Thursday, July 9, 2009

Katrina from A to Z

My brother and his wife and kids live in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is a few hours west of New Orleans and quite close to the Gulf of Mexico. When Hurricane Katrina and then Hurricane Rita came through, it was a pretty scary time -- especially with Rita, since the eye of the that storm passed almost directly over Lake Charles. Although they lost every tree in their yard and sustained damage to the house, the good news is that no one was hurt or lost, and most of their belongings were undamaged. But I remember sitting in Portland glued to the news during both events, and being especially stunned at what took place in New Orleans following Katrina. In the United States? In our lifetime? It just seemed unthinkable.

Last week Zeitoun, the new book by Dave Eggers, arrived in the store. It tells the Katrina story and its unbelievable aftermath through the eyes of one family, the Zeitouns. Here's the book description below:

"When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous 47-year-old Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Eggers's riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun's roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy an American who converted to Islam and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research - in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria."

Tulane History Professor Douglas Brinkley (and author of The Great Deluge, also about Katrina) says of this book, "Zeitoun is a poignant, haunting, etheral story about New Orleans in peril. Eggers has bottled up the feeling of post-Katrina despair better than anyone else. This is a simple, beautiful book with a lingering radiance."

I gobbled this book up. Experiencing Katrina through the eyes of an individual family really makes it all seem more real than the images I had watched on the TV news. Now I'm hungry for more. Reading Zeitoun reminded me that I have another book that I bought shortly after Katrina: 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina, by Chris Rose, a New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist, which recounts the first four harrowing months of life in New Orleans after Katrina. It is described as a roller coaster ride of observations, commentary, emotions, tragedy, and even humor. So that's where I'm going next.

I'm particularly excited about two more books about Katrina coming out soon. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, by Josh Neufeld, is a graphic novel that portrays both the undeniable horrors and the humanitarianism triggered by Hurricane Katrina by following six New Orleanians from the hours before Katrina strikes to its aftermath. That book will be published in hardcover on August 18th. The second book, which is out now, is coming out in paperback September 1: City of Refuge, by Tom Piazza, is a novel that tells the Katrina story through the eyes of two New Orleans families, one black and one white.

But until those two are published, I highly recommend reading Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, who has also written What is the What, a fictionalized telling of the story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, and the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and is the founder and editor of McSweeney's, an independent publishing house based in San Francisco.

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