-of-fact style, I could barely bring myself to read each line on the page. It was like forcing myself to read engineering textbooks!!!! OHHHHHH!Another thing ... this is supposed to be a fictional autobiography. It's not a REAL autobiography, because if it were, it would be all about Dave Eggers. NO, NO, it's all about Valentino Achak Deng. OK, so I get it ... Dave Eggers is PRETENDING to be Achak, and writing it just the way he thinks Achak would write it. And this (in part) is what makes it fictional. OK, FINE. Now the narrator of the autobiography (or, the fictional entity that Dave Eggers was conjuring up when he was pretending to be Achak) ... maybe he's the kind of guy who refuses to go on and on about his philosphical beliefs. Well, fine. But as a READER wanting to hear the story of Valentino Achak Deng, I want to know about that stuff. And we get practically nothing! For example, from reading the book, I would think this is the autobiography of an atheist. But our fictional narrator is Catholic. I know this because of occasional instances of praying, various run-ins with priests, and occasional times when God is mentioned. But I find it really annoying that the central character never seems to care enough about spirituality to discuss it. The lack of discussion about the narrator's beliefs extends to other areas besides just religion ... I wish he had discussed his motivation and ambitions that led him to be in charge at so many stages in his life, and his political views about the government of Sudan, hopes for peace, and so much more. Maybe the real VAD wouldn't have discussed philosophical matters in such a public forum as a book, and maybe that's why Dave Eggers, in pretending to be Achak, left these kinds of discussion out. I don't know. But I wish the real VAD would come out and write his autobiography so I could find out. From the web site, I can see the great work Achak is doing to lift up the people of Sudan. He seems like a great man. And you know what, I do not get that impression from this book. Honestly, I think the real VAD could do a much better job of writing his autobiography than Dave Eggers did of pretending to be him.This fictionalized autobiography device simply DID NOT WORK.Now, to be fair (and this is why the book gets 2 stars for "it was ok" instead of 1), there were a few parts of the book that I enjoyed. BITS OF PLOT TOLD RATHER WELL ...a) The portrait of Achak's life in southern Sudan before the fighting began, where his prosperous father owned a shop and had many wives; and there were various religions (Catholic, Muslim, and African/pagan/something?) intermingling somewhat peacefully; where he was loved by his mother in the yellow dress, played with William K and Moses, and would try to spy on Amath and her sistersb) Achak's first visit at Phil and Stacy's house, when a bunch of other Sudanese came in for dinner uninvited, and the ensuing story of Achak's friendship with Phil's familyc) Achak's running escape, as a 6-year-old boy, from the fightingd) The story of William K walking with Achake) Moses' story about being captured and turned into a slavef) The story told by the old man who was brought by the SPLA to speak to the Kakuma refugees about being the lone survivor of an attack on all the chiefs of the local tribesg) The friendship between Achak and Noriyakih) The story of a woman who comes to Achak's adopted family's home in Kakuma with news for Achak regarding his biological familyi) Achak's experiences on the drama group's trip to Nairobi when he gets to stay with Mike and Grace and go to the shopping mall with Tabithaj) The last week of Achak's time in Kakuma, and his weeks spent in Goal waiting for a plane to take him to America.This may seem like a lot, but bear in mind, this book is 535 pages, and some of these plotlines above only lasted a few pages. Looking back, it seems that the first 100 or so pages were good, and the last 100 pages were good. It was the part in the middle that made me want to tear my toe nails out. Hmmmm ... maybe those 335 pages in the middle are THE WHAT.Oooooooooooooooooh!

  • Stephanie *Very Stable Genius*
    2018-12-03 23:34

    Now that was a lot of information. Too much.Valentino Achak Deng is one of the lost boys of the civil war in Sudan. He survived a genocide, walking from Sudan to Ethiopia where boys were getting picked off one by one by lions in the night. Crocodiles, vultures, dysentery, soldiers tying to blow him up, starvation, a car accident, and a robbery in Atlanta after being relocated to the US.Life has not been easy for Valentino. Yet he somehow keeps going with a positivity that is hard to believe. The story is moving, and Dave Eggers can sure turn a phrase, but there was so much detail.....(oh my poor overloaded head) if this hadn't been an audiobook I never would have gotten through it.But that does not mean that I don't admire Valentino, or that I believe his story (and that of Sudan) should not have been told. I do.It just that, less is more sometimes.3.5 stars.

  • Lee
    2018-12-09 23:53

    Nine years after this was published I've finally read it. Have meant to read it since loving Zeitoun a few years ago. Wife listened to audiobook on long commute and deemed it a truly heartbreaking work of staggering genius -- also proclaimed herself an Eggers fan after not being so into his memoir. I didn't get to it for so long in part thanks to reviews on here that called it boring, unreadable, a mess, lacking structure and characterization, on and on, all of which I can now officially deem sort of nutso -- more a result of Eggersfraude most likely than anything else. At most maybe the second half is 100 pages too long, could've been accelerated in parts, but overall it sure seemed to me like a gripping quasi-autobiographical novel, conventionally structured in alternating sections of front and back story that more or less unite at the end, with the narrator directly addressing various front-story characters when he tells his history. Valentino is sort of like the Sudanese Job, afflicted at every turn by the worst from marauding Arabs to helicopters strafing his village to crocodiles to starvation to dysentery to lions to fatal accidents to burglars to deranged jealous ex-boyfriends to terrorists, on and on. (He has a lot of luck, too.) Well-characterized characters abound. Generally, it's an engaging, moving story of perseverance that makes you omni-aware of your privilege to have a goodreads account on which to right the wrongs of reviewers of yore.

