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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
Let the Great World Spin
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on 18 May 2010
One of the best books I've read in years: engaging storytelling, the strands move this way and that, intertwining and separating again like seaweed in the current, but firmly rooted in the rich back-ground of New York in the 70s. Although some characters are based on stereotypes, somehow they all come to life, so that on the one hand you experience a sense of loss when you've read the last page, but on the other hand you feel enriched for having "met" them.
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on 20 July 2011
The books centres around a series of characers and their lives at the time Phillipe Petit did his tightrope walk between the twin towers in 74. I liked the gritty descriptions of NY in the 70's which reminds us it wasn't always the way it is today. I did struggle to understand the point of the piece about Fernando the 13yr old photographer. If this section had been left out if would have made no difference whatsoever, in fact it might have improved things. It was "well written" as so many others have described it but parts of the book rambled on for far longer than necessary & I didn't like the ending at all. Overall I enjoyed it but its not a book I would pick up and read again. I think the hype surrounding this book have made it appear a lot better than it actually is.
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on 31 August 2011
This was the first book I had read by this author and what a discovery. I am now getting through all of his books and have yet to be disappointed . The writing is superb - very insightful and the linking of the stories well paced . Its a story of different lives around a momentous event. Its not suitable for people who maybe have a short attention span or want a lightweight holiday read as it requires attention and engagement. Can recommend to anyone interested in the art of literature.
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on 4 January 2010
For a number of years I have been particularly impressed by the work of Colum McCann but for me this is his greatest achievement so far.Set against the background of Phippe Petit's amazing tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974,the novel focusses on the lives of various New Yorkers who are all in some slight way connected with the Frenchman's acrobatic feat and presents to the reader in highly poetic,moving and yet humorous language their sorrows and aspirations often linked to the political and social upheavals of seventies America(the Viet Nam War,the dispossession of Blacks)which make each of the characters credible and involving.Essentially the book tells the story of New York at a particular moment in its history evoking memories of Joyce's Dubliners and Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 19 July 2009
Philippe Petit's heart-stopping performance, as he walks between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, becomes the pivotal event of this magnificent "New York novel" in which Colum McCann examines many facets of the city's life. Focusing first on the down-and-outers--prostitutes, the desperately poor, the drug- and alcohol-addicted homeless, the infirm elderly, gang members, casual thieves, and bright young people with no futures--he recreates the lower depths of New York, a place where its citizens every day walk the fine line between survival and death on a completely different tightrope from that of Philippe Petit.

The novel begins with the arrival in the South Bronx of Ciaran Corrigan from Ireland, seeking his younger brother John Andrew, known simply as "Corrigan" or "Corry," a monk who has studied in Belgium and who now lives a bare-bones life among addicts and prostitutes in the projects in the South Bronx. Often the brunt of their jokes and sometimes of fists, he provides a way-station for the prostitutes who need a place to stop between tricks. Two of them, Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn, have good intentions and great street smarts, but they are unable to escape their surroundings, which offer a much-needed quick buck and help them support Jazzlyn's two little girls--and her dangerous drug habit. Ciaran, afraid for the physical and emotional welfare of Corry, tries to persuade him to return home to Ireland, but Corry, in the midst of a spiritual crisis, will not take the easy way out of the ministry he believes he was meant for.

Misery is not limited by economic boundaries here, however, as McCann also shows through other characters, in other parts of the city. The emotional paralysis of Claire Soderberg, a Park Avenue matron, unable to resume her life after the death of her only child in Vietnam, is shared by her support group of four other mothers from all over the city, who have similar devastating losses. An artist from upstate New York, involved in a terrible accident in the city, is overwhelmed by her sense of guilt, and an educated Guatemalan immigrant, who had hoped to finish medical school in the U.S., must let go of her dreams. Each of these people must find some source of enduring beauty, however small, in order to go on. Dense and impressionistic in style, McCann illuminates the lives of many well-developed characters living in various parts of New York City, always doubling back to images of Phillipe Petit on his tightrope, and always showing his characters' overlaps.

