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National Book Award, 2009

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Just announced:

The National Book Award's 2009 shortlist.

I haven't read any of the finalists, but I've heard good things about Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin and Greg Grandin's Fordlandia.

Any thoughts on these? There are a few I want to check out.

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I stumbled on Fordlandia in Borders in Chicago a couple of years ago and have been giving copies to friends and relatives ever since. It's outstanding.

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I stumbled on Fordlandia in Borders in Chicago a couple of years ago and have been giving copies to friends and relatives ever since. It's outstanding.

I hadn't heard about this book until now. Now I have to check it out.

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I just started Let the Great World Spin the other day and am only about 1/3 of the way through it, but I'm reasonably impressed. It follows several different narratives that all revolve, somehow, around the highwire act featured in the movie Man on Wire. I remember hearing an interview with McCann a while back, and he had some interesting things to say about how the novel tapped into his feelings about 9/11.

The first section is very moving indeed; it follows a pair of Irish brothers--one a monk of some sort working with prostitutes in New York and the other an aspiring writer of some sort--the monk-brother is an interesting character who seems to need to take the suffering of everyone around him on to himself.

Of course, that's my reaction at not even halfway through--but, so far, I'm really digging this book.

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Just finished Let the Great World Spin. I’m not sure what to say about this book. It’s beautifully written, and it cuts deep. Almost too deep. The story revolves around several characters in and around New York on the morning of August 7, 1974—a monk who must suffer with the world, a prostitute, a judge and his wife (who have lost a son in Vietnam)—truthfully, the highwire walker hardly comes into it at all except as a metaphor. For the rest—everything is broken. Or breaking. In that sense, I suppose, it’s a 9/11 novel--McCann is pretty explicit in the supplementary material that he's working through his own feelings about the WTC attacks in this book.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the characters come together too pat. I know, that’s how fiction works, but there’s a fairly large number of coincidences needed—particularly in the last half of the book—in order to weave these lives together into a sort of tapestry.

Still, the book definitely moved me; there were sections (during Tilly’s story, for instance) where I was very moved indeed.

Having finished it, and read some of the supplementary material, it looks like McCann was going for a kind of hope at the end. But it’s a hopeless hope (just as the monk Corrigan’s faith is a faithless faith). Which is just as well. The book’s about tentative hope. I can’t find the page now, but there’s a line about the light at the end of the tunnel: sometimes the tunnel is necessary to make the light bearable. And then there’s this:

Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who’ve been around awhile know it’s just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it’s never even there in the first place. (304)

The whole book’s full of passages like that—beautiful, a little bleak. Hopeless hope. Faithless faith.

So it’s a powerful book, but I hesitate to make any precise call on it because it’s liable to be dismissed on the grounds of being too bleak or something like that. Such a dismissal might be fair, but I was reasonably impressed all the same.

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