Dave Eggers - MPAC Media Awards 2010

"I feel like there is the project of getting a story told and writing a book and then there is that other thing, which is learning from people." -Dave Eggers


Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

This is the best book I have read so far this year.

Eggers relates the true story of the Zeitoun (
Zay-Toon) family and asserts that "dates, times, locations and other facts have been confirmed by independent sources and historical record". Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian Muslim living in New Orleans with his wife, Kathy and four children, is an well-known business man who owns a painting/contractor business. He's a hard worker and a family man. When it was announced that Katrina was headed straight for New Orleans and the governor declared an evacuation, Kathy and the children headed to Baton Rouge and Zeitoun stayed home, prepared to fix anything in the house as needed.

The family didn't expect such a catastrophe - I don't think many people did. After the hurricane passed Zeitoun used an old canoe he bought and searched for those in need of help; animals and people alike. Since many people who evacuated the city thought they were only going to be gone a day or two, there were a lot of pets left behind. Little did they know they wouldn't return for weeks. "It was one of the strangest aspects of this in-between time - after the storm but before anyone had returned to the city - the presence of these thousands of left-behind animals." Zeitoun believed that he had stayed in the city for a reason and did all he could to help anyone who needed it.

He set out alone for a while and before long, at the corner of Canal and Scott, he encountered a small boat. It was a military craft, with three men aboard: a soldier, a man with a video camera, and one holding a microphone and a notebook. They waved Zeitoun down and on of the men identified himself as a reporter. "What are you doing?" the reporter asked. "Just checking on friends' houses, trying to help," Zeitoun said. "Who are you working with?" the reporter asked. "Anybody," Zeitoun said. "I work with anybody."
Not only does this book detail the horrible Katrina catastrophe, it also examines what it means to be a Muslim in America in the 21st century. For me, this book was a shocking reminder of what many of our citizens have to face simply because of their religion. It provides a behind-the-scenes look at the horrific behavior of the NOPD, FEMA, the National Guard, and the US government. With the five year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, this book really hit home. If you are interested in learning more about the disaster and the racial profiling that occurred as a result, I suggest you read this book. It's told in a very straightforward way and was all at once touching, heartbreaking and disturbing.
He was so content in this country, so impressed with and loving of its opportunities, but why then, sometimes, did Americans fall short of their best selves?
If I could recommend everyone in America read one book this year, Zeitoun would be it.

Publisher: Vintage Books, 2009

The Chicken or the Egg?

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, responds to the assertion that only while male authors are getting their books reviewed:
I think it reflects what's being published. Does the book review - I don't know what's being published by smaller presses that might be publishing Latino writers, for example, African-American writers. But the major houses are simply doing less diverse books in every respect because they are aiming for the bestseller list.
Listen to his entire NPR interview here.


A Disaster Mythical in Scale and Severity

Reading now: Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
The novelty of the new world brought forth the adventurer in him - he wanted to see it all, the whole city, what had become of it. But the builder in him thought of the damage, how long it would take to rebuild. Years, maybe decades. He wondered if the world at large could already see what he was seeing, a disaster mythical in scale and severity.
This Sunday, August 29th marks five years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. I decided to read Zeitoun, Eggers work of non-fiction that centers around one family's experience with the disaster and it's aftermath. I am having a hard time putting this book down, as this family's experience is both incredibly captivating and utterly heartbreaking. Yes, I was crying after just 167 pages - and I can count on one hand books that have made me cry.

I wasn't a huge fan Eggers' What is the What, but Zeitoun is most certainly becoming one of my favorite reads of the year. If it's on your TBR pile I suggest you pick it up this week.


Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Wow and wow. This is a fantastic book.

It's hard to summarize Oryx and Crake. So, I'm going to cheat and use the synopsis on the back of the book: "Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beutiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey - with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake - through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride." 

