Sunday, November 28, 2010

Let the Great World Spin Book Group Discussion Guide

I enjoy leading book groups. When I lead, I write up a discussion guide to use. Thought my guides could be helpful to other book groups. So I will post them here as I compose them.  Warning: these contain spoilers!  Read after you have finished the book.

Topics for Let the Great World Spin
By Colum McCann

Ciaran and Corrigan are brothers from Ireland.
Corrigan ministers to Jazzlyn, Tillie and the other street walkers.
Corrigan and Adelita fall in love.
Adelita works at a nursing home with folks Corrigan takes out in van.
Lara and Blaine hit the van Corrigan and Jazz are driving.
Gloria lives near Corrigan, knows Jazz’s kids, adopts them.
Gloria and Claire are in a group for mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam.
Claire’s husband is the judge who sentences Tillie and Jazz. He also sentences tightrope walker.
Lara marries Corrigan.
Programmer Sam calls to witness second hand the tightrope walker walking.
Photographer gets the ultimate tag—the photo of tightrope walker and airplane that Jazz’s daughter keeps with her.

Watching the tightrope walker
So many strangers are all watching the same event. Each is unaware of the others until a pigeon swoops (page 5).
And on page 7 “the air felt suddenly shared”.
Where has this occurred in your life? Perhaps while you watched fireworks or waited in an airport security line or watched a public event unfolding. How did it feel?

Tightrope walker as a common thread
How does the tightrope walker link the stories? Literally? Figuratively? Are all of the characters walking a tightrope? In what ways?
Are you?

Dublin at the starting place for the book
Why does the book start in Dublin? Is it to show literally that we come from different places? Is it a comment on the interconnectedness of the world, especially post 9/11? All the characters have different backgrounds? New York is a city of immigrants? All of the above? More?

Interrelationships among the characters
Pg. 5: ‘Perfect strangers touched one another at the elbows.”
Pg 170: “It’s a mystery to him if the writers ever get to see their own tags, except for maybe one step back in the tunnel after it’s finished.”
Pg 197: [pay phone call] “ It’s about being connected, access, gateways, like a whispering game where if you get one thing wrong you’ve got to go all the way back to the beginning.”
Pg 325: “The collision point of stories.”
How aware are the characters in how they have each touched one another's lives?
Do we ever know how we have touched each other’s lives?

Optimists and truly happy people
Pg 18 Corrigan’s “theme was happiness.” Pg 20 “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.” Pg 21 “He would rather die with his heart on his sleeve than end up another cynic.” Pg 154 “he made people become what they didn’t think they could become.” Contrast the Judge seeing the worst in people in his courtroom (page 257) with Corrigan seeing best (with respect to Tillie and Jazz it’s the exact same people).
Do you know people like this?

Post 9/11 perspective
Reading the Colum McCann's Walking an Inch Off the Ground in the reader's guide, provides reader's with a glimpse into how this novel came to be.  How does the fact that the book was written post 9/11 about a pre-9/11 era shape the book?  Which characters and which events pre-echo the 9/11 tragedy? 

References to God
Throughout the book there are many notes and references to God.
Pg 20: “Corrigan told me once that Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where he was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed…”
Pg 27:” “That’s what I like about God. You get to know Him by his occasional absences.”
Pg 30: “God listens back. Most of the time. He does.”
Pg 50: “when you’re young, God sweeps you up. He holds you there. The real snag is to stay there and to know how to fall. All those days when you can’t hold on any longer. When you tumble. The test is being able to climb up again.”
Pg 230: Tillie: “I don’t know who God is but if I meet Him anytime soon I’m going to get Him in the corner until He tells me the truth.”
How does each of the characters relate to God?

Fear is an on-going theme. Corrigan announces in first chapter, “They just don’t know what it is they’re doing. Or what it is being done to them. It’s about fear. You know? They’re all throbbing with fear. We all are.” And then, “If we’d stop to take account of it we’d just fall in despair. But we can’t stop. We’ve got to keep going.”
Where do the characters show fear? Does each face a fear of rejection?
Corrigan— how does he show his fear of loving someone more than his God? What else does he fear?
Claire— how does Clair express her fear of not saying right thing, of not being accepted by group? What other fears does she face?
Lara— has a specific fear of facing family of the man and woman who died. What greater fears does she face?
Pg 156 [ and title of chapter] “There is, I think, a fear of love. There is a fear of love.”
How do they overcome fear? Telling their story? Opening up?
Pg 321 [Claire taking Gloria home] “I reached across and held her hand. I had no fear now.”
Who or what is antithesis of fear? Is fear part of what enthralls the onlookers?
How do you overcome your fears?

