Best of Books 2008

It’s quite natural that I should feel a bit embarrassed about my reading tally for the year since I probably managed under 30 books in 2008. There was the small matter of a Master’s thesis to finish and also a few freelance articles to write in addition to my day-job so perhaps I shouldn’t feel too bad. But it was still a very good reading year, thanks in large part to the wonderful suggestions from my book-blogging friends. So thanks to you all, and here’s to a richly rewarding 2009.

Best South African fiction
Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk
Algeria’s Way by Alex Smith

Agaat is a massive plaasroman (farm novel) with draws richly from farming, religion, literature, poetry, history, medicine and psychology. At its essence it’s the story of Milla and Agaat, a white madam and her coloured maid in apartheid South Africa. A young wife (Milla) takes in a badly-abused abused child (Agaat) and restores her to health. Agaat becomes Milla’s domestic servant on the farm and acts as nursemaid to her beloved son. As Milla grows older and her husband dies and her son leaves for Canada, the roles become reversed. Milla suffers from a debilitating muscle-degenerative disease and is completely dependent on Agaat. The relationship between the two is fascinating and the descriptions of how the paralysed Milla has to communicate with Agaat using only her eyes are some of the best descriptions I’ve read. The hope, frustration, joy, irritation and then despair of communication. The interplay of words, eyes and body. Utterly brilliant.

The book is too long by about 200 pages (and I skipped some of the waffly stream of consciousness bits) but it’s probably the best example of South African fiction in the past few years. If I was going to suggest a South African book to read, skip right past Gordimer and Coetzee and start instead perhaps with Agaat. At a broader level it’s a wonderful portrayal of the relationship between colonisers and colonised and then, with the ending of apartheid, how the wheel has turned. It sounds serious but it’s also full of laughter and light.

Best African fiction
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie is a Nigerian author who’s lived her adult life in the US. This is a wonderfully evocative coming-of-age story which draws on Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The themes of the personal and the political, tradition versus progress, dictatorship versus freedom are explored through the eyes of 15-year old Kambili, who grows up with a tyrant of a father at a time of political upheaval in Nigeria.

Best general fiction
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’ Farrell
The Other Side of You (Sally Vickers)
Breath by Tim Winton

As I’m sure you know, these first two explore the interaction of psychology and personal narratives in a powerful way. What stayed with me most from Maggie O’ Farrell’s book was how psychology and psychiatry can so easily disempower women within a broader culture of gender inequality. Sally Vickers’ book was particularly interesting from a literature and psychology perspective. As a psychologist-turned-writer, she provides wonderful insights into the power of narrative and the way that people are both undone by their subjectivities as well as how they can find themselves again through stories.

Best psychology-related non-fiction
Going Sane by Adam Phillips
Winnicott by Adam Phillips
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks (neuropsychology)

Best collection of short stories
Mothers and Sons by Colm Toibin

Best psychology-related short stories
How People Change by Bill Tucker

Best biography
Lost in America by Sherwin Nuland

Best crime / mystery novel
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
Blood Rose by Margie Orford

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8 Responses to Best of Books 2008

  1. verbivore says:

    I am ordering Agaat right away today…now that I’ve finished my year of Gordimer, I am looking for other windows into South African history and experience. And I have a different Maggie O’Farrell waiting for me on the shelf, so am interested to try that one.
    Thank you for the list – this is one of my favorite parts of end-of-the-year blogging.

  2. adevotedreader says:

    I’ll be reading Agaat then as well Pete, as I’m sorry to say my SA reading hasn’t even extended to Coetzee and Gordimer!

    I’m glad to see Purple Hibiscus and Nothers and Sons on your lidt, as they ‘re in my TBR pile.

    I’d agree with you about The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Breath and of course Gaudy Night. I’d recommend O’Farrell’s other novels, in each of which she creates convincing and affecting characters.

  3. Pete says:

    Verbivore – I’ll be interested to see what you make of Agaat. Just make sure you get the English version (excellently translated by Michiel Heyns I think). And now I’m wondering what the points of comparison will be with Gordimer. The Maggie O’ Farrell should be great too – enjoy.

    Sarah – I think you’ll enjoy Purple Hibiscus and Toibin is always good (even when he’s depressing!) And I’m always interested to hear how other people experience SA fiction such as Agaat. I think people could be put off the experience because it so different in other countries. Hopefully not in this case.

  4. Litlove says:

    Ooh lots here that I loved too, including the Vickers and the O’Farrell. I thought both were fabulous. I’d like to read Purple Hibiscus, although I can’t see a spot appearing in the schedule any time soon. Still, it’s good to have long-term plans!

  5. Dorothy W. says:

    Interesting list! I have the Vickers novel on my shelves, and I’m excited to get to it (who knows though!). The others I’m less familiar with (I’m sure we have a copy of the Sayers around here somewhere though), and am glad to hear a little about them.

  6. Courtney says:

    Oh, I LOVED The other side of you – wonderful, wonderful book. It was on my best list last year…

  7. seachanges says:

    What a lovely list – you’re well ahead of me managing to draw up your favourites. I also loved the Maggie O’Farrell and Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. I’ll try and find some time over the next few weeks (I daren’t say days….) to get my list up. Whatever it looks like, I’ve greatly enjoyed your blog this year: keep going!

  8. Stefanie says:

    Nice list! And under 30 is not bad, all tings considered!

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