Thursday, August 27, 2015

HURRICANE KATRINA :: Recommended Reading

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It doesn't seem possible it was that long ago. Not having traveled to any of the areas impacted by the storm, I can't say how they have bounced back (or not). I have done some reading on the subject and books on the topic are still being published today, fiction and non-fiction alike, from many different angles.

There are two books on the subject I highly recommend, one fiction and one non-fiction. Sheri Fink's award-winning Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital is a journalistic account of the "landmark investigation of patient deaths at a New Orleans hospital ravaged by Hurricane Katrina – and [Fink's] suspenseful portrayal of the quest for truth and justice." It's been a long time since a work of non-fiction made me so physically uncomfortable. It's a difficult read, but well worth it.

On the fiction front, Margaret McMullan's Aftermath Lounge is a beautiful set of interlinked stories I stumbled upon simply because the cover caught my eye and wouldn't let go. My review, which ran earlier this year, is repeated below in its entirety. During my reading, Margaret and I struck up a correspondence and she is as lovely a person as she is a writer, which makes it all the more pleasurable to tout her work. Before I spotlight Aftermath Lounge, below is an interview Margaret did following publication of the book, describing her own experiences post-Katrina and what fed the inception of Aftermath Lounge:

Aftermath Lounge honors the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Can you tell us about your experience during those days when the storm hit? 

Shortly after the storm hit, my husband and I drove down from Evansville, Indiana to Pass Christian, Mississippi. We saw aerial footage of the town and we could see that the roof on my parents’ house was mostly intact – that’s all we could see. We brought water and a lot of supplies to donate. There was a gas shortage then, and limited cell phone coverage. The closer we came to the town, the more it became like a war zone. The National Guard was there to keep people away, but we got through, thanks to a relative.

The night before we left, my mother told us to forget about everything else -- all she really wanted was the painting of her mother, which had been smuggled out of Vienna during WWII. We had house keys but there were no doors. When we got there, the house was gutted – the storm surge had essentially ripped through the house.

We put on rubber gloves and spent the day sifting through the debris, dragging out any salvageable pieces of furniture. The water had shoved through the closed shutters, plowed up under the foundation and tore open the back walls, bashing around the furniture, sinks, toilets, stoves, washers, driers.

We never did find the painting.

Elizabeth Bishop wrote a wonderful villanelle called “One Art.” She wrote about losing small items like keys and an hour badly spent, then she progresses to the greater losses -- her mother’s watch, a house, cities, rivers, a continent, and finally, a loved one. “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” she starts. “So many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I thought of that poem a lot.

Your family played a key role, helping Pass Christian rebuild. What were a few moments that influenced you during that time? 

We saw so many people from all walks of life and they were suddenly homeless. My father organized financial donations. There were no fire trucks left after the storm, so he made sure Pass Christian got a fire truck. We were always big supporters of the library too. The Pass Christian Policemen had stayed during the storm to make sure everyone was safe. They had tried to stay safe in the library, but then when the water rose, they had to shoot out the windows to swim away to safety. I used that information in the title story of Aftermath Lounge. These men were real heroes.

Did you know from the moment the storm hit that someday you would write a novel about it? Or did a later experience give you the idea? If so, what was it? 

At first I just witnessed. I think that’s what writers do mostly. We witness. Then the material lets us know what it wants to become. I just took notes. Later stories started taking shape and they were all in different voices. It was the only way I could work at this material.

Part of your inspiration for the novel came from your family's beautiful mansion. How did your own experiences in that house shape each of the stories you wrote? 

Well, it’s hardly a mansion, but I was surprised to discover just how much a house could mean. Everyone always says it’s just stuff, but there were so many collective memories there. When we stood and looked at everything so undone, it felt like our times spent there were gone too.

Katrina had such a huge impact on the coast, on my family, and on me. I am always telling my students to write what they most care about, to write what keeps them up at night. I had to write about Katrina. I had written about the Civil War, Reconstruction and WWII, so I saw Katrina as an historical event. I treated the hurricane more as setting. It’s in the background. The human drama is in the forefront. I’m always interested in what people do or don't do in the face of real catastrophe. I didn’t want to write from one point of view either. I wanted to give voice to a variety of people because Katrina affected everyone.

What was your writing process like for this novel? Did you know from the start it would be a novel in stories? Or did that become apparent only after you began writing? 

There were so many news stories coming out at the time. I write nonfiction, but I couldn’t get my thoughts together. I couldn’t make sense of anything. Out of habit, I took a lot of notes. I could only deal with writing about all that was happening a little bit at a time. And my own personal story just wasn’t that interesting.

I personally witnessed and experienced the best in human nature. People and communities came together and helped one another in the most meaningful way. They endured with a great deal of kindness and grace. So I chipped away at the material. I wanted to tell a community’s story.

