The Sunday Salon: Some Post September 11 Reading

by Kim on September 19, 2010 · 19 comments

The Sunday This year September 11 passed quietly for me, which is different from almost every year when I took time to remember and reflect. Part of the reason was deliberate – with all of the press about people in Florida being stupid, I shut myself out most news last Saturday because it made me angry.

I was in 10th grade on September 11, 2001, and I remember a lot of what happened. Each year since, the anniversary is always hard for me. I took until I was in college to know it was because I find it emotionally exhausting to have come of age in a world that’s afraid of something as ambiguous as terror.

Not do something this year left me with an absence having not thought about it, so I took some time this week to read a couple of books as a way to remember – Hiroshima in the Morning by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto and Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan. I don’t want to write about them at the same time to compare them because they’re totally different, but together they helped fill some of that gap I was feeling.

Hiroshima in the Morning is a memoir by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto that I got for review from Winsome Communications. In June 2001, Rizzuto, a wife, mother, and novelist, traveled to Hiroshima to interview atomic bomb survivors for her next book. Her husband and two sons remain in New York, and when September 11 happens it shifts their worlds.

Outside the plot (which is pretty straightforward), it took me a long time to figure out what this memoir was doing because there are a lot of elements floating around – motherhood, war, terror, and marriage, to name a few – that at first don’t seem to go together.

Luckily, somewhere midway through I figured out a few of the threads that tie these pieces together, and then the memoir started to make more sense.

This memoir is very much about unraveling, what happens when life as we know and expect suddenly starts to shift or drastically changes in an instant. Rizzuto leaves the United States for Japan, beginning to unravel her connections to her husband and sons. Her mother has something like Alzhemier’s, slowing unraveling her mind and memories. When September 11 happens while Rizzuto is in Japan, it creates an instant break between her and everyone she knows, further unraveling these strands. And then you have the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which instantly unraveled an entire city and generation of survivors.

It still strikes me as an odd way to write a memoir. I’m generalizing a lot here, but normally memoirs start out in a bad place and are stories of redemption, or they start out good, have a terrible moment, and then follow the story of recovery.

This memoir is almost exactly the opposite. Rizzuto starts out with an almost idyllic life – a successful novelist working on a fellowship to research her next book who married her high school sweetheart and is the mother of two young sons. Instead of a moment that breaks that Rizzuto must then put back together, the entire memoir is about losing and unraveling and there is very little about the process of putting life back together.

Surprisingly, this doesn’t make the memoir overly negative or depressing. Instead, it just raises a lot of questions. Rizzuto asks a lot of questions, of both herself and the subjects she’s interviewing (another cool parallel I just thought of!). But there few or no satisfactory answers for any of the questions, which can be a little draining.

It took me a long time to read this memoir, not because it’s long, but because I ended up investing a lot in it, in asking and trying to answer the questions, in connecting as the world starts to spin. The writing is beautiful, but the memoir itself is unsettling in a way that seems exactly as it should be because there are no simple answers to the questions Rizzuto, and I, want the answers to.

The book reminded me of how much September 11 changed me, from a person who accepted the world as it was to a person always asking questions there are no answers too. On the five-year anniversary I helped put together a candlelight vigil on our campus and I remember calling my mom during the middle of it in tears just asking, “Why?”

Love is the Higher Law by David Levithan is a much less conceptually demanding book, but it hit home a little more closely for me. I checked it out from the library after Lu (Regular Rumination) re-posted her review of it last week. The book follows three New York young adults with vague ties to each other – Claire goes to school with Peter, and Peter was scheduled to have a first date with Jasper on September 11. But of course that all changes.

Because the book is about high school/college students, it brought back a ton of memories for me – being in class, watching tv, experiencing a day with my peers that would change the world in a way we didn’t understand. I wasn’t in New York, I wasn’t in danger, but the feelings Claire and Peter and Jasper had reflected my experiences in small ways.

Levithan does a nice job of making Claire and Peter and Jasper very different from each other. They each seem to represent a different way of reacting to the unthinkable, which I think means there would be a way for many readers to connect. And the message, about the importance of love and friendship and in remembering how much good outweighs evil every day, is comforting.

I feel like this review is sort of terrible, so just go read Lu’s for why the book is excellent.

I’m still disappointed I didn’t make more of an effort to remember September 11 this year. But both books, in different ways, gave me some space to reflect on it, which is more helpful than I think I realize now.

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