Tag Archives: Colum McCann

Summer Reading: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

41IZch3WE5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’m not going to make you read until the end of the review to find out that I loved this book. I loved it. I read Colin McCann’s Let the Great World Spin a few years ago and fell beautifully in love with his writing and storytelling. In Let the Great World Spin he uses the infamous tightrope walk executed by Philippe Petit in New York 1974 where literally the city holds its collective breath as they watch Petit dance between the World Trade towers. True story. He uses this historic event to weave together an incredible  tale that connects a number of people who all witnessed this event. What emerges is a portrait of America post Vietnam.

In TransAtlantic he does it again but this time he celebrates the connection between Ireland, America and Canada in a book that spans four generations. This time the historic event on which the remainder of the story turns is the first transatlantic flight by WW1 vets Alcock and Brown who are vying to win 10,000 pounds for being the first to carry mail from the New world to the Old by aircraft.

In each chapter McCann introduces a new piece of the puzzle, and a character who plays a bit part in the previous chapter sweeps forward and takes centre stage. It sounds simple but it’s masterful. What emerges is a portrait of a generation of 4  women, Lily, Emily, Lottie and Hannah which spans from the mid 1800’s to 1998. Each of these women interact with known historic male figures – the African American slave Frederick Douglass, (he travels to Ireland in 1845 to advocate for the abolishment of slavery), the aviators, and Senator George Mitchell, who brokered a peace deal for Ireland in 1998.

The interactions with these men provides the historic framework on which the novel rests and through it we travel through time, from Ireland in the 1840’s through to the Civil War where Lily Duggan escapes to work as a nurse.  The reader weaves through history and place  through the emotional lives and history of Lily Duggan and her daughter and granddaughters.

For those of you wanting more rave reviews Lawrence Hill wrote this for the National Post – a great writer writing a review of another great writer’s book.



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My Great Reads 2010

I started 2010 out with the ambition of reading 100 books this year. Like all great plans mine was waylaid by the exigencies of life. I did, however, still manage to read some great books.

My top reads this year are:
1. My absolute favourite read this year is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – a great literary read that uses an interesting cultural device to tell an expansive and wonderful story.

2. Brief Interviews with Hideous MenDavid Foster Wallace – Wow, I found this book to be a breath of fresh air. It’s very literary but it breaks free from the usual storytelling devices and then on top of that it contains some really amazing stories. It’s changed the way I believe people can write about things.

3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery – This is just a wonderful read. Written by a French writer it explores unlikely friendships within the quagmire of the French class system. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll want to read it again.

4. infidel Ayaan Hirsi Ali – I don’t read very much non-fiction but I thought this offered a glimpse into a world I know very little about. It makes me want to know more about women and Islam.

5. Freedom Jonathan Franzen – Because he tells a great story that speaks to our times. And he gets bonus points for making me laugh.

6. Loving Frank – Nancy Horan – A great story about Frank Lloyd Wright‘s lover Martha Borthwick. It’s one of those books you can’t put down.

7. Room – Emma Donaghue – Well there’s no question that this is a creepy story about a woman who gives birth to a little boy while she is enslaved in a small room for seven years, but wow does Emma Donoghue ever create a singularly believable voice for young Jack.

8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer – I’m a sucker for any books on war and this one is a great read. I’m now eager to travel to Guernsey now that I know it exists.

9. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen – I completely immersed myself in Ms. Austen’s world when I was reading this. What a testament to the durability of great literature.

10. Tuesday’s With Morrie by Mitch Album – Because this book helped me understand dying better and that’s something I needed to learn about this year.

I’m starting next year’s list which includes:
Irshad Manji – The Trouble with Islam Today
Sea Sick – The Global Ocean in Crisis
Malcolm Gladwell – Blink and What the Dog Saw

I would love to hear from others any recommendations you might have for fiction or non-fiction that I can put on my ‘must read’ list.



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Let the Great World Spin: Colum McCann Book Review

What a great title. What an amazing image. And let me tell you something else, Colum McCann delivers in imagery, language, structure and sheer moments of heart wrenching beauty in telling a story that begins with the famous highwire tightrope walk that Philippe Petit did between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 6th, 1974.

Like an angel poised high above the city, the tightrope walker balances between life and death, beauty and horror, strength and frailty. And as New Yorker’s collectively held their breath below watching this fine balancing act, McCann with an almost spin of the dice begins to tell stories of people from all walks of life who were connected by the experience of either hearing or seeing the tightrope walker on that hot August day.

From the young Irish priest who offers kindness and grace to prostitutes in the Bronx, to a judge and his wife who suffer the loss of their only son in Vietnam, to two young orphans who survive the carnage of their mother’s terrible life and her untimely death, these portraits and others show a city in the aftermath of an unforgiving war and still deeply divided by race and class.

Ultimately all these stories coalesce into a single point where the dots connect. Not only does the experience of the tightrope walker connect these seemingly disparate lives but what McCann evokes in his characters is the terrible burden and the incredible beauty of their humanity. Like a prism he turns his cast into the light so we can see them more clearly.

There are so many times when I can feel something but I can’t express it. I feel that there is language in this book that has given expression to some of these very personal feelings and in doing so has grounded me in the larger human experience. Even a line as simple as “sometimes we go on existing in a place even after we left it.” uses so few words to express a mountain of feeling.

Dave is reading Shantaram right now. He loves to torture me by reading excerpts. I demand that he stop. It makes me cringe. The language is florid and the writer is in love with his word count as much as he seems to be in love with himself.

Colum McCann is precisely the opposite. He is proof that you don’t need a lot of words to make it count. He delivers the story in sometimes spare, poetic language that allows you to feel and understand the moment for what it is. His language serves up the plain, raw experience that being human can often be.

In setting the story in 1974 he is able to cast the Twin Towers as a cultural icon before their terrible destruction. It also allows him to explore the impact of war on a city as complex as New York City where race and class issues are still unevenly resolved. And yet there are moments, as in when Gloria and Claire are able to set aside their obvious life differences and simply allow love to prevail that you realize that there is a kind of moving forward. That there is hope. That life can be beautiful. Like the image of the tightrope walker, life is beautiful and terrible and fragile.

You probably didn’t have to read this far to guess that I thought this was an amazing book.

Interview with Colum McCann

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