Tag Archives: Short Stories

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing – Thomas Morris

 

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I’ve never been to Caerphilly, but maybe I should make the effort.  Thomas Morris’ collection of small town stories set in this South Wales town is never going to be  a tourist board advertisement, but Caerphilly’s charms shine through as the constant in each of the tales in his debut; its castle and moat, the park with swans and interloper sea birds, its position in a bowl landscape and surrounding hills, the mining museum up the valley and the Tesco, which if not of interest to visitors is definitely a landmark to the residents and makes a regular appearance.   It’s Morris’ focus on banalities and the ordinariness of his characters’ worries and concerns  that gives this  series of ten venn diagram style stories, where characters pop up again in tales that are not solely theirs, such an authentic feel.

Small town life is like that; every day goings-on peppered with the weird and surreal.  Some of the weird and surreal becomes town gossip for a few days, sometimes it’s just the fears and doubts of the characters themselves as they muse their humdrum existence and ask themselves that universal question; “is this really it?”  But We Don’t Know What We Are Doing isn’t a depressing account of the state of life in towns like Caerphilly.   It is a celebration of the town where Morris was raised, of small moments of joy (the father accompanying his stag son to Dublin and texting his wife reassurance as he tucks up his inebriated child; the mother who manages to engage with a girl who rarely speaks, the two-time widower who is excited to walk out with a possible new love interest), of characters we recognise from our own lives, of issues most of us face day to day.   Yes, there is strangeness in some of the stories, but life is strange  (so too the afterlife featured in the last instalment where characters continue their 2nd life – still in Caerphilly).

This book was a delight.  I devoured it in a couple of sittings.  It made me laugh, it made me wince, I felt sadness and sympathy.  You can’t ask more than that from good fiction, each story a mini piece of pleasure to relish.

Morris is one of a number of writers making waves in short fiction. This collection won Wales Book of the Year 2016.  Other collections to check out are Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home and Colin Barrett’s Young Skins.

 

 

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My Bedside Table 2

Back to the bedside table…

The pile of books at the back of the table is made up of the next books to be read or books I dip in and out of as and when I fancy it.

After the recent interest in Birdsong due to the lovely BBC adaptation, one of my bookgroups chose Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks as our next book to read.  I have to confess that I’ve read a few of his and none lives up to Birdsong (although Engleby is brilliant in an unsettling way), so I am looking forward to reading this war romance to see how it measures up.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is also a bookclub book.  Anne Bronte is probably the lesser known of the Bronte sisters, but don’t underestimate her…oh no, this lady packed a punch in her day.  This book caused uproar when it was published, as it concerns a woman, Helen, who leaves her husband because he mentally and physically abuses her and her son.  Such behaviour was unheard of in Anne Bronte’s day, but many women will have suffered like Helen.  It was a shocking novel at the time and was chosen by a fellow bookclubber for that reason, our theme being “books that caused a scandal when published”.  There are so many books that fall under this banner, but goodness, most of us have read them all.  It is refreshing to come across something that isn’t normally found on the classic newspaper lists.  I have to admit that I have cheated a little when it comes to this book, as Woman’s Hour serialised an adaptation just after we chose it and I was captivated from the first installment.  I cannot wait to get stuck into the book.

Susan Hill is a fascinating writer and reviewer.  She is one of those people who seems to know so much about books and writers.  I came across this book, Howards End Is On The Landing, here.  It is a memoir of her reading life.  She wanders the multitude of bookshelves in her house that bend and heave under the sheer weight of the books she owns, some of which she hasn’t read or forgot she even had in her collection.   She decided to spend a year re-reading and discovering books on her shelves rather than buying new ones.  This book is an account of her rediscovering well-loved titles and discussing the merits of one book over another, one author over another.  Her aim to find a definitive 40 titles that she could not bear to live without, but it has to be only 40.  Imagine how hard this would be…the discussion about Shakespeare is particularly amusing.  But there is more to this book than merely Susan talking about her favourite titles.  There are some beautiful anecdotal passages in which she describes her encounters with some literary heavyweights.  These private vignettes add a human angle to the books she writes about and reminds us that writers are just like the rest of us.  The great thing about Susan Hill’s book is that you don’t have to read it in one sitting.  I love just dipping in and out of it.

When I got married a couple of years ago, we themed our tables around the books and writers we loved.  I bought some old books with titles that had something to do with marriage from a lovely local charity bookshop.  I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the contents, only the titles.  We mixed these up with books by our favourite authors and decorated our tables with them.  The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett was one of them.   I didn’t know anything about Arnold Bennett, and then coincidentally read about him in 2 different places in the same week.  The first was in Susan Hill’s aforementioned book.  She doesn’t say much about him other than he was a prolific writer of novels and diaries.  I then read an article about him in the Guardian and realised that I owned one of his books.  Hence it is now on my bedside table as I intend to pick it up at some point soon.  Strangely enough he also had an omelette named after him after he requested that the chefs at the Savoy make him something special.

I no longer recall why One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is on my bedside table.  I finished it a long time ago and absolutely adored it.  I suspect it is there because I want to read it again.  I’m not going to write more than that about Marquez right now as I suspect he may become a regular feature.

The saddest title on my bedside table is the next one; What Can I Do To Help by Deborah Hutton.  This book is on loan from a friend who knows that one of my close friends was diagnosed with a brain tumour last year and when I first found out, I struggled with how I could best be of practical help.  It was really useful at the start, but I think I can return it now as I have realised that, for me to be myself is all my friend needs.  I never really got on with self-help books.

I love getting a quick blast of wit from The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy.  These poems are so readable and a bit like the Guardian column “What I’m Really Thinking”.  They all have the same mocking tone of a wife, partner or sister of a notable man assessing their achievements and failures.  It’s just hilariously amusing.

The final 2 books are slightly linked.  A bit like the Susan Hill and Carol Ann Duffy books, there are times when nothing but a short story will do.  Raymond Carver is a master in this area and this book is a classic example of how books lead you to other books.  I was reading a book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.   In it, he talks about having stolen the idea for his title from the Raymond Carver collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Now, I don’t own that book but we did have Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?  Mr Fiction Habit couldn’t believe I hadn’t already read it.  At about the same time I heard one of Carver’s stories, The Fat Man, read aloud on a podcast I subscribe to…it all led me to the book on my bedside table.  The other collection of short stories, I recently snaffled from the Guardian and I’m sure that some of the stories will lead me to yet more great writers…