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Archive for the month “May, 2013”

A check in with Mad/Bad/Sad Men

When I wrote my first post about Mad Men, I sort of roped in the first and second episodes of this season. I made the executive decision early on to not write a review of every episode individually because frankly there are already great reviewers at AV Club and Paste Magazine who write intricate and fantastic reviews, and I don’t think I need to add my view to the mix.

That said, I still think about each episode after it airs and have my own thoughts on the matter. Here are my stray observations of what is has transpired so far this season (and spoiler alert):

1. Prostitution theme reigns. We finally had an episode last night that didn’t hammer home Don’s ill treatment of women or include some flash back to his childhood where he basically learns the art of sex by the women who shill it for money (and take advantage of him, no less). I’m sick of this theme, and I’m ready for the show to actually DO something with it, besides just point it out. Also, my friend and I debated this: did we already know Don grew up in a whorehouse or was this element contrived and pulled out of a hat particularly for this season?

2. Bob Benson: exceptionally nice guy or brilliant mastermind? I personally believe Bob Benson is running the most cunning chess game/power grab of all time and will someday rule the world. And I’m happy Joan is along for the ride! Whether he is pure strategy or not, no one but Bob has been this kind to Joan in years. She deserves it!

3. Finally, Megan speaks up. Last week’s episode actually got me frustrated at Megan. How can this lady have not said anything to Don and his aloofness and distantness until now?!  Has she not even suspected he might be having an affair? Well, she finally laid down the law to Don that something has gotta change and she doesn’t know yet what it is, but she needs him on her side. It only took, what, 8 or 9 episodes for them to get on the same page?

4. Peggy said it best: “Move Forward”. Surprisingly, no other reviewer has made a comment on Peggy’s response to Don and his childish power struggle with Ted after he got Ted stinking drunk. This is the heart of the story this season, Don’s (along with others) inability to move forward. In this week’s episode, Don becomes so unable to move forward that he goes right back to the beginning. And sleeps with Betty. I don’t know how I feel about this latest development. Again, it has an aura of “contrived-ness” surrounding it. It was so out of last field, and it was only after last week’s episode writers had Betty lose all the weight and suddenly become “hot” again. Doesn’t seem too plausible, and I still think she would be the last person Don would want to sleep with. At the very least, this latest fling did jolt Don right back into the present. As he looks on at Betty and Henry enjoying breakfast “the morning after”, sitting alone at his table on the other side of the room, Don saw a happy couple enjoying each other’s company. Betty is happy- she even told him so- and has no plans on resurrecting an affair with Don; she doesn’t need it or him. I think for the first time ever, Don realized that he already has exactly what she has (probably what he has always wanted this whole time): peace and contentedness. However, he’s chosen to ignore his wife and marriage and seek happiness elsewhere. As Don never learns, but somehow Betty has, the grass is never greener on the other side.

5. Betty has the second best line of the season (to Don): “Poor girl…she doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to know you”. Also, as a third place winner: “I like how you look at me, before and after. And then I watch it decay…I can’t hold your attention”. She hit Don spot on with both lines.

6. The “Drugged out” episode last week was quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen on this show in a while. Watching Don chase Ken Cosgrove around the office while hopped up on some sort of mystery “energy” serum, we laughed so hard we had to rewind it twice.

7. Oh, and I don’t think Sylvia’s dream was really a dream. I think it was a realization that she would never be anything more to Don than a mistress, a plaything, and nothing more. I think she let him down easy by saying all signs in her dream pointed toward home. Something in the way Sylvia was complaining to Don about her marriage and his dismissal of her complaining, told me that Sylvia secretly had hopes something more would bloom between them. But after his dominance/submission session with her, it was pretty clear where he stands. He doesn’t want another wife; he already has one (and she complains too). The fact that Sylvia was the one to end things was a huge blow to Don, but a great development in the show. As much as I loved Linda Cardellini, I very much wanted this affair to end.

Book Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):

My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.

My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.

If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.

