18 May 2010

Review: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Summary: Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin reads as a series of interconnected short stories that take place in New York City. The intersecting point is an August 1974 morning when a man walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers. The stunt occurred just days before Nixon resigned and months before the fall of Saigon. Here is part of the publisher's summary:

Elegantly weaving together . . . seemingly disparate lives, McCann's powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city's people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the artistic crime of the century. A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as "a fiercely original talent" (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.
Why I Abandoned the Book: I read almost half the book before I called it quits. There were several reasons I stopped reading, but one stands out. In the first ninety-seven pages I found four factual errors and that ruined the book for me. Instead of reading the fourth chapter for the story of two artists, I treated the text as if it were a literary treasure hunt: Did Pontiac really make a car in 1927? When was Max's popular in New York? Did Nixon really resign just days after the tightrope stunt? And when I didn't find an error, instead of relaxing, I started thinking that I hadn't read the story carefully enough. Time for this editor to put the novel down and move on.

I should note that I even tried the audio edition read by Colum McCann. McCann's narration was wonderful, but it didn't save the novel for me.

Here are the errors:
  • Alencon lace is a needlelace, it is not tatted. (And I won't question the probability that someone owned handmade Alencon lace curtains.)
  • Petunias do not have "gorgeous green stalks neatly clipped at the bottom" and really cannot be cut for putting in a vase. (They have floppy stems and tend to fall over.)
  • The thirty-six saints were really thirty-six righteous men from Jewish folklore from before the formation of the Catholic Church. In fact, at one point the church attempted to hunt down and kill the righteous men because they thought the Jews were no longer the chosen people.
  • Plastic bags were seen in the streets, but they were not in use until the late 1970s to early 1980s (caught by Dawn from She Is Too Fond of Books).
A Quick Look at Reviews: Do not listen to me. Let the Great World Spin won a National Book Award and has received high praise. Sandy, from You've Gotta Read This, says: "Have I convinced you that life will not be complete unless you read this book? Can anyone explain to m[e] why this did not win the Pulitzer? (no offense to the winner of course). This is by far the best book I've read this year, bar none." Amy, from My Friend Amy, wrote: "There were moments of sheer beauty in the writing . . . not beauty in the lyrical way, but rather in the way truth reaches out and grabs you while you read, almost leaving you breathless." Make up your own mind, the errors did me in.

Let the Great World Spin at Powell's
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Published by Random House, 2009
ISBN-13: 9780812973990

Challenges: New Author, Support Your Library, Audiobook, 100+
YTD: 42
Source: Review & Borrowed (see review policy)
Rating: DNF
Note: I received a copy of this book from TLC Tours for review and also borrowed the audiobook from the library.


Jim Breslin 5/18/10, 7:55 AM  

Interesting review. I read this book recently and loved it, though I hadn't caught the errors. Corrigan is such an admirable but flawed character. I had questioned the timing of events (ie: Nixon, tightrope, etc.) but hadn't researched. I admire how McCann wove the backstory of the characters in without an abruptness. I am wondering about the chapter with the young photographer shooting the graffiti. I don't understand how that fit in. Thanks.

Heather 5/18/10, 8:00 AM  

Wow. I have this book, but haven't read it yet. Now I'm not so sure I want to. I hate errors in books too, and, even though I probably wouldn't have caught those, I'll remember them now! I will still probably try it sooner or later, but I'm leaning towards later. Sorry this one didn't work out for you.

Care 5/18/10, 8:06 AM  

I'm still not sure if I will read this, tho I have added it to my tbr. I didn't realize this was more like short stories loosely connected.
I enjoyed reading your review and admire that you can walk away from a DNF - I tend to always wonder if I should have finished it just to see ___ ? But I'm getting better. I used to read it to the end no matter what but now I'm trusting my little voice when it pops up and says 'a better book is on the shelf, give this up now...'

Amy 5/18/10, 8:18 AM  

Hmmm good to know that not everything is real. Errors like that bug me, and author definitely should have done his research, but at least he isn't pushing it as fact right?

