Tag Archives: 9/11

THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: AN ORAL HISTORY OF 9/11 by Garrett Graff

The Only Plane In The Sky by Garrett Graff is an oral history of 9/11, told by hundreds of people who experienced that day firsthand. Graff painstakingly reconstructed the chronology of September 11, 2001, from the four planes boarding and taking off and President Bush’s now-famous appearance at a school in Sarasota, FL, to the planes colliding with their targets, the falling of the buildings, and the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero and the Pentagon. While this is a very difficult book to read, it is incredibly powerful and one that I highly recommend.

The Only Plane In The Sky is structured as an oral history, with limited additional commentary and information by the author. Hearing the words of the people who lived through it made the whole day more immediate – and, in retrospect, even more scary – for me, and I have a better sense of what they went through and the enormity of the efforts by first responders in both New York and Virginia to rescue people in the buildings. Graff also interviews people who lost loved ones in the building and on the planes, which is of course unbelievably moving and a reminder of the grief that so many people still feel personally experience from 9/11.

I learned a lot from The Only Plane In The Sky as well. One of the people Graff interviewed describes how the nation’s air traffic controllers were able to ground 3,500 of the planes in the air at the time within the first hour of the attacks, and 700 within the first ten minutes. (Of course, one of the things many people commented on about the days after 9/11 was the disconcerting quiet of the planeless skies, punctuated only by the buzz of military planes patrolling major U.S. cities.)

Graff also interviewed people close to President Bush, such as Ari Fleischer and Karen Hughes, and I learned much more about what he did immediately after the attacks and how handicapped Air Force One was by a lack of information and crude communications technology. The president’s plane circled a Florida city while advisers tried to decide where to go, with their only source of news a local TV station whose signal would go in and out as the plane circled in and out of range. Bush and his staff were more in the dark than people watching CNN at home.

I was also unaware of the huge evacuation efforts that took place by boat from lower Manhattan as people fled Ground Zero. Thousands of people were taken to Staten Island and New Jersey by a fleet that consisted of pleasure boats, ferries, Coast Guard vessels, and even private yachts that NYPD broke into while docked to get people (some of whom were jumping into the Hudson River) out of Manhattan.

The Only Plane In The Sky was a tough read, and I did it over about two months because I just couldn’t read that much of it at one time. (I especially had trouble reading it before bed.) But it is one of my top reads of the year, and I feel grateful for the experience of reading it. I never like to call anything “required reading”, but I will call this “very highly recommended reading” for anyone who wants to really understand that happened that day, or who perhaps wasn’t alive in 2001 and didn’t experience it themselves.

I am especially impressed with Garrett Graff, who undertook the task of reviewing thousands of interviews from witnesses to 9/11 and synthesizing them into this highly readable and compelling format.  

SMALL MERCIES by Eddie Joyce

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce is a family drama told from alternating perspectives about the Amendolas, a family from Staten Island. The book takes place over one pivotal week in the lives of Gail (the mother), Michael (the father), Peter (one son), Franky (another son), and Tina (the daughter-in-law), who was married to a third son, Bobby, who is now dead. Bobby was a firefighter  killed in one of the towers on 9/11, and the book takes place ten years later.

When this debut novel opens, Gail is preparing for her grandson Bobby Jr.’s birthday party, which she is hosting at her house. Tina then breaks the news to her that she has been seeing someone, and that she’d like to bring him to the party. This stirs up a lot of emotions for Gail, who is still grieving the loss of her son and feels that Tina’s finding a new boyfriend is a betrayal of her son’s memory. Tina’s news is also the narrative excuse for Joyce to explore how the rest of the family is coping with losing Bobby. The narration goes back and forth between the present day and points in the past, so the reader gets a complete story of each character and how they got to where they were.

