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.

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Ship BreakerI really enjoy reading on my lunch break, but it turns out that I’m really bad at actually remembering to bring a book back to work once I’ve taken it home, I guess because I associate taking books to a library with returning them. Luckily I do work in a library, and so I can always grab a new book to read when I need one! I picked up this book that way, after looking for books I recalled wanting to read and finding this one waiting for me on the shelf.

I had this book on my mental list of books to read because lots of internet people were raving over it and, according to the medals on the cover, it won the Printz Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. I like award-winning things! Generally.

Unfortunately, this book and I were not meant to be the BFFs I’d hoped we’d be, which is maybe because it followed the surprisingly brilliant Code Name Verity but more likely because I just could not deal with the writing.

The story itself is pretty interesting — the characters live in a future world where our climate change has lead to a completely drowned New Orleans and New Orleans II along with much of the Gulf Coast. Because they live in a water world, fancy and amazing new boats have been invented and so there are groups of ship breakers who scavenge the old, decrepit boats that have been left behind. Our protagonist, a young kid called Nailer, is one of these ship breakers, living a life of poverty and hard work and hoping for the day when he might strike it rich like few others have done before.

So when a fancy-pants new boat wrecks itself, Nailer and his friend Pima go out to see if they can’t scavenge themselves into a rich new life. But of course there is a flaw in their plan — a rich girl still alive on the boat who convinces Nailer to help her get back to her family.

But the writing of it… there are a lot of action-adventure-type scenes that happen, and while I wouldn’t have wanted The Knife of Never Letting Go-level over-description of every single scene, I also did not want Twilight-level skipping of every dramatic event, which is what I got. Things happen either incredibly quickly or entirely off-screen, and there’s so much jumping around from one setting to the next that I often found myself having to re-read to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.

I did like the characters a lot, though — Nailer might be an idiot (he’s a kid, it comes with the territory), but he’s pretty smart and thoughtful and I did very much want to know what was going to happen to him and if he was going to be okay. His friends and enemies were of course less fleshed out, but I liked that they all had their own distinct personalities even if some of them were pretty static.

When I talked about this book to my co-worker, I said that it’s probably a book I would have loved the heck out of at twelve or thirteen, and that as always I have to remember how much I loved A Wrinkle in Time and how terribly that plot holds itself together. I wish I knew how all those internet and awards people were reading this novel so that I could go back and do the same!

Recommendation: For kiddos and adults looking for a fast and easy read.

Rating: 6/10

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?)