Brief reviews of three very different books which interestingly have a time component to their narratives.
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
I picked up this book minutes after spotting it at Pegasus Books at Berkeley in December. Ann Patchett is one of my favorite writers who calls herself a novelist but also owns an independent bookstore. I particularly enjoy her personal essays which always illuminate some universal truth through everyday life events.
In this collection of essays with titles as varied and intriguing as “Three Fathers”, “How Knitting Saved My Life Twice” and “Sisters”, she covers a range of topics – friendship, youth, relationships with parents, major (and minor) life decisions.
Embedded in the minutiae of descriptions of life growing up in two locations when her biological parents separate or while on a decluttering binge are major epiphanies that glimmer like little gems if you read carefully. Here are a few examples that may speak to writers:
“To be a writer, you have to like your own company”
“Influence is a combination of circumstance and luck: what we are shown and what we stumble upon in those brief years when our hearts and minds are full open”
“Books were not just my education or entertainment, they were my partners”
In the essay “There are no children here”, she discusses a topic that I have heard her mention before – choosing to not have children. While Patchett attributes her preference to the reality of her own childhood after her parents divorce, she honestly discloses her sister’s deep desire to have children. Through Patchett’s inner dialog we understand her rationale for her choices but as a writer of memoir, this story is a perfect illumination of how the same experience marks every individual differently, even those who are related to you by birth and grew up in the same environment. It is this subjectivity that makes Patchett’s book unusual and relatable simultaneously.
My opinion: Highly recommended for those looking for a gentle read as well those intending to write personal narratives.
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
When this book came highly recommended through diverse sources, I checked out the audio version narrated by the author through my library system. The subtitle of the book is Time Management for Mortals and it took me 6 hours of listening time to get through it.
While I love reading (audiobooks included), I still have to choose carefully from the wide variety of books that come to my attention. For about 25% of the book, I was not sure where Burkeman was going. He listed a lot of caveats, quoted many thinkers and writers and generally meandered about, making me unsure of what lay ahead.
I’m happy to report that I was rewarded for my patience. Burkeman smoothly turned the concept of time on its head and studied it from so many angles that I began to wonder about my own understanding of the finite number of years that I have been gifted in this lifetime and what I intend to do with it.
Did you know that an average life span equals four thousand weeks?
From being a self-proclaimed productivity geek with the enviable “inbox 0”, Burkeman shares his own transformative experience supported by sound arguments and deep research to illuminate our modern day obsession with productivity, accomplishment and maximizing success.
The book dispels the basic myth that we will get everything on our to-do list done. I found this strangely liberating.Knowing that we will miss out on more things in the world than what we will do (FOMO is real) is helpful because when we learn to prioritise, it becomes a deliberate choice and not in a bid to do more or increase efficiency.
He also mentions the oft-overlooked aspect of our daily lives where we spend considerable time in activities that are not pleasurable while we are doing it (changing diapers for example). He encourages us to procrastinate, to spend time in activities that we will never excel at, and to share our time with others in order to make it more meaningful.
The one take away I appreciated is knowing that at any given time, we can be devoted only to doing the ‘next necessary thing’ instead of worrying about doing something extraordinary or life changing or impacting the world for the next 100 years.
My opinion: Like me, if you are struggling to ‘find time’ or ‘make time’ for everything you would like to accomplish in this lifetime, please do read this book so that you can recalibrate your own relationship with time. The next step would be to see how best you want to deploy it. It will surely be rewarding.
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
Sometimes the books that fall in my path seem to be at odds with my intentions. After an episode of burnout in late 2021, I decided to consciously slow down this year. The first thing I had to learn was to say ‘no’ to many things that I generally have a tendency to gravitate towards. And here I was, listening to Shonda Rhimes justifying her “Year of Yes”. Quite contradictory don’t you think?
Although I haven’t watched any of the TV shows that Rhimes is famous for, I knew she was famous. It came as a surprise to learn that despite her phenomenal success, she is an introvert who has a whole list of things that she is afraid of.
An innocent but honest statement from her sister over Thanksgiving “You never say yes to anything”, hits Rhimes deeply and sets in motion her Year of Yes from the following January. Given her public persona and social standing, even her challenges are ones that most of us can seldom imagine – giving a commencement speech at her alma mater (Dartmouth), agreeing to go live on Jimmy Kimmel and doing a cameo on another show, among other things. xAlongside her professional success, Rhimes personal life also demands her attention. From wanting to have more fun with her children, participating in their growth while coming to terms with her fear of marriage, Rhimes is honest about her choices and her rationale.
For working mothers everywhere, Rhimes hits the nail on the head when she talks about the necessity of having help at home (she has a great nanny) and a support system that provides the foundation for professional success. She also makes the point about missing something important (at home) while you are doing something important elsewhere, a situation that always makes many women feel guilty for their inability to be everywhere and do everything simultaneously.
Rhimes’ words are powerful, both on the page and in the audio narration. She also talks about saying ‘no’, a necessity that crops up for her given her fame and success. While it was not relevant to my context, the book did help me realize that we all need to periodically reassess our lives; sometimes we need to charge ahead while at others, we need to slow down. There is no perfect life that stays unchanged.
My opinion: Read this book if you want to see the human side of a famous woman. It will help you be more brave in your own choices, knowing that you owe it to yourself even if you are not a celebrity to begin with.
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