Amy Waldman: The Submission (review)

This is the third book I read in my small 9-11 read-along and it’s definitely the easiest read of the three, the other two being Don DeLillo Falling Man and Jonathan Safran Foer Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Still, even with being an easy read, this has a lot of information about the aftermath of 9-11.

A jury has been gathered to decide on a memorial for Ground Zero. This is two years after 9-11 and the jury has been going through a lot of entries and finally narrowed it down to two – they argue back and forth about which one and finally the jury decides on a design –  with especially the support of Claire Burwell, who is representing all the families who lost someone in the attack. They choose a beautiful garden enclosed by a wall with the names of all the victims on it.

But when they open the envelope with the name of the architect, they get a bit of a surprise. The architect turns out to be an American Muslim, Mohammad Khan.Now the question becomes if it matters who the architect is. Turns out it does. When it’s leaked to the public that the architect is a muslim, all hell breaks loose. Claire still sticks up for him but faces serious opposition from a lot of the other families.

The families are torn between what to think about a Muslim architect. Some see it as a way to reconcile – others see it as a slap in the face. Can a Muslim design a memorial for all these people who were killed by other Muslims?

A sidestory to this is the story of the illegal immigrants who also were killed in the attack, personified by Inam and Asma Anwar’s story. They come from Bangladesh to get a better life in USA. But Inam is killed in the attacks and Asthma is now on her own with their little boy. Without understanding much English, she has to find out to go on living as a single Muslim woman. She wants her husband to be mentioned on the memorial. She wants a place to go with her son to remember his father, her husband. When she decides to speak, her words have a huge impact.

There was some events towards the end that I at first thought would put an amazing twist to the story but it didn’t really work for me. I also quite didn’t believe in Claire’s development. I was sure that she was going in one direction and when she went in the complete opposite one, I was very surprised – especially since it came right after her remembering a situation with her husband, talking about how you can like an artwork without liking the artist or vice versa, that liking one and hating the other isn’t mutually exclusive.

What I did like about this book was it’s focus on how difficult it was to be a Muslim at that point. How all Muslims were judged by what a few extremists did and how the difference between being a terrorist and a Muslim disappeared. I liked the focus on how hateful the dialogue became and how you couldn’t say anything critical of the government without being called unpatriotic. It really put a spotlight on the importance of not judging an entire group of people by what a few representatives from that group do.

I really liked how Claire’s children build cairns all the way through New York to guide their daddy home. I loved that way of showing how children need something tangibly to work through their grief – it reminded me of how Oscar in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close visited all the people named Black to solve what he thought was the last riddle left to him by his dad and how the children in Falling Man sits at the window looking for planes. The building of the cairns is a beautiful thing. And it becomes clear that it’s also an extremely important thing since we later in the novel both have a destruction of a cairn and also a new cairn, a very significant cairn.

These cairns are a way of remembering. One way. Just one way. Nothing more. And that’s the thing. If you visit a cemetery, you will see how many different ways there are of remembering. The gravestones differs, there are small stone birds and bird baths on some graves, constantly fresh flowers on others and so on. So with all these people killed on 9-11, how do you make one memorial that will suit all? Not to mention the rest of the States. As well as the fact that this memorial also have to send a signal to the rest of the world. What is the right way to remember all this loss of life?

I think the novel really works in bringing about the way it felt like in those first years. How hard it is to follow your head and do what you know is right when your heart is screaming out against it. How things don’t exist in a vacuum but are depending on so many other facts and circumstances and how our decisions are influenced by all this. It might have been taking the easy way out to write the novel from a young Muslim woman’s viewpoint but to me, she was a more interesting than Claire. But maybe that’s more because I don’t quite believe in Claire’s decisions.

I have a hard time rating this novel. I think there’s a lot of good in it but maybe it didn’t live quite up to my expectations. I think maybe that while at the same time the novel’s strength is how easy and quickly it is in discussing some very serious topics about racism, sorrow, anger and a nation trying to heal itself, it’s also the novel’s weakness. I felt like it skated a bit over the issues without going completely in depth with any of them. But it is a good read, it raises some interesting points but I still think Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is the better 9-11 novel of the three, I’ve read now.

  • Title: The Submission
  • Author: Amy Waldman
  • Publisher: William Heinemann
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 299 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Don DeLillo: Falling Man (review)

So Don DeLillo … I have had a hard time with Don DeLillo for a while now. I’ve read Mao II several years ago and didn’t really get it and later I tried reading Underworld and I gave it up after 100 or more pages because I didn’t really care about it. But it still sits there on my shelf, mocking me. When I saw this book, I knew I had to have it and give DeLillo another chance. And I plan on trying to read Underworld again later this year so this book is kind of an attempt to summon up my courage for that.

