The Sunday Salon: Some Post September 11 Reading

by Kim on September 19, 2010 · 19 comments

The Sunday Salon.com 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.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Lu September 19, 2010 at 9:48 am

I had no idea Hiroshima in the Morning was about September 11th. It seems like such an interesting memoir and one that’s possibly more realistic than most memoirs. Not that stories of redemption don’t happen in real life, but more that life never quite works out so perfectly. Thanks for linking to my review; I’m glad someone read this book from my review. I meant everything I said about it.

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:17 pm

Lu: I think you’re right – the way that Hiroshima in the Morning doesn’t answer every question is very real and I appreciate that. Thanks for re-posting your review – I’m not sure I’d have found the book otherwise.

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rhapsodyinbooks September 19, 2010 at 9:52 am

I also read the Hiroshima book – my review is up today as well! – and I like your point very much about unraveling being a unifying theme. I started Love is the Higher Law and actually it turned into a DNF for me! The characters were annoying me, although I know most people have really liked this book. For me though, the NON-fiction about 9/11 is so riveting you don’t really need to come up with other stuff. I loved the book “After” by Stephen Brill, and “102 Minutes” by Dwyer and Flynn. I also found fascinating the book “Perfect Soldiers: The 9/11 Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did It” by Terry McDermott. Flashlight Worthy has a good list too at http://www.flashlightworthybooks.com/Best-Books-About-9-11/80 and I’d like to read more of the ones on that list. So much good out there to read! :–)

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:19 pm

rhapsodyinbooks: I can see how they might have been annoying, and you have to like the characters to get into that book. I actually haven’t read any September 11 nonfiction, mostly because I’ve never been sure how well I can handle it or not. I’ll definitely look into the books you suggested though- thanks!

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bermudaonion (Kathy) September 19, 2010 at 10:08 am

Both of those books sound important to me. 9/11 is a day that impacted all of us in different ways but I doubt any of us will every forget where we were when the planes hit the twin towers.

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:19 pm

bermudaonion: Definitely not. I can’t remember all the details, but I remember enough to always be able to go back to civic class, watching tv and seeing it happen.

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Kailana September 19, 2010 at 10:35 am

I got a little sick of September 11 books the first couple years afterwards. People seemed to be working the events and their aftermath into the most random books. I am terrible, but I just felt like it got really overdone…. Now that some time has gone by it isn’t so bad, but I still haven’t really read anything that qualifies in a while…

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Kailana: I didn’t read any right afterwards for exactly the same reason – I didn’t want September 11 to just be a plot point or something, and I don’t usually have patience for current events in fiction. I think enough time has passed that it works a little bit better now, if done thoughtfully.

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Colleen (Books in the City) September 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm

I thinking reading and featuring these two books on your blog is a great way to remember 9/11. Thanks for your thoughtful review of these books.

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Colleen: Thanks for your post as well. I wasn’t in New York on September 11, so I’m always interested (although that’s not quite the right word) to read those stories too.

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Amanda September 19, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I read Love Is the Higher Law earlier this year and it was so good. I haven’t read many books dealing with 9/11, and this one really hit home.

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Amanda: I haven’t read many either. I think the only one before these two was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and that book tore me up.

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Michelle September 19, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Both of these books sound fascinating, even if I know I am not ready to read them yet. I was married with a husband in the Army and a 1-year-old son when the first plane hit. The fear I felt that day is something I have tried to overcome but have never quite achieved. Some of the fear went away when my husband resigned his commission four years later, but it is still there. I recently sat with my son, now age 10, and let him watch the coverage from that day so that he may be able to begin to understand why the world is the way it is these days. Remembering never gets any easier, but it shouldn’t be.

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Michelle: Wow, that’s so scary. I can’t even quite imagine what that would have been like. I’m glad you were able to watch coverage with your son though, to help him get a sense of what it meant and how it continues to impact so many things.

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Stephanie September 19, 2010 at 8:27 pm

These both sound like powerful books. I think your thoughtful reviews are a terrific way to remember the 9/11 tragedies.

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Stephanie: I was glad to be able to read both of these around this time. I want to read more next year; I’ll have decide what further ahead of time though.

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Heather J. September 20, 2010 at 7:33 am

9/11 sort of snuck up on me this year. Usually I think about it in advance, not to plan anything but simply to remember. This year I forgot about it until I turned on the TV that morning and the History Channel came on. Since it was a Saturday and Kiddo was out of the house with my husband most of the afternoon I was able to sit and watch several of the 9/11 recap programs. It was just as heartbreaking this year as it was in previous years.

In 2001 I was pregnant with Kiddo and my husband had just been injured at work (in the local city Fire Dept.). It was a horrible time for us – Hubby, being a firefighter/paramedic, wanted to go to NYC right away to help, but he was seriously injured and couldn’t leave the house.

This year Kiddo was finally old enough to watch some of the programs about the attacks. He knows what happened, and he’s seen the buildings come down, but this year I let him see the planes crash. Needless to say, we had a lot of conversations about “why” and “how” over the next few days.

I also spent part of 9/11 this year reading American Widow, by Alissa Torres. It may not have the same impact on you that these books did, but I recommend it anyway.

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Kim September 20, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Heather: Every year that I helped with one of the candlelight vigils, it was still so sad. It always hard for me to think about how much things changed in an instant, and how things don’t go back after that. It’s good you and Kiddo got to watch things together this year – I think him asking those questions is really important.

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