Hall, Brian (Jonathan) 1959-
HALL, Brian (Jonathan) 1959-
PERSONAL: Born August 31, 1959, in Woburn, MA; son of Louis Alton (a physicist) and Peggy Wood (a librarian; maiden name, Smith) Hall; married Pamela Moss (in education), September 27, 1986; children: two daughters. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1981.
ADDRESSES: Home—3113 Van Dorn Corners Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850. Agent—David Chalfant, IMG Literary, 825 7th Ave., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer and journalist.
AWARDS, HONORS: LeBaron Russell Briggs Travel fellow, Harvard University, 1981.
Stealing from a Deep Place: Travels in Southeastern Europe, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1988.
The Dreamers (novel), Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1989.
The Impossible Country: A Journey through the Last Days of Yugoslavia, David R. Godine (Boston, MA), 1994.
Madeleine's World: A Child's Journey from Birth to Age Three, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
The Saskiad, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark, Viking (New York, NY), 2003.
Also contributor to periodicals, including Travel-Holiday and Los Angeles Times Book Review.
SIDELIGHTS: Brian Hall has distinguished himself as both a travel writer and a novelist. He began his literary career in 1988 with Stealing from a Deep Place: Travels in Southeastern Europe, in which he recounts his two-year bicycle trip during the early 1980s. Hall's travels took him through Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, and in each country he met memorable individuals. Among the more vivid portions of Stealing from a Deep Place are those concerning Romania, which Hall describes as an oppressive, dreary state where the government's drive for industrialization surpassed its concern for its people, many of whom endured poor living conditions and food shortages. Suzanne MacNeille, writing in the New York Times Book Review, termed Stealing from a Deep Place a "fluidly written chronicle," and she declared that because of Hall's keen powers of observation, particularly in his relations with other people, the book "transcends any notion of a typical tour guide."
Hall's first novel is The Dreamers, a story about a Harvard scholar's realization of life's harsh realities while he studies abroad in Vienna. The hero, Eric, is in Vienna to research the Holocaust, but he is actually spending his time and university funds on Jutta, an Austrian woman with a young son. Life with Jutta eventually becomes one of emotional torture, and Eric is driven to the streets with his friend Josh, a Jewish musician. The two friends make acquaintance with some of Vienna's more sordid denizens, including pederasts and Nazi sympathizers. Meanwhile, Eric's relationship with Jutta continues to degenerate. Finally, Eric is compelled to a reconsideration of his life, whereupon he must accept the difficulties of existence. Ursula Hegi, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, lauded The Dreamers as "a brilliant and unsettling first novel," and she called Hall "a remarkable young writer."
The Impossible Country: A Journey through the Last Days of Yugoslavia is Hall's nonfiction account of his travels through Yugoslavia in the final few months before it deteriorated into civil war, secession, and civil and ethnic turmoil. Hall reports his encounters and experiences as he travels freely among the country's populations of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims—stopping in Zagreb, Belgrade, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo—while relations among the groups continue to crumble and the slide into war becomes inevitable. With his book, "Brian Hall does the impossible," commented Geraldine Brooks in Wall Street Journal Europe. "He makes coherent a conflict that for most of us has become hopelessly tangled. Along the way, he pierces the armor of indifference that many of us have forged toward the suffering of a place where hatred seems intractable and compromise so out of reach." Zachery T. Irwin, writing in Library Journal, thought Hall's "masterly account" of Yugoslavia's doom "may be the finest English-language depiction of its kind, if only for his fidelity to his title." Phoebe-Lou Adams, writing in Atlantic Monthly, called The Impossible Country "a tragic portrait and an excellent piece of reporting." Brooks further noted, "There are no caricatures in the book, only tender portraits of real people caught in a slide toward national insanity."
