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What is the What Paperback – October 9, 2007

4.6 out of 5 stars 438 customer reviews

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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.
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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.

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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: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (438 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #19,099 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover
"What is the What" is a sprawling, semi-biographical novel about the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee living in Atlanta and reflecting on his life story as he is robbed and beaten by two thieves who have gotten into his apartment. The narrative goes back and forth between Valentino's present situation and his youth in the village of Marial Bai and, later, his years fleeing his homeland and becoming one of the displaced "Lost Boys" in a Kenyan refugee camp. His story is harrowing and brutal; before getting to Kenya the very young Valentino bears witness to innumerable atrocities and hardships. Believing that his family was murdered, he embarks on a deadly trek across the desert to find safe haven in Ethiopia, and many of his fellow walkers and friends die of starvation or attacks by lions and soldiers. Safety in Ethiopia is only short-lived, however, and Valentino must escape again. Before age twelve he has seen the very worst of humanity: its selfishness, its greed, its corruption and violence, but Valentino remains optimistic for his future, even when life seems determined to keep him down. But disappointment with his new life in America may be his breaking point, as he has failed to find a job that can support him adequately, get the education that he would need to get ahead, and continues to be be a victim of senseless violence and a government/society that can't be bothered to care about his plight. "What is the What" is a searing, eye-opening experience about the crises in Africa and the way its victims are routinely passed off by society -- when sometimes just the simplest of kindnesses would be enough to help them by. Instead, people like Valentino Achak Deng have been denied their very humanity, and seem doomed to live life on the fringes of society.Read more ›
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