Best of 2016- Coffee and books

Shots of one’s coffee are of course rather ubiquitous these days, but they can also be a visual diary of sorts, with one element that stays unchanging against diverse backdrops. Many of mine also contain a book, because reading in coffee shops is one of the sublimest pleasures of life, thus I will take the opportunity to run through some titles (almost ten) that I really loved in 2016.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and Story of the Lost Child (#3 and #4 of The Neapolitan Novels) by Elena Ferrante. I stylishly start the list by cheating a little, because these are actually two books of the same tetralogy, but it would be unfair to split them- Ferrante’s writing is so even and captivating from the beginning of volume one to the end of volume four that choosing any of the four novels as better than the other three kind of misses the point. The first novel is perhaps special in that it gets you hooked on the next three, so I am a bit proud to have been strong enough to pace them separately over two years, though probably reading them all in one go has its charms too.

Some Rain Must Fall (My Struggle #5) by Karl Ove Knausgård. In some ways the My Struggle series was a male counterpart to Ferrante’s female account and I enjoyed finding familiar thoughts and feelings in both, with the (un)surprising conclusion that a female experience in underprivileged Naples is further removed from me than that of a middle class Norwegian man. I won’t jump into any wide ranging conclusions about the prevalence of gender or class in shaping one’s world view, suffice to say that both books put you in a rather reflexive state and also make you question the way in which an accurate autobiography written in retrospect is even possible- Knausgård admits to having journals but also reconstructing events, while Ferrante is altogether more mysterious about the entire process.

A Mind at Peace by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. I’ve been meaning to read this one for a very long while, probably since I’ve seen it mentioned in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul (in the hope that 2017 will be a better year than the much maligned 2016, some great news already: Pamuk is the official guest of the 2017 Budapest Book fair). Since it’s not particularly easy to get hold of a copy, I kind of put it off indefinitely, and then one day as I was peacefully doing some reading in Massolit, I turned my eyes towards the international literature shelf, and there it was in all it’s boxy glory- it’s shape is a bit different than the traditional one and it comes with a beautiful almost papier maché cover. As such, it lends itself much better to calm coffeehouse reading than to being hoisted around and read on metros and trains- I am quite guilty of the latter and have massacred many a book, to my deep chagrin. I might have lost my train of thought a little here, but basically Tanpınar’s book is a beautiful rambling itself through the heart of one of the world’s most complicated cities so I did it, excuse the pun, with a mind at peace.

Another book I’ve been meaning to read for some time is Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada- as luck would have it then, I travelled to Berlin this year, and since I like indulging in local literature whenever I can I bought my copy there. Written in the aftermath of World War II, the story of an elderly couple quietly resisting the Nazi regime is as relevant and important today as it was back then.

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride. Admittedly, it can be a bit unnerving in the beginning, and at about ten pages into it I was raging along the lines of ’what do the Irish have against punctuation?!’, but the style grows on you so much that when reaching more traditionally written passages you start to miss it. It somehow also reminded me of grappling with Trainspotting the book almost two decades ago- a reread is another 2017 plan, to get in the mood for the new movie, about which I am both excited and apprehensive.

I will also frankly admit to having chosen The Lesser Bohemians out of a longish list of books to order because it had the prettiest cover. So sometimes it actually pays to judge a book by its cover, another case in point, Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, which was gifted to me on the strength of its cover design as well, but turned out to be quite the novel too. In a way similar to another book I’ve read early in 2016, William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, it tells the story of an unusual female destiny going deeper beneath the surface then Boyd does.

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s Running might look like the lightest read on the list, but it’s also the one that provided me with actual practical advice on doing something I’m actually borderline good at- running that is, because I am rubbish at snooker. I do however find it eternally fascinating, and watch games listening to the soft sound of snooker balls hitting each other somewhat as The Dude listens to whale sounds- the absolute zen being of course Ronnie O’Sullivan on his way to a century.

There’s much dudeist relaxation in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice too and I also found it utterly readable and easy to follow, in spite of the rather scary press it usually gets. I am also a fiend for a character with a really good name, and Doc Sportello definitely takes some sort of palm, or hemp leaf for that.

My only complaint about Inherent Vice was that it could have been a little longer (my bad for reading so fast, I know), but I got compensated for by Donna Tartt’s intriguing Goldfinch, which I chanced upon last winter in Gozsdu uvdar, at the Red Bus stand- I can’t repeat often enough how sorely I miss their old bookshop on Semmelweis street which was the staple of my college years and an unquenchable source of affordable titles.

Last but not least- The Favorite Game by Leonard Cohen. The year began with Bowie dying, which was a huge loss but since I’d never been a devoted fan, I took it in my stride. But then the year ended with Leonard Cohen dying and although I knew he had been ailing for a long time,  this one really hit home. Time to raid the back catalogue then, both the songs and the books and realize how much wisdom and humour lies within and that’s sort of a consolation for the entire year, I think.

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