Let the Great World Spin: A Novel

by Colum McCann

Paperback, 2009

Call number




Random House Trade Paperbacks (2009), 375 pages


Fiction. Literature. HTML:NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER • Colum McCann’s beloved novel inspired by Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire stunt, which is also depicted in the film The Walk starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people. Let the Great World Spin is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s. Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth. Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.” A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal. BONUS: This edition includes an excerpt from Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic. “This is a gorgeous book, multilayered and deeply felt, and it’s a damned lot of fun to read, too. Leave it to an Irishman to write one of the greatest-ever novels about New York. There’s so much passion and humor and pure lifeforce on every page of Let the Great World Spin that you’ll find yourself giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed.”—Dave Eggers “Stunning . . . [an] elegiac glimpse of hope . . . It’s a novel rooted firmly in time and place. It vividly captures New York at its worst and best. But it transcends all that. In the end, it’s a novel about families—the ones we’re born into and the ones we make for ourselves.”—USA Today.… (more)

Media reviews

This is an exceptional performance by a writer whose originality and profound humanity is evident throughout this highly original and wondrous novel.
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The lousy feeling that you’ve been duped into buying a bogus product increases as you read Let the Great World Spin, and like all chintzy things manufactured for tourists, the book can’t withstand the slightest amount of tensile pressure. Apply a little scrutiny to the artistic decisions being
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made, and worse and worse details appear, from the awful prose, which ceaselessly pitches and yaws between staccato bursts of words and breathless run-on sentences, to the gaudy, exhibitionist displays of grief. But tackiest of all is the way that McCann deals with his African-American characters, who come off as nothing more than anthropological specimens.
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It is a mark of the novel’s soaring and largely fulfilled ambition that McCann just keeps rolling out new people, deftly linking each to the next, as his story moves toward its surprising and deeply affecting conclusion.
Here and elsewhere, “Let the Great World Spin” can feel like a
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precursor to another novel of colliding cultures: “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” Tom Wolfe’s classic portrait of New York in the 1980s. But McCann’s effort is less disciplined, more earnest, looser, rougher, more flawed but also more soulful — in other words, more like the city itself.
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Gritty yet hopeful... in terms of sheer lyricism, McCann pulls out all the stops. My review copy was an absolute mess of Post-its and marked passages by the time I was halfway through.
A book so humane in its understanding of original sin that it winds up bestowing what might be called original absolution... a pre-9/11 novel that delivers the sense that so many of the 9/11 novels have missed.

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
Colum McCann’s 2009 National Book Award winning novel, Let the Great World Spin, interweaves the lives of a dozen different characters, all brought together in New York City on August 7, 1974, the day that Philip Petit walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers. McCann’s breathtaking and
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wonderful ability to thread these lives together in a seamless fashion had me turning pages furiously into the night.

Woven deftly into the story the themes of love, loneliness, grief, courage and, above all others, hope work together to paint a picture of magnificent complexity . With the tight rope walking as a backdrop, the reader experiences the different faces of NYC life in the 70’s. It is McCann’s uncanny ability to continually develop a character and connect them to the next character, again and again, that makes this novel so wonderful. Add to that the fact that McCann so effectively puts himself into the shoes of a hooker and a grieving mother, an Irish bartender and a struggling artist, changing voices as he goes, making you believe in and care for each character, and you know you’re in the hands of a master.

The relevant issues of the time set the scene again and again in the bankrupt city of New York: the seedy streets of the Bronx, drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes, neglected children, the Viet Nam War and the effects on those left to pick up the pieces and put their lives back together, remnants of hippies, and the struggle to care for all the less fortunate by those in the religious life, and grief. Teeming is the descriptor that comes to mind. The city is so alive that you can almost feel your blood pumping. When Judge Soderberg surveys his courtrooms, the author gives us this:

“There wasn’t a bad thing in the city that didn’t pass through Soderberg’s gutter watch. It was like surveying the evolution of slime. You stand there long enough and the gutter gets slick, no matter how hard you battle against it.”

