Garth Risk Hallberg Finds Much Is Not Lost in Translation

Photo by Mark VesseyPhoto by Mark Vessey
The Boston Globe
November 13, 2016
By Amy Sutherland

In Garth Risk Hallberg’s best-selling 2015 novel “City on Fire,” New York City is a major character. Hallberg will discuss the links between the modern social novel and the modern metropolis at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Knafel Center at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. The event is free.

BOOKS: What kind of books do you like to read?

HALLBERG: I read a lot of work in translation. This year I’ve been interested in Javier Cercas, a Spanish writer. I started with “The Anatomy of a Moment,” a nonfiction book about when Spain’s democracy almost fell apart in the early 1980s. It’s a brilliant mediation on the messiness of democracy. That seemed highly relevant this fall. Then I started to read Cercas’s novels. This is also the year of Christopher Isherwood for me. His is a canonical name, but I don’t know many writers my age who have delved into his catalogue. I read “Goodbye to Berlin” and “Mr. Norris Changes Trains.’’ I loved “Goodbye to Berlin” the most. 

BOOKS: Are novels about cities a draw for you?

HALLBERG: I love books that build worlds but am happy to read books that build characters. My favorites are ones that build both. I’ve been on a Faulkner kick. Over the past 15 years I’ve worked my way through all the big Faulkners, so I’m down to the next tier. I read “Go Down, Moses,” which has that famous story “The Bear” in it. Whenever I take time off from Faulkner and come back to him I’m reminded what a powerhouse he is. 

BOOKS: What are you reading now?

HALLBERG: I’m reading Javier Marías “Your Face Tomorrow” trilogy. He’s another great Spanish writer. I recently finished Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, “Born to Run.” I’m a rabid fan. His writing style almost tracks with his songwriting style as it changed over time. He writes about the ’70s in the shaggy-dog kind of way of his songs then. As the memoir gets toward the age he is now, the writing becomes more planed down.

BOOKS: Do you ever read something lighter?

HALLBERG: The Springsteen was good for that. When my imagination muscle burns out I often turn to nonfiction. In Maine, I picked up Bryan Burrough’s “Barbarians at the Gate” about the RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris merger, which is delicious. Another guilty pleasure is reading cookbooks. I got “Deep Run Roots” by Vivian Howard, the star of PBS’s “A Chef’s Life.” It’s this big, beautiful Southern cookbook with a lot of storytelling.

BOOKS: Where do you like to read best?

HALLBERG: We take the kids to Maine in August, and that’s when I get my best reading done. Picking what I’m going to take every year is delicious torture. I start with 20 books, and I have to edit the pile to five. This year I took Tove Jansson’s beautiful “The Summer Book” about a little girl spending her summers on the Gulf of Finland with her grandmother. 

BOOKS: Have you ever been in a book club?

HALLBERG: At 11 or 12, I joined the library’s mystery book club. I was the youngest person there by 40 years. I found the adults talked about books in a way I hungered for. Reading was a balm for my sense of isolation but also perhaps created more isolation. I was 11 and reading all of Sherlock Holmes and wanting to talk to someone about them. But I thought I might get beat up if I did that or if I wore my deerstalker hat to school.

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