Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers)

I'm a day late, but only because I was out of town. I'm still counting this as regularly scheduled.


I need to stop reading nonfiction. I loved this book, and think that, while not perfect, it is a stunning depiction of the insanity that accompanies everyday life, but a lot was lost on me as a reader who generally doesn't take to nonfiction as strongly as fiction or poetry. See, this is a memoir by a young man who lost both of his parents to cancer just before he finished college, and who then had to take care of his seven-year old brother. That's the synopsis, but it tells you almost nothing about this book. Dave Eggers basically just speaks to the reader—and sometimes himself—for 400 pages, and it's great. It's refreshing, it's honest, it's down to earth. During the acknowledgments, which are hilarious and prelude the book very well, Eggers actually tells readers to think of the book as a work of fiction if it makes it easier for them, or if they don't like reading nonfiction. I liked that suggestion, it being one of the many instances that Eggers breaks the fourth wall and is hyper self aware, but despite how good most of the writing is, it doesn't exactly work that way. The writing is remarkable, phenomenal, keeps you so engaged. Every time you begin to pull back from the story a little, or think something is a little contrived, a little absurd, Eggers agrees, and remarks on how contrived and absurd the situation is, how he doesn't believe it himself, how he's probably remembering incorrectly or possibly even lying. The voice of the narrator is astonishingly conversational, but in the end, that's almost one of the problems. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is fresh, it's wonderful, it's all these amazing things, but to be honest it also gets kinda boring. There were parts of this book where Dave Eggers was blowing my mind with how aware he was of what I was thinking, where my head was in terms of his writing, the story, the characters. I couldn't believe how accurate he could be. But there were other times when I honestly didn't really care at all, and only kept reading out of a dull sense of curiosity, not wanting to drop it in case there was some mesmerizing ending I'd be missing. There are times when Eggers is so honest that you almost hate him, and think that he really is a horrible person, and how can he treat his brother that way, which I think takes a lot of guts and a great deal of skill, but in a memoir, with no real plot, no real direction, it can leave the reader without any sense of why they're reading.

I enjoyed this book immensely. The things about it that were good were soooooooo good, but it took me a while to read, not because I didn't want to, but because it was so anecdotal. It jumps back and forth between time and location and mindset and all of these real things that the mind does while a person is driving along the Pacific Coast Highway so excited to play frisbee at the beach but what if we just drive off this cliff and I think we would make it we would probably make it just climb out the car windows and jump right before we hit the water but if we didn't make it what would happen and would a lot of people come to my funeral? would Sarah come to my funeral? oh man Sarah is so hot I should call her what a catch she was I haven't seen her since my mom died. Four hundred pages of that is easy to put down sometimes. And it's hard because there isn't always a real reason to pick the book back up. There are so many emotions, so many things to connect to, so many real moments, but I never found myself thinking, "I can't wait to get back to that book and find out what happens next!" Maybe that's just the product of it being a memoir, but I feel like memoirs can still have plot, drive, direction, story arcs. Life has story arcs sometimes. A big part of the book is the fact that Dave and his brother don't really have all that much to do. They're free. It's not a road trip book, or a story of self-discovery and overcoming tremendous adversity, or fulfilling one's dreams. It's a story about getting by, and how the author felt about getting by. Again, this might just be my reaction as someone who isn't a huge fan of nonfiction, and I did enjoy this book, I highly recommend it for a number of reasons, but I was expecting a little bit more than a unique and erratic narrator. It slows down a lot as you go further and further in and things begin to be repeated. Motives blur, characters jumble together, gain and lose significance. In this way it truly is evocative of real life, since you never really know what's going to happen, or who is still going to be important to you five years down the line, and I applaud that kind of truthfulness, but I wanted to see more of a journey, and I didn't get that.


A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers

We never really get to connect with any of the characters. Some recur, some don't, and we never get a good feel as to why. There's a lot of "we've been friends forever" but never any reason why certain people are more important than others. Some of the characters that are present throughout the entire book are never even described, just introduced by name and then referenced repeatedly.

So ridiculously original to me. Maybe someone else has written a memoir that's this erratic, this true to life, this close to the way I feel the human mind tends to work, but I've never seen it. I have to give Eggers credit for the strength of his ability to write brilliant narration.

Some people are going to think this is the most incredible book ever written. Some are going to think it's self-serving garbage. I can understand where both are coming from, but am myself stuck somewhere in the middle. It had its strengths, it had its weaknesses. A solid effort.


If you have any suggestions or requests for books to be reviewed, or would like to write a guest review yourself, remember you can always email me at, subject line "TDG: Review Suggestion" or "TDG: Guest Reviewer." I would love to get more people involved and see what the rest of the world thinks about some of these books!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Agents of Atlas (Jeff Parker)

Ok, I know what you're thinking. "What kind of weekly book review doesn't review a book every week? Sheesh, Brian, get it together." Honestly? I agree with you. Lately, I've been more worried about reading specific books and then reviewing them, regardless of how long it takes me to finish them. Sometimes I finish a book a week. Sometimes I finish two books a week. Sometimes it takes me 3 or 4 weeks just to finish a single book, though, and that's been throwing off the review schedule like crazy. I say no more, ladies and gentlemen! From now on, I am going to review something, anything, every Friday. Rain or shine, Hell or high water, something will be reviewed. Most likely this is going to mean more comic books, since a big reason why the literature I read takes so long is because I read so many comics every week. But this might also include things like poems, articles I find and think are interesting, or anything else with words on it that comes across my desk. Hopefully these reviews keep everyone interested and coming back. If they don't, there will still be the literary reviews every time I finish a novel or memoir. Basically, this is win-win. The literary reviews aren't going to come out any faster than they normally would, but now at least there will be some filler reviews in between. And who knows, maybe some people will enjoy the comic book/article/poetry reviews better than the novel reviews!


So, this is an interesting little comic book. I'd read snippets of it here and there, but only recently took a look at the original limited series in its entirety (a new ongoing Agents of Atlas title has just started up, by the way, if you find this story/premise interesting). The story starts with Kenneth Hale, a.k.a. Gorilla-Man (self-explanatory), a member of the global peace-keeping task-force S.H.I.E.L.D., being interrogated by his superiors. Apparently, in the 1950s, Hale was part of a secret group of superhumans brought together by FBI agent Jimmy Woo to rescue a kidnapped President Eisenhower. The group was only together for a few months, and none of the members had had contact with each other in the fifty years since, but when Agent Woo is discovered on the brink of death with another team of agents after attempting to break into some mysterious "Temple of Atlas," Hale is brought in for questioning. After breaking Woo out of the infirmary with the help of robot M-11 and Marvel Boy, both members of the old team, Woo is revived and the whole team is put back together to stop some insidious plan by the diabolical Yellow Claw. Several spy-story adventures later, the big secret of their entire group is revealed, and the team is set on the course that will define them into the future.

Now, it all seems very comic book-y, and I admit, it is, but I think there's a time and a place where story's like this one can be truly appreciated. I wasn't familiar with Jeff Parker's work before now, but I might check into some other things he's written, because I liked this a lot. It wasn't the smartest, best, most original, anything like that, but it's a solid story. And I mean that in the absolute best way possible. This is pulp escapism at its most absurd, which is where those kinds of books really thrive. It's over-the-top, extremely unbelievable, and boasts a stable of some of the most memorable characters to hit the page that I've seen in a while. The team (which does not actually refer to themselves as the "Agents of Atlas" until the end of this storyline) consists of the aforementioned Gorilla-Man, Marvel Boy, M-11, and Jimmy Woo, representing the Nature/Adventure, space, sci-fi and spy genres, respectively, Venus, a former Siren whose voice can control the emotions and thoughts of others, representing the mythical genre, and Namora, a member of the Atlantean royalty, filling in for both the undersea/fantasy genre and to a certain extent the mainstream superhero genre. Again, I'd like to reiterate the pure escapist mentality that was written into this story. It's fun to read. Gorilla-Man makes stupid jokes and laughs every time Marvel Boy says that he's from Uranus. Venus runs around half naked singing show tunes to the villains. Jimmy Woo gives uplifting pep talks. If you go into this book thinking that you're going to find some secret, poetic meaning to your existence, good luck, maybe you'll find it, who knows. You WILL have a great time, though. It reminded me a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs' writing, having aspects of both Tarzan and the John Carter of Mars series, if you've read either of those. Having read the initial limited series and enjoying the strong characters and fun, pulpy situations, I'm much more likely going to check out the new ongoing that's currently on stands at a comic book shop near you.


