Complex World of Party Animal Holly Golightly [Review]

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Today she’d be classed as a ‘celeb “ or a socialite. The kind of girl whose party-loving, free-wheeling lifestyle fills newspapers and magazines with gossip and sparkle.

Holly Golightly was not the original “IT” girl but she is the character forever synonymous with a dazzling, sophisticated, glamorous way of life. It’s an image cemented into the public consciousness by Audrey Hepburn in the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Hepburn’s Holly is chic, carefree and charismatic. 

Holly Golightly

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly

However, Truman Capote’s novella provides us with a far more complex figure. His Holly Golightly is rather a lonely figure, a girl whose carefree persona is a front, and one she protects fiercely. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is set in New York, mainly around a brownstone building in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The un-named narrator, an aspiring writer, gets his first glimpse of Holly when she arrives home late at night, and tries to rouse another tenant because – once again – she’s lost her apartment key.

… she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness…  A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman.

Holly, he learns, has no job. She lives by socialising with wealthy men who take her to clubs and restaurants and give her money and expensive presents. She hopes to marry one of them.

Is Holly Golightly a prostitute?

This was a question Capote tried to address in a 1968 interview with Playboy. Holly Golightly, he said, was a modern day version of a Geisha girl.

Holly Golightly was not precisely a callgirl. She had no job, but accompanied expense-account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obligated to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewelry or a check … if she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night. So these girls are the authentic American geishas, and they’re much more prevalent now than in 1943 or 1944, which was Holly’s era.

Holly, with her curious lifestyle and outspoken views, fascinates the narrator. Over the course of a year, they become close friends. 

Who is the real Holly Lightly?

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

The narrator only gets a glimpse of her past through the fragments she occasionally reveals. She talks about her childhood as “an almost voluptuous account of swimming and summer, Christmas trees, pretty cousins and parties: in short, happy in a way that she was not”.

We never know if Holly is making this up or if she’s describing her actual childhood, but the narrator doesn’t think it squares up with the girl he has come to know.

But when he asks any direct questions, she clams up again.

She has, it turns out,  one obvious reason to be secretive.

Holly Golightly is actually Lulamae. And she’s not a single girl but a child bride who ran away to New York to escape her hillbilly husband and her step-children.

Capote’s narrative presents us with a subtler reason, one that gives us more more reason to sympathise with this girl. 

Orphaned as a young child, she’d been sent with her brother to live with relatives who treated them badly.

Well, you never saw a more pitiful something. Ribs sticking out everywhere, legs so puny they can’t hardly stand, teeth wobbling so bad they can’t chew mush. … She had good cause to run off from that house.

Secrecy as a form of protection

Too damaged to have a deep emotional connection with anyone but her brother, she has fabricated a new identity as a form of protection. If she can isolate herself emotionally from other people, then she can always be in control.

She won’t even allow herself to become attached to the cat she found by the river one day. ” We don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent and, so am I”, she says at one point. And later on, when she is about to leave the country; she defends her decision to let the cat loose.

We just met by the river one day: that’s all. Independents, both of us. We never made each other any promises. We never – ” she said, and her voiced collapsed … 

Holly tries to convince herself that she’s happy being alone. But is she?   I’d like to imagine her enjoying her new life in Argentina but reading between the lines, I suspect not. 

Though I’ve enjoyed the film version, I prefer the novella’s more complex portrayal of Holly Golightly. Capote gives us plenty of reasons not to like this girl. She steal’s another girl’s fiancée, shows little concern for who she inconveniences as long as she gets what she wants and acts as a messenger for an imprisoned gangster.  

But Capote has also made Holly Golightly a sympathetic character; one that embraces the good things in life as a way of hiding from its darker side. By the end, we wish her well.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Fast Facts

  •  Breakfast at Tiffany’s was bought by Harper’s Bazaar. A change of editor resulted in requests to change some of the language which was considered too ‘tart’ and unsuitable. Capote was incensed and sold his work instead to Esquire magazine who published it in 1958.
  • Holly was originally named Connie Gustafson. Truman Capote later changed her name to Holiday Golightly and then Holly. He apparently based the character of on several different women, all friends or close acquaintances.
  • The novella was loosely adapted into the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s directed by Blake Edwards. The movie was transposed to 1960 rather than the 1940s, and had the narrator and Holly fall in love.
  • I read this as part of my #15booksofsummer reading project and my Classics Club project.

3 Dangerous Books To Read If You’re Hungry

Forget about glowing author testimonials and ‘award-winning’ stickers. 

What some novels really need is a health warning on their cover. A warning that reading this book will not just stimulate your mind, it will stimulate your appetite. 

Why? 

Because these are novels that contain fulsome descriptions of ingredients purchased, dishes cooked and meals ordered.  Characters in films seem only to sit at a table and play with their cutlery. You hardly ever see them take a sip of wine or a mouthful of food. Meanwhile their book counterparts are tucking in heartily. 

Reading these novels is a dangerous activity. Certainly not one to be embarked upon if you’re trying to restrict your calorie intake or you didn’t get a chance to eat yet. 

Dangerous because just reading about food is guaranteed to:

  • sharpen your appetite;
  • send you running to the biscuit tin or
  • get you foraging in the fridge/freezer

Here’s a shortlist of novels that really shouldn’t be read on an empty stomach. 

The Cruelest Month 

The Cruelest Month

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamach series is guaranteed to have you salivating.

Much of the action takes place in Olivier and Gabri’s bistro  in the picture-postcard Canadian village of Three Pines. It’s a home from home for the Chief Inspector; a place where he and his deputy, Inspector Beauvoir, can reflect on the progress of their latest investigation. Policemen clearly need their sustenance. 

Gamache’s coq au vin filled the table with a rich, earthy aroma and an unexpected hint of maple. Delicate young beans and glazed baby carrots sat in their own white dish. A massive charbroiled steak smothered in pan fried onions was placed in front of Beauvoir. A mound of frites sat in his serving dish. 

