#14: A Book Set in the Summer

Zeitoun

by Dave Eggers

Synopsis:

Everyone has his own story about “the storm.” We speak of “before the storm” and “since the storm” because Katrina defines southeastern Louisiana–probably in a way that nothing has since Camille hit in the 1969. In Zeitoun, Dave Eggers relates the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun and their personal experiences just prior to Katrina’s landfall and in the weeks following the hurricane and subsequent flooding of the New Orleans area.

Characteristics of Great Non-Fiction:

I have–in the last few years–started to enjoy reading nonfiction. It seems like there is a movement toward more “creative” nonfiction writing, not that the truth is stretched, but that the facts are more integrated into the overall narrative rather than it reading like a textbook (see this post).

  • Descriptive passages that read like fiction.
    • It is easy to write facts. It’s not so easy to write about something that actually happened in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel like they are studying for a high school history exam.
    • Some favorites:
      • “The sky was a child’s fingerpainting” (p. 82)
      • “He wondered if the world at large could already see what he was seeing, a disaster mythical in scale and severity” (p. 106)
  • Facts that are too weird to be made up.
    • You know the saying “truth is stranger than fiction”? Well it’s definitely true. Even the cover of this book looks straight out of someone’s imagination!
    • There is quite a bit of conspiracy theory-type information in the second half of this book. According to Eggers, all the facts have been collaborated by several sources and evidently are true. Things like the makeshift jail at the Greyhound Station erected in the hours after the storm passed defy all reason when one remembers the thousands of people stranded at the Superdome and Convention Center without so much as a change of clothes.
    • I did like the tidbit about the Zeitouns cancelling their contents policy on their homeowners insurance mere weeks before the lake flooded the first floor of their house and mildewed the rest.
  • Construction that mimics fiction.
    • The paragraphs through the middle section are very choppy. Most of the time that would be a problem, but I see it as a reflection of Zeitoun’s thoughts. He jumps from thinking about his kids, to flood insurance (or lack thereof), to feeding the dogs across the street, back to Kathy, and so on.
    • Eggers also chose to include snippets from Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria. Some of the images parallel events that Zeitoun experienced in post-Katrina New Orleans. Ironically, Zeitoun’s father spent several days clinging to a shipwreck (and life), and urged his children to make their lives away from the sea. In Zeitoun’s case, the sea found its way to his house!
    • Another example is Egger’s choice to relate Kathy’s emotional state when she lost contact with Zeitoun–and then went for weeks without knowing whether he was dead or alive or where he was–by writing strictly from Kathy’s perspective for 30+ pages. Like Kathy, the reader knows nothing about Zeitoun, and gets a small dose of the agony Kathy and the kids must have experienced.
  • Author’s inclusion of seemingly unrelated information that eventually ties in.
    • Most of the time, this information is about Zeitoun’s childhood and his extended family. For example, Eggers spends quite a bit of time telling the story of Zeitoun’s brother Mohammed, who was a world-class swimmer before his untimely death in his early 20s. Eggers posits that Mohammed’s position as the shining star of the family is a reason why Zeitoun decided to stay in New Orleans instead of evacuating and also why he felt the need to help/aid/rescue others who weren’t as fortunate as he.
    • One part that I have an issue with is the emphasis on the family’s religion. Zeitoun and Kathy are very devout Muslims and their faith carries them through all of the difficulties during and after Katrina. However, Eggers goes into great detail about Kathy’s conversion to Islam and, furthermore, discusses how Islam and Christianity really are one an the same, or at least two paths to the same goal. This information is misleading at best (see John 14:6), and honestly, the entire conversion story has no bearing on the story Eggers tells. It is interesting, in a post-9/11 world, that being a Syrian-American man in a disaster zone makes Zeitoun have an entirely different set of problems than if he was a white man.

Final Thoughts:

Reading about Zeitoun’s experiences during Hurricane Katrina gave me an eerie feeling. It’s very strange to read about something you have personally experienced, but from a different point of view. Obviously, I did not steer my canoe down New Orleans streets, but the descriptions of the “profound” quiet (p. 85), the “complete” darkness of the night (p. 103), the utter stillness that followed the storm, and the feelings going through Zeitoun’s mind (as well as Kathy’s) paint him to be the New Orleans “everyman.”

This is a quick read and a good introduction to “literary nonfiction.” Like I previously stated, Zeitoun would resonate most with people who experienced Katrina or other major natural disaster. On the other hand, though, it stands as a good snapshot of the Katrina for those who did/have not.

*NB: When I began reading, I knew more happened with the Zeitouns beyond what the book portrayed, but I did not read anything about it until after I finished my review so that it wouldn’t temper what I had to say about Zeitoun as a hero.

Zeitoun and Kathy’s relationship in this book is portrayed as loving and mutually beneficial. After Katrina, their relationship deteriorated (something that the book really didn’t delve into). Eventually, Zeitoun allegedly threatened to kill Kathy and the couple divorced after he assaulted her. Later, Zeitoun attacked Kathy and was accused of hiring another man to murder his ex-wife. What has happened since Katrina does seem to show Zeitoun as a different person than he is portrayed as in Zeitoun, in my opinion. Kathry does say that Eggers’s novel shows an accurate version of the Zeitouns’ relationship in at time period. Perhaps their marriage was another casualty of Hurricane Katrina.

Mrs. Ethridge’s Report Card:

  • My Rating: B
    • interesting story
    • relatable characters
    • I give the story itself an A, but the writing a B-. I think some of the choices the author made as far as what material to include, etc, took away from the overall effect.
  • Clean Factor: A
    • some language; considering most people’s states-of-mind during this time, though, it could have been a lot worse!
    • overall clean
  • Book Clubbishness: A (especially with those who have experienced similar situations)
    • I suggested this one along with 2 others; a different book won out, but I read it anyway 🙂
    • lots of talking points: government, conspiracy, choices the characters made, etc.
  • Educational Potential: B
    • given the whole emphasis on nonfiction, this would be a good compromise
    • engaging and relevant to students who have similar experiences (although since we’ve about reached the 10 year mark, it’s not as present as it once was)
    • good choice for book report, nonfiction unit, summer reading

Photo credit/Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Zeitoun-Dave-Eggers/dp/3462044192/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1435785819&sr=8-2&keywords=zeitoun

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