Tag Archives: non-fiction

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.  

THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP by Marie Kondo

I feel like in the last few months, my house has reached a tipping point: I hate almost everything in it. There’s too much stuff and I can’t take the clutter anymore. I have made a pact: 50% of it needs to go. We don’t use it, we barely look at it, and I am so much happier when there is less of it.

I’ve undertaken a few efforts to get things under control. First, I sold a bunch of stuff at our local mother of multiples’ consignment sale. As my son gets older, I can cycle out the stuff we have kept from when my daughters were little. Booster seats, infant toys, snap-and-go stroller – all now making someone else’s baby happy. Second, I’ve cleaned out my own closets and gotten rid of probably 2/3 of my clothes. I weeded out stuff that didn’t fit, that didn’t look right, that was out of style. or that I just couldn’t figure out how to wear. Of course, I’ve replaced some of it, but there is less hanging in there and I can see it all now. And I’ve started a project to redo my daughters’ room. I haven’t started the cleanout in there yet, but it’s coming soon.

But there is so much more to do. (The books! My god, the books.)

So I was in the perfect frame of mind to read Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Kondo is a professional organizer in Japan, and she has a whole system – the KonMari Method – to help clients declutter for good. She sees decluttering not as something you do regularly, but as a way of life that will transform how you use your space and treat your belongings.

Here are some of her guidelines:

  • Surround yourself with things that bring you joy. If you are keeping things for any other reason, get rid of them.
  • Don’t de-clutter a little bit at a time. Instead group all similar items together and go through all of them at once.
  • Focus in what you want to keep, not what you want to get rid of.
  • Don’t store things in fancy containers. You’ll never see what you have. Cardboard shoeboxes make the best storage units.
  • The more paper you get rid of, the more efficient you’ll be, because you won’t spend time looking for what you need.
  • Store purses inside of other purses.
  • Don’t use belongings to keep you stuck in the past. Appreciate the memories and move on.

There’s a lot more to the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but those are the things that jump to mind as I think back on it. Pretty useful.

Kondo sometimes veers off into directions that didn’t resonate with me. I don’t think I need to thank my clothes at the end of the day for being lovely. I don’t believe in taking everything out of my purse when I get home from work, only to put it all back in the next day. I found her treatment of books to be totally unrealistic – she says to put them in a bookshelf in the closet and she expressed amazement at a client who had fifty books in her TBR pile. (Ha!)

I suspect that if you’re the type of person who would get something out of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, you’ve already decided that you want to read it. If you’re not the type of person who would get something out of it, you’ve stopped reading already.

Off to declutter the dining room table.

ALL JOY AND NO FUN by Jennifer Senior


Vacation read #3 was All Joy And No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, by Jennifer Senior. I rarely read non-fiction, but I saw this book at the library the day before we left on vacation and I grabbed it.

It is fitting that I am trying to write this blog post after a long day of being with the kids. It is now 12:07AM and our daughters are still awake (we’re on vacation). I feel physically and emotionally depleted, and if I weren’t getting in a car in the morning for 12 hours to head home and then dealing with re-entry and back-to-school prep on Sunday, I’d probably just wait to write this post. But I want to get it done before we get home, while the book is still fresh in my mind.

Basically, Senior has endeavored to explain why the hell we parents are so tired and stressed. There are good reasons for our anxiety, whether we have toddlers, elementary school kids, or teens. The challenges of raising each of these age groups are different, of course. For example, when our kids are little, we crave time when we are physically apart from them, and when they are older, we feel hurt when they reject us and don’t want to be with us. Younger kids are over-scheduled, while older kids constantly vacillate between wanting their independence and being totally helpless.

To research All Joy And No Fun, Senior interviewed couples, single moms, grandparents raising grandchildren, working moms, SAHMs, and SAHDs to get at the heart of why parenting can be both such a slog and the most rewarding thing we’ve ever done in our lives. She also explores the effect children have on marriage, on friendship, on work, and on self-esteem. I read this book with interest and felt reinforced by many of Senior’s conclusions. One of my friends on FB posted about this book a few months ago, calling it required reading for parents and suggesting that we have our parents read it too, so that they can understand why we’re all going crazy. I agree.

There’s also a lot in here about how “flexible” schedules and technology have made it hard to contain work to work hours and parenting to parenting hours.

Here are a few quotes that I thought were particularly insightful:

  • “The portability and accessibility of our work has created the impression that we should always be available. It’s as if we’re all leading lives of anti-flow, of chronic interruptions and ceaseless multitasking.” (YES!)
  • “A wired home lulls us into the belief that maintaining our old work habits while caring for our children is still possible.” (True!)
  • “The result, almost no matter where you cut this deck, is guilt. Guilt over neglecting the children. Guilt over neglecting work. Working parents feel plenty of guilt as it is. But in the wired age, parents are able to feel that guilt all the time. There’s always something they are neglecting.” (Amen!)
  • “Today’s parents are starting families at a time when their social networks in the real world appear to be shrinking and their communities ties, stretching thin.” (Yep!)
  • “All it takes for a couple to start fighting, really, is for them to go out to dinner with another couple whose domestic division of labor is slightly different from their own.” (Eek!)
  • “Our expectations of parents seem to have increased as our attitudes toward women in the workplace have liberalized.” (Makes sense!)
  • “Homework has replaced the family dinner.” (Oh my god, yes!)
  • “One wonders if actual family dinners might happen a bit more frequently if they hadn’t been supplanted by study halls at the dining room table, and if that time wouldn’t be more restorative and better spent – the stuff of customs and stories and affectionate memories, the stuff that binds.” (Um, what’s that?)
  • “Parents of adolescents have to learn, by stages, to give up the physical control and comfort that was once theirs. In the end, they are left only with words.” (UGH!)
  • “When parents spend forever trying to get their kids to stop playing video games and come down to dinner, they’re trying to impose artificial boundaries in time where no natural ones exist.” (Pretty much true!)

I can’t say that I walked away from All Joy And No Fun with The Answer to the challenge of how to parent successfully in this intense, connected, 24/7 world, but I did find it quite interesting and got a lot of perspective from it. If you liked the quotes I listed above, you’ll probably like this book too. If you can find the time to squeeze it in.