So it has now become obvious to me that I dealt with the 5th anniversary of the hurricane by reading 5 books about it, one right after the other, starting the weekend of the anniversary and ending last night. It wasn’t something I really planned out, but just felt compelled to do. And no, the “5″ thing wasn’t on purpose either. I had one of the books and bought the other 4 at a book signing on Saturday, August 28th. I enjoyed and would recommend them all, especially Zeitoun, which I’ll talk about first.
1. Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
Zeitoun is much more than a book about Hurricane Katrina. It’s a book about human rights and compassion and being open to understanding one another, and it’s a book about doing the right thing. The story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun is a true one, rendered beautifully and heart-wrenchingly by Eggers into a tale I literally could not put down. More than once, I looked up, shocked by what I was reading, tears in my eyes. Knowing it’s real makes it all the more painful, and all the more necessary for as many people as possible to read it.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun is from Syria and has lived here in New Orleans for years (and is now an American citizen), running a successful house-painting and construction company. He’s a father of 5 (4 at the time of the hurricane) and a good-hearted, hard-working man. His wife, Kathy, is from Baton Rouge and helps run the company with him. They are both Muslim. This shouldn’t matter, but apparently it does.
Kathy evacuated with their children before the storm hit. Zeitoun, as he is known to everyone, stayed behind to watch over their home and business and rental properties. When the flooding began, he used a canoe to rescue several elderly neighbors, and he helped everyone he could, including going into houses across the street from him nightly to feed and water 4 dogs that were left behind to fend for themselves.
His thanks for this, for his unselfish acts of heroism? He is arrested on suspicion of terrorism in the chaotic days after the storm and locked up for a month in a maximum security jail, where he is repeatedly denied a phone call, he isn’t read his rights once, and he is never told of the supposed charges against him. I won’t say more so as not to give anything else away, but this is by far one of the most compelling books I have read in a long, long time. Read it.
2. Nine Lives, by Dan Baum
This is also a book about much more than the hurricane, and is also based on the lives of real New Orleanians. Dan Baum is a journalist who was in town to cover the storm and its aftermath and found himself wanting to tell the story of this strange place and its citizens. This book is his attempt to do so, and I think it’s a damn fine one.
Cleverly using Hurricane Betsy in 1965 as one sort of bookend to the story, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as the other, he fills in the in-between gaps in time by talking about the lives of, yes, 9 people. We learn about them as they go through the years and face challenges, experience joy, change, and grow. They are as varied as a Mardi Gras Indian Chief, the Orleans Parish coroner, an NOPD cop, a worker on the streetcar lines, an Uptown lawyer who becomes King of Rex, and a downtown high school band leader.
I learned so much about New Orleans history, culture, and people from this book. He covers immense ground here. I love, too, that the characters don’t necessary know one another or interact. He didn’t choose them for that reason. As this is such a small town, though, it is inevitable that some of their paths do cross, but it’s not one of those contrived things. It just happens, as does so much of life here.
3. 1 Dead in Attack, by Chris Rose
Now, unlike the first two, this is purely a book about the hurricane and what it was like to live here in the days, months, and years afterward. And let me say, Chris Rose paints a picture at turns sad and horrific and at others surreal and amusing. A columnist with the Times-Picayune at the time of Katrina, he was back in the city right after the storm and he documented it all in his columns for the paper. This book is a collection of those columns.
He talks about the challenges of being away from your family (his then-wife and children stayed in Maryland that fall with his folks), and he talks about the challenges of living in a war zone. He also lays himself bare and raw, talking about the difficulties he had dealing with a lot of it — difficulties many here after the storm faced. He is colorful and funny and has a voice all his own. He makes you feel, as much as is humanly possible, what it was like to be here back then. His title refers to one of the markings he saw on a house that had been searched after the storm. It’s poignant and painful, just as his book often is.
4. A.D./New Orleans After the Deluge, by Josh Neufeld
This a graphic novel about the hurricane — the first graphic novel I’ve ever read, actually. And it was incredibly moving, much more so than I’d expected. Using drawings to tell the stories of several residents, some who evacuated, and some who stayed, he created scenes that I’d only imagined but had never actually seen myself. And what a remarkable job he did. With dignity and care, he recreated something horrible and turned it into something beautiful and touching.
5. Why New Orleans Matters, by Tom Piazza
This book was written shortly after the hurricane, in part as a response to those stupid and short-sighted enough to say things like, “Why should we rebuild New Orleans?” It’s also a love letter to the city and its special culture. You can learn lots about the history of New Orleans music and food from this book, as well as about other cultural touchstones like our love for a parade.
Whew. This was some pretty heavy reading, all in all, but they were all good. On to some fiction for me now, though…