Weekend Shorts: Citizen and Memorial

I’ve got an interesting combination of nonfiction books this week — one current events and one historical (if 2005 is historical…), one that is short and important and one that is looooong and self-important. I think you might be able to guess which one I liked better.

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
CitizenI had heard many good things about this book, including that it’s excellent on audio, so I waited patiently for an OverDrive copy only to find that I couldn’t get past the narrator’s flat affect. But I still wanted to read it, so I put myself on a long list for my local giant library system’s ONE copy (poor planning, that) and many weeks later finally got to read it.

Again I was surprised, this time by the weird, self-published quality of the book — waxy pages, simplistic formatting, oddly placed images. I’m pretty sure this was a purposeful decision, but I don’t know enough to know why anyone would make it. But, once I got past that and started reading the book, none of that mattered because the words are amazing.

The first half or so of the book is full of short vignettes about casual racism experienced by Rankine — people asking completely unnecessary questions or making very incorrect assumptions and presuming that Rankine (and probably everyone else) will just forgive or ignore them. The latter part has, I guess, stories written for various outlets on the topic of race and racism, and although I found these more difficult to understand in their sort of avant-garde style, they were still super interesting. I was intrigued especially by the one about Zidane and the 2006 World Cup, which has a really cool two-page style and well-placed graphics and is just a great total package.

This book is a quick and necessary read for anyone who lives in this world, so go make your library buy a copy.

Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink
Five Days at MemorialI found myself without an audiobook a couple of weeks before the recent 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, so when I saw this pop us as available I knew I had to listen to it. I’ve read stories about Katrina in the past and bemoaned my lack of knowledge of the whole event, having been focused on other things like my first semester of college at the time. I hoped this would help.

And… it sort of did? But it wasn’t quite the book I was expecting. You’d think a book with such a specific title would deliver as advertised, but only a few chapters of this book are about those five days. Those are the interesting chapters. It’s fascinating, listening with that distance of dramatic irony as the hospital staffers prepare for their hurricane weekend at the hospital, bringing their dogs and food and water or bringing barely anything depending on how bad they think this hurricane is going to be. It’s horrible, listening as the hospital’s triage system fails miserably in the face of a hurricane that is much worse than anyone expected. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, listening as doctors make decisions that will not just affect, but most likely end, the lives of their patients. It is insane and I hope I never have to deal with any of that in my life.

If the book had ended there? A+++, five stars, would read again. But instead it keeps going, talking about the legal aftermath of hurricane, about the lawsuits and criminal charges brought against the staff members who may or may not have euthanized patients, about prosecutors and defenders trying to piece together a case with very limited information. This might also be a great book on its own, but it’s so wildly different in tone and subject that I just didn’t have the same interest in it. And by the epilogue, which I should never have listened to and which is full of admonishments and recommendations for hospitals in future tragedies, I had completely zoned out and the book was almost nothing but background noise.

But those chapters about the storm are excellent, and you should totally read them. I bet this book would be a lot better in print, where the rest of the chapters can be easily skimmed over.

Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the BonesPer our book club discussion last week, this falls into the “finally having an excuse to read a great book” category. I actually had this book in my hands right after it was published, because it sounded so interesting when I was cataloging it, but I never got around to reading it (as it goes with so many books I check out!) and then it won the National Book Award and there was no getting it back from the library for a while and so I kind of totally forgot about it. And then, book club! Yay, book club!

I guess part of the reason this one fell off my reading list is because as I heard more about it I found out it was one of those literary novels that is more about people and places and Social Truths than about, like, a story. So luckily I was prepared for that going in, because many of my fellow readers were disappointed by the lack of plot.

It was still really interesting to me, though, partially because it takes place right before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the Gulf Coast and I still am not so knowledgeable about that particular disaster and partially because it’s about a poor black family living on said Gulf Coast and that is a topic I am basically unknowledgeable about. So it was a learning experience!

