What Is the What

  • by Dave Eggers
  • Narrated by Dion Graham
  • 20 hrs and 33 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Dave Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he's driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety - for a time. Valentino's travels, truly Biblical in scope, bring him in contact with government soldiers, Janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation, and a string of unexpected romances. Ultimately, Valentino finds safety in Kenya and, just after the millennium, is finally resettled in the United States, from where this novel is narrated. In this book, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him.

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What the Critics Say

"Engrossing." (Publishers Weekly)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Writing compensated for by source material

Epic in scope, but told in a very personal, down-to-earth fashion. The material itself is striking. Even if you've been aware of what happened in the Sudan, I expect hearing about what the people endured as part of the story of an individual life would still be eye-opening. I wasn't that well-informed, so it was certainly interesting for me.

Despite the excellent source matter, however, the story is somewhat crudely told. While Eggers has a fantastic sense of voice and really personalizes all of the characters, the overall handling of the plot arc felt clumsy and gimmicky at times, and the way the historical material is introduced through the Valentino's present-day inner monologue addressed at various people in his daily life gets to be a tired trick after a while. Also, the attempt to include everything possible about the Sudanese people's experiences in this one person's individual story leads to a certain straining of plausibility after a while that's only partly explained away by having the other characters themselves remark that God must have something against him. The pacing of the context switches seems slightly off in a way that often leaves you wanting to hear more about the part you're not hearing about now, whichever part that may be. There are a couple of things which are introduced multiple times during the course of the story in a way that seems more accidental than artistic, and oddly, given that at several points the story felt a little long, the book eventually just sort of ... stops, dropping the story in an unsatisfying fashion.

That said, the source material is so compelling that even a muddled rendition of it provides for an extremely worthwhile read, and Dion Graham does a riveting job as the narrator, with excellent voices for most of the characters and a fantastic command of the cadence and character of the principal character's voice that makes the book wonderful to hear.

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- Irfon-Kim

A Story Aching to be Told

Since the title of the book doesn't give much away, all I knew about this book was that I kept saw it on several critics' lists of books everyone should read. It wasn't until I picked up a paperback copy and read the first few pages that I decided I had to read/listen to it. The first few pages in print swept me into the story of Valentino Achak Deng but the expert narration by Dion Graham made this not quite biographical, not quite fictional book come truly alive.

This is a story about one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. I have met one of the Lost Boys and heard his story as he told it in around forty minutes. This is the story he might have told if he had days to tell about his life and not merely minutes.

It doesn't matter whether the listener knows nothing about the civil war in Sudan or a great deal. It is ultimately a human story, one that needs to be heard. This is also America's story - about how the US appears to people half a world away and the things we can and cannot do for other nations. At times it is a heartbreaking story but it is so much more than that. The book may not be 100% factual; however it is completely true. It is true because it is never afraid to display the world as it is: wonderful, terrifying, unfair, generous, compassionate, horrifying and hopeful.
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- Susan

Book Details

  • Release Date: 09-04-2007
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.