  • Nathaniel
    2018-11-20 19:35

    When so much hype and reputation converge on such a complex and sensitive topic only to receive unchecked praise from the American publishing industry and profitable sales, I fear disaster, choir-preaching and the perpetration of harmful stereotypes. Despite my interest in African literature, in African conflicts and in the way that the developed world engages with Africa, I have been avoiding this book since I learned of its existence. A friend of mine who has lived and worked in Sudan vouched unreservedly for its authenticity and inoffensiveness and lent me her copy; I’m not mad at her.Dave Eggers more or less avoids cheapening his subject, weakening his message or losing credibility for the duration of a book comprised of stories that would tempt a narrator with less integrity to deploy every variety of manipulative, sensationalist, suspenseful and tear-jerking prose. The result is an unflinching, straight-forward, trustworthy and revealing testimony. I have no doubt that “What is the What” has communicated more deeply about the reality of Sudan’s recent atrocities than most other products in any media. And I consider this more of an ethical accomplishment than a literary one. Modern pragmatist philosophers (such as Richard Rorty) contend that one of the best ways to act ethically is to work towards expanding the circles of empathy of as many people as you can. They suggest doing this by telling stories from new perspectives that familiarize and humanize marginalized and oppressed peoples and by creating ethnographies that do the same work on a more scholarly level. A book like this is supposed to raise awareness, to sensitize people and to encourage action. To the extent that this book makes it harder for people to be idle or disinterested in the face of circumstances like those in the South of Sudan, it is successful; to the extent that it prompts people to take action about such circumstances, it is impressively so. Now, I’m not thrilled with Eggers’s decision to play a little game with the genre—calling this both an autobiography and a novel—and I’m not convinced by the reasons that are given for his doing so. Nor am I entirely comfortable with the narrative tactic of making Achak Deng directly address different parts of his story to whichever American seems to be disappointing him in the contemporary portion of “What is the What.” As readers quickly discover, the chapters of Deng’s tale that transpire in Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya are related by him (in his mind, somewhat accusingly) over the course of less than two days to Americans with whom he is interacting. It is all rather obvious that the Americans he addresses are just the cogs in the machinery of our populace, the people who refuse agency and responsibility, the people who are passive accomplices to the neglect of people like Deng—whether they struggle at dead end jobs, making change at our supermarkets or whether they struggle to survive in crude structures built of trash amidst vulnerable refugees on the far side of earth. It’s an interesting tactic, clearly built to abolish narrative distance and to refresh a sense of accountability; but it can seem a bit forced.I don’t think the prose warrants excerpting or stylistic analysis, nor am I tempted to highlight any particular episodes of Deng’s life. There are charming bits to the story, therapeutic moments of good fortune and humanity and there are scarring accounts of human behavior at its worst. The book is worth reading for its even keeled navigation of these moments, for the insight it offers into life in a refugee camp and for the mirror that it holds up to the United States as it fails to approximate the ideal of “sanctuary.” Respect to Dave Eggers for donating the profits he could have made from this endeavor to the cause of other Lost Boys from Sudan.

  • Megan Baxter
    2018-11-19 20:40

    I'm having trouble coming up with the right word to describe reading this book. "Enjoyed" is definitely not the right word - although the book is well-written, it's hard to call it enjoyable, nor is it trying to be. Moving? Something seems facile and reductionist about that, to reduce the story to something that affected me briefly, as if it is all about me.Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook

  • Miss. Gray
    2018-12-11 01:54

    Dave Eggers tells Achack's story much like you would hear it if you had befriended the Sudanese refugee yourself. this book is like a conversation with a good friend. you start where you are. "hello, how are you, i am being robbed at gun point". you move back to the begining. "this is where i am from, the world was dust, we knew it to be Sudan, there was no more". but, to explain the begining, and to get to the end, you often have laughs in the middle. "successful with women". eventually a life is woven infront of you, and somewhere along the way you become a part of the story. it's just that i haven't had a conversation like this before, one that starts with a burglary in Atlanta, draws you back to a small village in soutern Sudan, and marches you in and out of Ethiopia, the jungles, the rivers, the lions stare, over the bodies, into the refugee camps, into love, out of heartbreak. this is a vast story. this is a story told unflinchingly by the best of humanity, told of the worse afflicition humanity can bring down. of one person who knows his story intermingles with millions of others. this is about the Lost Boys, about the civil war of Sudan, of apparent caste systems and the invisible ones, about loss and grief, the physical and emotional distress that a body can handle, love, war, violence, learning to write in dirt, growing up, struggle, transformation, adaptation. mostly this is a clear voice that has every right to be broken or twisted, but it is not, it remains even lyrical, humorous. what i am left with is the word war, how small it is. like boy. these words should have thousands of letters in them to convey their impact, because i had no idea. you can hear these words and they might conjur one image. maybe two or three. but what Dave Eggers and Achack have done is paint a huge landscape behind three letters. murals upon murals in my head, and what is hung on them is so touching, so sickening and moving, such a story is told that you can't go back to where you were before. boy. war. give me better words. give us a better world to match this boy. this might be one of the most important books of our time. it is absolutley required reading.

  • Rosa
    2018-11-29 22:57

    It took me a million years to finish reading this book. Even up to the very end, 30 pages from the end, then 20, then 10, then 5, I kept thinking, "Isn't this over yet?" I keep wondering if not being crazy about this novel makes me a bastard, because not only does the book aim to educate people about the staggering crisis in southern Sudan, but Dave Eggers donated 100% of the proceeds to help build schools, public libraries, etc., in the protagonist's war-torn village. It just struck me as being very monotonous... which, again, seems like a horrendous thing to say. The guy was forced to live in a refugee camp for ten years, so monotony was what defined his life for a very long time. I can't figure out if it was the actual events that I found boring (which would make me a soulless ghoul for sure), or if it was the narration. Looking at other reviews, it does seem that some other readers struggled to finish this book as well. I find discussing the book more interesting than the actual reading of it, namely, debating about Eggers's decision to write the book as a work of fiction despite the fact that the protagonist is a living person. Eggers said in numerous interviews that he initially started writing this as a work of nonfiction, but his own voice kept getting in the way, and it was only after deciding to write it as fiction that he felt sufficiently freed up to let Valentino Achek Deng's voice shine through (whuh?). But some reviewer who clearly has an axe to grind with Dave Eggers (how can anybody be pissed at Dave Eggers, by the way? It'd be like hating Wally Cleaver) cited a paragraph from this book and compared it alongside a paragraph from A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and there were undeniable similarities - I say "some reviewer" because I no longer have any recollection, but I seem to remember it being a "real" reviewer writing for a "real" publication... I would Google it, but I need to shower for the first time in days (I couldn't before now because I had to finish this book - I swear, it was frickin' arduous)... anyway, debates about the author's decisions aside, I have to pitch in my lot with all the people who were less than over the moon about this book. Although I will say that those people seem inordinately, illogically pissed at Dave Eggers himself, and my theory is that they're overcompensating in an attempt to alleviate their guilt because in the end, if you don't like this book, you're a bastard. By extension, if you don't read this book, you're a bastard. So there! Welcome to the club!

  • Elizabeth
    2018-12-17 01:35

    ugh.... I had read Heartbreaking Work and did not enjoy it, but I thought I'd give Eggers another chance. I'm plodding through this book and have been since March. I'm sad about it, because I'm interested by the subject matter. Oh well, lots of people disagree with me, so "you don't have to take MY word for it!"