CHEERS!

Review: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

If you are looking for a campy and effortless read with a clever premise, then stick with this book. If you are looking for a captivating and thrilling read, you may want to look elsewhere.

This title kept popping up in my “recommendations for you” feed on my Goodreads homepage and I finally couldn’t resist adding it my list, if only out of sheer curiosity for something a little bit different. It’s not the type of fiction I normally go for- I’m not a huge sci-fi/fantasy/vampire or zombie fiction person, though I have read a few books in the genre. I remember when “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” was all the rage a few years back, but I was never tempted until now to delve into this “alt-history” genre specifically because I ADORE historical fiction and I have a hard time enjoying a book that strays too far from the actual truth, even if it’s meant to be a fun romp.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a romp, and at times, a fun one. It’s always entertaining, but it’s never truly gripping, though I think it was meant to be, and that’s the main reason why I wouldn’t really recommend this book to anyone else, unless you are in serious need of a quick and easy fluffy book. If you have read my review of “In the Woods” by Tana French, I would call this type of book “an inbetweener”. I have to admit, I did find the introduction chapter the most thrilling of the entire novel, and I wish wish WISH the author had stuck with writing the book from his first hand account discovering more about Lincoln’s vampire hunting by doing research and hunting down the facts à la “The Da Vinci Code”, rather than simply recreating and retelling the facts via Lincoln’s “Vampire journals”.

Seth Grahame-Smith doesn’t seem terribly troubled to bother explaining Vampire history or how other people become Vampires (Abe was bit in the shoulder by a Vampire at some point in the book, but isn’t affected by it for some reason. Is it only a bite in the neck?), or even what would happen if the world found out the true existence of Vampires, as if he assumes we already know about Vampires and the myth doesn’t need to be repeated (he does go into a little detail about it, but not much). Yes, I am aware of the Vampire myth, but what always drives me crazy in Vampire stories, such as “Dracula” and the “Twilight” series, is how easily people accept that Vampires just ARE. Abe is appropriately shocked at first to learn they exist, and then goes off to hunt them down without really understanding how they came to be. I think this would be my first question, wouldn’t you agree? This is where the book takes a detour from creating what could be an interesting and compelling story and instead appears to be merely a retelling of Abe’s life with some Vampires thrown in whenever there is a gap in the Lincoln timeline. What was he doing between 1835-36? Oh, he was hunting Vampires.

This is not to say that portraying Lincoln as a Vampire hunter isn’t a clever or funny premise. It is. Whatever threads of comprehension and detail the author chooses to omit regarding Vampires, he does make up for it with his research on Lincoln. The Vampire hunting ties nicely with Lincoln’s hatred of slavery and is part of the reason behind the cause of the Civil War. The sudden and seemingly mysterious deaths of his children are explained as having been caused by Vampires. Grahame-Smith portends that much of the history of Lincoln as we know it can easily be explained by the existence of Vampires. And just as the film Zoolander claimed that Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was really a male model, the author makes the claim that he was indeed a Vampire.

All of the author’s claims are backed up with sufficient “evidence” in the form of actual Civil War letters, historical facts and historical photos. I can’t speak for the letters, but the photos are obviously photoshopped and doctored, which is hysterical and also annoying. Annoying, I say, because the other reason this book fails on a certain level is in the tone. It’s campy, sure, but is it meant to be taken somewhat seriously? Are we meant to really believe any of this is true, as in a bizarre conspiracy theory, or is it expected to be a joke? The intro chapter, as I mentioned, has a level of tension and suspense that is never quite reached again the rest of the book. If you’ve read “World War Z” by Max Brooks, then you may know what I’m talking about. Obviously, Zombies can be a funny topic, but WWZ is not meant to be funny. “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” has a lot of humor amid some not funny stuff, and there isn’t really a clear line between camp, horror and black comedy.