Beth F 5/18/10, 8:28 AM  

Amy: depends on what you mean by "pushing it as fact." For example, describing Alencon lace as having been tatted is a flat-out factual error. (Similar to describing a cake as having been made by stir-frying.) A three-second Internet search would have clarified that.

Amy 5/18/10, 8:33 AM  

Ah, yes, I simply mean that at least there is the tiny silver lining that it's a novel instead of non-fiction :P (basically was just being a little sarcastic there! Forgot sarcasm comes across very poorly in comments. heh)

Julie P. 5/18/10, 8:45 AM  

I'm not that astute so I'll probably still give the book a try! Sounds like the writing style is a treat.

Serena 5/18/10, 8:46 AM  

I had a hard time finishing up this novel, but I enjoyed it to a point. I noticed the plastic bags as well...which seemed immediate incongruous to me. I had no idea about the lace, but knew that Nixon resigned Aug. 8, 1974, though that's probably due to extensive study of the Vietnam War.

I can see how these factual errors, which could be easily corrected, would bug you. My problems stemmed from the really loose connections between the stories, the prominence of the tightrope walker at the beginning and the seemingly thrown in story lines. I think the connections could have been made without the tightrope walker and done better.

bermudaonion 5/18/10, 8:50 AM  

I've had this book on my Kindle for a while. I doubt I would have noticed any of those errors.

Jen - Devourer of Books 5/18/10, 9:02 AM  

Interesting, I've seen so many positive reviews on this. I think I'll still read it, because I doubt I would have noticed any of those mistakes, but it does make me wonder how those things got past Mccann and his editors.

Anonymous,  5/18/10, 9:08 AM  

I'm not part of the book tour, but I'm getting ready to post my review of this book today. I'm sorry it didn't work out for you. I had my own hesitations, but certainly didn't catch any of those errors. You've got a much more astute eye than I do :)

Wendy 5/18/10, 9:09 AM  

I'm one of those readers that really loved this book (my review doesn't post until the 28th), but I admit, I missed the mistakes you mentioned. I am more of a "character" reader in that if I am caught up with the characters I tend to miss some of the detail (and McCann's characters captivated me). That said, if I have knowledge in a certain area and something in a work jumps out at me as just plain wrong, it bugs me. I remember reading a book once about a search and rescue dog and the author made so many glaring errors (including the main character giving her dog a Tylenol which is poison to dogs), that I finally tossed the book aside in disgust.

Anna 5/18/10, 9:10 AM  

I read and enjoyed this book. I didn't notice the errors, but I appreciate you pointing them out.

Diary of an Eccentric

caite 5/18/10, 9:22 AM  

factual errors in a book drive me nuts! totally nuts!

Granted, I don't know many things so it is harder for me to catch them...lol
but I certainly would have caught the petunia one.
And yes, then you become very distracted by looking for more errors and that can certainly ruin a book for me.

Heather 5/18/10, 10:08 AM  

Glad that I checked in to read this review and the many thoughtful comments. I probably wouldn't have picked up this book anyway. I'm not really into short story type books. then again, If my sister came to me and thrust the book in my hand and said that I had to read it, I would.

Vasilly 5/18/10, 10:24 AM  

Great review. I can definitely see why you decided to put this down. I'm not really into short stories but I think I'll give this a try anyway.

Sandy Nawrot 5/18/10, 11:47 AM  

*sigh* Well I knew this day had to come eventually. And it breaks my heart! This was such a beautiful audio book. Honestly I am so dense, I will probably never catch problems like you did. I just got swept along in the story. I'd tell you to listen to the audio, because it is so wonderfully done. But I think at this point, your mind would still be thinking about the errors!

Unknown 5/18/10, 12:21 PM  

Sorry to read that yo didn't like this one, but thanks for the an honest review.

