Swamplandia! Paperback – Jul 26 2011
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“Absolutely irresistible. . . . A suspenseful, deeply haunted book. . . . A marvel.” —The New York Times
“[Russell] has thrown the whole circus of her heart onto the page, safety nets be damned. . . . Russell has deep and true talent.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Vividly worded, exuberant in characterization, the novel is a wild ride. . . . This family, wrestling with their desires and demons . . . will lodge in the memories of anyone lucky enough to read Swamplandia!” —The New York Times Book Review
“The bewitching Swamplandia! is a tremendous achievement.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Seduces before you’ve turned the first page.” —People
“If no such thing as the Great Floridian Novel already existed, consider it done. . . . A novel of idiosyncratic and eloquent language; hyperreal, Technicolor settings; and larger-than-life characters who are nonetheless heartbreakingly vulnerable and keenly emotional. It’s a tour de force.” —Elle
“Beautiful, dark, and funny.” —Rolling Stone
“A spook-house masterpiece.” —Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Dazzlingly original. . . . Like the state itself, Swamplandia! is a crossroads where the wild and the tame, the spectacular and the mundane meet; underneath the hubbub of the fantastic lies a family of misfits at sea in their grief—theirs is a story that is as ordinary as it is heartbreaking.” —Boston Globe
“Wonderfully imaginative.” —The Seattle Times
“A rich and humid world of spirits and dreams, buzzing mosquitoes and prehistoric reptiles, baby-green cocoplums and marsh rabbits, and musty old tomes about heroes and spells. With Ava [Russell] has created a goofy and self-conscious girl who is young enough to hope that all darkness has an answering lightness.” —The Economist
“A lusciously written phantasmagorical treat.” —Palm Beach Post
“Swamplandia! flashes brilliantly—holographically—between a surreal tale brimming with sophisticated whimsy and an all-too-realistic portrait of a quaint but dysfunctional family under pressure in a world that threatens to make them obsolete. . . . Ava is a true contemporary heroine and not easily forgotten.” —More
“Winningly told.” —Vogue
“Audacious, beguiling. . . . Ava’s story turns into a tale that could have been concocted by Flannery O’Connor in partnership with the Brothers Grimm—in other words, a first-class nightmare. . . . You will admire this novel for its prose, but you will love it for its big heart.” —The Daily Beast
“Ava’s juicy, poetic voice, assembled through sheer willpower and joie de vivre and desperation from a self-taught young genius’s love of language, is what carries this book. . . . [A] garish and fierce beauty.” —Salon
“The talent Karen Russell paraded in her remarkable short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves has turned into mastery.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Swamplandia! is both a celebration of the Everglades and an elegy for it. . . . Russell has created a credible, captivating universe.” —The Sun Sentinel
“Think Scout Finch if she’d been raised in an old-school tourist attraction instead of a tiny town. Or Dorothy if a tornado had dropped her in the Everglades instead of Oz. Or Alice if she had tumbled into a Wonderland populated by gators and ghosts and a man in a coat made of feathers. . . . A story rich in fantastic images and gorgeous language, anchored . . . by its wonderfully human characters and its big, warm heart.” —St. Petersburg Times
“A rich, lively narrative (sometimes silly, sometimes sad) with gorgeous language. . . . Russell’s debut novel shines with the glow of the southern sun.” —The Oregonian
“Funny, sorrowful, and engrossing. . . . Hardly a page goes by without the reader marveling. . . . An adventure story, a tale of family, a testament to resilience and an account of America’s homogenization, Swamplandia! is an accomplished and affecting debut.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Unlike any story you’re familiar with. . . . A mesmerizing gothic portrait of love, death, and the loss of innocence.” —The Gainesville Times
“Russell’s writing is clear, rhythmic and dependable, even as her imagination runs wild.” —Los Angeles Times
“An astonishingly assured first novel.” —The Washington Times
“Some novels pull readers forward with plots that demand resolution; others make them want to linger on each sentence, bathing in the delights. Swamplandia! . . . does both, leaving readers with a sweet dilemma: Appreciate the present or forge on to find out what happens next.” —The Columbus Dispatch