I liked Small Mercies quite a bit. I enjoyed the setting – Staten Island, a borough that has always been a bit of a mystery to me – and Joyce’s ability to bring it to  life through his characters. I thought Joyce did a great job getting into their heads and exposing their grief not only about losing Bobby, but for some, about how their lives turned out. They’re all flawed, and have done things they aren’t proud of, but Joyce at least explains why and provides each character’s perspective.

Joyce covers a lot of ground here: 9/11, of course, but also corporate law firms, high school sports, March Madness, the pressure to do what your father did, and the changes modern times have brought to a traditional Italian neighborhood across the river from Manhattan. Joyce is a clean, detailed writer and Small Mercies flowed easily. Despite its subject matter, it is not a heavy or difficult read at all.

I mostly listened to Small Mercies on audio, and the narration by Scott Aiello was excellent. His Staten Island accent was very good (at least I assume so), and he really brought the characters to life. There is quite a range of characters here – men, women, older, younger – and Aiello really distinguished them well and infused each one with his or her own tone, breathiness and pacing. Overall it was a very good audiobook that enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

If you like modern American family sagas told from multiple perspectives, then Small Mercies is probably right for you. I look forward to reading more from Eddie Joyce.

SATURDAY by Ian McEwan


Saturday by Ian McEwan is one of those books that I’ve seen around forever and thought I should read, but just hadn’t gotten to. I loved Atonement – it’s one of my top 5 favorite books of all time – and I thought On Chesil Beach was kind of odd (reviewed here in 2007), but that was the extent of my McEwan library. So when I found Saturday on audio at the library, I thought I’d give it a try.

I found the experience of reading Saturday to be frustratingly inconsistent.  I was alternately blown away by McEwan’s brilliant writing, and bored by too much detail, and frustrated with the self-satisfaction of Saturday‘s main character, neurosurgeon Henry Perowne – sometimes circling through these reactions within a single page. I loved this book at times, and other times I rolled my eyes at it.

Saturday takes place over one day in Perowne’s post-9/11 London life. It’s a Saturday, and he wakes up in the middle of the night, looks out the window, and sees a plane on fire coming in for a landing at Heathrow. That flight immediately conjures fears of the worst-case scenario in Perowne, who has become conditioned to a life accepting the inevitability of terrorism. Eventually, the truth behind the burning plane is revealed (not terrorism), and Perowne sets about his day – playing squash with a colleague, visiting his mother, who has dementia, preparing for the arrival of his daughter and father-in-law from out of town, and attending his son’s band practice. The one thing that doesn’t go according to plan is the minor car accident he gets into en route to the gym. The ensuing interchange with the driver of the other car is unsettling, and proves to have consequences for Henry and his family later in the day.

Henry’s life is a good one. He is an accomplished surgeon who saves lives through intricate handiwork. His marriage is strong and fulfilling. His children are gifted and attractive, and he is blessed with material wealth. Yadda yadda yadda. I got sort of tired of this – his faux humility edged with smugness and constant reminders about how wonderful his children and wife were. Even the curveball he is thrown at the end of the day – a scary one, to be sure – gives Henry a chance to shine and show what a magnanimous guy he is.

Yawn.

My other complaint is that there were times when McEwan just went overboard on the detail. The squash game, his son’s blues band’s rehearsal – I really didn’t care about the minutiae. Then again, I enjoyed the description of the neurosurgery, so maybe it’s a matter of personal interests. So some passages made me want to skip ahead, while others were deliciously meaty and rich.

And my god McEwan is insightful. There’s a passage at the end when Henry projects into the future, how his life will slide from middle age into years of progressive inactivity and distance from his current routine, which was incredibly poignant. And his descriptions of post-9/11 life  – seeing our lives through the prism of Islamic militants – swiftly conjured up the early 200s for me.

So Saturday was a mixed bag for me. High highs and low lows. I am certainly glad I read it, and will pursue McEwan again, I’m sure. But this one wasn’t a home run for me.

I listened to Saturday almost entirely on audio. The audio was very good – decent narrator, good British accent. I wish he’d talked a little faster – lots of needlessly long pauses between sentences. But it was a good audiobook.