And then there’s McCann’s ability to showcase contrasts: three grieving mothers, one a black prostitute, one an affluent Park Avenue resident the other a black college graduate with a sorrowful past. The way in which he contrasts and connects these three women is remarkable. Above all this is a book about connections.

In the author comments at the end of the book, the connection to 9/11 is brought up but, I have to say, I never felt that connection while I was reading the book and McCann does say that it was his own emotional connection to 9/11 that made him think in that way and that many people may just see it as a book about New York in 1974. But the more I think about the book (and it does generate a lot of thinking) I think the connection has to do with the hope that McCann puts forth in the narrative. It’s a book that deserves much discussion (would be a great RL book group choice) and an absolute winner as an NBA choice. Very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
Reviews, in my opinion, aren't the right place for book reports, nor for nosegays of fanboy gush. I'm supposed to let the reader know why he or she should, could, or would want to read a title.

You should, could, AND would want to read this National Book Award-winning novel of grief, sadness, and
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loss because it's so damned easy to love and cherish these characters. The Catholic monk whose vocation is to bring a whisper of compassion, in its ancient and literal meaning of "shared pain", to the least and the last of people, the whores, drunks, druggies that we (most of us, anyway) do our damnedest to ignore; the wealthy mother of a Vietnam war casualty, one of the Army's computer guys, a geek whose interest in computers led him to help develop ARPANET, whose grandchild you and I are using right now; the tightrope-walking oddball whose main claim to an entry in the Akashic Records is walking between the World Trade Center's towers.

I love them all, and more besides...Tillie, the whoring mother and grandmother, whose entire world-view centers on making it all just a little, weentsy bit better than it has to be, Gloria whose losses mount and mount and still mount but whose sense of life is that it's here, so's she, so what's a girl to do but laugh? And Jaslyn. Oh, so much hinges on Jaslyn, Claire's niece of the heart. So much comes to its final, painful, joyous fruition with her arrival...and truly, ladies and gentlemen, at last here the great world spins.

Really, nothing I say can impact your personal decision to read the book or not. I can, and do, recommend it. Millions of the maniacs on a mission who have already read it are doing just that. I can only encourage you to support a writer who can create a character who says of her dead daughter's attempted savior:

"They told me {he} smashed all the bones in his chest when he hit the steering wheel. Well at least in Heaven his...chick'll be able to reach in and grab his heart."
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
On August 7, 1974, French high wire artist Philippe Petit performed his most famous feat: walking a wire spanning the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. This event, which captivated the entire city, provides a foothold for Let the Great World Spin, running over, under, and
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around all of the characters in this book but seldom directly touching any of them.

The large cast of characters include Corrigan, a young Irish monk working in the Bronx slums, caring for prostitutes, addicts, and senior citizens. His brother, newly arrived from Ireland, strives both to understand Corrigan's vocation and convince him to return home. Two of the prostitutes, Tillie and Jazzlyn, are mother and daughter. Then there's Claire, a well-off woman living on Park Avenue, who would seem to have little connection to the others. But Claire has recently joined a group of women who have all lost sons in Vietnam, and she befriended Gloria, who is well acquainted with Corrigan's world. And the connections don't stop there.

As Colum McCann tells Corrigan's story, he begins weaving an intricate fabric with strands that are revealed, little by little, through the rest of the book. While the high wire walk serves as an underlying theme, other events touch the characters' lives more directly. From the stuff of everyday living to devastating tragedy, McCann shows the reader these events from multiple perspectives, and ties them all together in a complex and emotional way.

It's difficult to say more about this book without spoilers. I loved the writing, felt sympathetic to most of the characters, and was moved without feeling manipulated.
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LibraryThing member cameling
At first I thought this was a book of short stories set in New York, but then realized that the stories were very cleverly and subtly intertwined.

