Let The Great World Spin: How not to judge a book by its cover

There was a lot of buzz when this book came out a couple of years ago but I’ve been avoiding it, albeit a bit curious to know what it’s about. My reason? I just didn’t like the cover, still don’t. This is what I see in our local bookstores:

But after two years, and knowing that it has won the National Book Award  (Fiction, 2009), I could not resist anymore. I read it recently and was pleasantly surprised by its structure and intricately woven content. Allow me to offer a glimpse into what’s inside the cover… for those who still have not ventured into it.

The book begins with the true event of the Man On Wire. On a fine August day in 1974, NYC, in the early morning hour, an extraordinary feat took place in front of unbelieving eyes on the streets in Manhattan. One hundred and ten stories above ground, between the newly built Twin Towers, a man was walking, dancing, even lying on a wire strung across the two buildings. Interestingly, the novel is not so much about this man with extraordinary courage and skills, his name not even mentioned until the “Author’s Note” just before the back cover. Instead, the book is about the ordinary humanity on the ground. On that day they are joined by amazement of one man walking precariously in midair, oblivious that it is a metaphor for some of them and their life down on the streets. Here are the stories of a few individuals on that otherwise very ordinary day:

Corrigan, a young priest from Dublin, lives in a rough and drug-infested neighborhood, fending for and befriending prostitutes and the poor. McCann’s characterization is complex and layered. On the surface, we see an altruistic worker, sacrificing his youth, health and even life for the lowly, abused, and despised:

“The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth–the filth, the war, the poverty–was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven… Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same.”

As I read deeper, and with McCann’s captivating storytelling of Corrigan’s broken home while growing up in Dublin, and his strained relationship with his estranged father, I suspect that his transplanted life in NYC could well be a search for redemption, or maybe subconsciously, a defiance against a cruel world, an act just to spite his past.

We read too about a mother and daughter’s entanglement in the underworld of prostitution. We see the reality they have to deal with, as another generation of young daughters are growing up under their care. And yet, as if life has not dealt harshly enough, tragedy strikes. But McCann does not leave us in despair. Through the ingenious weaving of characters and circumstances, he skillfully lifts us out of a miry mess onto a higher plane.

We also read about a support group of mothers who have lost their sons in the Vietnam War.  McCann has sensitively shown us that, even sharing the same loss and grief, their common ground could easily be shaken by the nuances of class and race, as those magnified in the interactions between Claire, the wife of a judge living on Park Avenue and Gloria, a black woman from a housing project in the Bronx. And yet, we are gently led to experience the exhilarating triumph of how compassion can turn mere common ground into powerful bonds, changing grief into commitment and purpose.

Finally we are led one full circle back to the man on wire, and the judge who has to handle his case. Judge Soderberg himself is a father who has lost a son in Vietnam. Like the man on wire, his son had taken the risk to enlist by his own will, not as a fighting soldier but only to offer his computer expertise. No matter, risks are what the two face and one of them succumbs to it. As a judge, how is he going to rule this 25 year-old risking his life to do something he believes to be purposeful and rewarding?

The book ends in the modern day, when a younger generation witness an extreme act of malice done to the Twin Towers. But we also see a new generation raised by grace–fruits of the very individuals who were impacted on that fateful day when the man walked on wire a thousand feet in midair decades earlier. It’s about the choices we make, despite the miry mess we tread on the ground.

While McCann presents these characters and their stories as separate threads in different chapters, he eventually weave them together, tying all loose ends to make a beautiful human tapestry. Like the wire walker, their own lives are no less challenging. They too have to take risks to step out and deal with their circumstances. Theirs is a balancing act as well, in their choices to do the right thing, in their search for meaning, every step of the way.

