Category: Great Reads

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Book cover, "Zeitoun" by Dave Eggers
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Imagine: A category five hurricane strikes. You chose not to evacuate to protect your property, and to help others who stayed behind. While checking on one of your properties, heavily armed officers arrest you and three friends at gunpoint. They refuse to elucidate your charges, strip search you, and throw you in a torturous outdoor holding cell unfit for animals. You watch your captors as they torture fellow prisoners with pepper spray and beanbag guns for seemingly minor infractions. They deny your right to a phone call, medical treatment, and legal representation–violating your basic human rights. Your dignity evaporates along with your hope for release.

That’s what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun (pronounced “Zay-toon”), a Syrian American Muslim man, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. In all, Zeitoun spent 23 days in jail. During his incarceration, he was never formally charged with a crime or allowed to make a phone call.

While Zeitoun, a painting contractor, eventually restored the family home (it was flooded by Lake Pontchartrain when the levees broke after the storm), peace of mind, safety, and faith in the American government that was supposed to protect him, remain elusive.

Eggers reports the story through the family’s eyes, based on their memories of the events and copious research. Where possible, news and government reports confirm dates and events. However, there is very little balance within the book—only two police officers’ limited accounts appear. Interviews with FEMA, police leadership, and government officials are absent. There is no question that what happened to the Zeitouns was nightmarish and horrendous. Unfortunately, the American government remains unaccountable for their failures post Katrina. But then again, with such egregious neglect for the health and well being of its citizens, could any explanation possibly suffice?

All proceeds from book sales go directly to the Zeitoun Foundation, to help rebuild New Orleans and promote human rights for all Americans.

Read what Wikipedia has to say about the book.

Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason

Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason
Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and its Aftermath by Michael Paul Mason

Who are we, other than our brains, really?

Mason is a brain injury case manager who explores this question, profiling 12 brain injury survivors and their individual struggle to reconcile their former and present selves.

The brain, the core of our very self,  is so powerful, yet shockingly frail. The microscopic connections that make up  thoughts, wishes, goals, desires, and memories, are so easily torn asunder, rent by a sudden fall, an accident, that takes them all away, altering the victim irrevocably.

Shear injuries are seemingly the most insidious of brain injuries. Axons and neurons are damaged at the cellular level, breaking microscopic connections across the brain. Because there is no localized, obvious head wound or trauma, shear injuries often go undetected in hospital emergency rooms, leaving the survivor to learn the extent of their injury by countless indignities suffered discovering once effortless skills and abilities suddenly lost.

As a brain injury case manager, Mason fights on behalf of survivors for proper treatment and services to help them to regain not only skills but also their identity and their dignity.

The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy

It was summer; it was winter.

So starts my favourite Esquire article. It profiles SwissAir Flight 111, the MD-11 that crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off Nova Scotia, on September 2nd, 1998. The article follows a few of the 229 passengers—how they came to be on board the flight, and how the crash and its aftermath affected their families.

The plane had hit the water at more than four hundred miles per hour, nose first, two engines still firing, very unusual, extremely rare; the jet was two hundred feet long, and the tail rammed straight into the nose, everything exploding into more than one million pieces.

You can read it here.

There’s a split-boulder monument to those aboard on the shores of Peggy’s Cove. It reads, in part:

…They have been joined to the sea and sky. May they rest in peace.

Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training

Curtains: Adventures of an Undertaker-in-Training by Tom Jokinen

In Curtains, journalist Tom Jokinen recounts his months as an undertaker-in-training at Neil Bardal’s funeral home in Winnipeg. Under Bardal and his staff, Jokinen shared both sides of the undertaker’s trade–the hands-on skills such as how to dress the sometimes uncooperative dead, and the so-called soft skills, such as how to help the living cope with loss.

Ironically, as more family-owned funeral homes are bought up by international corporations, and more people choose cremation over caskets, embalming, and burial, (the fully-figured–“full-fig” funeral), Jokinen discovers a death industry, that itself is dying–that must resort to selling catering, multi-media memorials, and caricaturish memento mori to make profit from death.

But it wasn’t until twenty-five years ago that Neil (Bardal) finally embraced cremation and became what the mainstream industry calls a “bake-and-shaker,” a lower-cost provider of a cleaner, more manageable, less Gothic and scatterable end product.

“The traditional funeral is gone,” Neil says, “and it’s never coming back.”