Category: Short Stories


A Requiem for the Towers

My best friend recommended this book.  She said to me, “it is a book about 9/11 that’s not about 9/11.”  My response was “huh?” And she just said back to me, “read it, it is brilliant.” So I did, and she was (of course) right. The book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and it is a stunning, just stunning work that explores the lives of people in New York City, set in August 1974.

What happened in August 1974? Well that was when the tightrope walker Philippe Petite threw a cable across the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers and practically danced across it, in a feat so daring that the whole city paused to take it in. Below Petite are the ordinary people of New York who observe or experience his walk in different ways all while their lives intersect together. In the foreground are the towers themselves– brash monuments to capitalism, innovation and the confidence of a city–no one knew at that moment that they would become a place of so much tragedy and heartache, instead they were new, shiny, and in many ways, hopeful.

The book is incredibly stylized, and while the plot interweaves with surprising deftness, it is the writing that shines. Essentially it is almost a series of short stories, that tell of the lives of a variety of New Yorkers– a radical monk, a nurse, a hooker, an artist, a judge, a grieving Park Ave mother (whose son died in Vietnam), a foster parent, etc. Each chapter has a  voice that is distinct to the character (the most stunning is the rendering of the hooker– heartbreaking) and the characters move back and forth into each others lives, tragedies, and stories. Multiple themes abound, but the chief ones that stood out to me were grace and redemption. Grief and death shadow the characters, as does war (Vietnam.)  All of this goes on under the actions of the tightrope walker, who is the thread that holds the stories together– he stands for the miraculous, the golden moment, the astounding, while the rest of the city lurches along in its dirty, grinding life.

It is a stunning book because in many ways it reminds us that history is cyclical. With the destruction of the towers would eventually come more war, more grief and more people looking for their own personal grace as New Yorkers. Although these events are never directly indicated, they are alluded to, a constant foreshadowing, a constant play of darkness and light, birth and death, the building of new ideas, and destruction because of certain ideals.  The Towers in some way were birthed in a hopefulness, a brash defiance, and they came down in a two horrifying and unbelievable moments. But this book reminds you that the towers should not be defined just by their destruction, and that neither should New Yorkers.

This book was fantastic. It is one of the few books from this year that I will buy and re-read, and will no doubt grow richer with each re-reading.  Sections of it just left me stunned and the writing– the writing is enormously exquisite. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that this book won the National Book Award, and it richly deserved it.  I will say no more as the book was so rich I have been thinking about it for several days (always the sign of a good book.) All I will say is go out and read it. This is truly one of the finest and most artistic books that I have read in years.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C

An Upper Class British Bachelor

Many years ago a friend of mine recommended to me P. G. Wodehouse’s short stories about a British gentleman named Bertie Wooster and his butler, Jeeves.  At some point I saw a T.V. episode based on the stories, and found it pretty amusing, but it took me a while to get around to finally reading some of the stories, which I did this past weekend.  Since a couple of Wodehouse collections are conveniently available as a free download for my Kindle (new toy), I decided to give one a whirl.

My Man Jeeves is a collection of eight short stories, most of which center around Jeeves and Wooster, but a few of which focus on Wodehouse’s earlier character, Reggie Peppers.  The stories present a comical window into the life of the pre-World War II social elite, and they are told from the first person perspective of Wooster.  In this collection Wooster, a man of considerable means, has taken up residence in New York City, in part to get away from the influence of his burdensome Aunt Agatha, who still lives in London.  Wooster’s world consists of being waited upon by Jeeves, enjoying NYC’s nightlife, and (with the considerable help of Jeeves) helping get his friends out of fixes.

The stories are somewhat formulaic – a friend approaches Bertie with a problem, Bertie asks Jeeves to help find a solution, hilarity ensues, Jeeves finally solves the problem – but are no less amusing for the familiar pattern.  Wodehouse’s characters – not least the title characters – are positively eccentric, the dilemmas they face, absurd.  My favorite story in the collection involves the Reggie Peppers character.  Peppers’s friend Freddie, in an attempt to be reconciled with his girlfriend, kidnaps a child he mistakenly thinks to be her cousin in the hopes of winning the girlfriend back by returning the child safe and sound.  Upon discovering that the child is not her cousin, he seeks out the child’s family for fear of being brought up on kidnapping charges, only to find the family quarantined with the measles.  Freddie and Reggie – two uppercrust British bachelors – are thus left to care for the child until the family has mended.

Another amusing feature of the stories is the dynamic between Jeeves and Wooster.  Though Jeeves is a more than able servant, he has his opinions about Bertie’s fashion and grooming habits, which often leads to tension between the two.  Needless to say, in the context of the master-servant relationship, the tension is all the more amusing, as the two seek determinedly to win a battle of wills over which tie or hat Wooster should wear.

On the whole, these stories are excellent light entertainment, particularly for Anglophiles like me.  Though it wasn’t my favorite book this year, it was certainly worthwhile and a nice light diversion, both from work and from some of the heavier books I’ve read.

Sixteen down, (at least) thirty-six to go.

Ta,
J