Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bloggers' Book Club - Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

In May we read Let the Great World Spin for our Bloggers' Book Club, a great idea inspired and established by Lily a few months ago. This is the much-acclaimed new book by Colum McCann, a writer I first heard of in our own book club in Lismore when we read one of his books - This Side of Brightness - some years ago. That book was beautifully written given the dark theme - literally and metaphorically - as it was set in the New York underground, the subculture life of those who live on and beyond the margins of society's norms. I have forgotten the finer details but I can still visualise the mind pictures the book conjured up in me.

This book was somehow redolent of that earlier book. I found it relentlessly bleak in the middle while the beginning and end were more hopeful and optimistic. The book's premise of linking seemingly random lives by a single factual event on August 7th 1974 was certainly an interesting one and he pulled it off in that there was a cohesive holding together each of the main characters. These connections were fairly nebulous and random at first glance, and you had to pay close attention or you might find yourself re-reading to clarify any confusion. I found it a bit hard to keep the links in my head as I didn't get to read the book in a short time-frame, rather it was over a couple of weeks between everything else going on - life and work get in the way of reading at times!

The breadth of the story was vast, as was the geographical reach - from Dublin to New York. But this was a subtle twist on the Irish-American literary fiction genre as it centred around the tightrope walker Philippe Petit, a guerrilla highwire walker who defied security guards and the NYPD to walk across a wire that he slung between the iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which assumed a mythological status post-9/11. This became a metaphor for the terrible events to follow nearly three decades later, where everything hung in the balance and the world spun a little off its axis, and nothing was the same afterwards. New Yorkers gazed skywards that day too, to see the man on the wire, and cheered when he made his way to safety, despite his immediate arrest. The Judge dealing with his charge took a lenient view of the "crime" - and he was peripheral to one of the central characters in the story, as it wove its web around the city.

Video of Petit's daring walk which inspired the recent film Man on Wire

Both the tightrope walk and the events of 9/11 were moments in history where everyone would remember what they were doing at the time, a bit like my generation remembers what they were doing when Kennedy was assassinated. (I was lying on the floor in front of the fire, drawing and colouring in, and it came on the old wireless. It was only months since his helicopter had flown over Lismore and our school, when he came to stay in the Castle where his sister Kathleen should have been the Duchess, had she not been tragically killed in a plane crash in 1948, four years after her husband the heir to the Duke of Devonshire title was killed in action in World War II.

Once again I digress; back to the book. Its opening, set in an affluent Dublin suburbia of the 50s, gave no indication of the direction it would take, Stateside to New York to follow a hermit-style priest whose life's work was looking out for the hookers in the Bronx, while naively or otherwise falling foul of their pimps. I know this is the real world for far too many women but it made for very brutal and bleak reading, especially the narrative by Tillie, one of the women whose daughter Jazzlyn was also on the streets and who saw no other future for her grandchildren after their mother's death and her jailing, until a twist of fate saw their lives turn around, although they could never forget their origins.

All the women in the story are all strong women who are influenced for good or bad by their circumstances in life and the external events like the Vietnam war has had an impact on two of the women who lost sons there. The description of the upper-crust Claire's brittle demeanour and her efforts at bringing a group of similarly bereaved mothers together was one of the strong parts of the book and it brought into stark relief the contrast with the lives of desperation of Jazzlyn and Tillie, the daughter-mother hookers. I found this intriguing, and I think he captured the mood very well, especially the dynamic between Claire and Gloria, one of the mothers, which gets off to a bad start and ends with their friendship - a mutual need fulfilled. There are some characters who seem to have minor roles, like the computer hackers, and the graffiti tagger in the subway tunnels - a nod to This Side of Brightness here - and drop-out artists in the woods, and I enjoyed the depiction of their life. McCann paints vivid imagery and like his forenamesake Colm Tóibín did in Brooklyn (last month's book club choice) can bring a place to life for someone like me who has never been to New York.

Corrigan, the priest who is known by his surname, is a maverick character who epitomises the Christ-like humble and serving priest, in stark contrast to the current image of the clergy who have got a hammering in recent years, much of it well deserved, however good individual priests may be. The church and the clergy cannot hide behind their collars and Canon Law as mitigation for the disgraceful handling of the sex-abuse scandals that have beset them since the disclosures, denials and cover-ups. These have been exposed thanks to brave survivors of abuse, and no thanks to the church leaders in Ireland and Rome who have been dragged kicking and screaming to a grudging acceptance of their role in the institutionally-sanctioned cover-ups. I wrote about that last year when the Ryan Report was published and I despair that anything has changed for the better in the interim.

That terrible date, 9/11, marked a shift in global attitudes both towards and by the US after which the world has never been the same again. Certainly international air travel has become more stressful and restrictive, and the halcyon days of yore when you could go as far as the steps of the plane or at least the boarding gate when seeing off a child who couldn't get or refused the ignominy of unaccompanied minor status are gone forever.

I remember doing precisely that in 1999 when middle son, aged about 13, went off to stay with his old school pal from Laos who'd moved home to Berlin. Dublin airport staff were totally unfazed with such an occurrence and it reminded me of all the long-haul flights we took over two decades between Ireland and Africa and Asia, where the boys had their Aer Lingus log books and got the Captain's signature with all the flight details completed, and were invariably invited up to the cockpit for a chat with the pilots. Those days will probably never return and I hope the boys will treasure those special memories along with the log books.

