Wednesday, March 05, 2008

FINISHED: What Is the What

When I last bothered to post about what I was reading, I was preparing to host my book group. You can read about the food here. Attendance was pretty lame. Just four people came, and I was the only person who had finished reading the book. Even though we’d had two months to finish it, judging by the bookmarks, most had just begun.

Book-group member Suzanne chose What is the What by Dave Eggers, a novel about Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy of the Sudan. This book has been on my shelf ever since Suzanne urged me to read it earlier in '07, and it's on my 40 at 40 list. Back in '07 though I bought the very cool McSweeney's edition, which has an unusual trim size (if I had to guess, it's 7 x 9 rather than 6 x 9) and paper over boards—a book that feels good in your hands, reassuring you that e-books could never take the place of printed books. I love what McSweeney's is doing with book design and graphics and fonts.

About the novel: Deng, with thousands of other young boys, was forced from his village during Sudan’s protracted civil war. As part of a large group, he marched to Ethiopia and, eventually, to Kenya, where he lived in a refugee camp. The story alternates between the present day, when Deng is living in Atlanta, studying and working odd jobs so that he may go to college, and his life as a refugee in Africa, where he has witnessed war, famine, disease, and lion attacks. In the States, Deng is held up in his own home at gunpoint and burgled. He also experiences indifference and is put off by bureaucracy. And, the larger question becomes Was Deng better off in Africa. Is the U.S. really the “land of opportunity”? And, if so, for whom?

Eggers does a remarkable job of telling Deng’s story. It’s deep and provocative yet handled with a great sensitivity and leavened with humor. Eggers, who came to attention with his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, pretty much proves he’s a staggering genius. I would write more on this point and why this book is so important but I’m still mulling, but I do recommend that everyone read it, if for no other reason than it’s really well written.

The host gets to pick the group's next read. Way back in early December, Suzanne and I were talking about books on our TBR lists. While we had many in common, one stood out as an obvious choice for the book group, best read with the support of others and discussion worthy: Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.

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