Point of view
Throughout the book, the chapters vary from 1st person to 3rd. Why? How would the first section change if written from Corrigan’s point of view rather than his brother’s? How would the book change if told by only one person?
Corrigan: 1st person as told by Ciaran
Claire: 3rd person
Lara: 1st person
Photographer: 3rd person
Phone call: 1st person
Tillie: 1st person
Judge Soderberg: 3rd person
Adelita: 1st person
Gloria: 1st person
Who would you choose to tell the story if you could pick only one? Why?

Funambulist compared with the story line
How is the tightrope walker similar and different to the unfolding of story line?
Is his movement similar or different from the timing and pacing of the story —forward, backward, hopping, dance, laying down, running?
How about time?
How do the ordinary and extraordinary compare in the funambulists walk and the people watching him? And the characters?
How is fear similar or different between the tightrope walker and the characters?
How does your life feel like or not feel like the tightrope walker’s journey?

The storyline hops, and jumps forward and back just as the tightrope walker does. At times it lays down in time, as does the funambulist, and draws the reader into the moment, the here and now.
Pg 181-189: sitting, lying down, hopping, dancing, back and forth.
Pg 251:” He had hopped, He had danced. He had virtually run across from one side to the other.”
Ciaran telling story of his mother shows us the detail of a moment in the past
Claire’s story when she learned that her son had died lays the reader down in the past.
Pg 104: so NOT in the moment—Claire isn’t listening to women in her home, thinking her own thoughts and concerns
Pg 116: Lara totally lays down in time as she describes the face of Corrigan during the accident
Pg 118: Back in time—Lara and Blaine a year early moving to upstate New York
Pg 134: painting having been rained on: “we allow the present to work on the past.”
Pg 202: Tillie in jail hopping quickly back and forth between her story in the past and her present in the cell. Tillie’s story goes far into future—knows Ciaran and Lara fell in love.
Pg 287: “but things don’t begin and end really I suppose; they just keep on going”
How does time feel to you?

People make incorrect assumptions about people repeatedly.
Ciaran assumes Corrigan is using drugs (pg 47).
Judge assumes Corrigan is a pimp. (pg 269)
Nurse assumes Lara is a friend collecting Corrigan’s things.
Claire and Gloria each have assumptions about the other until they get to know one another (pg 320)
Why are these assumptions made? How are they overcome or not?
Why do we draw assumptions about others? Is this helpful or hurtful?

Family, Love, Caring
Throughout the stories, love is shown and shared in unexpected ways. Tillie, Jazz and Angie threw a non-dead party for Corrigan (pg 53)
Pg 213 “It’s no less love if you’re a hooker, it’s no less love at all.”
Pg 215: Story of cop walking 20 paces behind couple celebrating anniversary in Central Park so they will be safe.
Pg 275: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own.”
Pg 289: “I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin.”
Pg 305: Woman doesn’t reach out when she sees Gloria was mugged (lack of caring)
Pg 329 “sometimes there was more beauty in this life than the world could bear.”
Which quotes ring true to you on love? What does the quote you picked say to you?

A quote that particularly stuck with me:
Pg 55 “Pain’s what you give, not what you get.”
What quotes stick with you?

Ordinary and extraordinary
Pg 242: It is the ordinary that is the stuff of life: “Rather it was the ordinary steps that revisited him. The ones done without flash.”
Pg 256 “a part of the Parts.” [judge in court system]
Pg 266: all of the court cases show the ordinary in the day on a day of the extraordinary.
Pg 305: “all I wanted to do was to make my life thrilling for awhile; to take the ordinary objects of my days and make a different argument out of them.”
How does ordinary and extraordinary compare in your life?

The world spins
On the last page of the novel: “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” So many lives intertwined. Each stumbles on. Each finds his or her own moments of happiness amidst fear and loss and struggles. Is it enough?
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