A man decides to walk a tightrope that he's managed, in the stealth of the night, to put up between the World Trade Center in New York. As he stands on
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the edge of the building, crowds gather below, wondering if he's a jumper. Who is he? What will happen to him when he gets to the other side? Will he get to the other side or will he fall? Why does he walk the tightrope?

A woman on her way to tea, catching a glimpse of him from below suddenly thinks he is her son who died in the war. What will she share with the other women she's going to meet, all mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam?

How does one serve God and yet serve himself at the same time? Does religion have anything at all to do with one's strong conviction and need to save others from themselves, or at least provide an open door where they may rest, away from pimps and police?

How does one forgive oneself for an act of cowardice conducted at the spur of the moment? What does one do to atone?

Resilience - we all have it in us, but not all of us can call upon it when we need it. Colum McCann is a genius and shows us the depth of human frailty and the beauty of inner human strength.
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LibraryThing member LukeS
Colum McCann has accomplished a rare feat: he's a foreigner, but he's brought out a more sophisticated, forceful, and American novel about that most fascinating and aggravating of American cities, New York, than almost any American author could. "Let the Great World Spin" sheds its knowing and
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compassionate light on the lives of a handful of New Yorkers - two women distraught over the loss of sons in Vietnam, the judge husband of one of these women, a drug-addled avant garde artist struggling with heavy guilt, a clique of prostitutes in the South Bronx and the naif who strives to minister to them, the Central American woman who falls for this would-be priest.

The daily struggles with grief, poverty, and hopelessness swirl - spin - around the focal point of an amazing, only-in-New York stunt that was perpetrated on a sultry summer day in 1974: a tightrope walk between the tops of the two World Trade Center towers. In fact, this unnamed daredevil's portrait is one of the most captivating and entertaining parts of the book. It is one of the continuing strands Mr. McCann so skilfully weaves together; they spin and swirl in an ever-tightening whirlpool centered around the nexus of the tightrope stunt. The stunt does not function as a deus ex machina device, although it can seem that way. As in "Five Skies" by Ron Coleman, this one high aspiration, this out-of-this-world concept, carries a symbolic weight. People strive to rise above in this story, and the tightrope walker carries not only their hopes and dreams aloft, but those of millions of other New Yorkers, too.

Mr. McCann's prose works wonders with the internal dialogs here; it contains just the right level of language, slang, insult, street patois, and curse to be expected from each of these characters. His concept is ingenious and his somewhat unorthodox way of twirling the yarns together into a cohesive whole achieves its object brilliantly. This book takes and breaks our hearts, heals them partway back up, and then gives us hope for these characters and for their fellow hopefuls here on the ground. This is the best book I have read this year. I honor Mr. McCann's achievement, and encourage in the highest possible terms, other LT'ers to take it up! Oh, you will be pleased and enriched!
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LibraryThing member ablachly
This book was fantastic. Beautiful. Set in 1974 New York, McCann weaves together seemingly unconnected characters and their stories—from prostitutes in the Bronx to a mother on Park Avenue.
LibraryThing member lyzadanger
There are so few flaws in Colum McCann's National Book Award-winning novel about humanity and grief that it's difficult to find a toehold for comment. McCann's agitated, love-hungry characters weave an emotional fabric so dense that it proves tricky to unravel and examine.

It's tempting to try to
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find literal ties to events in this book Esquire bills as the 'first great novel about 9/11.' Set in New York city in August of 1974, Let the Great World Spin loosely revolves around George Petit's guerrilla tightrope walk, strung between the barely-completed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The novel's characters stare up at Petit's performance awestruck, his bravery (or hubris) impacting their own personal sagas.

It doesn't quite start this way. Instead, gray and sleepy: We follow sort-of protagonist Ciaran and his mysterious, devout brother Corrigan through their hard-knocks but charming childhood in Dublin. It's not until Corrigan makes a self-sacrificial plunge into grimmest urban purgatory—he absconds to The Bronx, performing ministrations and rest stop services for the local hookers—that we as readers also get initiated into the squalor, violence and pathos of 1970s New York City.