Since I haven’t read any other “alt-history” works, I can’t really comment on how this book compares to others in the genre. Maybe these books are only meant to be taken seriously on the lightest level. It could have been a truly spectacular and refreshing read, but it doesn’t quite get there. I noticed other reviews found the book incredibly cheesy and lazy. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that if you go for this book don’t expect to be blown away. The ending is great, however, but this level of surprise and suspense is also needed for about 3/4 of the book. A good and quick read for plane rides when you’ve got the uninterrupted time.

In praise of the physical book.

One of the blogs I follow, “Find a girl who reads”, here on WordPress wrote a great little ditty in praise of the physical book versus the ereader. Sadly, I think this post was deleted from her blog because the link no longer exists (http://wp.me/s3hO9z-ereader if you want to get to her page), but the gist of it stuck with me.

About a month or so ago, I wrote a post on Facebook about my experience turning the page in my library book and finding an unidentified blob of spilled food (probably a hunk of dried pepperoni and cheese, is my guess). While gross to many, I, however, find this comforting. It makes we me feel warm and strangely loved, to come across such a used book. This is why I will never 100% commit to the ereader.

My fiancé doesn’t understand my level of giddiness when I come across a smudged or coffee stained page in a borrowed book. To me, it is a human connection made during a solitary activity. I love finding stray receipts in library books. I like to see where other people have shopped, or what other books they checked out. I leave the receipts as they were for the next library patron. Some folks are strict about never breaking the spine on their books, but not me. I make sure to give the spine on my store-bought books a good crack. Builds character, I say. I like the smell of the page, and I like to skip from whatever chapter I’m reading to the very back and read the the acknowledgements. I read the typeface notes, the copyright notes, to whom the author dedicated the book. In short, I like have ACCESS to my physical book whenever I want, without having to touch a computer like screen.

Yes, the ereader lets you do all of these things, but it is not the same. And yes, I do own an ereader. Mine is an old-school Nook, purchased about 2 years ago. I bought it mostly to have for vacations, since I can go through a couple of books or more with uninterrupted time, and also to have for my book club, which comes in handy when someone chooses a newly released novel and the wait at the library is long. But I always find myself coming back to the physical book. As I said before, there is comfort in knowing and not knowing how many times one book has gone through a number of hands. How many people have enjoyed what I just read? Cradled this book in the crook of his or her arm right before turning out the light? Who else laughed out loud at the same paragraph that I just finished? And what other person out there was moved to tears by a specific chapter?

The proof of such love and enjoyment is in the cookie crumbs, the spilled food, the coffee splatters and haphazardly folded corner pages with in a book.

For my 2013 book challenge, I’m trying to desperately to read all of my 50 chosen books strictly through the library system alone. Why? For starters, I think the library system, the Los Angeles system in particular, is pretty amazing. Almost any book ever written, is simply sitting on a shelf waiting to be read. And we already pay for it, secondly. But also, it is my way of saying thank you to the physical book. There are many people who can’t afford a Kindle or a Nook. Perhaps some of these people don’t bother to read, in this case. But books are accessible and READY to be read. Not to dismiss the ereader, but I much prefer the reading experience coming from the physical book. There is a magic there that a flat screen just can’t capture.

Perhaps I will also add my own chocolately smudge to the bottom of the page from a melting cookie as I sit under the shady tree in my backyard with the comfort of my trusty library book. Can’t smudge an ereader, oh no, the screen just wipes clean.

Ps- Follow Diane Keaton on twitter, if you are a book lover. She posts a lot of great photos and comments regarding books, libraries, and reading.

Moved.

My acting teacher once said that what all casting directors really want from auditioners is to be moved. That’s all it takes, really, to get the job. At the end of a long day seeing multiple actors read the same role, you remember who moved you.

And I’ve been wanting to be moved for a very long time. As I plow through my latest book on my reading challenge list, I keep remarking to myself that while it is a good book (though nothing special) something frustrating and nagging lurks at the surface and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I noticed this feeling with the last couple books I’ve read too, and it also creeps up on me as I watch the latest season of Mad Men.