McCann’s storytelling is visual, his descriptions stylish, many scenes made alive by real-life dialogues that one would expect in the filthy, dark corners of NYC. The book offers an experience quite like my reading of screenplays, but with its literary form, it is much more gratifying.  Also, I was not too surprised to find out that Colum McCann is not only a novelist but a screenwriter as well. Further search leads me to the info that “Let the Great World Spin” is now a film in development by producer J.J. Abram of “Star Trek”(2009) fame.  mmm… let’s just hope the movie adaptation won’t be a 3D spectacular, but a real, human experience as the novel has so sensitively portrayed.

~~~1/2 Ripples

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, HarperCollins Publishers, 2009, 349 pages.

***

If I’d seen this cover in the store, I would have grabbed it at first sight:

CLICK HERE to Colum McCann’s beautifully-designed website, and an exploration of the cover art.

CLICK HERE to go to the artist Matteo Pericoli’s wonderful website which I highly recommend.

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

18 thoughts on “Let The Great World Spin: How not to judge a book by its cover”

  1. Thanks for introducing me to this book. It sounds so layered, intriguing, and human. Will grab it when I spot it next.

    .
    Damyanti,

    I wonder what kind of book cover you’ll find… Love to hear from you after you’ve read it.

    Arti

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  2. I have been in such a quandary over this book. I’ve had it on my wish list and taken it off. I’ve held it in my hands in the bookstore and put it back down. I suppose I should do the sensible thing and get it out of the library! Thank you for a beautiful and illuminating review! This is definitely one that makes me keener to give the novel a try.

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    litlove,

    That’s exactly what I did… got it from the library. I usually borrow books if I’m not sure whether I’d like them or want to keep them. And I can sense your hesitation too, that’s how I felt until now. You really should give it a go.

    Arti

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  3. What’s in a cover? A lot! My copy was different from those two, it was this one:

    This was one of my top book of 2010 and the first book review I ever posted, so I have fond memories of it. Have you seen the documentary “Man on Wire”? Highly recommended.

    .
    Alex,

    Thanks for letting me know. I’ll definitely go and read your review… like to know what you think. As for the cover, I think different parts of the world have diff. designs. But of all, I like the one with the artist’s sketch. You can read more about this artist here: http://www.matteopericoli.com/ It’s a beautiful site… do go and take a look.

    If you click on the link I have on the words “Man On Wire”, you’ll get to my review of the documentary. As you read this post too, you can see the movie poster on the sidebar. You can also click on it. I agree with you… that’s an excellent film. Philippe Petit is one extraordinary man.

    Arti

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  4. This made my fave list for last year. My copy was the second cover you showed. I don’t think I would have picked it up if only the first cover were available. It looks sort of “circusy” to me.

    I remember feeling as if everything were in slow motion in this novel. As if I were hovering above the characters and watching the story unfold. The outsider looking in…so to speak. I loved that feeling.

    .
    Ti,

    Well, I’ll blame it on the book cover for my reluctance of reading it earlier. 😉 But I’m glad I’ve finally discovered what a good book this is… inside the cover. I have no idea why they would have this picture on the front. You know, I really think that they would have boosted the sales of the book with a better design. I really like the second one at the bottom… do go to the artist website to explore more of his fantastic works.

    Arti

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  5. I’ve not heard of this book, but your wonderful review and its connections to Man on Wire are enough to intrigue.

    The title hooked me immediately. At first thought, it seemed to have little to do with wire-walking, or the earth-bound plodding that makes up so much of life.

    On reflection, it makes perfect sense. I’ve experienced vertigo as a disabling condition only once, but it reminded me of the touches of vertigo and dizziness that have come at other times: closing my eyes while showering after being offshore for days, trestle-walking as a kid.

    When we start walking across the great void called life there’s always a bit of dizziness. At that point we have choices: to stop, to turn back, or to keep on walking while we “let the great world spin”.

    I’m looking forward to reading this one.

    .
    Linda,

    You know, the picture on the book cover is so misleading. The story has nothing to do with vertigo, or dizziness, or contortion, literally or metaphorically… although it does mention about spinning… If anything close to that, it would be the balancing act of the man on wire, and his extraordinary courage. I remember how much you’ve appreciated Philippe Petit’s dangerous act. How freeing and affirming to take risks and venture out. Now, I just remember, you’ll have a chance to try something adventurous too … love to hear about it. 😉

    Arti

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  6. Arti, thanks so much for sharing this. Interesting about cover art, isn’t it? It can certainly make a big difference as to whether we pick it up or not! This sounds like a good one to recommend to my book club. We’ve been reading lots of gloomy stuff lately. This looks very good.

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    jeanie,

    Isn’t it true?! The packaging is so important. I highly recommend you click on the link at the bottom of my post to the artist’s website. He has some marvellous works which I’m sure you’ll be delighted to see.

    Yes, this is definitely a good book for personal enjoyment as well as group discussion. Just a note though, some of the dialogues are very realistic within the context and characters involved… your group has to be prepared for the language. 😉

    Arti

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  7. Isn’t it funny how strongly we react to imagery! I’m glad you made the effort to get beyond the cover and enjoy some vivid writing. I’ll be on the look out for the book 🙂

    .
    Yes, you’d think that publishers would have thought of this in their marketing sessions.

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  8. How funny! When Frances raved about this I immediately wanted to read it, but never got to for the sole same reason as you: that unappealing Canadian cover. I decided I’d have to purchase from The Book Depository so as to get that cover with the beautiful sketch but it got pushed further down the wish list as months passed. And then last Feb I found a copy at Goodwill for $1.49. At that price I didn’t care anymore that it was the cover-I-had-been-avoiding. On second thought, the quality of the paper and printing makes up for it, don’t you think? It’s wonderful that our readings overlap like this. You mentioned you were reading Mister Pip next, and I was planning to read Let the Great World Spin after my current read (which is Zeitoun). 🙂

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    Claire,

