Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

By posted at 8:07 am on December 24, 2007 3

Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions.

…And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there’s a good chance I’m going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It’s easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.

coverIf pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can’t believe I waited this long. Forster’s style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows “the passion” and “the prose” equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster’s ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.

A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. It’s been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you’ll see if you read my review.

coverRounding out my top three was Helen De Witt’s first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo’s gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt’s rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a “shapely” novel in the M.F.A. style.

coverOther favorite classics included Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Fielding’s Tom Jones – each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament – and Anne Carson’s odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (essay) and Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (review).

Three books by short-story writers whom I’d nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.

coverOf the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy’s stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli’s thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo’s defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.

The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier’s memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel, The Slynx (review).

Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in ’08!

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3 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg”

  1. mike
    at 6:25 am on December 26, 2007

    DeLillo's defamiliarized account of the September 11 aftermath includes Keith's coping strategy of losing himself in gambling, exactly like Coop does in Michael Ondaatje's Divisadero, published within a week of Falling Man. I thought it might have something to do with the popularity of ESPN's World Series of Poker.

  2. Levi Stahl
    at 7:13 am on December 27, 2007

    You're probably right in your characterization of the seven-years-later position of Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai–but a lot of those of us who happened to read it on publication are passionate fans. I know I'm not the only one who is still regularly pressing new copies into the hands of friends. It's a spectacular, capacious, thoughtful, funny, deeply human book.

  3. Anonymous
    at 4:38 pm on December 27, 2007

    yo, i, as well as anyone who has attended your "readings" (dude, face it, you're doing these "readings" to peddle your books, p-e-d-d-l-e), been around you in the past few months, and anyone who's on the NYU alumni listserv, is "surprised" you didn't nominate your "book" as the book of the year!!!!! thanks for giving others a chance at grrrreatness! then again, there is a chance we might all receive that email sometime soon…

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