McCann's characters are phenomenal. Even Christlike Corrigan is waylaid by physical love. Ciaran, steady and dutiful, is overwhelmed with unwanted racial prejudice at times. The central characters are all broken in just the right amount, just enough that we believe in them, not enough that we question their motivations.

Characters further from the center attenuate and begin to accrete bits of archetypes: arch-selfish untalented artist cokehead Blaine; smacked-out, vacant, neon-swimsuit-strap-snapping whore Jazzlyn; buzzed, brilliant, driven socially-retarded hackers. But that's just fine. What McCann is doing here is building a human backdrop pattern. It's our stars—Corrigan, Ciana, grieving Claire and Gloria, judge Solomon, passionate Adelita—who are embroidered in elegant detail on top.

Petit, the tightrope walker himself, is developed here as more of a concept than any outwardly recognizable person. We join him on his obsessive training sessions, we hear him console and push himself, we see him prepare. But McCann gives us the feeling that he could be anyone, that he represents the focused dreams of humanity towards freedom and love.

The story's characters rattle around and carom off of distraction and chance. Frantic self-doubt and the search for meaning taints and elevates them. It is not hard to find reason for this book to win awards: it's a monumental success of a work.
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LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
Remarkable book. One of the best that I have read all year, maybe the best. It should be on many end of year “Best of” lists.
The story centers around the feat accomplished by Philippe Petit in August 1974, of stringing a tightrope between the two towers at the World Trade Center, and performing
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an act on it for a portion of the morning to the delight of the crowd below. It is an event that lifts the City's spirits and thrills the people who witnessed it with the scale and sheer beauty of the spectacle. Without stating it, the event certainly brings to mind the much different reaction of the crowd staring up at the towers on September 11, 2001. (What a coincidence that I finished reading the book on 9/11/09.
On that same day, several New Yorkers have their worlds suddenly transformed. For some, it is a tragic end. For others, the day starts them on a new beginning. The lives of three groups of the City's residents intersect on that day, and their lives are changed.
One group consists of several prostitutes who stroll a street by the Major Deegan parkway in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx and an Irish immigrant monk, Corrigan, who has sort of adopted them. It is a barren, dangerous neighborhood. He brings them coffee on the street and leaves unlocked his nearby, sparsely furnished apartment in the projects, so they can come in and use the bathroom when needed. For his efforts, he gets pummeled by their pimps. When he is not looking after the girls, he works at a nursing home, taking a few of the wheelchair-bound residents to the park for a few hours in his old van. There, he meets and falls for a nurse, which challenges his vow of celibacy. His brother has just moved to New York, and he is staying with Corrigan. The brother is critical of how his brother is living and tries to change things, at first.
The other major group in the book are five women who have formed a support group. They have all lost sons in Vietnam. They come from diverse backgrounds. One lives in the same projects as Corrigan, and another lives in a penthouse apartment on Park Avenue in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, whose husband is a New York City criminal court judge.
The book also focuses on a young couple, both artists, who have left the City for upstate New York, but who happen to be in Manhattan on the day of Petit's performance. Also, the book spends some time with Petit, as he is preparing for the day.
The stories of these people are beautifully written. It is both heartbreaking and uplifting. I hope that this book gets the acclaim that it deserves.
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LibraryThing member TheBookJunky
A superb writer. Have read at least a couple of his others, but this is the best so far. 10 stars. This is the best book I have read in years. Brilliant. I want to go back and immediately re-read it. The pure celebration of us all. Our stories. There are so many individual stories in the world.
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Meaningless and full of meaning, all at once. Now to go back and re read it, to savour it more slowly, to study the craftsmanship, the carved swirls, the sleek lines, the artistry at the back as well as the front.
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LibraryThing member Dalan
Only just a novel by the skin of its teeth, this collection of loosely related short stories failed to convince... Character roll-call ticking the right boxes as neatly as that Glee thing on telly, and the writing not as good as the Glee single's singing
LibraryThing member Bridget770
I did not want this book to end. Not only will I read this book again, I will be talking about it and recommending it for a long time.

