A Southern Goth-Ick

Kristen Arnett is one my favorite people to follow on Twitter. She’s a librarian and author whose sharp-witted posts are laced with a healthy dose of dark humor. Whether she is talking about interactions at her library, the writing process, love for her local 7-11 or even non-convenience-store-centered relationships, her posts leave me cackling (and squirming when they hit too close to home). So it was no surprise that I devoured her exquisite and unsettling debut novel, Mostly Dead Things

2d4c8fb365e1620f-ARNETTheadshotcolor2017Mostly Dead Things follows Jessa, a taxidermist in central Florida, whose life is teetering on the precipice. The main thread of the story finds Jessa struggling in the wake of her father’s suicide. Though her father was in many ways a negligent parent to Jessa, he was also a massive presence in her life. He taught her that taxidermy is more than a grisly chore, that there is art in taking dead animals and recreating moments that capture the full beauty of their lives. He also passed her the routine, expectations, and burdens that came to define her life. After finding his dead body and dealing with the mess he left behind, Jessa is eager to bury herself in her work, focusing on the dead things she can fix not the gaping wounds in her own psyche. She drinks too much, limits relationships to a steady stream of casual hook-ups and struggles in vain to claw free from the ghosts of her past.

Jessa finds no solace with her surviving family members. She has long had a complicated relationship with her brother, Milo. They share a deep almost unspeakable pain that traces back to the day that Milo’s wife, Brynn, abandoned him and their children. Before Brynn was Milo’s wife, she was Jessa’s best friend and secret lover. This dynamic did not change when Milo and Brynn wed. Jessa loved Brynn deeply and Brynn seemed to enjoy both siblings’ adoration and attention. Though Jessa helps take care of Milo’s two children, their own relations remain tenuous at best. 

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Jessa’s mother is a different issue altogether. Following her husband’s death, she has found solace in creating new displays out of his taxidermy projects. These works sexualize and contort the animals in strange and grotesque ways. For Jessa this upsetting and disrespectful treatment of her father’s work is incomprehensible and borders on blasphemy. And this is just where Jessa’s troubles begin. Her mother begins to work with a local gallery owner to display her art for a wider audience. Jessa is determined to stop this show, but is also slipping into a contentious romantic relationship with the gallery owner. Jessa continues to drink too much and struggles to keep her business afloat, while her niece and nephew embrace the family business with too much enthusiasm and too little concern for laws and ethics. With her mother’s gallery opening fast approaching and old wounds reopening in all of her relationships, Jessa must figure out how to regain some semblance of control and balance in her increasingly messy life.  

I’m a pretty squeamish guy and I will admit that this book includes descriptions of the taxidermy process that were outside my comfort zone. Yet even the goriest narratives felt natural and well-placed coming through Jessa’s voice. Arnett does not hold back. Her descriptions of love, sex, aging, and Jessa’s work are raw and often glamorless. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jessa has endured years of emotional abuse at the hands of both her father and Brynn, and has suffered dearly as a result. With her wry voice and unique humor, it is impossible not to root for Jessa even at her lowest lows. And it is equally difficult to resist marveling at Arnett’s wrenching but sardonic meditations on love, loss, and abandonment and her ability to make both the saddest and the grossest of situations laugh-till-you-cry hilarious. Arnett recently tweeted a one-star review of her book that simply read “Dead Animals.” So I will end by saying five stars: dead animals.

A Mixed Bag of Picture Books

With the bleak weather of January behind us, I thought I’d share some new books for children. The first two cover difficult and sensitive, but necessary, subjects especially for children.

The Scar is the story of a child waking up to the news that his mother has died. It wasn’t an unexpected death but nevertheless has a profound effect on the child who decides that the windows of the house must be kept closed in order to keep the mother’s essence within. The father, coping with his own grief, is not much help. When the child falls and scrapes his knee, he is sure he hears his mother’s voice. He tells himself that as long as he has the scab and can make it bleed, he’ll hear her voice and be a little less sad.

Fortunately, the maternal grandmother arrives on the scene and teaches the father some of the mother’s habits, such as how to drizzle honey on toast. When the grandmother complains about the heat in the house and starts to open the windows, the child explodes with alarm and confronts her. She explains that his mother isn’t in the surrounding air but in the child’s heart.

Dog Breath is a tribute to a deceased dog who just might have been the worst dog ever. He escaped whenever the door opened a crack and when he returned he would smell like rotten cheese and need a bath. He also stole food, once a whole turkey, as well as anything else that he could pull off the kitchen table. Yes, he was probably the worst dog in the universe, but he’ll be remembered with affection and love.

Scrawny Cat is the tale of a lost cat who knows his name is not “Get out of here” even though that’s what he hears most of the time. He finds refuge in a dinghy just as a storm rolls in. As he huddles under the dinghy seat the rope tying the dinghy to the dock snaps and the boat rolls away from shore. After the storm, the dinghy washes up on a sandy beach. A woman comes down to see what the storm has washed in. Will she also tell the scrawny cat to “Get out of here?”

In The Flyaway Blanket, Jake is helping his Momma hang up his special blanket on the laundry line. He doesn’t want to let go of his “extra soft from so much love” blanket, but his Momma tells him it will be dry in no time, so they sit and wait in the sun. But then a wind comes up and snatches Jake’s blanket which flies high into the sky. Will it ever return?

Dad gives Douglas a brand new woolly hat in Don’t Worry, Douglas! and tells him to take care of it. Douglas’s hat, however, gets caught in a branch and unravels. What is Douglas to do? Other animals try to help him but the best advice comes from Rabbit, who suggests Douglas tell his dad just what happened.

In Pirates & Princesses, Ivy and Fletch have been best friends since they were babies. They do everything together, but when they both start kindergarten things change. All the boys play together as pirates and all the girls play together as princesses, but these games aren’t as much fun without your best friend. How will Ivy and Fletch reclaim their friendship?

Solomon Crocodile does not play well with others. He is considered a pest by all the animals in the swamp. Will he ever find someone to play with?
Finally, two new concept books: Small Medium Large deals with the concept of size from itty-bitty to colossal, while Into the Outdoors covers the prepositional world as a happy family spends time in the great outdoors.

These are just a few of the hundreds of new titles to be found in our library’s collection. Contact your friendly and helpful Youth Services Librarian for more new titles.

Suzanne