Thursday, July 10, 2008

Quick Reviews: What Is the What by Dave Eggers and God's Middle Finger by Richard Grant

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

Dave Eggers shelves his literary prankster aesthetic for What Is the What, the story of Valentino Achak Deng's perilous flight from his native Sudan and eventual rocky relocation to the States, split by a ten year stay in a bleak Kenyan refugee camp. While never less than readable, Eggers' decision to tell the tale in Deng's voice and bill it as an autobiography--perhaps Eggers hasn't quite shelved the prankster, after all--hamstrings the books; the events are extraordinary and heartrending but the storytelling is just too matter of fact and flat--this happened then that happened then this--for the prose to every really take flight. What Is the What provides a valuable education by presenting a true human story from war-torn Sudan, but one is left wishing Eggers had taken a little more initiative to arrange events into a compelling narrative. A book to read but not quite recommend.

God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre

British journalist Richard Grant makes clear his "unfortunate fascination" with the Sierra Madre, the mountain range in Mexico that produces most of the marijuana and cocaine that crosses the border into the United States. God's Middle Finger documents Grant's attempt to travel down the spine of the mountains, a network of largely lawless territories marked by dangerous suspicion of outsiders enforced by a proliferation of AK-47s. Grant as narrator is likable, slightly gonzo but generally evenhanded as he tours places with names like El Contrabando and rubs shoulders with corrupt cops and coked-up druglords. Grant manages to (mostly) keep sensationalism at bay and present things fairly, although he finds special glee in kiss offs to the American/European mindset, such as the indigenous Tarahumara who excel at two things: binge drinking and long-distance running. Grant's decision to start things with an explosive scene of being hunted for sport by drugged-out Mexican hillbillies does create a promise that the rest of the book can't quite live up to, but overall God's Middle Finger is a fascinating study of a stretch of land most gringos wouldn't last two hours in.

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