Friday, January 3, 2014

36: Swamplandia! - Karen Russell

     "'Honestly, can you imagine me without your father!' She used to say this all the time. With a sort of vacant, sticky violence, she'd kiss the forehead of whichever of her children was nearest. Even as a kid I understood that she was kissing us to answer some question that she was putting to herself. Was she happy? we wondered. Were we the right answer? My mother married the chief and gave birth to Kiwi at age nineteen; she started her career as an alligator wrestler that same year.
     'She married him too young,' Kiwi told me once in a sad, knowing voice. But when I told Mom what he'd said, she laughed herself dizzy. Then she repeated it to the Chief and they both roared.
     'Listen: your brother is an unkissed thirteen, Ava,' she told me. 'He is just a boy. His judgments are like green fruit. He doesn't have any idea about that stuff.'"

"I had thought that my brother and I were communicating from more or less the same neighborhood of feelings, but I'd been wrong." 

"He went on accumulating beginnings."

Swamplandia! is a book that has been on my radar for a while - I had heard so many great things about it an its authors other works that I've been meaning to check it out. It walked into my Savers from some nice donating soul and walked out with me. The premise of the book is incredibly compelling to me. I have been called a hipster manic pixie dream girl on more than one occasion, so the idea of Swamplandia! is exactly the one I could ironically fall in love with and take men there on first dates while they fall in love with me. It's an island in the Florida Everglades that has been turned into a theme park - if a theme park can be something that is crumbling board walks, a lame museum, a crappy diner, and one 'show' where a pretty woman jumps into a pool of alligators and maybe someone in the family wrestles a gator. Russell's depiction of Swamplandia! as a place is perfection. It is creepy, sad, pathetic, and nostalgia-inducing. Anyone who has had a home that they loved - even if it was a little shitty - will connect to the family's love of this place that is falling apart physically and financially. Swamplandia! doesn't have the same draw that it used to, and a competing theme park (World of Darkness) is taking away the rest of the customers. The family is trying to hold the park, their finances, and themselves together in the midst of all this. Ava, Ossie, and Kiwi are the homeschooled awkward and weird kids. The Chief and Hilola are their dreamer parents. Grandfather Sawtooth is the original founder of Swamplandia! Kiwi and Ava share the narrating in mostly-alternating chapters.

I finished the book a few weeks ago but have held off from writing a review because of my mixed feelings which started about halfway through the book and just haven't left me. There are many wonderful things about this book: the premise, the writing, the world building, the characters, the differing point of views, the mood. It really captures the disconnectedness of families, and how people can live their entire lives with each other without knowing each other at all, and how disconcerting it is to begin to realize that as a young teenager. However, there were some major problems I had with the book. Without giving anything away, it seemed the book had the potential to go in a genre direction that I am not at all interested in reading, and I didn't want to waste my last book of the year on this book if it was just going to be a ____ story. I actually dug around on goodreads* to spoil the book a bit, and decided to keep going through. I'm glad I finished it just because a book has to be REALLY terrible to be unfinished, and this book is not terrible, but it's also not as amazing as I thought it was going to be. Russell's short stories have had rave reviews, and I am very interested in those. A fair amount of the novel felt like short stories that just happened to have the same characters and were woven together that way. Unfortunately, the short story bits were not strong enough to stand alone, and woven together it leads to a kind of meandering plot where very few things happen. 

I would probably read her next novel in the hopes that she figures out what she didn't quite nail here for me, and I am very interested in her short stories because her writing is truly lovely. Swamplandia! just didn't give me the satisfaction that I wanted.

*Sidenote: people on goodreads can be totally evil and stuck up. I read several low-star reviews where people replied snarkily "If this is too dark for you, go back to Nicholas Sparks." Soooo...if you don't like one critically acclaimed book then you must like trash only? Also...does that mean that those readers ONLY read critically acclaimed literature and have never picked up a genre book in their entire lives? I find that attitude to be so boring, and it makes me want to internet punch them with my MA and tell them to STFU.

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