Sunday, 12 June 2011

Reviews Of Books I Have Read

The Taxidermist's Lament by Stilton Gritchbriar
My motto has always been why stuff a turkey when you can stuff a turkey vulture instead. Obviously, Mr. Gritchbriar, mirrors my sentiment in his wonderful and thought-provoking new book. Though a work of fiction, this novel has all the epic sweep and scope of true history and when you think that history is kind of like taxidermy, except with less fur, feathers and dust mites, well, you see my point. And if you don't, then read this book and the point will hit you like a stick in the eye. It's a sordid story, but not without its merits. Hugo Sporetoast is the taxidermist in question. The story begins just as his wife has left him, literally, in the opening sentence. And as far as openings go, well, they don't get much better than this. Just let your mind ponder this beginning, chock full of portending drama, doom and maybe even a major manufacturer of coat hangers being caught with his pants down in a petting zoo.
"Nellie Sporetoast stood at the open door, gazing back into the living room filled with trophy heads and mounted raccoons. Her voice caught with raw emotion as she faced her husband, probably for the last time, but her eyes were dry and the only tears she felt were deep inside, just around where her appendix would be if it hadn't been removed years earlier and as she stared at Hugo in his frock coat and blood-stained apron, she said, 'If I hadn't found you kissing that mule deer head with the five-point antler spread maybe there would be something left to talk about.' Then she turned, never to look back again and got in the waiting taxi cab on her way to Medicine Hat to begin her new life as a bingo caller at the Galaxy Bingo and Pull Tab Emporium and Buffet."
Now, if that opening paragraph doesn't have you hanging on Gritchbriar's every word and his ability to stuff so much information so effortlessly into a single sentence (much like Sporetoast stuffing a turkey vulture and mounting it on a faux-tree branch rife with Dutch elm disease and wood lice), then perhaps reading might not be your thing. But if it is your thing, then read on because Gritchbriar has even more to say. As Sporetoast finds himself alone for this first time in his life, not counting the hundreds of pieces of dead animals he's surrounded by, he begins a slow descent into depression tinged with a touch of madness on those nights when the moon wanes full and his golf cleats keep catching on the broadloom. But he takes advantage of his sudden free time to begin his life's work of constructing Dante's Inferno in nine different tableaux using stuffed squirrels and mice. 
From horrifying scenes of torture to popes wandering the paths of purgatory casting benediction on the sinning rodents of the underworld plus a glimpse into Satan's kitchen where you won't believe what's cooking, Gritchbriar takes us into the mind of a maddened taxidermist and barely emerges out the other side into the light, and, well, let me just say you might need a few napkins right around Chapter Six. I won't say why, but trust me, you'll need them plenty.
The novel is also lavishly illustrated with photographs of Gritchbriar's own stuffed mouse creations because, as we learn in the author's bio, Gritchbriar is also an amateur taxidermist as well as a chartered accountant, candyfloss machine repairman and lay minister at his local church. Well, add successful novelist to that list.
Satan's kitchen in the seventh ring of Hell where Mrs. Satan Mouse is preparing a feast of squirrel feet, pork brains and parrot beaks in blood gravy.
Anyway, just when you think that Sporetoast is pretty much toast where his mind is concerned (not to mention his health because at this point he's living on a diet of Lucky Charms and clamato juice), along comes a character who will change both their lives. Flingbrot Mandledorf is a self-made millionaire with "more in the bank than he has in his heart," as Gritchbriar so eloquently describes him, but maybe this is just the cost of being a magnate in the coat hanger industry where if you blink for a moment your competitor will hang you out to dry.
The two men meet at Dummkopf's, a local bar that serves the gated community of Shreepsburg Fields, where the two men live. In fact, they turn out to be almost neighbours and as the two men converse and drink more than their fill, Sporetoast begins to rant about how he's a misunderstood taxidermist and how one day the world will know his work and bow down to him and kiss his formaldehyde-scented feet and how he'd like to stuff all of them, all of those non-believers, starting with his wife and see how she feels trying to call bingo numbers with a mouth full of polyurethane filling and glass eyes. This is where Mandledorf stops him because Sporetoast is spitting bits of pickled egg and also people are looking at them and it wouldn't do to have the whole community talking about how Mandledorf has befriended a psychotic taxidermist and even borrowed his hedge trimmer, but there is something in Sporetoast that Mandledorf sees, perhaps the same hunger that he himself had as a young man setting out in the coat hanger industry and he senses the two of them could make history, especially with a new idea he's had for years and now sees a way to make that dream a reality. I'm telling you, this book is a real page turner and even when I fell asleep with the book draped over my face, I still managed to turn pages using only my tongue, lips and teeth. When I finally awoke a few days later and changed out of my soiled clothing (deep sleep is particularly hard on the laundry), I resumed the book to discover the two men had launched a most ingenious business plan. Billed as Eden's Delight, Sporetoast and Mandledorf had created the world's first petting zoo populated completely with taxidermy animals.
"That way," Mandledorf reasoned, "visitors can have all the hands-on experience that a petting zoo offers without getting bitten or licked, shoes shat upon by a sick goat or clothing nuzzled by the mucous-sniffling over-sized nostrils of some domestic beast and come away feeling a new appreciation for the wonders of the animal kingdom." It was a dream he'd had since he was a child and on a visit to Uncle Narble's Petting Zoo in North Tonawanda, Buffalo, a duck with diarrhea had forever changed the way he thought about water fowl and all animals for that matter. To this day the image still haunted him, waking him up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat or causing him to whimper and cry out in his sleep and he vowed one day to remedy all that, to change the face of his history and perhaps the histories and memories of kids everywhere who might be traumatized by witnessing such things in such an innocent setting. The only problem for Mandledorf and Sporetoast was that they didn't have enough animals to populate their petting zoo with. Due to some financial concerns, Sporetoast, mid-novel, is forced to sell off much of his collection of magnificent taxidermy specimens and is left mainly with mounted fish, a couple of owls (who no one wants to pet) and an alligator holding a tray of drinks (which Mandledorf thought would look good near the ticket booth).
So the two men are left to culling the neighbourhood, on the hunt for dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, cockatoos or any other family pet that might be left in the backyard for a few minutes, along with any wild animal life like raccoons, coyotes, squirrels, rats and skunks that they can trap. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour draws the attention of the authorities and the two petting zoo partners are jailed for a short time. The novel lags a bit here because in the local jail all they do is sit around, sigh, masturbate, eat biscuits and gravy with ham steak and read old copies of People Magazine. But when they get out, well, let me tell you, the plot really picks up. The two men broaden their horizons and their hunting grounds and in no time, bingo, Sporedorf's Eden's Delight Petting Zoo and Coat Hanger Boutique is opened. It's a roaring success but still, there is a loneliness that fills the taxidermist's life without his wife to share in his joy, and so he laments (as the title promises), sleeps a bit, eats and then laments some more. Then a catastrophic event shakes up the foundations of their new-found business. Mandledorf is caught, pants down, in the petting zoo one evening, having his way with a stuffed Shetland pony, with tragic results. The petting zoo is shut down. Mandledorf is hauled off to jail protesting, "Hey, I didn't know I could have feelings like this and besides, the animal's dead. It's not like it can give its consent or anything, it's not feeling anything and it brings me such happiness. What's a little Shetland pony between friends and I'll remind you I've long been a friend of the community so jail me and there's no more free coat hangers for the police department, that's all I'll say." Nevertheless, with charges of both necrophilia and bestiality simultaneously, which is a new one in the Shreepsburg police department's books, Mandledorf is jailed again, this time for a more considerable sentence, or at least he's still in jail when the novel ends. Meanwhile, things pick up for our lamenting taxidermist. Mandledorf's wife, Charlemagne, disgusted with her husband and in line to inherit most of his coat hanger fortune once the divorce goes through, takes a shine to Sporetoast and soon the doves are cooing in the rafters and the wedding bells are chiming in the church tower and the happy couple are heading off into the sunset. Or are they? I won't say too much but think of an enraged moose, his brother stuffed many years ago by a talented taxidermist, a long-held grudge and the hunt for the offending party.
 What's that rustling in the bushes I hear? A little speckled wood thrush calling to its mate? I think not and neither does the guy on the receiving end of the antlers of death. Or maybe it was just a songbird in love, after all. You'll have to read the book. Don't forget the napkins for Chapter Six. I warned you once. I don't want to say it again.      

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