Julie Christine's Reviews > Thirteen Ways of Looking

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann
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it was amazing
bookshelves: best-of-2016, contemporary-fiction, read-2016, shorts

The mood/Traced in the shadow/An indecipherable cause.
~ Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Colum McCann traces the shadows of tension and love, despair and tragedy in this collection of one novella and three short stories-pieces that held me transfixed with their poignancy and fierce energy.

The title story which opens the collection is like a tightly-scripted short film, the camera moving from the close-ups of former Brooklyn Supreme Court judge Peter Mendelssohn, his inner dialogue scripted to show the indignities of aging, the grief of losing his wife, and the bitter disappointment that is his careless, self-absorbed, wealthy son. Then the camera becomes a dispassionate witness to a murder, documenting the facts that detectives sift through painfully, facts captured on other cameras. We read, frame-by-frame, the interpretations of others as the future loops over the past. The way McCann maintains the tension of a murder mystery interspersed with an old man's rambling is masterful--long breaths, held breaths, racing heartbeats--he works it all in and then ends on one singular exhale that is stopped short by ambiguity.

What Time Is It Now, Where Are You? is a meta-meditation on the creative process, how a writer manufactures a story and then loses himself in its possibilities and meanings. “The essence of Sandi’s story has begun to place layers upon layers, though he does not know yet who the loved one is or what might eventually exist between them.” This, this is exactly what happens. Rarely does a story arrive in the head and heart intact. It builds in layers, some of which have to be destroyed to make room for others, but it is a process that is defined by work (as the author within the story knows, watching the months tick by to deadline before he finally commits himself to writing) and rarely by inspiration.

Treaty caught me completely unaware. It is about how “the past can glide away so easily, how the present can drift, how they sometimes collide . . .” The story's central character is an aging nun, who has recently arrived at a convent in Long Island after a breakdown at her previous residence-a shelter in Texas for young women with unwanted pregnancies. One night, while watching the evening news, she sees the man who had tortured and raped her nearly thirty years earlier in a South American jungle. Once a guerilla fighter, he has remade himself into a peace negotiator. The nun has remade herself into a survivor, caring for other survivors. In a moment of private, profound horror, she confronts her torturer.

Oh, but it is the story whose touch left the deepest imprint on my soul. A woman and her deaf, possibly autistic, adopted son in a seaside cottage west of Galway—both abandoned souls—epitomize the torture and necessity of love. She gives the boy a wetsuit two sizes too big for Christmas, something for him to grow into. The next morning she wakes up and the boy and the wetsuit are gone. This difficult child she is raising alone, his silence and occasional violence, fills her with despair, but when he goes missing, she becomes undone. Her grief and guilt are as vast as the Atlantic that seems to have swallowed her child.

This collection was started before Colum McCann himself was brutally attacked in Brooklyn and finished after he recovered enough to continue writing. In the ending Author Note he states “Sometimes it seems to me that we are writing our lives in advance, but at other times we can only ever look back. In the end, though, every word we write is autobiographical, perhaps most especially when we attempt to avoid the autobiographical.”

Although Thirteen Ways of Looking is not autobiographical in the sense of actual events portrayed, what I believe McCann means is that we write what is alive in our souls, what we know to be true because of how our experiences leave us, changed, and often in pieces. Writing is a way to rebuild those pieces into something we understand.

An extraordinary read.
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Reading Progress

August 28, 2015 – Shelved
August 28, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
January 16, 2016 – Started Reading
January 17, 2016 –
page 64
25.0% "One of my favorite poems, used to such beautiful, haunting effect. And McCann's prose so like poetry. Sigh."
January 18, 2016 –
page 148
57.81% "Title novella, gut punch. So good."
January 19, 2016 – Shelved as: best-of-2016
January 19, 2016 – Shelved as: contemporary-fiction
January 19, 2016 – Shelved as: read-2016
January 19, 2016 – Shelved as: shorts
January 19, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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Julie Christine JEEPERS. At LAST the library brings this in! And I'm first in line.


Angela M And an extraordinary review! How excited are you about your upcoming release . I'm looking forward to reading it !


Julie Christine Angela M wrote: "And an extraordinary review! How excited are you about your upcoming release . I'm looking forward to reading it !"

Angela, thank you! Sounds strange, I know, but this is the first McCann I've read- his other books just never caught on for me, but now I plan to go back and try again.

I'm, oh my goodness, excited, nervous. In 10 days, my book readings/signing start; I just did my first radio interview earlier this week (NOT live, thank goodness)- it's all coming together. I'm feeling very fizzy and untethered and wild. Dreams coming true! Thank you for asking!!


Angela M I may have mentioned I have the ARC from NetGalley and your publisher requested not to post review until publication so I will be reading when I finish the one I start today so I can post at publication! Looking forward to it !
Good luck !


Julie Christine Angela M wrote: "I may have mentioned I have the ARC from NetGalley and your publisher requested not to post review until publication so I will be reading when I finish the one I start today so I can post at public..."
Oh hugs. You are wonderful. Thank you!


message 6: by Patrick (new) - added it

Patrick Great review Julie


Julie Christine Patrick wrote: "Great review Julie"

Patrick, I think you'll really like this. Thank you!


Zoeytron Exceptional review. I especially enjoyed your thoughts on the title story, which was my favorite in the collection.


message 9: by Violette (new)

Violette Stepaniuk The stories sound as thoughtful as your review. Will have to give them a try. Thanks.


Julie Christine Zoeytron wrote: "Exceptional review. I especially enjoyed your thoughts on the title story, which was my favorite in the collection."
Thank you so much, Zoeytron. What a fascinating story!


Julie Christine Violette wrote: "The stories sound as thoughtful as your review. Will have to give them a try. Thanks." Oh Violette, I hope you do. Can't wait to see what you think!


Connie Wonderful review, Julie. I really like Colum McCann's writing, and look forward to this book.

Good luck with your book tour!


Julie Christine Connie wrote: "Wonderful review, Julie. I really like Colum McCann's writing, and look forward to this book.

Good luck with your book tour!"


Thank you, Connie!


message 14: by Jaidee (new)

Jaidee Wow what an admiring and lovely review Julie.


Julie Christine Jaidee wrote: "Wow what an admiring and lovely review Julie."
I'm still thinking about these stories, Jaidee!


message 16: by Renata (new)

Renata Julie, an extraordinary review!


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