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What Is the What

4.15  ·  Rating Details ·  62,515 Ratings  ·  6,621 Reviews
In aheartrending and astonishingnovel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he's driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety — for a time. Valentino's travels, truly Biblical in scope, brin ...more
Hardcover, 475 pages
Published October 18th 2006 by McSweeney's
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Shawn So God gives the first Dinka man a choice between the “what” and the cattle. The cattle represent security in “the known” or an established way of…moreSo God gives the first Dinka man a choice between the “what” and the cattle. The cattle represent security in “the known” or an established way of living. Conversely, the “what” represents God’s surprise, the unknown, the gift that comes by stepping out in faith. In the end, in Atlanta, Valentino senses the danger in “too much of the same” when he encounters the fat woman in the health club. God calls us forth from our comfort zones to diversified tasks most suited to our particular spiritual gifts. The “what” for you may be different than the “what” for me. The key is to let God lead us to “whatever” He has in store for us. (less)

Community Reviews

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Jan 02, 2008 Len rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone in the human race
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
Jun 26, 2008 Sergei rated it did not like it
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 r
Dec 11, 2014 Jeff rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“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
Paul Bryant

With her open and confident sexuality, she was the constant igniter of everything flammable within us

Hmm, 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 momen
Jun 07, 2012 Rachel rated it it was ok

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 Dominics
b) The romance between Achak and Tabitha
c) Life at Kakuma
d) The story of Maria, the girl who called him Sleeper
e) The walk from Pinyudo to Kakuma
f) The play times with Achak and the
Mar 27, 2012 Stephanie rated it liked it
Shelves: lit, 2012
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
Megan Baxter
May 19, 2014 Megan Baxter rated it really liked it
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 dec
Feb 28, 2008 Nathaniel rated it liked it
Shelves: africa
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 ...more
Aug 23, 2007 Miss. rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Aug 14, 2016 Lee rated it really liked it
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 so ...more
Aug 23, 2007 Elizabeth rated it did not like it
Shelves: fiction
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!"
Jul 08, 2011 Snotchocheez rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 23, 2008 Rosa rated it it was ok
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 ...more
Apr 28, 2008 Kate rated it it was amazing
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 m ...more
Jul 21, 2008 Lisa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Julie Ehlers
Sep 17, 2015 Julie Ehlers rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone.
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
Oct 24, 2007 Irfon-kim rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobooks
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 a
Feb 03, 2008 Myles rated it really liked it
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 hospi
Sep 09, 2009 Mykle rated it liked it
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
Shannon (Giraffe Days)
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 ...more
Scott Axsom
Feb 13, 2013 Scott Axsom rated it liked it
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
"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 "hist
MJ Nicholls
Dec 20, 2009 MJ Nicholls rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels, merkins
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 Valenti
Mustafa Şahin
May 31, 2016 Mustafa Şahin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: world-literature
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.
May 03, 2015 ☮Karen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, nonfiction
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 ...more
May 12, 2014 Alena rated it really liked it
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
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 h
Seth T.
Sep 02, 2008 Seth T. rated it liked it
Shelves: bookclub
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
Lama Sh A
Sep 29, 2016 Lama Sh A rated it really liked it
I don't have the words but one thing I'm sure of... The world has been inflected with destruction and agony since the birth of Adam. Some people were asking me, what are you reading? I told them about the civil war of Sudan. I was able to recite to them as much events as possible simply because the author and Valentino concocted the story in the best and simple way possible despite its density of long pages and atrocious events. I congratulate everyone out there fighting the agonies and conseque ...more
Jul 25, 2007 Grayem82 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
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 h
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Dave Eggers is the author of ten books, including most recently Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?, The Circle and A Hologram for the King, which was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company based in San Francisco that produces books, a quarterly journal of new writing (McSweeney’s Quarterly ...more
More about Dave Eggers...

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“I will not wait to love as best as I can. We thought we were young and that there would be time to love well sometime in the future. This is a terrible way to think. It is no way to live, to wait to love.” 480 likes
“But everyone disappears, no matter who loves them.” 284 likes
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