Hall's next book, Madeleine's World: A Child's Journey from Birth to Age Three, narrows his focus from the global to the intensely personal as he chronicles with meticulous precision his daughter's first three years of life. Hall records it all—the sounds, the movements, the smiles and frowns of an infant adjusting to the world and growing into a toddler. "What sets Brian Hall's charming chronicle of his daughter's first three years of life apart from other new parents' memoirs is his sly, self-deprecating sense of humor and his gift for making us see the world through his daughter's developing psyche," remarked Diane Cole in Newsday. He muses on the meaning of his daughter's movements and expressions, her emotions and reactions. Hall "seems to want to touch on everything, from the incidental to the profound," observed David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. Although some reviewers criticized the book for its sense of being an overindulgent parent gone too far, critics such as Village Voice contributor Albert Mobilio acknowledged that "this book is less about Madeleine than it is about her mother and father. It is about how they, and all adults, can only peer through smudged glass at children—our own as well as the children we once were."
With The Saskiad, Hall "weaves together myth and mystery, philosophy and psychological insight, astronomy and adventure, to create a novel wise in the complexities of adolescence and the human heart," commented Linda Barrett Osborne in the Tampa Tribune. Twelve-year-old Saskia White is wise beyond her years, literate, keenly intelligent, her active mind populated by characters from literature, by writers and scientists and explorers. She yearns to cross over into adulthood but is not quite yet able to make the transition. Saskia lives on the remains of a farm commune started by her parents, Lauren and Thomas, where she cares for the animals and stray children. She is disdainful of the other students in her school, until the arrival of new student Jane Singh. Saskia and Jane become friends, Jane's tall, dark exoticism a stark contrast to Saskia's short, pale wispiness. When Saskia sets out on a Norwegian hiking trip with father, Thomas—known to her mostly by short notes and postcards received over the years—Jane accompanies her. The mysterious and charismatic Thomas seems to be the source of truth that Saskia has been looking for. But when he engages in an affair with the underage Jane and demonstrates an intolerant and domineering personality during a later visit to the commune, Saskia reconsiders her feelings toward him. When he abruptly departs, she runs away to New York, but returns to the commune later with a greater understanding of her life and renewed trust in herself. "Filled with passion and narrative drive, Hall's epic novel is simply riveting," wrote Joanne Wilkinson in Booklist. "The Saskiad is certainly about stories; even better, it's about being human, and it's delightful," commented Phillip Pullman in New Statesman. Diane Porter, writing in the Austin American Statesman, remarked that "Brian Hall's creativity is mammoth here," and in Library Journal Barbara Hoffert called the book a "charming, fluent, utterly down-to-earth tale of a precocious 12-year-old on an odyssey of her own."
Explorers populate I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark, Hall's fictionalized retelling of the famed duo's eventful expedition across unexplored America. Hall focuses on Lewis and Clark, Charbonneau, and Sacagawea as characters in a novel, using the historical record and the expedition's journals to imagine the voice and the personality of each participant. "With consummate skill he weaves the true 1804-06 journey with a deep psychological probe of his enigmatic characters' mind-sets," observed Douglas Brinkley in the Los Angeles Times. Although Hall recognized that it was risky to fictionalize such familiar characters, he "succeeds brilliantly, providing a perspective history cannot approach," noted Rob Mitchell in the Boston Herald. Ellen Emry-Heltzel, writing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, noted that "this is a tour-de-force of a novel, a tribute to the expedition and to Hall's writerly skills." Brinkley concluded, "There is, in fact, a seamless narrative flow to I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company which earmarks this hybrid book as approaching the coveted status of classic American literature"
Hall once told CA: "I had an unusually happy and sheltered childhood and one result is that my view of life and people is essentially naive. I have to work at being perceptive. Perhaps that's why I am interested in trying to understand and then express in print what makes people treat each other so badly so often.