  • Snotchocheez
    2018-11-24 21:03

    A while back I'd slogged through the simultaneously compelling and and head-scratchingly-moribund epic "Acts of Faith" by Philip Caputo which dealt with the Sudanese Civil War (of the mid-1980s through today) and ensuing humanitarian efforts; while I wasn't terribly impressed by that novel, it did leave me with many questions about the situation in Sudan, many of which were addressed (if not exactly answered) by the far-superior "novel" "What Is the What" by Dave Eggers.I put quotes around novel primarily because it's not a novel in the classical sense of the term; it's more a first-person account from the very real Valentino Achak Deng as written by Eggers (whose soleraison d'etre these days is to give a voice to the disenfranchised). And, oh my goodness, what an account. If there was ever a story that makes a reader pause to assess his problems as meaningless piffles, this is the one. Mr. Deng takes us down a 2-decade-long rabbit hole of sheer horror, from fleeing for his life as his village is shelled first by helicopters, then by Arab murahaleen horseback raiders; running for miles and miles with hundreds of other displaced "Lost Boys" looking for rumored humanitarian aid encampments across the borders of Ethiopia and Kenya, only to be decimated by famine, thirst, hunger, wild animals, random attacks and massacres; then focusing on survival in the camps while being recruited to go off to a totally unwinnable war against the ruling regime in the capital city of Khartoum. It would seem like it would be the bleakest reading experience imaginable slogging through the travails of Mr. Deng's life, but there is an amazing undercurrent of optimism that buoys the non-stop negativity, and makes it more a fascinating portrait of a fascinating life than the total bummer it could've been. It helps that the recollection is broken up by present-day musings by Mr. Deng after he is selected to come to the United States and tries to cope with a completely different set of ordeals (in adjusting to living in Atlanta, GA). Even the most jaded, surly curmudgeon would be hard-pressed not to be moved by this guy's plight. One could argue that Eggers pseudo-autobiography is shamelessly manipulative. If I think about it for too long I might possibly agree with that statement, but for now I think I'd rather give this book 5 stars and let you decide for yourself whether Eggers' story is one worth reading. While it doesn't answer many questions, it does bring to light the very serious and dire situation in Sudan (that evidently goes on to this day) and if that requires some heart-string pulling, so be it. HIGHLY recommended.

  • Kate
    2018-12-15 18:42

    This was the most amazing book I've ever read. There were times I just wanted to put it down, some of the events were just too much to handle and I wondered whether it was worth being brought down to such dark depths. But even through the unbelievably sad and shocking things that happened to Achak, the narration is so incredible and personal. I couldn't stop reading, and I couldn't stop thinking about him. In the past few weeks that I've been reading this, Achak is always on my mind, he's with me wherever I go, telling me his story. It's incredible that someone could go through so much and continue to maintain the will to live. Despite the risk of depression, I think this book is incredibly important to read. It's one of those stories that forces you to recognize what an unfathomably huge place this world is, and that things happen every day that would be almost impossible for most of us to even imagine. A big part of the story deals with the fact that something this horrific can be happening to so many people, and most of the world is almost completely unaware. Reading a book like this puts my own life into perspective, and although it's not feasible to constantly maintain a downward comparison (because let's face it, no matter who you are, there's always someone who's worse off), it forces you to recognize that your own problems are so insignificant in the grand scheme of things.Dave Eggers did an incredible job telling Achak's story - his narration is so simple and easy to read, but very eloquent and powerful at the same time. I've read reviews that say differently, but I swear I really believed that this was the voice of Achak telling his story. So although it was exhausting to go through one horrible incident after another, it was still difficult to put it down.The last page is one of the most beautiful things I've read and it moved me to tears, the whole concept that we're all on this earth together and we should all recognize each other's existence and love each other, because in the end through all of our differences, we have this incredible thing in common, which is life.

  • Lisa
    2018-12-13 00:43

    You know who should read What is the What? Um…everyone. It’s one of those rare books that are really easy to read, really gripping—it will grip you!—but also globally consequential.What is the What, by Dave Eggers, is a docu-drama-type "novel" based on the real life of Valentino Achak Deng. At the age of seven (maybe eight) he watches his Sudanese village be attacked and destroyed by government-sponsored militia. Not knowing if his family is alive or dead, he's forced to run and ends up trekking (on foot with thousands of other boys) across the deserts of three countries. They walk for months, pursued by militiamen on horseback, government bombers and predatory animals, carrying with them almost nothing in terms of clothing, shoes, shelter, food or water. After this epic journey in which he faces down every imaginable hardship, Achak spends many years in desolate Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps before finally being resettled in the U.S. where he finds "a life full of promise, but also heartache and myriad new challenges." (So lazy, I quote the back of the book)I don’t know if Valentino is the unluckiest person ever, or the luckiest for having survived a lifetime of horrors you and I could only conjure in our worst nightmares. But whatever he is, his story is extraordinary. This book is suspenseful, intense, horrifying, heartbreaking, at times surprisingly sweet and funny, but always incredibly moving — if you don’t at least have the urge to make large donations to Mercy Corps after reading this, you’re an absolute robot. I don’t know if there’s a word strong enough to sum up this guy’s life — the tragedy, trauma, loss, deprivation — but it was crazy to read his story and know it had all really happened while I sat around watching Seinfeld and picking the onions off my cheeseburger.Things that are really great about this book:1. Eggers lays out the decades-old conflict in Sudan in a way that people like me who knew little about it can wrap their brains around. He weaves the history into his story really naturally and without ever making it a political invective. 2. The author drops the self-consciously clever post-modernist act and assumes the voice of Achak telling his story in first person. And outside of a few overly sophisticated turns of phrase, it works — sounds authentic and believable, as if it really were Achak telling his own story. Eggers does a terrific job of creating a "character" that is super lovable and pitiable but also respectable. 3. Despite the fairly devastating subject matter, What is the What is not depressing or the type of horrifying that makes you have to put it down. As a work of literature, it’s incredibly impressive and I found myself reading on because I was wowed. And too, Eggers makes this young Sudanese so very human and real that I felt a strong sense of commonality, which made me not want to turn away from him. And the book ends on a rather hopeful note.So I recommend this book to you and everyone you know. It really is amazing, definitely top 10 material. If you want to learn more about it or read a (way) more articulate review, visit McSweeney’s Web site — they seem to have republished everything ever written about What is the What.

  • Julie Ehlers
    2018-11-25 19:37

    I picked this book up at this particular moment for a reason. While I've really liked, even loved, several of the books I've read so far this year, I haven't really felt blown away by anything. I was looking for something that was going to blow me away, and I thought this book might fit the bill. Luckily for me, I turned out to be totally right.This book succeeds completely on two levels. On the one level, if you want to learn about what was happening in Sudan in the eighties and nineties, this book will tell you pretty much everything you need to know. But fortunately, for all the information that's imparted, Dave Eggers doesn't forget that his book must also work as a novel, and it does. It really, really does. The book is longer than it looks--more than 500 pages--but they go by swiftly. I can't remember the last time I got this absorbed in a book; I would forget my surroundings entirely, and given that I was reading a lot of it on rush-hour trains and crowded train platforms, that's really saying something.I think my experience of reading this book made me understand what people mean when they call something an "instant classic." That term has always seemed like hyperbole to me--after all, the whole reason books are considered "classics" is because they stand the test of time; there's nothing instant about it. But I truly believe What Is the What is going to be one of those books that's still being read decades from now. There's really no excuse for not reading this at some point. Very highly recommended.