Jackie (Farm Lane Books) 5/18/10, 12:54 PM  

I'm surprised that you didn't finish this one as so many people seem to rave about it. I wouldn't have spotted any of these errors so don't think Ill have a problem with that aspect of it. Thanks for pointing them out though :-)

Meghan 5/18/10, 1:45 PM  

I'll have to admit that I would never have caught those errors either, but they do drive me absolutely mad when I find some of my own. I'm really disappointed that you didn't like this one - I'll have to temper my own enthusiasm for it now.

Gerbera Daisy Diaries 5/18/10, 2:21 PM  

Drats! I just bought this book this weekend. Still have the receipt, will return promptly! I hate factual errors.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea 5/18/10, 6:06 PM  

I plan to listen to the audio version, but I loved that you pointed out these "bloopers", as I will be listening for them now...LOL

Jenners 5/18/10, 7:53 PM  

I was expecting to see you write how much you loved it as I've seen nothing but praise for this book so I was surprised to read your review. But I can see why it got to you. Me? I don't know any of this stuff so it would go right by me and not bother me in the least.

Emily 5/18/10, 8:44 PM  

I'm relieved to read another review that's less than glowing, because I really disliked this book, for more reasons than just the factual errors (though some of those bothered me as well)! The writing was clunky and hit-you-over-the-head overdone, and the characters blatant stereotypes, in my opinion. I'm quite surprised so many people love it, but...to each their own.

Anonymous,  5/19/10, 12:06 AM  

But I did listen to you. And you hadn't even spoken yet. I was waffling over whether or not to add this to the nook last night, and I finally decided it wasn't my cup of tea.

Dorte H 5/19/10, 2:46 PM  

Some time ago I saw a comment written by a writer of historical fiction who admitted she had made a mistake when using styrofoam cups too early. I was not exactly impressed, but then I sometimes err by giving people mobile phones too late - or letting my characters switch them off now and then. (My family and I do that all the time, but apparently it is not realistic).

Margot 5/19/10, 2:55 PM  

Errors in writing get to me too. I'm sure there are errors that go over my head but things like petunias that are commonly seen all over the country this time of year, is inexcusable. It's not only sloppy writing but it's sloppy editing.

J.G. 5/19/10, 9:13 PM  

I adored many aspects of this book and consider it one of the best I've read in a long time. I didn't catch any of the factual errors, but understand how it would turn you off once you "saw behind the curtain." Thanks for sharing your perspective. Differing opinions are one of the reasons literature (and blogging) is so much fun.

Kathleen 5/19/10, 10:50 PM  

It is really too bad that a book that has garnered so much attention had such sloppy editing. I have it on my TBR but will let it sit awhile.

Alice 5/20/10, 1:55 AM  

I'm sorry that the book was a lemon to you... :(

Susi (The Book Affair) 5/20/10, 10:55 AM  

I bought this book yesterday after having read so many positive reviews about it. Sorry to hear that you had to call it quits. I shall see how I fare with it. :)

Ana S. 5/22/10, 7:41 AM  

What a pity! If I happen to notice those kinds of errors, they can really ruin a book for me too.

Arlene 7/17/10, 5:31 PM  

Thanks for pointing out a couple of errors that I missed. The one that got to me the most, which you didn't mention, was the misspelling of Natalia Makarova's last name ("Marakova"!).

Justbooksclc 8/7/10, 1:53 PM  

At the heart of this book of interconnections is Frenchman Philippe Petit’s daring tightrope walk across the Twin Towers on August 1974, New York. Connected in simple ways to this act are stories of diverse characters and people. A delightful balancing act of a novel that grows on you. Read it

Booklover Book Reviews 8/11/10, 5:44 AM  

Wow, you really have a good eye, I completely missed those things.

I was one of those people who absolutely loved this book - it moved me.

Anna and Serena 12/29/10, 9:15 AM  

just wanted to say that we've linked to your review on the Vietnam War Book reviews page at War Through the Generations.

Anonymous,  3/2/11, 8:58 PM  

I wondered if I was just being picky and wondered if others were bugged by the errors. Happy to fid I'm not the only one who finds them distractinv.

Some others: Yale didn't admit women a undergrads until 1969.

The word geek didn't apply to computer folks until the 80s.

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