Seven reasons why to read Dave Eggers books as a traveller

Dave Eggers is not known as a travel writer – and basically he isn’t a travel writer. Still, I think his books show a true traveller’s mind. Open, inquisitive and curious about places, people and journeys different from his own. I’ve read seven of his books by now (as I wrote we are halfway through 2021, going into the second year of Covid-19 lock-downs). And I have the other ones on my (e-library) wish list. Somehow I feel these books really speak to my travelling spirit. In this article you will find my seven reasons why you should also be reading Dave Eggers books as a traveller. And reviews of the seven Dave Eggers books I read.

I will be updating this article whenever I’ve read a new Dave Eggers book (still three to go, April 2021), so keep coming back.

Photo of books stacked up
Photo by Annie Spratt
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Seven reasons why to read Dave Eggers books as a traveller

  1. Page turners – When was the last time you couldn’t put down a book? Well, for me that was with several of Dave Eggers’ books. Zeitoun is definitely on that list, but I also remember I couldn’t put down The Circle and AHWOSG.
  2. Unexpected countries a backdrop – Although Dave Eggers couldn’t be more of a white male American he has a keen eye for stories that go beyond American borders. Introducing stories set in Sudan (What is the What), Saudi Arabia (A Hologram for the King) and Yemen/Ethiopia (The Monk of Mokha) Dave Eggers isn’t a typical writer writing only about what he finds close to home.
  3. Surprising journeys – Many of Eggers’ books, although not travel journals, are in fact tales about journeys. Heroes of the Frontier even features a campervan. In What is the What it is the journey by foot of a child refugee. The Monk of Mokha lets you travel through mountain landscapes many Yemenites themselves have not seen.
  4. World-class books – Dave Eggers’ documentary-style ‘Big Three’ is world class reading. Zeitoun (a post 9-11 story from a Katrina-hit New Orleans), What is the What (a novel based on reality from war-torn Sudan) and The Monk of Mokha (a story about coffee against the backdrop of the escalating civil war in Yemen) is Eggers at his best. Bringing home personal stories of people that get lost in the world’s machinery beyond their control, Eggers brings in these books unusual critiques of his home country, the USA.
  5. Quantity – Having published a full ten+ novels and ‘documentary-style books’ by 2021, including a stack of Dave Eggers books will definitely get you through your travels.
  6. Other voices – Did you ever read a book with a Syrian of Yeminite as its main character? Me neither. I find that Eggers gives voice and face to stories beyond news items of places distant from my own world. I am aware that there is much to say about a white (and by now middle-aged) man as the ‘voice’ through which these stories of Sudanese, Yemeni-American or Syrian-American people – all male protagonists by the way. Still, these are great books to read – as long as you are aware that there are definitely authors from these regions to read too, and definitely more female perspectives to find.
  7. A new generation – This may not be valid for everyone, but I surely miss writers from more or less my generation. Eggers, born in 1970, fills that gap. I feel many older writers (with the exception maybe of travel heroes such as Theroux and a few others) do not share a view of the world, as I feel it. Dave Eggers definitely brings a new perspective from my generation. Despite his being very very American.
Man in winter clothes searching through books on table of outdoorbook shop
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Ten books by Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers has published an impressive one book per two years on average since the year 2000, plus extras such as picture books and other written ramblings. On the side he also runs a publishing house and online literary journal at McSweeney’s. His books (mostly) show a social engagement, attention to the underdog and an antenna for societal trends unlike any other. And he has a particular eye for stories that include somewhat of a middle-eastern perspective: quite unexpected for an American author.

Vintage and Knopf are Eggers’ publishers, both imprints of Penguin Random House, although some are published by his own publishing house McSweeney’s. Lebowski Publishers publishes the Dutch translations of his books. Here are the ten most important books by Dave Eggers so far. And there is more where that came from!

