Tag Archives: Dave Eggers

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius

Generally when I become clued in about a new author I try to read their work in the order in which they published it. I guess there is no real reason other than I like to see the evolution of the writer as it occurred, their interests, style etc. I do not always succeed at doing this, as is the case with Dave Eggers. The first book of his that I read was Zeitoun, followed a few months later by What is the What? I recently got a copy of his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I was going to read it in Germany, but then I didn’t. I had good intentions. Anyway, I just got around to reading it and now I feel conflicted.

tumblr_l7tef8fihn1qaouh8o1_400Conflicted because I’m somewhat in awe of Eggers’ ability to put his subject’s voice at the front of his other books, when the memoir shows that his own voice is so strong. The author’s voice in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is nothing like the voices you get in Zeitoun and What is the What? I think I’m just having a hard time reconciling the fact that all of these books were written by the same person. I’m also not sure which voice it is that I find the most appealing. Eggers as he presents himself in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is simultaneously appealing, astounding, and revolting and you know he did that on purpose.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir, so as such it chronicles the period in Eggers’ life right before the deaths of his parents and the years following in which he takes over the responsibility of raising his younger brother. Eggers has a lot of self loathing going on, and while I love his honesty his feelings about writing about himself hit a little too close to home for me. They made me uncomfortable because I had to think about things I didn’t want to think about. Writing about yourself is weird. Writing about the people you know is even weirder, especially if they are going to find out you’ve been writing about them. I joke all the time with my parents that I’m going to turn their lives in a book and that is what is going to win me my first Pulitzer and launch my career. Eggers didn’t win the Pulitzer for this one, but it was a finalist. He did something I’ve always jokingly yet seriously considered doing and it freaked me out.

The only piece of writing I’ve ever done about myself and my family was to write down my September 11th story. We all have one and with 10 years separating me from those events I felt the need to have it written down somewhere. I pitched it, felt guilty about possibly benefiting from a story about a tragedy and about my family, and was more than a little relieved about the rejections that came back to me. Then I also felt rejected by the rejection and was sad that a story that meant so much to me wasn’t going to be heard. I think you can see the same mixture of emotions taking place in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Although Eggers’ story ended up quite successful.

My perception was that he desperately wanted the story to matter to someone other than himself. I feel like that is perhaps a characteristic of all writers, we want what matters to us to matter to you. More so when we are talking about ourselves. My story of September 11th and of my relationship with my parents feels like the most important story I have to tell. But the idea that what is so important to me wouldn’t matter to anyone else, and is not even comparable to the tragic tales of the rest of the 6 billion people in the world makes my feelings about the story fall flat. Then again, despite all of Eggers self-flagellation about everything his book was really well received. Perhaps because we all enjoy watching a car crash. All of us are voyeurs, we cannot help but be curious to peer inside the tragedies of others. But that still doesn’t make my story matter.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius left me feeling unsettled. It is brilliantly brutal. It reads the way I’d like to someday be able to write. It also reads like the diary of someone with more than a few screws loose. I find this impossible to reconcile with the pitch perfect precision of Zeitoun. I now feel like I need to go read everything else by Eggers in an attempt to understand someone I will never actually know. He is not just the author, he is his own character, and I cannot help but be compelled to continue as a voyeur. I want the author’s voices to make sense, but perhaps there is no way for it to make sense. Perhaps the beauty of the whole experience is in seeing the author’s ability to unleash himself with such incredible force in one book, and disappear completely into the background in another. Regardless, I’m impressed and I recommend his work highly.

Book Review: What Is The What?

While I was snowbound I read Dave Eggers’ What is the What. I’d read his book Zeitoun for J669 this past semester, and I’d heard a lot of good things about What is the What so I decided to check it out for myself. Ultimately I liked Zeitoun more, but I do think that What is the What is a great read, especially for someone who knows little about the civil war in the Sudan.

whatThe novel tells the story of Valentino Archak Deng’s life, (note: he is a real person) from the years before Sudan’s civil war reached the southern region where he lived – which were prosperous and happy, to his experiences after he fled his village and left his family (whom he believed were dead) to seek refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya, before being chosen to be resettled in America.

What is the What is a novel, because Eggers was forced to reconstruct scenes based on Deng’s memory of events that began when he was only 7 years old when he fled his home in the Sudan and became one of the Lost Boys. The book flips back and forth between Deng’s present life (at 27) and his childhood. Having to go back 20 years, Deng couldn’t remember all the details that would have been necessary to write the book as is. But don’t let the novel status fool you, What is the What is a true story. I have a lot of faith in Eggers as a writer, so I’m confident that the events described are as close as can be to the real events experienced by Deng.

I learned a lot about African history and the civil wars and conflicts that have plagued the continent in my J620 international communication class, but I still wouldn’t say I’m well informed. Reading What is the What solidified my opinion that the majority of conflicts are incredibly complex politically, economically, and socially, which few clear cut solutions.

The writing is clear cut and easy to understand, because Eggers does a really good job at explaining complex situations in a concise and comprehendible way. The sheer volume of death and violence witnessed by Deng and the other children of southern Sudan is rattling and reading this book has certainly made me want to find out more about what the current situation is in Sudan.

Book Review: Zeitoun

This past weekend I spent all day Saturday reading Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. I thought it was a great example of literary journalism, and also personally thought provoking. The book tells the story of one family in the days before, during, and after hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. In addition to your typical survival story, it is also about being a Muslim in a post-September 11th America.

eggers, dave - zeitounMy only first hand contact with Hurricane Katrina was through the students from Tulane who were displaced and so spent the Fall 2005 semester at Lehigh. College all over the country took in the Tulane students until the campus could reopen. Other than that, I don’t know anyone who lives in that part of the country. Of course I followed the media coverage, but there is nothing like hearing someone tell their own story of what they went through. Eggers’ reporting of the Zeitoun family’s story was like hearing them tell it to me themselves. I felt like I was right there with them and it was more moving than a lot of the reporting that I was exposed to in the days after the hurricane struck.

As a Muslim family they had to also deal with the fear or being attacked for their faith, and ultimately Abdul (the father/husband) was suspected of terrorism in a lawless New Orleans, when there was no real evidence against him and arrested by the makeshift police forces in place. As someone deeply and permanently affected by September 11th, it was hard at first after that attack to distinguish between subsets of faith, to try to figure out who had struck out against my family. But ultimately by educating myself I’ve come to the conclusion that Islam is a peaceful religion, which believe me has been a hard sell to some of my friends and family.

I feel conflicted sometimes because I don’t believe people should be persecuted for their religion, the United States is grounded in religious freedom, but at the same time we need a way to protect ourselves from people who believe their religion entitles them to hurt anyone who isn’t of their faith. I’m not sure what the answer is, but arresting Muslims based on no evidence certainly isn’t it. The Zeitoun’s story made me angry because with all the resources this country has it its disposal, lawlessness should never be a concern, even in a decimated city. How does a country like the United States lose total control like that?

I don’t particularly have any answers to the issue of how to maintain religious freedom in the face of Terrorism, I am after all a mere journalism grad student, but you should read Zeitoun because it is important to at least think about these issues. You need to be exposed to other people and their stories and perspectives to understand the implications of public policy.