Today, I finally discovered what this feeling is. I need to be moved by something, to feel something deep down in my soul, and I haven’t yet. Until I moved on to another form of entertainment I’ve neglected for way too long: the play.

If you live in Los Angeles, check out Theatre Movement Bazaar’s Hot Cat at Theatre of Note in Hollywood. It’s a movement/dance/cinema/text piece based on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof www.theatreofnote.com At first glance, it’s a kitschy, campy, and clever rendition of an old classic. But during the second half of the play, I found myself deeply and utterly moved almost to tears. The play successfully breaks down all the themes of the play to their simplest form and a small scene between four characters where nothing is said except with the body nearly brought me to feet with appreciate and GRATITUDE. Finally! 

As much as I have been moved at various times in my life by literature  in almost the same way as this play, sometimes you do have to get away from the printed word and the TV screen and connect with fellow human beings. Faith restored!

I just enjoyed a bad book (and some of my favorite bad TV shows were cancelled).

A dilemma I ran into very recently: I just finished “The Red House” by Mark Haddon and while I enjoyed it for what it was, I still thought it was NOT an overall great book. In fact, I don’t even know if I would call it good. But I liked it, how can this be??!

Also this week: I found out The New Normal and Go On were cancelled by NBC. Now, I will wholeheartedly admit that these were not good shows, by any means. Mediocre humor with stereotypical characters existing in a non-realistic world… They were sitcoms, for cripes sake! And somehow I found myself watching them every week, these nutty and silly little shows perking up my DVR, as comforting as a pair of old shoes. When I read they were officially gone (despite suspecting this was probably the case after the season ended), I actually felt sad.

So how is it we can enjoy something so much and yet still deem it awful?

When I read a bad book or watch or a terrible show, I usually get fed up and give up- “How dare I waste my precious time on such swill!” (my inner monologue is a 78 year old British woman). I think it comes down  to recognizing a piece of entertainment as “Good bad” and just plain “Bad bad”, whether it is bad humor, bad taste, or bad writing, something can cancel out the other and the show/book can ultimately be enjoyable.

In the case of The New Normal, Go On, and the novel “The Red House” they are all pretty funny in their own ways. The two TV shows never tried to be exceptional and the quirky casts grew on me, despite the completely hollow and uninteresting story lines. “The Red House” was such a simple story with honest and hysterical observations about human familial relationships, but set in a much more complicated setting and overall theme (that ended up not working). I read the book easily within a week, and even though I looked forward to my couple of chapters before turning off the light, I fully recognized that what I was reading was essentially not a good piece of writing. And yet, I kept turning the page- not necessarily waiting for it to get better, but because it was enjoyable enough.

I’m not sure the term “guilty pleasure” applies to this scenario, but I’m curious what other people think. How can something be good and bad at the same time? Anyone else have a Good Bad piece of entertainment to share?

A word about F. Scott Fitzgerald…

Since the world is gearing up for Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” this weekend, I thought I would chime in with my two cents.

I loved “The Great Gatsby” in high school, and I love it now. While I expect the movie to be not so great (I’m sorry, I do), I am excited about a possible revival in all things “Fitzgerald” and “Jazz Age-y”. Regarding my foreboding feelings about the film (and who knows, I may love it), there are just some books that shouldn’t transcend into the cinematic realm, and “Gatsby” is one of them.

Why? I don’t know exactly, but I think it has something to do with the cadence and rhythm of Fitzgerald’s language that is just so hard for modern-day actors and writers to capture. I also think that I don’t want to be reminded that the 20s is a by-gone era. Because to be honest, when you read Fitzgerald, it is almost like you are right there. Put on some flapper costumes and throw in an over-stylized set, and the magic is just gone.

And almost no film should be put into 3-D. Seriously.

But, getting back to my buddy F. Scott, may I suggest two books by or featuring Fitzgerald as an alternative to re-reading (or maybe reading it for the first time) “The Great Gatsby” in anticipation of the film?

