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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: Zeitoun

On Monday we all got together to discuss Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.

Here is the publishers plot summary:
The true story of one family, caught between America’s two biggest policy disasters: the war on terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina.
 Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a house-painting business in New Orleans. In August of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approaches, Kathy evacuates with their four young children, leaving Zeitoun to watch over the business. In the days following the storm he travels the city by canoe, feeding abandoned animals and helping elderly neighbors. Then, on September 6th, police officers armed with M-16s arrest Zeitoun in his home. Told with eloquence and compassion, Zeitoun is a riveting account of one family’s unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind and water.

On to the discussion:
  • We had 15 people and 14 liked it, one was so-so on it, and no one disliked this book.  Interestingly, before reading it, many people said they were worried they wouldn't like it (too much Katrina lit), but were utterly captivated by reading it.  They cited the way it told the failures of Katrina from such a personal level.  One participant in particular was extremely moved by the book.
  • We all enjoyed how Eggers told the story.  First, he keeps himself out of the story and lets Kathy and Zeitoun tell their story.  We start a few days before the storm to get into the rhythm of their family before the storm hits.  He developed a connection with them.  Here are a few more thoughts about the style and structure of the novel:
    • The flashbacks to Kathy and Zeitoun's life earlier in their marriage and their childhoods came and went smoothly.  These passages added so much to our understanding of who they were as people, yet these flashbacks were not intrusive or confusing.  Someone said "he was weaving the past into the story." In particular the stories of Zeitoun's swimming champion brother and the tale of Kathy and Zeitoun's walk on the beach to touch a rock were singled out.
    • Everyone appreciated how their were many characters, but Eggers clearly laid them all out and there was never a question of who everyone was.
    • We also enjoyed how fair Eggers was.  He saw problems on both sides.  He presented things Zeitoun himself did wrong.  He was fair to the National Guard who really had no idea what they were supposed to be doing.  He was also critical of the response.  All sides were represented here.  Eggers presented the vast grey area of the Katrina response very well.
    • We all thought Eggers technique of having the reader see people with guns come for Zeitoun and then switching to Kathy's pov for dozens of pages as she tries to figure out what happened to Zeitoun was brilliant.  We are panicking with her. It improved the reading experience.
    • One participant liked how the book was structured as 2 stories: the Katrina story and the story of the family.
    • Eggers made us so frustrated that someone said she wanted to throw her book and "shake someone." This was good, we agreed.  Eggers was able to elicit in us a tiny bit of the frustration the Zeitouns felt.  Amazing job.  And he did it with clear construction and simple narrative.  We all agreed he wrote this book with great care and has amazing skills as a writer.
  • One of the things this book did for us was to make many of us question our own prejudice of Muslims.  I want to thank the group for being honest about this touchy issues.  It was a moving part of the discussion.  Here are some comments and thoughts:
    • We were petrified by the injustice and  how unfairly Zeitoun was treated
    • The Katrina stuff was bad, but we also knew that.  It was the poor treatment of them because of their religion which was horrifying.
    • Many of us admitted that when we see a woman wearing the veil, we immediately assume she is subjugated.  Kathy proved that strong women who are equal partners in marriage and business with their husbands can wear the veil for their own personal reasons.  To see Kathy discuss this, click here.
    • Many people enjoyed reading the Qur'an passages.  They were struck by how much they learned about Islam as a religion in this book.  Specifically it was cited how similar Islam and Christianity are.  For many participants, this was new information.
    • As one person said, "Just like with any group, there are good Muslims and bad Muslims.  This book showed us the loving side of Islam."
  • The Zeitoun family was discussed:
    • What an amazing family. We all were glad they kept the children out of the story for the most part.  This was an intrusive story; one that Zeitoun and Kathy chose to share to help others, but the kids have been through enough.  We are glad they were peripheral to the story. But we are also so sad about their pain and stress.
    • Is this a typical American family? 1/2 white and 1/2 Syrian, the children loved rRide and Prejudice.  We see them as unusual as the story begins, but by the end they seem very "typical"--business owners, good parents, strong community ties. We also noted how in the news last week, it was announced that in 2011, for the first time, more minority babies were born in America than white babies.  So, they are average.
    • What a strong marriage. They have such love for each other.
    • The contrast between Kathy's family in America who has never gotten used to her conversion to Islam versus Zeitoun's loving, accepting, and educated family.  Even though Kathy converted way before she met Zeitoun, her family is constantly telling her to "be herself" when he is not around.  They even feed her pork.  How rude!
    • Speaking of family.  There is a lot of talk in the book about how stable and loving the Zeitoun family back in Syria is.  When Kathy thinks Zeitoun is dead, she considers moving the family there.  But fast forward to today and all of the killing, unrest, and human rights problems in Syria right now.  It made me even sadder about what is going on there, but also thankful that the Zeitouns are in New Orleans.
  • A couple of points about the government response to Katrina
    • Kathy commented before the storm about what a bad idea it was to use the Superdome for evacuees.  It barely held in the last storm.  That was chillingly prescient of her.
    • As badly as Zeitoun was treated when he was arrested, he did remark on how at least he had electricity, running water, and 3 meals a day.  That was more than many people in the city had.
    • Read the end of the book to see the heart breakingly humorous story of their FEMA trailer.  What a mess!
    • We were struck by how little law enforcement Zeitoun saw in his flooded neighborhood.  There was almost no help.  If he did not have a canoe, with which he could quietly patrol the flooded streets, many of the people he saved would be dead now.
    • One person said, "Can you ever be ready for something this horrible?"
  • Post-Storm:
    • We talked about Kathy's apparent PTSD and commented on how much harder the after math of the storm was on her than on Zeitoun.  We speculated a bit about this.  Since he went through it all, once the ordeal was done, he moved on easier.  It is harder for Kathy to let go because she experienced it all from afar.  She has more to work through.
    •  Zeitoun has thrown himself into rebuilding the city in the aftermath.  Might that be a kind of PTSD too, someone speculated.  Overworking.  He eats less and works more.  We speculated that as long as he keeps moving he doesn't have to think about what happened to him.
    • "Rebuilding is an act of faith" someone said.  I liked that.
    • Another said, his work rebuilding the city is a statement to say "I belong here.  I am part of this community."
    • We also had a short conversation about what "we have learned" from Katrina.  Will the next response to something like this be better? We thought so, but were not convinced.
  • Finally, when asked to give me words that describe this book, here is what I got back from the group:
    • courageous
    • enlightening
    • hopeful
    • inspiring
    • disturbing
    • truth-telling
    • scared
    • uncertainty
    • cruelty
    • faith
    • leadership
    • ignorance
    • family
    • love
    • called by god
Readalikes: Here are some of my suggestions of books that are similar for different reasons.