It's a beautifully written story of various people whose lives are interconnected by a tight-rope walker who walked between the World Trade Center buildings in
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1974. The characters include a hooker, judge, a mother who lost her son in Vietnam, the judge's wife, a religious man and others.

While the event is extraordinary, especially to think about now, the lives are exquisitely common. The uniquely flawed and frail characters grasp the reader.
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LibraryThing member enyaj2002
Collum McCann's “Let the Great World Spin” tells the stories of the loosely-interwoven lives of several residents of NYC in the early seventies. Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the Twin Towers is the central event around which the stories evolve. As you progress in the novel, the
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tightrope walker's stunt becomes a touchstone, allowing you to anchor what each character was doing at that one point in time, and how it impacted them, if at all. I loved that device because it helped me to keep all the characters and their relationships straight by thinking of them in relation to that event.

The novel is a wonder. It is so profoundly beautiful and sad and uplifting. McCann masterfully creates the scenes with his precise and evocative prose. He deeply explores the main characters, with all their assets and flaws, making them very true-to-life. I found the interweaving of their lives so satisfying and compelling. He kept the rhythm of that weaving going throughout the book, and it was just a pleasure to read. It really got to the randomness of lives, and the chance involved in beginning or ending of relationships and how those in turn lead to other connections or splits. This is one of those books that makes you sad when you finish it because you just want to keep going, keep following the characters and stay with them. I highly recommend it!
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LibraryThing member zmeischa
A "not-connected-people-who-are-somehow-connected" kind of book. You know the kind: an Irish preist, a wealthy judge, a junky hooker, a carefree artist and suchlike find their lifes interwined the day a funambulist decided to walk the rope between WTC towers back in 1974. Still, very nice.
LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
In 1974, a singular event—Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center—is the intersecting point in the lives of disparate characters, each of whose stories becomes the focus of a separate chapter in this fine novel. A judge, a prostitute, an Irish monk
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and his brother, grieving mothers who have lost their sons in Vietnam, a young urban photographer, immigrants and Californian computer hackers. The walking man becomes their touchstone, their point of departure, and sometimes their destination. And as their lives separately unfold they also fold back in on each other perhaps stitched together by the trace of that performance that touched them all.

McCann’s poetic prose displays a genuine and loving appreciation for each of his central characters, capturing their voice with varying degrees of success. Or perhaps that perception of success will be due more to the reader. For me, the chapter from the point of view of Claire, the wealthy but bereft mother of Joshua, who was called up to count deaths in Vietnam by joining an elite group of computer programmers, is a marvel. With an obvious nod to Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway, McCann entirely enters the pathos of Claire’s grief-filled world. The other central characters seem less certain to me, sometimes rescued from cliché by anxious novelty. Always readable, but not always gripping.

A coda set in 2006 ensures that the novel encircles its unspoken spectre—the catastrophic loss of the twin towers twenty-seven years after Petit’s remarkable achievement, that walk which in its insouciance and innocence, perhaps, brought lives together in a way just as momentous though less scarring than that later catastrophe. The great world continues to spin. Some lives ended on that day in 1974, but traces continue in the lives of others. McCann suggests there is something hopeful in that. And I agree.

Certainly worth a read.
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LibraryThing member goose114
I became engrossed in this book. Multiple stories are told by different characters all surrounding the tightrope walk of Philippe Petit in the 1970s. Each character and their story are connected in ways that illuminated the struggles of the time as well as the human condition itself. A beautifully
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written novel that I believe anyone would gain something out of.
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LibraryThing member PriscillaW
I received an ARC through LT early this summer, but I just got around to picking this up. This isn't a book full of big ideas, but instead a book full of small truths. It tells a set of linked stories about disparate characters and how their lives intersect.
The book opens with a man walking across
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a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers in August 1974. The stories that follow are loosely linked by this event, and the characters are linked themselves by the events of that day and all their repercussions. The writing is wonderful, and every character offers an original, thoughtful perspective on the events surrounding the day. McCann writes with great emotional truth. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member denton
Mccann is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers.

