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.If 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.Rounding 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.Other 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.Of 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!More from A Year in Reading 2007
Hollywood has always poached stories from the republic of letters (not to mention Broadway and, increasingly, Nick at Nite), and some of the greatest movies of all time have started out as novels. Still, this year seems notable for the number of literary adaptations coming to the screen (see our earlier post). It strikes me that movies made from books can disappoint in two ways: first, by hewing too closely to the source material, and, second, by venturing too far afield from it. Either way, one’s reading of a book can be spoiled by seeing a movie first. Instead of E.L. Doctorow’s Dutch Schulz, one sees… Dustin Hoffmann. And then one has to live with an ugly paperback edition of Billy Bathgate, whose cover is basically a movie poster.The most successful adaptations, I think, take on a life of their own, using the source material as a springboard. And any time previews lead me to believe that one of these adaptations is in the offing, I try to read the book in a hurry, before heading to the theater.My strategy has been paying handsome dividends lately. First, I bumped Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men to the head of the reading queue, and discovered one of my favorite books of all time. So much of what makes this novel great – its voice – seems unlikely to translate to the screen, and so I’ve elected to skip the recent movie version, starring Sean (no relation) Penn. Even if the DVD is on your Netflix queue… read this book first!Less likely to stand the test of time, but still a wicked-fun read, was Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. This book, too, was voice-driven, introducing me to the nasty wit and sly machinations of schoolmarm Barbara Covett. The movie version, with Dame Judi Dench in the Covett role, wisely eschews some of the book’s narrative elements, finding cinematic equivalents instead. Through a masterful Dench performance and some judicious voice-over, the movie manages to convey much of the ironic tenor of Barbara’s internal monologue, while giving us more insight into Cate Blanchett’s character than Heller does in the book. Still, I’d recommend the novel Notes on a Scandal to anyone looking for a literary page-turner.This month’s Bookforum offers insight on yet another movie adaptation: that of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. This bestselling German novel from the 80s features an antihero who relates to the world entirely through his olfactory glands, and would thus seem to be unfilmable. In their Bookforum interview, director Tom Tykwer and producer Bernd Eichinger discuss the difficulties of adaptation. “You cannot really put this novel into an existing structure for a film,” Eichinger says. “It’s not a genre movie, not a thriller, not a horror, not a love story. It’s truly bizarre and original.” Which is a fair description of Suskind’s novel, the story of an 18th-century murderer.
As Oscar season nears (and, no, it hasn’t started yet… If you think Hollywoodland (IMDb), The Last Kiss (IMDb), or The Black Dahlia (IMDb) are winning anything more than a best art direction award, you’re wrong), it’s time to start thinking about serious literary adaptations. This year is full of them, including Stephen Zaillian’s updated adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (IMDb). This should be a fine film, as Zaillian is a first rate screenwriter. Also of note, James Carville is listed as a producer on the film. In this interview from KCRW’s “The Business” Carville talks about how he got involved in the project. Naturally, it all started on the set of Old School (IMDb).Another adaptation of note in the coming months is Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (IMDb), starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench. It should be no surprise that Scott Rudin is executive producing the film, as he owns nearly every literary novel of the note from the last ten years. Check out his rather staggering IMDb page. Not only does he have the “eagerly anticipated” Kavalier and Clay (IMDb) and The Corrections (IMDb), he’s also grabbed the slightly more obscure “The Smoker” (IMDb) based on a short story from David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan. While most of these projects are listed as in development (meaning two people once discussed the idea over lunch), obviously Rudin has the clout to bring them to fruition. The list of films does lend credence to the idea that Rudin isn’t merely a “foul mouthed, phone hurling” scourge of assistants, he’s also a reader.