Monday, January 17, 2011

what is the what - a book review

Here's a perfect example that discovering the sweet things in life doesn't have to be dessert oriented...

As the world slowly but surely turns itself to electronic reading (insert the sound of a baby crying out loud), I fall under the stubborn group who refuse to let go of the tangible act of holding a book. In due time I will own my very own nook/kindle/shnook/book device but during this stop at the bookstore, I was spending my dollars on ink and pages.

I developed an urge to read something that would simultaneously inspire and captivate me - and boy did I find one. The book is called 'What Is the What' by Dave Eggers (New York Times Bestseller) and once I completed it, my sole responsibility was to share this compelling, eye-opening, sometimes funny and ultra wise story with you.

The synopsis of the story is about a man's journey from Sudan to the United States - yes, a kindred soul from the group of 'Lost Boys' we have all heard about here and there. This man, Valentino Achak Deng - that you grow so fond of, has his story told by author Dave Eggers who compiled the story from years and years of hearing Valentino's trials and triumphs. It's great because the author remains true to his authentic African tone and simplicity in explaining things. The story is told while Valentino currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia and goes back and forth about his experiences around Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia throughout the book.

What the 'Lost Boys of Sudan' encountered during the Second Sudanese Civl War is inhuman, unjust and hard to even picture the barbaric state they were constantly punished in. Eggers describes situations where Valentino saw so many people either being killed by the rebels, killed by one another and the most atrocious - killed by the wild animals in Africa. In some incidents, one by one a child is being taken by the above mentioned and instantly becoming another victim of a gruesome death. Valentino's stories are unbearable to read but he makes them strangely relatable - allowing the reader to feel in a similar manner after losing a loved one, losing trust in others and even losing your very own innocence. What makes you keep turning the page is the hope that everything will eventually turn out to be okay for this man struggling in every possible manner.

As earlier mentioned, he's in Atlanta now - living in the United States of America. You know, the country that all other countries look at as the land of opportunity and an unfortunate, misconstrued idea of an immediate, guaranteed opportunity. The more you read into what Eggers is trying to convey you realize that the misfortunes Valentino suffered in East Africa are also ongoing in the States, just in a different fashion. Valentino faces hardships in Atlanta such as financial burdens, romantic losses, malicious crimes, social/political injustices and just the overall distaste for the need to have so many things - materialistic things - and still never feeling like its enough.

Valentino's life in Sudan, before the violent attacks from the rebels that forced him to flee and fight for himself, was simple - an ubiquitous simplicity that you find infectious. Things didn't provide happiness - moments in his small, modest life delivered contentment. The sun setting made him happy. Watching his mother do small chores made him happy. Helping his father running the local neighborhood store made him happy. In fact, the title of the book comes from a story his father tells about how God offered cattle to the local tribe his family belonged to (which represented meat, milk and other forms of wealth) as a choice "You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What." As the few hardworking people did choose the cattle, there were the others who chose this mysterious sense of richness and happiness that they foolishly anticipated would present itself in other ways. Which the book implies ends up coming in the several misfortunes such as the destruction of their town, hundreds of deaths and the mass migrations of the young boys. It's emotionally sobering and mentally penetrating at the same time.

"What Is the What" is a remarkable story provoking an honest question within oneself about what is it really going to take for you to find happiness. And what is it that surrounds us that plays a role in the happiness? How does a man who truly faced the lowest of lows able to tell such a profound story and still be able to reflect with such content? Valentino Achak Deng is a kind, self-aware man who is simply looking to tell his version of what happened and bring attention to a cause that many assume has already been fully addressed. While successfully urging readers to give great thought to his journey, he also helps you realize what he has realized - that whatever the "What" may very well be - perhaps the small, modest gifts in life that have already been provided by nature and nurture, are all that we really need.