Saturday, July 11, 2020

Non-fiction Review: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff

Title: The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11
Author: Garrett M. Graff
Year Published: 2020

Genre: Adult non-fiction
Pages: 425 (plus notes, sources, and index)
Rating: 5 out of 5

Location (my 2020 Google Reading map)USA (New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC. Louisiana, Florida, and Nebraska)

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): Over the past eighteen years, monumental literature has been published about 9/11, from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which traced the rise of al-Qaeda, to The 9/11 Commission Report, the government’s definitive factual retrospective of the attacks. But one perspective has been missing up to this point—a 360-degree account of the day told through the voices of the people who experienced it.

Now, in The Only Plane in the Sky, award-winning journalist and bestselling historian Garrett Graff tells the story of the day as it was lived—in the words of those who lived it. Drawing on never-before-published transcripts, recently declassified documents, original interviews, and oral histories from nearly five hundred government officials, first responders, witnesses, survivors, friends, and family members, Graff paints the most vivid and human portrait of the September 11 attacks yet.

Beginning in the predawn hours of airports in the Northeast, we meet the ticket agents who unknowingly usher terrorists onto their flights, and the flight attendants inside the hijacked planes. In New York City, first responders confront a scene of unimaginable horror at the Twin Towers. From a secret bunker underneath the White House, officials watch for incoming planes on radar. Aboard the small number of unarmed fighter jets in the air, pilots make a pact to fly into a hijacked airliner if necessary to bring it down. In the skies above Pennsylvania, civilians aboard United Flight 93 make the ultimate sacrifice in their place. Then, as the day moves forward and flights are grounded nationwide, Air Force One circles the country alone, its passengers isolated and afraid.

More than simply a collection of eyewitness testimonies, The Only Plane in the Sky is the historic narrative of how ordinary people grappled with extraordinary events in real time: the father and son working in the North Tower, caught on different ends of the impact zone; the firefighter searching for his wife who works at the World Trade Center; the operator of in-flight telephone calls who promises to share a passenger’s last words with his family; the beloved FDNY chaplain who bravely performs last rites for the dying, losing his own life when the Towers collapse; and the generals at the Pentagon who break down and weep when they are barred from rushing into the burning building to try to rescue their colleagues.

At once a powerful tribute to the courage of everyday Americans and an essential addition to the literature of 9/11, The Only Plane in the Sky weaves together the unforgettable personal experiences of the men and women who found themselves caught at the center of an unprecedented human drama. The result is a unique, profound, and searing exploration of humanity on a day that changed the course of history, and all of our lives.

Review: I hate to confess that I cannot remember the blog on which I first heard about this book, but thank you! I remember reading that the blogger really liked this book so I bought it, but I didn't realize how it is set up and how well it is done.

It's a bit like reading a play because the author lists the person's name, job title, where they worked, and what floor of the Twin Towers they were on (or where in the Pentagon or on United flight 93), then you read a bit of their interview. This format means it takes a bit more time to read, but I soon got into the rhythm and realized I was seeing people repeated throughout the book so I didn't always need to read all their biographical information after a while.

The book is very well organized, following the chronology of the day, but within that it has place and theme. I cannot imagine how long it took the author to cull through the hours of oral history transcripts to put this book together. The images in the book are also powerful and round out a complete story for the reader.

I'll confess that the parts I found least interesting were the President Bush and Washington, DC bunker bits, but perhaps that's because reading of struggle and survival is tough to beat. While this book is full of tragedy and heartbreak (how could it not be), the thing that makes it readable is that the "characters" whose voices we're hearing all survive. I got attached to individual people (well done to the author for accomplishing that) and I'd stop reading, not wanting to find out they had died. Then I would remember that I am reading their words so they must have survived to be interviewed!

9/11 is vivid in my memory. I was in California so learned about it when we put on the news getting ready for work. My daughter was just 11 months old and I remember holding her, crying, watching the attacks on TV and looking out my bedroom window to see my neighbor in her bedroom doing the same thing. We locked eyes, then went back to watching the towers crumble. Teaching that day was tough as we helped our students process.