Life in general is "nasty, brutish, and short" here, with no guarantees that it will ever improve, and as Tillie says of her life, "I don't know who God is, but if I meet him anytime soon ... I'm going to slap Him stupid." In the final section of the novel, McCann fast-forwards to 2006, as a character studies an inspirational photo of Philippe Petit walking on his tightrope, with a low-flying plane above him, the plane appearing to be just a few feet from flying into the World Trade Center: "As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later...[But] the plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don't fall apart...the man alone against scale, still capable of myth in the face of all other evidence." In his gorgeous, lyrical descriptions of Philippe Petit's walk, McCann suggests that this walk may be an extraordinary "gift" of beauty to a city which, collectively, may have thought it had seen it all. With this novel, however, McCann makes another such gift, an extraordinary homage to New York, with all its flaws, its traumas, its heartbreak--and its moments of great beauty.

This Side Of Brightness
Fishing The Sloe-Black River
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on 2 October 2013
Colin McCann has taken a long hard look at the painful bits of our western world and woven a novel to help us accept and feel redeemed by them. He does not duck hard things like racism, violence, drugs and prostitution. He does not judge or romanticize. In fact he has done more than that. He gives us a wide range of human experience. He shows us what we are capable of both high and low. His running metaphor or the tightrope walker, a man who is so at one with himself that he can dance along the wire, celebrates the brilliance of the human spirit. His characters, especially the most unlikely such as Tilly, the prostitute, walk their own tightrope lives with the same brilliance. He shows us that we can live our lives that way as well.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 February 2012
High above New York City, early morning one day in the 1970s, a wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre supports a death-defying tightrope walker. Down below, in the streets, offices and apartments of the city and beyond, onlookers and others are connected through a network of events, happenstance and mishap.

Two Irish brothers with widely diverse motivations; a mother-and-daughter pair of hookers; a couple of strung out artists; a bevy of California-based proto-geeks; a support group of mothers of the Vietnam dead; a refugee from Guatemala; a judge. We get into heads. We learn secrets. Innermost fears.

Some is told in the first person, some in the third, the focus shifting from direct to indirect reportage.

Mostly the tone is sombre. The only real light moments involve the funambulist himself; thrilling to the danger; anticipating the rush from the altitude, the audience. The event is based upon the real-life stunt carried out by Philippe Petit on 7 August 1974, a performance which left all witnesses awestruck by its audacity: one remarked that he was more like a dancer than a walker, especially when he allowed both feet at times to leave the wire. McCann changes some of the facts, though, so it's not actually Petit himself out on the wire.

Meanwhile, Gloria, one of the bereaved mothers provides a less than positive assessment of the level of solidarity displayed by some of her companions towards their hostess for the day, their snide comments, their gracelessness, their inability to overcome their envy over her lifestyle and her Park Avenue apartment.

Whilst the "dancer" provides the central event, Gloria's is maybe the pivotal tale. She provides the key to McCann's thesis: "everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected." Her backstory is one of strength, of triumph over adversity. The granddaughter of slaves, Syracuse graduate, twice divorced. She herself has lost three sons to Vietnam. She attempts to walk home from Park to the Bronx projects, but her feet swell and bleed, and then she is mugged at knifepoint for her handbag, empty save for photos of her dead boys. But at the end of the day she achieves some kind of redemption.

In the aftermath there comes the life-assuring coda, which connects then with now, World Trade Centre with Ground Zero. A reminder that at one time there was nothing sinister in seeing a picture of a plane flying in proximity to the towers. (It also provides a very poignant warning for anyone tempted to displays of levity in the company of US airport security staff.) Unfortunately the coda ultimately stalls, losing the momentum of the rest of the novel.

A shame, because despite its sombre tone, it's mostly worth a read.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 31 March 2016
One August morning in 1974, a man was spotted standing on top of one of the newly-built Twin Towers. A crowd quickly gathered, wondering if he was going to jump. Some prayed for his safety and begged him to come down, others egged him on to jump, in that ugly way crowds have. But in a moment of unforgettable magic, Philippe Petit stepped out onto an inch-thick wire, 1350 feet above the ground, and walked between the towers. For 45 minutes he held the city enthralled as he walked back and forth, sitting, even lying on the wire.

When something as momentous as 9/11 happens, how do you deal with it in fiction? To tell the story of the events themselves can feel maudlin, voyeuristic – a kind of cashing-in on tragedy. Colum McCann's book only obliquely refers to that day, but the iconic status of the Twin Towers, their presence in the book, means it's never far from the reader's mind. And it's no coincidence that the one picture McCann has chosen to illustrate the book, with the benefit of hindsight becomes terrifyingly prescient.

