I think we've reached a consensus, What is the What was not one of our favorite books so far. Hmm...I definitely prefer Jonathan Safran Foer. I believe that he gets grouped with Dave Eggers, Jonathan Lethem (I enjoy his short stories), and Zadie Smith, although I've yet to read a Smith.
Although I'm sure Valentino Achak Deng is a much busier person than I am, I wish the blog section of his web site was up and running. I've read a few interviews he's done along with Eggers, but I'm interested in what he's like without having Eggers around.
Northwestern University, which in 2005 restricted investments in four companies doing business in Sudan, is considering the possibility of prohibiting University investments in other companies with business operations there.
University leaders are working with Northwestern students who have recently asked the University not to invest in companies that conduct business in the East African country because of genocide that has occurred in the Darfur region of Sudan.
It's very humanitarian of them to look into the students' proposal. I'd rather they look more at using their excess cash as a reinvestment into the school. And stop harassing me several times a year for a donation because this human needs a break.
A few posts below, Zonker left a comment containing a link to a blog about Sudan. In continuing my education, I have stumbled across several blogs dedicated to the cause:
I hope you have had the chance to finish the novel, given that it was a short month. I know I had a tough time finishing it since I've had to read two other novels this month for my Literature and the State class, not to mention articles as well.
Except that I don't know where to begin. I will definitely need your help in getting the discussion going. What is the What was definitely a dense novel, but pleasing to follow. Tragedy and humor.
I'll begin with what bothered me.
The celebrities, the exact dates, the present-likeness of it, and the reality behind it. Or was it the writing?
These aspects of the novel made me think that I was reading a biography (I know it's a sort of biography), something more non-fiction. I have a personal problem with reading biographies: I don't think any one person is more important than another to have a book written about their life. It's more of a, "If I read your life, then I will feel guilty because I did not read about his life." or "Why should I read about you when there are millions of people out there with their own story?" Eh...
Call it bias, but I disliked the mention of Angelina Jolie in the novel and the clarified connection between Jane Fonda and the founder of the Lost Boys organization. Also, I'm really not sure what to think about the writing. From my experience, I felt like the exactness of facts and dates and names took away some of the charm of WitW being a novel. All of this seemed too factual for me.
On the other hand, it bothered me so much that I never knew Achak's age! I could guess it, but we were never told. Gosh!
The stories were moving. By far, Achak's childhood narration was the most moving and the saddest, yet beautiful lines and concepts came from that narration. One of my favorites comes from pages 181-182: "Eventually a dying boy would find a tree, and he would sit against the tree and fall asleep. When his head touched the tree, the life in him would fall away and his flesh would return to the earth." William K's death was one of the saddest events in the novel. He was also my favorite character.
I found some parts boring, like the history behind the events, celebrations, assemblies, and conferences surrounding the Lost Boys.
I haven't really posed any real questions here, it's been more of a stream of consciousness. Having said that, I hope you share your thoughts on What is the What.
When I taught third grade, the social studies curriculum focused on world cultures. It took a lot of effort convincing the kids that Africa was a continent rather than one gigantic country, so we never made it very deep into looking at its people. As a result, I knew exactly one thing about Sudan before picking up What Is the What. It is the largest country in Africa.
Of course, I've seen the Save Darfur commercials. It took several viewings, however, before I realized that Darfur is in Sudan. Then, talking with Eddie the other night, I mentioned my annoyance at not finding it on the map at the front of What is the What. Eddie lived in Zambia for two years, so I hoped for a quick primer on the conflict. Since Africa is such a big place, he readily admitted also knowing very little about Sudan.
Curious, I began Internet surfing and was very surprised to discover that Valentino Achak Deng, the novel's main character, is not from Darfur. Huh? While reading What is the What, I assumed I was getting some information on what we've been hearing about on television.
Since I can't be the only one who is confused, here is some information on Sudan to help orient us in anticipation of tomorrow's discussion. To begin, the following map shows Sudan's states as they were in 1994:
Clicking on the map will take you to a larger image. Deng's village, Marial Bai, is located in the southern Sudanese region of Bahr al-Ghazal ("river of the gazelles"). Darfur ("home of the Fur," an ethnic group) is a region in the west and is just north of Bahr al-Ghazal. Today, Sudan has been further divided and is currently made up of 26 states.