The novel opens with the birth of a litter of pit bull puppies and, soon after, the revelation that our protagonist, Esch, is totes a pregnant teenager, but not in the fun Juno way. Esch spends the rest of the novel, which is just a few days in story time, dealing with this fact on all the levels from “omg there is a thing inside me” to “omg this thing is going to become a baby in nine months” to “omg what is the father going to think about this?” Meanwhile, her brother Skeetah is raising his own babies — the aforementioned puppies — and worrying himself over whether they’ll survive and whether he can sell them for good money for his family and whether his beloved dog will still be able to fight (yes, dog fighting, I’m sorry) after all this puppy-rearing is over.

And that’s… basically it. There’s a little bit about the impending hurricane but it’s not nearly as important as the family relationships or Esch’s relationship with her tiny fetus and its father. And boy, do those relationships resonate. I felt my heart breaking more than once for Esch as she dealt with lame “friends” and stubborn family, for Skeetah as he did his best for his two families (human and canine), and for a few other characters unwillingly caught up in Esch and Skeetah’s dramas.

On the down side, there are also many references to Medea and Jason of Greek mythology that I have to admit that I didn’t understand even though it seemed like Ward was almost over-explaining them. Also dog fighting. Also sometimes Ward was a bit unclear with things like dialogue and chronology and my brain was not pleased at having to do this work itself.

All things considered, though, I thought this was a great look into a little piece of a life that is not mine and, as another book club goer said, an excellent answer to the question of why people like Esch and her family did not evacuate before the giant scary hurricane, which presumes a lot of things about wealth and privilege. It’s a thinking book, but one well worth thinking about.

Recommendation: For those like me who need more diversity in their reading and actual lives, or in general those who don’t mind a book without a story.

Rating: 7/10

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

ZeitounSometimes I get a book club read that makes me regret the day I joined a book club, like A Reliable Wife, and sometimes I get a book that makes me super glad that I had a book club to make me read it, like Zeitoun.

I had heard a bit about this book when it came out, but it’s a memoir-ish thing and it’s about race and class and Hurricane Katrina and so I was like, snooze-fest, and moved on with my life. And when my dear Mary-friend suggested it for the club, I was like, well, let’s try to stay awake for this.

And at first, yeah. The book starts with basically an introduction to the Zeitouns and the impending hurricane and how people in New Orleans eat hurricanes for breakfast and all that, and I was certainly interested by this Muslim lady called Kathy and her husband (generally called Zeitoun) with the overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I read probably the first half of the book in bits and pieces, appreciating the dramatic irony of the hurricane non-preparations and then regretting that appreciation when people’s houses became pineapples under the sea.

But then right in the middle of the book Eggers finds the hook that really catches me — Zeitoun, in New Orleans, wanders away from the phone to see who’s at the door and Kathy, on the other end of the line and in Arizona, doesn’t hear from him again that day, or the next, or the next. Eggers does a fantastic job here of panicking me, a person who knows that Zeitoun kind of has to be okay. And when he picks back up with Zeitoun the story isn’t much less anxious-making. And so when I looked up again the book was over and it was a couple hours later!

It was fantastic to read this book with my book club, because I know next to nothing about Hurricane Katrina or Muslims or Middle-Eastern culture or having a family that makes you angry but there was someone in the group to explain everything to me! I still don’t really understand it, of course, but a lot of things made a lot more sense after talking it over. I highly recommend this course of action.

So the book is definitely educational and intriguing, and I got through the bulk of the book feeling like it was pretty well done (for a memoir, you know), but you know what happened then? An epilogue. Ugh. Y’all know how I feel about epilogues, and this one irked me more than most, I think largely because after Eggers spends the whole book getting into really minute detail about Zeitoun’s brother’s swimming achievements or whatever, he just tosses out facts about our protagonists without a lot of context or discussion. There’s PTSD and it sucks; there’s litigation against a metric crap-ton of people who did Zeitoun wrong and it’s not going very well. Mmhmm. Fantastic.

Right, anyway, so, aside from that last part I do think that this book is totally worth a read, especially if you managed to avoid a lot of the Katrina shenanigans like I apparently did. Though if you’re already depressed and/or disgusted by government mismanagement, you might want to give this one a pass.

Rating: 9/10 (if we just forget about that epilogue, which, what epilogue?)