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3.7 out of 5 stars76
3.7 out of 5 stars
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on 14 May 2001
Ok, so I agree in parts with the more negative reviews. This book is very self-involved, at times self pitying, ranting, rambling, annoying even. But take a step back: you don't have to love the main character to love the book. I'm sure I would throttle Dave Eggers if I had to live with him. But I don't, and his book is, if not genius, then original, poetic, touching, real and very funny. Tolerate Eggers' more "self devouring" moments and enjoy the book. You may dislike the author by the end, but this book will stir you to laugh or just think, nonetheless.
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on 1 August 2001
I thought this was a wonderfully funny human account of a really tough situation. Yes, it does ramble and the structure and (lack of) editing leave something to be desired but this disjointedness i felt added to the understanding of how different dave and toph's world world was - how their life lacked the normal "structure" because of their parents deaths. I disagree with an earlier reviewer who was annoyed by the laddishness pranks and so on, but get real - aren't most people in their early 20s and bit like this, aswell as being self-indulgent with thoughts all over the place about their futures? Doubly difficult if both your parents have died and you have the very grown-up responsibility of having to bring up a young brother? I think Dave actually recognises that its all going to pot a bit towards the end hence the rebuff from toph about him being so self indulgent, aswell as the aditional explanatory notes - wonderful.
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on 18 February 2010
As the first work of `hipster icon', `McSweeney's' founder, and all-round swell guy; Dave Eggers, it was with no small amount of anticipation that I picked up `A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius'.
Having put it down a short time afterward, I felt completely confused as to how it had garnered such critical acclaim, both in the US, and this country.

The book is ostensibly a memoir of the tragic loss of Dave Egger's parents, accompanied by a series of anecdotes, the telling of which is facilitated by a couple of flimsy literary devices.

The first part of the book is certainly well-written and worth reading. The theme of being thrown into a situation where you are suddenly, simultaneously an elder sibling and a single-parent, with all the difficulties, and possible rewards that might bring, is seemingly rich ground for exploration. However this is only done in the most perfunctory of ways, before the author abandons the theme early on in the book.

The complexities of the sibling/parent paradox aside, family bereavement (no matter how shocking and sudden the circumstances) is possibly not the most compelling of themes for a 400+ page book, and Eggers quickly seems to realise this around page 103, where he runs out things to say on the subject. He doesn't let this deter him though. Indeed Eggers seems to excel at writing an awful lot while saying almost nothing.

Having dealt with the most (if not only) substantial concept in the book, the narrative quickly descends into a series of tame, self-indulgent, rambling anecdotes about: getting roughed up a little bit on a beach by some Mexicans, being wonderfully young, hip, and fresh and starting a magazine, and setting fire to a tennis ball and kicking it around.

While reading the content-lite prose, there is very much a feeling that this just what happened to be going through Eggers' mind at the time of writing. But where Kerouac, and others have created an exuberant, reckless, stream-of-consciousness, Eggers' logorrhoeic, self-satisfied, monologues only serves to create the feeling that the reader is being talked into a coma by somebody who is rather too enamoured with themselves.

Indeed, the self-absorption of the majority of the book is mildly offensive, as is Eggers' priggishness and sanctimony which reveals itself throughout: `I always thought people with any kind of addiction were morally inferior, lesser beings', 'I always felt I had to be purer than everyone else', 'I would stop other kids in the playground swearing'.

In some sense dealing with something so tragic, so candidly should be commended, but it certainly doesn't leave an author beyond reproach for bad penmanship. Aside from the first 103 pages, this is a nauseatingly self-absorbed waffle about nothing very much, which no amount of witty, self-conscious asides, pictures of staplers, or `playful gamesmanship' redeems. Dave Eggers' prominence in the current literary scene seems, much like Seth Rogen's ubiquity in `comedy' films, symptomatic of a paucity of quality rather than a reflection of talent.

