One-Minute Book Reviews

January 21, 2010

A Victim of Hurricane Katrina, Then of FEMA

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:32 pm
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The story of a man who stayed in New Orleans when others left

Zeitoun. By Dave Eggers. McSweeney’s Books, 349 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Like Infidel and A Long Way Gone, Zeitoun tells such an important story, you wish you could believe more of it. Dave Eggers gives a captivating if hagiographic account of the plight of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a well-off Syrian-born painting contractor and landlord who refused to leave New Orleans when the mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city during Hurricane Katrina.

As the book has it, Abdul Zeitoun stayed to look after his buildings when his wife and four children fled to Baton Rouge. Then he traveled by canoe through the flooded New Orleans streets, performing humanitarian acts such as rescuing trapped people and feeding abandoned dogs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was not impressed. More than a week after defying the evacuation order, Zeitoun was arrested. And he says his jailors refused to let him to make a phone call — to his wife or anyone else – and deprived him of other rights while implying that he belonged to the Taliban.

If all of this is true, it adds to the damning evidence of FEMA’s mishandling of Katrina. But Eggers writes from point of view of the Zeitouns, and their accounts are often self-serving or inconsistent. In one vivid incident, Zeitoun returns to check on dogs – no breed specified – that he had fed by crossing a plank bridge he rigged up between a tree and the house abandoned by the animals’ owners. He finds the pets dead: “The dogs were just under the windowsill, a tangle of limbs, heads to the heavens, as if they had been waiting, for weeks, for him.”

This scene, on first reading, seems heartbreaking. But it holds up poorly under scrutiny. Zeitoun casts himself as wholly innocent, but his repeated entry into a stranger’s house was – for however worthy a reason — tempting fate when the police were watching for and arresting looters. And the incident reflects questionable dog behavior. Eggers says that after feeding the abandoned pets, Zeitoun left a window open so they would have fresh air. Dogs can swim and leap out of windows. And Eggers gives us no reason to believe that the dogs he describes, in their desperation, wouldn’t have tried. Like much else in Zeitoun, the incident may have unfolded exactly as he says. Or it may be nothing more than a great story.

Best line: “This day he ventured closer to downtown, passing families wading through the water, pushing laundry tubs full of their possessions. He paddled by a pair of women pushing an inflatable baby pool, their clothes and food inside.” Zeitoun has many details like these that make you see life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Worst line: “Laying on sweat-soaked sheets, he had a thought.” Was one of those thoughts: What’s that difference between “lie” and “lay” again?

Published: 2009

Furthermore: Eggers’s books include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist about the civil war in Sudan.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, including the book publishing industry, at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 1, 2008

Diary: John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ — Are People Who Live Through Disasters ‘Survivors’ or ‘Victims’?

Filed under: Classics,Diary,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 pm
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Perhaps no book has had more uncredited influence on the best accounts of 9/11 than Hiroshima. In this great book John Hersey tells the true stories of six people who escaped death when the atomic bomb fell on their city. One line deals with the confusion that arose, right after the blast, about what to call people who lived through the events of August 6, 1945: “In referring to those who went through the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Japanese tended to shy away from the term ‘survivors,’ because in its focus on being alive it might suggest some slight to the sacred dead.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 26, 2008

Great Nonfiction for Teenagers — True Stories With High Drama

Filed under: Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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True tales of disaster on land, on sea and in the thin air of Mt. Everest

By Janice Harayda

I noticed while doing research for a future post on John Hersey’s Hiroshima (Vintage, 152 pp., $6.95, paperback) that this modern classic had won an award for “Books for the Teen Age” from the New York Public Library www.randomhouse.com/vintage/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780679721031. The contents first appeared in The New Yorker — not a magazine for teenagers — so the honor might seem surprising.

But there’s no doubt that many teenagers would be deeply affected by this true story of six people who escaped death when the atomic bomb fell on their city. Hersey tells what all were doing at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945 – one woman had just given each of her children a handful of peanuts – and follows them for a year. The result is a triumph of focus: Hersey homes in on his subjects’ struggle to stay alive, physically and emotionally, so his book has more in common with great disaster narratives than with what many people think of as “a New Yorker article” (long, digressive, full of semicolons). The Vintage paperback edition has a chapter on the survivors lives’ 40 years later. And because its structure resembles some of the most gripping accounts of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, this short book may especially appeal to teenagers who have a strong interest in that tragedy.

Hiroshima appears on many school reading lists, and you’re looking for nonfiction for a teenager who has already read it, you might consider two books dramatic enough to have inspired movies — John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a tale of disaster on Mt. Everest (Anchor, 383 pp., $14.95, paper) or Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm (HarperPerennial, 272 pp., $13.95, paperback), an account of terror at sea. Or try John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive (Vintage, 336 pp., $14.94, paperback). This National Book Award–winner tells the story of a Puritan minister and his wife and children who were captured by Mohawks and marched to Canada, where a daughter stayed and married an Indian after her family members had died or been released. The Unredeemed Captive is more challenging than the others but well within reach of high school students who are strong readers.

A new review of a book or books for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Coming soon: Why do some parents see red about Pinkalicious and its sequel, Purplicious?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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