Deng is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a name borrowed from Peter Pan because so many of them arrived at refugee camps without parents. In the late 80s, fighting began between Sudan's government in Khartoum, its northern capital city, and rebels (the SPLA) who wanted autonomy for the south. Driven from their homes by the conflict, these boys, mostly aged 8 to 18, traveled hundreds of miles to Ethiopia. When Communists overthrew the Ethiopian government in 1991, the refugees were chased back to Sudan by armed militia. Walking for more than a year, they arrived in Kenya in 1992 after losing nearly half of their original number.
The current situation in Darfur is not dissimilar to what happened to the Lost Boys. In 2003, rebel groups in Darfur began attacking government army installations amidst cries of injustice and neglect of the region. The Sudanese government sent their own troops and recruited armed militias to quell the rebels. The militias, known as Janjaweed, are made up of Sudanese Arab tribesmen and have been accused of atrocities against the African Sudanese in Darfur. Currently, it is estimated that 400,000 civilians have been killed and over 2 million people have been displaced by the fighting.
In general, I prefer to hold off on commenting on the content of the books we discuss before we actually discuss them. This avoids giving away important plot points in advance of the conversation. Plus, seeing **SPOILER ALERT** at the top of every post, like on many other book and film discussion sites, is annoying. So, although I don't really want to talk about What is the What before February 19th, I do want to mention that the section I read last night made me cry.
Speaking of the **SPOILER ALERT** thing, the worst place to encounter it right now is at Amazon's Penguin Classics Reading Group. Good for them for starting a book club blog since talking about reading is a great thing. I hope they make a million bucks at it, but gah! They have spoiler alerts before nearly every post AND comment. If the participants haven't finished the book, it's their problem.
Anyway, back to the crying. Being overcome by emotion surprised me because I wasn't expecting to like this book. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I wasn't too thrilled by Dave Eggers's memoir. When I began A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, I assumed the title was either ironic or satirical. When I got to the end, I realized Eggers was serious. The reading experience was fine until the last chapter, which meant to convey the strength of Dave and Topher's connection and will to survive. But when the message turned toward, "Eff you, you naysayers and people who would put us down," I felt like Eggers was also saying, "Eff you, you stupid person who spent your hard-earned money on buying this book because you are one of those naysayers." It put me in a foul mood.
In a weirdly eccentrically irrational way, I blame Eggers for keeping me from becoming an infamous Reality TV star. I read the "Eff You" chapter while standing in line with Andy of Reality Blurred to try out for The Mole 2. In a Q&A on a now defunct blog, Andy said, "I applied for 'The Mole' in Chicago, but during the interview I gave really lame answers. I think I just wasn't ready to be an over-the-top personality, and you kind of need to be that way." I gave lame answers, too, but it was Eggers's fault. If his book had left me with the feeling that I also could accomplish anything and everything, I'd have been posing for publicity pictures with Anderson Cooper. Instead, I walked into the interview feeling like I suck.
Ironically, last night's crying fit while reading What is the What occurred with Reality TV playing in the background. I had the late-night rebroadcast of the Top Chef finale on because I wanted to find out who won. Although I enjoyed many moments, like the challenges and conversation among the judges, the show overall was a disappointment. The characters (or perhaps the way the characters were edited) turned it into a high school melodrama as childish whining and personal conflict trumped the food. Throughout the season, I thought to myself many times, "Oh, shut up and cook something already." Andy, by the way, didn't enjoy the show either as seen in his MSNBC article "'Top Chef' fails the taste test."
What a turn in events. Eggers, whose memoir ruined my Reality TV career, has redeemed himself with his tragic and moving latest book. And Reality TV, which was great entertainment when it was first conceived, now mostly disappoints.
