April 6, 2008

Book Review: What is the What

What is the What by Dave Eggers

Acquiring this book was unusual for me in two ways: I almost never, ever buy new books, much less ones I haven't read (my rule is usually to buy a used copy after I've read it a few times); and to buy a book from an author I've never read. I had heard plenty about Dave Eggers, both online and from a few friends whose opinion I trust, but I hadn't so much as read a paragraph of his.

The title is a little awkward, but it makes sense once you read the book. The book is an account of the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who is forced to run away from his village at the age of six due to raids by Arabs. He journeys around Sudan, joining other groups of boys, ending up at one refugee camp after another until one day he is selected to go to America.

It is not a fiction book, nor is it a biography. In the introduction, Valentino explains that he didn't think he could write the story himself, and the work is classified as fiction because of course he cannot accurately recall small events or conversations from when he was young. Many reviewers on Amazon had a problem with this, saying that Valentino should have written the book himself, that Eggers (or anyone, for that matter) can't tell someone else's story. A few were confused about the whole 'classifying it as fiction' thing. Once you start to read the story, though, it is very easy to just read his account of his life.

The way the book was written made my opinion of Eggers very favorable. It is chronicled in one day of Valentino's life here in America, with the rest of the story told in flashbacks. This is extremely hard to do without losing the reader, and he does it wonderfully. There is a nice balance of explaining the situation in Sudan (which I was woefully undereducated about), having the 'gory details', and injecting raw humanism (to use a very navel-gazing phrase). Valentino isn't made out to be some sort of tragic little hero, struggling through oppression and death with a brave heart. He is just very human, scared and defeated at times, and joyfully optimistic at others.

The few problems I have are not such big deals. Having written for so long, it is very rare for a book to suck me in enough to where I just read, instead of analyze their writing style, tricks, methods, etc. About three-quarters of the way in, the length and layout of the flashbacks, especially the way he wraps them up, became very predictable. Also, I would've liked to see a little more of his experiences with America. There is an adequate amount of anecdotes regarding this, such as when he and his roommate at first don't know what food goes in the fridge, the freezer, or the pantry, but being the egocentric American, more details of culture shock would've been a nice insight.

The book was not trite, nor did it play up to your emotions by being overly despondent or overly optimistic. It's definitely worth a read, especially if, like me, you know little or nothing about what is going on in Sudan. All in all, it was a beautiful book that makes you sit back and appreciate everything you have, especially love and life itself.

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