So Falling Man is my re-introduction to Don DeLillo. And I must admit that after having thought about it for some days after finishing it, the main thing I feel is frustrated. This is one of those book where I read it and I keep feeling that there’s something more lurking in it, something lurking just out of the corner of my eye that I just can’t see and just doesn’t get. I feel like I don’t have the proper tools to grasp this novel, unfortunately.

Where Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is about a family who lost a loved one in the 9-11 attack, this family didn’t loose anyone. But they suffered the same loss as every New Yorker did that day – the loss of innocence, of feeling safe. When the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, Keith was in one of the towers. But he was one of the lucky ones, he managed to get out by walking slowly down the stairs in a line, together with other survivors. Keith got out and walked all the way through the city to his apartment, his old apartment where he used to live with his wife and child before they were separated.

But the 9-11 attack changed things and now Keith and his wife Lianne are trying to get back together, to make it work. But while walking out of the towers, Keith trapped a random suitcase and he decides to return it to it’s owner, Florence. Florence also survived the attack, walking down the stairs just like Keith did. And when Keith and Florence meet, they find that they can speak to each other about their experience in the towers. They meet and talk, they sit in together and eventually, things evolve between them. At least physically. So Keith is cheating on his wife while trying to get back together with her. Still, it’s clear that his relationship with Florence isn’t a real relationship, it’s a way of healing, of coming to terms with things together with someone who experienced it as well.

At the same time as I feel very frustrated with this novel, there are things in it that are truly amazing. I loved how the name Bill Lawson turns out to be a child’s mishearing of Bin Laden. I loved how he showed the kids sitting in their rooms, watching the skies for signs of more planes. Lianne’s group of people with Alzheimer’s, writing what they remember – wanting to remember the attack on the towers but forgetting against their will…

This is a novel about the impact of 9-11. About how it penetrated everything so that everywhere you look, you see the towers. You see the towers crumbling. And you don’t want to see that. The Falling Man is a performance artist who re-enacts a man falling from the towers over and over, all over New York. Lianne sees him once and as everyone else, she is shocked by this. He in some ways embodies the remembrance. Maybe because if you don’t remember history, you are doomed to repeat it? Or maybe because you have to face your fears before you can conquer them? Keith have to go back to the towers to be able to move forward.

The book begins right after the towers were hit. In the chaotic ash-covered streets of New York. And it ends inside the towers in a world where there’s only one thing to focus on – a staircase going down.

  • Title: Falling Man
  • Author: Don DeLillo
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Year: 2007
  • Pages: 246 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Jonathan Safran Foer: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (review)

‘/…/ one hundred ceilings had become one hundred floors, which had become nothing.’ (p. 272).

I loved this novel all the way through. It was incredible. I do not have words to really express how great this book was. The writing was so amazing. Jonathan Safran Foer painted such incredible pictures with his words and I was just blown away by it. I don’t think I can do it justice but I’m going to try to write something that can recommend this novel to others so you too can be blown away by this fantastic novel.

This is the story of young Oscar Schell, a nine-year-old boy who lost his father in the 9-11 attack. Oscar and his father used to play all kinds of games so when Oscar finds a key in an envelope labeled Black in a blue vase in his father’s closet, he thinks it’s one last treasure hunt. Oscar decides to find the lock this key fits into and he goes about this by visiting every person named Black in the phone book. He starts going to them one by one and has lots of interesting encounters but doesn’t seem to have any luck with finding the right Black.

Oscar’s voice is spot on. I love how he sometimes just rambles on and on about things he knows – and even sometimes about things he wishes he didn’t know.

Since his father’s death, Oscar has been living with his mother and with his grandmother living across the street. A huge part of this novel is about this grandmother – and about his grandfather. They both grew up in Dresden and experienced the fire bombing in WWII. Thomas Schell, Oscar’s grandfather, was in love with his grandmother’s sister who disappeared in the bombing, while pregnant with his child. Thomas Schell lost the ability to speak, has the words yes and no put on his hands and carried notebooks everywhere to be able to speak with other people. ‘/…/ instead of singing in the shower I would write out the lyrics of my favorite songs, the ink would turn the water blue or red or green, and the music would run down my legs /…/’ (p. 18).

Oscar’s grandparents tried to make it work between them by making a lot of rules but never really talked to each other about how they felt. His grandfather finally left when he found out she was pregnant with Oscar’s father and never met his son – although he wrote him letter after letter, none of them ever mailed.

I loved this tragic story of Oscar’s grandparents – how they had been through so much but wasn’t really able to connect with each other and help each other through it. I think Oscar’s grandmother’s life story is a perfect example of this. She sits in a room, writes and writes and writes, and when she finally show it to his grandfather, there’s nothing on the pages. He feels so bad since he now remembers having taken the ribbon out of the type writer and thinks that she’s not able to see that she hasn’t written anything because of her crummy eyes. He pretends to be able to read it even though there’s nothing on the pages. But in reality, she is just pretending to write and is just hitting the space bar again and again. ‘My life story was spaces.’ (p. 176). It’s so beautiful. And tragic.