Beauvoir could have died happily right there and then but he’d have missed the crème brülée for dessert. 

Stay the night in the bistro’s B&B and you can be sure that breakfast will be a step up from packets of cereal and thin orange juice.

Yummy, yummy, said Gabri, placing the platters in front of his guests.Each held two eggs on a thick slice of Canadian back bacon which in turn rested on a golden toasted English muffin. Hollandaise sauce was drizzled over the eggs and fruit salad garnished the edges each plate. 

I’ll skip the fruit salad (fruit and eggs absolutely no not belong together) but otherwise yes, yummy, yummy indeed. 

If your tastes run to something more adventurous, perhaps my next book will be more to your taste. 

The Gourmet

The Gourmet

How does “Pan roasted breast of Peking duck rubbed with berbère; grapefruit crumble à la Jamaïque with shallot confit” sound?

This is the kind of dish favoured by Pierre Athens, the greatest food critic in the world. He is dying after ” decades of grub, deluges of wine and alcohol of every sort, after a life spent in butter, cream, rich sauces, and oil…” 

In his final hours, his mind returns to some of the most sublime flavours he has ever experienced. They were not always the most complex of dishes.

The raw tomato, devoured in the garden when freshly picked, is a horn of abundance of simple sensations, a radiating rush in one’s mouth that brings with it every pleasure. . . . a tomato, an adventure.

I wish I could discover where he buys these tomatoes because it’s years since I experienced any that had any flavour. 

How about something a little more indulgent than tomatoes? Pierre, it turns out, holds sugary treats in high esteem.

Pastries . . . can only be appreciated to the full extent of their subtlety when they are not eaten to assuage our hunger, when the orgy of their sugary sweetness is not destined to full some primary need but to coat our palate with all the benevolence of the world.

Next time you experience pangs of guilt for picking up an éclair, just remember that you’ll be bringing joy to the world when you eat it.

Chocolat 

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

For unsurpassed joy however, it’s not a pastry you want, but chocolate. the plot and characters in Joanne Harris’ novel may be rather twee but for a chocoholic, it represents absolute bliss. Almost every page oozes with the stuff. 

Not everyone who lives in the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is delighted when the young widow Vianne Rocher decides to open a chocolatier in a disused bakery.

Her timing is unfortunate. It’s the build up to Lent and the villagers have pledged to forgo sweet delights. But all it takes is one whiff of the aroma from the shop and their resistance melts away. 

The air is hot and rich with the scent of chocolate. Quite unlike the white powdery chocolate I knew as a boy, this has a throaty richness like the perfumed beans from the coffee stall on the market, a redolence of amaretto and tiramisù, a smoky, burned flavour that enters my mouth somehow and makes it water. 

Vianne’s mouthwatering bonbons, steaming mugs of liqueur-laced cocoa and flaky cream-filled patisserie become the battle ground between her and the village priest. 

I know whose side I’d be on in this battle. How about you??

Astonishing Guide Breathes New Life Into Welsh Literature

The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, edited by Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton

Guide to Welsh Literature

The statistics alone make the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature, a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking:

  • 825 pages (including a bibliography 63 pages long);
  • 34 contributors by leading academics from Wales, England, North America, Canada and Australia and
  • essays spanning 15 centuries of Welsh literature.

This is the first truly comprehensive guide to the literary traditions and heritage of Wales. The last attempt at such a book was in 1955 but it focussed exclusively on people writing in the medium of the Welsh language. It also went only as far as the end of the 19th century.

The editors of the new Cambridge History of Welsh Literature took a more holistic view; seeing English/Welsh bilingualism as the ‘norm’ and the two languages existing in harmony not conflict.

They argue that much of contemporary Welsh literature is the product of that bilingual culture. Dylan Thomas – the author best known within and without of Wales – is a product of that culture, they assert. His exposure to both languages from his childhood years, made him the poet that people love.  “The languages are not in opposition to each other,: said Geraint Evans, “one could not exist without the other.”

From battlefields to industrial sites

The two editors eschew a chronological approach in favour of a thematic series of essays that show how Welsh literature was – and continues to be – influenced by significant political and cultural changes.

Some essays examine the  tradition of poetry and prose writing that begins in post-Roman times, with poetry like Y Gododdin, supposedly an eye witness account of men slaughtered in battle. Other chapters look at the Welsh love of myth and legend, reflected in the tales of The Mabinogion, and the birth of the Eisteddfod as a celebration of music, poetry and prose in the Welsh language. A key chapter considers how the discovery of rich coal seams in South Wales, which transformed a previously agricultural country into a powerhouse of industry, influenced authors like Gwyn Thomas.  

Coming up to the present day, much of the later section of the book considers the impact that devolution and self-governance in 1999 had on the attitudes and pre-occupations of contemporary writers.

What the essays show is that many of the earlier authors writing in Wales shared a love of the land  and the country But today’s authors see themselves more in the context of the city, not the countryside.

Welsh literature on the world stage

Is there a need for a book of this nature?

The two authors – as you’d expect – are in no doubt.  “We felt there was a huge gap,” said Professor Helen Fulton.

People know about The Mabinogion and Dylan Thomas but generally there is a lack of knowledge about what is one of the oldest continual literary traditions in Europe. We want our guide to show how Welsh literature is a rich and genuinely international literature.

Cambridge guide_Welsh literature

Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton at the launch of their definitive guide to Welsh literature

She has a point. Ask a room of even well-read people to name a Welsh author and there’s a high likelihood they won’t get further than Dylan Thomas. They’re highly unlikely to name some of the authors and titles I’ve listed on my page 86 novels from Wales. As talented as these authors are, they’re not in the same league as their Irish or Scottish authors, a fact highlighted  by one of the audience members at a launch event in Swansea. There is no Welsh equivalent of Colm Toibin, or Oscar Wilde, or James Joyce, he pointed out.

