I have to thank my friend, Laurie, for the heads up on this amazing book.
I feel like there is so much to say about this book, almost too much. It’s completely captivating. It’s non-fiction, which I didn’t know until I was about 80% of the way through. It truly is a story that shows that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s sad, it’s hopeful, it’s shocking, it’s upsetting. It’s about Katrina, from the perspective of a man, Abdulrahman Zeitoun (a Syrian immigrant turned US citizen), who lived through the hurricane, its aftermath, and beyond. It’s about his family, his wife, Kathy, and their four children. It explains by showing, not by pedantic lectures. It is powerful. And it is a must read. Thank you to Dave Eggers for writing it down. And thank you, more than anything, to the Zeitouns for sharing it with all of us.
And now, some choice quotes from different reviews that I found online (though I don’t recommend reading any of them in whole – or parts, really – if you want to be in suspense at all during the book, which you do, honestly):
NY Times, “After the Deluge”:
In “Zeitoun,” what Dave Eggers has found in the Katrina mud is the full-fleshed story of a single family, and in telling that story he hits larger targets with more punch than those who have already attacked the thematic and historic giants of this disaster. It’s the stuff of great narrative nonfiction. […]
In the end, as mentioned, “Zeitoun” is a more powerful indictment of America’s dystopia in the Bush era than any number of well-written polemics. That is in large part because Eggers has gotten so close to his subjects, going back and forth between Syria and America, crosscutting to flesh out the family and their story.
“This book does not attempt to be an all-encompassing book about New Orleans or Hurricane Katrina,” Eggers writes in his author’s note. Of course not. But my guess is, 50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.
Entertainment Weekly (overall, they gave the book an A-):
Eggers’ sympathy for Zeitoun is as plain and real as his style in telling the man’s story. He doesn’t try to dazzle with heartbreaking pirouettes of staggering prose; he simply lets the surreal and tragic facts speak for themselves. And what they say about one man and the city he loves and calls home is unshakably poignant — but not without hope, since the proceeds from Eggers’ book are earmarked for the Zeitoun Foundation, which will help the victims of Katrina.
Perhaps Eggers’ greatest achievement is his balancing of the day-by-day account of the Zeitouns as something detailed and particular, something rather intimate and personal, with his use of them to express something greater, to tell the bigger story. The family isn’t made to be typical or to represent anything, it doesn’t stand in for a big systemic problem (the Katrina story has been told that way before – one poor black family left to suffer, abandoned by its government…), but the family’s particular experiences reveal an ugly seam in American society and the structures of establishment power. Zeitoun is a proud man, proud of his adopted country, who has never let small daily troubles (the casual racism he and Kathy keep stumbling across) dispel his pride or his idealisation of the great place he has settled in after his years of wandering. With the events that follow Katrina, however, his love for the Land of the Free is tested.
Zeitoun is a story of frustrating incompetence and infuriating abuses of power, where the good intentions and optimism of people such as Zeitoun are measured alongside the opportunism of others. It’s impossible not to sympathise with these people who are sharing their stories with us, not to be outraged and disappointed on their behalf. Eggers never rants at injustice and his prose remains clear and sharp-focused. But while there’s no boiling anger in the telling of it, you’ll find plenty evoked in the reading.