AHWOSG (2000)

Book cover Dave Eggers - AHWOSG
Dave Eggers – AHWOSG.
Image Source Gluttonous Pantry
  • category: non-fiction, autobiography
  • year: 2000
  • 485 pages
  • publisher: Vintage

Nederlandse vertaling: Een hartverscheurend verhaal van duizelingwekkende genialiteit, Leboskwi Publishers (2009)

The first ever book I read by Dave Eggers was AHWOSG – actually in Dutch translating as EHVVDG – A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The book was published in 2000 and if I remember correct I read it soon after, so almost two decades ago. It still stands out in my memories as a book that blew my mind. The self ridicule, humour, creativity and ordered chaos of the book reverberates as a memory of page turning reading pleasure. Reading back reviews, not everyone agrees, but even if you hate it, it is a book drawing real emotion. The book tells the tale of Dave Eggers’ early adulthood after losing his parents. I recommend everyone to read this whirlwind of life and loss.

You shall know our velocity! (2002, wish list)

Man reading Dave Eggers books as a traveller - Photo by Yellow Daypack
Dave Eggers – You Shall Know Our Velocity.
Image Source: Yellow Daypack
  • category: novel
  • year: 2002; republished as Sacrament in 2003
  • publisher: Vintage
  • 401 pages

Nederlandse vertaling: U zult versteld staan van onze beweeglijkheid!, Vassallucci, 2003

YSKOV! is Eggers’ first novel. I still have to read it. It promises a tale in which travel plays an important role. Again, loss is a central theme while the blurb about two friends that try to give away their money reads as a comedy. I am curious about this one.

What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006)

Book cover Dave Eggers book What is the What
Dave Eggers – What is the What (Dutch Edition).
Image source: Lebowski Publishers
  • category: fictional autobiography (based on true story), documentary fiction
  • year: 2006
  • publisher: Vintage
  • 401 pages

Nederlandse vertaling: Wat is de Wat, Leboski Publishers, 2009

Then and now a forgotten war, What is the What paints a stark picture of the effects of civil war in South Sudan. The book tells the story of Valentino Achak Deng, then a child, running from the conflict in the heart of Eastern Africa. Not only is this a gripping book, all proceeds go to the Valentino Achak Deng foundation. And the surprising tale has continued: in 2015 the former cild refugee became education minister to a province in South Sudan. Let this well-written book not only bring you reading joy (however a weird term to use …) but also continued awareness anout this still unstable region.

Zeitoun (2009)

Book cover Dave Eggers book Zeitoun
Dave Eggers – Zeitoun

  • category: non-fiction, true story, documentary literature
  • year: 2009
  • publisher: McSweeney’s
  • 342 pages

Nederlandse vertaling: Zeitoun, Lebowski Publishers, 2010

Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a succesful contracting business in the suburbs of New Orleans. Then they get hit by catastrophe upon catastrophe. One of Dave Eggers best books, Zeitoun brings together two of the major dramas of American society of recent years: how hurricane Katrina demonstrated the U.S.A. incapable of preventing or dealing with major diasters leaving thousands dead, and the inherent racism towards people of Middle-Eastern decent getting caught up in the ‘justice’ machine of the post-9/11 era.

A Hologram for the King (2012)

Up to this book I could recommend every Dave Eggers to anyone. However, this one sits uneasy with me. While the book is a smooth read and dragged me along to the next page again and again, in several ways A Hologram for the King doesn’t feel ‘right’. The protagonist is Alan Clay, a true anti-hero. Detached from his daughter and his ex (back in the USA) we find him in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he awaits an opportunity to give a sales pitch to the Saudi King to wire his new city in the desert with lightspeed technology. The waiting game continues throughout the book.