Oryx and Crake is much less a love story than it is a glimpse into a very realistic world that, unfortunately, doesn't seem so distant. While the world Atwood portrays is completely realistic it is, at the same time, so far beyond anything I could ever dream up. Not only is Atwood a fantastic writer, she is also a very imaginative story teller.

This book takes a little while to pick up. It is the first book in the MadAddam Trilogy, so Atwood has to lay the groundwork for the following novels (the second of which has been published and I will be purchasing immediately, The Year of the Flood). So, if you do pick this up I beg you to give it a chance. We are talking at least 200 pages. Trust me, it's very worth it. 

For me, this was one of those rare books that both challenges and changes the way I look at society and the inner workings of the world. Atwood exaggerates our post-modern society, removing standard ideals and values, and shows us what the human race is capable of at it's very worst. My description makes the book sound utterly depressing but I promise you it's not. While Atwood destroys the human race, she creates the Children of Crake; creatures so innocent and endearing in their own way, creatures made without the destructive forces of humanity, the reader can't help but become intrigued. There are also glimpses of hope and kindness, passages that made me smile:
"They understood about dreaming. He knew that: they dreamed themselves. Crake hadn't been able to eliminate dreams. We're hard-wired for dreams, he'd said. He couldn't get rid of the singing either. We're hard-wired for singing. Singing and dreams were intertwined.
Like The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood creates a world that is so detailed and unique, completely bizarre yet completely realistic. It's a complex novel that left me thinking long after I put it down. Ultimately, this book makes you think in a way that you may not have before and for me, those are the best kind of books. I can't wait to start The Year of the Flood.

Publisher: Anchor Books, a division of Random House, 2003


Hang On to the Words

Reading now: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
"Hang on to the words," he tells himself. The odd words, the old words, the rare ones. Valance. Norn. Serendipity. Pibroch. Lubricious. When they're gone out of his head, these words, they'll be gone, everywhere, forever. As if they had never been."
One of my all-time favorite books is Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a wonderfully creative dystopian novel. Oryx and Crake is my second Atwood and so far, it's just as good as my first. After I finished The Woman Warrior I was looking at books on my TBR pile trying to decide what to read next. I picked up Oryx and Crake to read a page or two and get a feel for the narrative - 70 pages later I realized I had inadvertently decided.


Books Still Matter

"Is Franzen the literary world's ideal representative? Maybe not. Maybe yes. I don't think it matters. What matters is that on the cover of one of the most widely read magazines in the country, a writer is looking directly back at us, and we are being told that His. Craft. Matters. We should have no tolerance for the snipers, the agitators, the petty grievers who lament that Franzen was given this honor rather than someone else who may have been a better fit. When the day comes that writers are commonly granted the accolades and recognition they deserve, we can argue over who deserves what and why. But for now, Franzen is being lifted up for all of us. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When our culture tells us that the ignorant are to be admired, that vacuousness is the new entertainment, the battle over ebooks feels like a battle over who has to sweep the deck on the titanic. When reading and intelligence is presented as overrated or unimportant, these small quibbles seem laughable. Too few know the importance of the written word, how important letters are, how important thinkers are, how important books are.
And so here it is, in big bold letters: Great American Novelist. Whether he is comfortable with it or not, Franzen is the representative for the entirety of publishing. His cover is telling millions of people, shouting from newsstands, that writers are still the soul of our culture. That books still matter. That books still matter. And this, beyond anything, is reason to celebrate. And this, beyond anything, is a reason to be hopeful."


The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston

The Woman Warrior is a memoir that details the experiences and struggles of a Chinese-American girl growing up in California. The memoir is split into five parts: "No Name Woman," a story about the girls aunt who was shunned by her village after an adulterous affair, "White Tigers" which details the story of the woman warrior, Fa Mu Lan, "Shaman" relates what it is like for a woman to study in China, "At The Western Place" tells of Kingston's aunt's first journey to the US and the last story, "A Song for a Barbarian Reed Pipe" details Kingston's own experiences in America.