The signs are however promising that interest in Welsh literature is increasing. The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature has sold well in the United States where it fits well with study programmes on comparative literature.  There is active discussion also within Wales about changing the schools curriculum to ensure it contains some texts from Wales. 

Perhaps this is the case of the right book at the right time?

The Cambridge Guide to Welsh Literature: Quick Facts

The guide is published by Cambridge University Press as a companion publication in their long-established series which includes guides to literature in English, children’s literature, Shakespeare and women’s writing. The Guide to Welsh Literature was published in June 2019.

Professor Helen Fulton  trained as a Celticist at the University of Oxford and has since specialised in medieval Welsh literature and its connections with other Celtic literatures and with the literatures of medieval England. She is currently Chair of Medieval Literature at the University of Bristol’s Department of English

Geraint Evans is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Language and Literature at Swansea University.  His research interests include literary modernism, Welsh writing in English and the history of the book in Britain.

Reading horizons: Episode 20

Reading Horizons: July 2019

What I’m reading now

The Cruelest Month

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny is book number 5 on my 15booksofsummer list which is a virtual ‘holiday’ around the world. So far I’ve visited Wales (well that wasn’t hard!); Austria, Croatia and the United States.

Penny’s novel gives me a reason to visit Canada.

The Cruelest Month is number three in the series of novels featuring  Inspector Armand Gamache from the Sûreté du Québec. There are 14 novels in the series; the 15th – A Better Man – is due to be published in August 2019.  I’ve read seven of these but not in publication order.

The Cruelest Month is set in spring in the tiny, picture-postcard village of Three Pines. Buds are on the trees and the first flowers are struggling through the newly thawed earth. For some bizarre reason, some of the villagers decide this is a good time to hold a séance at the Old Hadley House, a dilapidated property where nasty things happened years earlier. They are hoping their actions will rid the village its dark past. Of course it all goes wrong and one of the group dies. Was she murdered or did she die of fright. It’s up to Gamache to find the truth.

What I just finished reading

Big Sky _ Kate Atkinson Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote was another from my summer reading list. It’s also on my ClassicsClub reading list.

It’s one of those books that I’d been intending to read for a long, long time. It’s a delightfully atmospheric novella with an unforgettable character whose name Holly Golightly is forever synonymous with Audrey Hepburn who played the starring role in the film version.

I made a temporary deviation from my 15booksofsummer itinerary when my library request came through for Kate Atkinson’s latest novel Big Sky.

It was worth the change of plan as you can see from my very enthusiastic review.  

Of course, now I have been re-introduced to her private eye Jackson Brodie, I ‘m getting an itch to re-read all the earlier books in this series.

What I’ll read next

This is always the hardest question for me because I really dislike planning my reading.

If I continue on the summer reading list, I’m due to visit Jamaica via The Long Song by Andrea Levy.

Levy takes us to her native country in the nineteenth century, a time of slavery and  sugar plantations. Her tale relates the experiences of a young slave girl, July, who lives through through the 1831 Great Jamaican Slave Revolt, and the beginning of freedom.  The Long Song won the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2010.

The reason I’m hesitant is that there are some new acquisitions which are calling to me, including the book that arrived today.

The Prison Book Club

Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Dazzling return of Atkinson’s gruff private eye in Big Sky [Review]

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson 

I’ve fallen in love again.

My admiration for Kate Atkinson collapsed in the last few years when she began to experiment with time-shifting novels like Life after Life. Her latest novel, Transcription, was  also a huge disappointment.

Where was the energetic prose, the intricate plots and witty characterisations that had made reading her work such a pleasure in the past? I feared she’d gone completely off the boil.

But my fears were unfounded.

For “my” beloved Kate Atkinson is back. And with a vengeance.

Big Sky _ Kate AtkinsonBig Sky is the first novel in nine years to feature her gruff-but-loveable private investigator Jackson Brodie. It’s a triumphant return.

Brodie is older (of course) and still rather world-weary. But he hasn’t lost his natural inclination to help or rescue other people. If he can prevent them suffering, as he did in his own life, he will, even if that means diving into the sea or jumping off a cliff. 

Big Sky sees him living in Yorkshire in the occasional company of an ageing Labrador and a taciturn teenage son (both on loan from his ex-partner Julia.

Evil lurks in seaside towns

It’s a picturesque location but one that has a sinister side.

The seaside towns of Whitby, Scarborough and Bridlington were once the hunting grounds for a paedophile ring. Though the organisers were jailed, two young female detectives have started to investigate other suspected participants, including high profile members of the establishment.

What police don’t realise is that the area’s sordid past lives on through three men who’ve made a lucrative business from human trafficking. 

There were only so many washing-machines you could sell, but there was no limit on the trade in girls.

Their prey are young women from Eastern Europe who are duped into believing hotel jobs and a better life await them in England. Instead they become sex slaves. 

Tightly woven web of plot lines

Past and present come together in an artfully constructed plot with multiple strands that initially appear unconnected. Slowly the threads are drawn together with the help of a few coincidences and red herrings. By the end, everything is explained clearly for those readers who had a hard time keeping up. 

Big Sky is a novel that begins slowly. Atkinson is clearly in Kate Atkinson _ Big Skyplayful mode,  introducing one set of characters only to abandon them for many pages while she brings another cast to the stage. We get to know three golfing buddies; their wives; a pair of super-organised, keen as mustard female detectives, and – fleetingly– some of the trafficked girls. Figures from previous novels flit in and out like Tatiana, the Russian girl Brodie knew from  “another lifetime  when she had been a dominatrix and he had been fancy-free.” 

Having set all the balls in motion, Atkinson cranks up the pace in the final quarter with chapters chock full of kidnapped children, suspicious vehicles, rescued girls and shootings.  

