Book lovers will all be familiar with the list or stash of books that you’ve promised yourself you will read one day. As the thirty or so brand-new books on my shelf will attest, I am certainly guilty of engaging in tsundoku – the art of buying (hoarding) books that I never get around to reading. But for those with a more manageable – healthy – interest in reading who don’t already have a personal library at hand, here are three books to read now that you have some extra time.
1. Before the Coffee Gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi
If you only read one book this year, make it this one. Recently translated from its original form in Japanese, Kawaguchi’s novel is a masterpiece that seamlessly weaves together storylines of romance, friendship, and family, with a dash of regret and enough dramatic irony, to create heart-wrenchingly vivid scenes. At an underground café in a small back alley in Tokyo, the lovers, the husband and wife, the sisters, and the mother and daughter congregate. Having sold carefully brewed coffee for over a hundred years, this café offers more than just a quiet refuge from the busy city – it offers the opportunity to time travel. Sitting in one specific seat and fading into the mist of coffee, one can choose to travel through time… so long as they return before the coffee gets cold.
The realness of a café filled with characters who are just imperfect enough to be believable, will capture your attention before you even get to the first plot twist. Smoothly written, Kawaguchi subtly shifts characters from background to foreground, giving you the chance to explore the stories behind each persona in exquisite detail. While the magnificence this tour de force already leaps off the page, I can only imagine the magnum opus it would translate into on stage in the play from which it was originally adapted. So well described that you could walk straight into the café itself, it is almost inconceivable that you will return to a reality where time travel is mere fantasy when you put this book down. At a short 200 pages, Before the Coffee Gets Cold subverts all expectations, forming a poetic yet enjoyably easy read. While certainly something you could finish in one sitting, this earnest and unapologetically quirky story is so much more resplendent than a simple beach book.
2. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
It is difficult to decide which is more amazing – Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, or the story of how this book came to be. Planned as a five-part novel with each section modeled on the rhythm and tone of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony from which she took inspiration, Némirovsky intended for her ambitious thousand-page literary fiction to depict the situation in France during the Second World War. A French writer of Ukranian-Jewish origin, she began writing in 1941, using tiny handwriting to save ink and paper in a large leather-bound notebook where she would detail the realities of war and occupation in the sections Storm, Dolce, Captivity, Battle, and Peace – the last two sections left as question marks for an eventuality that had not yet occurred.
Némirovsky had only just completed Storm and Dolce, and some notes for Captivity, when she was arrested in 1942. Fleeing from the Nazis, one of her two young daughters packed the manuscript into a suitcase to keep as a memento of their mother who had often been seen writing. Half done, Némirovsky was never given a chance to finish her final novel, dying in Auschwitz on 17 August 1942. It was not until decades later in 1998, when Némirovsky’s daughter decided to type out the contents of the notebook before donating it to the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine (dedicated to documenting and preserving memories of the war), that the novel was discovered. Using a magnifying glass to decipher the 140 pages of miniscule handwriting writing, it soon became apparent that the leather-bound notebook was no private diary, and Suite Française was finally published as one 500-page book comprising of first two sections Storm and Dolce, 64 years after Némirovsky’s death.
Storm depicts bedlam as several parties attempt to flee Paris as the Nazis invade. Civilisation itself is all but lost as the characters encounter one another as two ships passing in the night – each group caught up in their own world of complete pandemonium. With beautifully written prose, Némirovsky crafts a chaotic potpourri of barely-related storylines into a harmoniously tied together sequence of events. The countryside romance during the German occupation of rural France that dominates Dolce, may be familiar to anyone who has seen the film adaptation of Suite Française, but the film fails to capture the majesty with which the sentiment of defeat, hypocrisy, and compromise has been epitomised in the written work.
To say that this novel shows Némirovsky was a virtuoso of the written word, would be an understatement. In short, Suite Française is a literary mélange of the French experience of the Second World War. Yet, this historical novel is so much more than a personal diary noting the turmoil and tragedy experienced during that tumultuous time. It is an accomplishment of the highest order, a piece that perceptively delivers a devastating indictment of the French experience of war, where Némirovsky rations her use of emotion to efficaciously convey this calamity.
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
If you have an Internet connection, you have likely heard of (if not seen) the Amazon Prime adaptation of Good Omens, starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen. A Satanist nun misplaces the Antichrist and a series of comic disasters ensue as the demon Crowley and angel Aziraphale both try to correct the course of the divine plan to bring about Armageddon... all in accordance with The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch – the world’s only accurate guide to the future. It is common to hear ‘the book is better’, but in this case, it really is! [Even with the masterful skills with which the on-screen portrayal has been crafted.]
Hailing from 1990, the humorous fantasy has references that may be slightly more outdated than the upgraded versions in the TV adaptation. However, what it lacks in currency, it makes up for in large doses of cynicism and satire, with a sprinkling of good side plots that nicely flesh out the story. True to Gaiman’s style, the book reads like a children’s bedtime story with a plot and a pinch of bad language that is fit for the interests of adults – truly the most enjoyable style for quickly devouring a book. Pratchett and Gaiman, two well-established English authors, have crafted what is honestly one of the funniest novels ever that consistently delivers good laughs without relying on dry English humour.
Which is definitely not to say that the Prime adaptation is in anyway lacking. Both versions are stellar, and the perfect uplifting material for a nihilistic mood. Watch the show. Read the book. For Satan’s sake maybe even listen to the BBC Radio 4 version too!
Blitz Book Club is a contributor-based book club where our contributors suggest 3 different books every week! If you would like to contribute, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.