Book Review: Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I just finished this one on the subway home from work, after starting it yesterday. I have to write about it now, even though I have a million things to do to prepare for my trip to England on Tuesday morning (working 8 days in a row and then picking up an extra shift tomorrow night isn't giving me much time to do laundry, pack, clean the apartment, go to the bank, print the eulogy and my tickets etc etc). I just have to write about this one now because I want to do it while it is still fresh in my mind.

No wonder this novel won the National Book Award. It's AMAZING. The story is about several lives that are intertwined in NYC in the 70's: Corrigan and his brother Ciaran, Irish immigrants living in the Bronx, Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn, two prostitutes in the Bronx that Corrigan looks after, Clare and her husband Solomon, parents who are mourning the untimely death of their son in Vietnam, Lara and her husband, artists who are still looking for themselves through art and drugs, as well as quite a few others, lesser characters, but just as important and interesting.

Colum McCann starts the story with Philippe Petit's incredible feat of walking between the Twin Towers on a cable, and proceeds to use this as a back story for all the entire book. On the day that Petit walks across the wire different events happen that will change the lives of all characters for the rest of their lives. Although the narrative goes back in time and into the future to give background on some of the characters and events, the main storyline is based in this week in August 1974.

Rich, full of emotion and feelings that everyone can empathise with, this book is literally magical. Not only that, it creates a real vision of NYC, one that really exists, a city of everything, paradoxical and alive, one that anyone who has lived in NYC will immediately recognise. It's going to take me a while to get this book out of my mind, I think I am still a little overwhelmed.

At the end of the edition I read there is an interview with McCann by Nathan Englander. One of the questions was "Let The Great World Spin paints a broad picture of New York. Do you want to talk about the various worlds you walk us through?". McCann's answer really does explain it all, and I have to say that he succeeded in what he set out to do: "I wanted it to be a Whitmanesque song of the city, with everything in there - high and low, rich and poor, black, white, and Hispanic. Hungry, exhausted, filthy, vivacious, everything this lovely city is. I wanted to catch some of that music and slap it down on the page so that even those who have never been to New York can be temporarily transported there."

Read it - you won't be sorry.

Colum McCann
Man On Wire - Philippe Petit documentary

Book Reviews: Thirteen Reasons Why & The Fault In Our Stars

I really shouldn't be reading about anything that relates to death or sickness right now, but for some reason I am drawn to these type of books at the moment, and they provide some kind of comfort. I also haven't read any real YA novels this past year, probably because I always worry that I am going to get bored. I guess the last Laurie Halse Anderson book I read left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth, and also I've been obsessed with spy stories from the 40's for months, so that may explain it. Anyway, last week I was in the middle of reading White Riot (Punk Rock and the Politics of Race), and was looking for something a little lighter to read between the different essays. I remembered that my friend Holly had lent me a few books a few months ago and I just grabbed the top one and started reading it.

And couldn't stop. Thirteen Reasons Why (by Jay Asher) tells the tale of a high school kid called Clay who receives a box of cassette tapes in the mail. No return address and no sender. Once he starts to listen to the tapes he realises that they come from a girl called Hannah, a girl who had committed suicide a few weeks before. Through her voice on the tape he learns the reasons why she killed herself. It's heartbreaking, but so very real. The narration is shared by both Clay and Hannah's voice on the tapes, Jay Asher actually does a wonderful job weaving the narration seamlessly. You actually don't feel like the story jumps between the character's voices, more like there are two voices complementing each other, both sides of the story coming together as one. I actually wish I had read this book as a teenager, and would probably advise all teens to read it. It's so sad, but the story does show that all actions, however small they may be, can have consequences.

So I raved about the book to Holly and she came back with three more, one of which was The Fault In Our Stars by John Green. I started it yesterday during the performance at work, spent 2 hours reading in bed before I literally couldn't keep my eyes open anymore and got up early to finish it this morning (and I am dealing with serious sleep deprivation this week). This story deals with life-threatening illness (cancer) in teens. What I liked about this book is that it treats cancer in the way that cancer victims live through/with it, and avoids all the clichés that you may expect. The main character, Hazel, is smart, funny, witty and lives with the fact that one day in the near future she will not be around anymore. John Green creates a wonderful story with characters you just can't help falling in love with. Imagine the shit you went through as a teen, and then imagine having cancer on top of that... It's like trying to live as a child, a teen and an adult all at the same time. And yes, you will cry, but you will also laugh just as much.