Blue Sky is a fabulously entertaining book that is a significantly superior beast to most crime novels. 

Humour amid the darkness

That’s because of its beautifully drawn characters and a waspishly witty element of humour.  Just take a look at  Vince, a “middle-aged, middle-of-the-road, middle-class man” who’s been kicked out of his job and his marital bed.

He was grinding towards fifty and for the last three months had been living in a one-bedroom flat behind a fish-and-chip shop, ever since Wendy turned to him one morning over his breakfast muesli – he’d been on a short-lived health kick – and said, ‘Enough’s enough, don’t you think, Vince?’ leaving him slack-mouthed with astonishment over his Tesco Finest Berry and Cherry.

It’s that detail of the Tesco brand cereal that makes all the difference in this sentence. There are plenty of other examples that demonstrate Kate Atkinson’s knack of nailing a character in just a phrase or a few sentences.

One wife gets put down like this:

She shopped from the Boden catalogue and was proud of having grown a horrible stunted little tree.

Ouch!

Another woman (one of the most complex in the book) is every inch the trophy wife:

Crystal was hovering around thirty-nine years old and it took a lot of work to stay in this holding pattern. She was  a construction made from artificial materials – the acrylic nails, the silicone breasts, the polymer eyelashes. A continually renewed fake tan and a hairpiece fixed into her bleached-blonde hair completed the synthetic that was Crystal.

Expectations overturned

But having framed her as the archetypal arm candy blond, ex model, and manicurist; Atkinson then proceeds to confound our expectations. Crystal turns out to be a shrewd and determined woman who refuses to allow the evils of her past get in her way.  Women, in this novel, do ultimately get their revenge on those who treat them as disposable goods.

Do you need to have read all previous Jackson Brodie novels to enjoy this one?

I’d never want to dissuade someone from reading all of this series but you don’t have to in order to appreciate Big Sky. Atkinson provides enough of the back story about Brodie and his tangled love life that you can read this as a stand alone novel. 

I’m certain once you’ve read this one however, you’ll be ultra keen to start right at the beginning of the series. Yes, Big Sky really is that good.

Footnotes 

  • Kate Atkinson was born in York and now lives in Edinburgh.
  • Her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museumwon the Costa (formerly the Whitbread) Book of the Year prize with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.
  • She won the Costa Novel Award in 2013 with Life after Life (see my review here) and again in 2015 with A God in Ruins.
  • Her first novel to feature Jackson Brodie was Case Histories, published in 2005. Stephen King called it “The best mystery of the decade.”
  • Big Sky was published in June 2019 by Doubleday

Want to know more?

The Penguin website has an extract from Big Sky which is taken from the first scene involving Jackson Brodie.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Kate Atkinson talks about the impetus to write Big Sky.

9 Strategies To Slay The TBR Monster

Is this a familiar picture?

Every shelf in every bookcase in your home is stuffed with unread books.

There are books on tables and on the floor.

Every conceivable space is occupied by books you have not yet read. They’re becoming a source of much grumbling by your nearest and dearest.

And yet each week you end up buying more. That TBR list is becoming a monster.

TBR denial

You’ve tried hiding the books, pretending that if you can’t see them, that they don’t exist. But when you trip over them at every turn, you know no can no longer stay in denial.

You occasionally talk about tackling this ogre. But you don’t really know how.

If this does sound familiar, then you are certainly not alone. Virtually every book blogger I follow has – at some point- grumbled about the overwhelming size of their TBR.

The good news? You can do something about this.

9 strategies to help you slay that TBR monster

1  Reframe the issue

My TBR currently stands at 314. I occasionally moan about this on the blog.  But if I’m being completely honest with myself – and with you – that’s  just for show.

Because deep down I count that stack as a blessing not a curse. It means I have a personalised library at my fingertips, always open 24/7, 365 days a year.

Only thing I don’t like? Tripping over the piles around the house ….

So, as much as I love my library, I do want to scale it back to a more manageable number. I’m not going to get stressed out about it. I’m just going to be more pragmatic.

To reframe the issue, challenge yourself to answer this question:   

Is  your TBR is a source of tribulation or a source of delight?

Switching to a more positive mindset could help you approach the next steps with more optimism.

2. Measure the beast

You can’t tackle the TBR issue until you know exactly the scale of your task.

That means you have to do a count of every unread book you have in your house/apartment/caravan/yurt.  You’ll be using this number later.

Pull out every unread book in your home. Pile them all up on the floor or the table.

Count them all.

You might be surprised the total isn’t higher. (I doubt it since books seem to have a habit of lurking in dark corners, hiding down the back of the sofa. ) But you might also be horrified because never in your wildest dreams did you realise you had THAT many.

It doesn’t matter what your total is; what does matter is that you’ve done the tally.

Before you put them all back in their original homes you must:

A. Make a note of this number and the date you did the count. This is now your baseline 

B. Take a photo of this stack. It’s a physical reminder of the scale of your challenge

3 Time to stocktake

Think of yourself as the owner of a bookshop. As a good business person you know it’s important to have a realistic view of four elements.

  • What items are in your shop.
  • What is ‘selling’ well.
  • Which items are slow moving.
  • What items are unsuitable for sale because they’re damaged goods.

TBR stack of booksAll of these pieces of knowledge are just as valuable for you as they are for the owner of a bookstore.

When you have a clear picture of what you have in your TBR ‘library’ you’ll be in a stronger position to:

  • discover over-stocking ( ie duplicate or triplicate copies of the same book) and
  • find ‘lost’ items: books you thought had disappeared entirely and
  • unearth damaged books; those with loose pages or broken spines and
  • avoid waste (how many times in the past have you bought a book only to discover you already had a copy at home).

Stocktaking your TBR library means you need to make a record all of your books. As a minimum you should document:

  • book title and
  • author name and
  • date purchased/acquired.