"I love travel literature so much as an idea that I am almost never satisfied with particular examples of the genre, including mine. I look forward to my next travel book—as I suppose writers always look on their next projects—as the opportunity to be perfect. I wrote a travel book first because it allowed me to learn half of my trade—voice, pacing, evocation—without having to worry about the other half—motivation, plausibility, plotting. Then it took me two years to sell the travel book to a publisher, so I thought I had better write a novel next. The novel was published much faster, and it still largely satisfies me, but was greeted with a deafening silence. I had assured my friends that I didn't want a meteoric career—too nerve-wracking, I said—but I didn't envision my slow rise to fame and universal approbation as being quite this slow.
"Like [twentieth-century West Indian author] V. S. Naipaul, I wanted to be a writer long before I wrote anything, even long before I had anything to say. I still largely have no idea what it is I have to say."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 27, 2003, Ellen Emry Heltzel, "Imagining the Inner Lives of Lewis, Clark Expedition," p. E5.
Atlantic Monthly, August, 1994, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The Impossible Country: A Journey through the Last Days of Yugoslavia, p. 98.
Austin American Statesman, January 19, 1997, Diane Porter, "Saskia's Mind-Bending Odyssey; A Young Girl's Rite of Passage Takes Her on a Ride of Twists and Returns," p. D6.
Bloomsbury Review, September, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. 23; July, 1997, review of The Saskiad, p. 10.
Booklist, December 1, 1996, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Saskiad, p. 642; September 1, 1997, review of The Saskiad, p. 65; December 15, 2002, Kevin Canfield, review of I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark, p. 732.
Book World, October 9, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. 6; February 9, 1997, review of The Saskiad, p. 8.
Boston Herald, March 9, 2003, Rob Mitchell, "The Not-So-'Happy' Trails of Lewis and Clark," p. 056.
Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1998, Sam McManis, review of Madeleine's World: A Child's Journey from Birth to Age Three, p. 3.
Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 1994, Faye Bowers, review of The Impossible Country, p. 13; January 9, 2003, Ron Charles, "The Dark Territory of an Explorer's Mind; Lewis and Clark Discovered New Lands and Peoples, but Their Greatest Challenges Led Inward," p. 15.
Contemporary Review, June, 1994, Esmond Wright, review of The Impossible Country, p. 328.
Economist, February 15, 2003, "Lonesome Doves; The Wild West."
Entertainment Weekly, December 5, 1997, Megan Harlan, review of Madeleine's World, p. 82.
European Review of History, autumn, 1994, Bojan Bujic, review of The Impossible Country, p. 195.
Houston Chronicle, February 2, 1997, Sharon Gibson, "Imagination Takes Flight in 'Saskiad,'" p. 21; January 11, 1998, "Father's Daring Attempt to Fathom Daughter's World Falls Short," p. 21.
Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. 682; November 1, 1996, review of The Saskiad, p. 1553; September 15, 1997, review of Madeleine's World, p. 1435; October 15, 2002, review of I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, p. 1494.
Library Journal, July 1, 1994, Zachery T. Irwin, review of The Impossible Country, p. 113; November 1, 1996, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Saskiad, p. 107; November 15, 1997, Lisa A. Errico-Cox, review of Madeleine's World, p. 71; January, 2002, Nancy Pearl, review of The Saskiad, p. 188; January, 2003, David W. Henderson, review of I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, p. 154.
Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1997, Richard Eder, review of The Saskiad; December 7, 1997, Bill McCoy, review of Madeleine's World, p. 5; December 14, 1997, David L. Ulin, "Madeleine's Daddy, the Human Video Camera; Author Brian Hall Records His Daughter's Life to Age 3, Charting How We All Develop," p. 5; February 2, 2003, Douglas Brinkley, "A Journey of Discovery inside Lewis and Clark," p. R8.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 19, 1989, p. 3; January 26, 1997, review of The Saskiad, p. 2.
Magill Book Reviews, July 1, 1995, Grove Kroger, review of The Impossible Country; November 1, 1998, Caroline Spector, review of Madeleine's World.
Military Review, September-October, 1996, John E. Sray, review of The Impossible Country, p. 101.
New Republic, November 21, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. 13.
