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Kristen Arnett on Stephen King, ‘Swamplandia!’, and the Book With the Best Opening Line

Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.

Devoted daughter of Florida, queer writer, and librarian (our first in Shelf Life—and hopefully not last), Kristen Arnett has just released her second novel, With Teeth (Riverhead) about the messiness of lesbian parenthood. Other firsts: her debut novel Mostly Dead Things was a New York Times bestseller and Lambda Literary Award finalist. And the first (and only?) book launched at an Orlando 7-Eleven was her short story collection Felt in the Jaw. Love letters to the Sunshine State, all.

The Miami-based Sagittarius has a French bulldog named Lola, once lived in a house a few blocks from where Zora Neale Hurston was raised, and tweets ideas for theme bars. She’s met many of friends on Twitter, including her girlfriend, writer Kayla Kumari Upadhyaha.

Likes: The Real Housewives, buttermilk biscuits, curated email folders, Olive Garden, The Office holiday episodes, dogs, and happy hour (if With Teeth were a drink it would be screwdriver). Dislikes: Having to explain why something qualifies as a ravioli, beer with less than 5 percent ABV, and when people bad-mouth Florida.

Arnett is at work on an untitled short story collection for Riverhead. As a young reader, she had to hide books in her evangelical household. Below, a multitude of our kind of sins.

The book that…

…kept me up way too late:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The first time I read this book, I stayed up until I saw the sun peeking through the blinds, and it was a workday! Then I just slammed some coffee, got dressed, and took the book with me into the library where I finished it on my work break. It was that good.

…I recommend over and over again:

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee. I can’t get enough of this book and I feel like I gush about it to everyone. It’s such a beautiful, heartbreaking, tender look at queerness. I guarantee you’ve never read anything like it.

…I read in one sitting, it was that good:

The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans. This is without a doubt one of the best story collections to come out in the last ten years. Danielle is a powerhouse. Nobody writes like her.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi. I love everything Helen writes! Once I get through this giant TBR stack, this book is next!

…proved me wrong about something:

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash. I never thought I could love a book about a straight male protagonist so much (especially one named after my home state), but here we are! Gabe absolutely proved me wrong. This book is incredible.

…made me laugh out loud:

Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby. Everything Sam does is comedy gold, but this book made me burst out laughing. Like, full-on belly laughs, seriously. And I was on an airplane! If I could even be a tenth as funny as she is, I could die happy.

…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:

Something New Under The Sun by Alexandra Kleeman. This book comes out in August, and I was lucky enough to read an advance copy. First of all, it’s a stunner of a novel, but one of the things that makes it such a fabulous read is that every single character feels made for TV—I spent so much of my time envisioning who would play these people, how they’d set up the shots! It’s such a place-heavy book that demands the screen, in my opinion.

…I first bought:

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was the Scholastic Book Fair in the first grade, and I didn’t have any money (my parents never had money for anything, and they definitely wouldn’t have had money for books), so my teacher gave me some money from her own purse and told me to choose whatever I liked. This was the book I picked. I read it until the covers fell off! I still have this much-loved copy, beat up and taped together, sitting on my bookshelf.

…I last bought:

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. This book has gotten incredible reviews and I will admit, it is totally worth the hype. It’s going to be a re-read of mine, for sure.

…has the best title:

Room Where I Get What I Want by S. Whitney Holmes. I am a person who titles everything before I ever start writing, and this title is definitely one that gets stuck in your head. Plus, it’s a terrific poetry collection—one I return to quite often when I feel stuck and need to unwedge myself with a mess of images.

…has the best opening line:

Marlena by Julie Buntin. “Tell me what you can’t forget, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Julie! Buntin! I read this first line and I sat the book down in my lap and yelled. The whole book is this good, it’s definitely in my top ten favorite reads of all time, but this first line! Are you kidding me?? Her MIND!

…I brought on a momentous trip:

The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund. I was on my way to my very first writing fellowship (Lambda Literary), and it was my second plane ride, ever. I felt very small and very unworthy. I had a feeling in my guts like they’d accidentally picked the wrong person. This book, which is one of my favorite short story collections, felt like a security blanket. It made me feel grounded, even way up in the air. It tethered me to home.

…I’ve re-read the most:

The Shining by Stephen King. I first read this book when I was in middle school. My parents wouldn’t let me read anything they didn’t approve of ahead of time (meaning it had to come from the Baptist Book Store), so I took to hiding controversial books under my dresser and secretly reading them whenever I could find a moment alone. I still return to this book probably once a year. It retains all its original fright, I think, and it also reminds me that tenderness and terror quite often come packaged together, and sometimes they’re living inside the house with you.

…makes me feel seen:

Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. This is the first book I read where I felt like I finally saw myself. It’s a book that’s so vividly place-driven, so unmistakably queer. It’s the book that made me want to become a writer.

…features the most beautiful book jacket:

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine. I love the size of this book, the dimensions. How the sky and the land feel like they’re perfectly sliced and handed to you, the reader. The billboard with its title announcement, that still feels soft. Beseeching. I feel like it’s the perfect book cover.

…everyone should read:

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. This book is so beautifully, unmistakably Florida. Karen is one of our greatest living writers. Every sentence is a treasure. This book gets Florida right.

…taught me a Jeopardy!-worthy bit of trivia:

The Habit of Being by Flannery O’Connor. This book is essentially a collection of Flannery’s letters (she was a prolific pen pal). In one of those letters, I learned that peacocks can have heart attacks and die if they get startled. Like, literally frightened to death! If you’ve read my last book, Mostly Dead Things, then you know how I put this little piece of trivia to use.

Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:

Orlando Public Library, Florida. When I was kid, my greatest wish was to live inside this library. It was so large, so expansive. So full of everything I wanted and was never allowed to have. This is the library that made me want to become a librarian. I’d like to honor little Kristen and let her go back, spend some time in this beautiful place. Read everything she wants.

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