Of the books I reviewed this year, the ones I most enjoyed reading were two novels, two autobiographies (though neither conventional), a semi-fictionalized biography, and an account of living alone with only birds for company.
Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, The Stranger’s Child (Picador; reviewed on July 17), was an absorbing account spanning four generations of how a World War I poet’s reputation fared. But it was more than that.
It was also an elegiac evocation of how English life, savaged by two wars, struggled onwards amid self-repression and cover-ups. The title comes from Tennyson’s long poem In Memoriam — the landscape we once loved will be forgotten, but then “grow familiar to the stranger’s child.”
Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory (Heinemann, reviewed on Oct. 16) was an acerbic, politically-incorrect story of a French artist and his involvement with a famous novelist called Michel Houellebecq. It’s bitterly nostalgic for a lost France, while guardedly enthusiastic for the technological innovations that have come in its wake. Brilliantly translated by Gavin Bowd, it makes for compulsive reading. And, as in Hollinghurst’s novel, time is seen as obliterating everything.
Julian Assange’s Unauthorized Autobiography (Canongate; reviewed on Nov. 13) narrates the life of the founder of WikiLeaks. From his childhood in Australia to what he thinks might have been sexual entrapment in Sweden, it’s absorbingly interesting. We read about all the major leaks, including the infamous “collateral murder” from a helicopter gunship in Iraq that led to the arrest of Private Bradley Manning (about whom Assange says that his organization’s technology and methodological guidelines don’t allow him to know if Manning was the source of the leak or not). WikiLeaks, he asserts, isn’t anti-American, merely anti-bastard.
Michael Moore’s Here Comes Trouble (Allen Lane; reviewed on Oct. 30) also narrates the early life of a whistle-blower. Moore’s genius is that he combines radicalism and comedy, with the comedy arguably more effective in print than on film. Subtitled Stories From My Life, the book consists of 24 episodes, mostly hilarious, including a youthful dry run for an escape to Canada, confrontations with General Motors in his native Michigan, phone calls from John Lennon, and the exposure of a then-racist Elks Club at a summer-camp when Moore was 17. This is a book that’s enjoyable on many levels.
Less momentous, perhaps, but still memorable, were Neil Ansell’s Deep Country (Hamish Hamilton; reviewed on April 10), describing his five years alone in a remote cottage in Wales, and Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile (Allen Lane; reviewed on Aug. 28), an impressionistic evocation of Thomas Mann’s novelist brother Heinrich and his wife Nelly, in exile along with Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann himself, in California during World War II.