This is an elaborate but beautifully written novel built around Phillippe Petit's walk between the World Trade Center towers. It's a real New York book and if you ever want to get the feeling for the 'bad old days' of NYC in the 1970s, you
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could start here (of course there's not a lot of the good part of NYC in the 1970s either, but that's not the point, is it).

Touching portrayals of hookers, pimps, and various other assorted characters as they bump into each other in a 'six degrees' fashion.
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LibraryThing member kepitcher
Colum McCann's latest novel is a tour de force, a breathtaking sweep of people's lives at one moment in time. On August 7, 1974, a young man walked a tightrope between the new Twin Towers in New York, inspiring and awing those below. McCann's novel takes this event and surrounds it with the men and
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women of the city and that time, immersing us in their lives, language and heartbreak. Each story is connected, all tied together by that one day in August, but each person's story is uniquely crafted by McCann, whose writing is lyrical, poetic and attuned to the language of the character, time and place. The story of Tillie, a Bronx hooker, and Claire Soderberg, Park Avenue housewife, are told in their own voice and tone, believable, complex and beautiful. All the characters, flawed and imperfect, have a voice, tied together by the last story of a young woman searching for an identity lost that day in 1974. This novel is highly recommended, those already familiar with McCann's work will not be surprised by his new finely crafted novel.
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LibraryThing member pensivepoet
I spent a lot of time with this book .One quick read through. And then one long pawing and pondering over. Poking it here and there.

Picking up the snapshots that constitute the novel to examine. Then putting them back down spread across the floor to assess relationships and appreciate
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"Thick" was the only word that came to mind. Thick. Followed by dense.
Followed by adjectives that typically describe clouds and vegetation in the wild.

But, rather than vegetation this novel is a "thick" packet of snapshots taken by an "artsy" photographer. A thick stack of vintage nyc photographs in stunning detail retouched in photoshop with the contrast jacked all the way up. The novel is in modern day colloquialism of twentysomethings "good stuff". Extremely well done excellent rending of grit stopping just beneath hard boiled. Worth it, if beauty in the ugly is your thing.

That said, if you are looking for deep engrossing convoluted plot line I am not so sure you will find it here. Instead, the characters are engrossing even if linked together somewhat simplistically by tying all their lives into the image of the tight rope walker.

I felt like it was a modern day "fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a tune", only
with nyc substituted for a homely village and prostitutes instead of virtuous daughters. But the strength in the detail of the characters otherwise carries out a symphony worthy of any and every audience member who might listen.

In listening, I was shocked at the how seamlessly I could step into and identify with any character written. Even if their voice was saying something I would find repulsive in another setting or presentation. It's my feeling that such an identification can only happen within reading the work of a literary genius.The variety of writer who makes any world and moment inhabitable. So:

Pros: Dense. Thick. Borderline Gritty Images.
Cons: Predictable in Path
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LibraryThing member Jenners26
Brief Description: This is not an easy book to summarize. The basic idea is that, on August 4, 1974, a tightrope artist named Phillippe Petit illicitly walked across a wire stretched between the towers of the World Trade Centers in New York City. (This really happened by the way.) All around the
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city, people were buzzing about what Petit was doing. Using this unusual event as the backdrop for the book, McCann weaves together a series of stories involving a priest and his brother, a pair of mother/daughter prostitutes, a young artist and his wife, the judge who hears Petit’s case and his wife, and a group of mothers who have lost their sons in Vietnam. Like Petit in the book, McCann is performing a high wire act of his own—attempting to balance multiple stories on what begins to feel like a razor-thin wire.