You can use a spreadsheet or use a platform like Goodreads or Library Thing. The choice is yours.

I prefer to have my list in spreadsheet format because I want to record more than just the basics.

These are my additional columns. 

  • Genre.
  • Date of publication.
  • Nationality of the author.
  • Date I read the book.
  • Whether I finished it
  • Category (for example crime, classic, book in translation).
  • Notes about how I obtained this book (for example, was it a book club choice, a birthday gift, a review copy).

4. Set a goal

If you want to be successful at reducing your TBR, you need to set a goal. Without a goal you lack focus and direction. Goal setting not only allows you to take control of the project, it also gives you a way to determine if you are actually succeeding.

Your goal must be clear and well defined. Vague or generalised goals are unhelpful because they don’t provide sufficient direction. So include precise amounts, dates, and so on in your goals so you can measure your degree of success. If your goal is stated only as “Reduce my TBR” how will you know when you have been successful? 

The actual goal is your choice. Only you know what you can realistically achieve.

How do you decide on a realistic goal?

Think about it this way:

How many books do you read on average each year?

If your answer is 50 and you have 500 + plus books in your TBR that means you have 10 year’s worth of reading sitting in your home. And that’s without buying or acquiring a single new book. Maybe you’d be more comfortable with 5 year’s worth of books – so your goal is a 50% reduction.

Your goal could be framed as a percentage or as an absolute number reduction from the total you identified earlier.

For example

Reduce my TBR by 10% by end of [year]

Or

Reduce my TBR to [xx] books by end [year]

If you have a very ambitious target, you might find it more satisfying to think of your goal in multiple stages.

For example:

Reduce my TBR by 20% by [end 2022] – reach 5% reduction by [end 2021]

How do you achieve your goal?

By taking one step at a time.

individually, these strategies are not designed to get you to your ultimate goal. But collectively they will ensure you can make significant progress.

5. Remove your ‘slow moving goods’

Slow moving goods is how I describe books that you’ve had for a very long time. You keep promising yourself you will read them. But you never get around to it – there’s always something new catching your eye.

Now is the time to get real. If you haven’t read it in the last five years are you realistically going to read it within the next five years? I doubt it.

Here’s what you do.

Make a pile of all the unread books you’ve owned for longer than 5 years.

Examine them one by one. For each book, challenge yourself whether you will really read it in the next 5 years. You have be firm here. Try not to sit on the fence.

If the answer is clearly “NO”, then put the book in an OUT pile. You’re going to give these away to friends, relatives, charity shops, hospitals etc. Anyone who will take them. You could try to sell them (for example via eBay, or services like ziffit.com

If the answer is “MAYBE” set the book aside for now. If you find you have a tower of books in the “maybe” category then I’d question whether you’re being rigorous enough. You probably the exercise again…..

You could easily adapt this to a different time frame. If you have a particularly large target you may need to be more ruthless and choose books older than 3 years for example.

6. Get off the fence

You’ve ended up with a pile of books you ‘maybe’ want to read. Tackling this pile should be your next step.

First pick a book. Read about 30 pages. Then decide whether it’s interested you enough to want to continue reading.

If no, then add it to your OUT pile

If YES then you can put it back on your sheIf.

Make a note of when you last assessed this book. If it’s still unread one year after that date, then it’s clearly not for you. Out it should go.

7. Dealing with new stock

You love reading. But you also love buying books. Unless you control the number of new items coming into your library you’re never going to slay the TBR monster.

Some bloggers take the drastic step of implementing a purchasing ban. No new books until their TBR is down to a manageable level.

I know that would never work for me. Maybe it won’t for you either.

But you could use a variation on that theme. As an example: for every five books you read from your TBR you allow yourself to buy one new book..

For those of a nervous disposition, yes you’re allowed a few treats to mark birthdays and other special occasions.

Remember though, that every new book that comes in needs to be added to your TBR spreadsheet or Goodreads list, noting the date purchased etc.

8. Read the books

Yes it really is that simple. 

Books are meant to be read. They’re not ornaments. But then you knew that didn’t you? 

So all you have to do is read the ones you haven’t read until now.

If you find it difficult to decide what to read next, there are multiple challenges in the blogosphere that can help you overcome indecision:

You’ll find a few of them here:

https://www.bookish.com/articles/2019-reading-challenge/

https://www.girlxoxo.com/the-master-list-of-2019-reading-challenges/

https://roofbeamreader.com/2018/12/19/announcing-the-2019-tbr-pile-challenge-tbr2019rbr/

The start of a new year is always heralded by announcements of new challenges, so keep your eyes peeled. But of course you don’t have to wait for a new year before you start tackling that TBR monster. 

If you’re not into challenges, you might enjoy using a TBR jar to select your next read.  This is where you can unleash your creativity if that’s what rocks your boat. For an explanation of this take a look at the post on The Chic Site.

9. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Congratulations on working your way through all these strategies, But this is no time to rest on your laurels. You need to exercise constant vigilance if you don’t want to end up in the same mess again.

My suggestion:

Set a date to do at least an annual ‘stocktake’

Keep challenging yourself with those books you labelled as ‘maybe’s’

What are you waiting for?

Time to get started

These are strategies I’m intending to use to reduce my TBR mountain. 

What strategies have you used that you found successful?

No snowflakes in the torture chamber

‘We don’t want to hear it’ is a cry shared by
over-sensitive souls and despots

In these days of hurt feelings, so-called snowflakes, the perpetually offended and those who see a slight or an infringement of their rights at every turn, it is sobering to reflect on the experiences of lives in less tolerant societies where issues such as freedom of expression or no-platforming are entirely in the hands of a government or military regime rather than a disgruntled student body or an online petition.

As the pressure group PEN International points out, writers and journalists around the world are targeted – and in some cases hounded and murdered – for their peaceful pursuit of free expression.

