“ . . . between May 16, 1983 and January 9, 2005, over two and a half million people died of war and war-related causes in Sudan, over four million people were internally displaced in southern Sudan and nearly two million southern Sudanese took refuge in foreign countries.”
—preface, What is the What
What is the What Cover
These facts permeate the narrative of What is the What, a piece of journalistic fiction ala Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The stories are chilling; even more chilling because they are true, or mostly true. Dave Eggers admits he filled in the gaps of his hero’s memory and therefore, wrote a novel.
But Valentino Achak Deng of southern Sudan is very real.
Just before the killing breaks out, Achak, tells the story of creation as told to him by his father:
God created the first Dinka man and woman and offered them the cow, which the man knew would supply everything they needed: milk, money and prosperity. Or, they could choose the What. But what is the What? God said, I cannot tell you what is the What. So they chose the cattle and this was the correct decision.
God was testing the man for his ability to appreciate what is good and available, rather than trading for the unknown.
Years later, his father said Achak’s opportunity to go to the United Sates was the What, but urged him to go anyway. And for Achak, one of the Lost Boys of southern Sudan, the What was not good.
The Jungle is Atlanta
Achak is resettled in Atlanta. As casualties of the Sudanese civil war, the Lost Boys will always be somewhat lost, even in Atlanta. What is the price for clean sheets, electricity and nourishing food? Are these physical comforts worth the diminution of his soul? Achak helps other resettled Lost Boys, but is a few dollars from his gym wages the best kind of help he can give?
After five years, Achak, who had been a leader in his refugee camp, still has not achieved even modest success in Atlanta. He works for low wages at a gym and he struggles at the community college. His trusting nature causes him to let a woman asking for help into his apartment who, with her partner, robs and beats him. He is left tied up overnight to retell his life story in his head.
Eggers’ retelling of Achak’s story transports the reader to Sudan, walks the readers’ hearts with those boys and allows the readers’ souls to suffer with them. What is the What is no dry 60 Minutes piece.
Eggers returns the reader back to Atlanta periodically for an update on Achak’s current indignities: the robbery, the helplessness, and the indifference in the emergency room. In his head, Achak tells his stories to the people who pass through his current life. He speaks to the African-American boy who guards him, calls him “TV Boy.”
He speaks to the photos on the computer screen of people who have just swiped their gym membership cards.
How can anyone who has witnessed and survived so much slaughter, disease and starvation be put through the banal trials he suffers in Atlanta? Achak’s emotional suffering in Atlanta was worse than in Sudan.
In the refugee camp, Achak had gone beyond the suffering there. “It keeps my spirit alive to struggle,” says Achak. He had been educated, he had become a leader, and he affected positive changes in other refugees’ lives. Then he comes to the US and is marginalized and is unable to overcome day-to-day barriers.
No End to the Suffering
What is the What reminds me that just when you think you are safe, you’re not; there is no end to suffering. Eggers conveys the boyish humanity of The Lost Boys, Achaks’ longing for his village despite everything, and his memory of his mother. He cherishes the memory of being wrapped in her bright vibrant yellow dress, the sun he revolved around before the killing began and he became lost.
Eggers explains the politics between northern and southern Sudan, the Arabs and the Dinka, in a way that grinds into your soul. No detachment allowed. Now a new generation of Lost Boys are traveling across Sudan.
Chrisopher Isherwood shows readers that a single day in a man’s life can sum up the nature of his existence.
This particular man, George, is gay and the year is 1962. George is from England, lives near the ocean and teaches at a college. These are just facts of the existence of an entity called “George.”
Jim, George’s long-time partner, died in an auto accident less than a year before and George is still coming to grips with the loss. In his grief, George observes his own actions and those of his friends and students with complete alien detachment.
This detachment is the true state of human life, author Christopher Isherwood is saying.
The book begins and ends with a universal “we” describing George’s body as a machine that functions independently of George. “George,” or any other human machine given a name, has no soul as conventional wisdom thinks of souls. “George” is a named object. “The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops. Not because it is heroic. It can imagine no other alternative.”
This single day of George’s is pivotal in his recovery, though the action is mundane. George is annoyed by neighborhood children; George drives to work; George teaches a class. He dines with a female friend who lives in the past, then spends the night with a male student who lives in the future. The action becomes less mundane.
In A Single Man, Isherwood was finally able to address gay themes head on. In previous works, like Berlin Stories, the main character’s sexual orientation is never denied or asserted. It was the 1930s.
Isherwood lived in England, Berlin and California and he developed a literary circle of friends that reads like a “Who’s Who” of letters: W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Aldous Huxley. (He name-checks Huxley in this novel.)
These literary giants may just have been a group of machines, but these particular machines were top-of-the-line.
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
What if—suddenly—millions of people disappear into thin air? The Leftovers is about what happens to those who remain.
Why were they left behind? Did they witness The Rapture? No one has a clue. In the end, it doesn’t matter what force was behind the poof of smoke. Forever, the event is known as October 14. Sound familiar? I worried the book would be another 9/11-like tale, but it wasn’t, not really.