My Thoughts: This book is an example of a new type of sub-genre that C.B. James recently discussed in his review of Ivan and Mischa: books told via “a series of interconnected short stories.” (Other examples of this sub-genre include A Visit from the Goon Squad and Olive Kitteridge.) However, unlike A Visit from the Goon Squad—which felt fresh and exciting and new (if not a little confusing)—I thought this book wasn’t well served by the interlinked stories style. First of all, the first story involving the priest John Corrigan felt way too long. We spend so much time getting to know him, that when McCann shifts to another story, it was very jarring and abrupt. Plus, it takes quite some time for all the stories to come together and intersect—almost until the last third of the book. Finally, I thought McCann overdid it on the interconnections between the characters. By having seemingly EVERYONE in the book end of up being connected in some way, it made New York City seem like a small town where everyone knows everyone else. This felt so unrealistic to me, and I just couldn’t buy into the story. So although I recognize what he was trying to do with this book, I think that (unlike Phillippe Petit) McCann stumbles and falls. Still, it was an interesting read, and I’m glad I gave it a try.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
Let the Great World Spin is one of those "must read" books that everyone raves about but that I somehow resisted reading until now. What finally pushed me to read it was how much I admired McCann's most recent novel, Transatlantic. While I ended up being mildly disappointed, maybe that's good news:
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if indeed Transatlantic is so much the better of the two, that must mean that McCann's writing is getting better, and I can look forward to his next endeavor.

I'm a great fan of novels told from multiple points of view and in multiple voices, but a number of things in this novel smacked too hard of artifice, in my opinion. For one thing, there were just too many coincidences. I get it: New York may be a big city, but in the end, we're living in a small world. Well . . . really, it's not THAT small. The judge who sentences the prostitute is married to the woman who is in a group for grieving mothers whose sons were killed in Vietnam where she meets an African-American woman who is the neighbor who takes in the granddaughters of the prostitute because the prostitute's daughter was killed in an automobile accident, and the driver, who was also killed, was the monk who devoted his life to watching out for prostitutes, and his brother figures out that the woman who comes to the girl's funeral was in the car that caused the hit-and-run, but they fall in love and get married . . . um, no, sorry, the world is rarely that small and our lives are rarely that contrived. I would have enjoyed the novel more had McCann not felt compelled to devise such links between each character's story. It really wasn't necessary, since he already relied on the frame of Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center Towers, which at least half of the characters have seen or heard about. I hope that McCann structures his next novel on something other than unexpected coincidences--something that he used in Transatlantic as well, but with a much subtler hand.

My feelings about the characters themselves are mixed. Too many of them--especially the minority characters--fall into stereotypes, and to some extent, the book is just too big and too ambitious to allow us to get a real sense of any of them. Some, like the California hackers, seemed totally pointless (not to mention irritating).

By now, you may be wondering if I liked anything about this book and why I gave it 3.5 stars. Well, there are those moments when the writing itself absolutely soars, and these moments make it all worthwhile. McCann has a touch of the poet in him, and when he doesn't let it get away from him and flounder into the melodramatic, his writing can be wonderful. And in retrospect, it's interesting to see how much he has progressed in using similar techniques in Transatlantic.

So . . . 3.5 stars. If you haven't read Transatlantic yet, you really should. Skip Let the Great World Spin and then wait for McCann's next novel.
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LibraryThing member lriley
To start off--I am not one of those who was lucky enough to get an early reviewer's copy of this book.

One of the great themes in literature is the inter-connectedness of people to other people but how oblivious at the same time their creator's fictional characters tend to be to that concept. 'Let
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the great world spin' revolves very much around the coincidental. Here the fictional walks side by side as an actualized believable reality. We all live lives central to ourselves but that centrality has a way of leaking out and affecting other people and yet more often than not we are blind to it. At least that seems a notion that McCann (very successfully IMO) attempts to get at.