Throughout the novel the main character is torn between the Chinese culture that is exemplified by her mother and aunt and the American culture that she is surrounded by in school. She is often ridiculed by her family for being too "American" and by her schoolmates for being too "Chinese". Of course being stuck between two cultures, unsure of how to inhabit both, has it's ramifications.
"Now colors are gentler and fewer; smells are antiseptic. Now then I peek in the basement window where the villagers say the see a girl dancing like a bottle imp, I can no longer see a spirit in a skirt made of light, but a voiceless girl dancing when she thought no one was looking."
As far as memoirs go this one was creatively written. On one hand each story can stand alone but when combined, they make a powerful statement about conflicting cultures and opposing identities.


Jonathan Franzen, You're Pretty Awesome

Jonathan Franzen, the author who was recently featured on the cover of Time Magazine (the first living authors since Stephen King in 2000) and dubbed "Great American Novelist" has released an author video, in which he discusses author videos. Take a look:


Washington Square by Henry James

I really like Henry James. In Washington Square we are introduced to Catherine Sloper, an average girl with average looks who is quite close to her father. Her mother had died when Catherine was small, leaving her to live with her father and her father's sister, the widow Mrs. Penniman. Catherine has inherited her mother's estate and will inherit her fathers upon his death or her marriage, whichever comes first.

Enter Morris Townsend; a young man who has spent all of his fortune on travel and frivolities and now lives with his widowed sister. Of course he is immediately drawn to Catherine when they meet at a party and, like Catherine's father, we are lead to believe he is only interested in Catherine's wealth .

The majority of the novel takes place in Manhattan's Washington Square, where Catherine and her father, Dr. Sloper, live. There is something to be said about this old New York; something romantic and exciting. "I know not whether it is owing to the tenderness of early associations, but this portion of New York appears to many persons the most delectable."

Of course Catherine's father despises Morris and forbids Catherine to marry him, threatening to disinherit her from his fortune. Thus Catherine is left with the timeless dilemma of choosing between her family and true love.

What I liked best about this novel was that James lets the reader decide the intentions of Morris Townsend. We are never given a true glipse into his underlying purpose and must decide for ourselves whether he is truely in love with Catherine or if he is just in it for the money. Dr. Sloper does not think very highly of his daughter and can't understand how she would attract such a handsome man, leading him to decide Townsend's intentions must be callous. The doctor tells Townsend, "My dear young man, you must be very susceptible. As Catherine's father I have, I trust, a just and tender appreciation of her many good qualities; but I don't mind telling you that I have never thought of her as a charming girl, and never expected any one else to do so."

As I mentioned earlier we aren't ever told whether or not Townsend truly loves Catherine or if he is a mercenary. But perhaps the readers confusion is a reflection of the character's confusion. Maybe Townsend himself isn't even sure of his intentions, leading to his ambivalent nature. I really loved this book and looking back, I'm not even sure why. I think Henry James is a genious, as he was able to make me somewhat ambivalent toward the story but all the same completely engrossed in it, much like Townsend himself. James is a terrific writer down to the very last word and I look forward to reading more of his works.

Publisher: Harper & Brothers, 1881


I Love Half Price Books

A new Half Price Books opened near my house and I love it. Well, they actually relocated across the street but had a Grand Opening for their new location.

The goods:

The Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie
Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood
The Woman Warrior - Maxine Hong Kingstong
The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing - Melissa Bank
The Book of Illusions - Paul Auster
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby
Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston


To Mrs. Penniman

Reading now: Washington Square by Henry James

Dear Mrs. Penniman,

Please stop trying to convince Catherine to marry Morris Townsend. He is clearly just in it for the money. His own sister even said so. Your stupidity is really starting to bother me. I'm not sure why Dr. Sloper even lets you live in his house. You're messing everything up.



Driving With Dead People: A Memoir by Monica Holloway

I didn't love this book, but I was very much intrigued. 

To start, there are only a few instances when Monica is actually driving with dead people. I'm not sure it's an accurate title for the book, but it is creative and caught my eye, which is why I picked it up.