“Jazz Age Stories”- F. Scott Fitzgerald

“A Moveable Feast”- Ernest Hemingway

Both novels (although “Jazz Age Stories” is a collection of shorts) offer completely different views of the 20s and the joie de vivre of the age. F. Scott is featured in Hemingway’s novel (they were friends, briefly) around the time he was writing “Gatsby”, and although “A Moveable Feast” is largely fiction, the way Hemingway writes about Fitzgerald as a writer and given that his portrayal is coming from a writer’s point of view (who was somewhat in awe and maybe jealous of Fitzgerald too), his view offers a unique portrait of a sad man writing about a glorious era, while managing to not have a ton of fun himself.

“Jazz Age Stories”, on the other hand, are short vignettes written by Fitzgerald during various stages of his career. Some stories are better or have more depth than others, but all of them are wicked little peepholes into a great time period. I thoroughly enjoyed this book as much as I like Fitzgerald’s full novels, and I think it is a great addition to anyone’s repertoire, fan or not of the author.

If you’ve seen the movie, or have a comment about the book “Gatsby”, please feel free to leave it here!

Book Review- “Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel

A word about my reviews (if you’ve read this before, skip to the review!):

My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.

My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.

If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.

CHEERS!

“Wolf Hall”, Hilary Mantel

I have long been obsessed with the Tudor dynasty, and I take any opportunity I can to read about this completely dysfunctional (by today’s standards, anyway) family. New facts about Henry VIII and company are few, so when an author like Mantel comes along and writes from the point of view of one of the side characters, in this case Thomas Cromwell, the much-told and well-trod Tudor saga takes a delightful turn.

Fans of Phillippa Gregory’s novels featuring Katherine of Aragon and Mary Boleyn as main characters may also enjoy Hilary Mantel’s soon-to-be trilogy on Cromwell and his rise and fall. It is interesting to note that “Wolf Hall” was published sometime around season 2 of the Showtime series “The Tudors” (in 2009). Her research and development certainly must have preceded the the start of the series (2006), and perhaps the fates aligned to have the TV show and her novel come into fruition around the same period.

One may think that with the TV show “The Tudors” around, it would be easy to dismiss the novel or risk suffering “Tudor Fatigue”. But Mantel’s works should be viewed as companion pieces to the Tudor story. I’ll be honest: I watched every episode of “The Tudors” and I barely remember the character Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s Cromwell, however, is different from the series portrayal of the wise counsel to the King who eventually meets his own untimely end on the block. Instead of portrayed as a corrupt schemer, as he is in the book, solely consumed with greed and power, the Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” is both a brilliant, if at times ruthless, logician and lawyer, as well as a complicated, sensitive, and gentle family man.

The Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” main advantage and the key reason he succeeds to the level of power that he does, is that he is NEVER the man anyone expects. Coming from a rough and tumble childhood of low-birth, no one, the King included, expects such an intelligent, well-read, multi-lingual observer and counsel of sorts whose sole charm lies in his loyalty- to the Cardinal, to his King, to his Queen, to the former Queen and daughter, to Thomas More, to his family. In fact, Cromwell is loyal to whomever he needs to be at the time, which causes his enemies to both fear and admire him, and ultimately they desperately need him, as Cromwell deftly and strategically controls most of the debts of the courtiers and noblemen in the novel.

Two quotes I love that best describe Cromwell:

“Memory, he says. I have a very large ledger. A huge filling system, in which are recorded (under their name, and also under their offense) the details of people who have cut across me” (Thomas Cromwell, page 446)

“He is the unconsolable Master Cromwell: the unknowable, the inconstruable, the probably indefeasible Master Cromwell” (Thomas Audley, page 528)

This is his strength, this ambiguity, which in turn also lays the foundation for his fall, as we will find out in the sequel “Bring up the Bodies”.

