You’ll recall that Eggers has written “creative nonfiction,” including “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” and “What Is the What?” This book fits more clearly into nonfiction. It’s the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun of New Orleans, and what happened to them as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
The Zeitouns’ story without Katrina would have been interesting, the marriage of a Syrian Muslim man and a white American convert to Islam. The two built up a contracting business, with Abdulrahman taking care of the jobs while Kathy handled the office end and raised the children.
Abdulrahman was one of several children who grew up near the ocean. A poignant aspect of his upbringing was that his older brother was the best swimmer in Syria. His family and hometown were so proud, and then so distraught when the young man was killed in a car accident at age 24. Abdulrahman has always felt pressure to live up to family expectations, to measure up to high standards. It explains much of his business success. Kathy converted to Islam after her dearest friend did so. Her devotion to that faith, and to her husband, have created a sense of strength and connection.
As Katrina approached, Kathy evacuated to Baton Rouge with the children, staying in her sister’s crowded home. After a few days, she took the family to Phoenix where her dear friend took them in. Zeitoun remained in New Orleans. He had the presence of mind to get his unused canoe out of the garage while the ground was dry, and when the storm surged came through, was able to rescue some neighbors using it. He felt that he was called to stay in New Orleans for this purpose.
One of their homes continued to have a phone that worked, and he stayed in touch with Kathy. Then along with three other men, he was arrested. He was taken to a jail created out of fencing in the bus terminal. He was allowed no phone calls. They slept on bare concrete. Eventually he was taken to prison at St. Gabriel.
Eggers largely allows Kathy and Abduhrahman to speak for themselves. His preface explains that this story is told from their view–he isn’t trying to give the whole story of Katrina, just the story of the Zeitoun family. He uses a chronological ordering that allows them to walk the reader through confusion, through snippets of information, through decision points. In many ways, this book is completely plot-driven, yet in others, we get to know these people very well.
I was struck by the international aspects of their life, with Zeitoun’s family checking in via cell phone and the Internet from Spain, Syria, and elsewhere.
In the end, I had a sense for the chaotic aftermath of the storm. The Zeitouns worked hard to figure out what exactly happened. They weren’t vindictive about it, they just wanted to understand.
This book is written in a very straightforward style and reads quickly. I recommend it to people who want “the story behind the story,” to those who are interested in New Orleans, or in the experiences of immigrants to the U.S., and those who like to read about people who overcome suffering.
Excellent novel! It’s a series of stories that eventually weave together around the actual historical event of Philippe Petite’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. In an interview included with a Readers Guide to conclude the book, McCann acknowledges that this is a novel about September 11.
The stories include an Irish immigrant, a monk called Corrigan, who ministers to prostitutes. His brother comes to the U.S. and falls in love with a woman who is involved in the automobile accident that kills Corrigan and one of the prostitutes. Philippe Petit himself has a story. At first seemingly separately, a group of women gather to mourn the loss of their sons in Vietnam. We learn that the group includes the woman who adopts the dead prostitute’s daughters, and another who is the wife of the judge who will process Philippe Petit. They become close friends. In the final chapter, years later, one of those daughters returns to visit the judge’s wife, then near death. In countless ways, lives intertwine.
I admire this kind of plot creation. I love the idea of a novelist taking a public event and tying it to seemingly random people. I connected with these people. They seemed real, especially in the sense of wanting to do right and do well, and yet often falling short. Their encounters with and observations of each other added texture. Unusual for me, I didn’t find myself interested in only one or two people, wishing that the story would return to my favorites.
Readers who prefer more “gentle” novels may not choose this, due to the pithiness of the stories of the prostitutes and others. But I’d encourage those who just might take a chance–to take a chance!
What an interesting Notable book–“The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders” by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre, and Frederic Lemercier.
It’s written in graphic novel format, with panels of pictures and captions. What’s different here is that Didier Lefevre was a photographer, and so photographs are included as well as drawings. This book describes a trip that Lefevre took in 1986 to Afghanistan with a French Doctors Without Borders group that was to treat people caught up in the war there. As a photographer, Lefevre isn’t really part of the group. But photography became the skill that he offered to this intense work, his ability to document what happened.
There’s so much to say about this book.