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The following is my review of Aftermath Lounge, which originally ran on April 6, 2015:

Every once in a while, a cover speaks to me and I just know I have to read the book it belongs to. Such was the case with Margaret McMullan's Aftermath Lounge. The combination of title and atmosphere created by the cover image (the solitude, those bent and broken trees) drew me in like a magnet and I was powerless to resist. And no, the dog didn't hurt, but it was something about that dog that evoked a sense of longing and desolation I needed to know about.

Turns out the cover serves the content well. Aftermath Lounge is a set of ten beautifully interwoven short stories about the people of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, taking place (for the most part) in the five years following Hurricane Katrina. Hence, the aftermath.

What I loved about these stories is their focus not on the storm or the physical atrocities it left in its wake, though obviously those are necessary elemental backdrops, but on the despair and resiliency of those who experienced it, either directly or through the inevitable ripples it caused in their world.

Each entry is a shot to the chest in its own way, but I was never more impressed by McMullan's short story skills as I was when reading the shortest of them. Writing a good short story is no easy feat. Writing one consisting of a few paragraphs that not only fills the frame but paints a heartbreaking picture is an awe-inspiring talent.

Take Holiday World, the third story in the set and the first to take place post-Katrina. Displaced with his family to Indiana, Billy finds himself separated from them at a water park. A water park. After surviving a hurricane and floods. The final lines took the air out of me. My notes for this story consist simply of the following: "Wow."

As with Holiday World, not all of the stories take place in Mississippi, with many following survivors or the family of survivors through their post-hurricane displacements. Despite the different settings, the Mississippi Gulf and Katrina are still an umbrella the characters can't get out from underneath, as the place and the storm have become part of them. No matter where they land, the echoes of the storm influence their lives and loves. They cannot shake the "Katrina patina."

In Place Value, the Zimmers ride out the storm with their daughter Diane and grandson Teddy in Chicago. Diane travels to Mississippi afterwards to check on her parents' home and returns quiet and withdrawn:

His mother gave Teddy's grandfather the gun and his grandmother the keys. She needed neither, she said, because everything was gone. "Just gone," she said again and again, her eyes welling up. "Nothing to open and no one to shoot."

Diane then takes off for Montreal with a boyfriend, leaving Teddy with her newly homeless parents, forcing them to forge another new existence. She returns after they suffer yet a further devastating loss, a loss they can't help but feel is a repercussion of the storm:

The hurricane had gone and washed through his grandparents' home and now it felt as though it was washing through their lives again. This storm had grabbed hold of them and wouldn't let go.

Many of the characters find their way into multiple stories, such that the group together tells the tale of many of them over the five year period. In Aftermath Lounge, recurring character Catch is taking care of the Zimmer property while it's being rebuilt. He wanders the site picking up pieces of broken china, and each night he sees how the pieces might fit together, working through multiple tubes of crazy glue putting plates, cups, bowls and saucers back together again, despite the chips and cracks he can never fill.

Catch also collects scraps of paper as he wanders the town and the property, putting them in his pocket throughout the day:

Catch reached under the bed and pulled out a shoebox. He emptied his pockets into the box, which was full of paper scraps. He thought of the words 'critical' and 'mass' and all the words on scraps of pages he'd found, the sentences he'd saved, some of which stood out like warning signs or prophesies...Maybe someday it would all make sense.

Each of the stories in Aftermath Lounge was previously published elsewhere, and while they certainly stand on their own, they make for a powerful collection. There is no respite, not even in the two pre-Katrina stories that start the book, because we know what's coming. We know what these characters are in for, what lies ahead. What we can't know is how they will react and rebound, and the pain and beauty in those stories are what make the book whole.

Margaret McMullan will be on tour discussing Aftermath Lounge beginning this week, and you can see a schedule of events on her website. I imagine these will be fascinating discussions, particularly leading up to the tenth anniversary of Katrina on August 29. The book will be available in some stores, but you can always get a copy through the publisher, Calypso Editions.

STREET SENSE:  As someone who often has a hard time "getting" short stories, I can't recommend this book highly enough. Even though they stand alone, the intertwining of the characters and story threads that run through more than one piece make this, as it is billed, a novel in stories, beautifully done.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I couldn't decide between two, one for the beauty of the language and imagery and the other for the message. These stories are like a snake eating its tail; once you're done reading, you could start at the beginning again. Because even as they rebuild, the people of the region know they will face this adversity again in the future, but they still build on:

Maybe next time, because there would always be a next time, next time when the waters rose up again in walls, forcing itself into the homes and lives of all those people, maybe next time it will not carry so much away.

And I simply loved this sentence and all it evoked:

Volunteer trumpet vines bloomed and all the trees that had survived the hurricane were tilted away from the water like women fleeing.

COVER NERD SAYS:  Since I started this review talking about the cover, where I stand on it is likely already fairly clear. I loved it. It got me to read a book I knew nothing about, and when I was done I could look back at the cover and know it hadn't steered me wrong.

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If you have read an interesting book, fiction or non-fiction, about the storm, please feel free to share in the comments. If you've not read Aftermath Lounge or Five Days at Memorial I can't recommend them highly enough.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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