Earlier this year, Slate consumer columnist Timothy Noah confessed he hates self-help books. Yeah, well, who doesn’t? But Noah conceded; when presented with a “life challenge,” the self-help euphemism for “problem” as he wittily notes, he reaches for a memoir. Whenever possible, he recommends a humorous memoir written by someone dealing with a comparable experience, acknowledging it’s hard to make light of some situations. Grieving for a loved one, losing one’s life savings, or “surviving some great cataclysm of nature” rarely solicits laughs or even grins, but nevertheless Jennifer Shaw finds a way.
Hurricane Story is a small book—seven-by-seven inches—and aside from a brief foreword by Rob Walker and Shaw’s even briefer artist statement, the story is told in less than 500 words. Evacuating in the dead of night, nine months pregnant, Shaw breaks down two months and 6,000 miles on the road into poetic fits of a few words per page (the longest is twelve). And then there are the photographs. Hurricane Katrina made landfall and Shaw gave birth to her first son on the same day, so it’s somehow fitting that when she and her new family finally made it back home, she began to replicate their emotional yo-yo of a journey with toys and dolls—a king-cake baby, an army green soldier figurine, miniature wine bottles. The waters rose and stagnated, the baby cooed and cried, Shaw took up smoking again and fantasized about bludgeoning her husband. Taken with the unpredictable, spellcasting lens of a cheap Holga camera, the resulting forty-six images are mysterious, playful, heartrending, triumphant, and at times very funny.
A clothbound, hardcover edition of Jennifer Shaw’s Hurricane Story was published this summer by Broken Levee Books, an imprint of Chin Music Press, Seattle. The first five images from the book are presented here.