Monday, March 22, 2010

Book Review: 102 Minutes

I was caught a little off guard when Jeremy asked me why I was reading 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers. He doesn't usually ask me to justify my book choices, even though I'm sure he rolls his eyes at books like The Princess Academy when I'm not looking. But for some reason, he called me out on 102 Minutes. He said he had no desire to read that book, at least not right now, and wondered why I did.

At first the answer seemed obvious: I wanted to know what happened in there, on that day. But I don't think that answers the question, either, because why did I want to know?

The conclusion I've come to after finishing the book is that 102 Minutes is no less a survival story than Alive, Black Hawk Down, Lone Survivor, Desperate Passage, In the Heart of the Sea, or Skeletons on the Zahara. Just because it happened so recently and had so many more casualties doesn't mean that the stories of those who perished and survived in the towers that day have less merit than those of other disasters, or that they should remain untouched. I am interested in them for the same reason - they fascinate me with their powerful illustrations of human nature in extraordinary circumstances.

With that figured out, let's move on to the book itself. As I read it, I realized how fatigued I had become with 9/11. It took reading this book to remind me how much the world changed on that day. (And I know a lot of people say that actually, the world hardly changed a bit because of 9/11 but you can't deny that at the very least, our perspective of life in general certainly changed.)

An author could tell a story like this one in a few different ways. He could pick a few narratives and follow them from beginning to end, without respecting linear time as a whole, or he could follow the clock and jump around among narratives. This book goes with the latter approach, and while accuracy benefits, the narrative suffers for it. I eventually gave up all hope of being able to follow any particular person's narrative, unless they had an unusually distinctive name or identifying characteristic to help jog my memory. On the other hand, it was very clear, chronologically, exactly what was going on with the towers at any given time, and that was helpful. I would have liked to see Mark Bowden take on this complicated, multi-voice story and weave it into something that was at once accurate, straightforward, and compelling. The authors of 102 Minutes really only ever manage to be two of the above at any given time.

The other weakness I saw in this book - and I think there is no way around this particular weakness - is that there was a lot of judgment by hindsight, which, of course, is 20/20. Of course we know more now than we did on that day. There were plenty of things that should have gone differently, if the right people had been in charge or if the rules had been followed better, or even changed. But we didn't, and they weren't, and it was uncomfortable at times to read some scathing criticisms of certain individuals and groups as they were compared to what I consider to be an impossible standard.

102 Minutes is a difficult read - I found myself getting goosebumps from the sheer terror of the story at times, while other times the goosebumps came because of a singularly uplifting moment in the middle of it all. And in that way, it is one of the best survival stories I have ever read.


Suzanne Bubnash said...

I plan to read this--thanks for the review. I believe there is value in a book of this type, understanding not just the mechanics of survival, but also the triumph of human tenacity in the worst possible circumstances.

After 911 someone wrote short biographies of all 2700+ dead, and our newspaper published every single one, usually about 15 a day. It took a long time to get through them and I read every one. In this case, putting a face on the victims emphasized the depth of the tragedy.

Liz Johnson said...

Well even if the world didn't change a bit at 9/11, I certainly did. Hmmph.

I think I want to read this book, and soon... partly because it's still fresh and raw in my system. I don't really want to lose the emotional connection I have from 9/11, and I think knowing personal accounts helps it live on within us... and hopefully helps us the positive changes that came from such a terrible tragedy.

Kathy Haynie said...

It makes me a weird way...that when my high school students write about 9/11, they hardly know anything about it. They had just started 1st grade.

Jeremy Palmer said...

My own mental fatigue from this tragedy is the sole reason I aksed.


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