Book cover A Hologram for the King
Dave Eggers – A Hologram for the King.
Image Source: McSweeney’s
  • category: novel, anti-hero
  • year: 2012
  • publisher: McSweeney’s
  • 312 pages

Nederlandse vertaling: Een hologram voor de koning, Lebowski Publishers, 2010

Several quite overdrawn sex scenes highlight Alan Clay’s incapability for connection and affection. He is generally lethargic and practically continuously drunk, while alcohol is illegal in Saudi Arabia. All this against the backdrop of American industry and workers losing the globalisation game to Asia. If it was Eggers’ aim was to get the reader highly annoyed by his main character, he succeeded. And with this book I realised most of Eggers’ main characters are actually male (with the exception of The Circle and Heroes of the Frontier): throughout his books you will mostly get a masculine gaze (and a view of what apparently constitutes masculinity) on the world. To my surprise I found out the book was made into a movie comedy featuring Tom Hanks, although that one also received poor reviews.

At the same time, there are very few books that have Saudi Arabia as a backdrop, or draw attetnion to expat life there. And the weirdness of building a new city in the desert from scratch is taken from real life. If you are interested in the KSA (it started to open up for tourist just before Covid-19), or into stories featuring antiheroes, do read this book, but let this not be the only one: It is not a book about KSA. For a much more positive and rich viewpoint of expat life in Saudi Arabia, follow the blog Blue Abaya.

The Circle (2013)

Book cover The Circle by Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers – The Circle.
Image Source Readers High Te
  • category: novel, technology thriller
  • year: 2013
  • publisher: Knopf
  • 493 pages

Nederlandse vertaling: De Cirkel, Lebowski Publishers, 2015

“Sharing is Caring” gets a whole new meaning after reading this book. The Circle is Dave Eggers big breakthrough for the larger public. As May Holland and the other main characters get entangled in a web of new, ‘social’ technology and control, this book will slowly but surely unsettle you. I recommend reading this book together with Brave New World and 1984 to get you fully paranoid about your life now and in future years. Let me not say too much about it here.

Just read it.

Heroes of the Frontier (2016)

Book cover Helden van de Grens
Dave Eggers – Heroes of the Border (Dutch edition).
Image Soucre: Lebowski Publishers.
  • category: novel, drama
  • year: 2016
  • publisher: Knopf
  • 400 pages

Nederlandse vertaling: Helden van de grens, Lebowski Publishers, 2015

I remember Heroes of the Frontier as a book in which Dave Eggers diverges from his usual up-tempo, whirlwind style of writing. This book seems more quiet in a way and contains much daydreaming. The tale of Josie revolves around her detachment from society, but it is not a tale of freedom. Getting away from an ugly custody dispute she drives her two kids to Alaska in an RV. With its flashbacks and family troubles this book is similar to A Hologram for the King although Heroes from the Frontier has a somwehat friendlier outlook.

This is not Dave Eggers best book, but definitely not a bad read either. On a road trip in Canada and the U.A.? Bring this one along.

The Monk of Mokha (2018)

  • category: non-fiction, true story, documentary literature
  • year: 2018
  • publisher: Knopf
  • 352 pages

Nederlandse vertaling: De monnik van Mokka, Lebowski Publishers, 2019

Together with Zeitoun, this book is Dave Eggers at its best. Despite having seemingly empty immigrant life and a war-torn Yemen as its backdrop, this book isn’t the stark and dark picture you’d might expect. Rather, The Monk of Mokha is a story of hope. Moroever, it is a book about coffee: Not the mass-produced stuff but the top quality, specialist coffee some are willing to pay 10 or 20 USD for.

This is a true story about a young man’s dream of showing the world the true history of coffee with Yemen at its centre (while acknowledging the role of Ethiopia too). Mokhtar’s adventures seeking out the best coffee beans of Yemen, and of getting them out to the U.S.A. are entertaning and exciting. While you may get lost sometimes in a bit too much enthusiastic historical digressions, the book never gets boring. More strongly, the story is captivating and energising.

Highly recommended.

