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Book of the week: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
Eggers' account of Hurricane Katrina and the plight of Abdulrahman Zeitoun is his “best book yet.”

(McSweeney’s, 342 pages, $24)

In the days after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun slept in a tent on the roof of his Victorian home. He was mostly alone; his wife, Kathy, and their children had evacuated the city before the storm. Each morning, he would paddle his aluminum canoe around the neighborhood, checking on his rental properties and the job sites that his painting and construction crews had left unfinished. But he also helped others—assisting in the rescue of five elderly neighbors on the flood’s first day alone—and was surprised how energizing it felt to be so needed. Six days into his new routine, Zeitoun was operating from one of the houses he owned when out-of-state cops burst in and arrested him. Taken to a makeshift prison, he was accused of being a terrorist and locked into an outdoor cage.

The ordeal that Zeitoun and his family endured over the next month is “nothing short of disgusting,” said Andrew Ervin in The Miami Herald. Dave Eggers, the author of the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, here assumes the role of self-effacing journalist to tell Zeitoun’s story. The result is “a major achievement” and Eggers’ “best book yet.” Using unadorned prose, the author does a remarkable job of capturing “the eerie quiet” of the post-Katrina city, said Susan Larson in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. We watch waves sloshing against rooftops and hear cries for help in the distance,­ experiencing it all through “Zeitoun’s observant eyes.” While appreciating his quiet heroism, we also feel with him the danger “lurking all around, danger that will finally materialize in the form of the supposed rescuers who take Zeitoun prisoner.”

The gentle, Syrian-born businessman apparently was never allowed a phone call, said Andrew O’Hehir in Salon.com. His wife and family spent weeks fearing he’d died and frantically trying to locate him. It’s initially discomforting hearing only Zeitoun’s side of the story, but Eggers has said he’s checked the facts without showing his labor. Indeed, one of the most refreshing features of his approach is “the
thoroughgoing rejection of the ‘me journalism’ that has dominated reporting for three decades or more.” The book makes this embarrassing chapter in American history “so infuriating I found myself panting with rage,” said Dan Baum in the San Francisco Chronicle. Eggers has delivered “as accurate, sensual, and readable an account of Hurricane Katrina as you can find in nonfiction.”

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