“Authoritarian governments are becoming increasingly emboldened and are targeting writers and journalists in ever greater numbers. Some are paying a heavy price for merely carrying out their work,” said Salients Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee.

I’ve been researching this topic after reading about the experiences of a Kenyan who was incarcerated, tortured and jailed on a trumped up charge fundamentally because his attitude didn’t tally with that of the authorities.

Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross, published in October 1991, is presented as a fictional account of everyday brutality by the security forces in Moi regime Kenya. But the scenes of torture at the hands of members of the notorious Special Branch are drawn directly from the author’s own experience following his arrest in October 1986.

Mutahi (1954 – 2003), a journalist and novelist widely read in East Africa, was known to be opposed to the brutal regime of his country. In 1986, during a clampdown on Wahome Mutahiintellectual activities he was arrested and jailed. He was charged with neglecting to report a felony thus being guilty of sedition.

His captors said he knew people who were publishing seditious material – material critical of the government. The allegations were false; he didn’t know anyone engaged in such activities – he was a journalist on The Nation, just writing.

Special Branch officers went to his Nairobi office one Sunday morning and took him to the city’s Nyayo House, a respectable-looking office building for the police. But in its basement were interrogation rooms, cells and barbaric torture chambers. He was held there for 30 days accused of being involved in an organised movement.

In conversation with Paul Theroux (recounted in Dark Star Safari), Mutahi recalled telling his accusers: “If you have evidence against me, take me to court. That made them very angry. They stopped talking to me. They stripped me naked and beat me – three men with pieces of wood. They demanded that I confess.

“Then they stood me in my cell and sprayed me with water. My cell was about the size of a mattress. They soaked me – water was everywhere. Then they locked the door and left me.”

In the windowless cell Mutahi could not tell if it was day or night. “I was still naked and really cold, standing in the water, in the darkness. I don’t know how much time passed – maybe 12 or 15 hours.”

Then the door suddenly opened and he was brusquely asked if he had anything to say. He said no and was left again for a long time before the door opened once more and the same question was fired at him, eliciting the same response.

“I came to a situation where I was living in a nightmare. I hallucinated. I saw food in patches on the floor.” Waking from a fitful, troubled sleep, Mutahi was desolated to find himself ankle deep in water and shivering, not able to stand or sit. “My feet were rotting. I was on the point of a breakdown. I thought of suicide. When a week passed they must have thought I was dying because they put me in a dry cell.”

Three Days on the Cross by Wahome MutahiBut the interrogation continued. He was blindfolded and taken to another room. After many sessions, Mutahi realised he was weakening and that he would rather serve a specific sentence than suffer not knowing when his confinement would end. And so he signed a ‘confession’. “I was given 15 months. It was something definite – not torture any more.”

Everyone who found themselves in such situations, said Mutahi, eventually pleaded guilty under interrogation, “provided they didn’t go insane first.”

The term ‘snowflake’ is pejorative and unhelpful especially when applied generally to students and millennials (though some of the more extreme proponents of safe spaces and no-platforming perhaps deserve a little ribbing).

Nevertheless it’s clear that there is an increasing tendency to shy away from some of the less pleasant realities: law students excused lectures on sexual abuse for example or medical trainees allowed to opt out of witnessing distressing procedures.

Such over-sensitive souls refuse to hear an opinion contrary to their own and in this, in a horrible irony, they link to those despots around the world who find ideas with which they disagree frightening and threatening. They don’t want to hear – and for them the solution is not a safe space but a torture chamber.

Want to learn more?

Alert: An Oddball In The Office [review]

The Room by Jonas Karlsson 

There’s one in every office isn’t there?

The worker who’s something of a misfit.  Who few people want to engage in conversation or join at the coffee machine. The weirdo who has all the social skills of a mosquito. 

In The Room by Jonas Karlsson, Björn is one such misfit. 

The Room by Jonas KarlssonHe’s a new employer at “the Authority.” Exactly what the Authority does is never made clear. All we learn is that it’s a faceless, dull, bureaucratic Government organisation that processes claims. The more complex the claim the bigger its file number becomes and the higher up the building it gets handled. 

Illusions of Grandeur

Björn arrives believing he is special, a cut above everyone else. “ He’d left his last job because “it was way below by abilities.”  (reading between the lines he was ‘persuaded’ to move on). Now it’s time for him to fulfil his true potential. On his first day “The words ‘man of the future’ ran through my head.”

He plans his day and workload meticulously:

I worked out a personal strategic framework. I arrived half an hour early each morning and followed my own timetable for the day: fifty-five minutes of concentrated work, then a five-minute break. Including toilet breaks. I avoided any unnecessary socialising along the way.

He doesn’t endear himself to his colleagues.

But then Björn doesn’t rate them highly either. His nearest colleague has the irritating habit of allowing his paperwork to spill over onto Björn’s desk. Another colleague doesn’t return pencils he’s ‘borrowed’. He receives sloppily written departmental emails. 

It’s all getting too much for Bjorn

Salvation arrives when he discovers “the room”. A small, perfectly equipped and furnished space that becomes his refuge. He finds he can think more clearly, work more quickly, more productively when he’s in the room. He even feels better physically.

There was a full length mirror in the room. I caught sight of myself in it and fancied, to my surprise, that I looked really good. My grey suit fitted better than I thought, and there was something about the way the fabric hung that made me think that the body beneath it was – how can I put it? – virile.

There’s just one problem with this room: Björn is the only person in the Authority who can see it.

It’s not on any layout plans.

There is no door along that wall in the corridor.

His colleagues complain that Björn is acting bizarrely, standing around in a corridor facing a wall. Doing nothing. Just standing.

As Håkan [a colleague] reluctantly explained, for the second time, what he could see in front of him, and stubbornly denied the existence of the room, I realised that I was going to have to be more obvious. I reached out my arm and pointed, so the tip of my forefinger was touching the door. “Door,” I said. He looked at me again with that foolish smile and glazed expression. “Wall,” he said. “Door,” I said. “Wall,” he said.

