This week, looking for some contemporary compassion, leavened with a little humour and a pinch of hope.
I’m visiting Texas to look at why we feel so strongly about collecting stuff and then coming home to England to look at how we deal with the recognition of our own loneliness and the knowledge of our approaching death. I know that sounds depressing, but I have faith in the writers to give me more than existential panic and a dirge of despair.
I’m hoping for books that will make me feel that I have something in common with the protagonists and will help me hope for their happiness.
‘Why Stuff Matter’ by Jen Waldo (2017)
I’ve been meaning to read another Jen Waldo book ever since I finished her ‘Old Buildings In North Texas’, a wonderfully quirky tale of recovery from addiction through Urban Exploration.
‘Why Stuff Matters’ is set in the same fictional town in North Texas. This time, Jessica Hockley tells her story. She’s a recently widowed woman who has inherited the run-down Antique Mall her mother owned and ran. With it she has also inherited the forty-five mostly old. mostly cantankerous, stall-holders who trade out of the Mall.
As Jessica tries to follow her grief counsellor’s advice and fake ‘normal behaviour’ until it feels real, she wrestles with the bizarre behaviours, passions and obsessions of the old-folks who would rather hold on to stuff than sell it and who are always convinced someone is trying to take advantage of them because it’s what they would do if the situation allowed.
Here’s how Jessica reacts when a man she knew when they were both in Highschool unexpectedly invites her to dinner:
And oh good God, he’s holding out a wrapped bouquet of yellow roses. I cannot help myself: I roll my eyes. Either he’s attempting to manipulate or he’s got romantic aspirations. I have no patience with either. And while I’d like to be someone who’s careful with the feelings of others, sometimes it’s best just to dole out the unpleasant truth.
‘I figure you come with a thousand bucks a month in child support,’ I tell him, ‘and rumor has it that the reason for your split with Kim is that you cheated. If it weren’t for a department car you’d have no car at all. But hey, lots of women appreciate a good-looking man with clean fingernails – only you’re going to have to find someone who’s way more desperate than I am.’
I hoping to enjoy Jessica’s company as she shapes her life. Along the way, I’d like to learn more about the eccentric denizens of Caprock, Texas.
‘All The Lonely People’ by Mike Gayle (2020)
I pulled ‘All The Lonely People’ from my towering TBR pile because my wife read it recently and recommended it. It made her laugh but I think its main appeal was that it told a believable story about an ordinary, nice man. Yes, there’s stuff in there about the Windrush generation and there’s a real story split across two timelines but the main pull is the ability to write about ordinary people with insight, empathy and a little bit of hope.
As soon as I read the opening paragraphs, set in the modern-day, I knew that I’d enjoy spending time with Hubert because we get grouchy about the same things. It starts:
‘Moments before Hubert met Ashleigh for the first time, he had been settled in his favourite armchair, Puss curled up on his lap, waiting for Rose to call. When the doorbell rang he gave a tut of annoyance, wagering it was one of those damn courier people who were always trying to make him take in parcels for his neighbours.
‘Would you mind accepting this for number sixty-three?’ they would ask.
‘Yes, me mind a great deal!’ he would snap. ‘Now clear off!’ and then he would slam the door shut in their faces.
As he shifted Puss from his lap and stood up to answer the door, Hubert muttered angrily to himself.
‘Parcels, parcels, parcels! All day, every day, for people who are never in to receive the damn things. If people want them things so much why them no buy it from the shops like everybody else?’
I’m hoping for a heartwarming book that will make laugh and maybe cry a little and which I can talk about with my wife. I’m also hoping that this will leave me wanting to read more from Mike Gayle’s back catalogue
‘Checking Out’ by Nick Spalding (2018)
‘Checking Out’ by Nick Spalding, is the book that I have the least confidence in this week. I mean, what could be funnier than being told you have very little time left to live and knowing you’ve only just gotten to where you always thought you wanted to be? This is the kind of humour that either works perfectly or turns into an embarrassing stain on my imagination.
Nick Spalding’s books sell very well but I haven’t read him before and I remain cautious because, since I returned to the UK after many years away, I’ve found that popular comedies like ‘Fleabag’ do nothing for me.
I’m hoping that this book will make me laugh without leaving the reality of being about to die soon behind. I think the best British comedy is about things that are fundamentally sad. They lift us up because they don’t deny or diminish the sadness, they just show us that sadness needn’t exclude everything else.