Dave Eggers' book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was one of those books that kept floating around in conversation. The title has a way of catching that sticky spot on your brain that doesn't fully retain information but doesn't entirely let it go, either. For awhile, I continuously confused this book with The Unbearable Lightness of Being -- for some reason, the titles sound the same to me. After reading the latter, I called my friend to ask her why she was such a fan of the book, and she fully began describing the former. Awesome.
So years, literally years, later, a friend of mine dropped A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius into my hands, saying, "I just finished it. Give it a go." Given its sticky-status, I thought I should finally just get the damn book out of my system already.
The premise: Dave and his brothers and sister survive the terrible loss of both of their parents to cancer in the space of about 5 weeks. One death was expected, the other was quite sudden. Suddenly, alongside dealing with the technicalities of their parents' deaths as well as their personal grief, Dave and his two older siblings find themselves legally responsible for their seven-year-old brother Toph. The majority of the child-rearing falls on Dave's 21-year-old shoulders, and this book is the autobiographical story of the two brothers' life together.
There were parts of this book that were absolutely riveting. I would call them the first 100 pages. And then the rest of the book was very, very longwinded. And this is coming from somebody who she herself is very long-winded, so just trust me when I say it's long-winded. 437 pages of long-winded (Note: In the preface, Eggers himself mentions that the best part of the book is in the first 100 pages, curiously enough).
Sure, it's heartbreaking. It is. I just don't know so much about the staggering genius part.
Still, there was something about this book that kept me reading. Well, ok, skimming. I brought it with me everywhere I went, and pulled it out whenever I had a 2-or-more-minute wait for a train/bus. I even looked forward to transporation time because it meant reading time, and hey! That must mean I liked the book, right?
Except I didn't, really. I found it sort of tiresome. And I'm apparently in the minority here, because the book was a #1 bestseller. But so was A Million Little Pieces, and I found that book tiring in the exact same way, although Eggers is clearly a more talented writer than James Frey.
If you're curious, I copied one sentence out of the book for illustrative purposes. It's about Dave and Toph "meeting" President Clinton:Read more »
Do you see what I mean? About the tiresomeness? And the I-could-skim-this-ness?
But, if you're still confusing the book with The Unbearable Lightness of Being maybe you should buy it anyway: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Or, maybe you should read it again if you're one of the other millions and millions of people who have bought this book and enjoyed it.« Collapse
We Need to Talk About Kevin - even the title is intense, urgent, and upsetting. Don't get me wrong: this book is good. Oh yes, excellent writing, amazing character development, even unexpected humor at some of the darkest of moments. Kudos to Lionel Shriver. But man, this book is intense.
The premise: At fifteen years old, Kevin Khatchadourian orchestrates the killing of seven of his his high school peers, along with a teacher and a custodian. His mother, Eva, recounts his life leading up to the crime via letters to her husband, Franklin. Tracing her pregnancy and Kevin's birth, his odd and unsettling childhood, and then the years shortly before his killing, Eva dissects a mother's relationship with her son.
And man, is it haunting. Eva is smart, quirky, and frighteningly believable. Her horrific strories of the early years of raising her son are still tinged with a sort of motherly worry, even in the retroscpect of her child's terrible crime. I devoured the book, finishing it in a few days and sneaking in reading breaks when I should have otherwise been socializing. And the final pages are absolutely incredible.
Read it: We Need to Talk About Kevin - by Lionel Shriver
The woman at the local bookshop told me that she hasn't liked the selections for the Man-Booker Prize every since it added that pesky Man on the front. Before, she argued, when it was just the Booker Prize, the pickins were good. Now, she says, they tend to be more racy and raunchy - although still quite well-written - books.
And woooo... was she right. At least when it came to the pick for 2005.
The Line of Beauty is Alan Hollinghurst's tribute to rampant cocaine use and gay sex, with a little bit of sentimentality thrown in. Or maybe it goes the other way: sentimentality first, and then all that wild stuff second. Well, I can't decide.
Really, though, behind its flashy scenes and regular use of the word "bumshoving," The Line of Beauty has a wonderful, delicate side. The book is entertaining, but touching, and - although I would hesitate to ever say the book is a comedy - I found a few scenes where I laughed out loud.Read more »
The premise: Nick Guest is an inexperienced average Joe who moves to London to live with a politically powerful extremely rich family - The Feddens. Nick spent his Oxford years pining over the Fedden's son, Toby, who was Nick's ticket to the fancy, frightening world of the rich and famous. But then Nick meets another guy, and they develop a relationship. As he gains experience, Nick also develops a drug habit and then he starts dating a Lebanese millionaire. Somewhere in there, he talks a lot about art and furniture and feeling insecure.
