BY MARC VELASQUEZ
Here’s the third installment of our Best Books of 2009 series, all about nonfiction. Keep up with the rest of the series here.
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
Perhaps you know Eggers for his earlier work—his memoir, his first novel, his story collection—each brilliant, but each also a product of a writer willing to let attempts at amusement get in the way of storytelling. Zeitoun is not of that lineage. Here, Eggers realizes the strength of the story, and allows it carry the load.
The book’s central figure, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a Syrian immigrant and business owner who has built quite a comfortable life for himself in New Orleans. He has an American wife, three children, and is a responsible and hardworking citizen. When his wife and children evacuate the city in anticipation of Katrina, Zeitoun stays behind to look after their house and a few of their properties. In the storm’s aftermath, Zeitoun paddles around the streets in a canoe to help other stranded residents. Then he mysteriously disappears.
What happens to Abdulrahman Zetioun is unjust and sickening, and Eggers does an excellent job of letting that story speak for itself. This book is a terrific piece of journalism, revealing an appalling aspect of Katrina recovery. Eggers has a point to make with this book; he does so without being preachy. In a way, his point seems to make itself. As readers, we can only hope Eggers’s future projects are similar to this.
Best of the rest
Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, by Jon Krakauer
In 2002, NFL star Pat Tillman turned down a multi-million dollar contract to enlist in the U.S. Army. In 2004, he was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire. Krakauer’s book is an in-depth look at Tillman’s life and death, and how politicians used his death to further their own political agendas.
Where Men Win Glory is full of information about both the Afghanistan conflict and Pat Tillman’s life. It’s probably not as thorough as Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars or Mary Tillman’s Boots on the Ground Before Dawn, but Krakauer gives us all the information we need to understand where these two stories intersect. It amazed me how accessible this book was, and how much smarter I felt after reading it. I imagine football fans will forever tell their children the story of Pat Tillman. When I do so, thanks to this book, I will have the difficult task of explaining things like friendly fire and government cover-ups. Pat Tillman deserves at least that much.
The Adderall Diaries, by Stephen Elliott
This book is a memoir about addiction and sadomasochism posing as a true crime account of a murder trial. In fact, if you pick up this book because you think it’s going to be about a murder trial, you’ll be disappointed. Elliott is a writer who can’t escape his past (or his present, for that matter). In the hands of someone else, that could make for a trite memoir, but Elliot’s life is just too damn interesting, too damn ridiculous. I can’t help but admire the way this book is put together: the meandering lull in which it begins, the pace that quickens furiously when Elliot begins crushing his pills and snorting them. The book is sharp and fast, and Elliot doesn’t waste even a single syllable.
Lit, by Mary Karr
Many people write memoirs. But, in my estimation, there are only two great American memoirists. The first is the late Frank McCourt. With Lit, Mary Karr became the second. This story of alcoholism and recovery is both funny and gut-wrenching—sometimes both within the same sentence. Karr is a first-rate wordsmith, and while her life might not be quite as interesting or ridiculous as Stephen Elliott’s, she makes up for it in style. Seriously, if you haven’t read any of Karr’s 3 memoirs (Liar’s Club and Cherry are the other two), you’re missing out on something special.