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In A Storm's Wake, Two Books Help Make Sense Of What Remains

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Late last week, Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines, leaving rubble for wake and cities in shambles. It was among the strongest storms ever recorded. In the days that have followed, the death toll exacted by the storm has reached breathtaking levels — more than 3,500 fatalities by last count — and the economic devastation must be measured in the billions.

As Filipinos gather what they can from the wreckage and confront the difficult questions of what may lie ahead, readers in other parts of the globe may face a very different kind of challenge. If you live half a world away, out of danger and in comparative comfort, how do you try to understand a tragedy that sadly risks becoming just another headline?

On All Things Considered, Kevin Roose grapples with this question; below, Allan Gurganus wrestles with it, too. In answer, they suggest two books to help readers grasp the news still streaming in from the Philippines. These books approach the subject from two very different angles — one from midcentury Philippines, the other from an American town soon to be consumed by a flood — but both offer glimpses past the headlines to the human costs that often get lost behind them.

This Week's Must-Read

Dogeaters, by Jessica Hagedorn

In Dogeaters, there is no middle class — only the extremely rich and the extremely poor. The book, set in the late 1950s in Manila, begins with the story of Rio Gonzaga, the daughter of a wealthy family. Around her swirls political turmoil of various kinds: a ruthless dictator, a powerful businessman and some servants.

The real Philippines, the one that was devastated by the typhoon, is still a really unequal place. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. But the rich people in Manila wear designer clothes and drive expensive cars. And even though the country's economy is growing, it's hard to see how the new money will make it out to the agricultural provinces, the places the storm hit the hardest.

In the book, leftist guerrillas rise up against the country's dictator, and a local nightclub DJ, Joey Sands, gets taken up in the battle. It's an exaggeration of midcentury politics in the Philippines, but not by much. When the waters of the typhoon have calmed, and the estimated $15 billion worth of damage has been repaired, we'll see how much of the old society remains.

Kevin Roose writes for New York magazine. He is the author of The Unlikely Disciple, and his new novel, Young Money, is slated to be released in 2014.

Flood, by Robert Penn Warren

This week's Philippine typhoon showed us folks clinging to trees, swimming mothers who'd roped children to their bodies. We again imagine what it means: losing everything we've ever bought to a single mountainous wave. We all think it cannot happen here. And that's why this has always been our favorite story: Noah builds his ark on dry high ground, while locals laugh. Till rains come, till they're swimming alongside clawing to climb onboard.

Robert Penn Warren's 1963 novel, Flood, takes such devastation to new depths. Two movie professionals, one a native son, arrive in the tiny town of Fiddlersburg, just before a dam opens. This hometown boy's attachment to the Local differs from that of the Hollywood professional bent on snagging excellent disaster footage. Warren, our country's first poet laureate, put all his wit and heart into this. Flood brings us his uncanny ear for all that people say and leave unsaid, his abiding patience with our stubborn race, his prophet's insight into the coming media circus that will exploit all human disaster for one minute's spectacular footage.

In 1999, my hometown found itself flooded overnight. Neighbors woke on the second floors to find the first stories of their houses underwater. All their stories ever after, underwater.

So, this week, watching typhoon survivors squat in rain, waiting beneath tin and tarps, hoping for food, staring down mud roads for whatever might come next, I was reminded of Warren's tiny town crushed like a walnut by chaos incoming. And I was reminded of my fellow citizens, left suddenly eager to take care of each other. Alone on our roofs, we are stripped of our devices and our bank cards. We are revealed as creatures ourselves, stranded in nature once again, hoping for help.

From whom? From certain other creatures like ourselves, but maybe better.

Allan Gurganus' fiction appears in The New Yorker and Harper's. His most recent novel is Local Souls.

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