Mar 052003
Authors: Liz King

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

“A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is at once a grand story and a mockery of itself. The author, Dave Eggers, has achieved a sharp mixture of wit, humor, observation and anger. The depth of his anger sharpens the relief and comedic effect of his acerbic, irreverent wit.

His harrowing story of the slow deterioration of his mother, whom he loses to cancer only a month after he loses his father, is made more powerful by the author’s willingness to explore humor in things humanity is afraid of. The center of Eggers’ tale lies in his relationship with his younger brother, Toph, whom he both worries incessantly about and then teases mercilessly. And it is this juxtaposition of a young man suddenly thrust into parenting and being parentless while coping with trying to live out his dreams that brings the story into focus.

But beyond the merit of the story, there is the incredible use of words and ideas that make certain parts of the book read more as poetry than prose

“I worry for us. I worry that any minute someone – the police, a child welfare agency, a health inspector, someone – will burst in and arrest me, or maybe just make fun of me, shove me around, call me bad names, and then take Toph away, will bring him somewhere where the house is kept clean, where laundry is done properly and frequently, where the parental figure or figures can cook and do so regularly, where there is no running around the house poking each other with sticks from the backyard.”

And besides, what other book contains a diagram of how to best slide in socks across someone’s house?

The Brothers Karamazov

Russian literature is an acquired taste. It tends to be rife with dark, foreboding overtones to match the bleak political, social and actual climates of Russia. “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, while carrying that feeling, also plays like a murder mystery. On top of being a mystery the narrative takes an unemotional approach that is wholly different from current literary trends. Old Fyodor is the father of four of the main characters, three are legitimate and the last is an oft-abused epileptic bastard, who is a servant within his father’s household. The old man is a sensualist and terrible buffoon. He is murdered, but which of his children is the actual murderer? All four have motives but suspicion immediately falls on the oldest son, Dmitri, whom his father refused to give the inheritance he was owed.

In its more than 900 pages, Dostoevsky explores truths about humanity, life and about the existence of God. Frequently lurid, nightmarish, but always captivating, the novel plunges the reader into a sordid love triangle and a pathological obsession. This book is not for the light-weight reader and requires someone to dedicate a good portion of time to its comprehension. It is well worth the effort, if you have time.

The Tale of Kieu

If you are tired of books that constantly present a Western viewpoint and are ready to read something less familiar, this book will more than suffice. “The Tale of Kieu” is the epic poem of Vietnam and since the early nineteenth century has stood unchallenged as Vietnam’s supreme literary masterpiece. Kieu is the heroine of the poem. The story follows her life from the beginning when she falls in love with her one true partner to a life full of abuses. While sad, the story ultimately is the triumph of a right, pure soul against the terrifying savages that are wrecked against it.

The poem provides an adept look at the psyche of the Vietnamese people who consider Kieu to embody them. It is her plights and final redemption that represents the country’s troubles and plights throughout history. While this is a translation from the original Vietnamese, the words flow smoothly and the interpretation borders on brilliant. Even if poetry is not a love, this book goes beyond that to provide a captivating story along with its lyrical sensibility. Be warned that this book references Chinese literature, history and myth, like Shakespeare references Greek culture, so a casual reading will leave many questions. But this book, like anything exotic, stays unusual until exposure transforms it to ordinary.

A Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s unique vision of future events and feminist outlook allow her to create the vivid nightmare of “A Handmaid’s Tale.” She uses several things to construct her riveting narrative. First is the ongoing conversation about environmental abuse which could produce sterility in humanity, the second is the feminist dialogue which occurred during the 60s and 70s, and lastly is the position of some women that eliminating displays of sexuality in women is acceptable because it decreases violence and abuse against them. Atwood feels that this instead supports patriarchy and becomes an excuse for the further subjugation of the female.

All three of these themes figure prominently into the book’s sharp satire. While humor is sparse, Atwood’s sharp, bitter jokes make a lonely staccato in the lyrical desolation of the tale. This book is not pleasant to read and it will not appeal to everyone. But it will make you think, think about the future of women, think about religion and think if any progress is really being made in sex relations and if it will hold during hard times.

Is there anything better than a book that makes you reconsider issues in a new way?

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