In early high school I picked up a book at a relative’s house that looked interesting and that had the longest title I had ever seen, and it ended up being like nothing I had ever read before. Many years later ,“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers remains one of my favorite novels and I recommend it to just about everyone.
(Have you read it yet? No? Get on it! And if possible, grab a copy that contains the postscript entitled “Mistakes We Knew We Were Making.”)
The book gripped me from the words printed on the very opening page
THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR
Eggers then goes into a number of rules and suggestions to best enjoy his book, including #4, which states “Actually, many of you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 209-301, which concern the lives of people in their early twenties, and those lives are very difficult to make interesting, even when they seemed interesting to those living them at the time.”
It’s a great example of Eggers voice, a self-awareness that is found in all of his books, not just his memoir.
AHWOSG (the actual title is super long, so from here on out we will use this unpronounceable acronym) was Egger’s first book and a memoir about the deaths of his parents and his subsequent raising of his brother Toph, who is 13 year younger than Eggers. It is gripping and moving and changes styles multiple times. In the middle of the book Eggers auditions for MTV’s The Real World, and partway through the audition reveals that this telling of the audition is nowhere close to how his real audition went, and is instead a device, “a catchall for a bunch of anecdotes that would be too awkward to force together otherwise.”
It was, to me, genius.
Since AHWOSG, Eggers has gone on to write many more books, and though they are all distinctly different, his voice is distinct in each one. His next novel was You Shall Know Our Velocity, which begins with a page of all caps writing:
“Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in East-Central Colombia, with forty-two locals who we hadn’t met yet.”
It’s another compelling start to a great story.
You Shall Know Our Velocity is about two young men who attempt to give away $38,000 by whatever means necessary. They travel around trying to unload their money onto strangers near and far. This includes trying to tape money to a donkey, for example. It’s a great story, at times humorous and at other times moving, and it is a seamless transition from AHWOSG.
Following Velocity, Eggers released a collection of short stories titled How We Are Hungry.
Some of the stories have previous Eggers characters in them, blurring the lines between what is autobiographical and what is fiction. I don’t remember which story was my favorite, but everything is written in Eggers unmistakable style, and though some stories are only a page long, they are all compelling.
Did I mention that Eggers has written A LOT of books?
I own almost all of them, and I have the pics to prove it!
Egger’s next novel, What is the What is a hard book to read, or at least it was for me.
Reading about people continually going through hardships makes me sad, and Valentino Achak Deng, whose life this book is about, had an extremely challenging life.
Valentino is one of Sudan’s Lost Boys. He was forced to flee Sudan after his village was attacked, and after surviving the attack, a crazy long trek, soldiers, and wild animals, he gets to resettle in America, where new challenges await. This books begins with Valentino in the US opening his door for a stranger and getting robbed, interspersed with memories of his past.
What is the What is a remarkable tale, and Valentino used his funds from the book to establish the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation with Eggers, and in 2009 he built the Marial Bai Secondary School. It was the first high school in the region that was fully functional AND it also accepted GIRLS as students! Which is so great, and so rare.
Well Valentino is now the MINISTER FOR EDUCATION in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, a state in South Sudan!
The proceeds from What is the What helped put the wheels in motion, and Valentino’s determination did the rest.
Seemingly on a biography kick, Eggers wrote Zeitoun, a nonfiction account of Syrian-American Abdulrahman Zeitoun’s experience in Hurricane Katrina. He stayed in his home during Katrina and then used a canoe to traverse the floodwaters and rescue people, take care of now-ownerless pets, and handing out fresh water. Zeitoun was arrested and accused of terrorist activities and detained for 23 days. Seeing as I haven’t read this particular book yet, you must excuse that the following quote about plot is pulled directly from Wikipedia:
“The author describes with irony the speed and efficiency with which the city of New Orleans was able to convert a Greyhound bus station into a Guantanamo-style prison, even as it proved incapable of handling the logistics of food and sanitation for the refugees at the Superdome. Through the story of Zeitoun, the author invites the reader to contemplate abuse of power, in particular the ease with which those with martial authority can slip into police state mentality once the normal checks and balances are breached by disaster.”
Not sure HOW I haven’t read this yet, but you can bet your britches it’s going in my TBR pile!
Then he veered in a completely different direction with The Wild Things.
This book, which is available with a furry cover that is both amazing and kind of disturbing, is adapted from Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are and is also based on the screenplay adaptation written by Eggers and Spike Jonze. So….yeah. The movie, if you missed it, was gorgeous, with a beautiful musical score. It had a much different feel than Sendak’s book, which makes sense, but it was great in it’s own way.
Without the movie visual, this book isn’t my favorite, but it is still an interesting read!
Now this one y’all may have heard of, because it is now or soon to be a movie starring Tom Hanks: A Hologram for the King.
This book begins by feeling very defeatist, but as Alan Clay spends more time in Saudi Arabia waiting for the King to arrive so he can sell him holographic technology and equipment he grows and evolves. He has an affair, he makes friends, he almost shoots someone – and through it all he finds a kind of purpose for his life.
This reminded me of classic Eggers writing, and I tore through the book in just two days.
YOU GUYS. The Circle is easily Eggers most accessible book.
It’s basically about Facebook and Google having a technology baby that slowly takes away all your privacy, but so gradually that no one seems to notice or care. Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle and quickly works her way through the ranks. There is a harrowing scene involving a helicopter, and it’s a very terrifying and very plausible story…which makes it even scarier. My partner isn’t the biggest Eggers fan, but I forced him to read this one and he loved it.
If you read AHWOSG and hated it, give this one a shot. Please and thank you!
And last but not least, Eggers recently published another book with a crazy long title: “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?
This book is really interesting.
Thomas is an angry young man who feels his life is purposeless because NASA no longer sends shuttles into space and he has never fought in a war. To try to make sense of his life, he does the sensible thing and kidnaps a NASA astronaut and holds him hostage at an abandoned California military base.
Which isn’t creepy at all.
But when the astronaut can’t give him all the answers, he picks up a few other people to help him, and he keeps them all in different buildings. Each chapter is a building number, and there are no quotation marks in the book at all, and the entire book is dialogue. It’s really fascinating, and the style worked really well for the story.
I ended the book with a “Huh. I’ve never read anything quite like that before!”
Dave Eggers is awesome, as an author and as a human.
Besides writing superb books, he is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing company. Check out their pieces online, they are so great! And McSweeney’s publishes Voice of Witness, which is a nonprofit book series highlighting human rights issues around the world.
Eggers is also the co-founder of 826 National (tutoring centers network) and ScholarMatch (nonprofit organization that makes matches up students with resources to get them to college).
Plus as previously mentioned he co-founded the VAD Foundation.
I’d say that’s pretty darn impressive!
Side Note: I actually got to briefly MEET Dave Eggers at Portland’s WordStock when I was in college. I brought my copy of AHWOSG, and he signed it, drew a bunch of circles, and wrote “These are planets.” I stupidly loaned my copy to a friend in college, no recollection of who, and I never saw it again. Now, every time I’m at Powell’s, I open the front pages of every copy of AHWOSG, hoping to find my long lost one. So if you ever find it, I will love you forever and send you a gift in return!