I couldn’t let November pass without mentioning some nonfiction! To that effect, here are a couple of reviews for recent(ish) nonfic reads that I’d highly recommend: Garrett M. Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11, and Michele Harper’s The Beauty in Breaking, a medical memoir.
In The Only Plane in the Sky, Graff collects the voices of hundreds of Americans who survived, witnessed, or were in some way touched by the events of the World Trade Center towers falling on September 11, 2001. Each of these people speak about their experiences, typically in just a few words or a few sentences. The book covers New York City, the Pentagon, the Pennsylvanian crash sight, the pertinent planes, and key governmental locations. It’s largely chronological, though the chapters collect related topics to give precedence to narrative. Additional content includes brief logistical paragraphs written by Graff, as well as phone call and cockpit transcripts, speeches, and numerous photographs, some in grayscale and many in color.
“I also recall him saying, ‘Look, nobody’s coming. Nobody is coming for us. Any of the firemen or rescue people who are tasked at getting people out of the building- they are dead. If they were in the street, they are dead. If they were in the buildings, they are dead. Nobody is coming to get us. We have to get out on our own.'”
I was only seven on 9/11 and the adults in my life at that time chose mostly to hide what was going on from me and the other children around me, so I knew that people were shocked but I didn’t fully understand why for several years. Perhaps because of that late start to the topic, perhaps because from the rural Midwest New York felt to my small self as far away as Mars, my interest in 9/11 has always been more of a concern about human mortality in extreme situations than about fear over terrorism. And that, I think, was a great way to approach this book. There are some details about the political response and the gradual realization of al-Qaeda’s involvement, but at heart this is a book full of ordinary people who lived through a shocking day.
“As you’re running, you’re looking over your shoulder- you could feel some of the shrapnel flying by. I saw a cop in front of me fall. I figured he got hit with a piece of shrapnel. I reached down and picked him up by his gun belt, because he was going to get trampled. I said to him, ‘You all right? Where did you get hit?’ He said, ‘No, I dropped my pen.’ It goes to show you how people’s minds go- here he is running for his life and he bent down to pick up a pen that he dropped.”
There are harrowing details here, so certainly go into this one when you’re best equipped to encounter them. I had to take it very slow because I picked the book up at a time when I was dealing with another source of stress, but it was worth every minute. With the exception of some of the phone and plane transcripts, every speaker in this book is someone who survived, and the sheer number of them makes The Only Plane in the Sky more of a collective look at human resilience than any sort of close character study meant to play on the reader’s emotions. It’s grim, but there’s nothing manipulative about this book. Everything is compiled with such care and consideration; even the photos avoid sensationalism and gore.
Best of all, Graff manages to collect and convey a story both wide in scope and incredibly detailed. Every facet of the day seems to be covered here in some way; I can’t think of any aspect of 9/11 that I’ve ever heard discussed in real life that isn’t touched on by this book, and while it would’ve been unrealistic to fit every survivor into these pages it’s clear that each passage has been chosen specifically and thoughtfully. 9/11 experiences may be each unique unto themselves, but our responses to that day, as Graff and his collected speakers demonstrate, is much more universal. This is a book meant to connect everyone who watched the towers collapse, in person or on television, or heard about it afterward.
“We survive, we do our daily things, but you’re always a part of 9/11.”
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is a stunning and emotional read that both captures a historical moment and speaks to the human condition in a way that I think will appeal to a great many readers, perhaps even many who don’t think themselves particularly interested in 9/11 itself. To be honest I had a much stronger response to this book than I did while actually visiting the 9/11 memorial and museum earlier this year, and it’s the sort of book that I’ll easily be recommending and gifting this holiday season even to friends and family who aren’t regular readers. It’s just that good.
In The Beauty in Breaking, Dr. Michele Harper shares her experience as a Black emergency room physician trying to find the best way to help herself and others. Throughout her life and medical work, she sees a lot of people who are broken, including herself, but turns to reflection and meditation to make meaning of the cracks and infuse purpose into her life and career.
“True happiness only and always comes from within. In these and countless other ways, there is no gain without loss. Then- there it is! First in the descent and then in the emergence from this dark night of the soul lies true integration. True caring, indeed, true living, comes from being able to hold peace and love for oneself, and from sharing that unwavering, unconditional love, knowing that all life depends on this.”
In some ways, reading The Beauty in Breaking feels a lot like watching a season of Grey’s Anatomy. Harper mentions altering names and details to protect patient privacy, but within these bounds she presents cases to the reader, tows us along through administering their care, and uses each instance as a chance to examine some underlying social issue, be it reasoning through someone’s surprising behavior or criticizing a systemic flaw. Through these pages she examines America’s continuing struggle with racism, her own history with abuse, and the ways that the hospitals she works at both help and fail their employees and patients.
It’s a compelling read that touches on some important subjects- for instance, Harper uses her time at a VA hospital to comment on the unjust treatment of women and particularly women of color in America’s military, as well as the country’s failure to make veteran hospitals places of prestige that prioritize- above all else- healing those who’ve served. Another particularly impactful chapter involves a Black man brought in by white police officers who insist that he be subjected to medical tests that he does not consent to; Harper informs the officers that this is illegal, to which her white trainee responds by going behind Harper’s back to involve the hospital’s legal team instead of clarifying the matter with her, the senior staff member, directly.
” ‘Michele,’ he said. ‘You know every time I try to make a change at this institution, I just can’t. I’m always blocked. You didn’t get the position. I’m sorry to say it. You’re qualified. I just can’t ever seem to get a black person or woman promoted here. That’s why they always leave! I’m so sorry, Michele. They’ve decided that even though you were the only applicant, and a super-qualified one at that, they’re just going to leave the position open. I’m so sorry. I hope you’ll hang in here with me anyway.’ / His words hung sadly between us. He had spoken with the heavy heart of a longtime liberal white man who would shake my hand, smile, close the door behind me, and then sit back down in his comfortable, secure chair. His effort was complete. His part was done. I was the one left to live with the limitations of bigotry. I was the one left to get up and fight.”
It’s dramatic, but it’s also packed with meaningful commentary; the only downside is that the book didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. Each chapter is well-crafted and engaging, but the overarching theme is limited and somewhat hard to spot without being told by Harper what to look for. Individually, the chapters each carry their own messages, and feel like they could be read in any order, though they purport to chronicle a journey of learning and growth. Many of these chapters feel like jumping-off points for deeper commentary, though Harper chooses instead to move on to the next subject. We get only snippets of her life beyond the hospital; rather than spending time with secondary characters to understand her relationships with them, we are only told what has happened with them and how she feels about those events. Fair choices one and all, but together they leave the book feeling rather unfocused, some of its potential acuity lost in the attempt to cover too much all at once.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Ultimately, I think it’s clear that Harper’s training is in medicine, not writing- and that’s perfectly fine. She’s clearly got talent in both areas and is absolutely the doctor I’d want to meet in an emergency room, but I wasn’t quite sold on her authorship despite loving her intent and case-by-case delivery of patient encounters. The narrative delivery could’ve used some polishing, but I’d certainly still recommend this title to anyone interested in the topic because Harper’s experience is well worth acknowledging.
The Literary Elephant