  • Irfon-kim
    2018-12-03 23:04

    I finished listening to "What is the What" by Dave Eggers, narrated by Dion Graham, a couple of days ago, but didn't have a chunk of quiet time to write about it until now. It's the somewhat fictionalized biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a young boy in the Sudan at the outbreak of the civil war, through to his adulthood as a refugee in America.The story is epic in scope, but is told in a very personal, down-to-earth fashion. You're as likely to hear about the title character's first fumbling attempts at typing or his volunteer guard duty of a neighbour's bicycle as to hear about tanks and land-mines. This really anchors the story and helps the focus remain on telling the story of Valentino, and telling the wider story through his story rather than making it about the wider situation with his story being a tacked-on footnote. The material itself is striking, and eye-opening. Even if you've been aware of what happened in the Sudan, I expect hearing about what the people endured as part of the story of an individual life would still be eye-opening. I wasn't that well-informed, so it was certainly interesting for me.Despite the excellent source matter, however, the story is somewhat crudely told. While Eggers has a fantastic sense of voice and really personalizes all of the characters, the overall handling of the plot arc felt clumsy and gimmicky at times, and the way the historical material is introduced through the Valentino's present-day inner monologue addressed at various people in his daily life gets to be a tired trick after a while. Also, the attempt to include everything possible about the Sudanese people's experiences in this one person's individual story leads to a certain straining of plausibility after a while that's only partly explained away by having the other characters themselves remark that God must have something against him. The pacing of the context switches seems slightly off in a way that often leaves you wanting to hear more about the part you're not hearing about now, whichever part that may be. There are a couple of things which are introduced multiple times during the course of the story in a way that seems more accidental than artistic, and oddly, given that at several points the story felt a little long, the book eventually just sort of ... stops, dropping the story in an unsatisfying fashion.All of that said, the source material is so compelling that even a muddled rendition of it provides for an extremely worthwhile read, and Dion Graham does a riveting job as the narrator, with excellent voices for most of the characters (his female characters become a little generic, but I haven't heard many male narrators do great women, so I'll forgive him that) and a fantastic command of the cadence and character of the principal character's voice that makes the book wonderful to hear.Overall, the writing is matter-of-fact enough and the delivery of the material is somewhat ho-hum (other than the excellent audio production) in a way that makes it hard for me to jump up and down waving my arms in the air about this book, but I definitely still think that it's a worthwhile listen, probably even more gripping in audio than on the printed page.

  • Myles
    2018-12-14 02:46

    This book is the fictionalized autobiography of real-life Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, who grew up mostly in a refugee camp in Kenya (where he lived for 10 years!)Eggers weaves a present tense with the story of Valentino's childhood in Sudan. In the present tense Valentino is getting robbed and beaten in his Atlanta apartment because he trusted the people who came to the door. Finally when he is discovered bleeding on the floor of his apartment by his roommate, he is taken to the hospital where it takes ages for him to get help. As all of that is happening, in his mind Valentino tells the story of his life to his robbers, to the unhelpful people at the hospital, to the people who walk into the health club where he works at the front desk, and to the readers of the book.It's difficult to imagine that one man has lived through so much! Paramilitaries backed by the Sudanese government attacked the village of Marial Bai where the little boy Valentino lived, and he ended up walking all the way to Ethiopia with a group of other "lost boys". He did not know if his parents were alive or dead for many years, until he was an adult. The walk to Ethiopia nearly killed Valentino, and did kill many of the other boys. After living in a refugee camp for several years in Ethiopia, with tens of thousands of others, he was forced to flee a massacre at that camp back across southern Sudan to northern Kenya, where he ended up living in another refugee camp for an entire decade. Along the way, boys and girls and men and women died from animals, insects, bombings, shootings, hunger, thirst. For someone who didn't know much about that world, some of this is surprising, such as how long refugees are trapped as refugees, when "temporary" camps become seemingly permanent. Kakuma (the camp in Kenya) is a place where Valentino and the refugees could not provide for themselves, owing to the poor quality of the land. It really is like being in prison.For me, the saddest part of the entire story by far is the fate of Valentino's love Tabitha, another refugee from Sudan who ended up in Seattle. It's strange that I would feel that way, given how many terribly sad things happen in this book. I guess I would like to believe that among the survivors love is possible.Names are a notable part of this story. Valentino picks up names like "Gone Far" (for having walked the farthest to Ethiopia) and "Sleeping" (for having decided to stop walking and die on the road, only to be saved by a girl who won't let him stay there) and "Dominic" (because his drama teacher couldn't remember names). The refugees come up with clever nicknames like "Potential Food" for the leader who describes every empty field as potential food (mockingly they point to every rock and every tire as potential food).Finally there is the question of What is the What? The What is a reference to a Dinka story, where God offers the Dinka people a choice between the cattle they see before them, and the What (the unknown). Of course the Dinka chose the cattle which gave them life (abundance, etc). At the end of the book Valentino gives a speech that frames that choice as a mistake of timidity, although I find myself disagreeing with that thought. Abundance seems like a decent choice if it's offered! But Valentino's life offered no abundance. He was thrown about from one What to another. Coming to America was the first time in his life where he chose the What -- the first time he was free to make his own choice.After finishing the book, I remembered a point earlier in the story where Tabitha and Valentino traveled to Nairobi (where they share their first kiss), and she urged him to run away from their group and not return to the refugee camp. He wouldn't do it, because to run away would mean other refugees would never again be permitted visits outside the camp. I find myself wishing he'd have listened to her and chosen that What instead of the What at the end of the book (coming to America). I wonder if he ever feels that way.You can visit Valentino's foundation here:

