Erin's Reviews > What is the What

What is the What by Dave Eggers
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's review
Jan 04, 09

really liked it
Read in January, 2009

Billed as fiction, WHAT IS THE WHAT is actually the mostly-true story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who had to flee his country as a young boy- walking hundreds of miles through desert, corpses, and human atrocities of a war torn country. Of course, Dave Eggers did a brilliant job in mimicking the voice of the real Achak, as they collaborated on this novel over the course of three years. The real strength of this book is how it is told without judgement and anger. Facts are given, and emotion is present, but it makes it easier as a reader to form one's own opinions and feelings.

The story is told in three seperate sections. In Book I, Achak is living in Atlanta and has just been brutually attacked by two thieves who have raided his apartment and stolen all that he has acquired during his time in the US. The first portion of his flashback to the Sudan is told while Achak waits, bound by cords, on the floor for his roommate to return home and help him.

Book II takes place while he is at the hospital awaiting care for his wounds from the attack. Of course, it is a hospital here in the good ol' US, so he gets one MRI over the course of a 14 hour wait before he walks out of the hospital (without treatment) at 3:45 am so he can be to work by 5:30. The flashback that occurs during this wait is an account of starvation, disease, and struggle in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, political issues enter into the mix, and he (along with thousands of refugees) are pushed out of the country violently.

The final portion of the book takes place while Achak is finally at work at a fitness club. He relates back to his experiences in the final camp that he lived in for about ten years, and his eventual flight to the United States, which happened to fall on September 11th, 2001. Needless to say, he did not get to America that day.

There is one horrific tragedy after another in this book, but it becomes more terrifying when it is recognized that these horrors occured while I was happily going about my life- pursuing an education, working without the fear of being harmed, and enjoying movies, travel, and relative peace. I spent time at the website last night exploring the plight of this extraordinary man. All the proceeds of this book are going towards building a secondary school in Marail Bai, Achak's hometown in the Sudan as well as assisting the "Lost Boys" who have relocated in the US.

Again, I find myself wondering what I can do. Is it enough to throw money at a problem? Perhaps in lieu of doing more, that is the best that I can do...but, I wonder, is it enough?

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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Durrant I saw a television show about "the lost boys" and found it deeply moving. Your review makes me want to read Eggers' book. Of course the problem with readers is that we sometimes let reading substitute for action. Abstract sympathy felt from afar doesn't do those in trouble very much good. Gosh, with Doug's excellent musings on Kerouac and yours on Eggers, we seem to have taken a moralistic turn. The next thing you know, one of us will be doing something radical . . . like actually trying to help somebody! Maybe we should all go back to Celine (or Sartre, who, as Doug notes, will convince us it really doesn't matter).

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

Yes, well, we've spent a good part of our evening surfing the web looking for a way to be of some help. Mostly what we found are organizations that want donations. We even found some that we believe are doing some good and we may give to them, but we were hoping to find a way to be of more service. The International Rescue Committee actually sponsors refugees and brings them stateside and then teaches them English, self-sufficiency, and the like. They have a processing center in Atlanta, but there's nothing around here. It's something we've talked about long before this book came along, so we'll get there eventually.

Just imagining how morally superior I'll feel to all those around me when I've read 100 books and have contributed in some way toward helping people makes me giddy!

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

Just now the young man who sells soup and sandwiches out of the back of a van in our parking lot on Mondays told me, when I asked, that he is reading a book of poetry by Jack Gilbert. When I expressed an interest, saying that I've never heard of Gilbert and that I'll have to look for some of Gilbert's work, the young man became very animated as he told me that he had studied just down the hall from Mr. Gilbert but didn't know who he was at the time and that now it breaks his heart to know that he could have passed the time of day with this man whom he idolizes, if he had only known who he was.

He stopped stuffing my order into a brown paper sack long enough to gaze at the inside of his forehead as he tried to find a way to explain the significance of his situation to me.

Snapping back to attention, his hands automatically resuming the construction of my lunch, he said, "It's like what if I was a born again Christian and then discovered that I had been living next door to Jesus for a year! That's what it's like for me knowing that I could have talked to this man."

I headed for safer ground. "The chocolate turtle cake looks really good today."

"Dude, we made it two days ago and it's amazing; the only one of our desserts that I'd eat," seamlessly resuming in the same breath, "his poems are so good that they're just amazing."

"I'll take it," I said, "Not that I need it," trying his seamless thing, "but And the Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks was really good. I read it yesterday."

"Seven dollars and twenty five cents I don't know that one," he frowned.

"Kerouac and Burroughs," I mumbled as the line of van diners behind me lengthened.

He nodded sympathetically and then decided to give me points for at least reading a book.

"Hey, I've got the perfect job, you know? I just sit here reading all day," he beamed.

Well, he's got me there. Every now and then I have to write an email.

Maybe I'm missing something, but I just spent my lunch reading Jack Gilbert poems online and I don't see what all the fuss, and two Pulitzer nominations, are about. The turtle cake on the other hand looks so good that it's amazing.

Erin I've taken some time out of my busy work day to puruse his poetry and there doesn't seem much to recommend it. Maybe I grew out of poetry at some point, just as I've grown out of short stories which I rediscovered in my attempt the other day to read some Chekhov shorts.

Turtle cake sounds absolutely delightful. In my personal resolve to stop overeating, I ate a small portion of pasta made by a co-worker. My mantra during each mouthful was, "People in the Sudan have almost nothing to eat." This didn't seem to curb my gluttonous appetite...only depressed me.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

The turtle cake was horrible, by the way. Tasted like it was made two days ago.

You and I just need to pick a destination and a time for a walking trip and then we need to start training for it. How about alternating laps around Skinner Butte and Elijah Bristow Park? Are there any countries you haven't walked across? We could start with one of those. I'm thinking Grenada or Andorra. Or Vatican City.

message 6: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Durrant Skinner Butte? Elijah Bristow Park? Where did a nice guy who lives in Tennessee learn about such Lane County obscurities? Or is this what you and Erin talk about in the evenings? I also don't have the foggiest idea what turtle cake is. I only know that after reading Erin's report on the lost boys and your report of spending all evening trying to find a way to help them, I was so depressed about my own lack of social consciousness that I ate an old-fashioned glazed doughnut, completely shattering one of my New Years resolutions. And poetry reigns! Although I'm not sure Jack Gilbert does.

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

This, counter-intuitive as it may be, is NOT a turtle cake.

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This is.

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Please be advised that I can't go more than an hour without googling something. I googled "Eugene Oregon walking trails" to help me with the first part of my comment and then I googled "smallest countries" to help me with the last part.

I'm not intentionally sneaky, but I can see that it does grant the appearance that I know more than I actually do. Then again, after googling it, now I do know that Andorra is a very small country...

message 8: by Stephen (new)

Stephen Durrant So that's turtle cake. Looks pretty good. On your small country list you missed Monaco. Several years ago Francoise and I were driving between Menton, on the Italian border, and Nice. We decided we'd stop in Monaco and check it out. Problem is, we couldn't find it! We probably missed the exit. But a country that has only one freeway exit is definitely a country you could walk across in less than three weeks!

message 9: by [deleted user] (last edited Jan 08, 2009 07:35PM) (new)

That's a lifestyle I can't even imagine. Being in that part of the world, surrounded by so much history, driving along and deciding to go check out Monaco.

Not bad for a young man from Orem, Utah.

...or from American Fork, for that matter...

(Erin has returned from her travels in time to correct my error before turning in for the night.)

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