Instead, McCann chooses a different unique moment in the history of the Twin Towers, using it as a starting point to tell the stories of some of the people whose lives intersected while Petit walked. It's not a celebration of New York, exactly – it's too clear-sighted about the many problems that existed at a point when the city was drowning in drugs and crime, and the country was reeling from Vietnam. But it is a deeply affectionate picture, a warts and all portrait of its people struggling to achieve that point of balance, to make their own walk, to recognise the occasional moment of magic in their own lives.

In the end I loved the book, but it took a while for me to get there. Rather appropriately, it was almost exactly at the mid-point that I suddenly became invested in the lives McCann describes. I suspect this is one of those books that will actually work better on a re-read, because knowing how the stories play out will add the emotional content to the early chapters which I felt was a little lacking on a first read.

Although I grew to love it, I can't in truth say the book is unflawed. Some of the chapters are little more than long streams of foul-mouthed, unimaginative swearing, either in dialogue or when he's writing some characters' narratives in first person. An author should do more than pick up speech traits – mimicry is not art. Being brutal about it, one can train a parrot to repeat speech. But in fiction, an author should be able to achieve a sense of authenticity without simply parroting the poor language skills of the people on whom he's basing his characters.

It's a pity because, when he ceases the mimicry and writes in his own creative voice, he writes quite beautifully. The sections where he describes Petit's preparation and walk create such brilliant atmosphere that I felt all the terror and exhilaration as if I were there on top of the Tower with him. His characterisation is superb – these people gradually became real to me so that I cared what happened to them. And he avoids any emotional trickery or contrived coincidence, so that their stories feel as real as their personalities.

The other major flaw is that some of the sections don't add anything and, in fact, serve only to break the flow and interrupt the development of an emotional bond between reader and characters. Some of the threads carry through the book, recurring and twining around each other, like an intricate dance. But a few of them are entirely separate – for example, the section about the boy who photographs graffiti on the underground, or the hackers who – well, I can't really tell you what the hackers do, because it was so full of unnecessary techie jargon that almost the only words I understood were the incessant swear words, and I tired of them so thoroughly I skipped the bulk of that chapter in the end. I guess McCann was trying to cover everything he could think of that was relevant to New York or the time, but I felt the book would have been tighter and more effective if it had stayed more focused.

Despite all this, the major stories have a depth and fundamental truth to them that in the end lifts the book to within touching distance of greatness. Corr, the religious brother working amongst New York's prostitutes and drug dealers, is caught between his vow of celibacy and his love for a woman. Tillie tells her own story of her life as a prostitute and her shame as she sees her beloved daughter Jazzlyn follow her onto the streets. Claire is mourning the son she lost in Vietnam and trying to find a kind of solace in the company of other bereaved mothers. Gloria, whose life would have broken many women, finding a way to survive by holding out a generous hand to those around her. Solomon, the judge who spends his days brokering deals and plea bargains, suddenly tasked to find an appropriate punishment for this man who has committed trespass to walk between the Towers, and in doing so has caused a whole city to raise its eyes. As they cross each other's paths, McCann shows how single moments can change entire lives, and ripple out to touch the lives of others.

McCann paints New York as a city that lived for the moment, instantly forgetting its own history – a place without the memorials and statues that fill other great capitals of the world. And he leaves the reader to realise how that all changed when the Twin Towers fell – their absence a memorial that will exist as long as anyone remembers seeing them soar above the city skyline, and will have a half-life in photos, newsreels, art and literature for long after that. But as his characters walk their own wires and the great world spins, ultimately he reminds us that some moments bring magic and wonder rather than tragedy, and hope exists even at the darkest times. 4 ½ stars for me, so rounded up.
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on 19 May 2011
The whole book is well written but the key focus of the book is to tell the tales of different characters and I found this massively influenced how much I enjoyed, or not, the particular section. for example, I found the character of Corrigan, a radical Irish monk, not only unbelievable but unsympathetic, whilst I got really involved with the tales of Claire and Gloria. The overall character in the book is, in my view, New York itself and I really enjoyed that part.

I would certainly read more of this author's work.
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on 13 October 2013
Some great writing - scenes delineated with arresting and succinct imagery. Plain to see why Colum McCann is so highly rated.
But I couldn't shake the saccharin taste at the back of my brain - the characters are just that bit too close to formula, a bit too convenient and neatly packaged.
I wanted this to be a knockout as I like the guy, he's a Stoke City fan (pretty sure I read that somewhere) which obviously shows character, and seems a genuine good guy. But too much marmalade for me, not enough bite
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