    That’s a great idea! I should look out for this book at this year’s giant Book Sale… the right cover, hopefully. I borrowed it from the library but would like to keep a copy. As for Mr. Pip, glad I bought it. At present, I’m reading The White Tiger. Have you read it? I recently activated my Goodreads account. Are you a member? That’s a good place for book lovers.

    Arti

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    1. Arti, yes I enjoyed The White Tiger a lot. I’m in goodreads (Claire Go), though I don’t really update that often, just to keep tabs on what I’ve been reading, but a number of the books I’ve read long ago do not have accurate ratings as my opinion of a lot of them has changed.

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      1. Claire, I’m afraid I’ve second thoughts about Mister Pip after reading it. Quite different from my initial expectation… and from your view 😉 Wrote a short review of it on my Goodreads page.

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  9. I liked, didn’t love, this book. But, these lines from your post: “Like the wire walker, their own lives are no less challenging. They too have to take risks to step out and deal with their circumstances. Theirs is a balancing act as well, in their choices to do the right thing, in their search for meaning, every step of the way.” helped cast the novel in a much better light for me. Still, I didn’t find much redemption of any of them in the novel, and truthfully? It depressed me.

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    1. Readers please note: the following contains SPOILERS.

      .
      Bellezza,

      Thank you for voicing out your feelings towards the book. Allow me to share in more details my view.

      I agree with you, for the most part the depiction of the several characters on the streets are far from glamourous… and the glimpse of hope and light comes late, not until the last 50 pages. But all through the novel, McCann has brought out the humanity and pathos, softening what could be readers’ judgemental view of the characters’ lives. It is tragic that they could not break out of their circumstances, I’m thinking esp. of the mother-daughter hookers, Tillie and Jazzlyn, and for Claire and Gloria, their grief and loss. What would happen to Jazzlyn’s two young daughters after her tragic death and Tillie being imprisoned?

      The change comes when two seemingly unrelated individuals touch each other’s heart with their shared pain as mothers who have lost their sons to the Vietnam War. The turning point comes when Gloria gets mugged on the street after their support group meeting at Claire’s. Even though she walks out of the meeting feeling hurt and insulted, she chooses to return to Claire’s home instead of heading back to her own. Their new-found bond and compassion change both of them. That’s the part that moves me most. Subsequently, Gloria is willing to open her heart and life to Jazzlyn’s two girls when she arrives home later to the housing project, when initially she has despised and avoided them all knowing the mother is a hooker. It’s intriguing that all these happen the same day when one man boldly steps out on that high wire in the sky. The last chapter is the gratifying result of Gloria’s resolution and commitment, averting a life of tragic consequences for the next generation.

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  10. p.s. After reading your comment to Claire, I notice you’re reading The White Tiger. Can’t wait to pick that one up! I indulged in an autographed copy this Winter when I was on my ‘Lenten project’ and haven’t read it yet. It looks so good!

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    Bellezza,

    I’m half way through and enjoying it. Very original and daring. Like to hear from you after you’ve read it.

    Arti.

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  11. I love your reviews. This one is no exception. You write very beautifully, it is a pleasure to read you. Even though I read very, very few novels (I am on p. 217 of War and Peace after some weeks), I will always read your reviews (and DS’s), because you write so well, because they make me want to read the book, and because you tell the stories so that I care about them, whether I read the book or not.

    This is a very nice conceit, this book. I can imagine the feeling of closure at the end, and satisfaction.

    I’m intrigued by book covers, and by the ways we respond to them. I am more attracted by the second cover too. When my friend published her book last year, a non-fiction account of her family’s farm in Minnesota, published by the University of Minnesota Press, it was fascinating to hear the process of the cover’s design. The title is Memory of Trees (also an Enya album title), and she wanted certain elements on the cover, that did not make it there, like a stone. I am compiling poems in a little Blurb book I’ll self publish one of these days, and I’m facing the challenge of not only the book cover, but the title. I’ve already run into interesting, and contrary, responses from friends. It’s good to have a focus group for these things, and have the chance to consider different reactions. I wonder how the success of book covers is measured, and do they choose different covers for different bookstores? It would be a fun book group discussion!

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    1. Ruth,

      Thank you for your kind words. I’ve long appreciated your contribution here in the comment section of Ripple Effects.

      As I’ve urged other commenters, I highly recommend you explore the website of the artist of the second book cover, Matteo Pericoli here: http://www.matteopericoli.com/
      I’m sure you’ll enjoy his art work.

      Finally, I’m so excited to hear that you are compiling a collection of your poetry for publication. And if I may suggest, it will be most apt to choose one of the phrases or lines from your poetry as the title, and selections from your own photography to be the cover design(s). I look forward to reading it most earnestly. All the best in the process!

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  12. Man on wire was, to be cliched, a riveting film. Can’t comprehend people who do such things I must say. How many times did he walk across that wire? Amazing.

    Anyhow, I’ve been wanting to read this book for a while. Your review is great … but maybe, given the reading load, I may have to content myself with the movie.

    .
    whisperinggums,

    I know exactly what you mean… given the reading load, or with so many selections out there keeping us very busy indeed. The doc. “Man On Wire” is mesmerizing. I was particularly enthralled because of the music selections. You’re welcome to share your view on my review post.

    Arti

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  13. I’m like Litlove and have been on the fence about this book. Perhaps I can find it on audio, since that’s a good way for me to try books I’m not sure about without too much risk. Your review is intriguing and makes me more likely to want to read the book!

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    Dorothy,

    And I’ve been avoiding it for two years too! Blame it on the book cover. Anyway, I’m not sure how you’ll like it listening. May just well be a different experience as reading. No matter, I’d be curious to know your response after. 😉

    Arti

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