Review Catch-up

This most hectic week at School after a long weekend’s relative lethargy in front of the jubilee dampened my reviewing mojo for a bit, so now I need to catch up! I realise I haven’t posted my watchlist either, but will catch up with that at the end of the month. Meanwhile here are notes on two books I’ve read lately…

Book Group: Z is for Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

With this book of narrative non-fiction, our book group reached the end of a twenty-six month project. Phew! Our next plan is to read from the Big Jubilee Read, one book from each decade per month.

Published in 2009, Zeitoun tells the story of one family’s experience during Hurricane Katrina which devastated New Orleans in 2005. Abdulrahman Zeitoun came to the USA from Syria, marrying Kathy, a Muslim convert and together they ran a Painting, Decorating and Property Maintenance company, managing to make a name for themselves despite a general reluctance among the population to contract to Muslims after 9/11.

When Hurricane Katrina started to approach New Orleans, Zeitoun’s brother, a ship’s captain, urged them to evacuate. In the end Kathy took their daughters to her folks in Baton Rouge, but Zeitoun decided to stay – he had properties to look after and didn’t want to lose his hard-won customers. When the levees broke and the city flooded, Zeitoun would paddle around in his second-hand canoe, which he’d previously bought on a whim, and look after houses, folk and the abandoned dogs. At this stage he was still in contact with Kathy, who was experiencing problems of her own – her family had never accepted her conversion and urged her to take the hijab off, only putting her up begrudgingly. When Zeitoun was arrested for looting, together with a couple of friends who had remained–one with all his cash on him–they got taken to an awful Guantanamo-style prison, and it took Kathy and their family, who initially had no idea where he was, all their energy to engineer a resolution.

This was such a readable account, and the reader can’t help but sympathise with Zeitoun and Kathy. The prison scenes were especially harrowing. Although Eggers attempts to maintain his distance, it is clear that he too sympathised with the family.

This book was a hit with our entire group. Although we felt that Zeitoun felt a little too good to be true at times, we did appreciate the sections of backstory for him and Kathy, and the occasional grainy photographs in the text made it feel real. We all had personal memories of Katrina, particularly new reports of those poor folk who followed govt advice to evacuate to the superbowl where they were effectively abandoned. We were saddened to discover that Kathy and Zeitoun’s relationship didn’t survive after his incarceration (not in the book).

Some of us had read Egger’s debut – a memoir with fictional elements, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but otherwise we were unfamiliar with his work, except for some having see the Netflix film of his bestselling novel The Circle. Personally, having see that film, I’m not inclined to pursue his novels, but would definitely read more reportage.

Source: Own copy. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers – Penguin pbk, 348 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst

Translated from the Dutch by David Colmer

I’ve previously read two novels by Verhulst, a Belgian author who writes in Dutch: the lovely but sad Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill, and The Latecomer, a darkly comic novella about a man who fakes Alzheimers. The Misfortunates was originally published at the same time as Madame Verona, and although the previously mentioned novels both feature mature main characters and have a rich vein of humour, all three novellas are totally different to each other.

The Misfortunates is particularly different because it is auto-fiction, based on Verhulst’s own story of growing up in a violent working class family of drinkers, later being taken into care. The teenaged Dimitri of this novella shares a squalid house belonging to his aged grandmother with four out of five of her sons, including his father – a very male dominion, until his Auntie Rosie returns with her daughter Sylvie…

But now, with Sylvie watching, it was as if we suddenly needed to apologize for ourselves. We were ashamed of the way we came downstairs in the morning in our T-fronts with a hand in under the elastic to have a good scratch. We were ashamed of how we sprawled in front of the TV puffing away with our sweaty feet up on the table. […] We were ashamed of the sluts my grandmother met unannounced at breakfast and the way she always had to ask what their names were. We were ashamed of our drunken singing and filthy language, our vomit and the ever more frequent visits of the bailiffs. We were ashamed but we didn’t do anything about it.

Yes, it’s Shameless revisited – remember that TV series? The first half of the novel was taken up with an attempt by one of his uncles to enter the Guinness Book fo Records for drinking, and when one contest format fails, he dreams up another. It was funny, but also too much. I should have been warned by the cover (by artist Slinkachu) of what was to come, but it was rather relentless, despite the black humour, and ultimately for me, it grew a little tiresome, although I could feel for Dimmy the narrator all the way through. This is probably Verhulst’s best-known novel so far, but I preferred the other two I read.

This was Book #2 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Dimitri Verhulst, The Misfortunates, Portobello pbk, 200 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

5 thoughts on “Review Catch-up

  1. BookerTalk says:

    Zeitoun would make a good companion read for Five Days at Memorial, an account of how the hurricane impacted Memorial Hospital in New Orleans where some staff were later arrested and accused of practising euthanasia during those five days

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