Ok, so the plot sounds like a mess, but the overall picture is fluid and borderline epic. We grow with Nick as he has his first sexual experience, and we wince when he tries to hide his homosexuality from his family and certain friends. Then we move on up in the world with him, and celebrate as he incorporates his way into the Fedders' life. It's also a little nerve-wracking to go to big-shot parties (attended by Thatcher) alongside Nick as he continuously takes trips to the bathroom to powder his nose. But there are other, quieter moments that make this novel a bit more cozy and touching than most, and in the end, the drugs and sex are not what make this a great read. The book is sensitive and sad and seductive all at once.
Read it: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst« Collapse
The selection at the Frankfurt airport was an enticing array of New York Times Bestsellers, but I can't exactly say what posessed me to select The Tipping Point over, say, a Nora Roberts novel. I think it might have something to do with having grabbed the book and, at random, opening the page to a fascinating tale of how "Sesame Street" came to be. I read three pages standing there in the store, and then decided to fork over the eight euros for the whole book.
I am glad I did. The book made the plane ride fly (!) by, and was an amusing read that I still think of at random moments even now, several weeks later.
The Tipping Point is Malcolm Gladwell's book on "how little things can make a big difference." While the book claims to analyse how unpopular items such as Hush Puppies can become overnight sensations, how New York city can go from having tons of crime to far less in just a few years, or how Gold Box advertising really changes things, I had a hard time stringing together the entire book into a cohesive, nicely-wrapped package. Still, I enjoyed all the bits and pieces.Read more »
Technically, it's a book about phenomena, and how things just sort of happen. It's about how things can just be very BLAH, and then suddenly, sometimes without explanation, there's a "tipping point" that makes everything change radically and quickly.
While that's an interesting concept in and of itself, I get the feeling that Gladwell is just a data geek like myself, and he really wanted to put a bunch of cool things he had researched together in a book. So he did. And it sort of works, actually. But I preferred to retain all of the little factoids independently, instead of worrying about the overall picture (which is pretty easy to grasp: crazy things happen).
I read this book really quickly and found myself wanting to underline it frequently. It reads VERY easily, but is filled of interesting things you probably didn't know. Gladwell describes the types of people who set the machines needed for any given phenomenon to be set into motion. He sets the stage for said phenomena. And then he gives a bunch of examples.
It's entertaining, well-written, and a pleasant little read. Keep in mind: it's bestselling non-fiction, so don't expect a super-academic text or Noam Chomsky. Still, it's good, entertaining, quirky, and mighty interesting.
Read it: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell« Collapse
A good friend of mine is writing her thesis on Russell Banks. I can't remember why, or what exactly she's discussing, but the fact that someone I consider intelligent would spend so much time thinking about the guy was enough to convince me to pick up The Darling, his most recent book.
I read it in four days, sneaking time to read it in between metro stops and waits at the eye doctor's. Usually, this kind of behavior means I REALLY love a book. But now, several weeks down the line, I still don't know what to make of The Darling.Read more »
The premise: Hannah Musgrave/Dawn Carrington is our protaganist. She spent a large portion of her life as the latter, even though she was born the former. Her identity was changed after/during her time with the Weather Underground - where she was lead to believe that she was on the FBI's Most Wanted list. From there, she is convinced to flee America with another Undergrounder, and the two of them set up shop in Ghana. After a short while, she heads out to Liberia, where she meets the man who will become her husband and she falls in love with some chimpanzees. Somewhere in there, you realize she's a cruel, heartless bitch, but you also hope she doesn't die when Liberia goes to pot.
Yes, the story really is as convoluted and hard to relay as it seems. Although there are moments where the writing is great and the book trucks along nicely, I had two issues with this novel:
1. I'm getting really tired of the story of white-(wo)man-discovers Africa. But what's worse, however, was that I felt this representation was just off somehow. Banks apparently spent quite a lot of time in Liberia researching for the book, but when it turned out that Hannah/Dawn was rubbing elbows with Charles Taylor and made privy to top-secret plans, I found the whole thing to be rubbish. And when she helped him escape from a US prison, I just... well... it was one step to far.
2. I generally appreciate when a man can write appropriately from a female perspective. I would most likely not put Banks in this camp. Although there are moments when he exhibits a fair amount of skill, the coldness of the protaganist in this book was just not convincing. She was an American woman, alone and isolated, in Liberia for much of the novel. Even after she had two sons, she remained cold and distant from them. The basic idea for Banks was to place her cunning above her emotions, but I have a hard time believing anyone can be so heartless.
Overall, I'm not upset I read it. I made it through the book and even found myself enjoying it at times. I just found it, well, a little bit too much. Somewhat OTT, I suppose. There was even a moment where I thought it bordered on trashy romance, but it quickly recovered. Still, I can't say I recommend it, even though I'm glad I read it myself. If you're into historical fiction, and into Africa, you might enjoy it. I took issue with some of the liberties he took with the story itself, but the fact of the matter is that the book is still well-researched and a pretty entertaining way to get a look inside recent Liberian politics - or at least get you familiar with the main players, if you weren't already.
Buy it, if you have read this far: The Darling by Russell Banks« Collapse