  • Mykle
    2018-12-01 22:34

    Does truth matter? Does the difference between fact and fiction matter? Purportedly there is a guy named (among other names) Valentino Achak Deng, and Dave Eggers wrote what you might take to be a transcribed and well-edited autobiography of the man and his amazing, tortured journey as a child refugee of the Sudanese civil war. It's a spellbinding story that's beautifully written and deeply moving.Only it's not tue. It's fiction. It's not authored by Deng, it's authored by David Eggers. Or is it fiction? Is it true? How shall we know?Deng (in words more "his own" than all his other words in the the text) introduces the book by explaining that Eggers is somehow using fiction to tell the truth, and that most of the things the book says happened actually happened, and the rest happened to other people. So it's not exactly real, except it is. And Dave is a nice guy, so it's okay. This is very slippery stuff. Especially as, later in the book, Deng (or Eggers) takes pains to explain that he never once stretched the truth in order to woo aid agencies or charitable hosts. Oh no, not him.Now, I'm willing to believe in the story of Valentino Achak Deng -- his exodus from Sudan, pursued by lions and soldiers, his life in dusty refugee camps on the edge of Ethiopia, his travel to America and subsequent suffering at the hands of burglars, of his bravery and fortitude in the face of all this trauma. I would have no question that it's all shatteringly, edifyingly true, except that I've already been told explicitly, by author and subject, that this is a work of fiction.Perhaps it's "part-true." But how much is true and how much is not? I'd like to believe it's 99% true, because I long to believe in the human goodness and valor of Valentino Achak Deng, but what unqualified evidence is offered? I'd like to believe that my favorite parts of this book are the factual ones, and the dull ones are more made-up. But really I don't know. For a book that strives, so very hard, to explain and involve the reader in a deep, terrible and important set of truths -- the wars of Africa, their causes and effects, their human toll -- this caveat is crippling. It's like a bottle of medicine labeled "not for illness." It's a promise made with crossed fingers. So go ahead, read it, enjoy, it's a great book. But please spare me any rationalization that fiction is the new fact, or that because made-up episodes happen to be more amusing than life they are somehow more deeply truthful than the truth. If even half this book is true, then the truth should have been enough.I believe that truth exists, and is knowable and important. We dismiss it at our own expense. Sure, all biography is salted with fiction, tall tales and handwaving over the unknowable parts. But to declare such an important biography to be fiction at its outset, and then at the end of the book to solicit donations for the eponymous foundation of Valentino Achak Deng, without even a hint of a promise that the author has spoken the truth? It doesn't wash.Now, we all know how much Dave Eggers enjoys annotation, footnotes, concordance and all such non-linearities, not to mention esoteric typesetting projects. Therefore: shall we petition him for a Red Letter edition of What Is The What? All the words spoken by Valentino Achak Deng can be printed in red, and all of Dave Eggers' embellishments set perhaps in a nice mauve. Then -- and only then -- the reader could attempt to know the difference between Deng's truth and Eggers' fiction, appreciate them both for what they are, and apportion appropriate gravity to each.

  • Cheryl
    2018-11-23 20:46

    "What is the What is the soulful account of my life: from the time I was separated from my family in Marial Bai to the thirteen years I spent in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps, to my encounter with vibrant Western cultures beginning in Atlanta, to the generosity and the challenges that I encountered elsewhere," Valentino Achak Deng writes.Dave Eggers did such a great job bringing Deng's story to life, that I enjoyed this book even more than I did Egger's memoir. This is a novel that is "historically accurate" and "all of the major events in the book are true," Deng writes. The voice is clearly that of a Sudanese man, the descriptions vivid, the story-telling riveting. The story starts in the present with a dramatic beginning, Deng is a refugee in America, alone in his sparsely furnished apartment, when robbers enter his apartment and tie him up. As he lays there helplessly, the book veers to retrospective narration when Deng goes into backstory about his childhood in Sudan--how ironic it is, he thinks, that he, a former soldier, is being attacked in his own home. He views his attackers with scorn and something akin to pity because of what he perceives to be their naiveté. The prose gets a bit lengthy at times, yet includes great introspection from the narrator who also seems to recount meaningful historical data that could only have been obtained from someone who has "been there, done that." Towards the end, you see him come to terms with his experiences, the mistakes he made as he grew older and wiser, and the plans he has for improving his life.At a time when it was so important to obtain the story of the infamous "Lost Boys," perhaps this book is a crucial addendum.

