Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I had a beautiful, thoughtful beginning to this review all worked out in my head. And then I went to sleep, and now it's been a whole other day, and I have no idea what my great beginning was. So we'll go with this mediocre one.

Swamplandia! is the story of the Bigtree family-- alligator wrestlers who run a Florida theme park. The Chief and Hillola are the eccentric parents. The kiddos, from oldest to youngest are Kiwi, an awkward 17-year-old boy; Osceola, 16, who fancies herself a Spiritualist; and precocious Ava, 13. The book picks up after Hillola passes away as a result of ovarian cancer, and her brood is left floundering, looking for a way to keep the park relevant with new competition in town and a dwindling tourist population.

Soon the Chief takes off to the mainland to stir up some investors, and all hell breaks loose. Kiwi bolts for the mainland with the good intentions of working at the new theme park in town, World of Darkness, and paying off the family debt. Osceola runs off to marry a ghost. Ava, left to her own devices, heads out with an odd and off putting "Bird Man" on a trek to the underworld.

So we have a family drama and a Southern Gothic romp all wrapped up in one novel. It's an odd combination, and I had my doubts from the outset that it would work for me, but I found myself heavily invested in the characters' individual journeys. The book alternates between Kiwi's experiences working on the mainland and his troubles assimilating with mainstream culture to Ava's menacing and otherworldly journey.

Each of the characters in Swamplandia! is thoroughly lost in his or her own way. Each of them is trying to find solid ground after the loss of their mother who is literally the star attraction around which the Swamplandia theme park universe spins. Without her, each little familial entity flies in his or her own direction, untethered.

Karen Russell's writing, is undoubtedly beautiful. She was especially deft at juxtaposing kitsch elements with really elevated figurative language and surprising analogies. Her voice is distinct--and dare I say it--crisp! A short example that I noted before the e-book expired...
Heaven, Kiwi thought, would be the reading room of a great library. But it would be private. Cozy. You wouldn’t have to worry about some squeaky-shoed librarian turning the lights off on you or gauging your literacy by reading the names on your book spines, and there wouldn’t be a single other patron. The whole place would hum with a library’s peace, filtering softly over you like white bars of light… (234-235)
And speaking of libraries, I should mention, one of the quirky parts of this book included an abandoned "library boat" close to the Swamplandia! theme park where the island inhabitants could freely take books. Not a proper library, just an abandoned boat with a lot of books on it. Someone would have to pry me out of there with a crowbar. *swoon*

Despite the good writing, this will be a polarizing book. Because it is so quirky and kitschy in parts, and because it steps out with some supernatural elements, many readers will not be fulfilled and will find this book silly or otherwise disappointing. But I have to say, I found the kitschy/supernatural portions so SO clever. Without giving too much away, I was especially suspect of Ava's journey to the underworld with the Bird Man. While I thought it might be an ill-fated outing, I was unsure enough and sucked into the story enough, that I could've "bought" it all the way to the underworld or I could've been a little crushed if it didn't pan out. I won't tell you which way it goes.

For readers who are interested in analyzing the literary elements, I think this is a great book. There is a boatload (pardon the pun) of symbolism that's so knock-you-over-the-head obvious that it's worth poking into beyond the surface to see what Russell is driving at. If you don't consider yourself an analyzer, you can still appreciate this story for the odd characters, their wonky lives, and their individual journeys and comings-of-age.

Snuggle -- Skewer

Pub. Date: July 2011
Publisher: Vintage
Format: E-Book
ISBN-13: 978-0307276681
Source: Library


  1. I have been eyeing this book for a little while, but wasn't sure if I wanted to read it. After reading your review, I'm actually more interested to pick it up, simply because I'm now interested in the supernatural elements (for some reason!). I'lll take it more seriously when I pass by the book in the store now! :)

  2. I've been looking for a good book to share with a friend as a buddy read and you make this book sound perfectly fitted to my selection criteria. My friend will hate it and I will love it and we will have awesomely epic arguments deep into the night. Excited!

  3. Oh I hate when that happens - the forgetting of the great beginning!

    I will have to eventually pick up this book. It sounds like such a quirky read.

  4. Natalie, I hope it works out well for you if you decide to try it. I think it's most definitely worth giving a go. If you don't like it, toss it! :)

    Brooke, honored to provide you with a discussable book. This one would be great for your book group, too!!! The Bookrageous Podcast is doing a book club discussion of it that should be popping up any time. Can't wait for that.

    Olduvai, I knew I should've written it down when I initially thought of it, but then I didn't and the rest is history. *sigh* Enjoy this one when you get around to it!

  5. I have been hoping to read this one soon, and I think it will be coming from the library very soon. It does sound like a really odd story, but since I love oddness and quirk, I can imagine that this one will do more than hold my interest and keep me invested. This was such a great review today, Andi. I appreciated reading your thoughts on it!

  6. Ugh, I know exactly what you mean when you say you had the perfect beginning in your head... and then you went to bed! I do that all the time, and wish I could just learn to write it down before I fall asleep. Oh well. This is a great review, and I'd been on the fence about it after reading some so-so feedback. But from what you're saying here, it sounds like the so-so bits for other people could be exactly the bits I'd love about it. Back on the list.

  7. The quirky elements are soooo appealing -- I really need to read this one sooner than later. I'm pretty sure I've got a copy at home, too -- no excuse not to pick it up now!

  8. Thanks, Heather! This is another book I would just LOVE to have your opinion on. It was really unique when so many other books are...just not. lol

    Kerry, that's how I felt about this book! As I was reading through Goodreads reviews and the things people disliked, they were all the things that kinda made me love it!!! I'm an odd duck. I'm pretty sure it's official. ;) And yes, I wish I'd write down my good bloggy bits before they leave me. I used to record them in the car on my commute, too. Not a bad idea that I need to pick back up.

    Audra, it is CHOCK FULL of quirk. No doubt about it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

  9. I hate to admit that I abandoned this one about 100 or more pages in. I really enjoyed the first bit but felt it dragged after a while. It was certainly an interesting premise with some great characters, but just didn't pull me in. I enjoyed reading your review!

  10. I write reviews in my head while I'm in the grocery store and promptly forget them when I get home. The grocery store reviews are always better than my actual reviews.

    I can see where this book wouldn't be for everyone, but I think I'd like it.

  11. Every time I see a review of this book I want to read it but for some reason it has been languishing on my wishlist for the longest time...

  12. This has been on my TBR list for awhile. You may have convinced me to move it up a notch or two - possible reading material for Orange July.
    I write my reviews in my head in gym class when I should be focusing on making my bum smaller.

  13. Andi, I wasn't sure if I wanted to read this book based on the mixed reviews that I have read but you've definitely convinced me to give it a try!

  14. I have been considering this book but I haven't exactly been sure if I would like it or not. I will probably get it from the library at some point.

  15. Hmm, sounds like more fun than I expected. I've actually been avoiding this particular title. Cool that you downloaded it from your library. I'm expecting at least a 10-year wait before our library gets around to e-books.

  16. Confession: I totally judged this book by its punctuation mark. The exclamation point in the title really turned me off (I don't know why), but now I'm intrigued. I may have to put my bias aside and read this!

  17. Quirky books don't scare me! Ha! Seriously how can I resist a book that has a library on a boat! I'd be eating and sleeping on that boat!


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