Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann--a review

It is August, 1974, in New York City, and daredevil wirewalker Philippe Petit makes an amazing, and illegal, walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. This event is the cornerstone of Colum McCann's novel Let the Great World Spin, the strange and wonderful event that connects the story's characters. But the story is not about Petit at all, it is about the lives of a seemingly disparate group of New Yorkers whose brief contact with his wire-walk sets off a chain of events that changes or touches them all.

An Irish monk, John Corrigan, lives in the Bronx and concentrates his saintly impulses on improving the lives of hookers and nursing home patients. Despite his vow of chastity, he falls in love with a Guatemalan nurse.

Judge Solomon Soderberg sees Petit's wire-walk and wants him prosecuted in his courtroom. In order to hurry to Petit's case, he gives short shrift to the case of two prostitutes, friends of John Corrigan's, mother Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn. Soderberg lets Jazzlyn off but sends Tillie to jail. As Corrigan drives Jazzlyn back to the Bronx, they get in a terrible car accident, their van clipped by a car driven by a wannabe artist, Blaine. Blaine's wife Lara is in the car, too. Lara feels terribly guilty, and later seeks out Corrigan's brother Ciaran to make amends.

Other characters include Judge Soderberg's wife Claire, who mourns their son, killed in Viet Nam. And in Claire's grief group is Gloria, an African-American woman who also mourns her two sons, and who lives in the same building in the Bronx where Corrigan lived.
I won't go further into the plot, except to say that McCann elegantly weaves together the stories of his characters and has the mysterious forces of fate bring them together to experience both grief and redemption.

I was charmed at the outset by McCann's lyrical writing style in the very first few pages of the story--a beautiful description of the setting of Petit's wire-walk. Beautiful writing goes a long way with me, but this book has more. It has an elegant plot, woven together out of the stories of several characters. Some of the characters interested me more than others, but I found most of them engaging, and was always drawn in by putting the puzzle pieces of their relationships together.

I love the novel's atmosphere, and the vibrant images McCann conjures. I also enjoyed exploring the novel's themes of fate and whether or not things happen for a reason, and guilt and redemption. New York City is a character itself, and McCann captures its mysteries, both the pleasure and the pain of the city, very well. Maybe because this novel was written after 9/11, but set before it, there was something eerie about thinking of the Twin Towers as the center of this amazing but benign event that topples the dominos of the characters' lives, and rearranges them so completely.

My book group really enjoyed this novel, too. I'll look out for more of McCann's work.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

To read next, and BTT snuck up on me--Encouragement

For our next read, my book group chose the book I was coveting last week--Just Kids, by Patti Smith. It's the memoir of her romance and lifelong friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and how they spurred each other to become artists. I had to laugh--a bunch of my book groupers had the same idea I did, so I didn't have to persuade anyone--they even brought the New York Times Book Review from that week, which featured Just Kids.

I also have a copy of the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, on my nightstand. It's pretty hefty (um, 560 pages), and it's historical, but I think I'm up for the challenge. It's about Henry VIII, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, his close advisor. I know it mixes fiction with fact, but I'm looking forward to learning more about this era of history by diving into this novel.

Is it really Thursday already? I don't know where the time goes. My book group friend told me her husband woke her in the middle of the night recently, to say he'd solved all their problems--he was just going to add another hour to the day between 3 and 4 in the morning. Sounds good to me! Here's this week's Booking Through Thursday question:

Suggested by Barbara H:

How can you encourage a non-reading child to read? What about a teen-ager? Would you require books to be read in the hopes that they would enjoy them once they got into them, or offer incentives, or just suggest interesting books? If you do offer incentives and suggestions and that doesn’t work, would you then require a certain amount of reading? At what point do you just accept that your child is a non-reader?

In the book Gifted Hands by brilliant surgeon Ben Carson, one of the things that turned his life around was his mother’s requirement that he and his brother read books and write book reports for her. That approach worked with him, but I have been afraid to try it. My children don’t need to “turn their lives around,” but they would gain so much from reading and I think they would enjoy it so much if they would just stop telling themselves, “I just don’t like to read.”

This is a tough question. Right now, I have two kids who don't read enough for my liking (and one who doesn't read yet!). My 13-year-old and his younger brother (10) both like to read, but both feel like they don't have enough time to read for pleasure, because they have reading to do for school. I don't get it, because when I was a kid, I was always trying to sneak more reading in.

I think my eldest really likes reading, but is seduced by social networking, video games, and other stuff that we didn't even have when I was a kid. My younger one doesn't like reading quite as much as his brother did at this age, but he does love a good story, and really gets into the books they read at school. For his "free reading" (reading he has to do for school, but he gets to pick the book), he most recently finished Gary Paulsen's Hatchet, which his older brother also loved, and he just had to read the last page aloud to me, because it had a surprise ending--gotta love that. But I wish he would pick up a book on his own more often. I'm not sure how to encourage it, other than getting more books for them from the library, and trying to provide them with some down time when they can read. I limit the "screen time" anyway, so that helps create time for reading. But I don't like to push reading too hard, for fear that they will just resist.

If anyone has any good tips to get kids to read more, I'm all ears.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Booking Through Thursday--Winter Reading

Today's Booking Through Thursday question is:

The northern hemisphere, at least, is socked in by winter right now… So, on a cold, wintry day, when you want nothing more than to curl up with a good book on the couch … what kind of reading do you want to do?

Interesting--winter reading as distinguished from summer reading? I equate the phrase "summer reading" with vacation reading--easy-to-tote, easy-to-concentrate on beach reads. But my actual summer reading is more or less the same as my reading the rest of the year.

I can see how winter reading, defined here as the reading you want to do when it's cold outside and you're curled up with a book someplace warm, would be about comfort. I just posted about my comfort reads when I have a short attention span, like when I'm sick--cookbooks!

But on a typical cold, winter day (which we've been having more than usual this winter--cold and rainy days interspersed with our normal 70-degree winter wonders), I might curl up with something comforting, or something that really transports me to another time and place.

I have two favorite comfort reads, Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, both by Jane Austen. I'd curl up with either, any day, blustery or otherwise.

I just finished Sally Gunning's historical novel Bound, which took me to colonial Cape Cod, and gave me a thorough yet entertaining picture of the life of an indentured servant then and there.

And I'm almost through Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, which transported me to 1974 New York. This book, with it's poetic language and wonderful descriptions, is an immersive experience, and definitely worth curling up with.

But lately I have had so little time for reading, that any time with any book is an absolute pleasure.

Do you have any favorite books for a wintery day?