I've been on a New Orleans reading streak. It began with Robert Hicks' A Separate Country, then moved to Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, and finished with Dan Baum's Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans.
Earlier this year I talked about Hicks' first book, The Widow of the South, and his second novel, A Separate Country, is a nice follow up to his first, and like his first, it is historical fiction based on truth. In it, a soldier named Eli Griffin who appeared in Widow returns as a trusted friend to Confederate General John Bell Hood. Both men are living in New Orleans. Hood settled there after the war, met and married his wife, and raised 11 children with her. Hood and his wife, Anna Marie, have both contracted the same disease and are near death when Hood sends for Eli. Hood instructs him to find a man named Sebastian Lemerle and to publish his memoirs which he has handwritten. Eli agrees and returns to the house after he hears of Hood's passing a few days later. At the house he finds another memoir of sorts written by Anna Marie for Lydia, the couple's oldest daughter. Eli narrates us through his reading of both of these works and we realize the complications of the Hoods' marriage. In the book, readers meet colorful characters and learn a little about honor from several of the characters including Eli, who is determined to carry out Hood's last wishes.
New Orleans is a wonderful, intriguing, mysterious place unlike any other. It is that today as it was while the Hoods were living there. In her journal in A Separate Country, Anna Marie writes to Lydia, "I hope that you never leave this city. I hope you will love it as I have, imperfectly, inconstantly, but passionately....There has been little for me but this city. I wonder if I could breathe the air outside New Orleans, whether I would drown....I am glad of this place only because I could not survive anywhere else."
Zeitoun is a much more modern book written about the days before, after and during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Abdulrahman Zeitoun is the central character. He, too, struggles with his adopted city and country during the days after Hurricane Katrina's devastation along the Gulf Coast. As a business owner, he is hesitant to evacuate and leave his property for the storm. His wife and four children leave without him first for Baton Rouge and then for Arizona.
Zeitoun's need to remain with New Orleans, though, is rooted more deeply than just out of concern for his business. On his first day paddling around his neighborhood in his canoe, he begins rescuing people who are trapped in their homes and dropping them on higher ground where they can get help. At the end of that first day Zeitoun knows "...there would be more to do tomorrow. How would he explain to Kathy, to his brother Ahmad, that he was so thankful he had stayed in the city? He was certain he had been called to stay, that God knew he would be of service if he remained. His choice to stay in the city had been God's will."
A few months ago when I blogged about my disappointment that Julia Reed's The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story wasn't the post-Katrina/resilience/rebuilding story I'd hoped for. While I realize that for an area to bounce back after a natural disaster, all sorts of things come into play, and that New Orleans is a city focused heavily on the tourism industry and a partying atmosphere, I really wanted to read about the "regular" people who faced adversity in getting back on their feet after the storm, whether the end result was 100% triumphant or not. Luckily, a reader suggested Zeitoun as a read more like what I was looking for. It was. Though I wasn't bowled over by fantastic writing, it was a compelling story, especially after some of the background information on Zeitoun and his family were out of the way and the storm hit.
Just as I remember watching CNN in August and September of 2005 in disappointment that such chaos and disorder was even possible in the United States, I read this book with disappointment that even though we live in a great nation, we still don't live in a place where people who are perceived by some as being "different" can be left to live their lives in peace. It was an eye-opening story that needed to be written. I'm glad Eggers brought attention to this family's story.
Just as Zeitoun was an eye-opening book, so was Baum's Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans. The author recreates the lives of nine New Orleans residents from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 through Katrina in 2005. It covered the ins and outs of Mardi Gras for the different neighborhoods in the city and showed the variety of life experiences had by these residents of varied genders, races, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. Parts of this book, like Zeitoun, were particularly heartbreaking. I remember hearing in the media during Katrina's aftermath that corpses could not be collected promptly, and police officers reached the breaking point, and in some cases simply walked away from their jobs. All the things I was horrified to hear about in 2005 were spelled out in this book by characters who experienced them first hand.
From this New Orleans reading trifecta, I'm still convinced that New Orleans is one of the weirdest and most wonderful places on earth. Reading about it helps me understand better how so many things went wrong after Katrina and why New Orleanians are so resilient. I highly recommend Zeitoun and Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death, and Life in New Orleans for Katrina stories, and if you're into history, you'll probably like A Separate Country. Three fantastic reads.