  • Shannon (Giraffe Days)
    2018-11-28 18:55

    When the civil war between the north and the south of Sudan reaches Achak's far western Dinka village of Marial Bai, he is a child of about seven years old who still spends most of his time with his mother, or playing on the floor of his father's general store. He did sometimes go out with the others boys, including his friends William K and Moses, to watch the cattle, but he is with his mother the day the government helicopters come, killing indiscriminately, which was only the beginning. When the villagers didn't leave, the government-backed murahaleen - Arabs on horses - come sweeping in to finish the job. It is the last time Achak sees his mother, and he has no idea what fate has befallen any of his siblings or stepmothers. He can only flee, running as far as he can.He finally comes upon a large group of boys like him being led by his old teacher, a young man called Dut Majok, who has a tendency to lead them in circles but never stops looking out for the boys and sees them, after months of walking and encounters with lions, crocodiles and hostile villagers, to Ethiopia and the refugee camp called Pinyudo on the Gilo River. When a change in government comes to Ethiopia - otherwise known as a military coup - the refugees are violently driven out, many killed by soldiers and many others lost the river they are forced to cross, or the crocodiles that live there. It takes a year for the survivors - including thousands of "Lost Boys" like Achak, to reach Kenya, where a new refugee camp is constructed at Kakuma, which basically means nowhere - a hot, dry, dusty desert land that no one wants, no one except the local tribespeople that is.There Achak spends many years until, finally, towards the end of 2001 his name if finally called to be one of thousands of Lost Boys and Girls being relocated to the United States. A new beginning and many hopes and dreams that he has barely dared to entertain before suddenly seem possible. After all this time of dodging bullets and starvation, Achak is sitting on the plane in Nairobi, along with a group of other young men like him, when the news comes through: no planes will be leaving. New York has been attacked, the Twin Towers are burning, get off the plane. If you can think of anything that could go wrong for Deng, it happened. But he does finally make it to the city of Atlanta where he meets his sponsors and starts working on his goal of getting a degree - which turns out to be much harder and more complicated (and costly) than he ever thought possible.This is the first book by Eggers that I have read, even though I have three others already (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Zeitoun and A Hologram for the King), so I was able to read this purely as Deng's story, in Deng's voice. Deng is a strong, vivid character, and his personal story comes truly alive in the creative hands of Eggers. Not being able to tell where Eggers' voice and writing style intrudes on what is, essentially, someone else's story, it read smoothly and convincingly. Full of details, historical context, explanations skilfully woven in, as well as philosophical, moral and ethical ponderings, and an intense emotional engagement and humour. This is a man - one of many - who was shat on by life and circumstance, who questioned his belief in his god many times, but who persevered and struggled on. For the Sudanese, his is just one story of thousands like it, indistinguishable most of the time, and certainly nothing special, but for us, it is a hero's story, and a bold, honest, brutal one at that.It begins in the present day and is told in present tense, and introduces us to Valentino Achak Deng as he answers his door to a couple of black Americans who proceed to rob him at gunpoint. It is no coincidence that Eggers chose to start here and have Achak tell his story over the course of 24 hours as flashbacks to the past: contrasting the violence he experiences in America to that of Sudan is very telling. As the African part of the story unfolds, it casts a harsher and brighter light on the working poor and the criminally-minded of America, a critical eye and a disgusted shake of the head.A recurring theme in the story of his past is one of inflated hope and disappointed expectations. The Lost Boys come from primitive villages and they know nothing about the world outside of Dinka land. They can't even conceptualise what Ethiopia is, the idea of another country, but they build up grand expectations in their heads, which are based on nothing more than wishful thinking in the face of extreme privation. Moving to America, the refugees are possessed of even more fanciful imaginings, the kind that are limited to your scope of experience but also take them to the heights: servants, bowls of oranges, palaces and so forth. It's not their fault they had no real ability to grasp what it would be like, or their lack of perspective. They learned quickly, but not all of them were successful in their new home.By many we have been written off as a failed experiment. We were the model Africans. For so long, this was our designation. We were applauded for our industriousness and good manners and, best of all, our devotion to our faith. The churches adored us, and the leaders they bankrolled and controlled coveted us. But now the enthusiasm has dampened. We have exhausted many of our hosts. We are young men, and young men are prone to vice. Among the four thousand [that emigrated to America] are those who have entertained prostitutes, who have lost weeks and months to drugs, many more who have lost their fire to drink, dozens who have become inexpert gamblers, fighters. [pp.475-6]I rather think he's a bit hard on himself, or society is. Take a group of people from a primitive place with little to no creature comforts, who have endured things for years that we can barely fathom, and leave them more-or-less to their own devices in a strange new world full of new temptations - and let's face it, the United States is proud of the "freedoms" it offers - and you'll get instances of abuse in many forms. You can't fast-forward industrialisation, progress and change in all facets of life like that without some repercussions. That's a lot to take in. Even us westerners who grew up with the advanced technology and conveniences that we're used to, aren't dealing with it very well.Deng's story is a long one, and it's by no means a quick read. Highly involved, reflective and introspective, it more-or-less flows chronologically but not always, and dates are fluid - not surprisingly, since they didn't keep calendars and don't use our system of months and days (they would know what season they were born in, and can count backwards to know how old they are, more or less, but couldn't tell you their date-of-birth by our calendars). His story fleshes out the horrors of the Sudanese Civil War more than any other book I've read, and makes a long-lasting impression on you intellectually and emotionally. One of the philosophical musings is captured in the title, What is the What, which comes from a Dinka legend about God and the first man and woman. God offers the Dinka people a choice: they can have cattle, or the What. They choose the cattle, and consider them the blessed, favoured people, for their cattle are everything: milk, food, wealth, land. Meanwhile, God gives the What to their Arab neighbours. Whenever Achak had heard this story in the past, the What is simply why the Arabs are inferior. "The Dinka were given the cattle first, and the Arabs had tried to steal them. God had given the Dinka superior land, fertile and rich, and had given them cattle, and though it was unfair, that was how God had intended it and there was no changing it." [p.63] But when his father tells it to some visiting Arab merchants months before the war arrives, he leaves is open-ended, and leaves his young son thinking. Achak finds himself asking people on his long journey, what is the What? What did God give the Arabs that he didn't give the Dinka? The answer is never given but it is implied. The sense that I got is difficult to articulate but it goes something like this: the Dinka got a harmonious, largely peaceful way of life, left intact for millennia, with no ambition or curiosity about the world. The Arabs got the ambition and curiosity, a drive to better themselves and an unending sense of dissatisfaction. The What was the apple of knowledge in Genesis' garden of Eden. I would love to hear the story of how Achak Deng met Dave Eggers, how the plan for the book - the proceeds of which go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which builds schools in South Sudan - came about. When we leave Achak in Atlanta after his harrowing 24-hour ordeal, he has made some important decisions and revised his aims and also seems to be possessed of a new kind of conviction, but it sheds no light on what happened next. Clearly, or so it seems to me, it wasn't Deng's determination to get a degree that made things happen for him so much as the book, this book, and all the work he did to promote it. The job of starting a charitable foundation and getting things done is a daunting one to me, but I am full of admiration for the people who come from nothing and successfully do it (the subject of Linda Park-Sue's fictionalised memoir for children, A Long Walk to Water, Salva Dut, also began a foundation to bring water to South Sudanese villages).This is a hard book to read and an equally hard one to talk about. There's a lot going on and I can see why there are so many reading guides floating around the web. I loved it on many levels, even though it's not an enjoyable novel - though there are moments of humour, it's so interwoven with tragedy that it's hard to crack a smile. It's a powerful novel for the way it tells the story, and for the story itself. It's a deeply human story, shedding light into the cracks and crevices of a part of Africa that we generally don't spend much time thinking about. Checking out Deng's foundation website, it stirred me nearly to tears to see the progress he's already made on the beautiful school in Marial Bai, to read about the school farm and so on. This is a life, and what a life!

  • Scott Axsom
    2018-12-07 00:52

    On the cosmic scale of noble publishing ventures, “What is the What” must rank near the top. Though billed as a novel, the book is the story of one of the Lost Boys of Sudan by the name of Valentino Achak Deng and, though written by Dave Eggers, all proceeds from the book go to Deng's foundation. Noble.Deng’s story is a harrowing one. A brief and characteristic example comes after he buries a friend during the long march (spoiler-redacted);”When I was finished, I told (him) that I was sorry. I was sorry that I had not known how sick he was. That I had not found a way to keep him alive. That he could not say goodbye to his mother and father, that only I would know where his body lay. It was a broken world, I knew then, that would allow a boy such as me, to bury a boy such as (him) “ The subject, and the telling, clearly hold immeasurable dramatic power, so why did I give the book three stars?This was my first foray into Dave Eggers territory, so I can’t say with any erudition whether the voice, as some have complained, is that of the author rather than his subject - that’s one of the problems with writing a book like this, I guess. What I can say is the voice is extraordinarily believable and it tells a story that borders on the unimaginable. Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction or, in this case, considerably more inhumane and I found the revelations of abject disregard for humanity as compelling as I found them disturbing.Nor did I have the usual complaints about the story; that it’s too damnatory of American culture, or that it’s too saccharine. My most significant complaint would simply be that it was too long. I love an epic story but this one just seemed to get weaker with the telling. I feel as though this should be one of the more important books I’ve read - the tale it tells is one that so needed to be told in such a thorough, personal fashion - but the portrayal eventually rendered itself almost commonplace. Perhaps the author tamped down his inclinations for drama when, in this case, more was called for.If there’s one area where this “novel” shines, though, that would be in its unadorned depiction of mortal desire. Deng is stripped of everything but his corporeality and, still, he possesses universal, intrinsic human longings: to be loved, to find kinship and, most important of all, to be recognized as real. The story of Valentino Achak Deng is in some ways a classic one, of total loss and the noble struggle to regain the barest foundation of his humanity; the simple recognition that his existence matters. Eggers chronicles his saga with humor and pathos, tenderness and dignity, and that alone may be reason enough to read “What is the What”.