I also must mention that it's pretty awesome, having a friend like Holly who has the knack of picking out the exact book you need at just the right time <3

Discussion/Ramblings - radical children's literature

A few months ago, right at the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement I came across an article discussing the wrongs and rights of what was called “radical children’s literature”. I can’t find the article itself anymore, but the book that this article pointed out was called Tales For Little Rebels – A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature and contains forty or so stories, illustrations, poems and other writings for children by authors and illustrators such as Lucille Clifton, Syd Hoff, Langston Hughes, Walt Kelly, Norma Klein, Munro Leaf, Julius Lester, Eve Merriam, Charlotte Pomerantz, Carl Sandburg and Dr. Seuss. I haven’t read the collection myself, but each article in the book supposedly contains some historical background and the author’s biography. The main theme of this publication is of course “radical” literature and its intent to make one think and question, all of these articles aimed at children. But isn’t that what the whole point of education is anyway? To learn how to think for oneself and make up one’s own mind? Are these publications considered “radical” just because they have some kind of political opinion (towards the left)? In general isn’t literature full of opinions and views and ideas? As a writer myself I know how hard it is to write something that doesn’t contain anything of yourself – actually pretty much impossible (unless you want to produce a bland string of words that are not going to interest anyone). Think I am just really intrigued on why these authors are considered radical, whereas others aren’t. All the literature I remember reading as a child was full of opinions and views, some of which I agreed with, others that I still remember questioning (and probably still do today).

I suppose I am too removed from the literature that is offered to children nowadays. I don’t have kids, I haven’t been a nanny in years and most of my friends who have children don’t live in this country. I still have the impression that it’s all about Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, Tintin, Huckleberry Finn, Dr Seuss, Flicka, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, The Secret Garden, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Noel Streatfeild, Pippi Longstocking, Robinson Crusoe and these are the types of books that I will read to my children when I have them. I still have a lot of my old children’s books and will still read them now and again, just to try and recreate that feeling that they gave me when I was so much younger. Nothing like reading Enid Blyton’s The Secret Island and imagining how you could also run away from everything you dislike and make a secret life for yourself and your friends on an island. Or pretending you are Oliver Twist, running around the streets of London, hiding from Fagin and Bill Sykes. Or jumping on a plane with Tintin and falling into different adventures all over the world. Imagining the world governed by pigs standing up on their hind legs, wearing suits and smoking cigars (I still imagine Napoleon in Animal Farm to look like a pig version of Roosevelt and Churchill mixed together, don’t ask why). I wouldn’t really consider any of the above as “radical”, but they are definitely thought-provoking and in some way, character-forming. I don’t think I have ever read a good book, finished it, and not thought about it for days afterwards (not the use of the adjective “good” here). Many of the books I read as a child have stayed with me until this day, however outdated they may seem – yes, I am well aware of the fact that nowadays pre-teens would not be able to bike around the countryside of England by themselves for days on end, but how much fun is it to imagine that you can actually do this?

In any case, I really want to read this group of stories and illustrations, just because it sounds like a good collection of works by important writers and illustrators. Whether it really should be considered “radical” is another question that I will answer once I have had the chance to read it. That won’t happen until I have paid off my rent and overdue credit card payments, but once I have purchased and read it I will post about it. In the meantime I would love to get some examples of what is considered to be radical children’s literature of today and the past, and why it is considered radical…

To be continued...

Reading list 08/21/2011

Here are the next books on my reading list (if you saw the piles of books I have on my table you would probably tell me to stop buying books and to focus on getting through the ones I have to read, but that's never going to happen). Let me know if there are any you think I should be reading. I love recommendations.

Mark Kurlansky - Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea
Mahmood Mamdani - Saviours and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror
Vasily Grossman - A Writer At War
Andrew Feinstein - After The Party
Jennifer Egan - A Visit From The Goon Squad


Alan Furst - Take me back in time...

I discovered Alan Furst a while ago while I was one of my regular bookstore trips, browsing through the aisles, looking for something to catch my eye. I read everything, with a particular preference for historical fiction, especially historical fiction based in the 1930's and 1940's in Europe, so Furst's novels really fit all of the above.

I picked up The Spies of Warsaw and raced through it. Intrigue, passion, history, politics, Europe, 1930's, Nazis, Communists - what more could you want? Oh, and he writes really well too :-)

My favourites so far have been The World At Night and Red Gold , but I am biased because I grew up in France and love France more than any country in the world. These two novels really depict France at her best and worst. I would love for Furst to bring the main protagonist of these two novels, Jean Casson, back in another novel at some point. I feel that his story doesn't end with Red Gold...

But if you are more interested in Eastern European intrigue, politics and culture, try Night Soldiers or The Polish Officer. Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia...

I miss the old world. Someone build a time machine for me please.