If you want to feel cooler during a Kansas summer, try reading books set in Florida! That’s what I’ve inadvertently and sporadically done this summer with two books: Lauren Groff’s collection of short stories, Florida; and Kristen Arnett’s debut novel, Mostly Dead Things.
My paths to these books were somewhere between accidental and serendipitous. Having just finished my Eve Babitz binge and not settled on a new book yet, I came across a copy of Lauren Groff’s Florida on my iPad. Deciding to read more short stories has been a great salvation to me. First, there are so many incredible short story writers; and second, they are great when you haven’t found that next big book to dive into.
So, I found myself swiping through my PDF of Florida. Despite her acclaim, I’m new to Lauren Groff. Wow! Powerful, succinct writing about quiet, sometimes desperate, often dangerous lives being lived in the oppressive heat of Florida. The humidity leaps off the page. Bugs, rain, crocodiles, and sweat are your ever present companions. “Dogs Go Wolf,” the story of two young girls abandoned on an island, was particularly striking to me. Two girls, three and seven, versus Nature. Groff brilliantly balances the beauty of the toughness and independence of these two young girls with the reality of their imminent deaths from starvation. Have I finished this book? Of course not! But the handful of stories I’ve read compel me to recommend this book. I will finish it, I promise.
I stumbled across a copy of Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett schmoozing with publishers at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Washington, DC. How can one not be drawn to its fantastically neon green and pink flamingo cover? A story about a family taxidermy business? And then to find out the author is also a public librarian?
I really enjoyed this book. It’s the story of a family falling deeper into its dysfunction, and as the book progresses, glimmers of the potential for some kind of redemption and/or recovery. I don’t want to spoil the plot points, so let’s not go there, but the back and forth between primary plot and flashbacks drew me into the story of this family.
Our protagonist Jessa is a cranky hot mess and tremendously human. Her self-aware malaise is relatable (to me at least). The pointillist flashback love story of Jessa and her brother’s ex-wife Brynn is a lovely, honest account of two girls (or at least one girl) in love. When Jessa's mom suddenly emerges as an avant-garde taxidermy artist, her art helps her express her previously unspoken feelings about her husband.
Mostly Dead Things is funny, heartbreaking, poignant, and expertly written. To quote NPR reviewer Ilana Masad, it’s “macabre and irreverent” yet, to quote me, “not completely obnoxious which I find most books described as such.” A book definitely worthy of its current literary buzz.
OK, that’s all folks. See you next time!
-Brad Allen is the Director at Lawrence Public Library.