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What is the What Paperback – October 9, 2007

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 9, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307385906
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307385901
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 5.1 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 0.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (339 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,422 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Valentino Achak Deng, real-life hero of this engrossing epic, was a refugee from the Sudanese civil war-the bloodbath before the current Darfur bloodbath-of the 1980s and 90s. In this fictionalized memoir, Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) makes him an icon of globalization. Separated from his family when Arab militia destroy his village, Valentino joins thousands of other "Lost Boys," beset by starvation, thirst and man-eating lions on their march to squalid refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya, where Valentino pieces together a new life. He eventually reaches America, but finds his quest for safety, community and fulfillment in many ways even more difficult there than in the camps: he recalls, for instance, being robbed, beaten and held captive in his Atlanta apartment. Eggers's limpid prose gives Valentino an unaffected, compelling voice and makes his narrative by turns harrowing, funny, bleak and lyrical. The result is a horrific account of the Sudanese tragedy, but also an emblematic saga of modernity-of the search for home and self in a world of unending upheaval.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Dave Eggers is best known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), and here he shows that he is as adroit at telling another person's biography as he is narrating his own. Over three years, he conducted 100 hours of interviews with Deng and visited Sudan with him in "synergistic collaboration" (Time). Labeled as a novel, this work nonetheless has a historical basis and lends a personal face to the brutality of civil war, squalor, and the struggle for survival. A few critics questioned where Deng's story ended and Eggers's literary license began, and the book as a whole could have been better edited. While visceral and heartrending, Deng's and Eggers's joint story is ultimately a powerful tale of hope. When both People and the ever-glum Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times rave, how can one resist?

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Dave Eggers is the author of six previous books, including "Zeitoun," a nonfiction account a Syrian-American immigrant and his extraordinary experience during Hurricane Katrina and "What Is the What," a finalist for the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. That book, about Valentino Achak Deng, a survivor of the civil war in southern Sudan, gave birth to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, run by Mr. Deng and dedicated to building secondary schools in southern Sudan. Eggers is the founder and editor of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house based in San Francisco that produces a quarterly journal, a monthly magazine ("The Believer"), and "Wholphin," a quarterly DVD of short films and documentaries. In 2002, with Nínive Calegari he co-founded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center for youth in the Mission District of San Francisco. Local communities have since opened sister 826 centers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, Ann Arbor, Seattle, and Boston. In 2004, Eggers taught at the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and there, with Dr. Lola Vollen, he co-founded Voice of Witness, a series of books using oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. A native of Chicago, Eggers graduated from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children.

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Customer Reviews

Once you start reading it, I guarantee you that you will not be able to put it down until you finish the book.
book lover
It's an amazing subject for a story, the characters are so human and ALIVE...this book will really make you change the way you see people.
Eggers' writing style is powerful and simple, and the plot of this novel is a moving of a story of a man's coming of age.
Graham Burkholder

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

212 of 231 people found the following review helpful By Steve Koss VINE VOICE on November 13, 2006
Format: Hardcover
At an impressionable young age of eight or ten, Achak Deng sits at his father's feet in their home village of Marial Bai in southern Sudan, listening to his father's rendition of a Dinka creation myth. God has created a proud Dinka man and a beautiful woman, and now he offers them the idea of a cow to provide them with milk and meat and wealth. "You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What," God tells the first man. "What is the What?" the man asks. "I cannot tell you," God replies. "Still, you have to choose ...between the cattle and the What." The man and woman wisely choose the cattle, thereby passing God's test to appreciate what they had been given.

Thence comes the eponymous phrase whose unknowable answer frames Dave Eggers' latest book. Through the survival struggles of one of the country's thousands of Lost Boys, WHAT IS THE WHAT traces the late 20th Century history of Sudan, from the incipient struggles of the black African south against the Moslem-leaning government of Khartoum to today's current manifestation of this genocide, Darfur. When the story opens, Valentino Achak Deng has already left his native country for Atlanta, one of the many Lost Boys (and a smattering of Lost Girls) who have gained asylum and sponsorship in America, Canada, Australia, and other Western countries. Achak has been mentored and assisted to the degree that charitable organizations and personal acts of kindness can accomplish. Still, we quickly learn that he finds himself struggling at every turn to make enough money in menial jobs to survive, achieve a few modest comforts, and maintain respectable grades in his community college studies so as to seek admission to a full, four-year college.
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49 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Genene Murphy on February 24, 2007
Format: Hardcover
You're looking for a good book. You've read Dave Eggers or you've met him at a signing. You're thinking that you'll eventually pick this one up too. Everyone is talking about it. Besides, the cover is fantastic and it will look great on your shelf, the one that all your dates or babysitters scan.

Be prepared, though, this is not a book that deserves a simple glance or casual committment. It's a brilliantly woven tale, mostly true, of a young Sudanese and his daily struggle to understand his place in wartime Africa ... and in the United States. Before you judge that this is a political tale and you watch enough CNN to know what's going on, consider the first reason why you're curious: you're looking for a good book, maybe one that you won't lend to anyone else because it might not be returned.

Here's what's going to happen. First, Valentino's voice will come alive. When you're pretending to laugh with friends at the bar, you'll hear Valentino's voice retell a story about lions that you just read hours before. You'll see what he sees and you'll tire easily, running with him through the desert or riding a bike for the first time. Your heart will break and you'll occassionally feel undeniable urges for hope and love and luck. You'll beg and plead your boyfriend/husband/friend to read it with you. And if you're like me, you'll get late-night emails from others, unsure if you've already read about Tabitha or not.

So, if you're looking for something simple and easy, something that maybe your Mom might read, this is not the book for you. If you're looking for something simply brilliant and deeply felt, this is something you might want to give your Mom. It may be one of the best gifts you could give.
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71 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Balbach on October 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
There are a number of really excellent non-fiction autobiographies of the Lost Boys currently available, 5 of them (see below). "What Is the What" is the only fictionalized account I am aware of. I've read some of the non-fiction accounts, and they are just as compelling, fascinating and dramatic as fiction; in many ways more so because they are factual and have a sense of "otherness" and level of specific detail. Although the novel has plenty of violence, it seems somewhat sterilized and made more palatable for the sensibilities of a middle class American audience - Deng's "voice" (really Eggers?) is confident and optimistic about the future, rarely did I sense the utter loneliness, despondency, hopelessness, weakness and fear that is palpable in the real autobiographies.

This is not a bad book, Eggers has created an entertaining work of art, not unlike what Charles Dickens did for the poor in "Oliver Twist", it serves to advance a social cause. But the real autobiographies are just as page-turning readable and even more emotionally moving because of their truthfulness. Literary critic Lee Siegel in "The New Republic" took the problem even further saying the novels "innocent expropriation of another man's identity is a post-colonial arrogance.. How strange for one man to think that he could write the story of another man, a real living man who is perfectly capable of telling his story himself -- and then call it an autobiography. Where is the dignity in that?
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