  • MJ Nicholls
    2018-12-14 00:58

    The absence of the question mark from this book title is a question Lynne Truss and I have been debating for weeks on end. In the book itself the title is a question – i.e. what is the meaning of life? – so one can only assume that Eggers left the question mark off to give the title a symmetry of sorts, or to introduce a shade of the postmodern to what is a direct, linear narrative.Who knows. It’s not a question on the lips of most folks who read this compelling and exhausting account of Valentino Achek Deng, whose life story is the most torturous, unbelievable, and fortuitous you are likely to encounter. Eggers narrates this incredible true tale in Sudanese Deng’s English-speaking voice, from his struggles with conflict, poverty, desolation, desperation (and more or less any human suffering it is possible to tolerate) to his equally unhappy life as a refugee in post 9/11 America.This book makes misery memoirs look like squealing little crybabies. The only thing Deng didn’t have to tolerate, in fact, was tyrannous parents. Deng as a person is not portrayed as heroic, endlessly courageous or extraordinary – he is achingly human throughout, making his struggle the more poignant. The book is most likely too much to endure for most people – its relentless gloom putters on for 535 pages, but his story is a punishing reminder of quite how terrible we in the West have let things become in Third World nations.Cheer yo’self up this Xmas.

  • Mustafa Şahin
    2018-11-25 22:47

    Yemek getirdiğini düşündükleri helikopterlere koşan çocukların karşılık olarak mermi yedikleri bir coğrafyayı düşünün. Bir de şunu ekleyin: Uçurtma Avcısı ve Bin Muhteşem Güneş'in yazarı Khaled Hosseini'nin son zamanlarda okuduğu en etkileyici roman.Sanırım ne ile karşı karşıya olduğunuzu az çok anlatabildim. İnsanın boğazında düğüm bir kitap, orası kesin.

  • ☮Karen
    2018-11-30 22:51

    I’ve read a couple stories of survival recently, and I’m always astonished at the good and the bad that is intrinsic in our fellow human beings. Achak is one of the good guys – exposed to so much death and gore in his early years, struggling with his belief in God (and who wouldn’t given his life?) – and this man is someone we all need to know. This man is loving, kind, endearing, adorable. It was the descriptions of the bad in people, however, that brought me to tears more than once, wondering again how does one person endure such endless heart break in their lives?Achak was born in the Southern Sudan region in the Dinka tribe. During the time of the 2nd civil war in the 1980's, this region was taken over by the Arab government of the North (because of its cattle land, plentiful water, and later on oil of course). Achak lost track of his family after witnessing much violence and suffering, becoming one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan. The story goes back and forth between his new life in Atlanta and his remembrances of his homeland and his long walk from there to Ethiopia, and later to Kenya, where he lived most of his formative years in refugee camps. I learned so many things I probably should have known but didn’t. These civil wars lasted for decades, and the living conditions for the refugees deplorable – meals once a day if you’re lucky, water only if you go wait in line for it every morning, little protection from rain and mosquitoes, fear of being eaten by the wild animals. We are lead to believe in news stories that refugee camps are temporary, that someday these people are returned to their homes or families. But in many or most cases the camps become their home for life. Astonishing. Achak witnessed hundreds of young boys and adults dying around him, and multiple times is made to walk on, bury, and occupy the same space with the corpses. The living conditions in the States, once the Lost Boys are relocated around the country, are paltry and inadequate, but luxurious to Achak, now known as Valentino, when compared to the camps. His suffering continues despite many kind people he meets in Atlanta. Because, you can never forget those bad guys who seek out ways to spoil it all for you. Achak/Valentino receives more than his fair share from the latter. And he accepts all that life gives him, all that God gives him, quietly, enduringly, which is what he learned as a child when hearing the story of The What from his father. A must read!

  • Alena
    2018-11-19 19:47

    In lesser hands than Dave Eggers’, 500+ pages of tragedy, violence and deprivation would have been intolerable reading material. Fortunately for me, Eggars writes this story of the Lost Boys of Sudan with care, courage and even some humor so that I never lost interest or felt it went on too long.Although it’s classified as fiction, it reads more like a memoir. We learn the personal tragedy of Valentino, a Sudanese boy whose world and family is ripped apart by war. He runs from his village under attack and just continues to run from refugee stop to stop, with violence and uncertainty trailing him."I do not want to think of myself as important enough the God would choose me for extraordinary punishment, but then again, the circumference of calamity that surrounds me is impossible to ignore."This “circumference of calamity” seems to expand exponentially as the book switches between his childhood and current day, when he is being robbed and held prisoner in Atlanta. Yet, the book never grows depressing or hopeless. Without creating any emotional distance, Eggers never over-dramatizes the tragedy; he uses the see-sawing timeline to continually remind the reader that our hero does indeed “get out.”This novel (really a history lesson) never loses hope. These tens of thousands of children walked through a hell that never seemed to end, and yet many of them never gave up or gave in.“Now we can stand and decide. This is our first chance to choose our own unknown...As impossible as it sounds, we must keep walking."It also helps that Valentino is so likably human, even when repeating the same mistakes. “I wanted to be alone with my stupidity, which I cursed in three languages and with all my spleen."Truth be told, What is the What has been on my “To Read” shelf almost as long as it’s been published, but its sheer size and my love/hate relationship with Eggers’ books kept it from moving to the top. Three things finally pushed me to read this: 1) The VERY high recommendation of my friend Kathy, RA Librarian and someone who knows my reading taste well. 2) My 2014 reading goal to read more books that take place outside the US or England. 3) A May challenge in one of my on-line book groups to read a book with “What,” “Where,” “Who” or “Why” in its title.Sometimes I just have to give it up to fate. This is an outstanding book.

  • Kelly Deriemaeker
    2018-11-20 02:42

    Ik heb getwijfeld tussen drie en vier sterren. Het verhaal is hartverscheurend en zou, zeker in deze tijden, door iedereen gelezen moeten worden. Alleen was ik niet zo hard onder de indruk van de manier waarop het is geschreven, waardoor ik het bij momenten moeilijk had om erdoor heen te geraken. Ik ben uiteindelijk blij dat ik ben blijven worstelen, en zo het volledige verhaal van Valentino Achak Deng heb gelezen. Dat ik door de ogen van een jongen uit Soedan naar de wereld heb kunnen kijken, ook. Dat alleen al was verbijsterend, bij momenten, los van wat er zich aan wreedheden in dat land afspeelt. Fjoew.

