Tag Archives: Memoir

Book Review: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2/5)

23 Jul

I’ve read a fair number of Eggers works and each one seems to be distinctly different from all the others. As such, they’re a bit hit and miss with me. There are some I really enjoy and others that are just ‘bleh’ but very few that I don’t enjoy. I guess there’s a first time for everything because this one just wasn’t a winner with me. It’s sad that it’s the author’s memoir.

Cover image via Goodreads

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Other books by Eggers reviewed on this blog:

A Hologram for the King (and Movie Review)
The Circle (and Movie Review)
Zeitoun (and Book Club Reflection)

Summary from Book Rags:

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir by magazine editor Dave Eggers. The book tells the story of how Dave’s parents died of cancer within five weeks of each other and left Dave and his siblings custody of their seven year old brother, Toph. Dave tells his story with his trademark satire dripping from every word, allowing the reader to follow him on the ride from total irresponsibility to maturity and acceptance. This memoir is memorable and indeed heartbreaking, leaving the reader touched and yet strangely amused.

I loved parts of this book and there were other parts I struggled to get through. I thought the stories of being a father/brother and trying to be a 20-something while being in charge of his brother were great. I thought that was going to be the focus of the book, really. But there were parts where the way Eggers told the story drove me crazy. The extended (and fake) interview with The Real World for example. I’ll go into detail more but the back-and-forth nature of the storytelling made it hard for me to enjoy as a whole and led me to rate it lower than I felt parts of it deserved.

The life Eggers portrayed seemed very realistic to me. People do their best and sometimes that best doesn’t seem great from the outside or looks like failure to some people. Eggers dealt with his criticism in a weird way sometimes, lying about Toph to make himself laugh at the expense of his friends. But it was how he needed to cope. It was how he could keep doing his best. It was right for him. People need to be selfish sometimes and do what’s best for them to keep moving forward and I saw that in Eggers portrayal of himself and his family from time to time.

I liked Toph best and I wish we’d gotten a little more about him in the story. He was in a very difficult position for the majority of the story. He was likely raised like an only child, with his next oldest sibling being 13 years his elder. When Toph was forming a lot of his memories, Beth and Bill would have been out of the house and Dave would have been in high school. I’m going to guess their mother doted on him based on her personality and the one scene we have where they interact. I think the death of his parents would have been much harder on Toph than we’re led to see in this story. I wish we’d been able to see that and his coping more.

I think the way Dave felt when parenthood was thrust on him was very relatable. He didn’t know what to do but he was going to do his best to do it. It reminds me of when you start a new job and have to jump in with both feet and find your footing before you slip. Dave tried really hard and was clearly worried about Toph very often. Granted, my brother is two years younger than me, but I never worried about him that much though I didn’t have to take as much responsibility for him. I felt it was really admirable.

Dave Eggers
Image via Amazon.com

Dave doesn’t tell us how he felt about his father at first. It comes throughout the book in chunks and I liked how he did it that way. I thought it revealed a lot about his family and how they projected themselves that he wouldn’t talk about this earlier in the book. You learned about the siblings and how they got along well before you know how their parents’ relationship was tested. I felt this added a layer to the book because it was something you might not know about the Eggers even if you were a friend, something you’d have to come to learn the way I did as a reader.

There were parts of the book that got ‘too meta’ for me. The biggest being the Real World interview which we find out while reading it is not anything like the real interview but a way for Dave to tell us more about his family. That felt cheap and unlike a lot of the times that Dave’s humor made me laugh, this made me angry. I wanted to get through that section fast but it took me longer and longer the more frustrated I got.

Memoirs tend to focus on a pivotal part of someone’s life and I think Dave picked a very change-fraught part of his life and the lives of his siblings to cover. Toph had to learn to take his brother serious as a parent figure while Dave had to learn to be a father and still be a 20-something single guy. He was a friend and a brother and a parent. They had to figure out their roles and how they could work together to still be a family and support each other.

Writer’s Takeaway: Dave is clearly a guy who likes to have fun, as he shows us in his interactions with Toph and his friends. I didn’t always agree with his sense of humor and the things he found funny. That was fine with me when it was him telling jokes about Might, but it was something different when it was him pulling a fast one on me as his reader. I didn’t like the dream/reality jumbles that weren’t explained, the meta-discussion with John, or (again) the Real World interview. I felt like I was the butt of his jokes and it annoyed me.

