Rated Reads

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

by Dave Eggers

Rated: High

There are a few really great memoirs out there and a whole lot of middling ones. This one is the former: a really stunning book that just about lives up to its wacky name. It didn’t win a Pulitzer for nothing.

Dave Eggers is only 21 when his parents both die of cancer within a month of each other. He has two older siblings who are quite capable of taking care of themselves, as is he. The catch is that he has a 7-year-old brother (the “caboose,” as his father apparently called him) who needs a guardian, and he becomes that guardian. Dave and Toph, as the family calls him, set out on a journey together to just try to live a fairly normal life.

The book is basically “about” that, but it’s just so, so, so much more. It is just a quirky, insightful, self-involved but self-aware and self-conscious book that has a style all its own and just an amazing quality of talent bursting at the seams. Eggers is one of those people (yes, I think I’d actually term him a bit of a genius) who ou’re not sure if you’d like to know or not. He could be so hilarious and brilliant in person that you could forgive him his quirks, or he could be so arrogant and self-involved that you’d just want to smack him. I wouldn’t mind meeting him to see which he would be (to me, at least).

The book is just raw and real and gripping. It reaches out and grabs the reader by the throat. But it’s not true to say that Eggers has “raw talent.” It is just honed and focused and zeroed in. The only drawback of the book is its passages that are pretty intense and filled with strong language. If you can’t handle that, you should avoid the book. Even so, it’s a shame to not get to hear Eggers’ astonishing voice.

Rated: High, primarily for language. There are a few passages of a page or two in length in which the f-word is used 20 or 30 or even 40 times. There are a few occurrences of the word sprinkled in other sections of the book, along with moderate and mild language. Sexual references are pretty much not detailed, but there is some description of nudity and body parts.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for more than 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • by Dave Eggers
  • Rated: High
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Reviewer: