Last mission to repair the Hubble telescope Hubble space telescope discoveries have enriched our understanding of the cosmos. In this special report, you will see facts about the Hubble space telescope, discoveries it has made and what the last mission's goals are.
For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
A young man's journey to escape the violence in Sudan, and the challenges he faced settling in the United States, are chronicled in Dave Eggers' What Is the What.
By ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN
Published January 14, 2007
Remember the Lost Boys? That's what the media called them - thousands of children who fled their homes in southern Sudan during the country's civil war in the 1980s.
They walked hundreds of miles. Some were shot and killed by militia, others were devoured by lions or crocodiles, still others died of dehydration and exposure. Survivors arrived at refugee camps in Ethiopia, stayed awhile and then were forced to flee again, this time to Kenya, where they lived as orphans and waited for the war to end.
American author Dave Eggers has collaborated with one of these Lost Boys, Valentino Achak Deng, to create the novel What Is the What. The book, based on Valentino's life, is a true epic, spanning countries and continents, as Valentino eventually comes to the United States on a humanitarian visa with hundreds of other Lost Boys (who actually included girls too).
It's not quite a happy ending, though: What Is the What opens with Valentino living in Atlanta, being robbed by thugs in his own apartment after he naively lets in the strange person who asks to use the phone. The novel then jumps back and forth as Valentino tells his life story while trying to get a handle on his latest life-threatening situation.
That might sound depressing, but fortunately for readers, Valentino is a mix of self-deprecating, wise, world-weary, humble and joyful. His gentle sense of humor appears often, even when terrible things happen.
The book's title comes from an African fable: When God created the Earth, he placed Valentino's people, the Dinka, in Africa, and told them they could have the marvelous creature he had created for them - the cow - or they could have the What. But what is the What? they asked. God answered, I cannot tell you, but still, you have to choose. They knew they would be happy if they chose the cow, so they chose the cow over the unknown.
In its emotional cadences, What Is the What is not so different from Eggers' previous bestselling work, his own memoir A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius. Eggers' parents died within six months of each other, and he and his siblings were left to raise their 7-year-old brother. Thanks to Eggers' digressions, self-questioning and weird sense of humor, the book was also very funny.
Since A Staggering Work was published in 2000, Eggers has written another novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, and run a literary Web site called McSweeney's (www.mcsweeneys.net) that publishes a literary journal of the same name, resulting in Eggers, 36, becoming one of the most celebrated literary figures of his generation.
Nevertheless, What Is the What hardly feels like a logical next step for Eggers. Much of his previous work is quintessentially American - ironic, media savvy, quirky. His latest book's depictions of Africa are anything but: "It was strange land we passed through. We saw fields that had been scorched, goats disemboweled and headless. We saw the tracks of horses and trucks, beautiful bullet casings in their wake. I had never walked so long in one day."
Perhaps What Is the What will put the final nail in the coffin of myths about Generation X writers - that they are snarky stylists interested only in making fun of a media-saturated marketplace. Was that ever true? At any rate, What Is the What is a deeply moralistic novel. It demands that its readers care about those who are far away and suffering. The art of Eggers' novel is that he makes it impossible to turn away.
It's hard to put down What Is the What, because we come to care so much about Valentino. From the outset, he is a sweet child, pretending that the hammers he plays with in his father's shop are giraffes and dreaming of his mother's sunny yellow dress.
As he grows older, he's either amazingly accepting of his trials or a very pertinent example of the innate human impulse to survive. The genius of Eggers' Valentino is that he walks the line of seeming both extraordinary and absolutely ordinary, and always with grace.
In the preface, Valentino sums up his hope for the book: "Even when my hours were darkest, I believed that some day I could share my experiences with readers, so as to prevent the same horrors from repeating themselves. This book is a form of struggle, and it keeps my spirit alive to struggle. To struggle is to strengthen my faith, my hope, and my belief in humanity. Thank you for reading this book, and I wish you a blessed day."
Angie Drobnic Holan is a Times news researcher.
. THE HISTORY
What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng
By Dave Eggers
McSweeney's, 475 pages, $26
Review by Angie Drobnic Holan, Times Staff Writer
Sudan in the news
Sudan has been in the headlines most recently because of the western region of Darfur, where international observers say genocide is taking place. The conflict started in 2003, after the civil war that is the subject of What Is the What.
In Darfur, Arab militia on horseback called Janjaweed are attacking African Muslims in a conflict between herders and farmers. The United States and other nations have pushed for a U.N. force to restore peace, but the Sudanese government has resisted. It is believed that 200,000 have died in Darfur.
The earlier Sudanese civil war was a conflict between the Arab Islamic north and the African south, where the dominant religions are animism and Christianity. The civil war ended in January 2005 with a peace treaty that provides for southern autonomy.
Sudan is also the country where Osama bin Laden stayed briefly in the early 1990s; the Sudanese government expelled him in 1996. In 1998, the United States fired cruise missiles into Sudan, targeting what it believed was a chemical weapons facility. President Clinton linked the site to bin Laden and the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.