The Parade (2019, wish list)

Book cover De Parade by Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers – The Parade (Dutch Translation).
Image Source: Boekvinder.be
  • category: novel
  • year: 2019
  • publisher: Knopf
  • 192 pages

Nederlandse vertaling: De parade, Lebowski Publishers, 2019

One of Dave Eggers’ shortest novels, The Parade promises a new story about people dislodged from their homes and planted in an alienating context. Two men are contracted to build a road for a parade in a fictional country after years of war. Will this book draw together the different themes Eggers likes to write about? It echoes earlier books like A Hologram for the King, and I am not sure if that is a good thing… Let me read it first, and then come back to you in an update…

The Every (2021, forthcoming)

Placeholder for book cover The Every by Dave Eggers
The Every by Dave Eggers. Forthcoming.
  • category: novel
  • year: 2021 (forthcoming)
  • publisher: Knopf
  • 496 pages

The Every is the follow-up of The Circle. To be published near the end of 2021. Let’s hope it will live up to its promise!

Woman reading a book in a tent in the forest - reading Dave Eggers books as a traveller
Photo by Lê Tân on Unsplash

The real people behind Dave Eggers’ top books

Several of Dave Eggers’ books, in fact some of his best books, have real people at the centre of the story. Let me finish this blog with an overview of some of these people.

The Monk of Mokha: Mokhtar Alkhanshali

Mokhtar Alkhanshali is the highly likeable and unlikely protagonist of The Monk of Mokha. Mokhtar’s coffee company Port of Mokha is alive and kicking, doing what Mokhtar set out to do from the start. You can follow him on Twitter @monkofmokha or Instagram https://www.instagram.com/mokhtar_alkhanshali.

The process of writing the book, to me as a reader, feels like a journey of two friends discovering the story as it rolls on. And it shows. There are more than 100 hours of recorded interviews behind the book, and three years of research.

Of course at the centre of it all is coffee, as is obvious from this interview with Mokhtar by Blue Bottle Coffee Lab, also featuring in the book.

Zeitoun: Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun

Photo of old pink building in New Orleans
New Orleans. Photo by Joaquín
on Unsplash

Kathy and Abdulrahman Zeitoun are the fascinating couple that is at the heart of the book Zeitoun. In the book they let Dave Eggers come close to their family life through numerous interviews, and the book is much the better beacuse of it. It provides a unique insight in family life of ‘just another’ ordinary, succesful Islamic household in the South with much love between them. And a grim picture of how America tears the family apart.

Throughout the book you, as the reader, have to love Abdulrahman and Kathy for who they are. You wouldn’t wish upon anyone what they went through during and after hurricane Katrina. The story of the book is inspiring and hunting at the same time.

After the book was published however, their lives took another dramatic turn. Abdulrahman was sent to jail over stalking and attempted murder of his wife Kathy. The Zeitoun Foundation seems to have been offline since.

What is the What: Valentino Achak Deng

Portrait photo of Valentino Achak Deng
Valentino Achack Deng in 2008. Source: Wikimedia CC-3.0

The story of Valentino Achak Deng is, gladly, a more hopeful and empowering story since the publishing of the book. His VAD-foundation, started together with Dave Eggers and kickstarted by the proceeds of the book, is alive and kicking and has succesfully realised schools in war-torn South Sudan.

His tale, described in the book, is that of Valentino as ‘lost boy’: “one of [20.000] children [of South Sudan] pursued by militias, government soldiers, lions and hyenas and a myriad of diseases in their search for sanctuary, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya.” Some of them were taken in by the U.S.A., before they shut their borders after 9/11. Valentino was one of the last of them.

AHWOSG: a young Dave Eggers

Portrait photo of Dave Eggers
Dave Eggers in 2018. Image Source: Rododentrites, Wikipedia. CC-4.0

Dave Eggers was Dave Eggers first ‘real life’ character. The young Dave Eggers lost his father, his mother and, later, his sister. Loss has been a red thread throughout his work. But his oeuvre is, generally, not dark despite the heavy themes he dares to take on.

Often there is hope, or at least lots of movement around the ‘dark’ moments’ of life. Eggers is still active in helping young writers, as well as the people he works with for his books.

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