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A novel affair: One book club's success story

By Lisa Funderburg, Oprah.com
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Fri October 21, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The club read "What is the What" by Dave Eggers based on the life story of a Sudanese refugee
  • A pan-African mini-feast, inspired by the novel's exotic backdrop, was served for this meeting
  • The best part of their bi-monthly meetings are when they get to share their own, personal stories

(Oprah.com) -- The book club was not my idea.

read and write and edit for a living, so the prospect of using my professional skill set as the basis for a social event never struck me as fun. But my charismatic, enthusiastic, new-in-town friend, Tam, proposed the idea, and she's hard to say no to.

Two years later, all I can think is, "Thank goodness."

Six of us meet every other month, a concession to our busy schedules. We convene on weekend afternoons, taking turns as hostess and relishing the escape from our abundant lives.

Collectively, we have two kids, four stepkids, five husbands, a fiancé, six dogs, a bunch of cats, and at least six careers. Some of us have dated the same men, some attend the same church, and two are cousins. Because of these intersections -- or despite them -- we never, ever run short of things to talk about: upcoming weddings, the presidential election, a child's new frohawk. We chat, we eat, we drink, and eventually, we get to the book.

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Our most recent pick was "What is the What" by Dave Eggers, which showed up all over our city as the selection for One Book, One Philadelphia, one of the nation's largest municipal reading projects.

Although billed as a novel, it's based on the life story of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng, who downloaded his experiences into Eggers' skillful hands. Deng's journey from his village to the United States involves murderous conflict, starvation, and barefoot treks across miles, but the book has a hopefulness we all found mesmerizing -- no small matter in an opinionated group that's more than willing to disagree. Even read in fits and starts, while waiting for subways or for schools to let out, the story is instantaneously engrossing

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Gastronomically, our club's approach tends to be low-key (give us guac and chips, and we're good to go), but for Eggers's book we decided to ratchet things up, inspired by the novel's exotic backdrop to serve a pan-African mini-feast.

For recipes we turned to Marcus Samuelsson, a Swedish-raised, Ethiopian-born chef who's passionate about melding the flavors of Africa with the three-star cuisine he's been creating in the United States for years.

Samuelsson enlists surprising combinations of spices: Sogba , a rum-based cocktail, blends aromatic bay leaves and mint with lime juice and ginger beer. Slices of cornbread are slathered with lemony hummus and tomato chutney spiked with methi, an Egyptian spice. Jumbo shrimp marinate in piri piri -- a fiery Mozambican sauce of garlic, cilantro, and chili -- before being wrapped in Bibb lettuce leaves. For dessert: a silky pudding of whipped cream and couscous topped with fresh fruit and coconut flakes.

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As much as I loved "What Is the What," I love more how it sparks Allyson, an ob-gyn, to tell us about her recent trip to Nigeria, the third time she has used her vacation to volunteer there, delivering babies and treating dozens of patients who walk days to get to her.

When Allyson read how Deng was overwhelmed by the plenty he encountered in the United States, it reminded her of the way she feels each time she returns here. "I don't go into supermarkets for a week or two after I get back," she tells us. "I made that mistake the first time, and when I got to the cereal aisle, I looked at all those shelves full of boxes, and I started to cry. I had to leave the store."

Every meeting comes to this -- to moments drawn from our lives more than the book, to the sorrows and triumphs, big and small, that cement our ties to each other. Only when kids and obligations start calling do we adjourn, sufficiently fortified to last us until the next meeting.

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All proceeds from Dave Eggers' "What Is the What," the novelized autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, (McSweeney's, $26) go to aiding the Sudanese in America and Sudan through the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. One project well under way is a secondary school being built in Deng's hometown of Marial Bai. To see what you can do to help -- both at home or abroad -- go to ValentinoAchakDeng.org and click on the Take Action link.

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