If you want to know how this all pans out, you’ll have to read The Room for yourself. It will spoil the enjoyment if I gave any more detail of what happens to Björn.

A Multi-Layered Novel

In part Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is a novel that can be read as a comment on today’s work culture reliant so much on protocols and procedures that individuality counts for nothing. Is this a culture where workers feel the need to find a space where they can be themselves?

Karlsson portrays the meaningless rituals and pointless activities that anyone who has worked in an office environment, will enjoy recognising.  This is a world of stand-offs over personal working space,  joke-cluttered noticeboards, untidy desks and frustrations because no-one replaced the photocopier paper tray or the light bulb.

However, on another level, The Room is a humorous tale of an outsider with more than a few strange behavioural traits.  Bjorn’s social ineptitude is hugely funny, more so because the whole tale is told through his myopic view of the world. 

Disturbing Portrait of Disintegration 

And yet there is a deeply unsettling side to this novel. 

Clearly Bjorn is suffering a form of delusional mental illness. When his colleagues take their concerns to the department boss, Bjorn accuses them of mounting a systematic campaign to get rid of him because they feel unsettled.

There’s nothing strange about that, creative people have always encountered resistance. It’s perfectly natural for more straightforward individuals to feel alarmed by someone of talent. ….  one or more individuals have taken it upon themselves to play some sort of psychological trick on me. Instead of coming straight out and having a normal discussion.

The reaction of Bjorn’s colleagues could be viewed as a fairly typical one experienced by people who are individuals, who dare to be different. They think he’s getting preferential treatment by not being made to wear ‘slippers’ in the office instead of his outdoor shoes, or taking frequent work breaks.

They especially don’t like it when he begins to outshine them at work, producing reports (claim assessments) that are exactly the calibre the higher-up big shots want.

But as the novel progresses Bjorn’s erratic behaviour becomes more erratic and serious.  He damages the office ceiling and pulls down the Christmas lights. There’s an implication he forced himself on a female receptionist. He begins acting as if he was the boss.

Reading The Room felt uncomfortable at times. In the middle of a humorous scene you suddenly realise that what you’re seeing is the disintegration of a human being.

It’s a bizarre but fascinating novel.

Footnotes

 Jonas KarlssonJonas Karlsson is a prominent screen and stage actor in his native Sweden. He has published three novels and three short story collections. The Room is the first of his novels to be translated into English. My copy was published by Hogarth, part of the Random House Group, in 2015. Translation is by Neil Smith.

I have no idea how I came by this book. It’s in hardback which is unusual for me so I’m guessing I found it in a second hand shop at a low cost and was intrigued by the synopsis.

It’s on my 15booksofsummer reading list for 2019

Want to know more

  • Foyles has an interview with Jonas Karlsson in which he talks about his reaction to being compared with Frank Kafka and Raymond Carver.
  • Kirkus also has a video interview with the author
  • Eric who blogs at Lonesome Reader has written an excellent review of Jonas Karlsson’s The Room here 

Six Stunning Must Read Books of 2019

We’ve reached the mid point of 2019. It’s a good time to take a pause and reflect. 

A time to ask yourselves some questions. Have you:

  • kept up with your challenges and projects?
  • nailed that TBR stack?
  • found any knock out, truly brilliant books?

My answers to the above are, in order, partly,  no  and  YES.

I won’t bore you with how much I’m behind on my projects to read my classics club list or the Booker prize winners.   And I’ve already confessed about the rising state of my TBR.

Let’s talk about something far more interesting: six books I’ve read so far this year that were stunning. There’s  a psychological thriller, a classic novel, two memoirs  and two literary fiction titles.

Milkman by Anna Burns 

After a few years when the winning novel in the Booker Prize didn’t set my world alight, in 2018 we finally got a book that absolutely deserved the prize. Milkman by Anna Burns is an intense and powerful novel about trying to survive in a city where to be different, is to be in danger. The unconventional narrative form (no character is ever named) takes a little getting used to but don’t give up. If you do you’ll miss one of the most compelling novels I’ve read in years.

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell 

Gaskell wasn’t alone among Victorian novelists in her anguish about the plight of workers in the newly industrialised cities. Like Dickens she wrote about their appalling living conditions, sickness and hunger. Mary Barton was her first novel and it’s a no holds barred tale about industrial strife in Manchester. This is a must-read novel for anyone interested in social issues.

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage 

Vanessa Savage’s debut novel is a spectacular psychological thriller. The Woman in the Dark is a  tale of a family’s descent into crisis when they move into a house whose previous  occupants were murdered. Within this she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse. Just one warning before you begin reading this: you’ll lose lots of sleep because you won’t be able to put it down .

The Salt Path  by Raynor Winn

Imagine you’ve lost your home and your business. You have nothing but a few hundred pounds in your savings. Your husband has just been diagnosed with a degenerative brain condition. Faced with that situation Raynor Winn decided to take a walk. Rather a long walk. Six hundred miles in fact. The Salt Path is her account of walking the coastal path, camping wild and encountering hostility because strangers thought they were untouchable homeless vagrants.  This is a memoir that can make you angry but it will also make you laugh because Winn has a wonderful eye for the absurd situations in life.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay

Adam Kay was a hospital doctor specialising in obstetrics for six years and kept a diary of his time on the front line of healthcare. This is Going to Hurt is  astonishingly funny but also sobering because Kay shows how poorly junior doctors are treated. Underpaid and expected to work well beyond their contracted  hours, the job puts a strain on friendships and relationships. This is an astonishingly frank novel but despite his criticisms, Kay is still a firm believer in the principles of public healthcare.