  • JSou
    2018-11-27 23:46

    I can’t finish this. I was going to, just to give it a fair shot, but me being the idiot I am, left my copy on the table where someone’s root beer spilled all over it, making it a soggy, sticky mess. Though horrified at a book being destroyed, I felt almost a sense of relief knowing I wouldn’t have to pick this up again. I will not be buying another copy.The story is actually very, very good. You’d have to be a demon spawn straight from the Gates of Hell for this story not to affect you; it is heartbreaking. But the way it was written just grated on me to where I’d be gripping the book with white knuckled frustration. Eggers taking on the voice of Valentino Achak Deng did not sit well with me--it just didn’t connect. You know how sometimes while listening to an audio book, the reader all of a sudden throws out a fake accent with a certain character and it just makes you cringe? Or in movies, when any well-known actor plays a character with a mental disability and there’s times it’s just awkward and dumb, but nobody has the balls to say anything, and they’re just lavished with Academy Awards? This book is like that.I’ll probably give Eggers another shot someday, and might even finish this one if I can come across a cheap (and I mean cheap) used copy. No rush, though.

  • Seth T.
    2018-12-09 00:41

    Apart from a sometimes painfully awkward framing device and a style of writing that is dull enough to actively distance readers from emotionally connecting to the life and pain of one Valentino Achak Deng (a.k.a. Dominic), What Is the What ended up being not half bad. I suppose it was only a third bad. Or maybe not actually bad. Maybe just one-third Not Great. Which is okay. We can't all be great."What is the what?" is a question that Valentino had been asking himself for a long time. Ever since he was Achak. Back before being reintroduced to his Christian name. The story goes: God approached the ancient Dinka, a people pregnant with hope and dignity, and offered them mastery of cattle, the source of life and greatness. That or the What. God never adequately explained the What to the Dinka and the Dinka, having seen UHF and knowing that there was nothing in the box and that box-pickers are so stupid, chose the safe bet. Cattle. And therefore, life and that abundantly. The other people got the What. Which is why apparently they took out their aggressions on the Dinka.Okay, so that was a very loose paraphrase.In any case, Valentino is busy wondering what the What could be when some of his Dinka brethren decide to begin a civil war against the northern half of Sudan (which is largely Muslim and Arab). The North is not a fan of this idea and so does its best to extinguish the Dinka (whether they own cattle or not). This started in 1983 or so and went on a good twenty years before stopping only to maybe start up again in the near future. In the end it really only has anything to do with the What if the What happens to be a thirst for money (and preexistent religious incompatibility). But Valentino doesn't know that. He's only six.Or he is at first. He grows up over the course of the story. While a lot of his companions die, are killed, are kidnapped, or are lost.Speaking frankly, Sudan has been an unmitigated disaster of country-running pretty much since it gained indepedence from its colonial British overlords. Since the war began in 1983, well over 2 million Dinka were genocidally put to pasture. What little infrastructure the Southern half of the country had thirty years ago is long since evaporated. There is hope for the country, but it's a slender hope. And a tenuous one. By the way, in case you missed it: 2 million.To be certain, the subject matter of What Is the What is important for a largely ignorant American audience. We react easily, as a nation, to massacres like Columbine or the World Trade Center destruction, but compared to Sudan, these are mere stubbed toes while Sudan features sheared limbs and exposed organs. We should react easily and emotionally to the Columbines and the World Trade Centers, but we should react as well to the other terrors humanity perpetrates upon itself. Since 1999 I've been part of an organization that has worked with and in Southern Sudan (and Uganda and Kenya). I've met Rebecca Garang (wife of John Garang, the guy who essentially started the civil war by rebelling against an oppressive government). I've seen pictures, heard stories, and met those affected immediately by the situation. The story Eggers presents has more than the ring of truth to it. So far as things go, it is true—in that it represents with unflinching veracity the reality of the Sudanese problem.I only wish it had been better written.Eggers does not merely tell his story. He offers a framing device. One that does not adequately capture the life of Valentino and occasionally draws one so far out of story that it becomes difficult to reign back in. (I actually put the book down twice in order to read other books, despite having a limited time to complete What Is the What.) The book opens with Valentino being robbed and assaulted and he takes the opportunity over the next day and a half to think his story at his assailants and other non-Sudanese who come into his path. He's a good man and I feel for him, but the narrative trick just didn't work.On top of this, Eggers' style here is rather lifeless. He's trying to write in the authentic voice of the very real Valentino Achak Deng, but the work suffers for it. The story content is fascinating but its delivery robs it of much of its fire and zest. It's not incompetent writing. It's just not enjoyable. Or interesting.And that's just a shame.

  • Grayem82
    2018-12-19 23:45

    This book is one of a series that make up the Voice of Witness series - a collection of books intended to give a voice to people whose lives have been plagued by conflict, persecution, exile and other such humanitarian crises. Such noble intentions aside, most people will encounter this book because of the author, Dave Eggers, author of the love-it-or-hate-it novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.The book tells the semi-fictionalised biography of Valentino Achak Deng, a young man who has as many names as he has had "homes": Achak; Valentino; Dominic; Sleeper; Gone Far; Red Army; Sudan; and Lost Boy.Achak grew up in Southern Sudan amid the dormant political and cultural tensions between the "Arabs" of the North and the "Africans" of the South. His home-village is remote geographically and culturally. He has a pleasant life as a boy amid the safety and relative comfort of his extended family, but this life is shattered with the arrival of the civil war between the Islamic government of the North and the rebel army of the South, the SPLA. We witness the Islamic government's policy of "draining the river to catch the fish" by violently wiping out whole villages across Southern Sudan with the use of bombing raids and mounted Arab militias. Achak watches as the men are slaughtered, and the women and children are carried away to be sold as slaves.Achak escapes, and begins his endless journey, first walking from Southern Sudan to Ethiopia; then from Ethiopia to Kenya; before travelling to the US.Achak's journey is almost unbearably tragic and dangerous. He is one of innumerable war orphans and refugees, and thousands of young boys die on the journey. Achak's survival can only be attributed to the weight of odds, though, as time passes, Achak understandably begins to question whether God is punishing him for some unknown but monumental sin.As is probably obvious, What is the What is not an easy read. There were moments when I wanted to throw it under my bed and forget about it because the repeated confrontation with the tragedy, cruelty and stupidity of human life was too much to bear. However, Achak is extremely likeable, and I began to really care about his welfare. It was also hard to give up on the hope that such an honest, benevolent, and determined person could not be rewarded at the end of the day. Mostly, though, the story is so well told, at the same time both a simple account of events and a complex emotional and metaphorical study of humanity.Egger's debut work and this story share similarities: both are about "orphans". Both are semi-autobiographical. Both protagonists are searching for an escape from the tragedy of their pasts, in one way or another. The differences are also numerous. Eggers' debut infuriated readers by combining confrontational emotional confession with tricksy literary games. While clever, these often seemed like pressure valves; like Eggers could only expose so much before ducking behind his post-modern stunts. Also, Eggers' voice was aggressively young and energetic - never sitting still; always performing literary cartwheels and painting elaborate metaphors.