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Tag Archives: memoir

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Happy Superbowl Sunday, readers.  As a Chargers fan, I’m used to my football season ending long before February – so today seems like the perfect day to curl up with a good book (and catch up on my backlog of blog posts)!  I hope you’re all warm and cozy wherever and however you choose to celebrate today!

Over the winter holiday from work, I had a chance to read books that I was not about to teach to students – and it was fabulous!  I’ve been back at work for about a month, but I’m still trying to fit in small amounts of “for fun” reading when I can.  The first book I read on vacation was Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.  It’s an account of a Syrian man’s experiences during Hurricane Katrina – nonfiction and completely moving.  The genre isn’t one I read very often, but Dave Eggers is such a fantastic and highly recommended author, that I knew I had to try it.  I actually purchased the book as a Christmas gift… and then had to read it myself before I could give it away!

Zeitoun is like two stories at once – the first, a matter-of-fact account of one family during the approach and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It’s impossible to read this without feeling the fear and frustration that must have been experienced by so many families in New Orleans at the time.  Eggers captures the chaos of the disaster without being overly dramatic, which I appreciated.  The second half of the book is dedicated to the patriarch of the family, Zeitoun.  A good Samaritan, he travels around his neighborhood in a canoe, helping neighbors and strangers alike.  But then, he is arrested, and the remainder of the story follows an aspect of the post-Hurricane Katrina chaos that wasn’t as widely publicized.  It will break your heart, enrage you, and, most importantly, inform you.  I loved it!

To be perfectly honest, I’m not usually a big fan of nonfiction.  This book is absolutely an exception.  It’s captivating and smart – I know you’ll love it as much as I did!  I give this book 3 stars – I doubt I’ll read it again, but I’d recommend it to just about anyone! ★★★


Note: Since Zeitoun was published (in 2009) the Zeitouns have divorced and faced some legal troubles relating to their split.  Though this information does slightly damper my enthusiasm for this book, it shouldn’t take away from the well-written, shocking account of a man’s experiences.


True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman

Most big decisions in my life have made their beginnings in a scribbled list of pros and cons.  Mark Salzman, author of True Notebooks: A Writer’s Year at Juvenille Hall, does the same thing, and thankfully, the pros of teaching a writing class to teenage offenders in L.A. beat out the cons.  What follows from his decision is a memoir that artfully captures the lives of young incarcerated gang members with a tone that is equal parts sympathetic and straightforward.

Salzman argues that everyone has a story to tell – and it’s not always what you might think.  Through his memories of his students’ (all male) conversations, as well as actual excerpts of their writing, he explores the whole story of how they arrived in the juvenile justice system.  It’s a very fine line – portraying these boys as humans in terrible circumstances who made huge mistakes without justifying or excusing their actions.  Salzman very delicately walks the balance, and the result is a fantastic read that, though at times uncomfortable, should be required reading for anyone who works with teenagers.  Throughout my reading of the book I was struck by the fact that even though these were kids who had committed heinous crimes, they were still kids.

As True Notebooks explores the unpredictability and molasses-like slowness of our country’s justice system and treatment of prisoners, Salzman is careful not to take an obvious stand in favor for or against the policies and situations he gives readers a window into.  The question forced me to really analyze my opinions on several of the issues surrounding crime and juveniles, and left me with quite a few burning questions.  Can these crimes ever be excused when you look at the circumstances of the children who commit them?  Can these prisoners ever be fully rehabilitated?  Could I, as a voter, potential juror, and member of society ever completely forgive them for the human price that was paid for their actions?  I wasn’t the only one with questions – the boys explore several of their own questions through writing, and many don’t have a clear idea of what life would be like for them if they were to get out.  (Some of them do have an idea, and it’s not always an encouraging one.)  Their writing, along with Salzman’s, is thought provoking in the best way imaginable.

I really enjoyed this book, so I’m giving it 4 stars.  I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, but beware – the language of teenage boys could be jarring and offensive to the “untrained ear”.  ★★★★


Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

Hello readers, it’s Becca here, with a long overdue book review of Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom.

I’ve recently started grad school, and to say the schedule is gnarly would be putting it lightly!  I’m not dedicating nearly as much time to reading for fun as I would like, thus, my choices of literature have changed drastically!  As any grad student will tell you, the two things we’re most short of (aside from sleep) are free time and money.  Tuesdays with Morrie was short and free (I borrowed it from a classmate) so I was sold.

It’s really difficult to give a “bad” review of a book that has such a great message.  This is a memoir, and Morrie is dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease.  He reconnects with an old student he had a special bond with and they have a last class together, in which Morrie imparts life lessons and wisdom to Albom, the author.  The straightforward approach to death is refreshing, but the prose reveals an author trying too hard to be inspiring, and missing the mark entirely.

As a teacher, the relationship between Morrie and Albom is especially touching.  As someone who tries to live life the best that I can, Morrie’s lessons of loving above all else, forgiveness, and always maintaining a zest for life are fabulous.  But as a reader, I was bored.  It felt like the Nicholas Sparks version of nonfiction.

Personally, I’m in a relatively healthy place in my life, so I give the book two stars.  If you’re in a less healthy place, and need a reminder of some of Morrie’s arguably great philosophies on life, check this book out. ★★

Warning: if you’ve experienced a loved one’s death from a prolonged disease, you will cry.  Read with caution!  If you do decide to proceed, the book can be purchased here from Amazon.

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

Hello everyone, and happy belated fourth of July from the nation’s capital!  I’m Elizabeth, and in honor of the holiday, I thought I would choose something a little patriotic for my first book review: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America.

When my friend decided to organize a summer book club, I was excited to join.  I hadn’t had a chance to be in a book club since I moved to DC.  The theme of the book club is road trip memoirs, and Travels with Charley was the book for June.  I was initially hesitant, since I had read several of Steinbeck’s novels for English class assignments and, to say the least, he is not my favorite author.  Fortunately for me, this memoir feels very different than Steinbeck’s novels.  It was written late in the author’s career, and for the most part it is less serious than his other work.

In 1962, John Steinbeck decided to take a road trip around America.  He traveled in a camper truck and took one of his dogs, a poodle named Charley, for company.  Starting from his home in New York, he travelled up to Maine, and then across the northern states.  He continued through his former home state, California, and then back through the south.  Steinbeck had already achieved a lot of success by this point in his career and was considered a quintessentially “American” author, but he was concerned that he was falling out of touch with the “real” America, partly because he had been living in New York for a long time and partly because of all the social changes that were taking place at that time in our history.  The point of his road trip was to rediscover the country he had made a career of writing about.

I particularly admired Steinbeck’s prose, especially the descriptions of some of the places he visited.  Thanks to this book, I definitely want to see Wisconsin and Montana someday soon.  As a Californian, I also enjoyed his descriptions of the Redwoods.  Another thing that stands out about the book is that he records very specific interactions with individuals that he met in his travels and then reflects on them, instead of trying to give the reader a more generalized picture.  I appreciated that.  A book like this could easily have become a series of generalizations about Americans and the states they live in, but by writing down small slices of experience, Steinbeck made this book a lot more honest and enjoyable to read.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is planning a road trip (or maybe just daydreaming about one).  I would also recommend it to people who are fans of Steinbeck’s novels, because you get a chance to see a completely different side of the author.  And if you are interested in the civil rights movement during the 1960’s, pay special attention to the last part of the book, where Steinbeck and Charley travelled through the American South.

Personally, I would give this book three and a half stars.  I would probably reread it if I was ever planning a road trip, and I would definitely recommend it to a friend!  ★★★1/2

I borrowed Travels with Charley from my local library, but you can also find it here.