If there is a central day and event that holds McCann's book together--it is taken from a real event of August 7, 1974 when Frenchman Philippe Petit walks a tightrope early in the morning to hundreds of surprised onlookers between the North and South towers of New York City's World Trade Center. That event glances off into the lives of all the other characters in the book--many of them living or about to live through their own personal tragedies--the do gooder Irish monk Corrigan living in a slum in the Bronx sharing his time with black prostitutes--particularly Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn and her two daughters. Gloria who lives two floors above and has lost all 3 of her sons to the Viet Nam War meeting up with other mothers of dead sons in the penthouse of Claire (the wife of a district judge) on Park Ave. McCann as in his title spins his stories off his characters and they rebound again off others in fascinating ways.

Let the Great World Spin is also about epiphanic moments in people's lives. Certainly Petit's on his tightrope--realizing his dream--but there are also understated moments of awe and insight by just about every one of the characters. For a writer to get the essence of these moments of insight across he has to get to the essential of what he is trying to convey and McCann seems to do this almost effortlessly and the greatest part of the reason seems to emanate from the basic idea of shared humanity that is the heart and soul of his book.

And as well this is a New York City novel--one in which the Towers play a large role--but that only in the most oblique way references the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The people looking up at Petit are much the same as the people who on that fateful September day will once again look up at the very same towers. They are also the same people who will go back to their lives and struggles afterwards much the same as McCann's characters here.

Concluding if there was one book I'd compare it to--it reminds me quite a lot of Ondaatje's 'In the skin of a lion' for one which is my favorite Ondaatje. It has the same kind of tone and texture--doing in a way for NYC what Ondaatje does for the city of Toronto. Anyway Let the Great World Spin is a great read and is highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member CarolynSchroeder
With such mixed reviews, I was a little reluctant to pick this book up, but so glad I did. It is now one of my new favorites (of all times). I think I just resonated with McCann's writing style and journey into the hearts and minds of characters probably very unlike himself. I don't think it always
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succeeds, I mean, sometimes I felt like he was guessing about things (life as a prostitute in 1973, for instance). But that said, he handles his characters with such reverence and respect, it was hard not to like the way he did it. I loved the author's choices on surprising compositions of his characters, like the obese African-American woman Gloria, who loves opera at the Met, and much to her chagrin, time and time again everyone assumes she is a "Southern church lady" (she is no fan of the church); or Corrigan, who everyone first assumes in a strung out Irish drunk, but in fact, is a struggling monk and helper to all people. It is these unlikely insights into humanity that makes this novel such a joy to read. Time and time again, despite struggle, there are little glimpses of what makes us all shine, and this world a beautiful place. So even amidst death and war (Vietnam), there is hope. But mostly, I just sank deeply into the world McCann created through these very different characters, and a time and place I just only vaguely remember (I was a small kid then); and I loved the structure, loosely linked stories, and how the characters came together in small but important ways. This is my favorite novel in a long time. Maybe not for everyone, but I sure loved it and highly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member ffortsa
The grit of New York in 1974 permeates this novel, composed of the stories of interlocking characters in all corners of the city. McCann gets the city almost perfectly right, and his characters are varied, often compelling, intersecting in sometimes unexpected ways. The device of the graceful,
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perfectly centered wire walker contrasts with the lumpy, often off-center lives of the people struggling to make their way in this time and place - some succeed, some achieve escape velocity of their own, others do not.

I enjoyed the book, but was unsurprised that it raised controversies in my book club. The ending, set in 2006, feels artificial, and makes the book as a whole feel less serious than it might have been. In addition, the book shows a woeful lack of copyediting. My printing, one round later than some of the others the group read, had some errors corrected (it's Entergy, not Con Ed, that supplies power to New Orleans) and some not corrected - Mr. McCann needs a hand-calculator to correctly estimate the age of one of his central characters. In some editions, the bus fare in 1974 was listed as ten cents (I was there, and it wasn't). And please, won't anyone admit the difference between gantlet and gauntlet anymore?
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LibraryThing member mzungu
Enjoyable read. Human side of NY. Wild coincidinces, but he makes them work.




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