The Leftovers focuses on one town, Mapleton, by all measures, a very ordinary town. But these very ordinary townspeople cope in wildly different ways. They are bewildered. If this was The Rapture, why were so many good people left behind?
The people of Mapleton discover life goes on whether they are prepared or not. But everyone is irrevocably changed. Cults spring up, like the Guilty Remnant (GR) who wear all white and chain smoke cigarettes. The GR haunt the town in pairs, following others at close distance. There are the Barefoot People and the Holy Wayners.
Three years later, the town celebrates Christmas and Valentine’s Day; they hold dances and conduct ceremonies. Games figure in the tale, teenage games of chance, baseball, ping-pong; representing the randomness and the repetition of life.
The story’s action centers mostly around one family,the Garveys, who did not lose a family member on October 14, but were profoundly affected nonetheless. Kevin Garvey, who is also the mayor of Mapleton, pretends everything is okay, even as his son joins a cult, his wife joins a more extreme cult, and his straight-A daughter rebels.
I anticipated specific plot twists and kept waiting for them to happen. At some point, Kevin’s wife Laurie will return home. Is it now? How about now? Now she HAS to. Maybe she won’t. At some point, Kevin’s new girlfriend who lost her husband and both her children will be able to open up and see what a great guy Kevin is. Now? In the next chapter? Never?
No one behaves as I would guess, but no one behaves implausibly either. This book does not go the formula route. The Leftovers manages to be ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.
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The Berlin Stories: The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A lot went on in Berlin between World War I and World War II.
After Erik Larsen’s In the Garden of Beasts piqued my interest, I read Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, a two-novel package of The Last of Mr Norris and Goodbye to Berlin.
The Broadway play and movie Cabaret are loosely based on Goodbye to Berlin.
Like Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the male protagonists’ homosexuality is only hinted at by the author, though it helps the reader’s understanding to be aware of it. The Hollywood productions of both Breakfast and Cabaret turn the heroes straight as an arrow.
The heroes in both novels, William Bradshaw and Christopher Isherwood, are one and the same. Fraulein Schroeder, my favorite character, turns up as the landlady in both novels. In Goodbye to Berlin, Isherwood is not mentioned by name at first. But Frl Schroeder calls out, “Herr Issyvoo, Herr Issyvoo!” Later, he introduces himself as Mr. Isherwood.
Not sure why I find this so funny, but I do.
People think Germans could not have realized what the horrifying outcome of the Nazi regime. But these novels, published before WWII, show the shadow of Fascism spreading across Berlin and the fear the more intellectual citizens felt.
Frl. Schroeder represents the non-intellectual German. Isherwood says of her,
“Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime… If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself. . . Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.”
The 1935 Goodbye to Mr Norris is more of a fun romp with some foreshadowing of the Nazi takeover toward the end. 1939′s Goodbye to Berlin is more weighted with the political battle between the Communists and the Nazis and the growing atrocities that compel Isherwood to leave Berlin.
Isherwood writes beautifully and I can’t wait to read the rest of his books.I still hear “Herr Issyvoo!” in my head.
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The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
What’s a trilogy without a middle? A trilogy without a middle is just a book with a sequel; two Oreo wafers without the white center.
I don’t know what two call a set of two books. “Duology” sounds artificially inflated and is it really a word? “Trilogy” makes me think of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and The Godfather series. Call something a “trilogy” and you imbue it with power.
I read the first and third books of the World War I Regeneration trilogy. Book One, fantastic; Book Three, good, but only because I read Book One.
Happily, I found The Eye in the Door (Book Two) in a bookcase that I generally ignore. How will this one stack up I wonder? But an ordered stack of unread books sit waiting on my nightstand. The Eye in the Door may jump up a couple levels in the stack. But I will not break my habit of alternating fiction and non-fiction to get to it.
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The Night Circus Jacket
Somewhere in the middle of this book, I became annoyed with the so-called magic night circus. There are only so many synonyms for the word “magical” and the author uses them all.
Kudos to Morgenstern for description after description of the most tactile visuals she could dream up. But circus tents alone cannot hold up the story.
The inexplicable, convoluted “game” at the center of the plot built me up and let me down. So much promise and mystery in the beginning! How would Celia and Marco get together? What are the rules of this game? What sinister forces lie behind it?
I was so willing to go along for the ride, but my suspension of disbelief finally snapped, right about time the precocious twins Poppet and Widget become central characters. I can’t take a Poppet or Widget seriously. Sorry.
The plot points of The Night Circus unfold awkwardly and unsatisfactorily. Also, the chronology is cumbersome. Morgenstern sends readers back and forth through time. First years apart and then days apart, switching too often to keep track. I kept flipping back to see what year it is and what year it was and oh god, now I have to pay attention to the months too.
For that reason, I am glad I read a hardback version rather than a Kindle e-book. The book jacket and inside design conjured up the look and feel of the late 18th century and a black-and-white circus. I would have missed those graphics on my Kindle. A good friend listened to the audio book. She says listening to the descriptions read aloud enhanced the imagery.
