Thursday, February 12, 2015

book review: A Field Guide to the North American Family by Garth Risk Hallberg

The backstory: City of Fire, the 900+ page debut novel from Garth Risk Hallberg is the most buzzest about release of 2015. The buzz began over a year ago because Hallberg managed to sell the book for almost $2 million, a rare feat in publishing. While I impatiently wait for a galley (please, please, please!) or for October 20, 2015 (its publication date), I managed to get a copy of his debut novella through interlibrary loan to satiate my appetite.

The basics: Set up alphabetically like a guidebook, A Field Guide to the North American Family is the story of two (fictional) families. Hallberg invites the reader to read in any order, and each entry includes a list of other entries to "see also."

My thoughts: Confession: I may or may not have actually squaled when this book arrived for me from interlibrary loan. I took it home, as soon as the nomadbaby went to sleep, I read it from cover to cover. Part of me wanted to try to read it in out of order, but the pull to read alphabetically was too big. Part of the brilliance and beauty of this book is its ability to be read in a number of ways (see also: How to Be Both by Ali Smith.) Yet I can only read it for the first time the way I chose to; my reading experience would have been quite different if I opted for the related entries.

While I loved the concept of this book, I found my interest in the entries to vary. This isn't a novella written for momentum, but the distinction between tone in some entries was jarring. Some entries are beautiful and could be enjoyed on their own. Others are more poetic because of what the reader already knows (or perhaps comes to learn) about the two families. Hallberg uses art from different artists to accompany the entries, and the art is so diverse, I sometimes found myself spending more time taking it in than the entry itself.

The verdict: A Field Guide to the North American Family is a brilliant, inventive book. Reading it made me even more excited for City on Fire (pre-order it from Amazon in hardback or for Kindle.) The idea of it is perhaps better than its realization, but it has many beautiful moments, and it is utterly original. As experimental fiction, it's fabulous; as a narrative, some parts fizzle a bit.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 144 pages
Publication date: October 28, 2007
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy A Field Guide to the North American Family from Amazon (no Kindle edition.)

Want more? Read Garth Risk Hallberg's posts on The Millions

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