Tag Archives: non fiction

The Day the World Came to Town | 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland

148775Contemporary histories have distinct advantages: first hand accounts, plentiful documentation, and photo records. The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede has the dubious advantage of being an account of one of the defining moments in American history, and one of the most documented. But contemporary reports also have drawbacks, and I observed a few in this highly readable book.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland tells the story of the dozens of airplanes that were stranded in Gander, Newfoundland after the United States government closed all airspace in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The town of Gander, and other neighboring towns, generously and without reservation, took in the stranded airline passengers, feeding them, clothing them, bringing them into their homes and welcoming them into their community. This account is an affirmation of the people of Gander and the Newfoundland spirit.

Onto the advantages of a contemporary history.

Author Jim DeFede was able to interview 180 eyewitnesses to the events in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001 and the days following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, and the Pentagon. He traveled to Gander, less than a year after the events, and was able to observe where events took place in addition to interviewing the residents. In fact, DeFede mentions in the introduction to this book that he was given free access to the town, and was welcomed and helped by many residents of Gander.

Because DeFede had such extensive access given to him, within a year after September 11, 2001, The Day the World Came to Town has an immediacy and freshness that is very appealing. The stories of passengers bonding with Gander residents and making strong connections and friendships are marvelous to read. While reading these stories, I really felt that most people, when given the chance, are generous with their worldly goods and with themselves. And that’s a good feeling.

And the drawbacks of contemporary histories.

Hindsight has some advantages, and when it comes to highly documented public tragedies that spur Congressional investigations, the advantage of hindsight is even more apparent. This account was written before the 9/11 report was published, before the US invaded Iraq, and before the rubble was entirely cleared from Ground Zero. Since The Day the World Came to Town was published, there have been many accounts written, many analyses made, and many feature magazine articles written (including some about Gander, Newfoundland). Which makes some of the political analysis in this book seem naive and incomplete.

Luckily, political points and analysis are not the focus of this book. It’s the people. The good hearted, generous people of Newfoundland who opened their doors and hearts to the thousands of airline travelers that were stranded on their doorstep on September 11, 2001. Let me just state for the record, if I am ever stranded or abandoned, I hope it is in a place just halfway as kind as Gander. I’d be satisfied.

The Day the World Came to Town is a fresh account of the airline passengers stranded by the events of 9/11, but lacking the broader perspective of history.  The book is stronger in the beginning, as the passengers are overwhelmed by the generosity of Gander, but loses its focus and becomes simply a record of anecdotes in the last few chapters. Highly readable, and life affirming.




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Tomlinson Hill by Chris Tomlinson

18404319Tomlinson Hill by Chris Tomlinson recounts the history of the Tomlinson families of Tomlinson Hill, Texas – one a privileged white slave holding family, and the other family, the slaves that took the Tomlinson name. Tomlinson begins the book with the migration of the white Tomlinsons from Alabama to Falls County, Texas with their slaves walking the distance as the masters rode.

This book was tough going for me at the beginning – so many battles, so many acreages, so many names to process and keep straight.

I’m glad I stuck with Tomlinson Hill past the difficult battle passages. The parallel history of the two Tomlinson families is a compelling story of race, privilege, and bloody Texan history. Much of this history is painfully sad and grim, particularly the determined, evil way the whites were able to entrap the freed slaves into the virtual slavery of the sharecropping system. The North may have won the war, and passed the Emancipation Proclamation, but the Southern white landowners controlled the ballot boxes and ruled by intimidation and terror.

The final chapters detailing the author’s own experiences and LaDainian and LaVar Tomlinson’s experiences are superb. It took the black Tomlinson family 4 generations to get out of the racist manual labor system of Texas. Their experience was reflective of the African American experience in rural Texas. As white landowners mechanized farming, the former sharecroppers and farm workers were hard pressed to find work, and the “separate but equal” education system kept them in their place. Their white counterparts – even the relatively unsuccessful and uneducated – never faced the brutal poverty the black Tomlinsons did, even after declaring bankruptcy.

This book is an indictment of Texan culture, which unbelievably, never elected an African American to statewide office until 1990. 1990! Another fact that astounded me was the “rebranding” of Texas as a western state. My impressions of Texas as a cowboy Western state are the product of a conscious rebranding effort to avoid discussing the shameful slave holding past. Tomlinson dispels many of the myths we were fed as school children regarding the south. “They didn’t know better” and “they didn’t understand what they were doing” get quickly debunked with editorials published in Texas newspaper before the  Civil War.

The author, Chris Tomlinson, discusses his experiences as a child with government ordered desegregation of the school system. I found these chapters fascinating, as I attended schools in Wilmington, Delaware that were also ordered to desegregate by the landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education. I saw so many of my peers packed off to private and parochial schools, compounding the desegregation issue and preventing meaningful integration with white flight and fears of the “not like me.”

My experiences were much the same as Tomlinson’s. Yes, there was a lot of upheaval in the local schools. Yes, there were different standards in different schools that compounded problems. But, there was sincere reaching out and healthy interaction that outweighed so much of the negative. My teacher that year was Ed Sherrill, an educator in the Wilmington public school system, and he was the first African American teacher I had ever had. He was tall, with a booming voice, was my homeroom teacher, taught social studies, and I loved him. Meaningful integration of our schools is the only way we are going to succeed as a society.

I do have a warning: the chapters dealing with the Ku Klux Klan are difficult.