First, Dave Eggers' memoir of how he lost his parents, became the guardian of his little brother, and was forced to finally become a grown up, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, gives you insight into Eggers motivations.  He is is drawn to other stories of family and hope amidst tragedy.

Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm is an excellent nonfiction work about the huge hurricane that hit and destroyed Galveston, Texas in 1900.  This event led to the creation of the National Weather Service.  I suggest this book to readers all of the time.  In a similar vein the fabulous David McCullough also wrote, The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating Natural Disasters American Has Ever Known. This is another well written and compelling story about a natural disaster.

For books specifically about Katrina from the more personal standpoint I would try the graphic novel, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld.  I had this to say about it on the Browsers Corner:
Neufeld reports on the effects of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in detail as he follows six residents of New Orleans from a few days before the storm and through its horrific aftermath.  This graphic novel began as an Internet comic. Neufeld’s powerful drawings combined with the true stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances makes for a compelling read.
For those who want to see more about all the failures during Katrina, try Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City by Jed Horne.  Horne, a local reporter looks at the personal stories behind the flood as well as examines the systematic government failures.


The National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward is a moving novel about 2 abandoned children struggling to survive in the wake of Katrina. It packs a similar emotional punch as Zeitoun.

Click here to see the work of the Voice of Witness project for which the Zeitoun's story was first collected. Their mission is to illuminate human rights crises through oral history.

In terms of books about the effects of 9/11 on the Muslim community in America, NoveList suggested America's Disappeared: Secret Imprisonment, Detainees, and the War on Terror.

For those looking for a story about Islam and family struggles, I would suggest 2 books I have personally read and found very enlightening: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan.  Use the links for more of my thoughts.

I am going to force myself to stop.  I could keep going though.  This book is written simply, but the ideas and issues it brings up can take you many places.

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