Of the books I reviewed this year, two in particular caught me off-guard. I’m not usually greatly interested in the phenomenon called Christianity, but Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity (reviewed on Sept. 26) proved a stunning experience — skeptical yet sympathetic, learned yet readily accessible, despite its enormous length. This book is as wise as it is magisterial, a sane overview that proves a window into a truly civilized mind.
The other surprise was the George Orwell Diaries (reviewed on July 18). I’d never been very enthusiastic about Orwell’s down-to-earth realism, his determination to record the exact truth, as he saw it, about everything, while remaining blind to almost all imaginative dimensions. But this very mind-set becomes an overwhelming virtue in these marvelous diaries. He views everything, from life on his adoptive Scottish island (unbelievably bleak) to the run-up to World War II in London as observed from his job with the BBC, with equal honesty. Orwell may be, or seek to be, the plain man par excellence, but as a walking camera this proved an extraordinary asset, one it never could be in a writer of novels.
Penguin Modern Classics (which published the diaries) also gave us in 2010 The Mountains of My Life by Walter Bonatti (reviewed on June 20). It’s a substantial collection of essays and chapters from his many climbing books, and it reads like a carefree adventure story. Bonatti’s life was far from carefree, however, and the dark aspects, such as the accusations against him over his role in the ascent of K2 in 1954, provide much of the book’s real interest.
But there’s no doubt that Bonatti is a modern hero — climbing, often alone, because the easy life in the valley was “so banal and disappointing” that he had to turn his back on it and embrace instead darkness, cold and an almost ever-present danger.
As for books with an Asian connection, Frank Dikotter’s Mao’s Great Famine (reviewed on Sept. 12) proved the most absorbing, but Marc L. Moskowitz’s Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow (reviewed on Jan. 24), with its analysis of Taiwan’s Mando-pop world, probably attracted more readers.
As for next year, the forthcoming books I’m most looking forward to reviewing are the English translation of Michel Houellebecq’s Goncourt Prize-winning La Carte et le Territoire (The Map and the Territory), and Alan Hollinghurst’s long-awaited new novel, now announced as The Stranger’s Child, to be released on July 1.