I would recommend this quite scholarly work to readers interested in American history, particularly the history of racism in America. The history of the Tomlinson family is our American history, complete with triumphs and failure, kindnesses and injuries.

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The Happiness Project

6398634Why, why do I do this to myself and read self help books that are destined to make me feel inadequate and superfluous to my own life?

Rubin’s stated purpose is to bring more happiness into her ordinary life. However, Rubin is Ivy league educated, then Yale Law, clerked for Justice Sandra Day O-Connor, was invited to serve on the Foreign Relations Council, and she’s the daughter-in-law of Robert Rubin. I hardly think her life is ordinary.

And this whole topic started to wear on me, with Rubin’s perky projects designed to increase happiness. I don’t think I’d have the time to fit in many of her suggestions, between working, laundry, feeding my family, laundry, shuttling 3 kids around, and laundry.

Somehow I suspect that Rubin doesn’t have to take care of many of the mundane tasks that I have on my plate. I need a book that helps me find the joy in ironing. I think I’ll be waiting awhile for that book to be released.


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Letters by Kurt Vonnegut

Dear Neil Gaiman, Christopher Barzak, and Maureen McHugh,
Dear Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Lethem,
and dear Kevin Powers, dear Patrick Ness, and dear Erin Morganstern –

Twenty years from now, I don’t want to read “The Collected Facebook Statuses of <insert your name here>.” Nor do I want to read “The Collected Blog Posts of <insert your name again here>.”, or even “The Twitter Feed of <yes, your name again>.”

Do you have a fellow author you mentor? Are you writing them letters? How about children, aunts, cousins, high school friends, teachers – do you sit down and write them a letter once in a while?

Please do.

I have just finished reading Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, edited by his friend and fellow author Dan Wakefield. I feel like a door has been opened into the mind and life of Mr. Vonnegut, and my impression of the man and his writing has been utterly changed and deepened.


I guess I had always assumed that Kurt Vonnegut was probably most like his character Kilgore Trout, the strange and stoically unsuccessful scifi author that is featured in many of Vonnegut’s novels. Instead, I have come to know a man who cared passionately about his family – including his former wife Jane. He kept up a correspondence with many other writers, especially the authors he met while teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His encouragement and advice to these writers continued from the time he met them in the late sixties, all the way up until his death in 2007.

He also wrote to his teachers, army friends, and kept up a lifelong correspondence with friends from his high school in Indianapolis.

Vonnegut also felt very strongly about censorship and free speech. There are quite a few letters in this collection, previously unpublished, sent privately to the towns and school boards that proposed banning his works from their libraries.

Standout correspondence from Vonnegut that touched my heart were his tender, often apologetic letters to his daughter Nanny. Nanny appears to have had a difficult time with her parents divorce – more difficult than her parents, even, and Vonnegut time and again reassures her that the divorce had nothing to do with her or another woman. The letters are those of a man whose heart is laid bare:

Anytime you want to come here, do it. I have not schedule to upset, no secrets to hide, no privacy to guard from you. (Letters, p 177)

That’s not to say that Vonnegut doesn’t get a bit testy, a la Kilgore, from time to time. Difficulties with his agents and lawyers are documented in his letters. It’s comforting to know, from editor Wakefield’s notes, that Vonnegut did resolve his estrangement from his long time agent and they resumed their friendship.

One of the most amusing letters is from November 1999, sent to Ms. Noel Sturgeon, daughter of the famous scifi author Theodore Sturgeon. Ms. Sturgeon wrote to Vonnegut, requesting that he write an introduction to a new edition of her father’s short stories. Vonnegut’s reply to her explained the relationship between Theodore Sturgeon, real life scifi author, and Kilgore Trout, fictional scifi author created by Vonnegut. Here Vonnegut explains once and for all – was Sturgeon indeed the model for Trout:

We knew each other’s work, but had never met. Bingo! There we were face-to-face at last, at suppertime in my living room.

Ted had been writing non-stop nor days or maybe weeks. He was skinny and haggard, underpaid and unappreciated outside the ghetto science fiction was then. He announced that he was going to do a standing back flip, which he did. He landed on his knees with a crash which shook the whole house. When he got back on his feet, humiliated and laughing in agony, one of the best writers in America was indeed, but only for a moment, my model for Kilgore Trout. (Letters, p388)

Wakefield has grouped the letters by decade, and has written an introductory note to each section that frames the major events in Vonnegut’s life during that period. This was very helpful. However, there were a few significant letters – most obviously, the angry letter Vonnegut wrote after discovering that his second wife is having an affair – that Wakefield never addresses in his notes. Unless I read a biography of Vonnegut, I’m not going to learn the context of that letter.

Also, Wakefield did some editing of the body of the letters, for understandable reasons, removing addresses, phone numbers, and repetitions. However, his explanation for his edits appears in the afterword. I ended up baffled by the ellipses at the beginning, and searched through the book to find Wakefield’s explanation at the back. I do think that would have been better placed at the beginning of the collection.

A letter, written just for a specific person, conveys so much more of the writer’s personality than anything written for general public consumption like a blog post. And I do believe that the act of putting pen to paper makes a writer feel responsible to write something with thought behind it, unlike the many quick emails we dash off on a daily basis.

So all of you wonderful writers that I have addressed this review to, please, do your fans a favor and write some letters. Not emails, not blog posts, but real, honest to god, written thoughtfully on paper, LETTERS.

I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway. 

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