Book review – “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman

I always enjoyed reading Oliver Burkeman’s columns in the Saturday supplement of The Guardian, but then two or three years ago he announced that he was going to stop doing them. Reading this book, one assumes that he had a bit of a revelation and that is what he is sharing with us in this his third non-fiction book. 

Burkeman opens by telling us that when asked to guess how long the average life is, most people, when told not to think too long or hard about it, come up with numbers such as 200,000 weeks, or longer. When people are then invited to calculate the number of weeks in a long life of around 80 years (if you’re lucky), most are quite shocked. Burkeman’s central point is that this is an absurdly, insultingly short amount of time, given the capacity of the human brain for ambition and the desire for happiness and fulfilment. As technology has enabled us to do more with our lives (we no longer have to spend time growing our own food, we can travel much further and faster and more cheaply than even our grandparents’ generation and we are living longer than ever) we have tried to cram ever more in, in the belief that this is the signifier of an objectively ‘good’ life. 

Burkeman describes himself as a time management geek and insists that he has tried every method and read more than most about how to squeeze even more into his busy life, to expand his list of goals and ambitions and to try and achieve more. He claims that not only do most of these methods fail at first contact with reality, but that they are not making us any happier either, quite the contrary.

Within the first few pages of the book, you realise that you have in fact been cheated. You are not going to find the one true time management method that is finally going to “work”. What you get is a long essay on why it is much healthier and more productive to embrace the fact that we do not actually spend very much time on this earth and that rather than trying to squeeze more in, we should be focusing on quality over quantity. So, it’s a book about learning to choose differently. When we understand what our purpose really is, what truly gives us joy, we can prioritise those things rather than the long list of more prosaic and ultimately less satisfying goals that we give ourselves. It can be so hard to let things go, of course – what if you want to be a great parent, a great cook AND a great painter. Well, I’m afraid Burkeman thinks we can’t do it all and we have to choose. But in choosing we will become better at the things we truly want.

When I became a mother in the early 2000s, there was a lot of literature about on the topic of ‘having it all’ – a fulfilling career, adorable high-achieving children, a loving partner, a stunning home, and a gym membership. I quickly realised that if that was a possibility, then I was a failure. I still feel at times that I did fail; I gave up my career on the birth of my second child because I hated sub-contracting my children’s care, I could not do everything to the best of my ability, oh and it made no economic sense. Reading this book brought some of those thoughts back to me and at times I felt vindicated. On the other hand, as a woman in my fifties now, well over half way through my four thousand weeks if that is to be my gift, it was also quite a sobering read. But perhaps also a timely one. Now my family is almost grown up it is time to shift my priorities once again and focus on what my real goals are. I don’t have time to visit every country, read every book or learn every skill that I’d like to. That is just a fact. And since the love of my family and my friends is actually the most important thing in my life it sharpens the mind. Time to choose and choose wisely. 

Highly recommended, but not for the faint-hearted!

Audiobook review – “The Sound of Laughter” by Peter Kay

Peter Kay comes from a strong northern comic tradition and is considered one of our finest comic actors and stand-up comedians today. In  my book club recently we decided we needed something light and funny, and perhaps also it was time for a memoir or autobiography, so Peter Kay fitted the bill. The first volume of his autobiography became the highest and fastest-selling autobiography of all-time. I think it has only just been knocked off that top spot by Prince Harry’s Spare. Which is disappointing.

Peter Kay’s success is entirely deserved. Hailing from a modest background in Bolton, he was brought up a Catholic (his mother was from Northern Ireland) and attended a primary school where he was taught mainly by nuns. Apparently, Peter Kay still lives in the area and even after many years at the very top of his game and with phenomenal successes to his name he comes across as grounded, modest and without affectation.

The Sound of Laughter recounts Peter’s childhood, teenage years and early life working in various low-wage jobs before finally finding success when he wins a northern comedy competition (beating the favourite and fellow comic Johnny Vegas, whom he clearly admires). Peter’s early life was ‘ordinary’ in every sense of the word, and yet it is a sign of his genius in a way, that he has mined this seemingly inauspicious material and dug up comedy gold which still serves him well today. Whether Kay is talking about the nuns at his school (whom he gives such names as ‘Sister Sledge’, ‘Sister Act’ and ‘Sister Matic’), his driving lessons and various driving instructors, his many jobs, (which included working in a petrol station, a branch of Netto, a cash and carry and a bingo hall), or his beloved family, his eye for every minute comic detail is laugh-out loud funny. I listened to this on audio, narrated by Kay, himself (who else could have done it!) and there is a wealth of ‘bonus material’ – he simply cannot help himself going off at tangents, throwing in an anecdote. I got through much of it in a couple of long car journeys and goodness knows what fellow motorists must have thought if they spotted me crying with laughter!

What is striking about Kay is that he in no way conforms to the ‘tortured comic genius’ trope that we recognise in the likes of Robin Williams or Tony Hancock, nor complex or controversial like Billy Connolly, Peter Sellers or Eddie Izzard. He just seems like a straight-up regular guy who you can imagine living next door to. And this is his USP.

At a time when young people are under so much pressure to achieve and when momentous decisions come thick and fast, Kay is also a shining example of how you do not need to go to the best school, the best university, or have outstanding qualifications to succeed. In his case, being true to oneself is a far more valuable commodity, as are hard graft, humility and self-respect.

Kay published a second volume of his autobiography in 2010, called Saturday Night Peter, which I will be downloading on audio. I hope it will be just as funny as the first volume – I’ll report back. He also said in an interview in 2021 that he was working on a third volume. As he is currently working on a months-long sell-out tour of the UK we wait with bated breath.