Mantel’s language in the book is quite delicious. Cromwell observes most of the other characters from afar and makes his own side comments, which are witty little gems Mantel has tucked here and there. With these delightfully wicked interjections, Cromwell stops becoming merely an historical figure, and more of a complex man. Within the serious and complicated tones and themes of the period, the humor and nuance interspersed throughout the novel gives depth to all of the characters whose historical inner-lives we only know so little about. My only complaint with the dialogue, albeit a small one, is that it is sometimes difficult to tell who is speaking. She will often not use the speaker’s name, just “He said and then he said”, which after a while makes it frustrating to keep track of who said what. (UPDATE: Mantel portrays Cromwell as an observer and narrator. He is the speaker, as well as the fly on the wall. This sublime way of writing becomes more clear in her second book)

Despite the dialogue problem, though, it’s actually not a hard novel to read, which is a testament to the author’s skill. In less capable hands the book might read as a dry and methodical history timeline of events, but Mantel manages to keep the story moving chronologically at a galloping clip. There is so much history to cover, and she knows when to give attention to certain events and characters and when to take a step back, or ignore certain facts altogether as they don’t serve Cromwell’s story. The one issue I had with the TV series “The Tudors” was that each episode often focused too much on the backstories all of the fringe characters and it’s easy to forget who was who and how he/she related to the overall story of Henry VIII. In “Wolf Hall”, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn take more of a backseat and anyone else featured in the novel is clearly mapped out and given their own life, but without devoting chapters and chapters to who they are, what they’ve done, and where they came from.

I guess if I HAD to really complain about the novel, given that I am highly recommending it to history buffs, I would say that knowing some of the Tudor story is important in order to grasp some of the more complex aspects of the plot regarding religion and Cromwell’s involvement in Lutherism. I occasionally looked up a few facts on Wikipedia and other sites to grasp what was going on. But this point is minor. I didn’t feel like this was a “history 101” novel by any means, and I was never once bored by the topic. Again, it is a tribute to the author’s unique voice that this story does not drift into historical la la land where you aren’t sure these people actually existed.

In some ways, I found this novel an almost comforting read. Times change. Sanitation improves, diseases disappear. Our knowledge of technology, anatomy, and science is radically different and more developed than it was 500 years ago. And yet human needs, wants, desires, and failings remain the same no matter what century you live in. What Mantel managed to wonderfully create in this novel is a believable world based on history but rooted in the common human experience. Relying on what facts we know about the Tudor family none of the foibles and fears from any of these characters appear anachronistic, even if the language does have a modern feel to it at times.

And as much as Cromwell’s life in the novel may have been embellished or re-told for purposes of the story, he emerges as a rich figure- almost leaping from the page- with a truthfulness and bald honesty that is often missing from real-life historical figures in fiction, who tend to be written as cardboard cut-outs of actual people and whose inner lives are limited a few scant facts and general assumptions made at the time. “Wolf Hall” is a scrumptious treat for anyone looking for a historical novel outside of the traditional formula. It is a welcome addition to those especially interested in Tudor history.

Kansas City Library= Brilliant

Books at Kansas City Public Library Garage

Want to know how to get people to read? Why not dress up your hum-drum parking garage as a giant library?

Colorful, impressive, and definitely statement-making.

Sure makes me want to dive into a book, don’t you agree?

“Let the Great World Spin”- Book Review

Hello there! I’m posting my very first book review here on my Girl with Thoughts, Beware blog! As always, you can friend me on Goodreads and read more of my reviews on the that site too.

A word about my reviews:

My reviews are intended for those specifically who have read the novel and are looking for a place to read another’s take on the book and to also share their own thoughts. I don’t particularly like to read a recap of the story’s premise and who is who, etc, in reviews so you won’t find anything like that here. Unless I must explain a bit of premise detail in my review to give context to a thought or idea, I keep recaps to a bare minimum, if at all.

My thoughts on the books I read are by no means meant to be objective. I try to give an accurate portrait of what I experienced from reading this novel, what themes came to surface, in addition to what I liked and disliked about the book.

If you are curious about the book without having read it and would like to read my review- by all means! But please be forewarned that my reviews may contain spoilers.

“Let the Great World Spin”, Colum McCann

This is a novel that is quite hard to define in adjectives. In fact, I find it a hard book to define, period. On one hand there is so much happening between the characters, seemingly unconnected, and yet in many sections of the book nothing actually does happen. It’s dizzying, disorienting, and a little chaotic. And it is because of this constant tilt from motion to stillness that the novel manages to capture the dance of the very person who inspired the story: tightrope artist Philippe Petit who, in August of 1974, completed more than a dozen turns in less than an hour on a wire stretched between the not-yet-finished World Trade Center Towers in New York City.

Two passages- one from the novel itself and another from a reviewer of the novel on the back cover- capture the true essence of the book for me:

“Sometimes you’ve got to go up to a very high floor to see what the past has done to the present” (Let the Great World Spin, Gloria).

“A masterly chorus of voices…With Phillippe Petit’s breathless 1974 tightrope walk between the uncompleted World Trade Center towers at its axis, Colum McCann offers us a lyrical cycloramic high-low portrait of New York City in its days of burning” Richard Price.

Indeed, the author’s construction and use of the High/Low concept is really what makes the novel move amidst a spectacular event that caused most of the city to stand still. Of course you have Petit, who is the highest of all the characters, sitting on his wire while the rest of the city stumbles on below, but the idea extends to all of the characters. Corrigan, an earthy priest of some religious order and originally from Ireland, is committed to serving the lowest dregs of society- in this case, prostitutes and the handicapped elderly whose family has abandoned them- in the tenement slums of the Bronx. Corrigan and his God signify the “high” working in the “lowest” part of the city. You’ve also got the tenement high rises working opposite the streets, where the prostitutes- Tilly and daughter Jazzlyn- work the stroll. Corrigan meets Analita, a beautiful Columbian nurse who helps out at the elderly home, and is conflicted over his attraction to her. They share a brief tryst in her ground floor apartment, while Corrigan assumes his God is judging him from above.

In the other end of the city, on the Upper (get it?) West Side, we have Claire, high above the masses (or so she is perceived) in her penthouse suite, still mourning the death of her son who was killed in Vietnam two years prior. Her husband, a judge, sits high on his chair in the courtroom and rules in the cases of Tilly, considered by him as a “lowly” prostitute, and eventually Petit after his arrest, who manages to dazzle the taciturn judge with his star power. Claire is joined by African-American Gloria along with a group of women who have also lost sons that meet once a month in each other’s apartments to collectively grieve and share stories. Gloria, from the lower end of the Bronx, provides the bridge between the high/low for Claire, and ultimately for almost all of the characters stories, and at the end of the novel there is finally a balance, an equilibrium of sorts, symbolized by a reunion between Claire and Tilly’s granddaughter Jaslyn.

There are several more examples of this concept, and though I may have simplified the idea in my review, it is by no means as obvious as you read the novel. McCann did a remarkable job of presenting these characters from all different walks of life and creating a believable link between each one. As I moved along from story to story, the common thread of course being the wire walk that has gripped the city, I was entranced by McCann’s vision of NYC during the 70s. It’s a dirty, polluted, sweaty- not to mention corrupt- place. With the Vietnam War still a burning ember and not quite pushed to the back of everyone’s mind, the city mirrored the events of the day. The author casually offers his opinion in barely a whisper: has anything really changed? There is a steady thrum, a buzz that quietly hums in the background. I can really feel the language of these characters, their lives spiraling and spinning along what should be a normal day in the city. And the pulse of the not-quite-forgotten war keeps a steady beat. Both Claire and another woman from the group reference their lost boys in the scope of the tightrope walker. Only Claire is more direct: how dare this man challenge and play with death so willingly when her son is no longer alive?

In some instances, however, the concept of tilting back and forth between New York City denizens as they are influenced and affected by Petit’s walk is not as strong. While most of the characters in each chapter get their own separate backstory from the narrative and resurface in different points of the novel, two chapters in particular feature characters that are introduced briefly and then never reoccur. This works in the case of the computer hackers living on the west coast, who randomly call a pay phone outside of the twin towers to find out any information about Petit and what is going on. It is a brilliant reminder of the times and the fact that a 24 hour news cycle was non-existent in 1974: you literally had to catch the news at 6pm and 10pm the same day or wait for the story to appear in the next day’s newspapers. Less effective, though, is the chapter featuring a young photographer who, on the day of Petit’s walk, is busy chronicling taggers and their spray paint art beneath the NYC subway system (another high/low moment). The fictional character is credited as taking the pivotal and most famous photo of Petit mid-walk across the wire, though in truth, the credit actually belongs to real-life photographer. This manipulation seems contrived, as the character’s backstory was obviously added to give depth to the overall theme of the novel, but it didn’t happen to fit with the true photographers own story. I didn’t particularly NEED this story in the book; it neither enhanced nor enriched the subtext from an already rich and complex story.

The big white “elephant”(s) in the story, if you will, are the actual World Trade Center Towers themselves. I’ve read in other reviews that “Let the Great World Spin” was written as the author’s tribute to 9/11. I must point out that not once does the author make mention of this fact in his novel, despite the fact that the latter half of the story takes place in 2006, only 5 years removed from the catastrophic event, and it is curious that Jaslyn, the character featured in the last part of the book, does not remark on the Towers disappearance from the city, even though she does reference a picture of Petit’s walk across the Towers. At first I was bothered by it, the absence of the two gigantic buildings that served as catalyst for the overriding story line, but the more I came to terms with the idea, the more it made sense from the author’s point of view. As we live in a post-9/11 world, we are both affected AND removed from the event itself. It has become part of our landscape in many ways. And if McCann saw NYC of the seventies and beyond as dirty and corrupt, then the city after 2001 can be viewed as a level playing ground- literally and figuratively. We can no longer think in terms of High/Low as members of society. As Gloria says, “you have to get to a high floor to see what the past has done to the present”.

A fellow book clubber mentioned during our discussion of this novel an interview she read with McCann, who noted that this book was not only a tribute to the WTC, but also a cathartic answer to a nagging question. How do we come together as people during and after an extraordinary event? Like Petit’s walk, which enthralled (and in some cases, angered) a city and later the nation, so is the case of the actual day of the WTC Towers collapse: you knew exactly where you were, what you were doing, and most importantly, whether you were on the west coast or abroad, you were six degrees separated from someone else who was an eye-witness to the event. We are not all separate beings, existing on an individual plane- our actions and experiences, unbeknownst to us, are all indirectly and in many cases, directly, connected. The end of the novel highlights this idea. Claire is directly connected to an otherwise implausible connection: she is the godmother to Jazzlyn’s- one of Corrigan’s prostitutes from the Bronx- daughter Jaslyn. They meet for one last time as Claire lays dying, except this time there is no distinction, no boundary between the two, no high/low.

It is a subtle and yet profound novel, and not one to be taken lightly. The characters never leave you, and it is hard to leave them at the end of each chapter. You almost need to take a break before proceeding to the next one. If the book had been written as a more thinly veiled version of a “9/11” tribute novel, I don’t think it would have succeeded. 9/11 is a wound that will only slowly heal over time and must be approached with care. “Let the Great World Spin” is a creative and colorful use of narrative to pay tribute to these buildings (considered hideous monstrosities in the early 70s, by the way) by in fact paying tribute to a simple tightrope artist who saw a kind of beauty in the Towers in their infancy before anyone else could. The world will continue to spin, despite whatever horrors we inflict on each other, but the Towers will forever be etched in our minds as a testament to one of humans greatest achievements, which in turn inspired the greatest achievement of one man in particular, who dared the impossible.

(PS, as a side note, if you have never seen the “Man on Wire” documentary about Philippe Petit’s walk, I highly recommend it if you intend to read this book. The film makes a wonderful companion to the novel).

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