Lefevre’s emotional upset at what he witnessed was intensified by his ability to DO nothing for the people, beyond documenting their situation. His keen visual sense increased that intensity, including is respect for the doctors’ work.
The landscape of Afghanistan is almost a character in itself–both the remarkable scenes of mountains and dark interiors.
The newness of the experiences leads Lefevre to take it all in, and to try to explain. The group’s encounters with local people, especially with warlords and other leaders, demonstrate how different this place, this culture, and this situation are from what he’s known. The brevity that captions enforce keep him from philosophizing much. Instead, he describes what he sees, what he learns.
He does a crazy thing at the end of the trip, taking off on his own to go back to Pakistan. He nearly dies, is taken advantage of by some people, and then kindly rescued by others.
Some of the photographs, such as those on page 258 just before his return to Paris, are just drop-dead fascinating.
One quibble I’d make is that my 50-year-old eyes required an awful lot of light to get full advantage of the small photographs. Read this book at a table with a good lamp.
Didier Lefevre died in 2007 of a heart attack. He lived to see this book in its original French edition. The book is a collaboration between Lefevre, Emmanual Guibert, who drew the pictures, and Frederic Lemercier, who was the designer.
I recommend this to people interested in Afghanistan, to those who like to read about heroes and people who take big chances, and to people who love photography. And to everyone who chooses to think about some of the big “whys” of the world, like…why is there war?
In my continuing project of reading the Americian Library Association Notable Books list, I finished up the novel, “Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin a few weeks ago. It’s the story of a young Irish woman named Eilis who leaves unpromising propects in Ireland to a more engaged life in Brooklyn, just after World War II.
This book takes its own sweet time to gain momentum. At a certain point early on, I began to wonder whether this was simply a book where nothing would happen. Eventually, however, it started moving along, and it got me hooked. I was sorry when it ended.
Eventually Eilis becomes interesting. In Ireland, her weekend work wasn’t especially engaging, and the young men had little interest in her. Once in America, she stands out by doing a good job and minding her own business, both at work and in the boardinghouse where she lives with several Irish women. She enrolls in business school. Things become especially interesting when she becomes attached to a young man.
But then, she is called back to Ireland, and must decide where her home truly is, and face her own lack of clear intention. Of course, by then she is a worldly American, with American self-confidence, fashion, and style. The men give her plenty of attention.
Toibin’s pacing still strikes me as odd, although I can see that the “nothing ever happens” pace of the early book underscores Eilis’s lack of prospects in Ireland. What he does especially well is to observe the social interaction between people, and to get inside Eilis’s thoughts and feelings. Sometimes I had to wince on her behalf, she seemed not to see what was coming.
I’d recommend this to fiction readers who enjoy coming-of age stories, themes to do with immigration and cultures colliding, and stories of women who strike out on their own.
I was in the midst of reading “Columbine” by Dave Cullen as I read my way through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a good book, but intense. After a nightmare involving a Columbine-like incident at the Omaha Public Library (remember, just a dream!), I realized that I needed a break. So I took home “The Vagrants.”
It wasn’t that much of a break.
Here’s what I wrote in a review in Visual Bookshelf:
“I chose this book because it’s on the American Library Association Notable Books list. I expect that many people would consider it depressing–I found it so, too.
Li weaves together the lives of several people in the [fictional Chinese] town of Muddy River in the late 1970’s. Widespread poverty, the sense of lingering loss from the Cultural Revolution, and ongoing scheming to get ahead without getting caught, combine to destroy trust and love…or maybe trust and love don’t exist much here. It feels like nobody has a haven, either in a place, or in a person’s arms.
And I think that’s the author’s point…that things became so crazy in China that the bonds that hold people together in the best ways, through family, friendships, and rewarding work, are broken. And “The Vagrants” leads us to face the dismal result. Not an easy read, but sometimes we ought to face and recognize evil.”
What I’d add to that is that Li does a wonderful job of introducing a cast of characters, and then interweaving their lives. These aren’t necessarily people that we’ll come to love and trust and hope the best for, but they are distinct individuals, well-drawn. She reveals their particular vulnerabilities, and we learn how they’ll suffer for them.
I’d recommend this to readers who are interested in China, especially on the impact of recent politics there, who love a novel with interweaving plots, and who don’t insist on a happy ending.