I’m sad to make this my lowest Eggers rating. Two out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on GoodreadsFacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Related Posts:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius | Ester’s Book Blog
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers | EatSleepRead
‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers- Review by Tathushan Subenthiran | Wilson’s School: Student Book Reviews
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and the Modern Memoir | No Pun Intended
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers | Sea of Shelves


Book Review: Just Kids by Patti Smith (3/5)

27 Feb

Yet another book club selection! I feel that most of the books I read are book club selections and I’m 100% okay with this. This wasn’t one of my favorites, but I’m still glad I read it.

I don’t think I was the target audience for this one, having never heard of Patti Smith or her music before I cracked the spine. That’s probably the biggest reason for my rating; I really wasn’t engaged in the topic.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Patti never though she would be the famous one of her friends. When she moved to New York and met Robert Mapplethorpe, she saw genius in his work and felt lucky to be a part of his journey. By meeting the right people, Smith was able to move from an unknown poet, to an unknown lyricist, to a highly influential singer/songwriter through the 1970s.

Smith and Mapplethorpe met when they were both developing their place in the art world; Smith looking for a way to express herself in words and Mapplethorpe in images. Together they weathered financial and professional hardships. As Mapplethorpe explored his sexuality, Smith was a supportive friend despite their romantic past. Both were struggling to discover who they were and who they wanted to be.

The book did stick with me for it’s lyrical prose, something only a poet can do. Smith’s background writing poetry made for some beautiful turns of phrase that I really enjoyed. The topic didn’t interest me and because I didn’t know anything about Patti Smith, I was as surprised as her when she got lucky breaks and found her way to the world of rock and roll. From the Johnny Depp review on the back cover, I was expecting something very raw, most likely involving a little bit of sex and drugs, but also a deep passion. I got all of that. I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already a Patti Smith fan but if you are, I really think you must read her book.

Smith spoke a lot about family, but not in the traditional sense. Her family in New Jersey wasn’t what got her through her tough times. Yes, her sister did travel to Paris with her, but it was the people of the Hotel Chelsea and Robert who were there for her when she needed it and they were the ones she supported in their time of need. Smith’s adopted family was strong group and one would be lucky to find such a group of people to support one through the tough times in life. I think Smith was very fortunate to find the group she did when she did because it helped shape her and her art.

Friendship is another topic that Smith delves into deeply. Her friendship with Robert was atypical to say the least. They started out as lovers and when Robert discovered his sexuality, Smith never doubted that she still loved him, only in a different sense, more like family than a mate. The two relied on each other for company, love, support, and inspiration throughout the years they spent in New York, living together more often than not. Given the chance to show in a gallery, Smith chooses to do so only if allowed to show next to Robert. The pair work together naturally. When Robert is sick and Patti lives in Detroit, she doesn’t let the distance separate them and makes a great effort to visit and call him on a regular basis, supporting him through his illness.  That sort of friendship is rare and Smith treasured it like the gem that it is.

This memoir is unlike a lot of others I’ve read because it focuses on another person as much as the writer. Most memoir writers want to tell their own story, but Smith is concerned with telling her story only as far as it overlapped with Robert’s. More than anything, she wanted to have people remember him. In that sense, it almost reminds me of The Great Gatsby, where Nick tells Gatsby’s story instead of Gatsby telling his own. I really liked the medium.

Mapplethorpe ultimately died of AIDS in a time when the disease wasn’t fully understood and treatment was almost nonexistent. I loved the way that Smith portrayed the fall from grace her scene in New York took with the emergence of the disease and it’s destruction on Robert’s body. It made me think what Robert’s chances would have been today, with better knowledge about the spread and treatment of the disease. It’s sad that a pioneer like him had to succumb to something so cruel.

Writer’s Takeaway: Smith’s poetic prose was really moving. She was able to describe light and music in a way that I think many prose writers cannot and I think this is easily attributable to her being a poet and lyricist. I also liked the time of her life she chose to focus on and I think she did a good job of describing how she came to be in the position she found herself by the end.

Overall, a decent read, but not for me. Three out of five stars.