With all these criticisms, you’d think I hated the book. But no, I tore through the book to find out what happened. When a book puts that magical “can’t-put-it-down” spell on me, the book defaults to “good.”
I’m just mad it wasn’t great.
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Ignatius J. Reilly
How would you psych up for a trip to New Orleans? I am re-reading A Confederacy of Dunces, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that epitomizes the city, the tale that puts the color in the phrase “colorful characters.”
I read Dunces first for the funny, fantastic madcap story. But re-reading it, I discover its layers, the sadness behind the bluster and the universal humanity behind each of the New Orleans locals: Miss Trixie, who just wants to retire and get the Thanksgiving turkey owed her, asleep again at her desk; Dorian Greene, the foppish French Quarter habitue; and Burma Jones, a janitor working below the “minimal wage.”
And the anti-hero, Ignatius J. Reilly. I just like to hear the sound of “Ignatius J. Reilly” over again in my head.
Ignatius is sloth himself, blaming the world and the fools around him for everything that happens. And everything that doesn’t happen. Oh, Fortuna!
Especially poignant is the relationship between Ignatius and his mother. He is cruel and condescending to her yet he makes a show of putting her on the maternal pedestal in public all while not fooling anyone. Mrs. Reilly refers to her son as “my boy” and appears not to understand or care when she is being disrespected.
But she does care and she does get fed up. She makes “her boy” get a job and surprisingly he does, first at Levy Pants, then as a hot dog vendor in the French Quarter. By the end, she is ready to have him committed.
The author, John Kennedy Toole, committed suicide thinking his book would never be published. The novel was published in 1980, eleven years after Toole’s death, thanks to his mother pounding endlessly on publishing doors.
Wait! Who does that sound like? Mrs. Reilly, is that you?
Every once in a while, I feel I must read some classic book I missed in high school and college just to expand my limited horizons.
Sometimes reading from that backlog pays off. I plucked Of Human Bondage from Modern Library’s 100 best books of the 20th century (at number 66) and couldn’t put the book down.
I read a couple of Maugham’s short stories before and I heard of this book before. But not everyone has—not the girl making chit-chat in the lunchroom asking me what I was reading.
I hesitate—it’s a world of The Secret readers. But I answer, “Of Human Bondage” and look for the reaction.
I am surprised at the shock on her face. Or is it horror? Oh my god, she thinks I am reading a bondage book. In the lunchroom.
Of Human Bondage was made into a movie three times. The latest version (1964) starring Laurence Harvey and Kim Novak is pure garbage and the 1934 version with Leslie Howard and Bette Davis is even more unwatchable. Nothing left to do but read the book folks.
Our hero, Philip Carey starts life with a few strikes against him, no parents, a club foot and a burgeoning attitude. But he wants what many of us want—freedom, adventure, glory and the woman can’t have. But his dreams get beaten down time and again.
[People] must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life. The strange thing is that each one who has gone through that bitter disillusionment adds to it in his turn, unconsciously, by the power within him which is stronger than himself.
Yes, it is an engrossing little spirit crusher. Enjoy.
Super Sad? True Love? But What a Story.
Who isn’t scared about America’s future? Reading Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story will crank that fear up a notch. Unlike other dystopian novels, Shteyngart’s future is so close, so touchable, I want to run into the streets and make it stop.
Super Sad never gives the year, but the hero Lenny’s past has surely overlapped our present. Everyone wears an electronic device, called an äppärät that constantly streams data about others in the vicinity. The äppärät ranks and broadcasts your “fuckability” against everyone else in the room.
Lenny is so afraid of death, his every move is driven by that fear. He works at the Post Human Services division of a Halliburton-like company that is devoted to bestowing eternal life on worthy individuals, though they haven’t quite cracked the code. Lenny’s boss, his mentor, his God, Joshie looks younger and younger but the cracks in the façade just reveal his own fear.
In this future, books are media artifacts that smell bad. In 2010, books almost are media artifacts—the smell is a matter of opinion. In this future, sexuality is flaunted in ways that are surprising only for a minute. Girls wear Onionskin jeans and Total Surrender panties.
The political world is just about as subtle. The remaining political party is the Bipartisans, a word rendered meaningless like many other overused words in our vocabulary. The American Restoration Authority who request you deny their existence and by reading the posted sign you imply your consent, keep tight rein on the population. Deny and imply, deny and imply at every turn.
The dollar is pegged to—what else?—the Chinese yuan. That isn’t so far-fetched. The Wall Street Journal wrote last week about the markets trading in yuan for the first time and the speed at which the trading has taken off.
Like the real world, when the LNWI (low net-worth individuals) are so removed from the HNWI (high net-worth individuals) that they have no hope, society can rupture at the seams.
But amongst all this, there is a love story and it is super sad, but not sad in the way most love stories are sad. Is Shteyngart talking about true love or a true story? I’m afraid his tale might turn into a true story.