Either that or the emperor really is wearing a fantastic set of new clothes and it's me who need to get my eyes checked.
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on 2 September 2004
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the topsoil of a tragedy, the first layers of earth pushed aside in a painful personal excavation, where the treasure seems to remain deeply buried.
This first book by author Dave Eggers is a memoir. Eggers tells of the years following the deaths of both his parents - deaths which occurred within 5 weeks of one another - and how, at the age of 21, he became his younger brother Toph's guardian.
Eggers uses a highly self-conscious style of writing - confiding his fears of his own early death, terrors that something untoward will happen to his brother, or the sensations of his own flapping genitalia when running naked for a photo shoot. But his utter preoccupation with here-and-now mundanity or with imagined future horrors are but his shield against the true conscious experience of his own grief.
Although the story of AHWOSG rests upon the tragic reality of parental deaths, ironically there is no mourning. There were no burials, no gravestones, no remains to be grieved over. Soon after these deaths, Dave and Toph move from Lake Forest, IL to Berkeley. Dave nominally ensures that Toph is fed and clothed and schooled, but without embodied parental authority, "in a world with neither floor nor ceiling," the two live in semi-anarchy, enjoying the freedom to eat junk food and drive to the beach and play frisbee whenever the impulse might strike.
Unable to see logic in his parents' deaths, he sublimates his need for order and justice into the making of a magazine, Might. The mission of Might is to take "a formless and mute mass of human potential and...to mold it into a political force." This counter-cultural magazine is designed to be both provocative and empowering, but over time it becomes more shocking and in-your-face. Eggers's own rage and grief remain unresolved and become expressed editorially in Might, so much so that Toph asks him about his work "Where does anger like that come from?"
His failure to grieve his mother's death head-on is carried to his subsequent relationships with women. Girlfriends fade away inexplicably. Eggers does not react to his sister's marriage, a symbolic separation from family. The story line of the sudden, unexpected death of a minor female character dead-ends.
Eggers's failure to give us his grief directly in these pages is not a literary failure. The writing is strong and compelling. He is at his best when writing manic stream-of-consciousness passages about his fears of his mother's imminent death, his terror of having lost Toph at a hotel, his panic when accompanying a suicidal friend to the hospital. Here he is intimate and immediate, observing the profundities of possible death side by side with the ordinary details of television, of the slowness of elevators, or of the Conan O'Brien show. During these passages, one cannot read fast enough.
Throughout the book, Eggers repeatedly gives us passages wherein he and Toph toss a frisbee to one another. There is beauty and delight in keeping this little plastic disc afloat, keeping it soaring and sailing through the air. As long as the frisbee stays flying, there is hope, they are happy children, and they are immortal. This game of toss connects these brothers in a mythical mutual immortality.
Toph seems to serve as Eggers's talisman of hope, a beacon to the future where the past is too painful to confront. Beyond all the irony and self-consciousness (and looseness of the writing), AHWOSG is a wonderful book, certainly one worth picking up. Beside AHWOSG, another (much shorter, rougher) Amazon quick-pick I enjoyed is THE LOSER'S CLUB by Richard Perez.
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on 29 July 2001
I had been warned the book would literally lose the plot after the first few chapters, so relished the early parts, waiting for it to deteriorate. It never did for me. I read the entire thing, notes, acknowledgements et al and loved it. Yes it does ramble but Eggers writes as he thinks which I found totally engrossing. His often subtle references to his relationship with his brother were gutting, contrasting to his aggressive, laddish, but hilarious accounts of life in his 20s. To me, the book is brave, self-conscious and was like living inside his head for a few days; which is why over editing would have ruined it. In spite of the apparent arrogance of the title, I think Eggers would be genuinely bemused that anyone had actually spent half an hour giving discussing his book on this web site. A word of advice - definitely read the notes afterwards, they put a lot of things into perspective.
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on 7 April 2002
Like marmite you either love this book or you hate it and i am pleased to say that i adored it, from the first page to the last it was an absorbing, funny, tragic and wonderful book. I loved the rambling, unedited text and highly recommend it. i do agree with the earlier reviewers who said that reading the end bit (mistakes we knew we were making) did help to put the rest of the book into perspective...
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on 14 February 2001
I disagree with the other reviewers - I thought this book more than lived up to the hype - unlike some other books, like 'White Teeth' - how did that win the Guardian First Novel over this? This book is a hundred times better - it utterly lives up to its title.
I've never quite read a book structured like this before - the acknowledgements themselves, as long as they are, had me in hysterics and their lightness was a brilliant contrast to the actual 'book' which within 3 pages had me nearly in tears. It's one of those literary novels which is accessible and even better funny. And the word 'post modern' does apply but, (and this must be a record) it manages to do that too without being pretentious. It's utterly readable and disgestible and will you have flicking pages. There are passages of wonderful comedy and passages of raw emotion that punches you in the gut. Amazing, quite unusual and deserves to be a big bestseller.
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I loved it... It is far beyond any political correctness and is utterly sincere. He is 100% aware of his own weaknesses and there is no self sympathy or whingy victim syndrom despite what he claims. This sheer awareness is what makes the book so interesting. As per the various tangentes mentionned in other critics, who can claim that they never experienced those wild thoughts in the most unappropriate times? It is a good book if you want to laugh about yourself as well!
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on 8 September 2002
From the amusing (not ironic...) title to the astonishing final pages, Dave Eggers' simple, elegant memoir undergoes a series of genre-shifts which take the reader - already anticipating something wonderful - completely by surprise. Embedded within this ostensibly rambling work is a precise and unsympathetic evaluation of contemporary culture. The various literary devices employed by Eggers are at once effortless and ingenious, skillful and entirely natural; he is a masterful writer, and this terrifying, naked memoir might just be the best book of its kind. Frequently hilarious and horrifying, heartbreaking and uplifting, the story told - of Eggers' struggle to raise his little brother after the death of their parents - constitutes one half of the book, with the other half given over to a timely deconstruction of traditional autobiographical technique. Many readers will misunderstand this subtext and this could conceivably lead to the criticism which AHWOSG has suffered, but even ignoring Eggers' social commentary, this book is wonderful for the writing style - a fluent, earthy, utterly readable prose which renders myself (a wannabe novelist) insanely jealous.
A magnificent book of universal themes, A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius should be essential reading for everyone. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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on 24 April 2001
I loved this book. It had me laughing out loud a number of times, and at others nodding my head in recognition. It is both tragic and humorous, and only succeeds in being such through the strength of the writing.
It deals exceptionally well with presenting his stream of consciousness; I felt his portrayal of his thoughts in relation to his parents' death and his duty to his brother was honest and recognisable.
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