Mad Dog's Reviews > Zeitoun

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
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Jan 11, 11

bookshelves: book-club
Recommended to Mad Dog by: Book Nook Book Club Read, Jan 2011
Recommended for: nobody
Read from December 23, 2010 to January 02, 2011

For me, this book is the "monkey in the middle", never get quite catching the ball. This book is not an exhaustive thorough investigative report, although it contains some elements of that. This book is not a very personal book, although it is a chronological 'personal' account of 'Katrina' that follows the Zeitoun family. The author Eggers translates the Zeitouns' tales (primarily the husband but some of the wife) into a chronological tale of their Katrina ordeal. But it is written in Eggers' voice. I didn't find it to be very personal, mainly because the reverant storytelling largely is like so: "Zeitoun got up. Zeitoun prays. Zeitoun eats eggs for breakfast. Zeitoun goes to feed the dogs ..." I am exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. The focus is on the chronology and not on the 'personal'. I would rather skip the details and find out what his prayer was. To Egger's credit, he sometimes does this type of thing (let us in on the content of Abdulrahman Zeitoun's prayers), but the emphasis is mainly on the chronology and the literal. If the storytelling was more personal, it would have less of a reverent tone. No interesting people go around dealing with themselves so reverently, so Eggers' translation loses the 'keep it real' factor. Where is the edginess/personality that Eggers displayed in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? I know that Eggers is trying to keep his own personality out of the story, but it felt like he also often kept the Zeitouns' personality out of the book.

So this book ends up (for me) being a stretched magazine article. There is some good stuff here, but there is a lot of times you want to "put the phone down" and not listen to the literal details.

This book is haunted for me by two books that I recently read: Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tilman and Picking Cotton. Those two books especially apply here because Where Men Win Glory includes a very thorough investigation of our government's bungling and cover-up related to Pat Tillman's death. There was plenty of bungling and cover-up involved with our government's handling of Katrina. Picking Cotton includes a compelling personal account (written in Ronald Cotton's 'voice' with the help of a writer) of the wrongful imprisonment of Ronald Cotton, which obviously applies to Abdulrahman Zeitoun. So I view this book as the "monkey in the middle" (not very thorough or personal) between these other two books.

For better 'Zeitoun' reading, there is a Muslim website (goatmilkblog.com) that contains a short interview with Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun. For me, it is a great interview of the Zeitouns (they were together during the interview) and the interview exuded the personalities of the Zeitouns that I found missing in the book.

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Spoilers follow.
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Another way that I look at this book is that it is a book of frustrating 'dead ends' and one 'false beginning'. The 'false beginning' is the abrupt happy ending. It felt 'tacked on' (like the book was required to have a happy ending). The ending included a very short account of Abdulrahman Zeitoun's optimism over the rebuilding of New Orleans. From a business standpoint, as New Orleans 'improves' Abdulrahman Zeitoun will prosper as he bought a lot of property 'on the cheap' after Katrina. After the overlong negativity in this book, Eggers appended a short little 'unearned' positive postscript. I say 'unearned' because there was really no build-up to the positive ending in the book. After going over (in detail)Abdulrahman's wrongful imprisonment, Eggers totally omits the trial from the book. The trial (since it was where the 'wrongs were righted') could have been used as a build-up to a positive ending. Near the end of this book, Abdulrahman's wife was having some serious health issues. But that was discarded (not to stand in the way of the book's happy ending). The final part of the book was written in such a way that it seemed that Abdulrahman and his wife Kathy were estranged. Their ending stories are not really integrated with each other.

There are many frustrating 'dead ends' in this book. The most frustrating 'dead end' is the Zeitoun's marriage (which I mentioned above as perhaps being estranged in the end). The author provoked much by bringing up the stubbornness of Abdulrahman Zeitoun and illustrating it with a very interesting anecdote. On a family vacation, Abdulrahman forced Kathy to go on an exceedingly long walk all because Abdulrahman wanted to touch a distant landmark. This story is both a microcosm of their Katrina experience (Abdulrahman staying in New Orleans when Kathy begged him to evacuate New Orleans and join his family) and a microcosm of many marriages (Spouse 'dragging' reluctant spouse 'along for his/her ride'). Provocative and interesting stuff!!!! But there is nary a word on the state of Abdulrahman's and Kathy's marriage (in the book's conclusion). Do NOT tease us this way and then drop the subject!! It was left for me to infer (from the tone of the final part of the book) that Abdulrahman and Kathy were still living together and married, but somewhat estranged from each other.

Another frustrating 'dead end' in the book involves another 'wonderful passage' of the book that is not followed up. During Abdulrahman's stay in the 'second prison' (Hunt prison), there is a very personal passage of Abdulrahman's misgivings about staying in New Orleans. This passage revealed that one of Abdulrahman's main motivations for staying in New Orleans was to do something great (i.e. be a hero) to match his older brother Mohammed (who was a 'great man' and championship swimmer). It was obvious that Abdulrahman idolizes his older brother (who had died much earlier while Abdulrahman was young) and aspired to be great like his older brother. This passage showed Abdulrahman examining his faith and in deep regret over his own actions and his treatment of his own family. But this short passage came and went, not to be followed up. The book resumed its chronological and literal focus.

Yet another frustrating 'dead end' in this book is the overplaying of the 'post-9/11 racial profiling card'. Much was made in the book of the Zeitouns' fear of being racially provided. This is understandable, as the book is a chronological story of their Katrina experience and there is no doubt that the specter of profiling always realistically looms over the Zeitoun family. But, as it turns out, Abdulrahman's wrongful imprisonment had nothing to do with profiling and had everything to do with the suspension of due process. So the specter of profiling (that loomed over the book) turned out to be 'wrong' (in the case of Abdulrahman's ordeal) in this book. This left me a bit sour. I feel that the profiling theme obfuscated a bigger issue: the suspension of due process during the Katrina ordeal. Eggers did some 'outside investigative reporting' (included in this book) on the government's post-9/11 profiling, but did no such investigative reporting on the suspension of due process. At the end of the book, Abdulrahman is optimistic about the rebuilding of New Orleans, but there is no 'presented evidence' that anything has been done to make sure that due process is followed when the next 'Katrina' happens. That would be another real feel-good story: that outraged U.S. lawmakers have taken steps to ensure that this type of suspension of due process does not happen here (in the U.S.) again.

This is one of the highest 'Goodreads rated' (4.19 as I write this) books that I have read. That shocks me. I guess it is weird and wonderful how we all take different 'things' away from books. Maybe some day I'll understand why so many liked this book and thought highly of this book.

It is 'super cool' that Eggers donated his profits (from this book) to charities in New Orleans. Ultimately, that trumps any opinions one has about this book.
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