Challenges for which this counts: 
This book counts for the Popsugar challenge twice: it has maps and it is by a journalist

Monday, July 6, 2020

Review: Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah

Title: Gravel Heart
Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah
Year Published: 2017

Genre: Adult fiction
Pages: 268
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2020 Google Reading map)UK and Zanzibar/Tanzania

FTC Disclosure: I borrowed this book from my daughter

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): Moving from revolutionary Zanzibar in the 1960s to restless London in the 1990s, Gravel Heart is a powerful story of exile, migration and betrayal, from the Booker Prize-shortlisted author of Paradise. Salim has always believed that his father does not want him. Living with his parents and his adored Uncle Amir in a house full of secrets, he is a bookish child, a dreamer haunted by night terrors. It is the 1970s and Zanzibar is changing. Tourists arrive, the island's white sands obscuring the memory of recent conflict: longed-for independence from British colonialism swiftly followed by bloody revolution. When his father moves out, retreating into dishevelled introspection, Salim is confused and ashamed. His mother explains neither this nor her absences with a strange man; silence is layered on silence. When glamorous Uncle Amir, now a senior diplomat, offers Salim an escape, the lonely teenager travels to London for college. But nothing has prepared him for the biting cold and seething crowds of this hostile city. Struggling to find a foothold, and to understand the darkness at the heart of his family, Salim must face devastating truths about himself and those closest to him - and about love, sex and power. Evoking the immigrant experience with unsentimental precision and profound insight, Gravel Heart is a powerfully affecting story of isolation, identity, belonging and betrayal, and is Abulrazak Gurnah's most dazzling achievement.

Review: My daughter recently wrote a paper about Arabs in Zanzibar and her professor suggested that she read Abdulrazak Gurnah's books, so she bought three of them. 

I have another connection to this book, which is stronger than the one stated above. My ex-husband, with whom I am still close, was born on the island of Zanzibar and his family had to flee to Dar-es Salam in the mid-1960s during the revolution when Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined. His family had to leave again in the late 60s when the local population rose up against the Arab population. Given all this, I figured this book would be really interesting and help me to better understand an important time in his life.

I see a number of parallels between the book and Abe's life: jail time for family members, the descriptions of streets and life on Zanzibar, and the way the family interacts. But, the main character, Salim, left to go to university in the UK so his experience is vastly different from Abe's who came to southern California in junior high. Still, an interesting read.

Salim is a passive character; while he is the narrator (which I liked, it gives a more personal feeling to the book to read it in the first person), it feels as if life happens to him rather than him taking charge of his life. I wanted him to ask his parents questions more directly so he would know what exactly was going on with them, but I think his culture and the times didn't really allow for that. I also wanted Salim to be successful, and he is somewhat. He accomplishes much of what he wants, but doesn't ever seem enthused about it all. However, I did get a sense of what life is/was like for immigrants from east Africa when they went abroad for education and work.

The book begins and ends with the story of Salim's parents, which I really liked as the reader better understands Salim and his life in relation to his family. I especially enjoyed the end when Salim and his father have a good sit down and we finally hear his father's story. It's a good reminder that we don't often know why people do and say what they do until we hear their side of things.

Challenges for which this counts: 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Sunday Salon: July 5, 2020

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz runs The Sunday Salon. 

Books read over the past week:   

Challenge progress 2020

  • Big Summer Book Challenge--0 book this week. 2 books total
  • Literary Escapes Challenge--This week: 0 states and 2 countries. 20 states and 18 countries total
  • Mount TBR Challenge--1 books read this week, 40 books total
  • Popsugar reading challenge--1 book read this week, 30 books total
  • Social Justice Challenge--0 book read this month, 7 books total
  • YA Award Winners--0 books read this week, 7 books total

My life outside books:

Though I have done a tiny bit of work this weekend (I am helping to put on an institute for teachers at our local university later this summer), this is the first weekend that has really felt like summer. What a relief!

We've gone for walks, eaten dinner outdoors, I shopped at the Farmer's Market, I've read, and just relaxed. We even walked to the bottom of our street to see the local-schmokel 4th of July parade that consisted of 30 old-timey cars.

