Old Buildings In North Texas by Jen Waldo (a delightful book set in America, sent to me from England)

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I came home from work on Thursday after an absolutely exhausting day: Open House, meetings at district office, and a Beetle with an EPC light on (which when Googled said, “Take to the nearest VW dealer immediately.”). So it was a pleasant surprise to receive a packet from Arcadia Books, postmarked from London, with this lovely book inside. I was smitten from the first page.

The narrator, Olivia Henderson, has been released from rehab with an addiction to cocaine (drugs are something I know nothing about, that’s not the part which struck me), and so she lives with her mother and undergoes mandatory counseling.

“Jane, my therapist, says I need to acquire a hobby. Apparently deep introspection while smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee doesn’t count. So far I’ve dabbled in eschatology, zombie lore, and, just lately because it’s an election year, politics.

”Maybe you should look into something a little less doomsday, something that doesn’t make everybody around you wish you’d go somewhere else,”Jane says. She disapproves of my libertarian leanings.

“Give me a list, Jane,” I tell her. “Give me a list of hobbies that’ll be acceptable to absolutely every person who has a say in every choice I make every single minute of every day.”

That’s the line I loved. That sarcastic, searing comment made me smile and connect with Olivia immediately. Even if she is a recovering cocaine addict, who worked in journalism, switched over to fashion, and now explores old buildings in Texas.

“I think I found a possibility for a hobby.” She’s (Olivia’s therapist) not the only one who can redirect.

”Oh? Tell me.”

”Urban exploration. It’s where you go into abandoned buildings or houses and poke around.”

”Sounds illegal, so it’s out of the question.” (p. 21)

If only her therapist knew just how illegal it is, for Olivia does not simply “poke around”. She steals the assorted collectibles she finds in abandoned movie theaters, homes or buildings. She takes the nesting bowls, or glass-cut doorknobs, or antique gumball machines, or what might be a Tiffany lamp, and sells them to collectors online, for she is trying desperately to get out of tremendous debt. There is money she has loaned former addicts, money for legal fees, money which she doesn’t have which everyone seems to be hunting down.

We read of her “urbexing”, the relationship between her mother, her sister, her therapist, the addicts she knew, their family friend for whom she works part time, and we see a woman who is not only exploring old buildings in north Texas but exploring what it means to be free of addiction.

Am I making progress? Yes in my recovery, I am; and it’s slow and it’s difficult. But my goal is to get better, not to be better. Maybe in the future I’ll be wise, generous, and productive; but at this point, I am what I am – a self-absorbed addict with murky morals. Chloe was right when she said I’ve traded one addiction for another. Slipping into buildings, taking things and selling them, watching my bank account grow – these aren’t things a good person does. But they’re things  I do. (p. 212)

And yet, Olivia is so honest that it is easy to root for her. It is possible to see her climbing out of despair and into hope, into a life in which she is control rather than one which controls her. I found this book to be endearing, and funny, and ultimately, restoring; for none of us is perfect.

Buy a copy of Old Buildings in North Texas at Bookwitty for free shipping and delivery.