Summary and book reviews of Zeitoun by Dave Eggers


by Dave Eggers

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  • First Published:
    Jul 2009, 342 pages
    Jun 2010, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

The true story of one family, caught between America’s two biggest policy disasters: the war on terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun run a house-painting business in New Orleans. In August of 2005, as Hurricane Katrina approaches, Kathy evacuates with their four young children, leaving Zeitoun to watch over the business. In the days following the storm he travels the city by canoe, feeding abandoned animals and helping elderly neighbors. Then, on September 6th, police officers armed with M-16s arrest Zeitoun in his home. Told with eloquence and compassion, Zeitoun is a riveting account of one family’s unthinkable struggle with forces beyond wind and water.

A New York Times Notable Book
An O, The Oprah Magazine Terrific Read of the Year
A Huffington Post Best Book of the Year
A New Yorker Favorite Book of the Year
A Chicago Tribune Favorite Nonfiction Book of the Year
A Kansas City Star Best Book of the Year
A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
An Entertainment Weekly Best Book of the Decade


On moonless nights the men and boys of Jableh, a dusty fishing town on the coast of Syria, would gather their lanterns and set out in their quietest boats. Five or six small craft, two or three fishermen in each. A mile out, they would arrange the boats in a circle on the black sea, drop their nets, and, holding their lanterns over the water, they would approximate the moon.

The fish, sardines, would begin gathering soon after, a slow mass of silver rising from below. The fish were attracted to plankton, and the plankton were attracted to the light. They would begin to circle, a chain linked loosely, and over the next hour their numbers would grow. The black gaps between silver links would close until the fishermen could see, below, a solid mass of silver spinning.

Abdulrahman Zeitoun was only thirteen when he began fishing for sardines this way, a method called lampara, borrowed from the Italians. He had waited years to join the men and teenagers on the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Guide
This guide is intended to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, a harrowing nonfiction account of what happened to one man, and his family, in the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

About The Book
Abdulrahman Zeitoun is a Syrian-born entrepreneur who runs a busy painting company in New Orleans. He is a devout Muslim, married to a native of Baton Rouge who had converted to Islam before meeting Zeitoun. As Hurricane Katrina barrels toward New Orleans, his wife Kathy takes the children out of town, while Abdulrahman stays to keep an eye on their house and several rental properties they own. In the first couple of days, his decision to stay behind seems a good one, and even ...
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BookBrowse Review


Zeitoun is certainly a notable book and deserving of all the praise it's received, but it's not flawless. I found much of it plodding and poorly written - disappointing in light of Eggers' considerable literary talent. More than that, though, was the feeling that I was being overtly manipulated into having certain opinions or feelings toward the main character and his situation. All writers do this to some extent, but in Eggers' case it's blatant and heavy-handed. The first half of the book, for example, relates the lives and histories of Zeitoun and his Louisiana-born wife, Kathy. So much of the narrative focuses on the fact that the couple are Muslim, however, that it biases readers for what is to come. By the time we reach Zeitoun's arrest, we're predisposed to think his treatment is due to his Middle Eastern background, and some of the early summaries of the book go further to imply that this is the case. It eventually becomes apparent that Zeitoun's race and religion are immaterial to his situation, but by then the implication of racism is hard to shake.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review Members Only (742 words).

Media Reviews

The New York Times - Timothy Egan

There are no rants against President Bush, no cheap shots at the authorities who let this city drown. He does it the old-fashioned way: with show-not-tell prose, in the most restrained of voices.

Entertainment Weekly

Eggers’s sympathy for Zeitoun is as plain and real as his style in telling the man’s story. He doesn’t try to dazzle with heartbreaking pirouettes of staggering prose; he simply lets the surreal and tragic facts speak for themselves. And what they say about one man and the city he loves and calls home is unshakably poignant—but not without hope.

Vanity Fair

Zeitoun is a riveting, intimate, wide-scanning, disturbing, inspiring nonfiction account...Humanistic, that is, in the highest, best, least boring sense of the word.

San Francisco Chronicle

Zeitoun is a warm, exciting and entirely fresh way of experiencing Hurricane Katrina. . . . Eggers makes this account completely new, and so infuriating I found myself panting with rage.

The New York Times Book Review

Fifty years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.

The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

[A] heartfelt book, so fierce in its fury, so beautiful in its richly nuanced, compassionate telling of an American tragedy, and finally, so sweetly, stubbornly hopeful

Chicago Sun-Times

Anyone who cares about America, where it is going and where it almost went, before it caught itself, will want to read this thrilling, heartbreaking, wonderful book.

Library Journal

This Kafkaesque story is sure to shock, horrify, and outrage listeners and will especially appeal to those who enjoy nonfiction survival stories. It should be required reading/listening to ensure that nothing like the events described here will ever be repeated.

Bookmarks Magazine

Eggers tells Zeitoun's tragic story without the postmodern trickery and tirades he has exhibited in previous works. Instead, he allows the story to tell itself while imbuing Zeitoun's tragedy with deep sympathy and overall unforgettable story.


Starred Review. In the wake of disaster, we often cling to stories reassuring us that we respond to trials heroically. But Zeitoun reminds us that we are just as capable of responding to fear fearfully, forgetting the very things we claim to value most. Heartbreaking and haunting.

Reader Reviews

Judy O.

Fantastic Story
My husband and I listened to the audio book form of this gripping, true story on a trip to Virginia. Listening to it made the time fly. The treatment of Zeitoun and his family during the terrible Hurricane Katrina aftermath was outrageous! Most of...   Read More


Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
I am not certain how I happened to decided to download this book on to my Kindle to read a sample chapter. But I was hooked once I read the chapter. I did not realize initially that this was a true story about a man born in Syria, Abdulrahman ...   Read More


This book is important, yet has been largely overlooked by reviewers and book clubs. It's not just a history of Hurricane Katrina, but a personal account of the storm and its aftermath. More significantly, it spotlights our country's emergency ...   Read More

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The term "hurricane" is believed to originate with the Carib people of the West Indies (after whom the Caribbean was named). Historians believe that the Carib word huracan was probably derived from the Mayan storm god, Hunraken or the K'iche god of thunder and lightning, Hurakan. K'iche (in Spanish Quiché) is a part of the Mayan language family spoken by many people in the central highlands of Guatemala.

Hurricanes form when moisture from warm ocean water (at least 80oF/27oC) combines with warm air at the ocean surface.   The developing storm is then hit by a strong surface wind that spirals the air inward.  Bands of thunderstorms form over this storm which allows the air to warm further and rise ...

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