This book fulfilled the 1970-1989 time period for the When Are You Reading? Challenge and New York for the Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

Related Posts:
Just Kids | EmilyBooks
Just Kids by Patti Smith | Friends of Atticus

Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed (4/5)

5 Feb

I would have read this book even if it wasn’t for my book club. I’m a huge sucker for memoirs and Wild had rave reviews. Needless to say, I devoured this book. I started it Monday night and finished it Friday night. Go me!

This book fulfilled ‘California’ for my Where Are You Reading? Challenge.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

With the death of her mother and the desolation of her marriage, Cheryl Strayed was at the end of a very short rope. She was lost and bordering on penniless and homeless. There’s no better time to pack up everything and take three months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed starts her journey in the Mojave Desert and along the long walk to Oregon finds friends, rattlesnakes, peace, and herself among blisters, extreme temperatures, and the California wilderness.

I had a very up and down relationship with this book. At first, Strayed’s commentary of the reasons she went on the trail frustrated me. I felt like I couldn’t relate to her grief and her struggles with drug addiction and it made me doubt reading the book altogether. I kept going for Strayed’s fast paced writing and incredible journey. The more Strayed went over her past, the more I could sympathize with her and understand why she took the risks she did to hike the trail. I have a lot of respect for what she did and I have to be honest when I say it made me want to go backpacking! I would have given this book 5 out of 5 stars if I hadn’t been so annoyed with Strayed for the first half of the novel.

I like the idea of going out to the wilderness to be alone and find one’s self and I’m in such awe that Strayed did this with so little fear. She had almost no idea what she would come into contact with and she didn’t let her inexperience bring her down for much of the trip. She learned quickly and was very resourceful. There is a video on the Goodreads page in which Strayed says that her time on the trail helped her shape who she is today and I feel that this is only partially true. I think who she was before is what motivated her to go onto the trail and thus responsible for the outcome on the other end of over a thousand miles of hiking. I’m very happy for her and what she’s become.

Strayed says a few times that she was too young to be married to her first husband. This got under my skin, as someone who was married at 22. Granted, that’s a full three years later than Strayed was married, but I started dating my husband at 19 and would have married him then. In the same video mentioned above, she says she was to young to be married and deal with the grief she had in the wake of her mother’s death. I wish she would have clarified this in the book because I found her comments almost offensive.

I think the idea of ‘finding oneself’ is something many people are interested in. To me, this explains the popularity of this book, along with other similar titles such as Eat, Pray, Love. Can someone find himself in a journey as these books imply? I’m not sure it’s ever so obvious. When I was in college, I did a semester in England. I would never describe it as ‘life-changing’ or ‘eye-opening,’ but it helped me realize my strength as an individual and my ability to do things on my own. Maybe I could write a best-selling memoir. I’m not sure what element is necessary for a trip to change an individual like Strayed felt hers did. Reader, what do you think makes an experience life-changing?

I think it’s odd that two life-changing-journey memoirs were best sellers around the same time. I feel that when a genre becomes popular suddenly, it’s usually because there is a social issue that people find an escape from through books. For example, I read that dystopian futures are popular right now as a way to escape the bleak political situation in America. I can only speculate about the popularity of ‘finding yourself’ memoirs. Maybe it’s that we are all after our fifteen seconds of fame. If Cheryl Strayed can go on a three-month hike and find herself and write a book, then maybe I can get lost in the Northern Michigan wilderness and find myself and get a TV special. Or maybe it’s that we all feel so much pressure to be the best we can be; the multi-tasking family woman who works out five times a week and write award-winning stories. I can’t do it all and I need to find myself to be able to deal with my own disappointment. (I think I’m talking myself into wandering around the Northern Michigan forests.) Why do you think readers are interested in finding themselves in today’s society?

Writers’ Takeaway: This book was very hard to put down. I loved how Strayed started with a snippet of a turning point on the trail because I read trying to find out how far into her journey that event happened. By the team I reached it, I was engrossed. I read this book in less than a week and it was in large chunks. Sometimes I find I have to read a book in small doses, but that was not the case with Wild. Strayed’s strategy of jumping between flashback and time on the trail was really great and I liked that she spent more time following the trail than flashing back.

Overall, solid read and I would recommend it. Four out of Five stars.

Until next time, write on.

Related Posts
Why I’m Not Wild About Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ |One-Minute Book Reviews
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Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed |Books and Reviews