Friday, September 10, 2010

Books I've Recently Loved: "What is the What" by Dave Eggers

I recently posted this piece to my new school's "book forum," so I thought I'd share...

Through a first-person narrative, Dave Eggers takes on the persona of Valentino Achak Deng, a “Lost Boy” from Sudan’s southern region who is forced to flee his village after an Arab militia’s violent attack during the Sudanese civil war in the 1980s.  Uncertain of his family’s fate, Achak, along with thousands of other “Lost Boys,” is forced to make the harrowing journey on foot to a refugee camp in Ethopia.  The boys face incomprehensible tragedies along the way, within the borders of the camp, and even in the US once they arrive as refugees, but their journey speaks to the human capacity to survive and to the strength of the human spirit.  Eggers and Deng both assert that the story is a “true life novel,” raising interesting questions about the nature of truth and fiction and about the future of the novel as a literary genre.  Alternating between present and past/Africa and the US, the narrative technique offers readers a sense of the disconnect that Deng must have felt as he made his way so far from his home.

As a young boy, Deng’s father tells him a story, cautioning him against choosing “the What” — or the mystery choice — and instead choosing the known.  Deng, however, does not always have the luxury of that choice.  For this reason, his story is an important one as we contemplate what it means to live in a globalized world, a world in which we are all connected in what are often far from mutually equitable ways.  The novel raises questions about the boundaries and benefits of nation-states, the impact of imperialism in Africa, and the roles and responsibilities of the developed world and of individual citizens in reaching out to our human family around the world.  I would have to say that I found some of the most engaging parts of the novel to be the ones in which Deng encounters life in a so-called “First World” country for the first time in his life.  His confusion, horror, and wonder in response to life in the US can teach us a great deal about our own society and its social issues.  I would recommend this novel to anyone who wants to be both entertained and educated or who is looking for a way to gain a better understanding of the myriad ways there are to experience both the best and the worst of our globalized world.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Labors of Love

In honor of Labor Day and "Back to School" workdays ahead, I'm posting this poem by Marge Piercy. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

To Be Of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

--Marge Piercy