“There’s simply no question that Russell writes beautifully, even about the darkest of truths.” —Time Out Chicago
“May be the best book you’ll ever read about a girl trying to save her family’s alligator-wrestling theme park.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Satisfying and heart-warming.” —Florida Times-Union
“Gorgeously written. . . . Russell’s flirtation with the fantastic adds a dangerous, off-kilter edge.” —Bookforum
“Intensely moving.”—The Onion’s A.V. Club, Grade: A
“[Russell’s] prose dazzles in any medium.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Russell’s prose is beautiful, vivid, and lovingly creepy—just like Florida itself. . . . Magnificent.” —The Stranger (Seattle, WA)
“[A] wonderfully overstuffed, scaldingly funny, and frightening debut. . . . Read this book, pass it on to those who deserve it, and be thankful that the world contains artists like Karen Russell.” —PopMatters.com
“Exuberant, big-hearted, and entertaining. . . . In the midst of making readers think, Russell also makes us laugh, cry and gasp as she concocts an amazing and undiscovered world and populates it with characters we come to care for deeply. You’ll want to savor the sentences in this literary triumph.” —Maclean’s
About the Author
Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Three of her short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes. She is currently writer-in-residence at Bard College.See all Product Description
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Now that I'm done with this novel, I'm not sure I'm glad I read it. And it's as much my fault as it is that of its marketing.
First, I want to make it clear that author Karen Russell does indeed have prodigious talent. She writes with passion and energy, and there is not a page of this book that doesn't carry her florid stamp upon it.
It also has a great cover, and my paperback edition's dappled, textured surface makes it a pleasure to hold. And inside that cover are five pages of glowing reviews.
To be sure, one of the reasons I picked up this book was the teaser on the back cover: "As (the narrator) sets out on a mission through the magical swamps to save them all, we are drawn into a lush and bravely imagined debut that takes us to the shimmering edge of reality." So I should have been prepared for a "bravely imagined book." And, well, I got that...but I can't help but feel it has some major flaws.
First: as to her talent, there is much to applaud; there is an ethereal aura of fantasy to much of this. As her debut work it is remarkable...her words have a magic to them all of their own, an alluring quality that makes the words on the page seem more like ripples in a small sea, rushing by you as you read. She knows how to turn a phrase, and the florid, fecund swamp is a rich field for her to plumb, yielding a bounty of surreal images and dark magic.
Here is one remarkable passage out of a million: "What rolled through Louis' mind were like the shells of thoughts, a series of O!s, round and empty, like the discarded rinds of screams."
Or, "I would vanish on the mainland, dry up in that crush of cars and strangers, of flesh hidden inside metallic colors, the salt white of the sky over the interstate highway, the strange pink-and-white apartment complexes where mainlanders lived like cutlery in drawers."
Russell gives us the narrative mind of Ava, a spirited thirteen-year-old who is rooted within the detritus of the eponymous family-run theme park in the swamps of southwestern Florida, a park that is crumbling in so many directions that it is difficult to keep up. When her mother falls terminally ill, the holes in the fabric of her family begin to unravel into ruin. Her father submerges himself into the financial morass in order to stave off bankruptcy; her brother rebels and escapes to become part of their competitor; her sister believes she can elope with a specter and live in the underworld; and it has been left to Ava to rescue whomever she can.
Herein lies my biggest problem with the work: while I have no qualms about recommending her lyrical prose and her ability to transform the Florida swamps into a supernatural quagmire that deals out life and death in equal portions, I felt at times that the story took second place to the author's stretching her prosaic legs. There's no doubt that "Swamplandia!" is a terrific literary work; I simply felt her beautiful prose masks problems with the plot.
