The Good, the Mediocre and the Cherry on Top

This week’s Booking Through Thursday:

It’s a week or two later than you’d expect, and it may be almost a trite question, but … what were your favourite books from 2008?

This is a rather repetitive post – I already mentioned my favourite books for the year – but I will never pass an opportunity to compile a list. Besides, this one is rather more extensive than the last. I have nominated books for three categories:

  1. The Good – I wish I had written it
  2. The Mediocre – what was it called again?
  3. The Cherry on Top – inoffensive fun

The Good

1. Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf.

(Extract copied and pasted shamelessly from a previous post) The first time I read Mrs Dalloway was in April of this year, over a long weekend – three days of beautiful autumn weather. I live in the Southern Hemisphere, in case anyone’s wondering. The first day, a Saturday, was spent in the garden reading. On Sunday, I went on a picnic with my family and I delved into the minds of Clarissa Dalloway and Peter Walsh amidst crocuses, Japanese maples and the heady fragrance of crisp autumn air. Oh, and how could I forget the pale-blue skies? The next day, not completely unexpected, came the rain. Australian weather is so very temperamental. So Monday was spent inside, munching on macademia & white chocolate chip cookies – with warm honey milk tea, of course.

I had a good time whilst reading Mrs Dalloway, and I think that contributed somewhat to my liking for it. Oh, but of course there’s also the fresh, lyrical prose and ingenious use of stream-of-consciousness. And the beautiful cover of my Penguin Modern Classics edition.

2. Possession: A Romance, A S Byatt

The only Booker I’ve read thus far, which I felt truly deserved the prize. Byatt’s novel is an intricately layered, beautifully written and well-paced story. I was most impressed by the level of verisimilitude she achieved. The novel is peppered with fragments of letters and Victorian poetry (all fictional) and supposedly composed by Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte (also fictional). The narrative was so true to life I actually Wikipedia-ed Ash and LaMotte.

3. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

How can anyone possibly criticise this book? Despite its flaws, it is undeniably one of the greatest works of literature ever. If Possession was impressive for its verisimilitude, Hugo’s mammoth chunk of human nature is grand for its size and the sheer number of themes, characters and emotions it encompasses. I rarely cry or laugh out loud whilst reading a book; this one made me laugh, scream, shed tears – I think I even tossed it at a wall when I learnt Fantine had sold her teeth to send money to the Thenardiers. This was a book that moved me and had me in raptures. I was completely immersed in the world that Hugo created, and I loved every second of my time inside it.

4. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth

Another thick slice of life novel, which can only be described as Austenian, for its themes of marriage, propriety, social hierarchy etc etc. A Suitable Boy provided many valuable insights into Indian culture, and the religious, political and cultural issues the nation faced as it stumbled into rapid modernisation. I think it did, anyway, not being in a position to judge how accurate or exaggerated or idealised it was.

This book was incredibly well-paced considering its length. Many slim novels lose steam in the second half, but this book – well over 800 pages, from memory – held my interest until the very last page.

Other Worthy Mentionables:

  • A Reading Diary, Alberto Manguel – the book that inspired this blog.
  • Anil’s Ghost, Michael Ondaatje – lovely poetic writing. Heartbreaking tale of turmoil in late 20th century Sri Lanka.
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles – a beautiful book.

The Mediocre

1. Twilight, Stephenie Meyer

The real problem I had with this book wasn’t that it was bad. It was mediocre; and that’s what made the fangirls’ rants about Meyer’s literary superiority absolutely unbearable. Sure, she’s a YA writer, but I’ve said this again and again: I don’t think poor writing is excusable anywhere, regardless of the book’s intended audience. If young adult fiction is written poorly, I hate to think of what will happen in the coming generations. Why must people underestimate children/young-adults? Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, may I remind you, was first and foremost a children’s book, despite his supposed political insinuations. Think of the childrens’ classics – Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl. None of these writers’ work would be considered literary, but they are far from being poorly written.

2. Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje

After the wonderfully written Anil’s Ghost, this book was a let down. I tried to see it objectively as a separate work, but I didn’t quite succeed. I liked segments of this book, and as always, his prose was a delight to read but something just wasn’t right about this book. It was merely O.K, which is actually not okay at all. Not for Ondaatje, anyway. I have rights to high expectations, because he’s set the bar right up there.

Other Worthy Mentionables:

  • The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai – I didn’t even bother to post a review
  • Disquiet, Julia Leigh – ditto the above
  • Saturday, Ian McEwan – Henry Perowne is the epitome of brilliant mediocrity

The Cherry on Top

1. The Mating Season, P G Wodehouse

My first Wodehouse. A rather nonsensically twisted plot (with its very own love dodecagon), and hilarious characters to boot. After I grew accustomed to the strange names – Wooster? – it was a very enjoyable read. If only I had my very own Jeeves to help me through life’s problems.

2. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

I struggled with categorising this book. Should it go in bad? No, it wasn’t badly written, by any means. Good? Nah, not in my opinion. Not mediocre either, so it’s inoffensive fun. Close enough. I think Collins is a matter of personal taste. I don’t particularly like the Gothic genre. Conclusively, appreciated and respected, but not enjoyed.

3. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie is always the Cherry on Top. Highly dosed with social commentary, as is the case with most of her books.  At times it was so didactic I found it unbearable, but yet again there was a twist  (so predictable, and yet so twisted) which ensured that no rationally thinking human being could possibly figure it out. Maybe I’m just dumb.

Other Worthy Mentionables:

  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel – yes, I know this  book is deep and philosophical, but above all else it’s a fun romp, and so I choose to see it as a Cherry on Top
  • No Orchids for Miss Blandish, James Chase – hardboiled crime fiction. Harmless Violent fun
  • People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks – I complained a lot about this book, but I think beneath all the grumbling, I enjoyed it. It was a bad but enjoyable book, so it’s a Cherry
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15 thoughts on “The Good, the Mediocre and the Cherry on Top

  1. I liked your comments on Mrs Dalloway – and yes, I think that pleasant weather, a nice cover etc all add to the aesthetic pleasures of reading. Of course, a nice cover won’t compensate for a rubbish book, but a nice cover and a good book is bliss!

  2. I’ve got Woman in White and the new translation of Les Miserables in my pile.
    As you might have known, I have posted my selections for 2008 on New Year’s Eve.

    Best New Fiction 2008

    The Future of Love, Shirley Abbott
    Letter from Point Clear, Dennis McFarland
    Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris
    The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
    The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein

    Best Backlist Fiction

    The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West
    The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett
    A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka
    The Dreyfus Affair, Peter Lefcourt
    Kansas in August, Patrick Gale

    1. Kathy – hope you enjoy Woman in White :)

      Rebecca – hahah, yes, and especially b/c I love compiling lists. I admire your willpower; I promised myself I wouldn’t but curiosity overcame me.

      zawan – the name sounds vaguely familiar, but no, I don’t think I’ve heard of it.

      The Social Frog – for me, it’s a very frustrating book. For all the hype that surrounds it, it is a very poorly written and lacklustre sort of thing. I encourage you to stay away from it

      Wanda – I’m the other way around, but I’ve been wanting to read The Cinnamon Peeler. The name is very intriguing.

      Nicola – argh, it’s so disappointing when you buy a book because the cover is alluring – only to find it’s complete trash :)

      Matthew – I’m sorry to say I’m not familiar with the books on your list. I’ve heard of a few, and Guernsey is somewhere on my to-read shelf, but haven’t read any of them.

  3. Hi Tuesday, I know how much you love Virginia Woolf. I’ve always been adamant about reading her, but I think I might try her this year. Where do you recommend should I start?

    Btw, did you know that AS Byatt has a new novel coming out this year? I think it’s entitled The Children’s Book and the protagonist is again a writer. :)

    1. claire – I’ve actually only read three of her novels, so I’m not sure if I’m in a good position to recommend a starting point, but… out of what I’ve read, I’d say Mrs Dalloway. I think the worst thing about Woolf’s novels are that you have to constantly keep focused on what she’s saying, otherwise you’ll just end up re-tracing your steps.

      The Byatt sounds interesting; I still haven’t read her other books though! So many books to read.. hahah

      ps. thanks; WordPress layouts are starting to frustrate me, but this one’s okay :)
      (pps. I still can’t leave comments on your blog??)

  4. Okay, sounds good, thanks. I’ll try Mrs Dalloway, then. I think I’ve gotten a wrong sense of her work from watching The Hours. It gave me the impression that her books are extremely depressing. I’ve been tempted to pick up something by her many times but the thought of that movie always stopped me.

    I haven’t read any other Byatt besides Possession, too. I just thought of you when I read about the new book to be released soon. :)

    I did something to try to fix my blog again.. I don’t know if it works this time. Let me know, thanks.

    1. Matthew – thanks! I’m enjoying myself very much. Currently up to the part where Anna returns to Petersburg and she meets Vronsky at the station.

      claire – they’re certainly far from frivolous; the themes explored can be depressing, but her writing makes up for it. Also, her characters are wonderful – sometimes they’re not the most likeable people, but they are so incredibly human that her portrayal of them is poignant and moving. I haven’t watched The Hours yet, btw, because I heard Nicole Kidman’s acting is atrocious (a fact confirmed by recent viewing Lurhmann’s Australia, which did great honour to our landscape, but nothing to ascertain our acting skills)

      Ooh, and I just remembered to Google the new Byatt book, and the cover is delicious! I’ll definitely be reading it :)

      zawan – I sort of recycle templates, hahah. This was the very first one I used when I began blogging, but I got sick of it and started moving through them at a faster-than-wise rate. Now I guess I’m back to where I started :)

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