Driving With Dead people is the memoir of Monica Holloway, a girl from small town Ohio with an extremely dysfunctional family. It only gets worse as her life goes on. As a girl, Monica develops a fascination with dead people after she befriends the daughter of a mortician. She spends her childhood lying in coffins and playing in cemeteries. While this all sounds very dark and sinister, Holloway writes it in a way that is captivating and often hilarious. For instance, after a local girl is killed who is Monica's age, she becomes obsessed with the idea of going to the girls funeral but doesn't know how she will get there. She decides her Granda is a good candidate:

"Granda was my mothers mother, but the opposite of my mom in every way. Granda was a realist, and that's how she needed to be approached. She could be very sentimental and loving, but she'd also killed her own cat. He bothered her. She had a bad hip and she'd gotten tired of getting up and down out of her chair to let him in and out of the aluminum door of  her trailer. So she'd locked him in her freestanding garage that the pole barn company had built for her right beside her trailer; she'd lured him in with a raw hot dog, closed the door, and left the Buick running for three hours. I felt she could be persuaded to attend a funeral"

The first half of the novel is much more light-hearted than the second half. By the time I got to the ladder half of the book I was holding back tears. Things get pretty intense with scenes of child molestation, rape, domestic abuse and suicide. If you think you're life is rough, read this book. I'm sure afterward you will consider yourself blessed. 

There is also an interesting scene near the end of the book when Monica returns home and visits her friend whose family owns the mortuary. Monica watches as a new body is brought in and is prepped for the funeral:

"He looked too young to be dead, but he definitely looked dead.  His skin was a yellowish bruised color, his eyes were shut but sunken, and his fingernails were blue... She took a scalpel and help it up for me to see. I have her the thumbs-up and she cut a small incision in the man's shoulder near his collarbone and used a small metal hook to pull up an artery and a vein. The hose in the artery was attached to the embalming machine. When Liz switched the machine on, embalming fluid gurgled and pumped into the artery, forcing blood he would never need again to drain out of his veins. The reddish maroon liquid emptied into a canal along the edge of the embalming table, and then swirled into a drain below. Within a few minutes his skin took on a peach-colored hue and his blue fingernails turned pink. It was magical and unsettling."

Driving With Dead People is about learning to deal with the pit falls of life and creating happiness for yourself. It's about finding strength and reliance in a world of chaos. It's an impressing and empowering story, in which Monica Holloway asserts herself as the calvary in her own life. She is truly an inspiration.

It's most definitely a page turner, perplexing and discomforting at the same time.

Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2007


A few days ago I was driving, happily listening to LCD Soundsystem, going a steady 75 mph when a SUV passed me with the coolest license plate I have ever seen. It read: LITGEEK.

Of course I was in the car alone and couldn't share my enthusiasm with anyone so I tried to snap a quick picture. Needless to say LitGeek had a lead foot and I didn't feel comfortable when I saw the speedometer approaching 95 so I backed off. This is what I was left with:

I did my best, however I figured I would for sure get a ticket if I told the cop "I was speeding because I needed to get a picture of that guys license plate for my blog!" 

So, LitGeek, if you're reading this, are you free next weekend?  


I Am The Cavalry

Reading now: Driving With Dead People: A Memoir by Monica Holloway

"Knowing there is no cavalry is much better than hoping for a cavalry that never comes. I am strong because I have to be. I am the cavalry."

This is a dark and twisted memoir of a morbid girl from small-town Ohio with a very dysfunctional family. Despite the bleak subject matter, so far the book is quite interesting and terribly funny.


I'm Excited About Books Because...

“Because books are still the most valuable commodities we have. Because books can transport you to a different world, or change your own perception of the one you live in. Because the notion of ‘getting lost in a good book’ transcends time, generation, and even the page itself.”

-Jason Pinter, author and literary agent, via Guy LeCharles Gonzalez "Why Books? 9 Reasons To Be Optimistic"