This is a book about love and grief and how we deal with it. I think it’s more about these universal feelings that we all experience than it’s about 9-11. 9-11 is the setting for this story about a boy trying to come to term with loosing his dad, a dad who lost his father too. It’s about the terrible feeling when we have our parents or children ripped from us and how we try to cope, to survive and to protect the ones around us who have suffered too. It’s about people loosing their loved ones because of actions of other people, other countries’ governments or terrorists. And it’s an amazing feat.

I think Jonathan Safran Foer puts the 9-11 terror attack into context of other terrible events in human history like the bombing of Dresden in WWII and the  dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oscar’s grandfather tells about his experiences in the bombing of Dresden, how he ended up going around in Dresden Zoo and killing all the animals as well as what he experienced on the streets. ‘/…/ I saw a woman whose blond hair and green dress were on fire, running with a silent baby in her arms /…/ through the sounds of collapsing buildings I heard the roar of that baby’s silence.’ (p. 211-213). A mother describes how her daughter died in her arms in Hiroshima. As terrible as 9-11 was, this was not the first time that civilians suffered. I think that Foer’s argument is weakened a bit by these two others being in wars because I think that the loss of civilian life is equally important, no matter what the context. But I think the people attacking 9-11 could be said to have thought they were being in a war and therefore, their action was as justified as the other two. Or rather – as little justified. Still – doesn’t more parties than one have to recognize something to be a war for it actually to be a war? And how awful it is to try and win a war by killing innocent civilians. How people suffer because of this.

Jonathan Safran Foer is an interesting author to me. He has written three novels – Everything Is Illuminated (which is on the 1001 books list), Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Tree of Codes (an experimental novel written by carving out words from Foer’s favorite book) – as well as one non-fiction book – Eating Animals (Foer’s beliefs about our eating habits). I own Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Eating Animals and I need to get my fingers on the two other books. They all sound so fascinating and I can’t wait to see what more he comes up with.

To me, this challenges the idea of what a novel is and what it can be – somewhat like The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall did. Hall used the words in the text to create images of this shark that attacks the narrator – it’s an extremely clever novel. In this, Jonathan Safran Foer’s second novel, he also uses the text as well as images put into the text to underline parts of his story. He has pages with only one sentence on them, he has pages of people testing pens and colors, he has pages where the writing is corrected with red ink, pages where the letters run into each other and becomes unreadable – and more. I was so fascinated by all this and when on top of this, the story was so engaging and beautiful that it was impossible to put down, it makes for an extremely great novel.

On the cover of my edition of this book, there are three words selected from three reviews from three newspapers – the words are dazzlingheartbreaking and beautiful. This is one of the few novels where I actually agree with the words put on the cover. This novel truly is all three.

  • Title: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
  • Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Publisher: Penguin 
  • Year: 2005
  • Pages: 326 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 5 stars out of 5

Introducing a new theme: 9-11

From my experience of reading several books related to Charles Dickens and his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood I have learned, that it brings something extra to the reading experience when you attack a theme from several angles or view points. And because of that, I would like to read more in themes – choose a few books with the same issues or some other relation to each other and read them close together. My Dickens-Drood theme has been a rather huge affair and I’m not done with it yet. But this is not preventing me from reading other themes – especially shorter themes with only a few books.


When something happens, when disaster strikes, it often takes some time before it shows up in fiction and popular culture. It’s been more than 10 years since 9-11 and my impression is that not many authors have dared to write about this theme. I haven’t read any books about it yet – and I have to admit that I haven’t watched any movies with this theme either. But I have three books on my shelves about 9-11 and I’m looking forward to reading them and to see what these three different authors have to say about this theme.

  1. Jonathan Safran Foer: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. The movie version of this was nominated for an Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year and the trailer looked interesting. The book looks very different from most other novels with it’s blank pages, pages with only one sentence on it or several pages with pictures of a falling man. Also, Jonathan Safran Foer is an author that I’m looking forward to reading so I’m excited about this.
  2. Don DeLillo: Falling Man. I have not had the best of luck with Don DeLillo so far. I gave up on Underworld and although I have read Mao II it didn’t make a huge impression on me (but I think I had the wrong expectations). This is a novel about a 9-11 survivor and I’m hoping this will change my impression of Don DeLillo – especially since I plan on giving Underworld another try later this year.
  3. Amy Waldman: The Submission. This novel is more about the aftermath of 9-11. It’s not mentioned explicit in this novel that it’s about 9-11 but it’s about a memorial for a devastating terrorist attack. A jury gathers to select what memorial – and the anonymous winner turns out to be an American Muslim. I’m so looking forward to reading this novel!