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Book Review: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (5/5)

5 Mar

I went into this book knowing absolutely nothing about it and I was blown away. Eggers has done this to me twice now and I expect nothing less from any of his future books that I read. I didn’t know anything about Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his family. I hadn’t heard about the controversy surrounding him. (side note: as of writing this, I haven’t looked it up yet. I’ll look it up and give you all a LIVE reaction to it. Get excited.) I visited New Orleans in February 2015, about six months after Katrina so I have my own feelings about the tragedy and the city but I hadn’t heard about a lot of the things this book covered. It was a great read.

Cover Image via

Cover Image via

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Summary from Goodreads:

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared. Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy — an American who converted to Islam — and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research — in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria.

I was not ready for this book. I try not to look too much into books before reading them if I can help it; I like a surprise. So I knew nothing about this book besides what I knew about the author from reading What Is the What? and A Hologram for the King. I knew it was about Katrina. Other than that, I was ignorant. Wow. I’m always surprised by a well-written non-fiction story and this was no exception. I haven’t done this in a while, but I highly recommend this book.

Kathy and Abdulraham were very well written. I liked the back-and-forth between their points of view and how Eggers used this to tell a story. I liked both of them as they were portrayed in the book. Kathy and Abdulrahman both had to face society’s view of them in different ways and tried to remain strong in the face of it which I thought was admirable.

Kathy was my favorite of the two. I liked her story and journey to Islam. I thought it was very brave of her to make such a drastic change in her life and I’m glad it gave her peace. I thought her relationship with Yuko was beautiful and it made me want a friend as close to me as Kathy was to her friend.

The reason I went to New Orleans in February of 2006 was because a friend of mine lived down there and invited me to spend my mid-Winter break with is family. They had been evacuated from the Tulane Hospital complex in the aftermath and had been re-located to New York for a few months where they lived with family. The family returned around the new year to see the damage to their house and the restoration that would be needed. In the mean time, they were living in an apartment close to down-town.

Having seen my friend’s house and heard his story, this book touched me in several ways. I couldn’t help thinking of my friend and the state of his house when we visited. There was a water line at my shoulder level and all of their possessions were piled in the hallway of the second floor of their house. Thinking of someone, like Zeitoun, living on that second floor and being trapped in the house is easy for  me to imagine and frightening. I’ve seen the damage and have an idea of the destruction that New Orleans residents faced, but I can’t imagine living through it.

I liked the stories of Zeitoun in his canoe. I thought the things he did were very admirable and maybe it was God’s will that he stay and help those he was able to assist. In light of what was going on with the military personnel around him, it’s a good thing he could do the good he did from his silent canoe.

I thought the book took a really serious turn in the second half. More than the story, the tone seemed to become very cynical and scathing as well. It seems appropriate, but was a little jarring. I understand that the characters were upset about what was going on and the author is outraged at the happenings, but as a reader it took me out of the story a little bit.

Abdulrahman and Kathy have a story of persistence and perseverance. They faced a lot of hardships from numerous fronts and still remained hopeful. They kept it together for their kids and tried to find a positive way out of the tragedies that piled up against them. It’s a story of strong wills.

Ok, as promised, I’m going to go look up the controversy around this book for a second and give you all my initial and unfiltered reaction.

Wow. If you want to learn what I just did, you can watch this video, and read both of these two articles. This is really hard to believe. The two seemed to have such a loving relationship in the book so hearing that it turned abusive and violent after the story is hard to hear. It seems to fit with the PTSD Kathy suffered through toward the end. Perhaps Abdulrahman’s change of behavior is due to something similar. He seemed oddly unaffected to me in the later parts of the book. I hope that Kathy is able to maintain her safety and that of her children with the threats placed upon her by her ex-husband.

Dave Eggers Image via

Dave Eggers
Image via

Dave Eggers is not in an interesting situation. He’s painted Zeitoun as a hero in a very well-received and publicized novel. Where does he go from here? Does he renounce his hero or defend him despite the evidence? I think Eggers silence is probably for the best. This is a quandary fiction authors can thankfully avoid!

Writer’s Takeaway: I love a well-written non-fiction and I think Eggers does that beautifully here. Using dialogue, even if it’s not 100% accurate, helps an account greatly. I liked the pictures that were woven in and the emails for Ahmed. Anything that makes the story seem less like a history textbook and more like a storyteller talking is great. I’m still in awe of Eggers abilities as a writer. I will be for a long time to come.

Great book and one I highly recommend. Five out of five stars.

Until next time, write on.

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“Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers | Melody and Words