I hope all of you have had a wonderful and relaxing weekend as well.

Friday, July 3, 2020

YA Review: The Priest Slyer by Stephen Murdoch

Title: The Priest Slayer
Author: Stephen Murdoch
Year Published: 2020

Genre: YA fiction (fantasy)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2020 Google Reading map)USA (CA) and a made up Aztec land (let's call it a parallel universe to Mexico)

FTC Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by the author

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): Jack and Diego (Denny) are back home in southern California, but something isn't right with Jack. After the Fire Priest of Tal'alli breathed part of his soul into Jack at the end of the first book in this series, Jack's been getting angrier and his eyes are turning brown. Jack and Diego will have to return to Tal'alli and find the ancient Healer to help Jack.

The Empire of the Innu'Chat has collapsed and the tribes of Tal'alli are on the move, fighting for dominance. Jack and Diego must connect with Queen Tayanna in order to safely traverse Tal'alli, find the healer, and help their friends along the way.

Review: Full disclosure: my brother wrote this book. It's his second YA fantasy novel, a follow-up to the first in the series, The Fire Priest. He has also written a non-fiction book, IQ: How Psychology Hijacked Intelligence.

I am not a huge fantasy reader (except for the Harry Potter books), but like The Fire Priest,  I enjoyed this one. In fact, I liked this one more than The Fire Priest. I feel like the author found his rhythm and therefore this installment is tighter. I was pulled in from page one. 

Jack and Diego are such likable characters; I want them to find the Healer, connect with Queen Tayanna, and survive the many fights and battles they get into. And believe me, there is a lot of fighting going on in this book. Most of it is hand-to-hand and there are many different tribes and factions getting in on the action. I liked that the reader gets to know more about the world of Tal'alli, it's people, it's customs, it's creatures, and its history. The rich descriptions of the people and their environment helped me to really "see" Tal'alli.

This book definitely has a quest theme going on and that worked for me. There is a goal toward which the main characters and their friends are working and obstacles which they must overcome. I was swiping away to find out what happened next (I read this on my iPad). Having characters that I really like and have become attached to die does not make me happy, but having the nasty characters perish is all good.

The book ends in such a way that a third book is needed, I'll have to ask my brother if he's working on it yet. If you are interested in reading this book, my brother says he will send an e-copy out to you. Just let me know!

Challenges for which this counts: 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review: Peace by Gary Disher

Title: Peace
Author: Gary Disher
Year Published: 2017

Genre: Adult fiction (mystery)
Pages: 392
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2020 Google Reading map)Australia

FTC Disclosure: I bought this book with my own money

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): t’s been a peaceful Christmas for Paul Hirschhausen, the only cop in Tiverton. A grass fire, a stolen ute, the usual welfare checks. The big event: Brenda Flann driving her Falcon into the front bar of the pub.

Then Hirsch is called to a strange, vicious incident in Kitchener Street. And Sydney police ask him to lookin on a family living on a back road outside town.

Suddenly it doesn’t look like a season of goodwill at all.

Review: I first heard about this book from Shelleyrae at Book'd Out. She lives in Australia so it's fun to get books set in Australia every once in a while. At first I wasn't sure about this book, but after about 50 pages, I realized I was sucked in and appreciating the characters, the setting, and the plot.

Hirsch is a police officer in a small rural town who is figuring out the locals and how to finesse them into sharing and helping him. It's tough to break into a tight-knit community. When run of the mill stealing turns to slaughter, Hirsch is up to his eyeballs in lying, stealing, murder, kidnapping, and more. It all evolves so slowly, that all of a sudden I realized we were in the middle of something big. And, there were so many tentacles to it, with so many other minor characters involved!

Disher does a great job of describing the outback, a small town, private citizens who want their lives to stay private and more. I got a real sense of Tiverton, which was great and I could really sense where Hirsch was while he was out doing his job. The reader really gets a sense for the people and the town in this book.

Challenges for which this counts: 
This book qualifies for the Popsugar Challenge because this author has written over 20 books.