Highly recommended.

Audiobook review – “The Bread the Devil Knead” by Lisa Allen-Agostini

The Bread the Devil Knead is Lisa Allen-Agostini’s third novel (she has previously published YA fiction as well as a collection of poetry) and it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2022. It is both powerful and a page-turner with a gripping plot as well as an engaging, authentic and complex central character who is also the main narrator.

Alethea Lopez is 40 years old, the manager of a clothing shop in Port of Spain, Trinidad. She is stylish and sexy. Her partner Leo is a musician who was once in a popular band. Alethea is also having an affair with her boss, the owner of the shop. But beneath her confident exterior Alethea conceals some dark secrets. The superficial aura of calm she has created around herself begins to crumble when a woman is gunned down outside the shop by a jealous lover. Alethea is shaken. A curious police officer drives her home and notices the bruises on her face. We learn from the outset that Alethea’s relationship with Leo is an abusive and violent one, perhaps that is why she looks for love with her boss, although that relationship is also abusive in its own way. 

The police officer’s curiosity is dangerous for Alethea; Leo reacts in a way that is designed to ensure that she will always be afraid of the consequences of revealing to anyone what goes on inside their home. And yet Leo has a powerful hold over Alethea that is more than just the constant threat of violence – she seems drawn to him, needs his desire for her, and his love, no matter how twisted and unhealthy it seems to the reader.

Alethea also has a brother, Colin, who is a preacher. They are recently reunited after years apart. Alethea narrates her story but there are also flashbacks to her childhood: she grew up in a single parent family. Her mother (also violently abusive to her) told her that she was the product of a brief affair she had with a Venezuelan, a man it is clear she will never meet. (Alethea has the additional social disadvantage of being lighter-skinned than most and of having a Hispanic surname). Colin joined their family when he was a toddler, having been brought by Alethea’s uncle to be cared for by her mother. Alethea was a few years older than Colin and clearly adored him. He was better treated by her mother than she was, but Alethea was never jealous and merely saw it as part of her role to protect him. 

As the violence in adult Alethea’s life gets worse, alternative pathways for her gradually come into view. A childhood friend who went to live in America returns, having married a rich man, and wants to open a boutique with Alethea. The renewal of her relationship with Colin causes her to examine the events of her childhood anew, especially when she finds that she has inherited property from her maternal grandmother. Gradually, the complex layers of Alethea’s emotional landscape are revealed and the reader begins to understand how she came to be here.

This is a profoundly moving novel; Alethea’s narrative is candid but she never becomes sorry for herself. She is vulnerable and damaged but she also has tremendous strengths and as her self-awareness grows so does her stature. 

Set in Trinidad, the novel is written primarily in the local creole. I listened to the book on audio and although the language was hard for me as an English-speaker to get into initially, my ear gradually became attuned to it and by the end I was so glad I had chosen this format because the musicality of the language added to the experience. It is also the author doing the reading and so she brings to it all her own knowledge of her character and Alethea truly comes to life.

Highly recommended, though readers should be aware that there is a significant amount of violence and the themes of domestic abuse, parental abuse and incest are explored unsparingly.

Books due out this spring

If you were watching, listening to or reading the news over the Christmas and New Year holidays, you might think that the publishing event of 2023 had already happened. Yes, that autobiography! It is everywhere and has already become the fastest selling non-fiction book ever. I suspect that anyone who was going to buy it has already done so which I hope means that the initial brouhaha has died down. Those of us interested in books rather than gossip, however, can settle down and look forward to some far more interesting offerings for the first few months of the year. Here are a few of the titles I’ve picked that are due for publication this spring and which I am heartily looking forward to.

Two of the world’s finest living writers will be publishing new work this spring. Margaret Atwood releases what will be her eleventh short story collection Old Babes in the Wood in March. Salman Rushdie, who last year survived a vicious stabbing incident, perpetrated while he was a guest at a literary festival in the US, publishes his thirteenth novel Victory City, which is due out later this month.

I am very excited about the prospect of a new Marwood and Lovett mystery by one of my favourite contemporary authors, Andrew Taylor. His sixth book in the series, The Shadows of London, which follows on from his other post-Great Fire of London novels, many of which I have reviewed on here, is due out in March.

Caleb Azumah Nelson is undoubtedly one of the young new authors to watch at the moment. His first novel Open Water, published in 2021, was multi-award winning. His next offering Small Worlds, is due out in May and is about a young man in London whose life revolves around music and dancing. The world he has built for himself begins to be challenged however, in his relationship with his father, his faith, and his Ghanaian heritage. It’s being widely trailed already.

One of my favourite children’s authors of recent years is Zillah Bethel. Her 2016 book A Whisper of Horses is a joy. Her latest novel The Song Walker is out this month and concerns a young girl who wakes up in the middle of the desert with no idea who she is or how she got there. She meets Tarni, also alone and on her own mysterious journey, and the two trek across the Australian outback in search of answers to their respective questions.

Journalist Ian Dunt is a thoughtful and interesting political commentator, and there has been lots to comment on in the UK in the last few years! The public is now beginning to ask seriously whether the system of government we have is fit for purpose. As I ease my way back into some non-fiction, his new book How Westminster Works and Why It Doesn’t, due out in April, might be one to reach for for answers.

And finally, a book I will definitely be coveting is How to be Invisible: selected lyrics of Kate Bush, the paperback version of which is due out in April with a new introduction by the woman herself. I am a huge admirer and still listen to her music frequently, but she is such a recluse that we fans have to take every little Kate-tidbit that comes our way! Definitely a keeper!

What publishing events are you looking forward to in the next few months?

%d bloggers like this: