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Monthly Archives: October 2012

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

Karen Russell double feature!  See last week’s post for a review of her book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! is a mythical romp through the Florida Everglades, complete with magic, danger, and ghosts.  This novel, based on the short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator” from St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, follows the tale of the Bigtree children as they struggle with the recent death of their mother (Hilola Bigtree, world famous alligator wrestler) and to keep Swamplandia!, their family’s alligator theme park, viable.  As 13 year old Ava sets out into the swamps after her sister Osceola attempts to elope with a ghost, Kiwi Bigtree, the book-smart and life-stupid older brother, escapes to the mainland to try to find a way out for his family.  Instead, he finds himself navigating the all too real (but, refreshingly hilarious) world of minimum wage jobs, crooked employers, and adolescent agony.

Russell creates, in the Bigtree children, characters that are sympathetic, but somehow just a few clicks away from realistic.  All three of them have an undeveloped sense of intuition; they are all unable to clearly distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, the real from the fictional.  Their uninitiated state allows the reader to enter and navigate the magical fictional world of Swamplandia! in a similar state:  a state of open wonder, curiosity, and suspended disbelief.  Although Russell gives us all the clues we need to discern the good guys from the bad guys in this story, we, like Ava, are reluctant to see things clearly, unable to pierce the veil of mystery and lush hope that Russell draws around her.

Russell stays close to the action throughout the book, but it is not necessarily a plot based novel:  Swamlandia! is language based, and that language is grounded in local ecology.  In fact, the Florida Everglades is an apt metaphor for the language in the book:  lush, fecund, and dense.  There is barely a sentence that does not bear the imprint of Russell’s distinct prose.  The truly bizarre and unusual landscape of the Everglades comes alive in Swamplandia! through sentences like this:  “The cloud of moths drew their darker blues across the pale egg of the sky.”  The equally unusual inner landscapes of her characters are painted with the same charged brush.

Swamplandia! was one of the three works of fiction considered for the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, although the judges were unable to come to agreement on a winner, and none was awarded at all.  Swamplandia! is an interesting, and worthy, choice for that award.  While, on one level, this story appears to be a fanciful farce about a doomed alligator theme park, it is far more than that.  Myth and allegory frame the story, and symbolism abounds.  The writing is mature and fresh, the lessons learned both specific and universal, and the truth is as dark and disturbing as any truth can be.  As Emily Dickenson wrote:  “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant…. Truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.”  Swamplandia! is not short on the truth, but it does tell it with a mighty, swampy, reptilian slant.

 

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2012 in Fiction

 

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St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is a collection of ten short stories published in 2006.  I read it over a six week period, about as long as I have ever spent on a book and still gone on to finish it.  I’m pretty sure it took me so long because these stories are so rich.  Reading one of Karen Russell’s stories is a bit like swallowing a spoonful of orange juice concentrate: they are juicy, but intense. While wildly different from each other (as different as different can get, in fact), it is immediately evident that they all come from the same mind, the same imagination.  What ties them together, ironically, is the very thing that makes them all so different from each other.  While all of the classic elements of good story telling are present in each story (plot, character, conflict, etc), each one has something else, as well – a skewed premise that sets it in a world that tilts at a slightly different rotational axis than our own.  One that is very nearly possible, but not probable.

Karen Russell’s stories are set in our familiar landscape (like the swamps of the Everglades) and even in our own common histories (like the settling of West by the pioneers), except, generally, for one thing.  That one thing is different in every story.  She may add a father figure that is a Minotaur (“Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration”) or take a class of students on a field trip to a dilapidated amusement park of giant conch shells (“The City of Shells”) or set her story in a retirement community that is entirely made up of seniors confined to individual houseboats bobbing in the harbor (“Out to Sea”). My favorite is the title story:  “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”.   The story imagines what happens when a group of girls that have been raised by their werewolf parents in the wild are given over to a group of nuns that specialize in rehabilitating just these types of girls into human society.  The story is about the big themes of repression, socialization, and religion but it deals with it on the level of detail, character, and scene.  Russell manages to harness the power of myth and sit it down at the same table as the mundane and force them to have a meal together.

If you give a talented child a box of crayons and one highlighter marker and ask him to draw you a picture of a house, you’d probably be able to recognize the house, but it would likely be visually jarring and disjointed just by virtue of the dissimilar intensities of color.  That’s how it is with each of these stories.  There is generally one element that is not from the color palette of reality as we know it.  Karen Russell achieves unexpected results (and fantastic literature) by allowing the yellow highlighter of her imagination such sway in her writing.  Her stories are wild, jubilant, energetic, preposterous, honest, brightly hot, and dead on.  If you read them, take the time to savor each one.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell (Knopf, 2006)

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2012 in Fiction, Uncategorized

 

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Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas

Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas

 

I don’t read a lot of Young Adult fiction, but it’s not hard to see why 55% of the people in the U.S. who buy YA books are over 18 years of age:  today’s YA authors have capitalized on a growing thirst in our society for heroes and quests.  Everyone wants to experience, at least once, what it feels like to be important and powerful in this huge, homogeneous world.  At least, that’s part of the appeal, especially for the adults who are trapped in the mundane.  You don’t have to be a fan of fantasy or dystopian fiction to enjoy great YA writing, though.  Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas, is YA fiction at its most impactful.  There is no magic.  There are no vampires.  This book deals directly with the real life stuff of growing up: love, sex, drugs, parents, and school.  And when I say ‘directly’, I mean it. So don’t offer it to your middle-schooler unless you’ve read it first.

Thomas’s premise is this: Steve York, a National Merit Finalist and very smart guy, is caught (again) coming to school stoned.  An astute guidance counselor makes a deal with him:  if Steve will write him a 100 page paper – on any subject – by the end of the school year, he can avoid remedial summer school and graduate with his class.  Steve takes up the challenge reluctantly, but it doesn’t take him long to realize that he does have a story to tell.  The book quickly becomes an interplay between the present narrative and the ‘story within the story’ of how Steve started down the road of drugs and alcohol. It is the act of writing the story that allows Steve to come to terms with the events that changed his life and find some measure of healing.

Thomas does a great job of writing in the voice of a seventeen year old boy without dumbing down the novel.  His protagonist is sharp, witty, and honest.  (Reading a sex scene written in the voice of a teenager was a refreshing change from the slick, racy writing an adult might try for.)  Rats Saw God, published in 1996, is a bit dated, but I found that to be charming.  Steve York’s generation, like mine, was sent reeling by the death of Kurt Cobain, spent a lot of time figuring out how to get tickets to Pearl Jam’s next concert, and generally made a mess out of dating and sex.  This isn’t the meatiest book in the world, but it is a true one.  It’s worth reading just for its great structure, its honesty, and its nerve, but be prepared for a healthy blast of nostalgia.  You may not remember much from the year 1994, but if you read Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas, I’m betting it all comes back to you pretty quickly.

 

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Fiction, Young Adult

 

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