Did I like the book? I did - but a caveat - it is hard going at times and very harrowing - yet McCann's way with words and language is lyrical and gets you through the tougher parts, and there was a lot of empathy with the various characters, especially the women. I am glad I read it; McCann is a decade younger than Tóibín yet they have similarities in their fluent writing style and the ability to draw in the reader.

I will be fascinated to read all the other reviews as I am sure it will be a book that inspires a diversity of opinion, once again! The title is from Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" - a little bit of serendipity I hadn't been aware of till I read the end notes - I have a pocket collection of Tennyson from my mother who loved his poetry among others, and she gave me a love for it too. I think the title is fitting for a book with a theme of the Twin Towers, as the world has been in something of a spin since, with the conflicts it sparked in Iraq and Afghanistan -notwithstanding the fact that 9/11 had nothing to do with Iraq but that's a whole other blog post.

I have gone all over the place with this review, as it inspired streams of thought I had no idea would emerge, but they just seemed to flow and I went with them. I hope you stuck with me to the end, through all these tedious ramblings, and got something from the post that will set you off to read this writer - he has quite a few books I have yet to read, but I think he has a lot to offer.

The other members of the Bloggers' Book Club are listed at Lily's blog which seems down at present so I don't have an updated list but those I have are:

Marian @ Made Marian
Treasa @ Irish Mammy On The Run
Kathy @ Rumble Strips
Marie @ Diary of a Country Wife
Kirsty @ The Road Less Travelled
Val @ Magnum Lady
Jen @ Smurfette Jens
Edie @ Munchings & Musings
Steph @ The Biopsy Report
Susan @ Queen of Pots

When I do get the other links I will add them to this list. Drop by these blogs and see what they thought of the book, though it may be the weekend before they post their reviews.

(I'm posting this a bit early - the deadline is next Sunday but as I've been late the last two months with the reviews it can't do any harm to be early for once - bucking the trend for me!
NB - It's Saturday 5th June - I am moving the post to today's date so other members will find it at the top of my blogpost roll!)


laurie said...

that was a brilliant book. nice review.

and i loved "man on wire," the documentary about phillipe petit.

Janet said...

I agree with Laurie. The film was spell binding. And the book excellent as well. I now have This Side of Brightness to read.

Catherine said...

Laurie - I agree that it was a good book, but hard going - I haven't yet seen Man on Wire but I will get it on dvd rental sometime! that's why I love book clubs - real and virtual - they open up the world of writers you mightn't otherwise read.

Janet - thanks for visiting - and yes, the book is good - I look forward to the film. I enjoy your Hong Kong posts! Enjoy your time there and also you will like This Side of Brightness. I see you're a retired librarian - that's my favourite place in town and I get all these books from there.

All the best, Catherine

Lily said...

Catherine, I resisted the temptation to read your post until now as I hadn't finished the book/written my post until just now. Your review is great and I enjoy your diversions, they make for a very interesting read. I enjoyed the book but I had wondered was it the fact that I didn't get a good run at it initially, that I found it a bit hard to get into. It was probably also as you found, the harrowing tale of life on the street was difficult to read.

Apologies my blog will be sorted soon when I move up higher on my son's 'to do' list. Tomorrow I'm guest posting on Cathy's blog above

Catherine said...

Lily - thanks for the comment - and glad you enjoyed the diversions and the review. I rarely re-read before hitting the publish button or there's the temptation to edit to the detriment of spontaneity. agree with you about the difficulty at getting into it when you don't get a clear run at it. Harrowing at times, yet a spark of hope by the end. He's a masterful writer indeed. I haven't heard much of him here till this book apart from the one we did in our own book club that I mentioned.
Hope you are back online soon not least so I can check the other reviews.

Lorna said...

Hi Catherine, really enjoyed your review and you bringing in other aspects of life etc. I also wondered re the relevance of the graffitti tagger on the train and found Gloria one of the most enjoyable characters.

Made Marian said...

I agree with you guys that it was difficult to get into without a clear run, so much so that I sometimes resisted even picking it up. I like you're point Catherine that all the women are very strong and there is a lot of emphasis on female relationships.

I loved your review Catherine, I think too many blog posts are edited to within an inch of their lives :-)

Catherine said...

Lorna - Just replied to your review over at yours, so no repeat here- thanks for the feedback and I'm just surmising about the tagger's relevance - it may have been coincidence but I think not! And agree about Gloria. She and Claire were joined by their common loss and it came across very well.

Marian -replied over at your blog just now - glad you liked it and I have yet to see the film - Man on Wire - I just saw the YouTube clip and it was riveting even though it 's just a slideshow. Glad you stuck with my review despite it being all over the shop! Good luck with your wedding preparations - when's the happy event? Must read your blog more frequently to get updated - too busy here these days.

All the best, Catherine.

Kirsty said...

Great review Catherine! And nice to meet you :)

Lily said...

Catherine, I’m adding a comment to all BBC members blogs to say that our June book is ‘The Children’s Book’ by A.S. Byatt to post on the first Sunday in July. Our next book then is ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ by Barbara Kingsolver. Enjoy reading.