I almost started this with "Good morning, it's..." Now that I've written a few posts attempting to imitate A Box of Matches, it feels a bit like habit. Once Nicholson Baker got the inspiration, I suspect it was an easy book to write. Slipping into "Emmett Mode" and jotting down every thought that comes into your head is an awful lot like blogging. Thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion, which will remain open for as long as the posts remain on the home page. Even if you haven't read the book, please feel free to add your own thoughts since discussing it is actually a jumping off point for discussing our own lives.
Going back to last month's discussion, here's an article from Times Online: "How the CIA won Zhivago a Nobel" (via aydin.net). According to Ivan Tolstoy, author of soon-to-be-released The Laundered Novel, the CIA helped publish Doctor Zhivago in Russian in 1958 as a means of securing the Nobel Prize for Pasternak. In my mind, there's no doubt the prize is, in part, political, so CIA intervention in promoting propaganda against the evil Soviet Empire doesn't surprise me at all. Although I hated both the novel and movie versions of Doctor Zhivago, Tolstoy's book might be one to add to the TBR list. The Washington Post also reports on this in "The Plot Thickens" (may require registration).
I'm well into February's selection, What is the What, and I've been enjoying it immensely so far. It's a timely read considering all the "Save Darfur" commercials on television. In a Conversational Reading post about David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest Barrett Hathcock wondered, "What would it be like to read Eggers’s What is the What without any memory of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and all of the hype and back-lash hype (and on and on) that exists?" I have no idea since I read and was annoyed by Eggers's memoir, but I can say that this book (so far) is written from a first-person perspective in which the narrator isn't completely full of himself. It's tragic and sad, but I'm liking it.
Nicholson Baker's A Box of Matches: The discussion of this title begins on Monday. If you were planning on reading it but haven't, there's still plenty of time. A Box of Matches is feather-light reading since it isn't really a novel, has no conflict or resolution, and doesn't bother burdening the reader with having to follow a plot. It does have a setting, though. I plan on rereading it tonight in order to put together topics of discussion, and I anticipate being finished in an hour or so.
Dave Eggers's What Is the What: Last night, I picked up my copy at Borders and was pleasantly surprised by the hardest working bookstore employee I've ever encountered. Their computer said it was out of stock, so he naturally offered to order it. I refused by saying I needed it for a book club, and he walked me over to the "E" section explaining that sometimes their computer system says zero when there is actually one. And I got the last copy. Later, he offered assistance again as I looked confused after losing my co-shopper somewhere in the aisles. When I checked out, the same dude was working a register. He was everywhere.
Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: As you can see by the left sidebar, Eddie will be moderating in March. Things Fall Apart should be an interesting follow up to What Is the What as each tells a story from Africa. I would also like to compare it to Doctor Zhivago because both were first published in English only a year apart. Doctor Zhivago, in my opinion, has lost a lot of its initial impact as time has passed. Things Fall Apart is a very different kind of book, but I'd like to think a bit on how well it has withstood the test of time.
Spelling Counts: This has nothing to do with books or future discussions, but it does relate to writing well. After Borders, I went to the grocery store. While browsing produce, I saw a weird-looking item called "Catus Pear." At least, that's what the sign said. I picked it up for a closer look and immediately regretted the action because it was actually a "Cactus Pear." Over the course of the evening, I found several tiny but painful spines stuck in various fingers by the most malicious fruit ever. Spell check, people.
Over on the left, you can see that Ana has chosen February's book, Dave Eggers's What Is the What. I haven't picked up my copy yet and may run out to Barnes & Noble or Borders to see if I can find it. In searching for places to buy it online, it looks as though prices and shipping vary:
What Is the What is also available from other places since the above is just a sampling. The variation in price obviously relates to seller discount. I suspect the longer shipping times might relate to McSweeney's relationship with the recently beleaguered Publishers Group West:
Although I haven't paid much attention to the AMS bankruptcy story—in my book days, publishers and booksellers went in and out of business all the time—this development is a real shame. If you don't mind paying full price, buying it directly from McSweeney's would be the most philanthropic thing to do.
In any case, if you plan on getting this book for next month's discussion, you might want to start looking now. February is a short month.