Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann is the same style of book as The Imperfectionists and A Visit From the Goon Squad which seems to be so popular these days – the book is broken up into the stories of seeminingly unrelated characters that as the book goes on, the reader discovers are connected. The book takes place in 1974 in New York, and the unifying thread (pun intended!) is a man's miraculous tightrope walk between the World Trade Center Towers. A frenchman, Phillippe Petit, really did walk across the Twin Tours on a tightrope in 1974. The novel is told from the perspective of several disparate New Yorkers and what was going on in those individuals' lives the day of the tight rope walk and how it effected them. In addition, McCann weaves in a few chapters told from the perspective of the tight rope walker himself, but doesn't identify him as Petit. Despite a really interesting concept, I did not enjoy this book and much of it felt like a bit of a chore to get through. Parts of it were moving and it is certainly well written, but there is a dour pall over the book that made it difficult for me to get through - the mood is so dark. This is not surprising giving the time and place the book is set in - New York during the bad old days of the 70's when crime was high, the economy was bad, and it was the end of the Vietnam War. New Yorkers were disillusioned and struggling - and this is depicted in the characters McCann creates. I wanted to go with a quintessential NYC food for the book, and was not up for making hot dogs from scratch! Maybe someday! While the book was a bit of a struggle to get through, making these pretzels was a breeze...
New York City in 1974 was not a happy place and was filled with struggling, unhappy people. These are the characters we meet in Let the Great World Spin. First, we meet two Irish brothers - Corrigan and Cieran. We first meet them in a small seaside town in Ireland were they grew up with their mother. Corrigan is flightly, charismatic where Cieran seems more stable and anxious. Corrigan joins a religious order and becomes a monk and we meet him again in the Bronx, when his brother Cieran comes to visit him. Corrigan lives in the projects near the Major Deegan Expressway and serves as an informal minister to the prostitutes and drug addicts that roam under the Expressway. He lets the prostitutes use his bathroom during the day and brings them soda and food. He drives a van to an old folks home and takes out a few of the residents every day for some sunshine. He falls in love with one of the nurses and struggles with his monk vows. We also meet Claire, a wealthy upper East Side woman, married to judge, who lost her son in Vietnam. She is part of a group of other mothers who lost their sons and stresses about their visit to her home. We meet her husband the judge, who oversees a low level court where small time criminals - drug addicts and prostitutes, parade into his court everyday and he just tries to get through his list every day, abandoning his earlier hopes of administering justice. The most engrossing of McCann's stories for me was that of one of the prostitutes Corrigan ministers to - Tillie. Perhaps the story is a bit of a stereotype, but the anguish and horror of her life and how it got to where it was was moving. There are more stories - a guilty ridden artist, another woman in Claire's grief group who eventually cares for Tillie's granddaughters, and Tilly's granddaughter. In the end it was exhausting, and too much information and back story was shared for each character with not enough pay off in the end. Where in Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad I was so sad when each story/chapter ended, here I was glad I had gotten through it. It was too heavy, without any bits of joy to propel me through the book.
Classic Soft Pretzels
These pretzels were so easy to make and really delicious. They will be perfect for football season!
1 tablespoon sugar
1 (1/4-oz) package active dry yeast (2 1/2 teaspoons)
3 3/4 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons large grain salt. I used a seasalt that was even bigger than kosher salt grains. There is also something called "pretzel salt" that king arthur flour's website sells.
- Stir together sugar, yeast, and 1 1/2 cups lukewarm water (105 to 110°F) in a glass measuring cup, then let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. (If mixture doesn't foam, discard and start over with new yeast.)
- Whisk together 3 1/2 cups flour and 1 tablespoon table salt in a large bowl. Add yeast mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until it forms a dough. Dust work surface with 1 tablespoon flour, then turn out dough and knead, gradually dusting with just enough additional flour to make a smooth sticky dough, about 8 minutes.
- You want the dough to be a bit sticky, this is necessary in order to roll it into logs before you shape the pretzels. It is impossible to do this with unsticky dough.
- Return dough to bowl and cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap, then let dough rise in a draft-free place at warm room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes.
- Turn out dough onto a clean work surface and cut into 8 equal pieces. Using your palms, roll 1 piece back and forth on a clean dry work surface into a rope about 24 inches long. If dough sticks to your hands, lightly dust them with flour.
- Twist dough into a pretzel shape by taking two ends, twirly them around each other twice, and folding down into the preztel shape, attaching the two ends by just pressing them into the rounded part of the pretzel. I did not have a picture of how to do this before i did it, I just figured it out as I went along. It is easier than you think, just use your instincts. Or google it for better instructions/video!
- Transfer pretzel with your hands to an oiled baking sheet and form 7 more pretzels in same manner with remaining dough.
- Let pretzels rise, uncovered, about 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, put oven rack in upper third of oven and preheat oven to 425°F.
- Bring a wide 6-quart pot of water to a boil.
- Using both hands, carefully add 3 pretzels, 1 at a time, to boiling water and cook, turning over once with tongs, until pretzels are puffed and shape is set, about 3 minutes. Transfer pretzels to a rack to cool. Repeat with remaining 5 pretzels in 2 batches.
- Line baking sheet with parchment paper and oil paper, then arrange pretzels on sheet. Brush pretzels lightly with some of egg and sprinkle with pretzel salt. Bake until golden brown and lightly crusted, about 35 minutes. Cool 15 minutes, then serve warm, with mustard!