New Scientist, January 11, 2003, Roy Herbert, "Expeditionary Force," p. 45.
Newsday, December 22, 1997, Diane Cole, "A Father's Glimpse at His Daughter's Blossoming," p. B08.
New Statesman, October 18, 1996, Phillip Pullman, review of The Saskiad, pp. 43-44.
New Statesman & Society, January 28, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. 41.
New Yorker, March 10, 1997, Stephen Schiff, review of The Saskiad, pp. 92-93; June 2, 2003, Andrea Thompson, "The Lore of Explorers," p. 23.
New York Times, January 16, 2003, Janet Maslin, "Abe and an Expedition, Brought to Life," p. E12.
New York Times Book Review, November 6, 1988, p. 23; April 23, 1989, p. 23; August 21, 1994, Anna Husarska, review of The Impossible Country, p. 17; December 4, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. 79; October 8, 1995, review of The Impossible Country, p. 40; January 19, 1997, Greg Johnson, review of The Saskiad, p. 17; November 23, 1997, Randy Cohen, review of Madeleine's World, p. 13; January 25, 1998, review of The Saskiad, p. 24; January 26, 2003, Bruce Barcott, "Bill and Meriwether's Excellent Adventure: A Novel Draws on Multiple Points of View to Chronicle the Voyage of the Corps of Discovery," p. 6.
Observer (London, England), February 27, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. 21; November 24, 1996, review of The Saskiad, p. 18; January 17, 1999, review of Madeleine's World, p. 14.
Partisan Review, summer, 1995, Susan Miron, review of The Impossible Country, p. 495.
Publishers Weekly, June 6, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. 52; October 28, 1996, review of The Saskiad, p. 55; September 1, 1997, review of Madeleine's World, p. 84; January 13, 1997, Mallay Charters, "Brian Hall: Travels of a Teenage Ulysses," pp. 49-50; November 25, 2002, review of I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, p. 42.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 12, 1997, Beverly Langer, "A Teenage Girl's Mythic Coming of Age," p. 10.
School Library Journal, March, 1997, Francisca Goldsmith, review of The Saskiad, p. 215; December, 1997, review of The Saskiad, p. 29.
Syracuse Herald American, November 30, 1987, Laura T. Ryan, "Crasling inside a Toddler's Heart; Ithaca Writer Brian Hall Tries to Capture What It's Like to Be a Young Child," p. 20.
Tampa Tribune, March 16, 1997, Linda Barrett Osborne, "The Dangerous Adventure of Growing Up," p. 5.
Times Educational Supplement, June 10, 1994, Almond Mark, review of The Impossible Country, p. A15. Times Literary Supplement, December 16, 1988, p. 1390; April 8, 1994, Celia Hawkesworth, review of The Impossible Country, p. 31; October 18, 1996, Gabriele Annan, "A Trailer-Park Tartuffe," p. 24.
USA Today, January 16, 2003, Anne Stephenson, "Readers Can Walk in the Shoes of Lewis and Clark; 'Company' Less about History and More about Character," p. D05.
Village Voice, November 4, 1997, Albert Mobilio, review of Madeleine's World and The Saskiad, p. 63.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 2003, review of I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, p. 91.
Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1997, review of The Saskiad, p. 317.
Wall Street Journal, September 8, 1994, Geraldine Brooks, review of The Impossible Country, p. A16.
Wall Street Journal Europe, September 8, 1994, review of The Impossible Country, p. A16; September 30, 1994, Geraldine Brooks, review of The Impossible Country, p. 8.
Washington Post, January 26, 1998, Jabari Asim, review of Madeleine's World, p. C02.
World and I, May, 1997, Linda Simon, review of The Saskiad, p. 278; May, 2003, Ron McCoy, "Voyage of Discoveries—The Lewis and Clark Expedition Is Novelist Brian Hall's Embarkation Point for a Challenging Voyage of Provocative Discoveries," p. 217.*