Monday, October 18, 2010

Let the Great World Spin

Years ago I used to listen over and over to the sound recording of Liza Minelli's live concert at Carnegie Hall. This was in her hay day and she could belt out a song like nobodies' business. True confessions - if I hadn't become a librarian I would have loved to be a torch song singer - but there probably wouldn't be enough training in the world! Anyway, she sang with such passion and one of the numbers was about the world going round and round and ROUND and round - basically a lament but also an ode to life and how it goes on no matter how badly we screw up, how difficult our lives may become, how much joy or sadness we live through and with.

That song kept going through my mind as I read Colum McCann's National Book Award winning novel. The premise is so simple yet so profound. I'm always so envious when a writer pulls off a trick like this, making it look so easy. He took one factual happening in the life of New York City in the early '70's and wrapped around that incident a complete novel of vignettes in which the lives of a few intercept in ways that have repercussions for years to come.

The news worthy event was when a Frenchman named Philippe Petit managed to elude security guards, break into the World Trade Center towers one evening and lay out a cable between the twin buildings. He waited until rush hour the following morning before stepping out onto the cable in his ballet slippers, balancing bar in hand, to dance and skip his way across the gap to the cheers, jeers, awe and anger of the public.

Gloria is one of the women who witnesses this crazy, death defying stunt as she makes her way from the Bronx to the upper east side to meet with a group of mothers who have very little in common except that they have all lost their sons to the war in Vietnam. They gather to remember, to comfort, to talk about their boys as if they were still here. They hang out in the kids' bedrooms, touching their clothing, their trophies, the tangible reminders that they once were whole, living human beings. Can there be a worse loss?

We meet an Irish priest who, plagued by the need to save others, cannot save himself. He lives in a two room walkup in the worst section of town where he defies the pimps and gang members by taking care of a cadre of prostitutes without ever prosletizing. He offers them a place of respite between tricks, bails them out when needed and looks after their kids. We meet the young widow with whom he falls in love, a nurse who would love to be a doctor but will never find the way.

Then there's Lara and Blaine, artists whose one night fall from sobriety, causes a minor fender bender with a huge impact. Lara's admonition to just drive away, back upstate to their ramshackle cottage, haunts her until she returns to the city, admitting her culpability to the priest's brother and thus creating a bond that will surprise and please readers with its perfection.

Let the Great World Spin is a deeply tragic yet profounding hopeful novel of life and death. An accessible read, it is only made difficult by the feeling one gets that they're on a runaway train. We see the characters as they make mistakes, misunderstand eachother, stumble and fall, before we can grab them up, get their backs. It's a feeling of grave frustration but one very much worth having. Thanks to Linda Holland for the recommendation!

Two treats awaited me at work this week. Franzen's Freedom appeared on my desk - not long after I placed it on hold! It's pretty formidable looking and, of course, I only have two weeks to read it so naturally a new book arrived the following day from Library Journal. I started that one over the weekend - it's short but deep. I hope that I can do it justice. I may be incommunicado for a few days.

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