For instance: in Chapter Six Russell suddenly splits the story into two narrative threads. This seemed, well, odd to me...I could gather no real reason why this additional character's thread was followed and not any others'...they ALL keep secrets and are wounded by the family business. Additionally, this thread is told in third person, while the rest of the book is in Ava's first person.
Another problem with Ava's narrative is a simple one: from what perspective of age is Ava telling us this story? Is she twenty, an looking back? Is she an adult?
In addition, by the story's end there are several major threads that are left dangling, though I am reluctant to list them and spoil the book for others. Suffice it to say that Justice with a capital J is not dealt out, that much of the ending is unresolved, and so is the fate of key characters.
And, speaking of the ending, I felt there was a BIG problem with plotting, and a coincidence that bordered on the ridiculous -- when I read it I wanted to shout, "Come on!!"
I realize life can be like that, but there is considerable effort to paint an imagistic picture of this family, and just dropping the ball at the end did little for me. And note this, too: the tale turns grim, very grim, and you should be prepared. It's not at all what I was expecting, and I felt this harrowing development was never really explored any further than the very fact that it happened -- but with no aftermath. There was no closure or consequence for this event...it felt like the author just ran out of steam.
I do believe that this book is a singular achievement for the writer, and there are many who will admire her talent. Ultimately, this forms the basis of the praiseworthy comments meted out by those who will and those who already admire her, and while the book didn't work for me, I never felt the five pages of praise were "wrong." What you want out of the book is up to you, of course; I simply did not enjoy it as much as they did.
After Hilola's death, Ava, the youngest, narrates the downward spiral of her family: oldest brother Kiwi goes to work at a rival theme park in a desperate attempt to alleviate the family's financial distress; middle sister Osceola discovers a book of spells and starts dating ghosts, and their father, Chief Bigtree, disappears to the mainland. Ava becomes determined to do something to save her family and especially her sister, who disappears on a journey to the Underworld to marry her ghost boyfriend. Ava ventures after her, into a journey that is more fraught with danger than she could have imagined. This journey is fraught with tension but it takes a sudden dark, disturbing turn that, without giving away any spoilers, felt like it had broken away from the original spirit of the book. The transition from magical realism to harsh, ugly reality was just too sudden to me.
The writing is very descriptive and quite lovely, but at times it almost feels like too much--or perhaps just feels misplaced, as sometimes it felt like you had to wade through a great deal of description to get to the plot. The switching of chapters between Ava and Kiwi's perspective also felt a bit jarring at times; it felt you'd just gotten into one storyline when you were yanked back into another. The novel itself has a very original feel while also recalling some other great works of literature; Ava's character is sometimes reminiscent of Scout from "To Kill a Mockingbird." Unfortunately while there were moments I couldn't put the book down, there were also moments I wanted to walk away from it forever, which made for a disjointed reading experience. Overall this scores major points for originality, but the originality is compromised by the uneven character and pace of the novel. It was worth the read, but didn't quite live up to the hype for me.
"Swamplandia!" is a novel infused with eccentricity. The quirks within the family itself are enough to populate a John Irving novel (and that's pretty quirky!). But like Irving, Russell has grounded her characters with an underlying sadness, yearning, and even hope that intimately connects the reader to their struggle. When a rival amusement park opens, everyone is desperate to keep the tourists rolling in. Kiwi sets off to the city and ends up working at the new attraction in an effort to raise funds for their diminishing empire. Chief then leaves for an extended, but undefined, period and the girls are left to their own devices. Oscoela, however, seems to have a tenuous grasp on reality and is soon committed to a courtship with the ghost of a long-dead sailor. It's left to little Ava to come to terms with Oscoela's condition which leads to an excursion across the barren swamps.