Agents of Atlas
by Jeff Parker

Agents of Atlas isn't going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature any time soon, but it makes up for it by being bold and direct. If the fastest way for the team to get into a building is through a wall, they're not gonna keep looking for a door, they're busting through that wall.

Pure, undiluted, fresh squeezed, pulp included. Sheer ridiculousness, so much fun.

It's a fun read, and, to me, that's the most important thing. I enjoyed this book a lot, and as long as you go into it with that intention, to have fun, I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed.


Thanks for putting up with the infrequency of the reviews of late. That will no longer be the case, so I hope you're looking forward to the regular weekly posts from now on!

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Year of Living Biblically (A.J. Jacobs)

I wanted to wait, I really did. I wanted to be able to tell you that The Year of Living Biblically, ANOTHER New York Times Bestseller, was an amazing book that I couldn't put down. I wanted to be able to tell you to go out and get this book, because Jacobs writes hilariously about an incredibly interesting topic, but I can't, and it kills me. I was so excited to read this book. I had so much hope for it, but it's taking me so long, and I've lost so much interest, that unfortunately this is going to be the historic FIRST FAILED BOOK. I just couldn't finish it, after weeks of trying (I still have six months of the biblical year to go).

A.J. Jacobs is also the author of another New York Times Bestseller, The Know-It-All, which is described on the cover as "One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World." The Year of Living Biblically is described on the cover as "One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible." So it's a totally different book, because in one he's reading the encyclopedia and talking about it, and in the other he's reading the Bible and talking about it.


As I mentioned, it says "One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible" right on the cover. That's pretty much the whole synopsis.

The end.


Just kidding. Kinda. What the cover of the book doesn't tell you is that Jacobs is boring (he repeats himself, a lot), self-centered (he frequently talks about how much he Googles himself, so he might even be reading this right now. oops), and overall not a very talented writer. The book is allegedly set up chronologically, with each chapter being a different month of the year, but it tends to skip back and forth between stories that are happening in that month and stories that happened way earlier but just weren't mentioned. That's a good strategy if you're writing a narrative, with reveals and secrets and plot twists, but when you're writing a factual account of how you're coping on a day-to-day basis with this difficult task you've set for yourself, and then randomly jump back three months every once in a while, it doesn't make sense. Why didn't you just tell us then, A.J.? Another reason this book didn't really grab me is that there's no end in sight. He isn't really aspiring towards anything. He vaguely makes reference to looking forward to figuring out if maybe this experiment will possibly make him more spiritual or something, but that doesn't really give the reader any incentive to keep going. At best the book provides some mildly humorous anectodes, but it reads like a case study that's almost funny. I've honestly read descriptions of quantum physics with more personality (JourneyByStarlight, if you're interested).

Seriously, the whole year could have been summed up in one sentence with Jacobs just writing "It was awkward" on the first page. It's not funny enough to pull you through it, which is such a shame, because the situations and complications that come out of this experience are interesting and have the potential to be so compelling. It doesn't go anywhere, though. I hate to judge it so harshly when I haven't even finished the whole thing, but when it takes me almost a month to get only halfway through a 332-page book, something's not right. If you still think that the concept is thought-provoking enough to pique your interest, go right ahead and try it out. Maybe you'll have a better time with it than I did. I'm not the biggest fan of nonfiction in the world, but I've read some outstanding pieces (The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, for example, which I highly recommend and might review some day). This is not one of those outstanding pieces, though.


The Year of Living Biblically
by A.J. Jacobs

The only reason this got higher than a 5 is because the concept was so original. I was so excited to read this book, but it's boring, it really let me down.

The chapters were months of your year. Okay, Jacobs, that's a neat way to separate time, make it easy for the reader. Too bad you didn't really follow that model throughout. Oh, and you're a bad writer.

So let's sum this all up:
-Bad writing
-Uninteresting main character
-No real goal beyond finishing the year
Yeah, sounds like a winner.


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