Circe  by Madeline Miller 

This was a book I wasn’t looking forward to reading. I did so only because it was selected by the other book club members.  But this re-imagining of Circe (the Greek sorceress who gets a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey) was a revelation. Miller’s descriptions of the world inhabited by the Titans among the Greek gods is breathtaking. A more detailed review will follow but for now, I’ll just say that if you’ve not yet read this, do yourself a huge favour and go out now and buy a copy. You won’t be sorry.


 

Those are my six choices for the first half of 2019. It will be interesting to see if any of them still make the cut when I come to the end of the year.

What would you choose from your own reading so far this year? Any knock out reads for you?

Scandalous secrets of how hospital doctors are treated

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay: book review

If you’ve ever required treatment at a National Health Service hospital, you’ll know how frustrating that can be:

  • Lengthy waits to see a specialist/consultant.
  • Clinic appointments  running hours behind schedule
  • Surgery dates postponed or cancelled.

Sound familiar?

It’s easy to feel after those experiences, that the much-lauded public health service in the UK has reached a breaking point. That it’s on the point of collapse.

Adam Kay’s memoirs make it evident it’s the selfless efforts of junior doctors that prevent it from collapsing.

Equally clear however is that their dedication comes at a huge personal cost.

This is Going to Hurt is a painfully honest memoir from one junior doctor  on the frontline of the NHS.  Adam Kay worked in hospitals for six years. He hung up his stethoscope in 2010 after a traumatic experience with a mother and baby in his surgery.

I’ve read enough newspaper reports to know that junior hospital doctors (those below consultant level) are poorly paid and over-worked. In 2016, in a bitter dispute over employment contracts, they staged the first strike in the history of the NHS. The dispute was settled only this week.

Undermined by bureaucracy

What I hadn’t realised until reading Adam Kay’s book was how much these professionals are undervalued and their expertise undermined.

Junior doctors give up their personal time and put marriages and friendships at risk rather than walk away from patients whose lives are in danger.

Yet scandalously ….

….they get charged for parking their car at the hospital.  And fined when they over-stay ( even when their delay was caused by an emergency patient);

… doctors have to find their own cover when they inconveniently fall ill and

… they are not allowed to sleep on a  spare patient bed after an 18 hour shift. They have to make do with a chair.

I was astounded to discover just how relentlessly gruelling are the lives of junior doctors.  The system makes it virtually impossible for them to have any kind of life outside their work.

It was not unusual for Kay to work a 100 hour week.

He describes times when he fell asleep in his car, in the hospital grounds, or at the traffic lights. Once he nodded off while sitting on an operating theatre stool waiting for his patient to be wheeled in.

On one occasion he was recalled from a long overdue holiday in Mauritius because the doctor meant to be covering his shift was ill. The  hospital refused to pay for a locum. He lost count of the number of  anniversaries, birthdays, weddings and theatre performances he missed “because of work.”

What kept him going was the positive feeling he would get after a shift in which he delivered multiple babies or aided infertile couples to become parents.

Comedy amid the tragedy

Although Kay doesn’t hold back from describing tense situations, when the life of his patient hung on a thread, he balances the darkness with flippancy and witty repartee.

When the doctors and nurses are not attending to patients, they’re busy swapping jokes and anecdotes about the bizarre conditions presented by some of their patients. I suspect this is the kind of black humour often used by police officers and firemen.  It’s a kind of release valve for people working in the emergency services.

Adam Kay has plenty of stories.

There’s the one about the drunken woman who climbed over a fence to get away from policemen. She slipped and ended up in emergency with a metal pole thrust through her vagina. After removal she calmly asked if she could take the pole home as a souvenir.

Or the tale of another woman who secreted a Kinder egg containing an engagement ring, intending to give her boyfriend the surprise of his life. It worked, though maybe not the way she intended, when the egg got stuck…

As a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology he encountered a surprisingly large number of people who arrived at hospital with foreign objects in their rectums. The staff are so familiar with the problem they’ve even found a name for it: “Eiffel syndrome” (to understand the joke you need to say the following words aloud – “I fell, doctor! I fell!”).

Not all encounters generate humour. Medical staff are often confronted by aggressive patients and family members, or patients who make unreasonable demands. There’s a particularly yucky case he mentions in which an expectant mother wants to eat her placenta. He gets his revenge by ‘accidentally’ revealing the gender of the baby to the most aggressive of the expectant parents.

Lack of investment

This Is Going to Hurt swings between flippancy and  frustration. Some of Adam Kay’s criticism is  directed at hospital administrators for their propensity to introduce ever more new rules. But he lays the greatest blame on the shoulders of politicians who had failed to invest in the NHS over several years, leading to staff demoralisation.

My over-riding impression however is that Adam Kay loved the NHS and preferred to work in the public sector even when private practice would have been more financially rewarding.

Asked to represent the medical profession at a school’s careers event he decides honesty is the best approach:

So I told them the truth: the hours are terrible, the pay is terrible, the conditions are terrible; you’re under-appreciated, unsupported, disrespected and frequently physically endangered. But there’s no better job in the world.

This was a fabulously engaging book that was a good companion to Do No Harm by the neurosurgeon Henry Marsh that I read earlier this year.

Funny, informative and poignant it ends on a note of frustration, particularly when Kay describes the agonising event that prompted his resignation. It let to the death of both baby and mother following a caesarian operation. Although Kay had followed all the correct procedures, he still blamed himself. He suffered a period of depression but was not given any therapy by the hospital or allowed time off to recover. After a few months he handed in his resignation.


This Is Going to Hurt: footnotes 

This is Going to Hurt was published in 2017 by Picador.

It’s written in the form of diary entries that were maintained by Kay during his medical training and his time as a hospital doctor.  The diaries were intended as a  “reflective practice” in which he could log any interesting clinical experiences he experienced. He used the material, suitably anonymised to write his book.

He has since embarked on a career as a comedian and scriptwriter. His new book Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas, is published in October 2019.

Read an interview with him in The Guardian newspaper.

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