I know, by now, you're probably asking yourself "what the heck is he talking about?" That's alright, though, I'm being purposefully vague not to reveal too much of what transpires. The novel settles into the format of alternating chapters hosted by Kiwi and Ava. Kiwi's exposure to mainland culture is played for big laughs but his coming to terms with himself as a man is one of Russell's greatest achievements. Ava's chapters, meanwhile, play out as an adventure tale wrought with mystery and danger. But is that peril real or imagined? Might it be just the impetus to reconnect the family? Or is it already too late? The story brings things to a convenient, but satisfying, conclusion in which the Bigtrees must ultimately face the realities they've been avoiding.
Karen Russell's tale has been praised for its originality, but its central themes are common throughout literature. In some ways, Ava's world view reminded me a bit of Scout in "To Kill A Mockingbird." The strength of Ava is what will keep the reader invested. The colorful language, the offbeat locales, and the satiric edge (I especially loved the wickedly funny new theme park!) are all wonderfully enticing. But it's the characters that have to sell it. Eccentricity for the sake of eccentricity is the death knell of any entertainment, so I was appreciative that Russell was able to balance her outrageous tale with identifiable humanism. Sometimes the story was uneven and the final denouement lacked some conviction, but overall "Swamplandia!" proved to be an undeniably appealing destination. KGHarris, 1/11.
(The first two are books by Karen Russell; the second two are books by Alice Sebold.) In both cases, the authors prove that they are wonderful writers capable of producing masterpieces. Then they follow up with colossal disappointments.
Gosh, I feel kind of guilty for writing that because I adore Karen Russell's collection of short stories (I gave it five stars on Goodreads!), and even have the publication date of her follow-up collection marked on my calendar. And I was so excited for this book that I bought it before it was available in paperback or as a used book.
The problem with this book boils down to this: Russell cannot leave any leaf undescribed. If Ava takes two steps forward, Russell has to describe the foliage, the color of the sky, the shadows in the water, the sound that the wind makes in the water, the distinction between that and the sound the wind is making in the trees, how fast Ava's heart is beating, what birds are making songs, what the songs sound like ... it seems more like a creative writing exercise for a fiction writing class than an actual story.
The two main characters (Ava and Kiwi) both grow up throughout the course of the novel, and so it is a coming-of-age tale of sorts. There is some amount of depth to each of these characters, and it is interesting to watch them learn and change.
Unfortunately, this is where my praise ends, because those things in and of themselves are not enough to make a good novel. My main complaints:
1) There seems to be very little coherent plot or drive in this book - it seems more to be a number of short stories or vignettes strung together than a novel with any kind of over-arching plot line.
2) The pacing is very uneven. The first half to two-thirds of the book seems not to move at all. I felt as though the action somehow was frozen in place - nothing happened. It seemed she took 250 pages to tell us that the family was broken over the death of the mother. And then the action took off, and it was a breakneck pace with events happening one after the other. The ending felt rushed and contrived and slapped together.
3) Speaking of contrived, there are far too many coincidences near the end of the book, especially in Kiwi's story line. He just happens to find himself in one incredible situation after another that move his story forward. One deus ex machina is, perhaps, forgivable, but there were at least four major instances of this in the last fourth of the book, and that's sloppy story telling.
4) Partway through the book, the story begins alternating between Ava's story and Kiwi's story. Ava has been the narrator to this point, and so it is a bit jarring and confusing when it suddenly jumps to a third-person description of what Kiwi is doing. I never quite got used to the switching between characters.
5) As several others have mentioned, there's a disturbing plot element toward the end of the book that really doesn't add anything to the story. Nor is it dealt with in any meaningful way. It was foreshadowed for many chapters - I saw it coming from a mile off - but it seemed to be there only for the shock value. Perhaps the author felt she had to include some element like this to be considered real literature.
6) The book is far too long. I don't mind long novels (if they're done well) - and 400 pages really isn't that long for a novel - but this one dragged on and on and on.
Overall, a disappointing read. Save your time and your dollars and find something else instead.