Tag Archives: oral history

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.  

DAISY JONES & THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I’m not sure that the book blogosphere has ever been as excited about an upcoming novel as it is about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six (release date March 5). I was lucky to get my hands on a review copy and read it because I just couldn’t wait until March. This is the fourth TJR book I’ve read in the last year and the hype had me very intrigued.

Daisy Jones & The Six is a fictional oral history of a rock band from the 70s called The Six. The lead singer of The Six, Billy Dunne, was a brilliant singer and songwriter, but was dogged by addiction and his past failings. Daisy Jones, another brilliant but troubled singer and songwriter, found her way to the band, joining it for one iconic album that catapulted the group to stardom and thrust the relationship between the two singers into the spotlight.

The book is told in the style of a Vulture or Rolling Stone oral history, with the story related through the words of the band members and others close to The Six. You hear everyone’s perspectives on the events that happened – the tour dates, the recording sessions, the drug binges (Daisy), the temptations (Billy), the band’s inevitable breakup and the milestones experienced by the other band members. It’s not until the end of the book that you discover who was doing the interviewing, and why.

I liked Daisy Jones & The Six. The beginning felt very familiar, as it included many of the typical rock cliches that pop up on every episode of Behind The Music. Then the book got a little more surprising, as Daisy and Billy’s relationship became more complicated. The question of whether these two flawed people, who were passionately drawn to each other, would end up exploring that passion or resisting it kept me interested throughout the book. It’s easy to forget that The Six didn’t actually exist because Reid makes the book so realistic. (There are even song lyrics at the end.) Ultimately, though, I found drugs/drinking vs sobriety/commitment angle a little tiresome. So many pills, so much coke – it all kind of blurred together. And that detracted from the overall power of the story.

The oral history format worked well here and made the book flow quickly.

Daisy Jones & The Six is going to be a big hit, and Amazon has already ordered a 13-episode limited series co-produced by Reese Witherspoon. I promise that you will be hearing a lot about it. It was an entertaining read, and as someone who loves rock history, I enjoyed many of the backstage elements of the story.